This was one of the epic expeditions of my life. After sailing from San Francisco to New Guinea in a 43-foot ketch, I traveled up the Highlands “Highway” to Lake Kopiago. I had “jumped ship” (with the captain’s permission) with the cook, Kelly, an American woman who had lived in Japan for ten years. On the way, we stopped in Koroba. Villagers clamored around to have their photo taken. The “Red Wigman” was one of the first. I will forever be grateful to him for volunteering his portrait. (I found out in 2012 that he has deceased.) Afterward, Kelly and I traveled to Lake Kopiago, at the end of the Highlands Highway.
The Walk Out of the Highlands Of New Guinea began in Lake Kopiago. It took 39 days to go from Lake Kopiago to Ambunti on the Sepik River in the north. Most of it was arduous trekking. From Lake Kopiago to Oksapmin, men from Yokana showed Kelly and I the way to the mission station of Oksapmin. Kelly stayed there as a guest, while I walked five days through the forest with Tilon Non, Hapom and Teleng, arriving at the mission station of Duranmin. Kelly flew in a mission Cessna to meet me. We walked with Atemik and Waneng (who Kelly dubbed Atomic Warning) to Wabia. From Wabia, we walked with Liki, Toni and Kami. Late in the afternoon of the first day out of Wabia, as I walked at Kelly’s pace, they left us behind. They had our food pack. We were lost in the middle of the forest. Kelly and I retraced our steps for two days back to Wabia. From Wabia, Kankone and Roti walked with us to Frieda Top Camp, a mining outpost. On the way, we almost ran out of food. Kankone and Roti made “pandanus pizza,” a plain, tasteless concoction. When we arrived at Top Camp, we enjoyed as much Western-style food as we could eat. I walked to Ok Esai River, a tributary to the Frieda River. A man built a raft of logs, tied together with ‘canta’ (jungle vine). I floated to Frieda Strip on the Frieda River. Kelly flew in on the mining helicopter and joined me again. She and I floated downriver, arriving in Ambunti nine days later.
May 10, 1983
Tari to Koroba, Southern Highlands Province, Papua New Guinea – Day A2
In the morning we had a wonderful health breakfast. Our host talked to us about the bible, and suggested different revisions and what each offered. He gave us a copy ofa book foretelling the calamity to come, documented through history, written by the female prophet of the SDA (Seventh Day Adventist) church. We graciously accepted it, and I almost even believed that I would read it! The breakfast was delicious, and we were encouraged to eat our full. To the SDA’s credit, they believe in a wholesome diet. On the other hand, they have restrictions against eating many sea foods, pork, coffee, etc., which I find intolerable. These people were fanatics, but they were nicefanatics. Of note, these people have their own private plane, which is courtesy of mission funds.
In the town of Tari, Kelly and I had our first viewing of the fantastic Wigmen, each with his own distinct style of wig. One of the first men we saw had a very long feather sticking out the back of his wig. His dress looked spectacular. I inquired if I could take a picture and was immediately turned down with a direct No Gat! (No!) I lamented not having a telephoto lens. We walked around and found out that there were no government trucks to Koroba that day. We went to the market. All through town, Wigmen walked about. They were not dressed up for any special occasion. This was their daily dress. They looked incredible. Many wigs boasted bird of paradise feathers. In addition to their wigs they carried cassowary bone daggers and wore ornaments around their necks with pig-tusks and a hornbill beak in back. Many men had a bright red marking on their faces – one man’s eyes were painted an eerie red, and if ever a man looked like an evil warlock/sorcerer, it was he! There were so many forms of other ornamentation. Many men wore belts with arse grass in the back, and grass and cloth in front. All in all, the market area and town in general formed an amazing spectacle. Shopping in the market, I asked one particularly “well-dressed” Wigman if I could take his photo. He said he wanted 10 kina for a photo. I couldn’t afford it.
We caught a ride back to the mission place. Once there, we slung our bags over our shoulders and walked down the road that led to Koroba, then stopped and fixed some sandwiches by the roadside, waiting for a truck. During our lunch, a few trucks went by going back towards town. I stopped one of them, whose driver said that they would be returning to Koroba later that day. Just after our last sandwich, the truck returned, and we hopped on and sped off to Koroba. We enjoyed the scenery along the dirt road as local women and children flashed by.
It began to rain. We huddled under the tarp in the back of the truck. Occasionally I would peek outside and lament what wasn’t able to take a picture of because of the rain. The countryside had a flat rolling appearance, almost like the foothills of California, bordered in parts by sharp peaks and the occasional cultivated area. Sooner than we expected, we drove by a windsock denoting the Koroba airstrip. We drove up through various small housing areas, past some new alpine-looking dwellings and up to a dull, aqua-green building that housed the post office and district officials. We were helped down out of the truck and gained protection of the roof as the rain came down. To our immediate delight and amazement, huddled under the eaves lining the buildings, in the entranceway and even inside the small building were as many as one hundred villagers, many Wigmen, all differently dressed, and apparently delighted to see us. “Look at this, Kelly, awesome!!” We began talking to a local lad who spoke English. Hesitant from our experience with the photo-wary Tarians, I politely inquired of the young man what the situation here was regarding pictures. He said I would be able to take photos if I liked. He asked whom I wanted a picture of. We approached a bent-up old man who had a beautiful headdress on. It was agreed that we could take a photo of him without paying. This sparked off a photo session with the whole group of villagers. It was unbelievable! We took close.ups, group shots, shots of two and three men and/or women at a time, including photos of Kelly and I with them. One old man who looked ludicrous was especially eager to have his photo taken. As he also was wearing a beautiful wig, we took a few pictures of him (i.e., the Red Wigman in the photo above).
Day A2 Tari to Koroba
Tuesday May 10, 1983
At the end of a half an hour, we’d gotten an incredible collection of photos, and we were thankful to Providence for the opportunity!
We began to ask around for places to stay, and as the people in PNG are very good about inviting you to their houses or huts, we immediately had a few suggestions and then an invitation from a man. The invitation fell through a few minutes later, and then a pleasant young woman walked by said that we could stay at her place. She was walking home and we joined her.
Her house was a short distance away. We were given a small room. We deposited our things there. We went back out and as this Mrs. Barabia Kulu was also going back out, we left a few small children to guard the house and our possessions. A young man walked with us back to the Officer-in-Charge (OIC) headquarters. On the way, we saw other Wigmen and got some posed shots.
We were taken past district headquarters down a road.
Accompanying Kelly and I and the young man was the first old bent-up man that I had taken a photo of earlier. He had been wounded in a fight long ago, which was why he was bent up. We passed his garden patch. This hobbling man made it up a steep bank to his garden and broke off some fresh corn. As a gesture of friendliness, he gave us the ears of corn. He was a lovable old fellow with a smile on his face. Kelly gave him the remainder of her Benson & Hedges in return. We walked on, leaving the old man at his place.
Past a bridge, we went through a doorway in a fence to where village men sat around a hut. On the dirt porch, a man fried fritters on a stove made from the bottom of an oil drum. Everyone gave us a warm greeting, and we were led inside. Various local ornaments were pinned on the walls, some fairly nice, others broken and dilapidated. Off in the corner was a relatively un-ornate wig. I was prompted to try it on! I put the wig on and went outside, which prompted an expected response of surprise and delight. Kelly took a photo of me with the wig on.
Back inside, there was another cap made of cassowary hair that was like a beanie, with a spring and propeller on top! This was quite a novelty. I donned this and walked outside again, to the amusement of the people there. A few men borrowed it from me and put it on themselves. Each in turn would shake his head causing the spring to shake from side to side in a comic display!
Two old men put on a little show for us while we were there. They dressed up in some traditional “bilas” and paint and staged a mock tribal fight. Each had his bow and arrow. They chased each other through the garden of kau-kau (sweet potatoes) and corn, shooting arrows and deliberately missing. Kelly, me and the group of onlookers took delight in this show!
We considered buying different pieces of bilas, but we hesitated buying each article due to one defect or another or too high a price. The men sitting around smoked their traditional tobacco, bruis, out of two-foot long bamboo pipes, most of which had simple engraving on them and some of which were yellowed with age. I bought a pipe and so did Kelly, each very used, yellowed and nice-looking.
