On the Road: Climbing Mt. Kinabalu

Here is this month’s @3QD travel column as it appeared at 3 Quarks Daily:

A fine young man with a Yesus Kristus medallion bouncing around beneath his mirror drove us the seven or so kilometers into Mt. Kinabalu park, through the sleeping village of Kundasang. Farmers congregated at a warren of tin-roofed stalls along the main road. It looked like a good day for green tomatoes, potatoes, and cabbage.

They hauled us all in bas minis from the ranger station to the trailhead. From there, a six-kilometer trail led up to our destination, the Laban Ratah guest house, at 11,000 feet. At 13,432 feet, Mt. Kinabalu’s summit, in Malaysian Borneo, is the highest point in Southeast Asia.

Just at first the trail led downhill, charming, to a cool, wet place called Carson’s Falls. On the way down the mountain, conversely, having to climb at the end was just one last kick in the butt on the way out the door.The first kilometer (the trail was marked at each 1/2 kilometer) popped by in 23 minutes. We were flyin’, and all that stuff about how hard this would be was just talk. The first kilometer, we only stopped long enough to shed our wraps.

Still before 8:00 a.m. no sunlight had fought its way to the forest floor. The air was downright chilly once our shirts turned sweaty. And they did — at the first K marker they weren’t soaked through, but a breeze blew down the rise and chilled our damp skin.

We were cocky, jaunty, making tracks, and unappreciative of the flora, except the little violet flower of the Kinabalu Balsam, which was shaped more like it had a beard than lower petals.

The massif stood silent and still, the only sounds birds or a rustling squirrel. There are no monkeys on Mt. Kinabalu. They live nearer the sea, to the east.

Our guide Erik was a volcano of phlegm at first, hacking, spitting, coughing, exercising all facial cavities. He was a little guy, as these highland people were, but with the strong, imposing legs you’d imagine.

He guided once a week, reckoned he’d done the climb fifty times. His personal record to the top — a place called Low’s Peak — was about three hours.

The rest of the week he helped his parents haul their produce to the Kundasang market, where you cain’t make no money. Erik said a kilo of cabbage brought fourteen U.S. cents.

•••••

Grim realization set in during kilometer two. I felt my pack with every step, even though all it held was a camera, a towel, a dry t-shirt, bread, cheese and water.

We appreciated the moss, ferns and banana trees and searched for these particular birds who sang in two notes, but a little more grimly, a little less buoyant, quieter. Still, we made two kilometers in 58 minutes, and there were only six, total. We fed the squirrels some of the tiny peanuts Mirja had bought. Still cool and still, the entire third kilometer. Dark, thick, jungly, even almost cold, and about an hour and a half after we’d set out, at two minutes to nine, we marked halfway.

•••••

In the fourth kilometer, blazing red running shorts caught my gaze. I looked up from the path and it was a Japanese fellow, smiling. He made the summit, turned, and passed us on his way back down before we’d made four and a half K. I just couldn’t believe that.

They do this run as competition. The winner last year, Ian Holmes of the U.K., did 21 K up to the peak and back in 2:43:20, trailed by fellow Brit Simon Booth at 2:43:22. Poor Simon Booth.

•••••

I thought of Beck Weathers on that famous ill-fated Everest expedition, who was left for dead, but stumbled, frostbitten, back to camp. He said mountain climbing, really, was simple. All you had to do was be in shape and then not let your mind defeat your body. One foot in front of the other, he said, it’s all just endurance.

But by now I was grim, unhappy, soaked-through wet. I used Weathers’ advice and eventually thought I’d achieved a sort of runner’s high. I had a little bounce back, but I was hiking sloppy — lurching, and, when there was something to grab on to, I hauled myself up by it. Still, I was sure for the first time since Carson’s Falls that we would make it. I turned cocky.

We stopped to enjoy Mirja’s chocolates and tiny peanuts, like they sell in Nuwara Eliya, back in Sri Lanka. We sat there steaming. Our own personal dew points produced our own, individual, self-generated clouds of steam, our shirts purely drenched through.

