Intrepid explorers can expect mind-bending adventures in one of the last great wildernesses on the planet, where seashells are still used as currency and its people remain unseen by the rest of the world.
Rondon ridge, in the western highlands of Papua New Guinea, overlooks the Wahgi Valley and the town of Mount Hagen from an elevation of about 2,300 metres. Every morning and evening enormous banks of thick cloud roll through the valley like surf, obliterating the view of the town and the mountains that surround it. I watched this happen half a dozen times from the top of the ridge. I almost came to doubt my senses, gazing into these towering waves of cloud as they swirled and broke around me, silently, harmlessly, in hypnotic slow motion.
One morning after the clouds had passed, I walked further up the mountain in the company of a guide and bird expert named Joseph Ando. We followed a narrow path cut neatly out of clay the colour of tikka masala.
Joseph chatted about whatever caught his eye – a particular orchid, a bowerbird’s abandoned bower, a section of forest that had long ago been logged but had been replanted and was now flourishing once more. Soon the path ran out and the way grew steeper and the forest denser. Eventually the conversation ran out, too, as we concentrated on putting one foot in front of the other.
All of a sudden, Joseph stopped dead in his tracks and hissed: ‘Listen!’
I stood still and caught my breath quietly. Following the tilt of Joseph’s head, I looked up into the canopy. But listen? To what? All my untrained ears could hear were the same sounds that had surrounded us since we set off – tweets and chirps and squawks, some near, some distant, rising brightly or harshly for a moment before subsiding into the ambient murmur of the living forest. Joseph raised a finger as if to say: ‘There!’ Ah, yes. Overhead, not far away, a brief sequence of throaty staccato quacks, rather like a duck. Then there was a swish of disturbed leaves, presumably as the invisible creature took wing.
‘Astrapia splendidissima,’ said Joseph. ‘The splendid astrapia. A bird of paradise. What a pity we couldn’t see him.’ I travelled in Papua New Guinea for two weeks without once seeing a bird of paradise. Yet my feeling, there in the forest on Rondon Ridge, was one not of disappointment but of satisfaction. I was grateful simply to have shared space with Astrapia splendidissima, with a name far grander than any Roman aristocrat.
On the way back down the hill Joseph pointed out that, of the world’s 39 different birds of paradise, his country is home to 38. Such super-abundance is typical of Papua New Guinea. In a world that is running short of wild frontiers, it is still a land of undreamed-of mysteries, where hitherto unseen peoples speak unheard of languages and live alongside as yet unnamed plants and animals. Outsiders were wholly ignorant of the existence of the Wahgi Valley itself until 1933, when two Australian brothers, Mick and Dan Leahy, arrived in search of gold. They found not only gold but also a population of more than three quarters of a million: men and women who farmed with stone tools, dressed in leaves and knew nothing of neighbouring valleys, let alone of foreign lands across the seas.
By the end of the 19th century the Netherlands had claimed the western half of the island, while the east was divided into Australian Papua and German New Guinea. (In 1949 the two merged to become the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, which was governed by Australia until independence in 1975.) But the early colonial powers stuck to the coast, assuming the interior was one vast tract of mountainous jungle, too hostile to sustain human life. Only the most devout missionaries and masochistic traders ventured inland, usually with little success. After 25 years of one Dutch mission there were more missionaries killed than natives converted.
The arrival of the Leahy brothers and the discovery of gold in the highlands changed all that. ‘The world,’ as the writer Edward Marriott has put it, ‘watched astonished as valley upon valley of Stone Age warriors emerged blinking into the hard light of the 20th century.’ This image, with its suggestion of cinema audiences transfixed by grainy Pathé newsreel footage, is apt. Mick Leahy, though by no means the sensitive, artistic type, had armed himself with a Leica as well as a Mauser, neither of which he was shy about turning upon his new acquaintances. His photographs of ‘first contact’ with the people of the Wahgi Valley in the 1930s are an extraordinary visual record of a precise moment of cultural upheaval.
