The Mek of Merengman

I’ve been writing this particular blog about my adventures with Mark and Olly for some time now. To see the rest of the blogs in sequence click here. But if you haven’t the time to read the backstory, here is the story so far.  I produced a series of eight one hour documentaries for Travel Channel and Discovery in the remote rain forests of West Papua two  years ago that was great adventure. 

Along with explorers, Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds,  a production crew from Cicada Films and many local ‘Yali’, porters we climbed into the mountains of West Papua in search of the ‘Mek’ people. This elusive tribe have had little contact with the outside world for thousands of years.

Heading towards Mek Territory

Heading towards Mek Territory

The previous year, Mark and Olly had lived in with the Kombai people in the swamps of West Papua. During their three months there, the two explorers became aware that things were changing fast for the native people of Papua. Money, religion, politics, education, logging, military action, disease, metal goods, converse sneakers, tee-shirts, cheap chinese lighters; all these things and many more were flooding into these remote and ancient cultures, altering them irrevocably.

Spurred on by this experience, Mark and Olly decided to go to West Papua again, but this time they were to go high into the montains to make a series of films see with the Mek people. It was a big ask. The territory was ferocious and there was little guarantee the tribe would allow them to stay for the four months the two explorers and our film crew needed to really get under the skin of village life.

The Mek tribe of around two thousand people had been known to the outside world for many years. But there were small villages on the edge of Mek territory that we hoped still stood on the cusp of modernity where we could still learn of the old ways while witnessing how the tribe adapted to the new.

The blog picks up after we’d been four days into the expedition and just spent an uncomfortable night in a village called ‘Tohamak’. Our guide, the ‘Legendary Bob Pelege’ had hoped the villagers might let us stay. But in the end it was a rather disappointing encounter. The villagers were Mek people but they had moved further into modernity than we’d hoped for. This was demonstrated when they asked us for $800 dollars to kill a pig for a feast of welcome. 

Wild boar jawbones on the edge of Merengman territory

Wild boar jawbones on the edge of Merengman territory

Our porters were from the Yali tribe and the Mek are their traditional enemies. The tension in the village was palpable as we tried to sleep in a village where not so long ago we would have been killed and eaten for such a transgression. Come first light we head further into the mountains.  Bob planned to take us to the village of Merengman. It was two days walk away through ever worsening territory but it was there that he believed we’d find what we were looking for. I was sick with nerves by now.  Months and months planning were hanging in the balance. 

Day five’s march was awful with leeches, vertical walls of vegetation, torrential rain and a gnawing uncertainty about whether I was leading the expedition towards disaster. A night camp made in the pitch black under what seemed like a waterfall didn’t help the mood either. But on day six when we encountered a staff of pigs jaws we knew we were nearing what we hoped would be our final destination.  This frightening totem marked the territorial edges of  Meregman. I  felt  exhausted, worried but elated mostly. All the hard work, all the blood sweat and tears had all lead to this point.

Chief Markus gives us a traditional Mek 'welcome'

Chief Markus gives us a traditional Mek 'welcome'

The following day, after little sleep, we edged  closer to the village. Bob knew that by tradition, no stranger would be allowed to enter the village without a show of strength. Less than two hundred meters from the village a tribesman who turned out to be the chief himself, leapt from behind trees and challenged us to leave his territory. We spoke English, the porters spoke Yali and and Indonesian and a few words of Mek. Between, Bob, Olly, Mark and the porters, we managed to get the Chief, Markus, to allow us to enter the village.

The villagers of Merengman meet their first westerners

The villagers of Merengman meet their first westerners

It was an amazing sight. The villagers looked on with a mixture of  anxiety and curiosity. Ed Kelly, the camerman and director allayed people’s fears by letting them see and hear what we were recording. We’d decided that if we found somewhere that would let us stay we would share our world with them as we hoped they would do with us. 

We'd decided to let the villagers know from the start what were were doing

We'd decided to let the villagers know from the start what were were doing

Chief Markus called a meeting of the elders and after some debate they decided to let us stay and see what we were made of. Exhausted but elated we started to make camp and prepare ourselves for what we hoped would be the long haul. We were in.

Chief Markus addresses the elders

Chief Markus addresses the elders

Strange encounters of the Mek kind

Since I’ve spent the day writing about TV shows and doing scripts for Locked Up Abroad, I thought I should update the blog on where I got to on the ‘Adventures of Mark and Olly – Living with the Mek’. This is a show I did for Discovery Channel and Travel Channel a couple of years ago. I’ve documented the journey we took to find the Mek tribe in the mountains of West Papua so far in the blog and this is the next instalment.

Sam, Olly, Toby and Mark

Day three and we’d made precious little headway in the appallingly hot, steep and sticky conditions. We were averaging about a mile a day but despite this and the fact that we were heading deeper into Mek territory, with threats of attacks from warriors and witches, we seemed to be pretty happy in this picture.  The left to right is myself, the series producer; Olly Steeds the explorer; Associate Producer, Toby Paton and Olly’s fellow explorer, Mark Anstice.

First encounter with the Mek

First encounter with the Mek

After a hard days march we came to our first Mek village. It was called Tohamak and after the appropriate show of strength the villagers let us in.

Olly shakes hands and offers tobacco

Olly shakes hands and offers tobacco

Things seemed to be going well until the village chief asked Olly and Mark  for $800 to kill a pig for a welcome feast.

