On The Road: The Maneater Of Mfuwe

Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.

by Bill Murray

Just about everyone who visits the famous South Luangwa wildlife park drives through Mfuwe, Zambia. A mere wide spot in the road, a trifle to tourists, Mfuwe holds a fearsome, searing memory. It will forever be known for the Man-Eater of Mfuwe, a lion that killed six people over two months in 1991.

There are more famous man-eating tigers than lions in the literature. Tigers and people live in closer proximity in India than lions and people in Africa. I’ve seen an estimate of as many as 10,000 people killed by tigers in India in the nineteenth century.

The Champawat Tigress, the most infamous Panthera tigris, was said to have killed 436 people before she was killed in Nepal, then part of British colonial India, in 1911. After a spree of terror, hunters having failed to kill her, the authorities ultimately called in the Nepalese army. In Kenya’s Tsavo Park two lions killed perhaps two dozen Indian railroad construction workers in 1898, halting the colonizing Brits’ project to connect the port of Mombasa with the interior of British East Africa.

But the Mfuwe man-eater was no colonial-era killer. Its attacks occurred less than thirty years ago, thoroughly terrorizing an overgrown village of scarcely a thousand a spare 60 miles west of the border with Malawi, oriented toward the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. Lusaka, the Zambian capital, is 300 miles away.

The night of the first attack the killer struck two boys walking along a road at night. One escaped, but responding game rangers found only clothing and fragments of the other boy’s skull. A few days later a lion crashed through the door of a woman’s rondavel on the edge of the village. The second victim.

The third attack was nearly foiled by an edgy ranger, who fired his gun, but the victim, a young boy, was bitten and died of his wounds. Three more attacks were to come. People began to believe this was no ordinary lion, but a devil or a medicine man taking the shape of a lion.

•••••

Today the Mfuwe lion is stuffed and on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. 3.2 meters long, 1.2 meters at the shoulder and estimated at 249 kilos, it was male, and it was mane-less, similar in that way to the man-eating lions of Tsavo.

At first the lack of a mane led people to assume they were after a lioness. Early in the Mfuwe terror, people believed they’d got the man-eater, when a Japanese hunter brought down a lioness. But then the man-eater entered a woman’s hut and stole a bag of laundry, taking the bag into the village and roaring over it. This lion was clearly male.

•••••

Wayne Hosek wasn’t the first to try to kill the cursed thing. Other professionals, including the Japanese hunter, tried before Hosek.

Remarkably, as a child the man who ultimately brought down the Mfuwe man-eater studied the man-eaters of Tsavo, also on exhibit at the Field Museum. Wayne Allen Hosek was born in Chicago.

He says the Field Museum has always been one of his favorite places on earth. As a boy, Hosek spent days in front of the Tsavo lions, trying to imagine confronting the real thing, as he imagined it, with nothing but a few seconds separating him from their wrath.

Hosek’s battle with the Mfuwe man-eater stretched across the first nine days of September, 1991. First he met the hunter who had shot the lioness. Everyone hoped that solved the problem of this particularly evil Panthera leo but days later, two days before the hunter returned home to Japan, the sixth victim was attacked.

Hosek’s early description, a pdf in the Field Museum’s archives, is incomplete, reading as an early draft of an incomplete story (Hosek later wrote a book.). There’s even a place in the .pdf where his narrative reads “SECTION TO COME.”

In that section perhaps Hosek would have introduced us to his hunting companions, for later we are assumed to know “Charl” (Charl Beukes, another professional hunter), who was with Hosek the night the animal was killed.

Hosek visited villages where the lion had been spotted, talking to people, learning the cat’s behavior. The killer had dragged the last victim, a woman named Jesleen, from her rondavel in the Luangwa valley village of Ngozo.

The day after Jesleen was killed the lion walked into her home in the middle of the day and took a white bag with some of her clothing. People frantically beat on pots and pans to scare the lion away. It played with the bag like a cat with catnip. They found the bag in a dry river bed a mile from Jesleen’s house.

Village women used to wash their family’s clothes there by walking to the middle of the riverbed and digging down to water. Hosek writes, on this day “(e)ven the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.”

Phillip Caputo, in Ghosts of Tsavo, writes that at this point Hosek’s trackers wouldn’t look him in the eye, two of them wouldn’t look at him at all, as if they resented his getting them into all this.

The elders decided Jesleen’s bag was bewitched and the lion was a sorcerer or a demon, “or at least demon possessed,” and villagers would not go near the bag. Authorities instituted a curfew at 5:00 over an area of some 65 square miles.

The hunters laid bait near the bag, hoping to keep the lion near, and retired to camp. Hosek’s companion Charl counseled, “Remember to follow-up HARD as soon as you make your first shot.” Hosek, a devout Christian, woke repeatedly that night, and each time he prayed.