•••••

Porters made good money — six ringgits per kilo — but that work’s just too hard, Erik thought, and I was sure he was right. A typical load was ten to twelve kilos (twenty max) and that’d bring you twenty bucks — then you had to haul the trash back down from the top.

Erik liked guiding.

U.S. twenty was real money. The park required we have a guide and took a fee for him, so that Erik made about eight bucks for his day, probably as good as a porter if he got a right-tipping foreigner — and no taking out the trash.

The porters plied the path up and back, right alongside us, low to the ground and bent, exchanging local-language intelligence with Erik on the way, usually hauling rice bags full of supplies for the restaurant and guest houses up above, held by straps across their foreheads. Or sometimes they’d be laden with daypacks and duffels of tourists.

Twice we passed Japanese girls in flip-flops, and the last one was really hobbling, on her boyfriend’s arm. Mountain climbing may involve stepping over rocks. Apparently they were not told.

•••••

Erik commanded pretty good English.

Had he ever been to K. L. (Kuala Lumpur, the capital)? I asked.

“No, but when I get money I take my baby.”

It’s a big city, you know, tallest building in the world (at the time)….

“Oh, no!” Scornful reply. He was aiming high. “Maybe one day I get 10,000 ringgits I go around the world!”

•••••

I spent long minutes anticipating the sun, by which to energize. We were still deep within the forest at the two- hour mark, and again I had begun to flag. It was damp, I was wet, and the path stretched only straight up.

Twenty or thirty meters of steep steps would lead to a bend, and you’d yearn for a stretch that didn’t lead straight up, but time after time after time after time after time, you’d reach the bend and see even crueler steps beyond. And then you’d do it again. And then again.

•••••

At first the sun would hit the forest floor in this odd spot or that, then as we rose (so slowly) up the hill you’d see sun more often than not, and by 10:00 in the morning we stood at the Layang Layang staff hut, on a little plateau flooded by sunlight. I drenched my head under a water pipe.

Up to now there were few on the mountain with us except the runner and a couple of porters. Now groups of overnight campers passed us bound for the bottom, but no one but Malay boys climbed (in fact, we were the first to set out, and first to arrive at Laban Rata).

Eric was constant. Mirja and I waxed and waned at intervals, and kept one another going. At the four K mark, I hit my stride one last time. It was 10:08, only two K to go. I fairly strode ahead. The sun was out now, but we’d ever be ducking into a crook in the trail that led through shaded forest.

Here was a sign, “NEPENTHES VILLOSA areas 9000-10,300 ft.” by which they meant those curious pitcher plants were about, and we spied several in the woods, the biggest the size of two fists.

The curious pitcher plant.

A big Chinese contingent slid downward, all chatty. Along about here my recently found vigor ran out and I resented their being able to breathe. Like Mirja said, on the way up it’s your heart and lungs, on the way down it’s your legs, and I began to get an ugly payback for my cocky “hitting my stride” bit, as I could hear my heart pounding in my head.

We stopped (it was an excuse to stop) to watch a green bird, the “Mt. Kinabalu Blackeye.”

•••••

Now this was terrible. Stretching above us we had to begin some scrambling. It was just damned hard. Mud. I saw myself closed off now, thinking only of where my next foot would go (except I had this vague “What the hell were you thinking!?” notion bouncing around my head, too).

I seized upon a mantra. I said to myself, over and over, “Mt. Kinabalu blackeye.” Over and over. Now, whenever we’d spy anyone above us on the trail, we’d (“graciously”) stop to let them slide by.

One fifty-something Japanese fellow laughed at himself how he’d taken eight and a half hours to the summit. Hell, we weren’t even going to the summit and we weren’t laughing. Yeah, but anybody can laugh and climb down, I thought.

Now came a section where you had to haul yourself up by rope. Now the trees were small, dwarfed and gnarled by the wind, cold and thin air. They were small, but Erik said some were hundreds of years old.