The men in turn demonstrated playing a flute made of individual sticks of . ” bamboo, each cut to a different length and each having a distinct pitch. The flute had a rare sound, exotic and beautiful. I watched them play it and then I played it myself, which brought forth a reaction of glee from the on-looking men. They explained that this flute was used to attract girls! In addition, a man would play the flute when he walked in the bush in order to keep his mind off his fatigue. The flute sounded wonderful, and I determined to export a couple of them. They cost only 25t. The pipes cost one kina and two kina for Kelly’s.
After this very fun interlude, we left to go back to the Kulu’s house, promising the keeper of the artifacts hut that we would return the next day.
By the time we returned, it was growing dark. I took a nap when we got back, after a snack of Milo and cookies. Later, I woke then Kelly napped. I met Barabia Kulu, the man of the house. I talked to him about this land and the people.
We talked about the way it was before the white men came. In the old days, thepeople here (Huli country) lived well, there was little disease, people got along well, it was peaceful, the young followed their elders and respected them. He said that a young man was obliged then to strictly obey his elders. For example, young men were forbidden to smoke – smoking was only for elder men. (Women were likewise forbidden to smoke.) When a young man was going to marry a woman, the young man and woman were brought to a remote place with two other men and two other women. There, this group would fast together for eight days during which time the elders would instruct the young man and woman in the knowledge they would need in keeping a house and raising children, i.e., specifically, for example, in sex, building a house, traditional secrets, etc. At the end of this time, this party would return to the village, and the young man would wed the girl.
Now, said Barabia, the young children were disobedient to their elders. Women and children smoke. The young people don’t learn the traditional ways. The art of making of traditional bilas was being lost. The young folks just didn’t care to learn. Barabia was helping the government to save some of the art by going around villages and buying some of the good pieces. (I wondered if this was to encourage manufacturing of same.) During this conversation, dinner was served. It was a typical Melanesian plate of boiled kau-kau, pumpkin, tin fish and greens. I ate it to be polite, but I ended up enjoying it. After I finished eating, Kelly came out to join the conversation. To orient her, Barabia reiterated some of what he’d said, and I filled her in as well.
Barabia said that he had bought about K700 worth of bilas and turned it over to a government friend (and other friends), but the government had never reimbursed him! He still had some of it left and now he took a few pieces to show us. He had 3 different bone daggers of different ages – one was a freshly cut cassowary bone that was still unfinished and had a bit of organic residue in places. The next oldest was smooth and yellowed and looked old, but Barabia said that it was only about 5 years old. The third was gray white and appeared mottled with surface cracks, but the feel was super smooth and the shine lustrous. He didn’t know how old it was, but just that it was the oldest by far. He asked me to take the one that I liked most. After much deliberation, I opted for the oldest.
He then brought out a hornbill and pig-tusk necklace – the sort that the Wigmen wear, with the hornbill beak centered point-down on the back of their necks – they look really awesome. He gave this to me as a gift. He also brought out about five small stone ax heads. He said that he found the ax heads while working in the garden. He offered Kelly and I each to keep one for ourselves. We made our choice. I was thrilled to have a real stone ax head — not an ax head made especially for tourists, but an ax head that was made and used before white men came with their steel axes. We didn’t know how to repay them, for we really didn’t have much to give. I gave Barabia one of the Koroba flutes I’d brought that day, as he seemed to want it.
Before we went to bed, we discussed our plans to go to Kopiago. They quoted us various prices for hiring a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle), but they were all too high. We decided that we would try our luck getting a ride in the morning. We retired, thanking them for their hospitality.
Day A4 Koroba to Lake Kopiago
Thursday May 12, 1983
When we got to the turnoff for Lake Kopiago we were surprised at how unused and narrow the road looked. It was like two bush paths side by side with a strip of two-foot tall grass between them stretching off in the distance!! This is really the end of the road!!
We put our bags down and determined to wait for a ride! But there wasn’t any traffic!! We sat down on our bags. An old, old man came walking by. He had nothing on except “arse grass” (the Pidgin name for their grass skirts) – no jewelry or anything – and he was carrying nothing but about five 5-foot stalks of sugar cane. He looked poor. He stopped when he got to us and shook our hands. (I don’t speak much Pidgin – I just borrowed Untangled New Guinea Pidgin from Ed when we left Mendi, and I’m just starting to learn after being in PNG all this time!) The old man untied one of his stalks of sugar cane and he gave it to us as a gift. Kelly and I were sort of overcome that this old man with so little would give us a gift. We thought of what we could give to him. I remembered that I had a little amulet from Costa Rica that my mother had given me. I searched through my things and found it. I presented it to him as a gift. His eyes got wide and he looked incredulous! Kelly and I made the connection!! The amulet was a shiny gold, and to someone like this old man who’d probably only seen gold a few times, if ever, it probably appeared to be genuine gold!
As he fondled it, we thought perhaps he didn’t know that it was for wearing on a chain around the neck. (I’d long ago thrown away the chain!) We thought to put it on a string and put it around his neck. I got out my string, got the amulet back from him, put it on the string and I tied it around his neck. I took a few pictures of him standing proud with his gold amulet! When others tried to touch his gift, he picked up his sugar cane and waved it at them, chasing them away!
Soon it became apparent that there was a market today at this crossroads. Across the way, people began gathering. Soon there were a hundred people or more. The old man had come to sell his sugar cane.
Men and women crowded the market. As Kelly and I sat there, hoards gathered around us. We were quite an attraction. Every one of our actions was watched as ifincredible by speechless onlookers. There were many photos to be taken, as the Wigmen were about. One Wigman looked comical as he had a big pair of sunglasses on with one lens missing to accompany his traditional wig. I took a close-up and gave him some bruis (tobacco), which I’d brought from the Solomon Islands, for letting me take a free photo.
The “Dapper Wigman” showed up too, again wearing a new costume, adorned with a white cuscus (possum) fur with tan-brown spots. I took (another) photo of him.
At about 4:25pm, the yellow government truck returned early. We threw our bags in the back and the truck took off to Lake Kopiago.
A6 Lake Kopiago (Sing-Sing day)
Saturday May 14, 1983
The morning was beautiful. The house has an excellent view of the lake, surrounded by gold and lime-colored rushes. We understood that the sing-sing was to begin at 10am, so we went to the market and looked around first. We were going to go home to drop off some of our things but decided to swing by the grounds where the sing-sing was to take place, for we heard sounds coming from that direction. When we arrived, we were surprised to see that the dancing had already begun! It was wonderful. We placed our bags on the ground, canceled our plan to go back to Pius’ house, determined to not miss a minute of this!!
There were two groups dancing; one group was composed of Wigmen much as we had seen in Koroba, only these men were a little more decorated. How fantastic they are!! What imaginations they have! Some of the men had colored their beards blue! They were in a circle and sort of hopping up and down. They conveyed themselves counter-clockwise. Some beat on drums, and they all chanted. After they hopped for five minutes or so they would stop for a while, and then they would resume their dancing. The circle was comprised of perhaps twenty men. From time to time, new men would join the group, while others would leave the group, the number of dancersthus fluctuating.
The other dancing group were the Hewas. These people come from an area to the east with purportedly extremely rugged terrain. They were rather odd actually. Some of them had enormous headdresses that looked rather junky – white and black feathers and other ornamentation including twentieth-century candy wrappers! OtherHewas wore only a long hat made of bush material.
The Hewas in the huge headdresses were themselves invisible, dwarfed by thefeathers and pomp they wore. The Hewas were more “into it” than the Wigmen. The Hewas seldom took a break and when they did, it was a short one. They too just sort of hopped up and down to their chants.
There certainly were plenty of interesting shots – all the colors of bird of paradise feathers and outlandish nationals! One young boy ran by me who was smeared with gray mud and cloaked in ferns. The young girls seemed self-conscious, as they shyly folded their arms over their breasts.
The Wigmen stopped dancing for a while, then regrouped in a different spot and resumed dancing.
