West Papua-Papua New Guinea is the second largest island in the world after Greenland - it is shaped like a dragon.
It is a young country born in comparatively recent times as a result of a gigantic wrinkling of the earth's crust which buckled and smashed the bed rocks of ancient , vanished oceans and piled them on top of each other in a series of central ranges, of which the highest peaks rise more that 4000 metres above sea level. These mountains were formed in much the same way as the Himalayas and the Andes. The ranges are not continuous. They are closely spaced, parallel cordilleras running mainly from north-east to south east and together they form the backbone of the 'dragon' all the way from its thin neck in West Irian to its stumpy tail in Australian New Guinea
The remarkable thing about the New Guinea mountains is the steepness with which they rise and the narrowness of the valleys between the main ridges. It is not uncommon to find 10,000 or 11,000-feet (3000-3500m) peaks within 30 miles (50km) of the sea, or a large river flowing through a canyon with a depth of 3,000 or 4,000 feet (900-1200m) and the lips only mile or so apart.
Perhaps one third of New Guinea’s total area is made up of mountains of this kind – ridge after tidge of razorbacks separated by deep valleys through which swift rivers leap down to the lowlands or the sea.
Extensive swamps are also a feature on New Guinea. They are only a few hundred feet above sea level and are laced with innumerable muddy, sluggish waterways. They lie mainly on the breast and belly of the dragon from the Mimika Coast to the Gulf of Papua, although there are also vast marshlands north of the mountains in the Lakesplain of West Irian and the middle reaches of the Sepik River.
The remainder of the island comprises the alluvial plains of big rivers like the Fly, Sepik, Ramu and Markham in the east, and the Digoel and Idenburg-Mamberamo in the west; the Great Papuan Plateau north-west of the Gulf of Paua; a few large highland valleys and tablenands, and even fewer areas of coastal plain where the land is not violently contorted.
So much for the naked body of the dragon, with its thick, bristling spine of mountains, its soft underbelly of swamps and its sparse, blotchy flesh of easily habitable land. Half an hour spent studying a relief map will serve to fix in the reader’s mind the essential anatomy of the country – how its parts are put together. But what an ordinary relief map will not show, or even suggest, is the violence of the terrain, the dizzy heights of its peaks, the depths of its ravines, the expanse of its swamps, the volume of water discharged by its number-less rivers into the shallow, reef-studded seas.
Few if any equivalent areas on earth are subject to such physical fragmentation or to such contrasts. This fragmentation and these contrasts must be understood, and indeed felt by anybody who wants to understand the nature and the habits of the primitive men who made New Guinea their home.
Over the Owen Stanley Ranges there is a dense undergrowth and many of the trees are giants reaching heights of more than 200 feet. Mostly they are festooned with flowering creepers and bear a bewildering mass of parasitic and saprophytic plants - orchids, staghorn ferns, and 'mistletoes' of strange hue and shape. The sun's light rarelyt penetrates to the floor of the jungle where hundreds of species of trees and thousands of species of smaller plants riot in disorderly variety all together.
Source: Parliament of a Thousand Tribes ‘A Study of New Guinea’. Osmar White. William Heinemann Ltd. 1965