At 10:58 we stood on the five K marker. Someone coming down asked if this was our first time and Mirja peremptorily replied, “And the last.”

We could see the South China Sea from here, 52 kilometers to the north. And our hotel, the Perkassa, high on its hill overlooking Kundasang town, was an insignificant little speck below. We stopped every third or fourth step for the last kilometer, which took 50 minutes.

At 11:48 we reached the top.

Which wasn’t the top. The Laban Rata guesthouse was built 15 years ago to support summit seekers. At 11,000 feet, it has 20 tables, bunks and a grocery with Milo, old batteries, candy bars, Carlsbergs and a kitchen serving up fried rice, sweet corn soup and coffee. The bulletin board admonished, though, that today we had no: cream of chicken soup, Maggi chicken, chicken, lemon or chicken curry. Cursed porters.

So we had lunch – fried rice – and climbed down. Four hours twenty minutes up, 3:10 down. On the way to the bottom we passed a mere boy carrying a 40 kg coil of rope. Impossible. Weak as I was by now, I couldn’t even lift it, but he hoisted it through two loops onto his back and it would take a day and a half to haul it up there — for 63 dollars in ringgits.

We were both thoroughly hobbled by the last two K down, Mirja and me, our brakes having given out, both of us gripping the handrails when there were any, noticing all too clearly that Eric just ambled on down the hill ahead of us the way he had ambled up. We went home, ate a table full of daging redang and papadums with a side of fiery red chopped chillies, and slept hard by eight o’clock.

•••••

See more photos in the Malaysia Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

On the Road: Getting to Tasiilaq

Here is my monthly travel column as posted to 3 Quarks Daily on Monday:

On the Road: Getting to Tasiilaq

First thing we have to do, we have to find Robert.

The men smoking outside the concrete block terminal are not Robert so I ask around inside. The man behind the check-in counter might as well be collecting Arctic tumbleweeds. No flights are pending; no one is checking in.

He does not know Robert.

Together we lean over his counter to look down to the harbor. One boat is speeding away and there don’t seem to be any others. He flips his palms up and shakes his head, “I think you just go down there and wait. That is your only chance.”

•••••

Humans inhabit the fringe, the perimeter of Greenland not flattened by the ice cap, and I mean flattened, literally. Even with its thinning, ice reaches three kilometers deep at its thickest, pushing the bedrock into the mantle such that if the ice disappeared, the island would become an archipelago.

You can’t fly to Tasiilaq, the biggest town on the eastern side of Greenland, for lack of sufficient flat space for an airstrip. So we have flown to a gravel strip called Kulusuk airport. To get to Tasiilaq we must traverse the mouth of the Ammassalik fjord. We booked that online and all we know is, get to Kulusuk and ask for Robert.

We can see our destination twenty kilometers across the fjord behind a few icebergs and a coastline of precambrian rock thrust from the sea long before humanity, possibly even contemporaneous with the first life on earth.

We invade and insult the silence with our prissy roll aboard carry-on bags, scraping and skipping the damned things down the rough gravel. Show more respect and stand still, and the quiet closes up around you as a vehement, absolute thing.

A man from Cologne with a massive backpack walks ahead of us. He has arrived with no itinerary beyond walking for two weeks. His pack reaches up past his head, bulging with two weeks of freeze dried food and powdered milk.

Once he walked from Ilullisat to Sisimiut in western Greenland, and that is far, far farther than from here to Tasiilaq and then clear around the island, but that time he was advised that there was no danger of polar bears and he has yet to be so advised here. His itinerary may have to be revised based on local information. Right now he plans to circumambulate Ammassalik island. He puts great store in the advice of Robert, but none of us know how to find him.

Airport to harbor, perhaps a twenty minute walk. No boats in sight. Either side of the gravel path, just rock and a little but not much tenacious flora. Our destination across the water is low and bare with mountains rising snow capped, glaciers embedded toward the top. Clouds tease the ridges but do not suggest a threat of rain. In between individual icebergs, not a field, rise like several-story buildings.