We decided we would go back to the house and return since we were under the impression that the sing-sing was going to last all day. As we headed out, we heard a big commotion from across the road. We followed the running children. Heading towards us was the most amazing group yet!!!
It was two lines of young men with wigs on, but very different from the other Wigmen in that their faces were painted red and yellow and their bodies were smeared with oil, glistening in the sun. They looked awesome. Their dancing was much livelier than that of the other groups. They were led by a man whose skin was colored coal black (with charcoal). This man waved a spear, threatening all those who barred the path of his group of dancers. He wore a mask – the rubber kind that kids wear back at home for Halloween!
This intense group of Hulis danced their way into and all over the sing-sing grounds. They were moving around quickly, and they attracted people who kept getting in my way. As much as I tried, I could not get the right vantage point for a picture. I finally went right up to them to get the photo above, using a 50 mm lens.
Excerpts from my journal
May 16, 1983
Gaua, just before Oksapmin, New Guinea Highlands
A note of relief struck when we reached the top of the cliff!! The view was super-tremendous. Immediately north was another range of limestone ridges. To the right of this was the Gorge extending all the way to the south. We could see the course of the Strickland River as it turned west behind a mountain range directly south of us. The Oksapmin women were waiting here, chattering away, laughing. Our party was made up of the Yokana men who had agreed to take us as far as Oksapmin and the Oksapmin women returning from the market in Lake Kopiago. We stopped and rested here for a while. My mood now changed to one of gallantry (as earlier I was racing out ahead of Kelly) and I faked drinking a sip of water so that Kelly could have more, as we were almost out.
Limestone boulders lie scattered on the grass, and the forest came right up the edge of the cliff we’d just traversed. Kelly had complained a few weeks ago that I haven’t been taking enough pictures of her. So, I snapped a close-up of her and then we took turns posing for each other. Giving the camera to her, I walked over to a limestone rock. Placing my hands firmly on it, I performed a handstand and Kelly snapped a picture. (See above.)
May 18, 1983
Tekin to Tekap, Sandaun (West Sepik) Province, Papua New Guinea -Day 4
During the course of the morning I did a variety of things. I inquired about finding guides to Telefomin. One man told me (through a girl that spoke English) that if I went to his village at the end of the valley, he could arrange for a guide to take me to Telefomin.
I took a photo of a mission plane taking off the peculiar sloping airstrip. Kelly said she was determined to fly and meet me at Frieda Strip, the mining camp on the lowlands of the Frieda River. (The Frieda River flows into the Sepik, one of Papua New Guinea’s largest rivers.). Ian and Carol offered to let her stay there for K2.00 a day, which was a great deal – food and a room, showers, electricity!! I packed my bags, leaving a lot of my stuff behind for Kelly to take care of, including a box containing our Koroba pipes and the stone ax heads we’d collected. Things had been really tense between us for the last couple of days.
After a nice lunch, I finished packing. Kelly boiled some eggs for me to take along. (Tekin had fresh eggs.) The tension between us came to a head, words past between us, and then, after hurting each other’s feelings, she and I embraced and for the first time, I said, “I love you,” and she replied in kind. All the tension dissipated and harmony seemed restored between us. Kelly was really exhausted from all the effort of the last few days. It was really best that she stayed behind.
When I’d gotten all my things ready it was about 4pm. Kelly walked with me for about forty minutes and then we decided that she’d better turn back. She and I embraced and kissed and said I Love You. It was a tender parting.
I felt wonderful walking down this beautiful road. I passed some women – one old woman was carrying a fifty-pound sack of rice in the bilum hanging from the top of her head. The road was bordered by grasses, moss and trees.
I came upon an old man wearing only a penis gourd. I took a photo of him posing with a few children who wanted also to be in the picture. From there on, I was accompanied by a young lad. He said he’d walk with me to Marshall Lawrence’s place. We arrived before dark. I introduced myself to Marshall Lawrence, who in turn introduced me to his wife and children and invited me to dinner. I washed up. We had a nice but frugal dinner with lamb chops, peas, and salad. After dinner, Helen, his wife, served chocolate pudding topped with whipped cream. It was really divine – I never would have expected such a treat out here.
During our meal, occasionally a local would knock on the door and engage in a rally of words with Marshall Lawrence in Oksapmin. It was truly amazing to see a white man speaking a Stone Age tongue!! Marshall gave me a calendar that he had printed. He explained that he had come here through SIL – the Summer Institute of Linguistics .which was founded by a man from the Baptist church. Lawrence’s goal is to come to places around the world and learn obscure languages and translate the Bible intothese languages. (As we were told by Neal at Ambunti -another SIL man -at the end of our trek, this program has largely been a failure, at least here in New Guinea, because the languages were never written in the first place, and thus the people don’t know how to read their own language.)
I declined Marshall’s invitation to spend the night because I wanted to try to get an early start in the morning from Tekap. Marshall said he’d walk me up there, as it was now dark outside. His oldest boy, about 11 years old, he, and I walked along the road. This road is filled with pig shit strewn all over -ugh!
During our walk, we talked about fairy tales. He recommended some excellent authors I’d never heard of. He told me a little about Oksapmin fairy tales – that they were more racy than Western tales – more explicit sex and murder! He told me one traditional fairy tale:
A young man went out to hunt. He came upon an old man. The old man said that a possum was up in a tree and convinced the young man to climb the tree. When the young man was aloft, the old man shot him and killed him, then he ate him, and placed his skull on his doorstep. When the young man did not return home, his brothers became concerned. One of his brothers went to look for him and came upon the old man, who tricked him in the same manner. A succession of brothers went out to look for the dead brothers, each succumbing to the wiles of the old cannibal. The last and oldest brother went out to look for his lost brothers. Coming upon the old man, he noticed the skulls adorning the front of the old man’s hut and guessed correctly the fate befallen his other six brothers. He killed the old man and then made a fire. Using a special pig’s grease, he threw the skulls into the fire, thus bringing his brothers back to life.
Our conversation wasn’t finished when we got to Tekap. Marshall summoned some locals. He introduced me to an old woman that was widely known and revered locally.
The people had a house that I could stay at. From talking with Marshall I had decided to blow off going to Telefomin, but rather I would go straight to Duranmin.
Marshall had told me a story about an Israeli man who had been through here a few months ago. He had unsuccessfully tried three times to hike through to Telefomin by himself. Apparently, he had not been able to find guides. The local people had just directed him which way to go and each time (not surprisingly) he got lost and had to retrace his steps back to Tekap. Marshall said that there were no villages on the way to Telefomin, which contradicted the information on the map, but seemed nevertheless as a deterrent to go that way. Marshall promised he’d tell Kelly that I was probably going to go directly to Duranmin. He took his leave.
I put my bags in the house. A fire was built; I laid out my mat and went to sleep. A couple of men came in and slept on the floor on the other side of the fire.
Oksapmin Man with Rhinoceros Beetle Scarabs in Nose, 1983 Papua New Guinea, Sandaun Province -35mm Kodachrome film The men in Oksapmin had five holes in their noses, two on the side, two in front and one through the septum.
May 19, 1983
Tekap to Wapa (Wava), Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea -Day 5
I went to the market, but I couldn’t find anyone to take me to Duranmin. I tried to take a picture of an old man in traditional dress, but he refused. Another man with beetle scarabs in his nostrils posed comically with his pipe while I shot a profile.
Every time I asked a potential guide how much money they wanted it seemed to cause great embarrassment, for they would not answer me. Finally, a young boy agreed to carry my small day pack -I’d divided my stuff up into my big pack and the day pack -to Wapa for 40 toya an hour. Wapa -a village I later learned was actually called Wava -was three hours away by foot. In Wapa, I was told, I would be able to find a man to take me to Duranmin.
Just as we began to walk, I was able to get another photo of one man with cassowary quills (7” long) and another with beetle scarabs in each nostril.
The boy was joined by a friend. We took off at lightning speed north across Tekap valley. We climbed a ridge that left me breathless with my forty-pound pack! I don’t think I’ve ever been so out of breath. We hiked through limestone country on some of the most difficult track I’ve yet encountered. Part of the trail was lined with a spectacular one-inch high orchid with petals of yellow and red, each individual petal bearing both colors.
