“The programme was vague; the main thing was just to get going.”
Nicolas Bouvier in the travel classic The Way of the World.
“The programme was vague; the main thing was just to get going.”
Nicolas Bouvier in the travel classic The Way of the World.
Following a Norwegian programming idea, the SBS network in Australia recently aired a three-hour program mostly shot out the window on a train, the Ghan, which makes a regular three-day journey between Darwin and Adelaide. Response was sufficient for SBS to schedule a longer, seventeen-hour version of the same.
On the off chance that you are not reading this in Australia, and thus are unable to watch the TV version, here are some photos from the Ghan. And here is a link to my trip report at the time, posted just after we’d finished the 51 hour and ten minute journey.
Our journey began in Darwin, southbound.
Morning coffee in the lounge
Outside Darwin it looks like this.
First excursion stop, the Katherine Gorge
Way out in the middle of the outback
Wise guy at Lice Springs.
Somewhere out there, this happens.
And eventually as Adelaide draws closer, the countryside turns green.
Have a look at the British journalist Matthew Engel’s current series of travelogues in The New Statesman
The most recent is Slovenia – the happy country that should be even happier. The previous two in the series are
Travels in Belgium, the dysfunctional, fractured state at the heart of the EU and The slow train to Tallinn, about Estonia.
(Photo is Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Click to enlarge.)
My two best Irish friends have gone all in on their first trip to Russia. Not just Dublin to Moscow for a long weekend, not these two. They’re right this minute bound for Irkutsk on a Moscow to Beijing Trans-Siberian train ride. They sent this picture, a frozen river, somewhere in Siberia:
It’s a good opportunity to share a chapter from my first book Common Sense and Whiskey, about our own trip across Russia. Please enjoy it.
THE TRANS-SIBERIAN RAILWAY
If you don’t speak Russian and if you decode Cyrillic gingerly, one letter at a time, it’s not completely effortless to come up with bottled water in Ekaterinburg, but it is possible, and I bought six litres.
The kiosk, alongside a tram stop, was just big enough to be a walk-in affair, not big enough for four, let alone our steamy tensome. The boys in front argued over what beer and candy to order one each of. I motioned for six bottles way up high on a shelf and all kinds of consternation rippled through the mottled impatience behind me.
In a few hours Mirja and I would be climbing aboard the Trans-Siberian railroad to Ulan Bataar, Mongolia. We’d be a week en route, so we needed all kinds of stuff.
As soon as I had all those bottles, though, I calculated we could get everything else at the train station. Six litres of water is heavy.
Today was Labor Day in the U.S. On the edge of Siberia, autumn held full sway. E-kat’s denizens plodded by cold and damp in an insistent, heavy shower. A lot of the older folks wore long coats. All day the rain beset.
Every account of coming upon the Ural mountains speaks of disappointment, and for good reason. The dividing line between Europe and Asia is just hills, really, and Ekaterinburg nestles just beyond their eastern slopes.
The Atrium Palace Hotel Ekaterinburg looked so nice on the internet that we mused back home that it had to be either German or mafia owned. Well, it wasn’t German. It was E-kat’s only “5-star,” with glass elevators and snuggly, fluffy Scandinavian bedding and BBC World on TV.
Still, it had its Russian characteristics: There was the hourly rate, Rule #2: If you stay for less than six hours, you are charged for twelve hour accommodation. And Rule #7: “The guests who troubled a lot before can not be allowed to stay at the hotel.” Hard to know if the guys in track suits grouped around the lobby drinking coffee were part of the problem or there to enforce the solution.
Mid-rises glowered down on ancient Siberian carved–wood houses. There wasn’t much spring in E-kat’s civic step. Down Ulitsa Malysheva, a second-tier comrade (maybe it was Malysheva himself) stood statuary guard near a canal. The flowers at his feet had long since conceded to summer weeds.
Old and dusty women tended the old and dusty local history museum. They turned the lights on and off as you moved through the rooms. The Communism section was closed.
During the revolution, in July 1918, The entire family of deposed Czar Nicholas was shot while holed up at the home of a merchant named Ipatiev here in Ekaterinburg – then called Sverdlovsk – and some days later the besieged Bolsheviks burned and buried the bodies outside town.
