By SADIE WHITELOCKS
‘RAPE’, ‘murder’, ‘cannibalism’.
These were the three words that echoed around my mind after I told people that I was venturing to the remote island of Karkar off Papua New Guinea to find my estranged great uncle.
On Karkar an American academic was recently gang-raped and the UK Foreign Office warns that sexual assault is rife across Papua New Guinea, along with tribal fighting. It adds that if you travel by car at night, it’s best to have a security escort.
And in 2012, 29 people in Madang were arrested for cannibalism – they allegedly ate raw brains and made soup from penises.
However, I had reassurance from my extended family it was safe despite the negative reports, and I’d been given a survival kit for Christmas, complete with an emergency whistle just in case.
Buzzing with a mix of excitement and trepidation, I set off on what proved to be one of my most colourful adventures to date.
My illustrious great uncle, Noel Goodyear, ended up in Papua New Guinea after going on an exchange programme to Australia while enrolled at Brackenhurst agricultural college in Nottinghamshire.
After spotting a job posting he wound up running a coconut plantation and finding his calling.
He spent time on a couple of different islands dotted around the country’s coastline before transferring to Karkar.
The small teardrop-shaped outcrop, which measures just 24km long and 19km wide, is home to one of Papua New Guinea’s most active volcanoes, the cone rising ominously above a carpet of lush jungle.
Demonstrating its power, in 1979 there was an eruption that killed two renowned volcanologists (Robin Cooke and Elias Ravian) while they were carrying out research.
The neighbouring island of Manam is equally explosive and plumes of smoke could be seen billowing from the central peak while I was there.
While Karkar is a pretty small island, two languages are spoken – Takia and Waskia – and each is completely different.
When it comes to amenities, there is no electricity on the island – some of the better-equipped homes now run on solar panels or generators – and there is no mains water supply, with rivers and rainfall used for washing and drinking.
To get around the place there is one road – which is punctuated with crater-style potholes and in terrible condition – and there are myriad trails leading into the mountains that require nifty off-roading skills.
Despite the place being pretty basic compared to UK standards, my great uncle felt right at home on Karkar as a teenager.
He ended up falling in love with a local woman – which caused a bit of an outcry with the locals who weren’t sure about welcoming a white man – having children, and never returning to his Nottinghamshire home.
As a child I’d heard all about great uncle Noel, his fascination with archaeology, antiques and his quirky life in Papua New Guinea and I finally decided to venture around the world to find out more for myself.
I quickly discovered getting to Karkar is no easy feat.
I started by taking a 13-hour flight from London to the Philippines, had a 10-hour layover at Manila International Airport and continued with a five-and-a-half hour flight onwards to the Papua New Guinea capital, Port Moresby.
I then took a short domestic flight to the province of Madang on the north coast.
My great uncle, aged 78, currently lives on the Madang mainland with his partner, as life is a little easier than dealing with the wilds of Karkar.
Although he’s left Karkar, two of his children – Paul and Elizabeth – remain on the island and another two live over in Australia.
Meeting my great uncle for the first time was quite a bizarre experience as there was an odd sense of familiarity.
There was certainly lots of catching up to do!
Even though I felt pretty exhausted I was so glad I had bothered to make the trip and the two of us prattled away for hours over some stiff whiskies and ginger ale – I instantly liked his style!
In a bid to see the place uncle Noel had called home from the 1960s to 2017, I left him on the mainland and boarded a very ramshackle cargo boat for the 30km journey across the Bismarck Sea, which took almost five hours due to the vessel’s slow speed.
After finally making it to Karkar, I was met by Noel’s son and my first cousin once removed, Paul.
I was going to stay with Paul, his German wife, Barbara, and their three children for four weeks.
The Goodyear family currently run three plantation plots on Karkar. These are used to grow coconuts – which are dried and sold to process for oil – and cocoa, which is used for chocolate.
Along with the Goodyears, there is one other permanent western family on the island, the Middletons, who first landed there more than 100 years ago and have a similar plantation set up, but on a slightly larger scale.
The first thing I noticed after landing on Karkar was that most people carried a machete – a necessary item for life in the jungle – and I stuck out like a sore thumb with my milky complexion and blonde hair, but the locals were very friendly and their English was great.
Another thing that struck me was the stifling heat. The temperature during the day was a sticky 28 degrees combined with 80 per cent humidity.
After almost an hour’s journey along a bumpy track I arrived at Paul and Barbara’s house, which would be my home for the next month.
The duo met when Barbara landed in Karkar as a teacher for the doctor’s children (the doctors on the island have traditionally hailed from Germany with funding provided through the Lutheran church). They run the plantation business with the help of Paul’s sister, Elizabeth.
Over the course of the month I tried my best to immerse myself into the Karkar swing of things.
I helped do stock control in the shop, drove around to deliver goods and learned about the coconut and cocoa harvesting process.
Because the cocoa trees on Karkar are grown on rich lava soil, the beans are considered some of the best in the world.
My family currently supply Marks & Spencer with beans for a special Karkar chocolate bar and KitKat is another of their customers.
The company recently launched a special edition volcanic range in Japan.
For emergencies, there is one hospital on Karkar, which was built by Lutheran missionary Edwin Tscharke and his wife Tabitha, who moved there in the 1930s.
Teenage pregnancies are also a problem with many girls giving birth aged 14, and younger.
Due to a lack of birth control, the population has increased ten-fold since uncle Noel landed on Karkar – from 7,000 inhabitants to more than 70,000 today.
On the activity front, there is a mix of things intrepid tourists can do on Karkar.
While I was staying on the island I ventured into the jungle to see one of the volcano’s two summit calderas.
After trekking uphill for more than four hours through steep tangled tracks we were rewarded with breathtaking views of the gaping valley running around the volcanic cone.
It looked like a scene from The Lost World with no humans present and lush greenery running as far as the eye could see.
By the end of my month on Karkar, I was kind of ready to leave but sad to bid my newfound family goodbye. – Mail Online
By SADIE WHITELOCKS