I feel a little crazy for doing this, like, am I trying to be a macho man or something? I’m sitting in this village, Futiwapa (later, I learned that the area was called Futiwava, but this particular village was Wava), and virtually unable to communicate with anyone. I tried to get out of here today, but upon cross-examination (of twelve children, one old man, two men, one woman), I could see that the boys I was going to have as guides didn’t really know which way to take me. The people usually either laughed at my questions or said they didn’t know. Girls peeked at me from behind canvas, and little kids and women backed away at my approach. I determined after one hundred attempts that I’d just sleep here. The girls and children were trying to convince me to stay here anyway.
Apart from the fact that they’re shy, they’ve been very helpful. I asked for a fire and they brought me to a house and the children built a fire. I pointed to my shoes and asked if I could remove them, and they took this to mean ‘would they wash them?’ so they took my mud-covered shoes and socks and washed them.
So, just now, as I sit here and write (back by the fire after a false start in which I had repacked my bags and gone outside), a man enters. His name is Tilot Non. He asks me where I’m going. I draw a map. Then he says he will take me to Wapubuta, over half the way to Duranmin. Not only does he speak English, but he is willing to take me. As Kelly says, “Providence provides.” Tilot talks to the people in the Oksapmin language and he translates facts concerning where I’m going and what I’m doing. He arranges firewood for me. The people bring me two free cabbages. Tilot chops me some extra firewood. I fix him some Milo. I cut up half a cabbage, put it in hot water, add half an onion and two bouillon cubes, then later a cup of rice. Tilot leaves, saying he’ll return at 6am.
As I’m eating cabbage soup and passing it around (it’s quite good), three men come in. I ask one if it’s his house and he says Yes. He just told one that he’ll go to Wapubuta whether Tilot comes or not. He says he’ll “go nating,” that he’s going to visit wantok (one talk = family). I haven’t asked anyone about money. I’m going to try to be mellower about money and food. What I mean is that it seems to cause more trouble than it’s worth. If they try to ask too much at trip’s end, I’ll just pay them what I think is fair.
The man of the house just went outside with his drum and began to sing – it sounds really good. I’m writing by his lantern’s light.
It’s a strange thing about these parts. I was feeling maybe crazy a while ago, but I also suspected someone would come along to help, as it always seems to happen.
The houses here have square floor areas, and they are raised about a foot or two off the ground. They have a square fireplace in the middle, and four poles in the corners, supporting a rack about five feet above the floor. The walkway into the house runs along one side of the house and has a roof over it. Something of note is that the roof is made with one half over hanging the other half by a foot or so, which provides ventilation, something most traditional housing lacks.
The man of the house tells me its two and a half days to Wapubuta and two full days from there to Duranmin and probably, though he’s not sure, another four days or so to the Frieda River.
In bush houses, I’m always surrounded by lots of people. Earlier, the count was sixteen, now, “only” seven. Mind you, the house itself is about eight to nine feet square.
The men smoke pipes that are in strange shapes – hollowed out pieces of wood. One old man walking around here was only wearing a walnut shell over his dick, and his balls were hanging out.
I’m pleased that I’ll be on my way tomorrow. I don’t mind the walking, especially when I’m not carrying a pack. The trip out here was only 3. hours (Tekap to Futiwava), but the first part was grueling with a 40-pound pack. I’ve got plenty of white-skin food. I’m looking forward to traveling through parts seldom seen by white-skins. Tilot told me that last year an Israeli man walked the same path from Futiwava to Duranmin and then flew out. I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to go through these parts. I hope to meet Kelly at the Frieda River. Godspeed!
May 20, 1983
Wava to Mahosha with Tilot Non, Atemik and Waneng, Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea -Day 6
Wow! What a walk we did today, about eleven kilometers as the crow flies through bush tracks. Dear Kelly: You should be glad you didn’t come, even if it was beautiful, ever so beautiful, to get to the Ogona River. This hike would be bad enough even if you were in shape and were hiking without a pack, let alone carrying a 40-pound one!
We saw an interesting electric-blue beetle today. One of the guys with us brought it up to me. I took two shots of it.
On the way today, Tilot was telling me that the village Futi had hundreds of people ten years ago, but now there is only one family – everyone else died from malaria.
I am in the heart of New Guinea. Few Niuginians, let alone white men, ever get out here.
The two boys who came with us found some birds eggs. They found six eggs, each about 4” long and very fat! When we were done with soup tonight, we cooked the eggs up with a can of curried mutton that I had. It was delicious. My only complaint was that I declined the large portion from Tilot, saying he had given me too much. What I meant was that I thought he should split it evenly. I was finished long before the other three. And I had to lick my chops while the others continued to devour their portions.
I call this place Mahosha, because they do. But it is only a shelter from rain – it has no walls, only a roof, and covers an area about 15 feet x 15 feet. Running right next to it is a streamlet from which you can get drinking water. Only a minute away is the Ogona River. I set up my mosquito net and slept comfortably.
We descended about 1200 meters today! Luckily (we descended rather than ascended), since it was a hard walk even at that.
Four days later…
Day 9 Sheaville to Duranmin
Monday May 23, 1983
I awoke aware of vivid dreams that I can’t recall now.
The first hour of our walk -along steep slopes bordering the river, and along the riverbanks – was probably one of the more treacherous hours of the whole trek from Tekap. I counted four statistics.
Foot slipped from original place – 53 times I got tangled in a thorn, bumped my knee, etc., in some way caused myself pain – 20 times
I walked off the trail (even though Tilot was leading on trail ahead of me) –11 times
I slipped and fell – 4 (Pretty incredible, huh?)
After the first hour, the trail got a bit easier. We walked along the river. I hiked alone one side and they along the other. I almost slipped and fell six feet into the water with my pack and camera, but my right hand grabbed a tree trunk’s protrusion and I saved myself from the fall.
I wandered along the banks. I went through a maze of streams and wild pandanus. The wild pandanus is really a peculiarity of the bush. Its trunk is not singular. Like roots, its trunk is divided into sometimes 20 or 30 poles upon which it rests, the base thus becoming pyramid-like.
There was a log crossing a deep rivulet, and, luckily, I tested it, for it cracked easily – I would have gone in and my camera been destroyed. I thought of the possibility of quicksand, but encountered none. (A day before, the banks of the Bi River were so mucky, they would hold my feet down!)
Four days later…
May 27, 1983
Fumanabip to Kutbama, Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea -Day 13
(With Kelly again…) The first portion of the day was delightful. We climbed up to a hillock, where we rested a bit. Other occasional stops made for an easy ascent. Then we walked down, down to a stream. There was a small water-fall in which I showered, a pool in which Kelly bathed. Then I dunked myself. (I seldom let a stream go by without enjoying its splendor.)
We were told that from this stream it was up, up, up to cross a big mountain. From studying my map, I knew a large ridge existed. By the time I reached the top of this ridge, I had a newfound appreciation for what each 40 meters vertical distance (i.e., one contour line on the topographical map) means. We walked uphill steadily withoutreally stopping for 2. hours – it seemed like 3.. We left the stream at 12:40pm and got on top at 3:25pm. I had counted every vertical step I took, ignoring mere flat steps on an upward slope, and I counted 1078 steps of the type where you put your foot on a root and lift your whole body up. My pack really weighed me down, but I just kept plodding.
Sometimes, the trail consisted of walking on moss-covered tree trunks and colonies of moss on roots. As we passed upwards, I spotted many flowers. I even saw one cluster of red-yellow orchids of the type I had seen on my way to Wava. We saw the pink clam flowers, red-orange blossoms and delicate white orchids with a shade of purple around their edges. Other flowers also graced our path.
Finally, we reached a grassy area on a bluff. The moment Atemik and I came to the house, I yelled with glee –
“Yiiii-Haaa!!” As Kelly came up, I called out to her: “We’re home!” The house was surrounded by banana and papaya trees. Oh! It was too good to be true! It was
6:40pm. We had left Fumanabip 11 hours ago. I was really ecstatic to be able to put my heavy load down for a night, with only a short walk to Wabia in the morning.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in all my life -tired and irritable. But I had told Kelly I would fix cabbage soup. The cabbage soup with rice was excellent. We gave the last bowl to Atemik and Waneng. I had some kaukau (large, white sweet potatoes). We made some hot Milos. (There were a bunch of cockroaches running around.)