In 1977, local Sverdlovsk party boss Boris Yeltsin ordered the Ipatiev House destroyed. Fourteen years later Yeltsin, then in the Kremlin, financed exhumation of the bodies from the burial pit, and exactly eighty years after their murder, on July 17, 1998 the bones of Russia’s last Czar were laid beside the bones of previous Czars in the crypt of the Peter and Paul Cathedral in St. Petersburg. In the museum, black and white pictures of Nicholas and Alexandra were pinned up alongside diagrams of skeletons.
In a dainty candle-lit Orthodox church-let, hardly big enough for the two women inside, Mirja and I bought a tiny cross and a few icons. With a glass, the women inspected the back of each, like kids examine trading cards, and they proclaimed one Nikolai and explained of another, “Blogodot Denyaba.”
E-kat’s youth did a kind of country swagger beneath a huge billboard for “Ural Westcom” Cellular – written in Latin, not Cyrillic. Every kid in town walked up and down the sidewalk drinking big brown half litre bottles of beer. Maybe it was because they could.
Muddy Ekaterinburg, east of the Urals
If your baseline was vodka, pivo (beer) was positively a soft drink in comparison. None of these young people – old enough to aspire to fashion and to drink and flirt and smoke – none of them remembered the days of vodka and The State. They were all eight or twelve at the Soviet Union’s demise.
The train station was white, granite and huge, a city block long and probably more, but it was hard to see why – they only used a tiny slice of it. There was just time to lug our stuff into the steamy waiting hall, and before you knew it, up rolled train number two, the Rossiya.
Here was a moment of some import. They told us our first class compartment was “very expensive,” but we didn’t care about that (it wasn’t that expensive), we just wanted to find it very empty. And so it was.
The woman under whose iron will Trans-Siberian lore demanded we cower – the provodnitsa – while no nonsense, appeared kindly enough as she studied our tickets, nodded, and handed over the key to cabin nine, between cabin eight, with a baby, and the toilet.
Inside – impeccably clean. Mirrors on each wall made a not very big space bigger. All six lights worked – the overhead fluorescent, lights on the walls, and tiny reading lights over each bunk.
The window was structurally shut and it was warmer than it needed to be. Satiny print curtains covered the window but Mirja moved them above the door. That way we could have it open and see out, but people in the corridor couldn’t see in. Brilliant.
A small writing/eating table. Bunks with bedding, the rough blankets in a Scottish tartan pattern.
A samovar sat at the provodnitsa’s end of each car (ours with bits of drying, fresh-picked wild mushrooms arrayed across the top) to provide water for chai or coffee. I’d remembered every possible gadget, but I’d forgotten plates and towels. I stole a towel and paid good money for plates from the hotel, but there was a plate with sweets and sugar and packets of chai, and a towel for each of us.
All the hubbub and noise of the station mixed with a sustained period of fiddling and adjusting as we fell over and bumped into one another, settling into home for the next several days.
Ours was the last unoccupied cabin in the carriage, so it made sense it was down at the end by the toilet, and Mirja rather liked the idea because it was convenient. And the toilet flushed with water, there was ready cold water in the wash basin, and there was even a roll of toilet paper, at least to start. They scrubbed it down sometimes. It didn’t even smell.
The baby next door kept waddling down to peer into our compartment. His parents, bless them, kept the kid quiet.
Everything eventually settled out and darkness came up to close around the Rossiya as we moved east of E-kat, in the rain.
Movement and noise, action and business at every stop. Traders crowded under the lights with food, furs and shawls. The Europeans and Americans popped onto the platform to stretch and take videos of the locals, and the wheels were checked and the kiosks thrived (and they were well-provisioned) and then the Rossiya groaned back to life and pulled away, and everything aboard settled back into the torpor induced by the rhythm of the rails. Continue reading
Finland, a land to which I am related by marriage, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its independence yesterday, and that distracted me from noting another centenary on the same day, that of the largest man-made explosion in history prior to nuclear weapons. This article in Macleans quotes a local arborist who cut down a tree near the site of the explosion as finding that “the entire core of (the) trunk was a column of metal shards.”
Along those lines, from my book Out in the Cold,
“You can’t grow up in Halifax without knowing everything about the explosion. It simply can’t be done, A downtown furniture maker tells us. Not long ago he petitioned for and was granted rights to cut down a maple tree under the McKay bridge built across the narrows, just about where the blast occurred.