It turns out that two tiny Danish-built fiberglass Poca speedboats, so low slung that the dock hides them both, bob in the sea beyond the dock. Two Greenlandic men stand down there on the shore below the dock, neither in so much as a jacket, enjoying the northern summer.

We ask, “Robert?” and the younger man, with no English, shakes his head no, “Christian.” We and the backpacker, who is expecting the same ride, are at a bit of a loss until we work out, through gestures and good will, that Christian is on behalf of Robert. For us, that is good.

The dock is too high for the boats, and so we scramble down onto rocks to climb aboard, and Christian takes the backpacker, my wife Mirja and me screaming across the fjord toward a similar spot on the far shore. Christian, hair stood up to a greased crown, drives standing, and stops us dead in the water alongside this iceberg, then that, so we can take photos.

We clamber out on a rock where there is no dock at all. Christian motions without words, “up that way,” and makes no move to leave the boat. So off we scramble, not having paid anybody for anything, off to find someone who wants our money. Robert, maybe.

The Inuit seldom keep individual dogs as pets, but rather tether them in groups outside in summer, and we rouse the mild attention of a pack of tethered dogs as we troop up the hill. Inuit sled dogs have two layers of fur, the inner short, like wool for insulation, and the outer longer, coarser and water repellent. That may make them hot today but overall, they are surely chillin’, taking the warm season off, lounging all day except when growling and snapping over territory.

A vehicle makes its way down the hill picking its path, for the way is gravel and bumpy. A slight girl stops to ask that we wait here, drives down the road to drop some camping supplies and returns to drive us to the Red House, a tour shop and hostel run by the famous Robert.

Robert’s reputation should have preceded him. Turns out in 1983, extreme explorer Robert Peroni from the Italian south Tyrol walked across the Greenland ice cap, all the way across the island at its widest point, some 1400 kilometers, on an 88 day journey.

Now 72, Robert stands before us trim and erect, and above all relieved to find we aren’t planning to stay in his hostel, for he is booked solid as he would hope to be in a very short high season. We pay him for the crossing from Kulusuk, bid farewell, and the girl drives us up the hill to the Hotel Angmagssalik.

•••••

There was a time when airline passengers celebrated successful landings. I remember applause in 1986 when my Lufthansa flight landed in Frankfurt from Moscow. I thought it was as likely for getting the bloody hell out of the Soviet Union.

We came over from Iceland today on a brand new, gleaming Air Iceland Bombardier Q400 prop plane, twenty rows two by two. Bustling their baby refreshment cart up and down the aisle meant actual work for the flight attendants, compared to the doorman role they play on short domestic flights.

Come time to land, the plane took on a buzz incongruent with today’s humdrum air travel. In a small plane you’ve more of a sense of flying, and when the pilot maneuvered to dip under the clouds and between the mountains, we all craned to be the first to see icebergs, and phone cameras filled the windows. The runway at Kulusuk came up fast and we rode it right to the end lights.

About fifty of the seventy aboard were here for a day trip. Over in the morning, touch the soil, check Greenland off your list and fly back. I met a taxi driver in Reykjavik who said he did it as a fifteen year old.

What did they do?

They deplaned, someone took them around the side of the terminal and they watched a man in a costume play a drum and a fat woman dance.

Some months ago he drove a man to do the same and picked him up later that day. What did they do? A drum and a dance.

The east Greenland coast near Tasiilaq

Excerpted from Out in the Cold, Travels North: Adventures in Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and Canada by Bill Murray

More photos in the Greenland Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

Papua New Guinea Referendum

Less than two percent have voted to remain allied with Papua New Guinea in a non-binding independence referendum on Bougainville Island. Here’s the story from the Australian Broadcasting Company.

See more photos from Papua New Guinea. Read my story from Papua New Guinea’s Sepik River.

On The Road: In The Zambian Bush

Here’s my latest monthly column as published on 14 October, 2019 on 3 Quarks Daily:

Late morning heat rises in waves over tall grass. It’s an hour and a half drive, sand flies buzzing, to Luwi bush camp, a seasonal camp with just four huts of thatch and grass on a still lagoon, far out into Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, about 300 miles north of Lusaka.

