When? August 2012 – first part of trip. Next stop The Solomon Islands.
How? Local flights, land rovers, walking, boat
Who? Group tour and solo in New Britain
Great views of the Barrier Reef from the plane on my way north from Brisbane. Splatters of ochre and emerald on a turquoise palette.
I’m in the capital city of a tropical country that consists of the eastern half of the second largest island in the world and a large number of smaller islands. There is a central chain of high mountains, so it’s not always warm. This is a polyglot people to say the least. The population of six million is of Melanesian origin in the main, but there are over 1000 different cultures speaking over 800 local languages. In order to communicate most people speak pijin. So ‘tok isi plis’ (talk slowly please). Much of the land is very remote. It is thought there are still tribes that have never seen a white person. According to the local newspapers some of them still practise cannibalism and many folk still dabble in black magic. Spirits sometimes have to be appeased by the eating of parts of dead bodies, often the intestines.
I’m in Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and have been told not to go outside the (very grubby, but this is as good as they get) hotel on my own as it’s just too dangerous. Especially at night. So I’m watching the Olympics. The Aussie commentators are a trifle annoying. They keep calling us GBR and pronouncing the sailing races ‘regartas’.
A plane up to Mount Hagen in the highlands where the people of the inland tribes had never seen a white face until Aussie gold prospectors arrived in the 1930s. I’m here for the big show of the year. Tribes from all over the country meet for their annual ‘sing sing’ festival. The idea is to promote unity amongst all the different peoples. They spend the whole morning painting their faces in intricate primary colour patterns and fastening long spiky bird of paradise feathers into magnificent headdresses. Each tribe is differently attired, but most are naked except for grass or leaf skirts and sea shell necklaces. The shells are very precious. Historically they used to be used as money and still often are. They were paid as a bride price when men got married. (The paper currency is called the kina which means shell.) Nowadays the men still pay for their wives in pigs and shells. They are allowed more than one wife if they can afford it, but they have to save up first.
The strangest people at the singsing are the Asaro mud men, who are smeared in white clay and wear nothing but loin cloths. They cover their whole heads in weighty clay masks and creep around with spears or bows and arrows.
When they are ready everyone parades into the show ground to incessant drumming and whistle blowing. The yellow faced Tari clan has won for 5 years running but the other tribes aren’t happy about this. There have been threats to burn the judges’ houses down. It is thought that someone else will win this year. Fortunately, most of the tribal warfare, which we’re told is the hobby of choice, is reserved for the clanspeople. Fights are common, usually over land, women or pigs. Laws of possession are very complex, as being part of the family can mean that you have rights to everyone else’s possessions. Tourists are usually safe in these fights, unless there’s a stray bullet. Fortunately, ammunition is hard to come by and bows and arrows, knives and fire are more likely to be the order if the day. However, we have been told to watch out for the raskols (bandits) who maraud around.
The show is still going on. Same as yesterday. My group is as polyglot as the indigenous population. I’m the only one that speaks English. Apart from our Aussie guide who is frankly an embarrassment. She calls the locals natives to (their faces) and confided that she doesn’t like PNG much as she’s a city girl. In addition she’s as deaf as a post, gets all her facts wrong and keeps telling us the same thing twice.
We’ve been visiting the highland villages and markets. The people are really friendly. They all come out to greet us, shaking hands. They love to have their photos taken. The big man- the village headman -gives a speech of welcome.
Most of the homes are very poor and the people wear western style sekonhan klos (second hand clothes). Some of the children wear very little at all, or adult sweaters that threaten to trip them up. Everyone has pigs and gardens. The pigs are prized possessions. The women train them to dig in the fields with them (the men are generally too busy drinking or talking to work). Sometimes they take one for a walk on a lead. By gardens they mean fields.’ How big is your garden?’ someone asks me. ‘Mine is 60 hectares’. School is not compulsory and families have to pay, so the children only go if they can afford it. There are some catholic schools that are fairly cheap – about £40 a year. That will amount to half a pig.