The next day they built a blind using bamboo and elephant grass cut by villagers. Charl shot a small hippo and laid a haunch in the riverbed. They spent an uneventful night. The lion didn’t take the bait, but by day the hunters found its tracks a scant fifty feet from the blind.

The following day the hunters holed up in the blind around 3:30. Hosek describes “blind sleep” – “my eyes were closed, but my ears seemed to have acquired an ability to listen to each and every sound.”

Again they didn’t see the lion, but by now, “(t)he man-eater had become the center of my life’s purpose.”

Too many ineffectual cloistered hours led to a new strategy. They would build a new blind elsewhere, hang bait and leave the blind empty, in hopes the lion would get comfortable at the absence of its stalkers. They arranged for others to build the blind so the cat wouldn’t get the scent of the hunters.

Charl selected the site. He felt that the lion was clever enough never to let the hunters spy him standing still, and that it would be moving whenever it allowed them to see it. Gauging their being shut away in a blind against a lion on the prowl, he thought ultimately they would have no more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to take their shot.

When the hunters made their way to the new blind they saw that the man-eater had torn off part of the bait and eaten it in a footpath used by villagers. As Hosek tried to take a photo of the lion’s tracks, his camera broke.

As a Christian, he took it as “possibly a sign from the Lord.” The villagers saw the lion as a witch or a demon, after all. They had their spirituality. Hosek had his.

On the day of the lion’s death, the hunters entered the new blind, again about 3:30. In less than an hour Charl spotted movement in tall grass. The lion approached in line with the trunk of a tree, masking its visibility.

Hosek writes that he was “in a quick stride, almost trotting.” Hosek shot the lion below and behind its left shoulder, and it was dead. One of the trackers sang the Kunda tribal lion song and villagers converged on the place, spitting on the lion, beating it with sticks, and lit celebratory fires.

•••••

This is the story from Hosek’s memoirs, but I have found out a little more. Some time ago I asked Adrian Carr of the Norman Carr Safaris clan, about Hosek’s account. Carr figured in the man-eater story, but downplayed his role. He sat up on watch for the lion one night, saw it, but never managed to get a shot.

Here is Carr’s perspective:

“I had got involved because one of my workers insisted that I come and see something.

“He had got up in the night and gone outside for a wee. The lion had tried to catch him but somehow he got back in to his hut – the lion followed him in and he miraculously managed to get back out again – though the door. All this in the pitch black with all the terrifying growling. It was a small mud hut without windows and luckily he had been alone. The doors are on the inside opening inwards – so when he got back out he pulled the door closed and the lion was stuck inside. This is what he wanted me to see. It was like a bomb had gone off inside – the lion had totally destroyed everything including the roof from where he had eventually got out.

“I then put a bait up nearby (a hippo haunch) and the same lion fed on it that night – he had a big distinctive track.

“I decided to sit up for him the next night.

“My plan was to commandeer one of the cylindrical grain storage bins (kokwe) around the village as a blind or shelter. It was September (I think) and the grain storage bins were mostly empty. Traditionally they are made from split bamboo and woven together very tightly. They are quite heavy, very strong and I felt (in the daylight) impregnable. I would plonk myself down on the ground 30 yards from the bait – the basket, 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet high would be placed over me, I would cut a little window to shoot through and await developments….

“I was a bit late arriving that afternoon, – a small crowd gathered. I dispatched 5 strong men to go and collect a kokwe and received some quizzical looks…

“I watched as one guy sauntered up to the kokwe and effortlessly lifted it up above his head!

“Oh dear…. !! Made of millet stalks instead of bamboo! That’s like pith and balsa wood with no strength at all.

“Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions.

“Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!

“He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back and Charl and Wayne got him two nights later.”

•••••

Adrian Carr graciously shared his story by email, kindly arranged by Norman Carr Safaris, which is now a company called Time and Tide. My thanks to the Carr family and Adrian Carr. 

Photos © the author from EarthPhotos.com.

On the Road: Time Was

Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.

by Bill Murray

47-year old Teburoro Tito stood at the head of his delegation on an island way out in the Pacific Ocean. At the stroke of midnight on January 1st, 2000 the President of Kiribati handed a torch to a young man, ceremonially passing the future to a new generation.

Nobody lived there. Nobody ever went out there. When the designers of the International Date Line put marker to map, they drew right through the 33 islands that wouldn’t become Kiribati for 95 more years. They were just trifling bits of land, of no concern tocartographers 9050 miles away in London.

But there the little group stood because in 1994 the I-Kiribati president “applied to have a slight loop inserted into the date line that included all its islands in one time zone…. The Greenwich Observatory sanctioned his proposal and thus it was that his little nation profited greatly from the millennial hoopla.”

