Papua New Guinea: another world

Normal, Weekender

Papua New Guinea has in many respects barely advanced from its primitive past, and though that is changing fast PETER HUGHES discovered a way of life rarely encountered by even the most seasoned of travellers. (part 1)

THERE are travellers and there are tourists. In Papua New Guinea I was both: traveller one week, roughing it with local guides; tourist the next, on a luxurious expedition cruise. As a traveller I arrived unannounced, if not unexpected, because the chiefs upcountry had approved visits from outsiders. As a tourist I and my fellow passengers were not only expected and announced, but also feted.
In the course of both weeks I visited a succession of villages just coming to terms with the 21st century, never mind being geared for international tourism. The question is, which approach revealed the most about PNG?
But there was a question before that: why would anyone want to go in the first place? In Australia, the idea is treated with a mixture of pity and bewilderment. I knew what I was looking for: PNG is the world as it was, a chance to travel as our fathers travelled, to go, not just off the beaten track, but to the edges of the beaten map. Fewer than 5,000 British go there a year, so I knew my journey would be rare; I knew PNG would be different to anywhere I had been before. What I hadn’t expected was to have some of the most extraordinary experiences in 40 years of travelling.
PNG is remote, though the capital, Port Moresby, is only an hour and a half’s flight from Queensland across the Torres Strait. In the hinterland it is still primitive, but changing fast. Satellite dishes are being installed in villages of thatched huts; men who hunt with spears have mobile phones. Land ownership and marriage is still dictated by a system of clans. A tribal art dealer told me that many of the wooden shields he buys bear the nicks of recent battles. Only two generations ago there were cannibals. For traveller and tourist alike, PNG is exhilarating.
Papua New Guinea – after Greenland the second largest island in the world – is in Oceania, where the Coral Sea meets the South Pacific. Half of it belongs to Indonesia; the eastern half is PNG. Before the First World War PNG was divided between Britain and Germany. After it, until Independence in 1975, the country was administered by Australia.
I flew to Wewak – provincial capital and pleasant seaside town – via Port Moresby airport’s winningly named Domestic Paradise Lounge on my way to the Sepik River. My first sight of the Sepik was from the air. It looped across the land in festive bows. Around it were strewn dozens of oxbow lakes, bends the river has discarded, glinting in silvery puddles. Not for the last time it made me think of the wetlands in Botswana’s Okavango Delta.
The Wewak Inn, just over three years old and all immaculate whitewash, air conditioning and broad verandas, overlooks the Bismarck Sea. It is essentially a business hotel but provides unexpected comfort for a few travel romantics on the side. I am not sure in which category to place the Japanese on ‘memorial tours’. Accompanied by Shinto priests, their quest is to find the makeshift graves of compatriots who fell in the Second World War. In Wewak they call them bone hunters. When remains are found they are ceremonially cremated and the ashes taken back to Japan.
The next morning I was driven to the river. It took four hours on cratered roads through dense bush and then across open country lumpy with hummocks of coarse grass. Kookaburras preened in the trees; brahminy kites soared. There were sights that would become familiar all over PNG. A roadside market, produce spread on the ground, was set up in the shade of a long, communal, thatched stall. Men and women, their teeth rotted and lips and gums scarlet from chewing lime and betelnut, sold little piles of bananas, taro and maize and long twists of tobacco like sallow dreadlocks.
In the villages with schools, overhead power cables were festooned with pairs of trainers. They lined the wires along with a profusion of migrating birds. Either from spite, or because the shoes are worn out, children tie the laces together and sling them over the electricity lines. In a country where little is thrown away, the commonest form of litter dangles 30ft off the ground.
Pagwi is an unprepossessing town where road and river meet. There I boarded the canoe that would be my transport for the next three days; 45ft long and 3ft wide, with deep sides 2in thick, it was gouged from the trunk of a single tree. It would have taken two men more than six months to make. In the stern was a 40hp Japanese outboard. You could tell it was a tourist boat because George, the captain, had provided wicker chairs. Locals sit in the bottom.
Johannes, my guide, was the third man in our boat. A small man in his early thirties, he had a high forehead, a scrub of beard and a betelnut-stained grin. What he lacked in formal training, he made up for in enthusiasm. He had a hoard of knowledge about village life and traditions, but was not so hot on the difference between an egret and a heron. Not that he was ever unforthcoming.
‘What’s that tree called, Johannes?’
‘Tree from the lake. That tree is a special tree.’
‘What is that bird eating?’
‘Special bark.’
Baggy clouds, the size of small countries, ringed the horizon. Around us stretched a great green panorama of river and reed. Engine buzzing, we skimmed across water as polished and flat as marble. Villages that can be reached only by boat were betrayed by smears of smoke, their houses withdrawn in the bush. They live by fishing, and on vegetables grown in fields they call ‘gardens’, and livestock that in the wet season survives on rafts.
The Sepik River slithered between cliffs of vegetation, reeds on one side, forest on the other. We saw herons, parrots, kites, cormorants and kingfishers; maybe there were crocodiles, though they retreat to the swamps when the river is high. And ducks.
‘Where do ducks go in the dry season, Johannes?’
‘Special place.’
After two hours, with the dark bulk of the Hun–stein Mountains ahead, we came to Ambunti. Ambunti Lodge, the town’s only hotel, is right on the river bank. Single-storey, prefabricated, it could be an old country primary school. Like many of the bigger buildings in PNG villages, it is corralled behind a chain-link fence and padlocked gate. Built in 1978, it bore no evidence of anything having been spent on it since. There were holes in the lino, torn curtains and missing light bulbs.
Power came from a generator that ran for three hours each night and ran out of fuel the day I left. My food, and the gas ring to cook it, arrived with me in the canoe. But the eight bedrooms had air-conditioning, mosquito nets and showers en suite – permanently cold despite the confidence of taps marked ‘Hot’. In PNG you respect what they have, not judge them for what they lack.
The advance of the tourist dollar has stopped some way short of Ambunti. Or the middle Sepik, come to that. Ambunti’s ‘lean-down’ market – so-called because you have to lean down to see it – is spread on the earth in the shade of trees. It not only trades in the commonplace, such as vegetables, fruit, home-baked buns, sago powder and cakes of violet-coloured Was Was soap, but there are also river fish, still twitching, smoked pork, and small, gasping, freshwater turtles. A woman rolled long strings of bark on her thigh that would be used to weave bilum bags.
The market also sold money. Not the notes and coins of kina, but shell money, still used for ‘bride money’, or dowries. The amount is usually negotiated with the bridegroom by the bride’s brothers who, it is fair to say, are just as likely to accept cash, pigs or beer. Here, though, the shells – small cowries – were woven into mats worth 20 and 40 kina, roughly £5 and £10. Kina is a word for shell. ‘Money is nothing,’ Johannes said loftily. ‘You can find it anywhere. This is special. Very valuable.’


Next week: The Sepik, one of the farthest-flung frontiers of travel.