PNG – The First Week

Leaving is astonishingly painful, even for a person with no roots to speak of.  Ted Simon, in “Jupiter’s Travels”, describes it better than I can;

“There are … goodbyes too delicate and too fraught with emotion to be written about in passing, for I have lived a while.  On my way down through Europe I learn the value of the love I am abandoning.  At times I experience a degree of misery and lovelessness I have not known since adolescence.  I wonder if I will ever have the capacity to bear such pain again.  It occurs to me that that may be the condition for eternal youth.”

Of course, I’m not abandoning anything.  Quite the contrary, I am leaving, amongst other reasons, to create an opportunity that we will never have in England; to own our own house and land, and hopefully have a more simple life.  In any case, I won’t dwell on the pain of being apart from my best friend and soulmate here, as it only serves as a distraction from the greater goals of this particular adventure.

The 4am journey from the door of my house in Exeter to Heathrow airport was painful and dull.  As was the subsequent 13 hours in a cramped seat on a plane to Singapore.  I had the misfortune to have a mid-row seat, so my elbows were constantly vying for space from neighbours either side of me.  Probably not as unfortunate for me, however, as for the poor girl seated in the isle seat to my left, who had to put up with me asking her to move every half hour so I could stretch my legs and try to keep the blood from coagulating in my arteries.

There was plenty to watch on the mini TV screen in the headrest of the seat in front of me, but I’m a six-foot man who weighs around 16 stone, and I’m not the most agile of creatures.  I don’t do well in confinement.

We arrived at Singapore promptly at 7am local time.  Changi airport is huge, but it is a monument to clinical aesthetics.  My primary objective after collecting my bags was to find somewhere I could have my first cigarette in 17 hours or so.  This was delayed as the customs officials picked on me for a random bag check.  Of course, the knives, machete, and other cutting tools that I had in my holdall immediately drew their attention.  Fortunately I managed to convince them that I was just a bumbling Englishman who definitely did not have any double-edged blades on my person or in my bags.  They let me go on my way without having to unwrap the pallet-wrap protecting my bags from sticky fingers.

I’d forgotten how stifling the humidity of the tropics can be to the unacclimatised.  It hadn’t occurred to me that I was in an air-conditioned building, because I was already sticky from 13 hours of having been wedged in a plane, squeezed between other sweaty bodies.  As the sliding glass doors to the outside world opened for me, the wave of steamy heat almost knocked me off my feet.  And it was only 7.30am.

As with many other airports, Changi has few designated smoking areas.  The one I chose was literally a rectangle, about 2×3 metres, demarcated by yellow paint on the pavement near the McDonalds, and with a multitude of “no smoking” signs on every side of it.  They execute drug smugglers in Singapore, and I wouldn’t be surprised if casually ignoring the “no smoking” signs resulted in a similar punishment.  So step out of the box at your peril…

After spending 6 hours or so generally bumming around the public area of the airport, I was able to check in and go to the terminal.  Changi airport has a swimming pool and jacuzzi on the roof, which is well worth paying a little more than a tenner for when you’re exhausted, sweaty, and generally feeling unpleasant.  I could not have cared less that there was a tropical shower occurring at the time, to finally be able to get my clothes off and dive into the pool was quite possibly the most amazing feeling I could have imagined…..

Day 1: PNG – Finally…..

My onward to Port Moresby was delayed by almost 3 hours.  Just as well I had several lounge  passes; one I had pre-booked myself, and one which came as a courtesy by virtue of the fact that HR had booked this leg of the journey business class…..

After about the most comfortable flying experience I’ve ever had, I was awake enough to enjoy the descent into Port Moresby Jackson International Airport.  The unimaginable expanse of rainforest, marshland, mangroves and river deltas gave way to huge areas where the hand of man was all too evident.  Miles of land cleared for plantations of oil palm, building developments, and, frequently, no reason  at all discernible to the casual observer.

Touching down and finally disembarking was truly like entering a different world.

I’ve always said that the culture shock I’ve experienced in my life when travelling always came not from going to somewhere, but on returning to the inward-looking, culturally self-important parochialism of Britain.  On this particular occasion, I have to eat some humble pie.

PNG is, simply put, a fucking crazy place.  Not in a bad way, please understand that, but from the moment one arrives, everything challenges our cosseted western sensibilities.  However culturally aware you might think you are, PNG will pick you up by your ankles, slap you in the face, and shake whatever sense of privileged entitlement you thought you were far too cool to  have, right out of your pockets….

After presenting my immigration visa to customs I went through to the baggage belts.  According to my flight itinerary, I had precisely 20 minutes to get my luggage, check in at the domestic terminal, and get on my next flight to Rabaul.  This was blatantly not going to happen, and I was going to have to spend a night in Port Moresby; infamously “the most dangerous city in the world”.