Dancers in grass skirts played to the cameras and the Kiribati archipelago made its claim to be the first to welcome the new millennium. The US Navy submarine Topeka made its own claim, positioning itself 400 meters underwater straddling both the date line and the equator.

New Zealand claimed the new millennium’s first sunrise. Their Chatham Islands, 500 miles east of the rest of New Zealand, got about a forty-minute jump on the rest of the country.

The real first dawn over land was near remote Dibble Glacier in Antarctica, but it was midsummer there, and you couldn’t really call it dawn, because the sun had never even set. If anybody was there, they never mentioned it.

All these ‘firsts’ staked subjective claims on the new millennium. They couldn’t have all been first. But then, people have been making questionable claims on time since, well, day one. In the course of compiling Easter tables for the Pope, a sixth-century Scythian scholar named Dionysius Exiguus (Dennis the Little) suggestedthat, you know, the Christian era really should date from the birth of Jesus, which should be designated as the year 1.

Problem: Dionysius operated in Roman numerals. The concept of zero had yet to enter Western mathematical thinking, so the Christian calendar skipped right by the twelve months of year zero needed to get to year one. Twelve months off, right from the start.

•••••

Friday, June 10th, 2016: The first day of the UEFA Euro 2016 championship. The host team opened the tournament in the Stade de France, Paris.  France was seized with security concerns that summer but terror was the last thing on people’s minds in a tiny French outpost where we joined the high-spirited crowd at the Bar Le Rustique for “bucket beer,” a scheme in which five tiny Heinekens were served in an ice bucket for the price of four. 

They screamed and stomped and chewed their nails until – finally – in the 89th minute the home team found the net for a 2-1 victory over pesky, persistent Romania. Most incongruent, poignant even, this full-throated table-pounding nationalism, for we were 2650 miles from the Stade de France in a forgotten overseas corner of France, a collection of tiny islands just south of Newfoundland called St. Pierre et Miquelon.

Canada follows an orderly hour-by-hour progression of time zones except in the east, where Newfoundland, a separate colony and not part of Canada when time zones began, set its time zone a half hour ahead of Atlantic time, itself an hour later than U.S. Eastern time. And even though you can walk up the hill from Bar Le Rustique and look over to Point May on the Newfoundland coast, St. Pierre adds an additional half hour still. It helps the Saint-Pierrais feel closer to La France.

The match started at 21:00 in France, 17:00 in St. Pierre. Just four hours to cross the whole the Atlantic.

•••••

From the New York Times:

Samoa Sacrifices a Day for Its Future

29 Dec 2011

The Pacific island nation of Samoa and its even tinier neighbor Tokelau are skipping Friday this week, jumping westward in time across the international date line and into the shifting economic balance of the 21st century….

In this giant-step version of daylight saving time, the island’s 186,000 citizens, and the 1,500 who live in Tokelau, will go to sleep on Thursday and wake up on Saturday. The government has decreed that those who miss a day of work on Friday will be paid all the same.

•••••

Imagine having the power to set the very time of day! Governments fancy fiddling with time, and it’s not just the king of Samoa:

• When Japan invaded Malaya in 1942, Malaya moved to Tokyo time – and then moved back once Japan was defeated. Berlin time followed Hitler’s armies’ west across the continent, so that today Madrid, 200 miles west of London, still runs on Berlin time.

• China once had five time zones but since 1949 the whole country runs on Beijing time. That doesn’t mean everyone observes it. The non-Han population in Xinjiang, in particular, “… live life according to the sun,” says a blogger: “They work from ten to seven instead of eight to five, and school starts at nine or ten am.”

• Trans-Siberian trains officially run on Moscow time, even when Vladivostok was eleven time zones away (It is now nine, as Vladimir Putin consolidated two time zonesby decree in 2010). When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, the peninsula’s clocks advanced two hours to Moscow time.

• Kim Jong-un moved North Korea time back a half hour in 2015, reverting to the time it observed before the Korean peninsula’s conquest by Japan. Last May, though, he changed it back to peninsula time, perhaps in the spirit of normalizing North/South Korean relations.

• In 2007, Hugo Chávez set Venezuela’s clocks back by thirty minutes to create “a more fair distribution of the sunrise.” In 2016, with Chávez safely dead for three years, Nicolás Maduro moved them forward again.

•••••

Until about two and a half centuries ago, nobody felt much need to measure time more precisely than simply “midday,” when the sun is highest in the sky. Before the Industrial Revolution, and factory shift work, the world looked at time from a looser perspective.

A thousand years ago the birthplace of industrialization stretched open and wild, movement unimpeded for any who came. People settled at crossroads, in valleys or along streams. They proclaimed their farmstead anywhere they might summon from the earth a way of life.