Perched on a cliff above the Luwi River, today the little camp is empty, but for the permanent staff of six – permanent, that is, for the five months each year camp is open. When the rains come in November they tear down Luwi camp and in late April a work crew of twenty rebuilds it top to bottom in order to have it open by June first. We’re first in, a little early at the end of May.

No other guests, just the staff, our guide Aubrey and a European named Grete, who will manage Luwi camp this season. Six months a year Grete is a translator in Brussels (English, French, Dutch and Spanish) and she spends the other six in the bush. Aubrey has a literate streak himself, framing sentences conditionally, starting like “Whereas, with the puku….”

•••••

There’s a chill before dawn. We dress hurriedly in the dark and huddle close-in around a coffee pot over the mopane campfire kept burning since sunset. Our party musters under a creeping orange sky as the bush fills with whistled, warbled, clucked and chattered birdsong declarations that yes, I’ve made it another night; my territory remains mine, so you just stay away.

This morning, a walking safari. My wife Mirja and I will walk behind a rifle-toting scout and Aubrey, the four of us trailed by a young apprentice carrying coffee and biscuits, the “tea boy.” Isaac, a stoic, leathery bush veteran with a beret and a .357 caliber Brno rifle, will scout.

The grass between camp and the river is taller than we are. At the riverbank Isaac and Aubrey part it, revealing crocodiles on the opposite bank. Standing in the shadows, before the sun, on a rise just above the water’s edge, I cannot think why crocs would only inhabit the far bank. Watch your feet.

In these first few minutes Aubrey has already explained the three territorial zones of animals: the zone of awareness, the warning zone and the zone in which instinct takes over and the animal attacks. We don’t think we’re in anybody’s zone, but step gingerly onto a ledge a dozen meters above the river, and sit on a log to watch the sun establish sovereignty.

Water lettuce covers the lagoon. A pod of hippos stands noses just out of the water. The river stretches into a long, slow bend to the right, the near shore sandy cliffs. There is another hippo pod a few hundred meters beyond, just before the bend. Nature blossoms with sound. Nothing manmade is here to be heard or seen.

Below the bend on the opposite bank, Guinea fowl go grubbing the soil, the blue of their helmets indistinct in early light. A hippo breaches the brush, late getting back home, and scatters them.

Hippos don’t eat fish. They graze outside the water after dark, eating around 40 kilos a night. Which takes a lot of grazing. This one pauses at the water’s edge, jerks up his head, snarls, snaps ineffectually, and plunges into the river.

“He is having a bad time with the oxpeckers,” Aubrey explains. Oxpeckers are opportunists. In Ngorongoro Crater, in Tanzania, these birds ride on giraffes’ backs and get a nice aerial view. Here in Zambia, these local oxpeckers have water taxis.

The pod rests, still as autumn leaves the day before they fall. Only their heads and backs are visible, the rest of them covered with water lettuce.

If this were a painting you’d scoff. Too elaborate to be real. But it is real, and we stay for long moments until the morning shadows have crossed the river and sunlight reigns.

Rains from November to April flood the Luangwa watershed, then April until November are perfectly dry. Rivers and streams recede, forcing the animals into greater and greater concentrations, resulting in increased conflict and danger from predators. 

For now in May, there is peace. Crocodiles eat catfish in the lagoon. The grass is green and tall and thick. Hippos gorge in the fields and live in the river.

Aubrey shows the way hippos change the landscape as they come and go from the river, creating indentations on the water’s edge that grow when it rains, collapsing the soil into gullies and washing it into the river. Other animals use and widen the trampled paths, which extend far up onto land. Eventually hippo trails may even evolve into rivers.

We set out away from the river on a sandy-bottomed hippo trail a meter wide, the grass on either side too tall for us to see ahead or to either side. Isaac guides us toward a stand of mopane trees.