A 22-inch maple, with the growth rate at one inch equals five years, it would have been ten years old in 1917, the year of the disaster and, sure enough, it has a seared ring near its center. He will market it to the cognizant community.”
Here is another excerpt from Out in the Cold, about Halifax and the explosion:
Beautiful maidens and wildflowers fragrant o’er the moor grace few pages of Nova Scotia’s history. A town brought up on hard work, Halifax has a history of hard luck. Some of it is other peoples’ hard luck, it is true, but that only helps so much.
In September 1998 Swissair Flight 111 fell into Margaret’s Bay just outside town, about five miles out in the ocean. Private fishing boats, the Coast Guard and then the Halifax military bases responded, but the plane had broken up on impact and all 229 passengers were lost. There are two memorials out along the bay.
After the crash, Ian Shaw, a Swiss national who last saw his daughter Stephanie when he drove her to the Geneva airport, moved from Switzerland to the tourist village of Peggy’s Cove and built a restaurant called Shaw’s Landing to be near his deceased daughter. Shaw’s Landing only recently closed, Shaw presumably having finally worked through his loss.
As in the Swissair tragedy, when the Titanic sank in April 1912, ships were dispatched from Halifax to recover bodies, since Halifax, then as now, was the nearest big port with continental rail connections.
The Mackay-Bennet, a Halifax-based steamer normally used for laying communications cable, led the recovery effort. Two days after the sinking she set out with a cargo of coffins and canvas bags, an undertaker and a preacher.
Over the next four weeks two ships from Halifax followed, the Minia and the CGS Montmagny. Together they and the SS Algerine, sailing from St. John’s, Newfoundland, recovered over three hundred bodies. Some were buried at sea, but 209 bodies returned to the Halifax shore.
Just 59 were sent away to their families. The rest, including the Titanic’s unidentifiable and unclaimed victims, were buried in Halifax, and local businesses donated bouquets of lilies. The Maritime Museum on Halifax’s waterfront has an extensive Titanic exhibit – complete with deck chair.
Deck Chair from the Titanic
Haligonians couldn’t have imagined it, but after the Titanic an even more horrific tragedy lay five years down the road, and this was all Halifax’s own. In 1917 Halifax harbor fell victim to the greatest conflagration of the Great War. I don’t know if it’s just me, but polling people I know, it sounds like nobody else knew about the largest man made explosion before Hiroshima either.
Halifax is a mid-rise city, but if it aspires to more, it might not take kindly to my saying so. Pardon. An attractive, purposeful, working town with a population just under a million, it hosts 200,000 cruise ship passengers a year and some 40 percent of Canada’s defense assets. Nova Scotia is the world’s largest exporter of Christmas trees and lobster, although Mirja makes a run at eating all the lobster in Halifax before it can be sold abroad.
It doesn’t look like a place afflicted. Perched on two rocky shores, Halifax and it’s sister city Dartmouth across the water enjoy refuge from Atlantic storms, set back from the ocean. Still further back, the Bedford Basin affords a strategic ice-free port, invaluable in wartime.
Because it has one of the world’s deepest and most protected harbors, Halifax prospered in wartime, providing men and materiel from the War of 1812 through to the onset of World War 1.
Canada entered the Great War in 1914 as a colony when Britain declared war on Germany. Canadians were just about unanimous in support. Halifax boomed, and harbor traffic rose to seventeen million tons a year from just two.
By 1917 businesses were bursting. Industry struggled to keep up with demand. A quarter of the men in Halifax were serving overseas. Foreshadowing the U.S. experience in World War Two, women took jobs formerly thought of as men’s work. Women’s suffrage came to Canada in 1918, two years ahead of the United States.
The first regular, systematic convoy of war materiel from Canada left Sydney, Nova Scotia’s easternmost harbor, on 24 June, 1917. By October as many as 36 supply ships were assembled for each convoy.
The Maritime Museum maps out a typical convoy: Two corvettes out front and one on each flank, trailed by five ships abreast, typically freighters with deck cargo of tanks, trucks and tankers, other freighters with aircraft, maybe a heavy lift ship with locomotives, sailing alongside rescue ships and an oiler with fuel for the corvettes. A destroyer carrying the escort force commander brought up the rear.