In order to get water for coffee and for the morning, I got up, as tired as I was, and went out to the stream in the rain. There was thunder and brilliant lightning outside. I felt like a wizard in The Hobbit in my hooded rain gear by the stream in the lightning, I looked up and noticed that some plants were fluorescing. Curious, I shined my flash.light on them, and they seemed to glow even a brighter light green in the dark. I walked up to them, barefooted and I looked at them. They were mere rotting reeds. [Ed. Note: Some years later, I discovered the word “foxfire” in the dictionary, which I think describes this phenomenon.] I grabbed them, taking two 8” sticks back to the hut. They were glowing like light rods. I showed them to Kelly, who expressed like interest.
Three days later…
May 30, 1983 Afternoon
Wabia to a place in the rain forest on ground in rain with no shelter, by ourselves, with the “guides” having left with the food pack, Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea .Day 16
It was confirmed that I’d taken the wrong trail, and now we’d follow the river trail. Liki said he knew the way. It was about 3pm, when they jetted off ahead of us. I had determined to stay with Kelly. For an hour, we followed the river and trails alongside it, tracking the others’ footprints, and finally, we found Liki waiting for us at a stream. He showed us to a bush house near the Ok Milak where Toni and Kami were waiting. He asked me if we wanted to sleep here or if we wanted instead to continue on to Unamo, which would take about two hours more. It was now 4pm. I asked Kelly what she wanted to do. She said she didn’t care. So, I said, “Let’s get on to Unamo.”
Soon, walking on the river rocks, the others disappeared ahead of us. It was the last we saw of them. I thought the men would wait for us, but I was wrong.
We came to a place where the path was blocked by a bush that lay across it. I looked for an alternate path but could find none nearby. Forging past the bush that was blocking the path, I found that the path indeed continued. It being well-defined, we followed the path upwards, away from the river, and northwest in the direction of Unamo (or so we thought). I looked for signs that they had come that way, but I found only possible signs, nothing definite, a few possible broken twigs, a few depressions in the ground.
We climbed fairly confident that we were on the right rail. But two hours after they had left us, without a sign of them, we began to fear that either they were on a different path or they had deserted us. We came to a clearing on a hill, but found no shelter and could see no signs of Unamo, civilization, or our “guides.” We decided to try to round a ridge in the distance, and to walk in the dark in the hopes that they were still ahead. We walked on. It grew dark. It began to rain. No sign of anything. Finally, I suggested we sit down. I noticed that there was lots of blood on the back of Kelly’s neck. I figured it was from a leech. I searched for one but found none. I didn’t have the heart to tell her. We sat down on my pack and threw my tarpaulin over us, trying our best to protect ourselves from the rain. There we stayed, talking, shifting positions, thinking, feeling miserable. When the rain stopped, we had some food – crackers, cheese, peanut butter, chocolate. We talked about the different possibilities: to go on, to turn back, to wait there, to scout around in the dark, to wait till morning. We decided we should get some rest for now.
The night passed with us dozing on and off, arguing, the rain coming occasionally, the two of us as miserable as wet rats.
May 31, 1983
From unnamed place with no shelter in the rain forest to Bush Shelter near the Ok Milak River, Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea -Day 17
We got up at 6:30am or so, both of us wet, muddy, tired, hungry and lost. We immediately assessed the situation. To go scout ahead for two hours and find nothing would mean we were i) on the wrong road, or ii) the men had misled us as to the distance to Unamo. We figured it would be a good idea to at least check out what was ahead lest we be so close and turn back.
I took a sip of honey and was off, carrying only a map and a watch. I came to a fork in the trail. I took the path that went uphill because I thought I’d heard a dog barking andwondered if it meant there was a house. I came to a bluff with tree ferns and grasses. I found no sign of humans. However, I learned that it was not a dog barking, but a hornbill. I caught a glimpse of this strange oblong bird with a thin curving neck and large bill alighting from a tree in the distance. It seemed to have noticed me. It flew away making a strange sound, which is its cry.
I retraced my steps and pursued the main trail a few minutes to the northwest. I soon felt, seeing that the ridge in front of me would take an hour to reach, that in any event, a hike in this direction would be long, and without any possible assurance of reaching human habitations. I considered that if we retraced our steps to Wabia we would have a reasonable chance of arriving – then, if I still wanted to hike, I could procure a good guide. It seemed silly to pursue the hike now with such slim odds of a smooth arrival, and such a great probability (25%) of getting stuck out there alone with Kelly in the big bush.
I walked back, and I was soon with Kelly again. We grabbed our things. The pack seemed like it must have weighed sixty pounds – all the clothes were sopping wet. The water must have added a tremendous ten pounds. We began down the hill. The jungle rot on my feet had been aggravated by a whole night in wet socks after a ten-hour hike the previous day. Every step was an agony. But my head was clear. When we started out, we’d talked about the possibility of reaching various stopping points. The first was the bush hut on the water. We walked down to a stream, then up a hill to the clearing we’d passed the evening before. We went on. Occasionally, we’d have to pull several leeches from our skin on our hands or legs or ankles. They were usually 1”- 2” long.
Almost two hours to the minute later, we came to the bush that had blocked our path. It was 10:45am. We passed it, then looked for an alternative trail that Liki and the two others, Toni and Kami, might have used. About fifty feet away, we came to what must have been the turn they’d taken. There was a smaller trail heading down to the river. There was no way we could have known they’d gone that way. At 11:30am, we came to the shelter! Happiness! We were on the right trail.
I took my shoes off and let my poor feet rest – they were shriveled up. The bottoms of all my toes were raw.
It was a most fortuitous circumstance amidst our poor luck that Kelly had happened to put the liter of honey, a can of corned beef, some peanut butter and a can of tuna in her pack. I had a “snack bag” with me, which contained a block of Kraft cheese, some crackers, part of a package of Tang, a bar and a half of chocolate and some hard candy. Also, at the rock where we’d had lunch, I had started a fire, and transferred the tree sap from the green bag (that Liki had carried off) to my pack. Without the food, we’d have been weak and doubly miserable. Without the tree sap, we’d not have been able to build a fire, thus limiting our recuperative abilities – drying clothes, keeping warm, heating food.
We made quite a pleasant afternoon. I suggested we make hot honey water. We heated a pot (which I had in my pack) of water and tried it – it was delicious. As we were having cheese and crackers, I suggested we make toasted cheese. Using the top of the pot, we placed the crackers and cheese on it, then placed our bowl over the top to make an oven. The finished product was a little burnt, but delightful nonetheless.
So, I wrote lying under the shelter. It rained outside, but the drips inside were minimal. I wrote and Kelly slept. I began to feel gloomy, writing about what had happened, but when Kelly woke up, I immediately felt cheery. We were in excellent humor.
For dinner, we fixed some more hot honey water, of which we had probably ten cups that day -a tablespoon or two in one cup of hot water – a very invigorating drink in lieu of coffee, Milo or soup. We heated the corned beef in the can and ate it in the bowl, bite by bite, carefully savoring the juices. I let Kelly dish out the servings, and, to her immense credit, she invariably spooned out a bit more for me, satisfying my rebuttals by saying that I had to carry more weight.
After dinner, we had more hot honey water. I knocked over our “last” cup, but we made 1/2 cup more and drank it. We set up the mosquito net and crawled in. After a few tender kisses, she and I fell fast asleep, dream-full, and expectant of the day tomorrow.
June 1, 1983
Bush shelter near the Ok Milak River to Wabia, Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea -Day 18
The title of this day says it all. We found our way back!
The rain lulled us awake. She and I made love in the protection of the mosquito net.
We had planned to get started at 7am. The 7-hour hike, if no mistakes were made, would put us in Wabia at 2pm, giving us ample leeway for mistakes and rest breaks. By the time we were ready to go, after a breakfast of honey water and peanut butter, it was 8:45am.