Tohamak Mek Elders

Tohamak Mek Elders

We politely declined and spent an awkward night camped in the village before moving on early the following day deeper into the jungle.

The village chief

The village chief

Crossing the border

The 'Leg-end' Bob Pelege's hat.

The Leg-end Bob Pelege's hat.

The West Papua adventure began in earnest when our expedition left Welarek.  We planned to travel deep into the rainforset in search of the Mek tribe. The people who live in Welarek and the surrounding area are from the Yali tribe. They are the traditional enemy of the Mek people who live to the east, across a fast flowing river. Led by our mountain guide – the ‘Leg-endary Bob Pelege’ as he called himself – after two days of hard walking, we arrived at a long rattan suspension bridge.

The border metween Yali and Mek territory

The border between Yali and Mek territory

The bridge is known locally as the bridge of suicide and spans the river that is the border between Yali and Mek people. In the past, women threw themselves off the bridge when their husbands died and many people have died in accidents. So we were all nervous when we crossed. But despite it being in a bad condition we managed to cross the bridge safely and by day three of the expedition we were in Mek territory.

Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds heading into Mek territory

Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds heading into Mek territory

Yali Porter

Yali Porter

The porters were now uneasy as they were not only in the land of their enemy but this was an area renowned for flying witches.

I cross the repaired bridge into Mek territory

I cross the repaired bridge into Mek territory

As producer of the shoot, I’d factored in risks like crossing bridges made of vines, but I’d made no allowances for flying witches in my health and  safety plan.

Into the Unknown

The last night before we set off

The last night before we set off

On the night before we set off on the expedition to find the Mek Tribe in the Mountains of West Papua, everything seemed set. The months of planning across the other side of the globe at Cicada in London had come to an end.  All I had left to do was get all my personal bits and pieces together, think of home and try to get some sleep.

Across West Papua

Across West Papua

For me the expedition finally became a reality when we’d loaded up our small planes and were in the air crossing the interior of West Papua. Looking down on the silver rivers snaking through the limitless expanse of rainforest, all thoughts were on what lay ahead in the mountains.

Landing at Welarek

Landing at Welarek

We’d been worried that our landing at Welarek could be put in danger by bad visibility and rain, but our final approach was perfect.

Plane lands at Welarek

Plane lands at Welarek

Mark meets Bob

Mark meets Bob

Once down on the ground Mark Anstice was greeted by the legendary Papuan  mountain guide,  Bob Pelege, and Olly Steeds met his first local tribesman. This man was and elder from the Yali tribe, some of whom would become our porters when we travelled into the mountains towards the Mek’s territory.

Olly meets Yali tribesman

Olly meets Yali tribesman

As we unloaded our supplies and I considered the enormity of what lay ahead, one of the crew snapped this carefree picture of me.

Sam gets worried

Sam gets worried

Calm before the Storm

Papua canoe

Papua canoe


Mark Anstice and crew land on the beach

Mark Anstice and crew land on the beach

In June 2007 we landed in Jayapura, West Papua at the start of a four month expedition. I was heading up an expedition to make a series of films (called Living with the Mek: The adventures of Mark and Olly) for Travel and Discovery Channel. I’d been planning this trip for months. Our goal was to seek out then live with mysterious Mek mountain tribe (if they’d let us).

There was a lot to do before we headed inland. We had to organise plane loads of supplies and make all the final preparations to allow our group of fifteen or so to be virtually self sufficient in the mountains for four months.

There is no doubt we were all nervous. No matter how many precautions we’d taken, the mountains of West Papua are fraught with dangers. We planned on managing just one mile a day as we searched for the tribe.

To acclimatise and rest up before the expedition got fully underway, we organised a day out on local canoes to a remote island west of Santani. On the way back at dusk, we hit a boiling shoal of tuna. The boatman hooked one and that evening we ate a last supper of fresh raw tuna marinated in lemon juice. It was a perfect end to the day and exactly what we needed before we headed into the uncharted mountains.

Canoe outrigger

Canoe outrigger


Tuna shoal boiling to the surface

Tuna shoal boiling to the surface


Boatman with freshly caught Tuna

Boatman with freshly caught tuna

Living with the Mek

Chief Markus and Merengman Village boys

Chief Markus and Merengman Village boys

Chief Marcus is head of the Wisabel Clan. The Wisabels are a rich clan and the Pusobs are a poor clan.  Together, these two clans make up the sixty or so residents of the village of Merengman. The hamlet lies deep in the mountains of West Papua. Markus and his tribe claimed never to have met a white man until we arrived to live with them for four months.

I was show runner for a production company called Cicada Films who make lots of great documentaries. This was one of my all time favourite gigs. It’s not often you get asked to go find and then live with a tribe of (reportedly) reformed cannibals. The result was a series of eight one hour documentaries called ‘Living with the Mek’ or ‘The World’s Lost Tribes’. It was an intimate portrait of life in the village seen through the eyes of explorers Mark Anstice and Olly Steeds.

The Mekmem people are masters of their environment who have lived the same way for eight thousand years. But things are changing fast for them. The advent of the bible, tee shirts and Chinese lighters are challenging their traditional way of life. But then again with a life expectancy of forty years and an infant mortality rate of up to fifty percent, who is to say change is a bad thing?

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