Settlements grew into villages that had no name. They didn’t need a name because to the villagers, everybody in the world lived there. It was just … the village. Time divided no more precisely than by the daily movement of the sun, and the seasons for working the earth.

A millennium before President Tito’s millennial torch passing, northern Europeans had only one name. Villages with no name at all were made up of Hakon and Garth and Canute and Canute’s son or Magnus’s daughter.

Only once a concentration of people required differentiation might a town adopt the surname of the local lord, or individuals take on a second name indicating vocation or eccentricity, like Magnus (the) Cooper, Johann Longnose or the king who consolidated Norway, Harald Fairhair. Or in Rome, Dennis the Little.

Villages that grew into towns protected themselves behind walls. By day the fields outside the walls needed tending, and each afternoon as darkness advanced, towns rounded up field workers with bells, drums or horns. Guards raised drawbridges over moats. Sentinels patrolled the ramparts. In Italian towns, guards were obliged to ring a bell every five minutes to signal that none had fallen asleep.

(Apparently Jean Jacques Rousseau was a perennial laggard. At least three times barred by Geneva’s gates, he wrote, “About half a league from the city, I hear the retreat sounding; I hurry up; I hear the drum being beaten, so I run at full speed: I get there all out of breath, and perspiring; my heart is beating; from far away I see the soldiers from their lookouts; I run, I scream with a choked voice. It was too late.”)

Some places, you could buy your way in after hours. Der Einlasse (the wicket-gate) in Augsburg allowed passage through a series of locked chambers and across a drawbridge – for a fee.

Authorities seemed to favor noise-making in those days. Bells warned families to get to bed once cooking fires were covered. The word “Curfew” descends from the French “covre-feu,” or “cover-fire.”

When mechanical clocks began to appear on town squares, proud city fathers added midday bells or chimes. Since early clocks were none too accurate, it’s easy to imagine the cacophony, like at sunset in the Middle East when battling muezzins call to their flocks at slightly different times from every street corner.

•••••

The coming of trains necessitated coordination of time across space, a problem manifest by the 1830s in England where, for example, local noon in Bristol was already ten past twelve in London, a hundred miles to the east. Still, for England-sized countries, adjustment to a single time zone was relatively straightforward. There, the sun-time difference between the most easterly and westerly points is only about 30 minutes.

The challenge came for sprawling lands. Russia’s standard Trans-Siberian railroad timetables, set to Moscow time, originated in 1880, when Tsar Alexander II set the trains to St. Petersburg time (which is the same as Moscow time).

On our own Trans-Siberian trip, we planned to leave the train for a few days at Irkutsk, and as we drew close (close in Siberia is approximately less than a day), one morning before her daily vacuuming tour I visited the provodnitsa’s den down by the samovar with the drying mushrooms on top, to make sure of our arrival time. I had written “Irkutsk” in Cyrillic on a card and I said “пожалуйста,” or please. She smiled and put down her gossip magazine. I pointed at the word, my watch, turned up my palms and shrugged.

She asked, speaking fast Russian and gesturing, “Moscow time or local time?” and since I knew how to say the word Москва, I chose Moscow time and she clucked “nyet nyet nyet” and wrote it for me in local time (2:25 a.m.) and then in Moscow time (9:25 p.m.).

•••••

Sir Sandford Fleming, a Scottish emigrant to Canada, helped to lay the Canadian Pacific railway as a young man. It’s said that he saw the need for standardized railroad time when he missed a train before times were coordinated station to station. Fleming worked to convene the 1884 International Meridian conference, which adopted a new worldwide standardized time scheme.

In theory, it ought to have been a straightforward affair. The earth rotates about fifteen degrees per hour, 24 times 15 equals the nice, neat 360 degrees in a circle, and there are 24 hours in a day.

But wait. A United States delegate, an amateur astronomer named Lewis Morris Rutherford (there is a crater on the moon named after him) stood to remark that, “it has been represented to me that it may, perhaps, be found advantageous in different countries and different localities to use a time that would not be accurately described as local time.”

He meant that governments wanted the right to fiddle with time. From there it was only a matter of time until discrepancies arose at borders, where sovereignties collide:

• Most places, the time zone to your east is an hour later. But if you travel east from Vladivostok to Japan, you set your watches back two hours.

• All 3250 east-west miles of China run on Beijing time. Because Afghanistan borders China to the west, farthest from Beijing where China time has gotten all out of whack, and because Afghanistan runs an idiosyncratic half hour off the normal GMT gradations, a man and his yaks moving between China and that odd, narrow arm of Afghanistan known as the Wakhan Corridor will encounter a 3-1/2 hour time change. (Here’s a must-have app for every Afghan herder: China to Afghanistan time converter.)