Milestone 1 was to find the spot on the river where Kelly had tended to her cut leg on the first day. We came across a log I’d busted, so at that point, we knew we were on the right path.
Later… We walked across the log, and began up the path to Milestone 3, the big rock overhang where we’d had lunch the first day. I estimated it we should be there by 11:30am, thinking my estimate conservative. I was beginning to get spooked again at 11:30am, but we kept on. I came across some orange-colored “grapes” sitting on a broken tree stump – I remembered putting them there for Kelly to see! This was a positive sign that we were on the right trail! In a few minutes, I yelled “Eureka,” seeing the overhanging rock!!
We sat underneath it. It began to rain, but we were dry under the huge rock. I made a fire. We fixed hot honey water, ate chocolate and cheese and peanut butter. After an hour’s lunch break, we left the rock, refreshed. It was 12:45pm.
We went down to a stream with a waterfall that we’d remembered (Milestone 4), then up and around a mountain. Then we went down a ways to a place where you could hear -but not see -an underground stream, and then up the hill where we’d seen some birds-of-paradise the first day.
Ever since the rock where we’d lunched, I had begun carrying Kelly’s pack (in addition to mine) on the uphill stretches. With me loaded down with 70 pounds of gear, she could keep up with me reasonably well. In this manner, we went up hills. I preferred the extra load and her right behind me. I felt more secure with her nearby.
We saw a pair of hornbills as we went up the hill. It was a beautiful sight. We could hear the two of them calling as they flew. One of them came into my field of vision at a distance – the long, lanky body, the crooked neck, the long bill.
Soon, I saw the shelter. I cried out, “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth Peace to Men of Good Will!!” My voice faltering with emotion on the last words… We walked down a hill. We now faced a big mountain. We figured that on this mountain’s other side was Wabia. As we started up it again, I again donned Kelly’s pack. By five o’clock, we both began to complain that every step was beginning to hurt our feet terribly. The panorama became familiar. Soon, we saw banana trees (but without fruit). We came to a garden with sugar cane!! We’d found food, and our lives were assured!
We began down a hill. We heard the sounds of the stream that sounded like Wabia’s!! Kelly and I kissed! She heard a ukulele. We heard voices of youngsters playing! She and I kissed again. We saw the village below us, down a steep hill!
June 5, 1983
Wabia to Wesibil, Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea -Day 22
We rambled down the huge forested hillside to the stream. One time, I nearly killed myself when I slipped stepping down on a boulder and my back violently impacted on the rock. I was wearing the day pack, which cushioned my fall. Something cracked in the pack. Even Kelly heard it. Perhaps one of the taros that I was carrying had broken. I took out my camera and inspected it, but, luckily, it was all right.
We left the waterside and walked in the bush bordering the river. We came out upon the crystal clear stream near the shelter where we’d recuperated after our night in the bush. I was continuing along the river when Roti motioned that we had to go back into the bush. (This was contrary to my recollection.) I had been walking barefoot for thirty minutes or so through the bush and on river rock. Now I stopped to put my shoes back on. Then Kankone motioned for us to follow him. Ahead, I noticed something that hadn’t been there five days ago when we came through. Spanning the water was a single strand of what at first I thought was rope. As we came near, I noticed that the rope was lashed to trees on either side of the river with strands of bamboo.
To my disbelief, I noticed what I had thought to be rope was actually bamboo! A single strand of 3/4” bamboo “rope” about 30 meters long!! This ingenious “bridge” intrigued me, and I immediately determined to try it. [Ed. Note: It was not bamboo, but canta, a bush vine.] As I took off my pack, Kankone, who was sitting nearby, told me that we’d sleep here for the night – it was 3pm. He was pointing to the bush just beyond the rocks. Again, to my disbelief, a new sight!! Within the last five days, since the last time we came through, someone had constructed a bush house!!! I questioned Kankone on this, and he told me that his father had done all of this work with the help of some other villagers. They had come from Unamo, stopped here, built the house, built the bridge and gone to the other side of the river to plant sago. I thought how remarkable these people were to be able to construct a house and a bridge in so short a time, and of such excellent workmanship. Now to test the bridge!
June 10th, 1983 (Day 27)
Ok Esai, West Sepik, Papua New Guinea
After a pleasant morning, I met Alok on the hill at 8am, met Kelly, kissed her goodbye, then set off. Up, down, up, down, up “brukin maunten”, now, I go “daun, daun daun,” come up “long wara, bihainen lik lik wara, nav wara me go daun, come up het long Esai, nav bihainin wara, me go go go.” And so, after 7 hours, we turned a corner. My eye beheld what I immediately recognized as a field tent of Frieda Base Camp.
Arriving at 3pm, I waited till 3:45pm, when Ian came up with his men. Ian and I talked. He gave me some antibiotic powder, thank God!, as my sores are bad.
At 5pm, Bill came by in the helicopter and picked up Ian. I went for a bath in the river. In the late afternoon, Alok and the Tall Man, Sam, went to Ok Esai village to inquire about rafts. As I go to sleep now, the plan is that Sam will take me to the Frieda in the morning. He’ll build a raft and we’ll float to the Strip. I slept in a bed with a mosquito net. What luxury!
June 11th, 1983 (Day 28)
Frieda River Strip, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
“I wish every day could bring such excitement.” Had rice, corn and sugar with coffee for breakfast. The Tall Man walked me to the large Ok Esai village. There, a woman brought me a huge, ripe papaya. We walked some more. The Tall Man, his son and I reach the “bikpela wara Frieda!!” My walking is finished! I am ecstatic… I am told to wait while he goes off to build a raft. I stay in the shelter of what looks like a raft with a canopy and fireplace. I wait about two hours. It must be noon. He comes back; we have papaya and coffee. Now we go to the raft! I am again ecstatic when I see the well-crafted vessel of logs, about 10’x 8’. It reminds me of Tom Sawyer.
We start down the river, through places with fast water. We pass beauty again and again. I get a good look at two hornbills in the open. After about two hours we arrive at the Strip. Kelly is here. (She flew in by helicopter from Frieda Top Camp.) We go to look at the raft. A partial eclipse of the sun casts a strange light. We decide to take the raft down the river tomorrow. We are given our cottage. Hot showers. Even better than Top Camp!!! I’m really happy. Delicious chicken dinner, then the movie “Goldfinger!”
June 12th, 1983 (Day 29)
Frieda River Strip, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
We breakfasted on plain omelets and sausages. After breakfast, we went down to look at the progress Sam had made putting a roof on the raft. He’d erected poles, but no real roof. At 10:15am, Roy drove Kelly and I the 13 kilometers north to the end of the road. The barge which brought supplies, the Copper Queen, brought them this far upriver; from there, the supplies were trucked to the “Frieda Strip” airstrip.
In the afternoon, when it was apparent that nothing more was to be done on the raft by Sam, since he’d gone already, we checked with Roy if it would be alright to finish it in the morning, bring it to Calginas (the end of the road) in the afternoon tomorrow, walk back, then spend one more night. He said it was okay. The river is roughest between here and Calginas. That’s our excuse, but Kelly and I really wanted to stay one more day! … Later, she and I made really nice love.
June 13th, 1983 (Day 30)
Frieda River Strip, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
As planned, we moved the raft from the Strip to the end of the road, Calginas. We breakfasted on pork chops, beans and hard-boiled eggs, toast with butter. We took two ham sandwiches along. When we got to the raft, the first thing we did was to cut the canopy off of an old, beached flat boat. Then, we took the canopy to our raft and used it to finish our roof. In moods of the utmost enthusiasm, we boarded and shoved off. We had to pass many tree trunks and branches. A few times there was somedisagreement as to method. It took us 3 or 3. hours, but we arrived safely at Calginas. Unfortunately, I forgot my shoes and thus had to walk back 13 kilometers without them. At one point, a 5-foot snake jumped out of my way.