It’s one thing from a safari vehicle, but holding the attention of a hundred buffalo is an entirely different experience when all that’s between you and the herd is grass. They get our scent and turn with the precision of a murmuration of starlings, presenting a rather more solid wall, impenetrably long. They form up and stare intently. Aubrey’s “zone of awareness.” One steps forward and sniffs for the group.

•••••

The sand beneath our feet is a treasure of information. Just now, it holds hyena and leopard prints. Aubrey and Isaac study them and judge they’re from last night or earlier this morning, because they’re still largely undisturbed. If one had overlapped the other, we could judge whether the leopard followed the hyena or, more likely the opposite.

Aubrey brings us to the trunk of a tree to examine puku fur, very soft, and explains that this puku fell victim to a leopard. We know that leopards take the fur off, he says, and this fur is clearly not digested. And, under a mopane with its strong, nearly horizontal branches is a good place for a leopard to take a meal, since at any danger he can hoist his kill up and away into the tree.

We are walking through grass mostly over our heads, with little wildlife, but the spoor puts on quite a show. From Dutch through Afrikaans, spoor means ‘track’ in two senses – first, the scent or track an animal leaves, and second, railroad tracks (A map of the Dutch rail network is a spoorkaart).

Aubrey categorizes spoor for tracking wildlife: aerial spoor, like branches or grass pushed back by passing game, ground spoor, like footprints and sign, and other evidence like droppings or dislodged stones or the water lettuce we see far from the river, which has been carried up on hippos’ backs.

Isaac and his .357 Brno lead us down into the riverbed itself, where there is more than a month of footprint history since the last time it rained: elephant prints with lion prints inside, hippos, every bird and no humans tracks except ours since the end of the rains.

Here is a lion kill. We know this because of the remnants of the victim. Unlike the leopard, lions eat the whole unfortunate animal, and in this dung are fur and bone fragments.

Isaac stares ahead all the time as if something is always about to happen. He scans above the grass with field glasses.

He’s retired from the park service and keen to pass on the oral tradition to the guides and tea boys. He’s strong on the medicinal uses of plants, from increasing lactation to ameliorating skin disorders to preventing miscarriage.

The grass gives way to trees, larger the farther from the river. A particular bird flaps and cries and flies out in front of us. Aubrey says it’s trying to lead us to a bees’ nest, because if we disturb the nest we will help it eat them. (Almost like honeyguides, birds that collaborate with humans to find honey in Mozambique.)

Egyptian geese (Aubrey says) fly over as we sit at a not quite entirely dry lagoon. Aubrey hands around coffee and crouches alongside. Already it’s hot. I reach into my camera bag and I’m horrified to brush against a furry, live thing in there, one very large arachnid. Aubrey laughs and gently picks him up by a leg and puts him on the ground in front of us.

It’s a baboon spider, he says, a type of tarantula. It’s hairy, several inches across and I wonder how long I’ve been carrying it around. Frightening damned things, they are big and robust enough to loosen soil and excavate burrows with their jaws and fangs.

This fellow’s North and South American cousins have barbed hairs on their abdomens which they can fire defensively like porcupines with their quills. It seems these hairs deter would be attackers by irritating their noses. The African variant does not have that capability. It is more likely that inquisitors, like my big fat fingers in my camera bag, will just get bit.

I shudder; Aubrey offers consolation: Another tarantula species called the Goliath Birdeater weighs in at five ounces, with a leg span of twelve inches.

A different kind of spider has built a funnel-shaped web in a tree trunk with what Aubrey calls “telephone lines” extending upward from it to the side of the trunk. Aubrey explains how the spider lives safely below and can tell by the vibration of his phone lines when something flies into his funnel. He is thus called up to dinner.

•••••

At first measure, Luwi bush camp was rustic, but after walking in the tall grass over leopard and hyena tracks, hiking along a river where crocs sunned on the opposite bank, and sharing coffee with a stowaway spider, it’s remarkable how lovely Luwi camp looks now, with its thatch cottages and en suite facilities, its pot of coffee and wildlife magazines.