• Like Afghanistan, Burma, Iran and India run a half hour off the (relatively) orderly rest of the world. India’s single standardized time zone isn’t as mad as it was before independence. During the Raj, the colony operated three main times: Bombay Time, GMT+4:51, Madras Time, GMT+5:21, and Calcutta Time, GMT+5:54.

• The far eastern Russian island of Big Diomede runs on GMT+12 while Diomede, Alaska uses GMT-9. When not obscured by fog these islands are line of sight 2.4 miles apart in distance and three hours in time.

• A tiny, uninhabited Baltic skerry called Märket, home to an automated lighthouse and a community of gray seals is co-owned by Sweden and Finland and uses both of their time zones, about 4.1 acres for each. On the other side of Finland, if you wade across the Russian river Paz (Paatsjoki in Finnish) and walk two miles northwest from the little town of Раякоски, you can straddle three countries where if it is noon in Russia, it’s 11:00 a.m. In Finland and 10:00 a.m. In Norway.

•••••

Time and space work differently not just east to west, but also north to south. Longitudinal lines converge toward a single point at each of the poles, so that the width of time zones varies.

Suppose that next Tuesday you wake up on the equator. Swinging in your hammock on the beach and turning with the earth, you will travel the earth’s full circumference, 24,901 miles that day (not counting the swinging).

Pull your calculator from your bathing suit, divide 24,901 by the length of a day, 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds, and you find that you have been traveling 1,040 miles per hour.

At Longyearbyen, in the far northern Svalbard archipelago, more than the beachwear is different. the circumference of the earth at that latitude is just 5,101 miles. At 78 degrees north the earth turns at a leisurely 215 miles per hour. The Central European time zone at Svalbard stretches just 212 miles. With the fastest car and a good road you could just about drive across the time zone before an hour was up, and go back in time.

•••••

Trains prompted the need for time zones, Balkanizing the world into 24 (and then more) different, complicated times for travelers. Fast trains can almost do that Svalbard trick of taking you back in time. Through time magic, the Eurostar train #9117 arrives in London four minutes before it leaves Calais.

But there are also willfully slow trains, the kind Olga Tokarczuk writes about in Flights, like the sleeper from Szczecin to Wroclaw, which runs 10:30 to 7:00 even though it really only needs five hours. These are the best trains, the ones that challenge the passenger with more time than she needs. The ones that slow her down. That place an avuncular palm on her shoulder and ask, what’s the hurry?

In a great rush to modernize, Morocco has borrowed a billion and a half dollars to finance a French TGV bullet train from Casablanca to Tangier. The Guardian quotesAhmed Hakim, a 32-year-old Marrakech resident:

“Why would I need to get from Casablanca to Tangier in less than four hours?” he asks. “Moroccans spend four hours sitting in a cafe. If we want to travel, we have time.”

That’s the spirit.

On The Road: Inside Papua New Guinea

Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.

by Bill Murray

John Allen Chau, the missionary killed in the Andaman Islands in November, reopened the ‘uncontacted people’ debate. An advocacy group called Survival believes “Uncontacted peoples make a judgment that they are better off remaining uncontacted and independent, fending for themselves.” Most everybody else wants in, missionaries on their missions, doctors preventing disease, linguists to study imperiled languages.

Outside the Amazon basin most of the world’s uncontacted people live in New Guinea. The world’s second largest island is divided between Indonesia in the west where – as far as we know – all remaining uncontacted people live, and Papua New Guinea in the east.

My wife and I took a peek into the interior of Papua New Guinea twenty years ago. To be clear, we sailed up the Sepik River, in the north of the country, a region that has had contact with Europeans since their ships scouted the coast in the late 18th century. European settlers pressed indigenous labor into plantation work on the north coast from the late 19th and then, in the 1930s Australian gold prospectors trekked into the interior highlands and climbed out with eyes big as saucers, having made contact with nearly a million previously unknown highlanders. (Here is a remarkable video.)

Apprehensive but with faith in the civilizing force of the five or six intervening decades, our upper lips stiffened by the hotel minibar, we flew into the highland town of Mt. Hagen, gateway to the interior. Mt. Hagen comprised a single downtown street, a rugby field, airstrip, unkempt housing and not much more.

No tour groups clustered around leaders with flags; no backpackers struck poses of studied indifference. The police lived in barracks, prefab units half the length of a single-wide, where wives and children spilled onto verandas. I expect they’d have preferred thatch.

We shared a ride with a trader from Osaka to the Hotel Highlander, hidden behind a six-foot barricade. Men in yellow hard hats rolled back the high gate, color of a battleship. A fence surrounded the compound and more men in hard hats walked snarling black dogs around the inside perimeter.