Convoy traffic moved from Sydney to Halifax during winter, owing to Halifax’s back bay. The basin, with a surface area of six and a half square miles, jammed up with ships in winter.
By autumn 1917, a jittery uncertainty hung over the twin cities Halifax and Dartmouth; it had for months. The Canadians dragged submarine nets across the harbor each night against U-boats.
Thursday, 6 December: The SS Imo, an empty Norwegian relief ship in transit from Rotterdam bound for New York to load civilian relief supplies, was keen to sail at first light.
Coal for its boilers arrived too late the day before, trapping the ship in the Bedford Basin behind the submarine nets overnight. The Imo had to bide its time one more night. The Norwegian captain, Hakaan From, stormed about the ship, livid.
The submarine nets prevented the French ship Mont Blanc, arriving from New York, from sailing into the harbor to join up with an assembling convoy. Laden with war supplies, it stood at anchor outside the nets overnight.
There was a time just four years before, when a munitions ship like the Mont Blanc wouldn’t have been allowed into the back bay. But with the outbreak of the war, control of the harbor transferred to the British Admiralty and they, considerably more detatched, allowed munitions ships in.
The Mont Blanc carried a fearsome load – 5.8 million pounds of picric acid, 200 tons of TNT, ten tons of guncotton and 35 tons of benzol, a high-octane gasoline, stacked in drums across her decks.
Picric acid was a relic of the time, an explosive chemical compound used in artillery shells by the Allies. It was less stable than TNT, which largely replaced it for war applications between the World Wars.
So worried had been the New York port authority when loading the incendiary Mont Blanc that before putting the cargo aboard they lined its holds with wood secured by non-sparking copper nails, and stevedores wore cloth over their boots.
Now both ships, the Imo leaving the Bedford Basin and the Mont Blanc coming in, were intent on making time, and Halifax became ground zero in its own unique horror.
Riding high in the water, the empty and impatient Imo was ready to move. Captain From, having sailed twice through Halifax before, felt familiar enough with the harbor to drive the Imo to its limits.
The Narrows is the smallest space between Bedford Basin and the twin cities of Halifax and Dartmouth. Scarcely two thousand feet wide, it is precisely where the Imo and Mont Blanc collided.
Benzol spilled from the drums onto the deck of the Mont Blanc. Fires broke out. The smoke was so thick the crew couldn’t tell if it was the benzol or the picric acid that was burning, but every sailor realized it didn’t matter. All too aware of what was to come, they bailed frantically for shore, for safety. Townspeople, unaware of the Mont Blanc’s deadly cargo, gathered at the waterfront to watch the flames engulf the ships.
Halifax’s fire crews raced to the waterfront in their horse-drawn wagons and the fire chief arrived aboard the town’s only combustion-engine fire truck. He and most of the town’s fire brigade were incinerated.
When the big blast came it laid bare two square kilometers. The Mont Blanc became the most potent bomb exploded until Hiroshima. The windows in most of Halifax’s houses were blown into their inhabitants’ faces.
The Mont Blanc heaved into the air and rained fire back down on the town. Its big gun landed two kilometers away. Rocks sucked up from the sea floor fell onto the town as deadly shrapnel.
So terrific was the blast that it created a tsunami. Water drained from the Narrows, then flooded back in across the opposite, Dartmouth, shore, where a Mi’kmaq Indian settlement washed entirely away, just disappeared.
The town burned. Home heating in those days came predominately from coal and wood stoves, most of which were stoked and burning on a December day. The heaters overturned, setting further fires.
At nightfall a blizzard closed over the bay, the worst in years, with temperatures plunging to 10 or 15 degrees fahrenheit. People with no shelter who survived the blast died in place, trapped, frozen in the blizzard.
Halifax reeled. Worry spread that the naval artillery stores at the Wellington barracks would explode (they didn’t). Dazed and traumatized victims, many with their clothes and even skin burned right off, stumbled through the storm like zombies.
Rumors. Halifax was being bombed by the Luftstreitkräfte, the World War 1 German air force. How did they get their Fokkers all the way over here!? No, it was a naval bombardment. Some thought Halifax’s unique hell came from German zeppelins.
Some people were lucky, if only by comparison. People told of being lifted up and deposited up to a mile from where they lived. In the end, as many as 9,000 people lost their homes, some 6,000 were injured, many horrendously, and 2,000 were dead.