They’ve put on omelettes and sausages. Mirja retires to a hammock to read Surviving in the African Wild while I sit in chairs arrayed around the campfire, moving from one to the next to stay in shade, and we listen to the hippos in the river and the wild array of birds.

The grass in front of camp extends several hundred meters to the riverbank, and heat shimmers at midday. Waterbucks wander in twos and threes. Tiny cumulus clouds daub at the horizon under cerulean sky. Alone in camp we sprawl out careless, camera here, camera bag there, a pile of Wildlife and Africa Birds and Birding magazines over there.

Later, high broken clouds provide escape from the full sun. Now, in May, Aubrey thinks these look like October skies, in the month before the rains. The dry season doesn’t yet hold full sway.

The night sky is simply magnificent. We find south with the Southern Cross. The Big Dipper is upside down, low in the northern sky. The lantern casts unsure light under a splayed out Milky Way.

Aubrey grows melancholy by the fire. Where once he had three sisters and three brothers, now he’s the head of the family. He has one sister, and matter-of-factly explains the others died of “natural causes.”

Motionless, he stares into the fire and into his past, and turns to us. His mother’s brother was ill south of Lusaka. She went to care for him. While she was gone, one of her sons, younger than Aubrey, took ill. They sent word and she boarded a bus home.

A few kilometers south of Chipata, the nearest proper town, the bus blew a tire and his mother was killed. Aubrey’s father was already ill, so Aubrey went to get the body and they buried her the next day. His father lost the will to live, Aubrey says, and died four months later.

“This is African life.”

HIV? He just shakes his head. He has grown concave with gloom.

The price of maize skyrocketed between the end of last year’s store and this year’s harvest. Aubrey tells two horrifying stories he has heard about maize and making ends meet:

A farmer protecting crops surprises a thief carrying a stolen bag of maize. The thief decapitates the farmer and leaves the bag, head inside, on the farmer’s porch for his wife to find. She opens the bag, unsuspecting.

A father is taking his son to the doctor but his son dies en route. The man rolls his son up in cloth and begins the sad return to his village, but has car trouble. A farmer finds the bundle where the car is broken down, suspects theft of his maize, flies into a rage and kills the bereaved father.

Aubrey looks tired. This is all heartbreak and woe. 

He tells another story, though, and gradually brightens. It’s hard to understand it all, but in outline, in Zambian folk practice a prospective groom’s uncle on his mother’s side goes to his desired bride’s family to negotiate a bride price – cows, for example, or maybe even simply that they can visit their daughter as often as they want. Once the bride price is settled, an elaborate ritual takes place to get her to the wedding bed.

The groom-to-be arrives alone at the young girl’s village and the mother of the bride leads him to their house. It starts with the young man inside alone. The young girl’s mother brings her to the house. She won’t come in. There is cajoling. Now the door is open. He throws coins; She steps closer.

In the end they spend the night and don’t come out until the next day, and the next day they are married. It’s a festive day with food offerings from both sides of family, and the dowry is delivered. A log is set alight to burn for one month, and during that month a couple must conceive.

The catch is, if the bride isn’t pregnant by the time that log goes out, in a month, the bride’s family can give the boy back. “I am fighting that log,” he smiles. Aubrey is a newlywed.

•••••

Lions call out in the predawn while everybody gathers around the pot of coffee. Tropical boubou shrikes sing in duet, so much at the same instant that you think it’s one, with a curious detail at the end of the call that sounds like a cross between a snare drum and plucking a guitar string.

Aubrey’s spirits are bright again. He wants to know about where we live and when he learns Mirja is from Finland he’s apologetic, but he can’t understand how anyone can live where it’s cold.

“The coldest I’ve ever been is at Bangola. It’s over the escarpment,” he says.

The mist was so thick you couldn’t see ten meters, he marvels. He does allow, though, that he’d really like to see snow before he dies and I offer that he might consider Table Mountain in Cape Town. But for Aubrey, South Africa might as well be the moon.

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.