The kitchen served dinner and stubbies, which is Aussie for short bottles of beer. Bony chicken is bony chicken, but they curled the tops of spring onions as garnish. A stab at flair.

•••••

A small plane carried us to the Sepik River. The pilot, already sweaty early in the morning in a tight short-sleeved shirt with epaulets, wielded a bathroom scale, weighed up his passengers (just my wife and me) and our gear, pulled a pencil from behind his ear and made the figures work on his clipboard.

He flew us to the river at Timbunke, worthy of a jot on the map but as far as I could tell, nothing more than a grass landing strip and six buildings. With road access north to Wewak on the Bismarck Sea, Timbunke was the last town with a road out the rest of the way upriver.

The entire Sepik River cruiser, the Sepik Spirit, was ours. Nobody but us, a crew of nine and captain Graeme, for three days. We climbed onto the third observation deck to view the daily thunderstorm over a savannah menaced by gathering nimbus and churned by sheets of shower.

The Sepik Spirit jammed up onto a sandy spit off Tambanum village and we clambered onto its stand-in shallow-draft landing craft, the proper one having gone clear to Karawari for repair. Every day they had fits trying to start its outboard motor.

The old beast juddered to a stop beside canoes carved from single trees, dragged onshore and parked perpendicular to the waterline. The son of Namba, the village elder, invited us into his father’s home.

Typical Sepik River Village

All these houses of trees and vines stood higher than a person off the ground against animals, flooding and nat nats, or mosquitoes. The littlest baby, just three weeks old, slept under a mosquito net, one of not many concessions to the modern age. Seven poles lashed to two longer ones comprised the ladder to the door. Clay fire-pots allowed cooking inside. Drums, pots and baskets dangled from the rafters.

Tambanum was Catholic, having been converted by a missionary from down toward the mouth of the Sepik. A painting of Jesus hung at the top of Namba’s stairs. Below it was a traditional Sepik carving, in the shape of virgin and Son.

The elder Namba didn’t know how old he was. He had lived on the same patch of ground all his life. He said his father was bombed in this same place – just right there – by Japan. Namba’s son translated. His house, identical, stood directly behind Namba’s.

With a ceremonial fuss Namba brought out the family’s most prized possession, a bridal veil made of thousands of tiny nassa shells. I tried it on, too flippantly. We handed it around. Lawrence, our guide, went full reverential.

“It is byoo-tee-ful!” he murmured.

I suggested it took weeks to weave.

“Months.”

Namba walked us down to his front step and bid us farewell leaning heavily on his cane, wearing a tattered orange Brisbane Broncos T-shirt, ear lobes elongated by tribal tradition, smiling a broad smile ravaged by scarlet betel nut stains.

Ancient pipe-smoking women sat cross-legged along the path from Namba’s house, weaving baskets. A knot of men advised two others with Swiss-made metal tools and hand-carved mallets how to carve a table into the shape of a crocodile.

Two dugout canoes glided down the russet-colored Sepik as if on fire. When river folk caught a fish they smoked it in a clay pot right on the boat. The smoke kept away the nat nats.

Family in a dugout canoe on the Sepik River

•••••

Elsewhere by ritual you must come in, sit down, drink Pepsi, make small talk before negotiating can begin. Impecunious Tambanum got right down to business. When a boat tied up they produced a practiced mise en scène of artifacts. And came too quickly with their fallback position.

“How much?”

“Fifteen kina.”

“Second price twelve kina.”

They had no jobs for there were no jobs, 3000 people with no power, ice or medical care. They built their own houses and taught the arts of weaving and carving to their kids. Their food lived in the river and the trees.

We gave them their first price. That would be the village’s currency income for the day, maybe the week. It took a lot of hand-carved tourist masks for a village to save up for something useful like an outboard motor.

•••••

At twilight we’d sit on mats up front with Benny the pilot, watching cooking fires kick up lambent shorelight. Creatures of the night emerged from the forests; the sky darkened with no light from shore to chase it back. Inky sapphire settled over creation, and the deck would be thick as black snowfall with bugs in the morning. They’d sweep it clean.

At sunup, river glassy smooth, we crawled onto the landing craft, destination Angriman village. As soon as they were freed from the ship, the deck hands broke out the betel nut and turned full-animated.

The people of Angriman were the best crocodile hunters on the river. They raised them for their skin. When maybe four years old, a medium sized croc fourteen inches around might bring 200 kina from the Japanese agent who sailed in every three or four months. The biggest would bring 300. Fifteen or 20 three-footers lay about in a wooden stockade.

The croc stockade at Angriman

Each Sepik village selected a councilman. The Sepik Council met every other month or so, sometimes at Karawari, sometimes at Timbunke, and elected a representative to send to parliament.