Kelly and I got back just before 3pm and snacked on scones with butter, coffee, orange drink and apples!! We went to our room. I wrote. I took a hot shower. I grasped a beautiful butterfly in my hands and was about to snap a picture when it struggled away. [Ed. Note: This butterfly was most unusual. Its bottom wings wereattached inside it’s large wings and fluttered independently. I had seen this species a few times on the trail in the last few days. I thought (and still think) it might be unknown to science.] We dined on chicken with a desert of ice cream. After dinner, we watched a movie. Kelly and I both are of a frame of mind that we can’t wait to get back on the raft, although we will miss the luxury we’ve enjoyed at Frieda Copper’s camps.
June 14th, 1983 (Day 31)
Lover’s Sumptuary, Frieda River’s right bank, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
We breakfasted, then chose all the groceries we wished to buy. We went back to our room and packed. Kelly and I made love. I kissed her onto the bed. Afterward, we brought our baggage down to the mess hall. We enjoyed scones with butter and jam, orange drink and coffee for “morning tea.” We went to pay for the groceries, but Kaius, the camp manager, said it was free! I gave him a letter to send to Papua New Guinea Immigration and another addressed to the postmaster in Vanimo. Drew (the manager of Frieda Top Camp) was pleasant and seemed impressed we were leaving on a raft. We said bye to Roy, our gracious host.
We caught a lift to Calginas on the truck, loaded up our raft, tried to christen her (the SS Pukpuk) with a curry bottle, but it wouldn’t break! Kelly and I left downriver on the raft.
We negotiated many trees with effort and luck. The rough parts of the river are exciting! The first village we came to was raunchy and we decided to go on. We couldn’t find the “island village,” so we floated on till dark. We couldn’t see, so we parked on the nearest bank. She and I set up the mosquito net on deck, lay down, talked, told stories, finally making love on this curious vessel in an unlikely place. Despite the lack of comfort, we had a curiously wonderful night.
June 15th, 1983 (Day 32)
Hornbillville, dilapidated house on the left bank of the Frieda River, East Sepik, PapuaNew Guinea
Morning breaks. Even though the sleep felt good, maybe it wasn’t enough, as we’re both edgy.
The S.S. Pukpuk is sitting 25’ from the water! During the night the river level dropped! We (I) inched the raft back into the water using our pole as a fulcrum. Phew! Then we bathed. As Kelly predicted (and me silently), a village was spotted 10 minutes downriver! We could have slept in a house with a fire. But we both agreed it was a good night at Lover’s Sumptuary. We stopped in the village, but no one was home. I snooped around, but found nothing of interest. So we continued on.
Downriver, some men were in their canoes. One sold us a bunch of bananas for 60 toya (but K gave him 40t more). Other villagers on the way had no coconuts for sale. At 11:30am we were told we’d make it to Inioch in 4 or 5 hours, but we saw a dilapidated house on the river, and decided to stop for the rest of the day and night.
The shores were really muddy. At dusk, thousands of bats flew across the river over our heads. The floor of the shelter was rotten in places. Lots of mosquitoes. We (I) had to go (nude) in the river upstream to fetch our drinking water, then float to the house. I was going to call this place Mosquito Massacre because we killed so many but decided on Hornbillville because of all the hornbills in nearby trees.
June 16th, 1983 (Day 33)
Inioch (Frieda Copper’s Petrol Dump, left shore), Sepik River, East Sepik Province,Papua New Guinea
A dive in the river to fetch water, a few hot cups of coffee. We watch, counting at least 14 hornbills in the trees surrounding our ramshackle residence. They fly away in pairs. Too bad I don’t have a zoom lens! We pull the S.S. Pukpuk away from the yucky “Hornbillville Yacht Club.” Down the Frieda we go.
The bird life is spectacular; hornbills are abundant, always flying in twos; cockatoos – there are many. We see parrots of green and red and blue flapping along the shore. We begin to see white crane-type birds with graceful long legs. We talk to a bypassing motorized canoe (the first we’ve seen) who say Inioch is only an hour away. We wind down river. The river becomes wide and the banks, lined with pampus grass, become flat. The water seems still – we lose speed. Finally, at one bend I notice the water flowing to the right and recognize it’s the Sepik! Here the Sepik is only abouttwice as big as the Frieda. We turn right (!) and flow along.
At Inioch village, less than an hour away, we find no coconuts or bananas, but we buy sak-sak (sago). The Copper Queen pulls by us. We row across to Frieda Copper’s petrol dump and tie up to the Copper Queen. The S.S. Pukpuk is . way in the water. We’re sun bleached. No one seems to help. We spend the night.
June 17th, 1983 (Day 34)
Tauri, on Sepik River, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
All in all, a delightful day. Kelly awakes: “As enthusiastic this morning as I wasn’t last night.” To my disbelief, we actually got some guys to work on the S.S. Pukpuk. They chopped up a very big log and placed it, in 3 pieces, underneath our raft, which buoyed her up. The floor was well-lashed, and they built a sturdier shelter for rain and sun protection. We started downriver at 11:30am or so. We were toying with the idea of going at night downriver. As we headed towards a group of logs and branches, I proclaimed that we should experiment to ascertain what would happen at night if we couldn’t see by letting the raft go thither at will. This resulted in us crashing into the logs whose branches nearly tore our roof off. We repaired things almost like new in short order. We became more cautious thereafter. We flowed along the expansive river at 1 knot (or maybe 2), big sky, a new beauty for me to discover, enjoying our improved raft. We got to Tauri at about 4:30pm. The villagers weren’t exactly helpful, but they did give us a little house to sleep in. (Their houses are huge, like 80 feet x 50 feet.) Kelly and I ate peanut butter with tea. She and I made love to the sound of drums and wild voices outside.
June 18th, 1983 (Day 35)
Oum 2, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
6:30pm. Dusk encloses us here at Father Austin’s house. He is absent, and we’re renting this room for K2/night. I am fatigued. Sleeping on hard wood floors, steering the huge raft SS Pukpuk in the sun all day, fighting to get every coconut or banana or room or any assistance from the Sepik people is draining. We’ve found a large canoe we can buy here for K22 with 2 paddles, and they’re going to build an outrigger for it. The raft is too slow – we’ve got to paddle like mad to move her a few feet.
The expanses of river, flat lands, the big cloudy sky, the pampas grass, the whitecrane-type bird, the pleasure of doing something different, all these are not slimrewards for the effort. It is wonderful but trying. We will go to Oum 1 tomorrow to get supplies while someone builds an outrigger. Oum 1 is . hour by canoe up this estuary river off the Sepik. Because of the floods earlier this year, people are reluctant to sell bananas. We dine on corned beef and rice, which in my present circumstance, tastes scrumptious, and later, at bedtime, she and I “dove” on each other, which was delectable, even though done in a bed where my ankles hung over the end.
June 19th, 1983 (Day 36) (!!)
Oum 2, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
I feel full of emotion. Many feelings run through me, at times in many directions. I seek only the emancipation of my “bobness” from the depths within me, and I feel my inner strength will always be with me when I need it. I feel the strength of conviction for the path I’m on and a certainty that I will prevail in my dreams, see them through to reality, through the barrier, the skin, the film that separates what is a dream and what is real, from conception to fruition.
Out here, my loves seem so far away. I dream of music and I dream of women. I see home and my Grandma (Gammy) whom I wish I could hug. I see employment and
familiar faces, the lifestyle I’ve known. The strength that I feel is that strength that comes when you are so far away, and you yearn for home, and the strength comes to you and reminds you how lucky you are to be here, and reveals to you that for all the hardship, you can summon joy, and the path moves steadily towards dreams and home.
I write by the light of a jar with wick and kerosene at the table in the room. Today, we bought groceries at Oum 1, and we decided to take the raft further downriver. Kelly and I get edgy with each other in the heat and mosquito-ridden mud lands, but we’ll stick together through thick and thin. I climbed a 25-foot coconut tree today and brought down four coconuts in a bilum.
June 20th, 1983 (Day 37)
Kubkain, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
A wonderful day. Kelly and I both agree that when we are on the raft, we are content, if only we never had to stop in the villages. On the raft, we can be nude, do our toilet whenever we like, eat whenever we like, swim, etc. On the raft there are no mosquitoes. We have our canopy for shade. We can relax, talk, enjoy the scenery. The wide lake-like Sepik seems barely to move, always one shore has tall grasses and pampus rushes and the other is always forested. It is peaceful, usually sunny. There is just enough need for paddling to make it exciting. (Today I ran us into the trees and our roof broke again!)