Get yourself a copy of Out in the Cold, or give it as a Christmas gift. As Amazon has it,
An inspired tale of high adventure, Out in the Cold is Bill Murray’s vivid portrait of adventure across the vast Northern Atlantic from the Arctic north of Norway to Nova Scotia. Murray begins in pursuit of a total solar eclipse in Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole. He tests the culinary appeal of wind-dried sheep in the tiny Faroe Islands, befriends Inuit bone carvers in Greenland and camps with an itinerant Italian musician who dreams of building Greenland’s first luxury resort. He stands naked and freezing on an Icelandic glacier and later (with his clothes on), on the wind-battered Canadian bog where the first European stood 500 years before Columbus.
With a light touch, wry analysis and remarkable depth of reportage, Bill Murray weaves high adventure with practical science and absorbing history, taking the pulse of an under-explored, fragile region on the precipice of change. By turns evocative, astonishing and always a jolly good ride, Out in the Cold is a sprawling and rewarding tour of the Atlantic northlands today.
57 year old British national Benedict Allen has survived his most recent visit to Papua New Guinea. There was some question and considerable drama as he missed his expected return date after his publicized air drop into the highlands. Mr. Allen, who bills himself as an explorer (surely a vanishing vocation), visited a tribe called the Yaifo thirty years ago and meant to try to reestablish contact with this visit, admirably without carrying GPS or cell phone.
We’ll have to wait to hear his tale, as just now, Mr. Allen is said to be ill. It’s reported he was found near an airstrip and helicoptered to PNG’s capital Port Moresby after something like a month in the island’s formidable interior.
You decide whether it may be a wee bit reckless to leave behind a wife and two, seven and ten-year-old children on such a mission, but it is surely true that there aren’t many explorer jobs anymore. So for sheer perseverence, and guts, Benedict Allen has my respect, and a standing offer for a night of beers of his choice should we ever sit across the bar.
It’s because my wife and I visited the interior of Papua New Guinea too, and we can testify. We weren’t entirely on our own, but we sure did have to step on scales the pilot of the little charter plane carried with him, weigh ourselves and our bags to make sure the plane could take off from the grass, and stay inside a barbed-wire encampment patrolled by snarling guard dogs on our way to an eye-opening cruise into the interior, along the Sepik River. You could safely say it was one of your more vivid experiences.
It’s timely, so here is the chapter from my book Common Sense and Whiskey describing that trip. Photos from Papua New Guinea, including a visit to the remarkable Goroka Show (photo at top), here on EarthPhotos.com.
PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Thin clouds hung between the shore and mountains. A single tarmac road plodded east, and a smoky fire burned halfway up the hills.
Inland, it would rain.
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, must be the only capital city in the world not connected to anywhere else by road. Port Moresby swelters alone.
Metal roofs, no apparent center. The parliament building, built in haus tambarin, or spirit house, style, just beside the runway.
A fair gale blew off the sea. Palms rattled along the utterly uncommercial waterfront. Brown shore water settled into azure after fifty meters, and a wooded hillock rose from the harbor half a mile out.
To Cecil Rhodes, the secret of imperialism was to “Teach the natives to want.” The Aussies brought an auto dealership, Coke and Pepsi signs, paved roads, a modern diplomatic community, and modest high rises. Without them would there be teeming anarchy, or would there have been less reason for country people to come to the capital for work?
Germans, Dutch and Australians had colonized the coasts of PNG, but they all assumed there was negligible value inland, over the hills, until the 1930s, when a group of Aussies disappeared over the rim and emerged with eyes wide as saucers and incredible stories of cannibalism and fantastic wildlife.
We flew into the highlands to see about that for ourselves.
Mt. Hagen, the gateway to the highlands, will scare you. I mean, it was grim, hostile and tense. You held your things tighter. And malaria was rife. The CDC said not “present” but “prevalent.”
Your first impression of the highlands might be of Malaysia – banana trees, brooding nimbus over far hills – but look closer and you’d think more of Tanzania, with filth in the gutters, firewood walking down the road on top of kids’ heads, people squatting by piles of betel nuts. Dirt.
In this mountain town of 30,000, there was a single downtown street, a rugby field, an airstrip and a rabble of housing. Claimed to have the best vegetable market in all of PNG.