Peter Mai, the Angriman councilman, greeted us. We gave him a postcard from where we lived, a place with skyscrapers. Four teenaged girls sang The Wonder of It All from a Seven Day Adventist hymnal, and then we stood in a receiving line as the congregants each shook our hands.

The Seventh Day Adventists got here first. Just sailed right up the Sepik winning converts. Now they were losing ground to the Catholics because they’d tried to banish traditional beliefs. They wouldn’t allow traditional dress.

Angriman produced watermelon, Malay apple trees, yams, mulberry bushes and a surplus of smoked fish. With more fruit and vegetables than it needed, crocodiles for sale for currency and fish in exportable quantity, Angriman prospered. But Angriman wasn’t served by a road and unfortunately, it was no longer on the river.

The Sepik changed course some years back leaving Angriman a literal backwater, off the main channel. Still, the crocodile trade yielded wealth: Evinrude outboard motors attached to longboats.

•••••

Upstream that night, anchored offshore, we peered into meager adumbrations of an unknown village. Some of the villagers owned kerosene lamps, but kerosene wasn’t to be used lightly. In the new day that village, Mindimbit, came to life as positively mercenary.

Mindimbit Village

One man had brought an immature cassowary, a blue-necked flightless, four-foot bird named Betty from Karawari. He charged a kina a camera for pictures. With the Sepik Spirit a sometimes visitor, Mindimbit was relatively grizzled at the artifact trade. Prices were higher.

Beside three Evinrudes and a Yamaha outboard in a shed of thatch, a frame of two-by-fours and four-by-fours stood unfinished. “They run out of money,” Lawrence explained. Planed wood is just not as practical as traditional houses lashed together with palms. With factory wood there was more to buy. Like nails.

A man named Wesley invited us into his house.

Up the stairs (watch your head!), three women cooked lunch and minded the kids, everybody on the floor. With a shower dancing on the roof, Miss Julie smoked a spatchcocked fish on a little round metal stove. Grandma minded a little boy, several cooking pots and plates of greens, and Wesley’s wife made sago pancakes.

To make the staple food you cut down a sago palm, drag it to the village, skin its bark, chop it into hunks, then smaller hunks, then pummel and pulverize it to pulp, and finally sluice it through banana leaves into a paste and dry to a powder.

Grinning a toothy grin, Wesley’s wife scooped the powder into a clay pot. A fire crackled underneath. With her cup she pressed it into pancakes. She’d press each into a foot-long oval and fold it in half. When it cooled we all tore edges off and popped them in our mouths. Captain Graeme said his wife added powdered coconut for a little flavor.

•••••

The sun would set in an hour and the river had smoothed for sunset. Benny smoked his hand-rolled faggots down to burn his fingers while steering through swamp and short grass. The forest rolled back to reveal mountains under cumulus. 

We eased up along the north bank of the Sepik. Thatch imbricated a basic provisioning center where we sought curry, matches, tobacco and a Sydney Morning Herald dated March 28th. It was September. But this newspaper wasn’t for reading. It was rolling paper for the tobacco. Three broadsheets sold for fifteen toea.

Outside, imposing, voluble men loitered, but offered only friendly chews of betel nut, gesturing amused instructions. We split ‘em open and popped the nuts into our mouths. You chew, generating saliva, and spit the juice through your teeth, retaining the meat.

The juice is white. You dip a bit of mustard stalk into “lime,” pounded from mussel shell, and chomp it. It turns the juice bright red. Chew, spit, chew. It’s a little bitter and it gets your heart moving a bit, a little blood rushes to your head, everything’s a notch more intense, and then it fades. Think kava, Indonesian kratom or your first deep drag of nicotine.

Going for a swim from the old landing craft

After darkness spread full and complete, Mirja, Lawrence and I sat on rattan and cushions in the center of the Sepik Spirit. Insects threw up a wall of sound while canoes glided alongside silently. Adolescent boys peered in, cupping their faces to the windows.

Lawrence had a story to tell.

“Now I will tell you how our elders taught us the secrets of the spirits.

“I was fourteen. I was working since I was twelve, with westerners. I ate western food. I did not believe there were spirits.”

Still, at fourteen, there was room for doubt.

“It was frightening. We would start at six p.m. and they kept us awake until six in the morning. For days.

“They built a wall in front of the spirit house with a door too small to walk through. They lit the palm fronds over the door into a fire and told us to run as fast as we could and squeeze through that little door, and not to get burned by the falling ashes.

“My grandfather was the village leader so I had to go first. Five boys were behind me. I was scared but I ran fast as I could and I squeezed through that door and up the steps into the spirit house.”