The clouds look like trade-wind clouds dotting the panoramic sky. There is usually a small range of distant hazy mountains to break up the flat land. The air is peaceful, calm. Silence is broken only by the calls of a choir of different birds and ducks, or by the buzzing of an occasional fly. Today, we left Oum 2. It was bad scene – the people are liars and thieves. (Two days ago, when we left Oum 2, the occupants of the houses bordering on the river told us they’d store five coconuts. This morning, they claimed they didn’t know anything about them. Plus they stole another from our raft. Minutes previously, we paid a boy to clean 10 coconuts. Kelly gave him a cigarette when he promised to replace four coconuts, which he’d cracked. But he thereafter refused to do anything. I was really T’d-off. I spoke my mind. They finally got three coconuts out of a tree. Our raft was stuck in the mud. I asked for help. They refused. They watched while K, I and two boys pushed and pulled it in. Also, the men in Oum 2 tried to sell us a cracked canoe. Further, they told us it would take two weeks on our raft to get to Ambunti, but said it was 4-5 days by canoe – we think they were only trying to sell us a canoe. We are tired of this. The villages are dirty and mosquito-ridden. We’d prefer if we could just stay on the raft, night and day.)
We enjoyed the river all day, ate well. In late afternoon, nine canoes full of men pulled alongside; they were friendly – they gave us fish! And sak-sak. They brought us to their village – Kubkain.
June 21st, 1983 (Day 38)
Riding on the Sepik River between Saugap and Yessan on the S.S. Pukpuk, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
Morning comments: sleeping on the hard floor, mosquitoes inside our net, the hassle of going to the toilet, arguing in the middle of the night: all of these make staying in the villages a drag. The first hour today we were fighting off the mosquitoes that joined us in Kubkain. At about 12pm, we passed the April River on our right, signifying noticeable progress toward Ambunti! We tore the roof down and strengthened it, mostly with bush materials. Our handiwork provided a more comfortable conveyance than ever. This is happiness. It is so lovely here on the water.
Evening begins to set, but we remain on the water; we decide to chance a night ride .the moon is already out. Maybe she’ll guide our way. We don’t want to leave our paradise on the raft. The still evening panorama, the water reflecting a broad sky, as peaceful as heaven, is absorbing. The river is beveled glass. A godly palette of soft hues paints incredible serenity. Straight downriver are the silhouettes of mountains with pink clouds above. I am “awesomized,” happy and at peace. In happiness, I feel no unsatisfied needs. I feel full and content… At sunset, the sound of the swarming mosquitoes is like an electric razor! The moon illuminates beautifully. We could not ask for a better night. As we float along, we heat a can of steak and onions on our kerosene jar lamp and have dinner with rice. At 9pm, we pass the Wogasu River. At 10pm, I sleep till 12am.
June 22nd, 1983 (Day 39)
Ambunti, East Sepik, Papua New Guinea
Kelly keeps watch until 12:10am on huge straightaways. I awake. We have a snack of tuna fish and crackers. During the night, we watched thunderstorms with lightning likeatomic blasts pass ten miles away, but none touch us. Scattered thin clouds accompany the stars and the three-quarter moon.
Yesterday, just before dusk, we yelled obscenities and funny sounds at a wonderful echo off the left bank. Now, we listen to the banks for trees, and occasionally steer out into open water. 1am, 2am. The moon is still high. We continue talking through the night. It’s very pleasant. At about 3am, the moon, going down, is obscured by clouds. Kelly lays back for a rest. I lay back. I notice we’re suddenly close to a reed shore, so I grab my paddle. In doing so, I make a noise, which apparently startles a crocodile on the nearby bank. A huge thrashing sound begins, lasting maybe two seconds. The water thrashes so violently! I am certain it is a croc! At first, I am afraid it’s coming at me. Then I realize it was afraid. We pass on, unharmed.
It is dark. We notice water speed increasing. We still have about 12 more hours of drifting to get to Ambunti. A log that would have devastated us is near the center of the river. We pass just to the right. The dark shores make noises. Kelly says a crocodile is following us. We must be getting woozy! 4am, 5am. We have a snack of coffee, Milo and a Big Sister Cherry Roll. At about 5:25am, we experienced what Tristan Jones called “false dawn,” that is, the first light. We suddenly began to see clearly what was minutes before invisible. We rejoiced that we had successfully endured the night. We were watching the clock. We knew that full dawn came about 6:15am. We were both in good humor and fairly wide-awake.
We watched as the sun lit the sky. There was crimson in the clouds, but I wasn’t sure if the adage, “Red sky in the morning, sailor take warning,” was appropriate or not. Birds flew in every direction, greeting the morning light.
With the treacheries of the night behind us, we began to think about the coming day and what our situation was.
At 8am, we drift up to Yessan 2. They offer to motor us to Ambunti for K25, but we’ll only have K20 left. We drift till 2pm. Then we pass Yessan 1. Soon, two motorized canoes come by. We hail them down, ask for a ride. The driver of one canoe says,
“You’re most welcome to come aboard.” We toss our bags from our humble raft, the SS Pukpuk, into the canoe. As we speed away, cool air now on our faces, I shoot a photo of our abandoned vessel. In an hour and a half or so, we pass Pracanorui, Ianbun and arrive in Ambunti – the end of our trek!! Since we can’t afford it, the mission people (Neil) invite us to stay for free in a room and for dinner too. Kelly and I lay down and slept amongst the deepest dreams of our lives.
Two months later…
A letter written to my grandmother after my experiences in the Highlands …
Bali August 1983
I promised in a letter that I would try to condense my notes on Papua New Guinea and send them to you for your perusal. After several ineffectual attempts to begin a cohesive representation of my experience, I at last submit to a desire to present to you not an organized and flowery description, but this short, straightforward narrative of my most basic and vivid sentiments and memories. For an unfeeling description of my activities misses the point, the crux of which is that I fell in love with a place andit’s people, a fact that is only driving itself home to me now that I am removed fromthe scene of which I write.
I descended (or ascended!) into my experience very naturally, didn’t notice that it touched my soul so deeply, until I came back out in the world amidst luxury and pollution. Can I chuckle that I now feel almost lost and sad? Is it not rather plain to see that these feelings are inevitable when I have experienced what for me was extraordinary and returned to what is, for me, ordinary? Though I love modern society, the bounty and comfort and ease that it brings, I cannot now help but feel that something has been lost in the transmutation from primeval to modern society.
The poignancy of this point derives not from the overwhelming fact that the entire world is moving rapidly in one direction, which is, in an obvious phrase, away from our past, but that there is no turning back. (For what person can willfully reject what comforts and luxuries have been found and enjoyed?) Is there any measure of the price we pay for the benefits enjoyed? Is the soul of the past not priceless? I maintain that the answer to the first question is, with some reserves, no; and to the second, undoubtedly, yes!
Portrayals of New Guineans as savage and bloodthirsty and subdued by white man, I maintain as more prompted by ego and ethnocentricity than as unswerving fact. More to the point is that they were superb naturalists living in decent harmony with their land. Loss of human life due to inter-tribal hostility assuredly could not hope tocompare with the mass atrocities of war that are the record and heritage from before Roman times through to World War II of every nation that has the gumption to believe that they are fully civilized! Civilization is an evolving process which at best it can be said for us that we are at the beginning of; to say that we are further along than the New Guineans were is subject to my doubt; to say that there are lessons to be learned from a human heritage that is being irretrievably destroyed forever from our grasp is to me unquestionable.
But for this burst of perhaps unimportant rhetoric, the main point which I can relate to my dear and esteemed Grandmother is that I travel away from this scene basically unchanged: except that in my mind I have vividly imagined a freedom I have never in this life known before, and in my soul, I have felt a faint glimmer, been touched by and a witness to the primeval power of the human essence, by which we have effected a conquering of limited portions of our material world.
End of story “Walk out of the Highlands of New Guinea.”