The police barracks was a few score of little boxes like half a single-wide with a veranda, populated by wives and children. I might rather live in thatch. There was absolutely no other non-resident here. None.
Except one man from Osaka. He rode with us to the hotel.
The Hotel Highlander hid behind a gray metal barricade. Men in yellow hard hats rolled back the high gate. A six foot fence surrounded the compound and more men in hard hats walked snarling black dogs around the inside perimeter.
Inside, the walls were parchment thin and measurable dust infested the floor, but they did a pretty good job of serving dinner and stubbies, which is Aussie for short beer bottles. Third world chicken is third world chicken. But they curled the tops of spring onions as garnish. A stab at flair.
In the morning invisible helicopters thwapped at the air above the fog, circling the airport, waiting to land. Finally two MIL 22 Russian transport helicopters, painted “Vladivostok Air” dropped to earth and disgorged fifty disheveled workers from the Porgera mine, about 150 kilometers northwest of Mt. Hagen in the thick of the jungle.
These guys work 28 days and had just hit the ground for their 28 days off.
They all filed past the world’s largest production helicopter, the Russian MIL 26, there on the runway. With a pressurized cabin, it’s capable of lifting up to twenty tons of earth- moving gear. It’s available for charter, with complete Russian crew, from Hevilift PTY Limited Ltd, at just 17,000 kina an hour (A kina worth 90 cents).
Mt. Hagen was a way station en route to the Sepik River, where we’d meet up with a ship to sail upriver. A four-seater flew us to the river at Timbunke, which was just a grass landing strip and six buildings. But there was road access from Timbunke north to Wewak on the Bismarck Sea. Timbunke was the last town with a road out the rest of the way upriver.
And the whole Sepik River cruiser, the Sepik Spirit, was ours! The people leaving the boat, a group from Israel came to meet the plane (were they a touch too glad to see it?), and we were the only new people who showed up. Nobody for nine double rooms but us, a crew of nine and captain Graeme, for three days. We climbed onto the third observation deck to view the daily thunderstorm.
The Sepik River wasn’t the eternal plains of Africa. The savannah was every bit as sweeping, menaced by distant nimbus and churned by sheets of shower. It wasn’t African soul that got into you, but maybe a snatch of timeless antiquity, pulled to the present.
The Sepik Spirit shuddered to rest on a sandy spit and we clambered onto an ancient metal shallow-draft landing craft, the proper one having gone clear to Karawari for repair. The whole trip they’d have fits trying to start the replacement’s outboard motor.
Canoeing the Sepik River.
Canoes carved from single trees lined the shore.
At the village of Tambanum, the son of Namba invited us into his father’s home. Seven poles lashed to two longer ones made a ladder. All the houses, made of trees and vines, stood higher than people off the ground to discourage animals, flooding and nat nats, or mosquitoes. Just the same, the littlest baby, just three weeks old, slept under mosquito net, one of not very many concessions to the modern age. Clay fire-pots allowed cooking inside. Drums, pots and baskets dangled from the rafters.
A painting of Jesus hung at the top of Namba’s stairs. Modern Tambanum was Catholic, having been converted by a missionary from up toward the mouth of the Sepik. Below the painting was a traditional Sepik carving, in the shape of virgin and Son.
Old Namba didn’t know how old he was. He had lived on the same patch of ground all his life. His father’s hut, he said, was bombed in this same place by Japan. Namba’s son translated. He had his own nearly identical house directly behind Namba.
Namba’s son taught all the villagers how to weave the elaborate finials high above their doors, at the peak of the houses, too high to reach from the floor of the house, way above the ground – no idea how they did it.
Namba brought out the family’s most prized possession, an old bridal veil made of thousands of tiny nassa shells. I tried it on, too flippantly. We handed it around and I held it too long. 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 the ground and posed proudly on his front step leaning heavily on his cane, his ear lobes elongated in some traditional tribal thing, sporting a tattered orange Brisbane Broncos T-shirt, smiling a broad smile ruined by red stains of betel nut.
Lawrence told him we would mail him his picture. His pidgin said it would take “one moon.”
Along the path from Namba’s house, Ancient pipe-smoking women sat weaving baskets. A social knot of men stood, advising how to carve a twelve foot communal table into a crocodile.