We have flown further into the highlands, a titchy charter plane, dipping over mountain tips, to Tari, the land of the yellow faces. Way up in the clouds the misty rainforests are full of lianas and curling ferns with tendrils that reach out to grab your legs. Very Jurassic Park. And the birds are amazing. Birds of paradise with iridescent feathers that contort into incredible shapes for their courtship dances. We were really lucky to see a male superb bird of paradise with a dazzling blue boomerang of feathers on his breast. We had to hide behind a tree for 20 minutes before he ventured out to feast on the V shaped fruit of the umbrella trees. And the next day a King of Saxony with extraordinary sawtooth plumes streaming from behind his head, a Stephanie of Astraphia with a long purplish twirling tail and a ribbontail. The name of the last speaks for itself, but its tail is the longest in the wild in proportion to its body and it looks like a kite flying. As if that isn’t enough it’s got a huge emerald green cravat too. Also, amongst others, a really pretty bright yellow and black job called a tit berrypecker. It was all so fabulous I felt as if I was filming for David Attenborough. Now I’m desperate to see the equally gorgeous bird of paradise cousins, the bower birds. They build intricate towering houses to attract their mates and fill them with ‘jewels’ – berries, flowers and caterpillar droppings.
The group dynamics are developing. In fact it’s so dynamic that it’s threatening to explode. Maybe it’s because it’s cold and rainy. The Israelis are rude to everyone, eat their own food on their own and throw a hissy fit if they don’t get the best rooms. The French know it all and speak French all the time and the Portuguese poke their cameras in front of everyone else. No-one is speaking to anyone else and there have been some spectacular shouting matches. The only point upon which the whole group agrees is that the guide is useless. I’m keeping quiet and have formed an alliance with the Germans, who, true to form, complain about everything.
Today its anthropology instead of zoology, so I’m channelling Michael Palin. The people from Tari are known as the Huli tribe. They showed us round their wooden stilt houses, where the men live separately from the women. A witch doctor told us how she casts spells to help the women to get chosen by the husbands that they want. There didn’t seem to be any charms on sale so I could try it out.
Then they performed a repeat of their award winning ‘sing sing’ for us and showed us their costumes. They use mud to paint themselves-or powder paint. The bodies are red and their faces mainly yellow with some white. Their dance is based on the bird of paradise, so they tuck large plant sprays into the back of their skirts do they lift up like the birds breasts when they display, as they all jump in unison. They thread feather quills through the septum of their noses, hang boar’s tusks round their necks and they keep their money in sliced-in-half-bones inserted at their waists. Their hats are the most fascinating piece of apparel though. They are woven from living hair. Boys go to wig school (honestly-I saw this) where they grow their hair for 18 months over a frame. They have to sleep with their heads on branches to keep it off the ground. The hair is watered with moss sponges and fed regularly, as well as being bleached by the sun. They told us that the wig master creates strong magic to help the hair grow. They gargle with some of his medicine to demonstrate and spit it out in fountains through bamboo pipes.
When the hair is ready it is cut off, rather like skinning an orange, and the wig is lifted off and sewn into shape. This is an ordinary every day wig. Wigs for shows or ‘best’ are contrived from two or more plain wigs and are fantastic. Most have scarlet and yellow parrots’ feathers, American Indian style, down each side, with a turquoise superb bird of paradise breast stuck proudly on the front. They are crowned with cassowary feathers and further ornamented by assortments of other colourful feathers and bird of paradise or pheasant plumes. I’m surprised there are any birds left alive. The boys sell the wigs to get back their school fees and help them save up for a wife. One of them was on his seventh wig. He said he came from a poor family!
I’m waiting to fly to one of the great river basins of the world – the Sepik. But the cloud is still low over the forest and our teeny plane can’t take off from the airstrip.
Whilst we all sit around our tour guide seems to be in a throes of a complete breakdown. She is working her way round the group having a series of mea culpa moments. Very distressing for all concerned. Once more I’m resolving never to go on a group tour again.
We land on a clearing in the jungle after dipping over the many tributaries of the river as it wanders down the mountains. In the Sepik the sun shines, the sky is blue, it’s hot and steamy and an entente cordiale has been established. We are now The United Nations. The Israelis have even introduced themselves.
Our rustic lodge is above the river and I have secured a room with a really good view across the water and the vast rainforest plain by throwing a copy cat hissy fit.
We venture across the river to visit another village and see sago being extracted from huge palm trunks and turned into pancakes, or a thick pink gloop, over the open fires. It’s the staple diet round here, along with river fish.