Of course, not every discovery a traveller here makes has to be of quite that order of magnitude to be personally significant. Almost everywhere I went I had moments when I was acutely aware of my proximity to a certain kind of exoticism – beautiful but at times unsettling – that is, in my experience, unique to Papua New Guinea.
Lake Murray, the largest lake in the land, is in the far west. The flight there, from Port Moresby via Mount Hagen, over rippling emerald-green cordilleras, was a beautiful reminder that, in addition to its gas, oil and mineral riches, the country possesses an even more valuable natural resource: the largest unbroken stretch of rainforest outside the Amazon and Congo basin. It also helped me make sense of a widely quoted statistic. At last count it was reckoned that almost 850 distinct languages – roughly a seventh of the total number of languages in the world – are spoken in Papua New Guinea. There are several reasons for this, the main one being the combination of the extremely rugged topography in large parts of the country, which makes movement over long distances by any means other than flight practically impossible, and an entrenched culture of revenge, which historically meant that no one went beyond his or her own tribe’s borders for fear of ambush. So languages, like tribes, did not mix. I visited several villages around Lake Murray. At one, Tagum, children swarmed to meet the skiff, shrieking and laughing.
“IN A WORLD THAT’S RUNNING SHORT OF WILD FRONTIERS, THIS IS A LAND OF MYSTERIES, WHERE HITHERTO UNSEEN PEOPLE SPEAK UNHEARD OF LANGUAGES”
The elders said I was among the first dozen or so white people these kids had ever set eyes on – the others had been missionaries, glimpsed from a distance at the government station – and certainly the first to come and see them at home. Though hardly a Leahy moment, this information was nonetheless remarkable. Where else in the world, I wondered, could I be told such a thing?
In the village of Tufi, on the south-eastern coast, the sense of physical isolation was as acute as at Lake Murray, or indeed anywhere else I visited in the country. No roads lead to it or from it. You get there by air or by water. It is barely a village, more like an airstrip with a hotel attached and a number of coastal communities within a few hours’ canoe ride, set among sheer-walled volcanic fjords. Reefs are dying and decaying all over the world. Not here. The reefs near Tufi are the stuff of legend among experienced divers, with 50-metre visibility and layer upon layer of magnificent marine life: pods of dolphins cavorting at the surface, hammerhead sharks skulking in the deep and all manner of marvels in between.
Back on dry land, the hotel’s two resident cuscuses – tree-dwelling marsupials the size of plump dachshunds – were extremely charming. Ponderous and clumsy, with baffled, red-ringed eyes, they looked like stoners who had been caught shoplifting. Unlike the cuscuses, I was up before dawn to watch the sun rise. On either side of the fjord, steep hills receded inland in a series of overlapping Vs, as impeccably stylised as a stage set in an opera house. On the still surface of the water hints of apricot-coloured daylight made a diamond-shaped pattern that reminded me of elephant hide. The skiff’s idling outboard motor ticked. I felt the slosh and sway of the current against the metal hull. Gardens of coral seemed magnified in the shallows. In the afternoon I visited the village market, where men smoked sweetly scented cigarettes made of home-grown tobacco rolled in shreds of old newspaper and many of the women had elaborately tattooed faces in the style for which Tufi is famous; bold, flowing, symmetrical.
The town of Rabaul is north of Tufi, on the island of East New Britain, almost as far east as you can go in Papua New Guinea. It is one of the weirdest and most wonderful places I have ever seen, although certainly not beautiful in any conventional sense. By all accounts Rabaul was once exceptionally pretty, with whitewashed colonial homes set back from wide, leafy avenues. But in 1994 two of the volcanoes that surround it, Mount Tavurvur and its geological twin Mount Vulcan, erupted, burying the entire town under ash to a depth of six metres. Only a few buildings were left standing: the Rabaul Hotel, the Catholic cathedral, the former New Guinea Club and, alongside it, a bunker built by the Japanese during World War II, from which Admiral Yamamoto commanded his fleet. Everything else was lost. Today it is one of the more convincingly post-apocalyptic landscapes you are likely to see this side of Armageddon. When I arrived it had been raining for hours. The endless ash was dark and sludgy. There were no cars in the streets, no people, no nothing. ‘This was Chinatown…’ my driver said as we ploughed through the muck. ‘The Bank of PNG used to be on this corner… That’s where the cement factory was… The golf course was over there…’ I was captivated.
