The Secrets of Misool in Raja Ampat:
Ancient Rock Art and a Mysterious Jellyfish Lake
By Tess Joyce
I first heard about Misool’s rock art from Max Ammer – a larger-than-life, modern-day Robinson Crusoe. After exploring the seas for downed WWII aircraft wrecks,Ammer remained in Raja Ampat for over twenty years. He even crashed his aircraft into the ocean and remarkably survived the landing without a scratch.
I met him for lunch at his resort on Kri Island and after he had showed me a photo on his business card of the mysterious rock art I made some research and devised a plan to visit the remote region of Misool.
From his own aircraft, Ammer once spotted an isolated lake on one of the islands of Misool and after further investigations, he discovered that the lake was brimming with two species of stingless jellyfish (golden and spotted.)
Before this discovery, it was believed that there were only three places in the world where you could find stingless jellyfish lakes (in East Kakaban Island in East Borneo, Eil Malk island in Palau and Togean island in Central Sulawesi.)
With these thoughts in mind, I caught a boat from the West Papuan town of Sorong towards the Islamic village of Harapan Jaya on Misool Island in Raja Ampat in order to see some of the mysterious jellyfish and Misool’s ancient rock art.
A beautiful archipelago of six hundred and ten islands, Raja Ampat is recognized as being one of the richest coral eco-systems in the world.
A Hidden Lake
At the beginning of the journey, our Misool guides directed us to the hidden lake and after a finger-biting excursion up a steep limestone cliff-side we finally looked down upon the green waters.
As we dispersed into the cool lake, a red sea-eagle spiraled on the wind and I began to notice the jellyfish encircling us. They felt soft, like trifles, as they delicately bounced across our skin.
As I moved my legs slowly, the jellyfish surrounded me – they seemed almost curious. But as I relaxed, some members of our group begin squealing – they’re stinging – I looked under the water and could see that as they thrashed their flippers through the water, the jellyfish were spinning wildly – broken creatures and ripped limbs drifted towards me.
Try and swim more gently, I called, but everyone had already moved and scrambled to the sides of the lake. Our guide Amar later looked puzzled, “They’ve never stung anyone before,” he admitted. Isolated for centuries in their own safe zone, the jellyfish hadn’t needed to sting. There are in fact two stingless jellyfish lakes in Misool and both are worth visiting (but it is not advisable to wear flippers.)
We dried ourselves on the boat and drank tea. It was Christmas morning but it didn’t feel particularly festive since the crew of the boat were Muslim (Raja Ampat is a wonderful example of a place where peoples of different religions live in harmony.)
No one knew about the history of Misool’s rock art, however, crew-member Amar explained that we could visit a sacred cave called Lengsom. A holy site, this cave was the first place where the people of Misool received the teachings of Islam which was brought by a couple named Abdulrahman and Jainun who were later buried there.
The cave was located within a labyrinth of islands, “It’s good that you have a local guide or you could be stuck in here forever,” laughed Amar. In the afternoon we were guided from the mysterious caverns towards the rock art. The place was magically atmospheric.
Crystalline waters formed patterns as the currents collided and we steered towards a karst limestone cliff. There I saw the red clay paintings which were positioned several metres above sea-level. There were both positive and negative handprints, concentric circles and marine animals such as fish and dolphins.
The paintings were discovered by divers from Misool Eco Resort and the resort along with Precious Planet funded an identification expedition (as yet there has been no dating of the rock.) Led by expert Jean-Michel Chazine, the team made an initial analysis – the site, because of its remoteness, was probably used for shamanistic purposes.
“With a few exceptions, all the graphic elements are in a vertical position. That point suggests, according to the scientist, that they are not representations of real scenes but ritual allegories still remaining to decode,” said Precious Planet. Some geometric patterns were also observed.
In the book The Mind in the Cave, written by scholar and rock art researcher, David Lewis-Williams, it is explained that the geometrical patterns commonly seen in rock art across the globe are related to shamanism. Neuropsychological research suggests that geometric shapes are characteristic of the entoptic phenomena – therefore Lewis-Williams concluded that rock art depicted the visions of altered states of consciousness.
The rock paintings of the San bushmen of South Africa were made by shamans who entered into the spirit world by dancing. Lewis-Williams believed that this exhausting dance culminated in dehydration and trance and the shamanistic visions were artistically portrayed.
Finding More Clues
In Waisai’s library, I found some more clues. The information provided in a government guidebook about Misool, concerning the motivations behind the rock art seemed unreliable – copied and pasted quotes from research on the Melanesian region. Yet the booklet was more specific concerning the sacred cave and reference was made to Mon, the ancient, shamanistic religion of Raja Ampat.
This point intrigued me, since in my own research of Raja Ampat, I had discovered that Mon initiations took place to establish contact with the deities of the sky. Parallels between the Mon religion and the Wuon ceremonies of the nearby Bird’s Head region were also noted by scholars.
A pattern was emerging. In 2000, researcher and lecturer Jaap Timmer at the request of Yonadab Mejefat to document his culture for future generations, published a description of a Wuon boy’s initiation which lasted for six lunar months; the boys endured pain in order to contact the sky deities and learn “the secrets of the lore.” Some boys even lost their lives during the rituals although the full details of the practices were not disclosed.
Was Misool’s rock art an ancient relic of an initiation rite? Although mesmerised by the rock art of Misool, I was less interested in its ancient secrets. I was far more intrigued by the awe-inducing landscape surrounding us – the maze of intricate islands, the tremendous energy, the power of those mighty rocks.
The observations concerning Papua’s rock art are fascinating but I think that we must also take a step-back and look at the places which first inspired the ancient people who rowed their small boats between those giant islands. In my opinion, magic is everywhere, but in some places, we become more aware of it.
How to get to Misool
Misool is a large island in the archipelago of Raja Ampat in Western Papua. Boats can be rented from Sorong, the capital of West Papua, for large groups.
To rent a boat, please contact Amar on +62 (0) 8534 489 2210.
Public boats leave for Misool from Sorong twice a week.
For more information about travel and home-stays in Misool please visit this website.
How to get to Sorong
If you are travelling from Jakarta:
• A direct flight is available with Express Air – please visit www.expressair.co.id
• Or transit flight are available (stopping in Makassar) with Lion Air and Sriwijaya Air.
If you are travelling outside of Jakarta:
• Check whether flights are direct to Sorong
• If not fly to Makassar where flights are available to Sorong.
David Lewis-Williams, (2002) The Mind in the Cave, Thames and Hudson, London
Karl G. Heider, (1970) The Dugum Dani: A Papuan Culture in the Highlands of West New Guinea, Chicago: Aldine Publishing
Tess Joyce is a free-lance writer from the UK who has lived in Indonesia for the past three years where she loves to explore the forests and the coral reefs.
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