I should have saved my hissy fit. There was no water in my room and it was full of every sort of insect you could imagine. I felt as if I was trying to sleep in a Damien Hirst installation and so kept my head under the sheet all night. Another hissy fit was called for.
Down the river all day in a boat. Lots of women out fishing in dugout canoes. They use a line or a basket woven from sago leaves to catch the fish. There are little fires burning on the backs of their canoes. These keep mosquitoes away and act as portable ovens to cook or smoke the fish. The flames also come in handy for lighting cigarettes rolled from their own tobacco.
One village put on a headhunter demonstration for us. The warriors swooped up on us, paddling furiously and brandishing bows and arrows. Then the villagers danced to show us how they beheaded and ate those whom they had vanquished. They said that cannibalism here was eradicated in the 1960s. Many of the villagers were garbed in traditional costume, though some of the semi naked women didn’t seem to enjoy the experience. I worry that they are being overly coerced. I don’t feel I need to see their breasts to get the idea. On the other hand all the little boys run around totally naked all the time and seem very comfortable. They only get upset when they are asked to dress up. One little tot removed his grass leaves, screaming, as fast as his mother could push them into his waistband. Though he did calm down when she picked him up by his feet and put him into her bilum. These are stretchy bags that the women wear on their backs; the handles go around their heads.
Finally a visit to the tambaran (spirit house) where they hold the initiation ceremonies as boys become men. The ceremonies still take place in many villages and here they involve scarring of the back with serrated leaves. The resulting pattern represents the crocodile as most of the people around the river belong to crocodile clans. There are some crocs around, but (un)fortunately we haven’t seen any.
More bird hunting. Fish eagles, egrets, cormorants and the odd darting kingfisher are common on the river, but I was after some more exotic stuff. A 5.30 start to see the courtship dance of the twelve wired bird of paradise. He uses the same perch every day, which would be great for us twitchers if it wasn’t forty foot up above the forest canopy. For some reason known only to himself he also performs this ritual before the sun comes up every morning. I wonder if the female would be more appreciative if she could see it better. Needless to say the photos aren’t great but he did the whole works, dancing up and down his branch, puffing out his feathers, collecting a willing female and mating. The coupling took all of a second and then he began the whole thing again with another female. They seemed to be queuing up. A really weird and exotic looking bird. Bright yellow rolled back wing feathers with six long wires attached on each side.
Then more river-cruising along great meanders and past small ox-bow lakes into larger lakes teeming with fish. More villages with more traditions on offer. As well as fish, mussel shells are being smoked to extract the calcium. The locals chew this with the betel nuts they all love. The ground is covered in rust gashes where they spit it out and their teeth are stained red. We are all villaged out now. Which is just as well as the last village has a row of human skulls in its spirit house.
It has not been a good day. There was a rat in my room last night chomping on my rice crackers. Then I lost a contact lens and found half of it on the floor. I didn’t bother looking for the other half. Then a last small plane flight back to Port Moresby via Mount Hagen. The plane was late and we sat around waiting. When we finally landed at Hagen we are barred from the street as there was a tribal fight going on. Chunks of rock were flying through the air and a van was on
fire. It exploded as we drove quickly away. We were hanging around again all afternoon before returning to the war zone for the final leg of our journey. Or maybe not. When we got there they announced that they were cancelling our flight. Uproar, as we all have onward connections tomorrow morning. Air Nuigini say it doesn’t happen very often – just once a week. Then we had to find somewhere to stay. We ended up back in our original hotel, but they wouldn’t let us in until we handed over the airline vouchers and the airline didn’t send any. Its Sunday! Eventually we were allowed in and given some dinner. The Israelis were more irate than ever by then. They are pretty strict, won’t travel on Saturdays and had to have all their own food cooked in the pans they brought with them. So they weren’t best pleased when they found bacon in the bottom of their dish of couscous.
Waiting in the hotel foyer for yet another trip to the airport. There are the usual signs forbidding betel nut chewing and spitting. I’m busy trying to decant all my belongings onto a table, but they all start jumping about and toppling onto the floor. Then I notice that the floor itself is moving. An earthquake. At least it doesn’t last very long.
