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.