If you are in Rabaul, I had been advised, you must look up Susie McGrade, the proprietor of the Rabaul Hotel. Finding the hotel, of course, was easy, and I could hear Susie before I could see her. Perhaps I took to her because she somehow resolved my earlier encounter with the bird of paradise on Rondon Ridge, which I had heard clearly enough but which remained tantalisingly unseen. Whatever the reason, the energy Tavurvur and Vulcan unleashed on Rabaul in 1994 was nothing compared with the energy Susie unleashed on a complete stranger in casual conversation over a glass of fizzy water and a pot of coffee in the hotel’s dining room.
‘Rabaul is the town that refuses to die!’ she declared. ‘Talk about the Pompeii effect. Stairways to heaven all over the place. The Allies dropped more bombs here than the Japanese did on Pearl Harbor. But the story is just so fantastic. The setting, the history. Did you ever hear about Queen Emma? Did you know that Errol Flynn used to eat at that table over there?’
In fact, I had not heard about Queen Emma, though I subsequently looked her up. She was a member of the Samoan royal family who, in the late 19th century, built a mansion near Rabaul that she decorated with furniture from the estate of Robert Louis Stevenson, and gained a reputation as ‘the epitome of promiscuity’. Flynn, I knew, had allegedly spent time in the area as a ‘blackbirder’ – a slave-trader, in effect – and had by his own admission enjoyed considerable success here in his quest to find the perfect female breast. ‘Often,’ he recalled in his memoirs, ‘I would realise that I was staring at a honey-coloured girl of exceeding femininity, with a perfect figure and the most glorious pair of breasts you ever saw – the classic ski-jump type.’ I did not know, however, that he had been a customer at the Rabaul Hotel’s Chinese restaurant.
Susie was blonde and girlish but old enough to remember this place in the days before independence, when her Scottish parents ran the hotel. ‘It was like having a licence to print money. We had 110 per cent occupancy most of the time. You could get a seven-year mortgage. Halcyon days. Oh my God this was a posh town! You could find whatever you wanted here – Chanel, Dior, Mikimoto pearls, Stuart crystal. You name it. And the parties, the balls, the chiffon gowns! And the tennis parties, with bois – not boys, that is, bois – with drinks served on silver salvers and rattan chairs and…’ A trailing off and a pause and a theatrical frown. ‘It really was very inconvenient to have independence come to this nation.’
Later, in the lounge bar, beneath a faded portrait of Queen Elizabeth and an enormous crocodile skin, Susie poured double whiskies for anyone who wanted one. ‘Maybe we weren’t meant to be here forever…’ she said quietly, trailing off again. I did not quite believe her. I left with the feeling that somehow both she and the hotel would always be here, come what may.
That night I attended a fire dance performed by members of the local Baining tribe in the hills above Rabaul. Vivid, highly charged and deeply mysterious, it encapsulated my impression of the country as a whole. Kitted out in enormous bark masks and leafy pantaloons, half a dozen dancers crashed barefoot through a raging bonfire. A chorus intoned chant-like songs and pounded out a relentless beat with heavy bamboo poles. At one point a python was produced, held aloft by two dancers, writhing in silhouette against the flames. As the fire burnt down, the dancers stomped on the logs and kicked at the coals, scattering fiery debris into the darkness. Sometimes, I was told, the dancers not only walk on the coals but also eat them, along with the snake. Accounts of the significance of the ceremony vary. The Baining are reluctant to discuss it – the dancers prepare and dress in strict seclusion – and anthropologists have interpreted it in different ways. Broadly speaking, the consensus seems to be that it represents forest spirits paying obeisance to a volcano. Whether that is accurate or not, it would be impossible to overstate the primal potency and sheer strangeness of the spectacle to an observer seated at the point where the firelight ran out and the darkness began.
Source: CN Traveller