This flight is only 40 minutes late, but total chaos when we finally arrive as everyone is trying to find out which planes they can catch and rushing about from one office shack to another depending on what misinformation has been given. We all end up with an onward connection, after a great deal of aggravation, and get checked in. I’m on a 3 o clock flight. The Portuguese think that they are too, but when we get to the departure lounge their flight number is flashing ‘cancelled’. They disappear quickly, disgruntled to say the least. In the melee I’ve not managed to say good bye to anyone. I’ve got 9 more flights to make before I get home. This is going to be an interesting trip.
Eventually an arrival, 12 hours late, in the islands -New Britain, via New Ireland. I’m too tired to eat, which is just as well as the food (and everything else) in this country is so expensive, that travelling on my own is going to bankrupt me. I’m going to bed and I’ve hung out my sign -Yu No Ken Kam Insait (Do Not Disturb).
It’s really steamy here. I’ve got the air conditioning and the fan on together. A visit to Rabaul which was totally flattened by a volcano erupting in 1994. We drove over the town and up the airport runway- all just flat brown ash. There are hot springs too, flowing like a giant boiling jacuzzi over orange sulphur daubed rocks and hissing into the sea. Not a good place to go swimming. The whole bay is a volcano caldera and the two cones that did the recent damage are lined up opposite us, one steaming ominously.
Some history too. This part of PNG was a German colony before it was taken over by the British/Australians in WW1. Several German signs and remains around and a lot of places called Bismarck. Then we jumped to WW2 with excursions to Japanese tunnels dug to hide barges and cargo. Also pits and jetties where enterprising locals were charging five kina to see parts of Japanese warships and fighter planes rusting quietly.
Today a boat trip round the bay, past more rusting Japanese boats and machine guns and back past the volcanoes. Now I can see that there are at least 5 cones around the old caldera. The devastation from the last eruption is also more evident. Miles of coconut plantations all buried in hardened ash. I think it’s called lahar? The mountains look so beautiful and peaceful swathed in velvet folds of greenery. Though the smallest one is still smoking.
Megapod birds lay their eggs in holes they dig in the ash and boys are mining them with their bare hands. They are caked in black as they squeeze their head right into the burrows. The birds flap about in consternation.
Then off to the most idyllic little coral island. It’s surrounded by an atoll and the lagoon is patterned in every possible shade of blue. I thought the PNG claim that they had the best diving in the world was possibly an exaggeration, but the reef was excellent. Lots of multi coloured coral cushions and teeming with shoals and shoals of sparkling fish. I thought I might swim all the way round it, but I was on my own. The sight of a small, harmless reef shark down in the depths set the Jaws theme running in my head and it wouldn’t go away. So I struck back to the safety of the shore.
More interactions with wild things. I did my good deed for the day and fished a stowing toad out of the swimming pool. And a dozen small white geckos are running races up and down the corrugations on the eaves of my bungalow.
The queue to check in for the flight back to Moresby moved excruciatingly slowly. Partly due to the fact that the computer was working at snail’s pace. The flight was due to take off at 7 a.m. And by 6.30 only one passenger had been checked in. Then there was a power cut. Amazingly I wasn’t bumped and the plane took off only an hour late. Only 7 flights to go. If I don’t get the one tomorrow I’m really stuffed, as there isn’t another one for about 5 days.
When I get to Port Moresby I am to be met by a rep from an island resort in nearby Bootless Bay. Except there isn’t anyone there. Abandoned I stand outside the airport all forlorn, remembering all the instructions not to go into town as this is such a dangerous place. Eventually some local guides help me phone the resort and the errant driver is tracked down.
The words usually used to describe Moresby are ‘it’s a dump’. I don’t see anything to make me disagree as we drive along. It’s just a sprawl of buildings with tin roofs, lots of squatters’ shacks and a dirty market.
More coral islands dotting the bay and my residence is on one. I’m offered a free trip to the snorkelling wonderland of nearby Lion Island. What they don’t tell me is that the skipper of the little speed boat is afraid he will miss his lunch, so he deposits me on the beach and disappears. Abandoned again. Jaws is resonating even more strongly in my head. However it’s not too long before a family appear from between the palm trees. Not Swiss Family Robinson with breadfruit, but Australian with potato chips. So I have company for my swim.