The squeeze symbolized the return to the mother’s womb, because you must reunite with your mother’s spirit as a rite of passage before your father can teach you the spiritual secrets.

“Inside the spirit house, bad news! The men from the village were there and they were whipping us with canes to show us the power of each spirit.  Ohhh, and it hurt!”

Lawrence grimaced and held his forehead. His eyes widened so that white showed clear around his pupils. He chewed a knuckle.

“And now it was late, about five in the morning. They gave each boy a betel nut. My grandfather told me the one he gave me was a special one. They told us to chew them, it would be good for us. We spit out the juice and kept the meat inside our mouths.

“They gave us pieces of ginger and told us to chew them. They played drums and these flutes at the same time. I felt like maybe I had a gin and tonic!

“I was dizzy and then I started seeing skeletons dancing and then I had these incredible dreams. And I believe in Jesus and Mary but since that night I have also known that spirits are real, too.

“We believe the father gives us the knowledge but the blood comes from the mother and so it must return to her. So my mother’s brother came from another village.

“The night of the skin cutting we stayed up all night. When it was very late the men made us go into the water and stay for one hour so our skin would get soft. Ohhh, it was so cold!”

Lawrence was sweaty as a bayou preacher. He massaged his temples and pulled his legs up on the sofa.

“When it was time I laid down on top of my mother’s brother. So the blood would fall on him. And they cut me.”

With a flourish he raised his right sleeve to show the results.

“Sometimes they cut your back but I asked they only cut my arms because I had to go back to work.”

He had to have time to heal.

But he didn’t heal. He was infected.

“I asked for medicine but my grandfather refused. He asked me, ‘What have you done wrong?’ I said nothing, nothing over and over but he kept asking me until finally I admitted I had stayed with my girlfriend the night before.

“Before they would use sharp bamboo leaves but now they use razors. I asked my grandfather if the razor was old but he said no it was bought new for this purpose. My infection was punishment for this bad act.”

His grandfather, who Lawrence called, “A famous headhunter,” told him at the end of his weeks of spiritual training that he would have unbelievable opportunities in the future. One of the people he had led on a cruise like this recently offered him a trip to the U.S., and to Lawrence, that was proof positive it was so.

More photos from Papua New Guinea at EarthPhotos.com.

On the Road: In a Tough Neighborhood

My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:

On The Road: In A Tough Neighborhood

In the middle of the night of March 24, 1992, a pressure seal failed in the number three unit of the Leningradskaya Nuclear Power Plant at Sosnoviy Bor, Russia, releasing radioactive gases. With a friend, I had train tickets from Tallinn, in newly independent Estonia, to St. Petersburg the next day. That would take us within twenty kilometers of the plant. The legacy of Soviet management at Chernobyl a few years before set up a fraught decision whether or not to take the train.

Monitoring stations in Finland detected higher than normal readings. The level of iodine-131 at Lovisa, Finland, just across the gulf, was 1,000 times higher than before the accident, according to the German Institute for Applied Ecology.

Russian authorities reported the accident in the media, and I think they felt self-satisfied for doing it, but Russian credibility had burned down with Chernobyl’s reactor 4. Any more, people thought the Soviets, as Seymour Hersh said about Henry Kissinger, lied like other people breathe. And as usual, solid information was hard to come by.

A news agency in St. Petersburg reported increased radiation, and the Swedish news reported panic in St. Petersburg. A lady in Tallinn that day told me her mother had called from St. Petersburg and they were closing the schools and sending children home to stay indoors. The Finnish Prime Minister fussed that seven hours passed before the Russians told him. It was frightening.

No one believed the plant spokesman when he said on TV, hey (big Soviet smile), no problem. No one trusted the Russians.

•••••

In the same way that provincial Balkan towns had never thought of themselves as national capitals (like Podgorica, which became the capital of Montenegro, and Ljubljana, the completely delightful capital of Slovenia), Tallinn was, had been since Soviet occupation in 1940, an outpost, a modest administrative hub, though far more architecturally charming than Soviet in its medieval center, with round stone guard towers and ancient walls all around.

Back then, in 1992, there just wasn’t that much of it. Tallinn was far smaller than its close neighbor Helsinki, itself only half a million. As usual when Soviet Communism got hold of a place, the difference between Soviet Tallinn and free Helsinki was night and day – in that order – even though they are unidentical twins, only 50 miles apart across the Baltic.

The Finnish-built Viru hotel where I stayed (“Viro” is “Estonia” in Finnish) is the tall building in the background of this photo. It was just about the only place foreigners stayed, and something of a mild Estonian legend. The Viru opened in 1972 and adventurous Finns (whose language is similar enough to Estonian that they can understand one another) crept over to have a look at the Soviet way of life.

Naturally, for the Viru’s first twenty years the KGB spied on guests.

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