Two men did the actual work, rendering a recognizable creature from a solid block of wood using Swiss-made metal tools and hand-carved mallets. Maybe they found the tree back in the woods, or maybe they snared it floating down the river.
Two dugout canoes glided by as if on fire. They took along a clay pot, and when they caught a fish they smoked it right on the boat. The smoke kept away the nat nats.
In Arabia you must come in, sit down, drink Pepsi before negotiating can begin. In Tambanum they got right down to business. When a boat tied up they brought all their artifacts and laid ‘em out on the riverbank. And they were too quick with their fallback position.
“Fifteen kina.” Pause. “Second price twelve kina.”
They had no jobs. There were no jobs. They just hung in the village, 3000 in Tambanum, with no power, ice or medical care. They taught the arts of weaving and house building and carving to their kids. The food was in the river and the trees.
We gave them their first price for what we bought. That would be the village’s currency income for the day, maybe the week. It took a lot of masks for a village to save up for something useful it could buy with currency, like an outboard motor.
“Where on earth are we?!”
“Mindimbit, isn’t it?” Mirja thought, and it was true. We’d dropped anchor after dark just off the village of Mindimbit Number Two, which was supplied only by the river, no roads. Cooking fires were the only light along shore.
Now, everywhere is more plausible when you’re there. It’s out of the myth, apart from the hyperbole and in your face. We thought the same visiting the house of the Kumari, the living goddess in Kathmandu: THESE people are our fellow humans and THEY believe it….
Still, the Sepik River was hard to believe. At twilight we’d sit cross legged out front with Benny, the pilot. As gloom chased away the day, and the insects and creatures of the night emerged from the forests, the sky darkened but no light came up along the riverbank.
Furtive movement along the shoreline. One figure in white. A village passed starboard, in shapes more than seen. Finally, after the last light, each night became a monochrome blanket of inky sapphire.
Bugs collected around the windows by the millions. The deck would be thick as black snowfall with them in the morning.
Destination Angriman village, river glassy smooth. Before nine in the morning we crawled back onto the landing craft. As soon as they were off the big boat, the boys who came with us to the villages would break out the betel nut. They’d go full-animated as soon as they left the Sepik Spirit.
The people of Angriman were known up and down as the best crocodile hunters on the river. They raised them for their skin. When it was 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.
Angriman produced watermelon, Malay apple trees, yams, mulberry bushes and a surplus of smoked fish. Mulberries were medicinal. You heated and inhaled them to treat a cold.
Leathery women smoked the fish on wire racks hung under the foundations of the houses. They’d stay edible that way for months.
The crocodile pen at Angriman.
Each Sepik village selected a councilman and the Sepik Council met every other month or so, sometimes at Karawari, sometimes at Timbunke. Collectively they elected a national representative to send to Port Moresby.
Peter Mai, the Angriman councilman, was a kind and generous fellow. We gave him a postcard of Atlanta with our address on the back and all his constituents and family promised to write. 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 villagers came to shake 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 all the traditional beliefs. They wouldn’t allow traditional dress.
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 for Angriman, now it was no longer on the river.
The Sepik changed course some years back leaving Angriman, literally, a backwater, off the main channel. Still, fish and the crocodile trade had yielded wealth – Evinrude outboard motors attached to longboats.
Putting out and away from Angriman, the villagers waved and a Helmeted Friarbird called a “kowee ko keeyo” farewell. Back in the main channel a smiling family paddled by. An orange and white possum skittered up a tree. On the far bank a man chopped trees and rolled logs onto his longboat. A fish hawk flew close with a fish in his bill. A naked baby girl on the shore waved and yelled, “Ta ta!”
Upstream, anchored offshore from the village of Mindimbit (Number One, this time) for the night, we peered again into solitary blackness. Some of the villagers owned kerosene lamps, but kerosene wasn’t something to be used lightly.
In the new day, Mindimbit was positively mercenary. One man had bought an immature cassowary, a blue-necked flightless, four-foot bird named Betty from Karawari. He charged a kina a camera for pictures. Prices were higher for artifacts and with the Sepik Spirit a sometimes visitor, Mindimbit was relatively grizzled at the curious westerner game.
Three Evinrudes and a Yamaha outboard were stashed in an open thatch shed. That said wealth.
A building of two-by-fours and four-by-fours stood framed but unfinished.
“They run out of money.” Lawrence shook his head. Proper wood takes money. It’s just not as practical as traditional houses lashed together with palms. With that kind of wood there was too much 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, all on the floor. A passing shower danced on the thatch overhead.
Ms. Julie smoked a split-open fish on a little round metal stove. Grandma minded a little boy and several pots and plates of greens. Wesley’s wife made sago pancakes.
In the west it’s bread. It’s rice in Asia. In Papua New Guinea the basic food springs from the sago palm.
Sometimes the men fought over which Sago Palm to cut down. Finally they’d drag it to the village. It was skinned of its bark and chopped into hunks, then smaller hunks, then pummeled and pulverized to pulp, then sluiced through banana leaves into a paste and dried to a powder.
Between toothy smiles, Wesley’s wife scooped the powder into a clay pot. A fire crackled underneath. With her cup she pressed it into pancakes. She’d lift each foot-long oval pancake off the oven 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 next afternoon aboard the old landing craft, we caught up to the Sepik Spirit, which was waiting for us, tied to a tree near the Blackwater Lakes. The sun would set in half an hour. The river had smoothed for sunset.
Once we were aboard, Benny steered through swamp, short grass and expansive views. The banks rolled back to reveal mountains under white clouds. They say the Blackwater Lakes are black because of tannic acid that floats up from decaying plants.
We’d come from Mameri up on the north bank of the Sepik. It had a store where we bought matches and tobacco for the crew and curry for Lawrence.
Along the Sepik River.
There was a Sydney Morning Herald in the store dated March 28th. It was September. But this newspaper wasn’t for reading. It was cigarette rolling paper. Three sheets sold for fifteen toea.
They offered a chew of betel nut. Amused men watched us split ‘em open and pop the nuts into our mouths. You chew. That generates saliva, and you spit the juice through your teeth while keeping the meat.
The juice is white. You dip a couple-inch piece 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.
After it was full dark Mirja and Lawrence and I sat on rattan and cushions in the center of the Sepik Spirit. Canoes glided silently alongside, and their curious inhabitants, mostly adolescent boys, held their faces to the windows and peered inside. It was just the least bit disconcerting.
Lawrence had a story to tell.
“Now I will tell you about the way our elders taught us the secrets of the spirits.”
First the disclaimer: “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. This went on for days.
“They built a wall in front of the spirit house with a door too small to walk through. One night 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 leader of the village so I had to go first. Five boys were behind me. I was scared but I ran fast as I could go and I squeezed through that door and up the steps into the spirit house.”
Squeezing through a door too small, Lawrence explained, 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 all the spiritual secrets.
Mirja and I were a rapt audience.
“When we got inside the spirit house we got 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.
He pulled his legs up on the sofa and grew more animated.
“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.”
Here is how the spirits communicate with Lawrence: “One night I heard someone say, ‘Lawrence, get up and move your pillow.’ He meant for me to put my head where my feet were and turn around.
“I woke up my wife and asked her if she said something and she said no. So I went back to sleep. I woke up again when I heard someone say, ‘Lawrence, you missed your chance.’
“Another time I dreamed so clearly exactly what footsteps I should take. I would find a certain leaf and just underneath this certain shaped ginger. I walked to that spot and I looked under the leaf. And there it was just like in my dream.”
The final part of gaining knowledge of the spirits is the skin cutting. You must ceremonially remove your mother’s blood and give it back to her family, ending the power of her influence.
“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 massaged his temples.
“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.”
Lawrence really, reverently believed it.
“After some days I washed it with salt and warm water and finally it was okay.”
Lawrence thought the missionaries were wrong to exclude the possibility that other religious beliefs may be true. And in the forests and on the rivers of Papua New Guinea, where when darkness falls it plummets, spirits lurked more than down any American highway.
His grandfather, who Lawrence called, “A famous headhunter,” told him at the end of his weeks of spiritual training (spiritual training can take six months, but Lawrence had to get back to his job) 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.
This is one of sixteen chapters in Common Sense and Whiskey, stories about travel in Bhutan, Borneo, Burma, Greenland, Guangxi, Lake Baikal, Madagascar, Malawi, Papua New Guinea, Paraguay, Chilean Patagonia, the Southern Caucasus, the Trans-Siberian Railroad, Sri Lanka and Tibet. Get yourself a copy.