I retrieved my bags, rushed to the next check-in point approximately 50m away, and handed them right back over to the lady behind the desk.  For some reason the attendant wanted to take a copy of my itinerary.  Fair enough, I suppose, but isn’t that what computers are for?  I wasn’t going to argue, so I went with her to customer services, located by the main doors, while she used their photocopier.  Once she had her copy and was duly satisfied, she pointed me in the direction of the domestic terminal, a few minutes walk away.  My bags were still unattended at her check-in counter, and were probably being pilfered as we spoke….

“Fuck it”, I said to myself.  It’s in the hands of the gods….

I hurried off to the domestic terminal, no time to stop by the ATM and get some Kina.  I desperately needed to let Holly know I had arrived safely, and tell John, my new boss, that I was making a break for my scheduled flight, so please could someone be at Rabaul to meet me.  However much credit you have on them, UK phones do not work in Papua New Guinea.  Bollocks to it.  I will get to Rabaul, and somehow sort it out from there.

There was a disorganised rabble of people ahead of me, all shouting and barking at each other in angry and impatient tones.  As I approached, I could see that security were only letting people into the terminal in groups of around ten.  There were probably two hundred people there, all vying to be in the next batch let through.  A man was shouting at a policeman that he was a “gutboi” (good boy), and hadn’t done anything wrong.  He was one of the hundreds all trying to get through the tape barrier and into the terminal building.  Suddenly he was coming back in my direction, shouting his insistence to the police that he was going through, and they weren’t going to stop him.  Two police were now face to face with him, when one suddenly decided enough was enough, and gave chap a massive slap to the side of the head.  At this point, all hell broke loose.  The man fought back, and the police officer was joined by several more, all grabbing at him, and dishing out some smacks here and there.  A few of the crowd objected to this, and turned on the police, throwing punches and yelling at them.  I was anticipating knives and guns coming out.  Great.  I’m going to catch a stray bullet, and my mission to finally try and do something useful with my life is going to be ignominiously curtailed on the tarmac of Port Moresby domestic flights terminal.

Then, as suddenly as it started, it was all over.  Four policemen dragged the man behind a fence into a compound, and two more kept the angry crowd back from the gates.  Law and order was restored.

I got through the tape barriers, and into the terminal.  I queued at the desk for Rabaul.  Wrong desk.  I queued at another desk.  Wrong desk.  I queued at third desk, and when I finally reached the attendant, she just told me I was already booked on, and was good to go.

Wonderful! Race through another security checkpoint, and into the lounge.  Suddenly, everything ground to a halt.  The domestic terminal is like a waiting room at a bus station.  My flight, which was scheduled to have boarded already, wasn’t even open yet.  Two men at the front of the lounge were just shouting the numbers of the flights which were boarding, and mine was way down the list.  I could relax…..

The flight from Port Moresby to Rabaul takes about an hour and a half.  You climb out of Moresby, over the Stanley mountain range, and across a clear turquoise sea speckled with coral atolls.  After half an hour, New Britain island, cloaked in a blanket of cloud, comes into view to the north.  It makes you marvel open-mouthed at the tenacity and the ingenuity of the people who first came to colonise these islands around 35-40’000 years ago. 

You hug the southern coast, over the peaks of remnant volcanoes which have formed islets, before veering inland towards the northeast.  The forests stretch on forever, but  here and there are the telltale signs of oil palm plantations being cleared.  New dirt roads are being carved into a virgin wilderness, and piles of logs are visible at the ends of them.  And then, finally, the familiar peaks of Tokimau and Kabiu appear, with Tavurvur growling at their feet….

I say familiar, because if you Google “New Britain Island”, as I have done on more occasions than I can remember in the last 9 months or so, it is the image that comes up most.  Compared to its bigger brothers, or indeed compared to what most people imagine when they think of a volcano, Tavurvur doesn’t look particularly menacing at all.  However, New Britain sits directly on the precipice of a subduction zone; where two of the Earth’s tectonic plates are colliding, and one is slipping infinitesimally slowly, but with absolute certainty, under the other.  We are on the eastern edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, and consequently it is one of the most volcanically active places in the world.  Tavurvur is actually just a side vent of a much larger caldera, most of which is under the bay and out of sight.  In 1937 it, and its neighbour Vulcan, on the opposite side of the bay, erupted, killing 508 people.  This led to a volcanic observatory being built in the 1950’s to implement an early-warning system.  Evidently this has worked rather well, as the twin eruptions of Tavurvur and Vulcan again in 1994 only killed 5.  The last eruption in 2014 didn’t kill anyone.

I’d like to reassure my loved ones that my insurance covers me for emergency evacuation in the event of a natural disaster or civil unrest.  And besides, the observatory is doing its job perfectly well to date…

The current Rabaul airport was built on the site of a WW2  airbase in Tokua, after the 1994 eruption destroyed the original one.  The terminal is a dilapidated, musty-smelling building, clad in fibreboard panels which are rotten and infested with termites.  Nonetheless, the bright paintings of Tumbuans and faces representing ENBP culture are a testament to a people eager to appeal to the outside world, and the positive development that tourism could bring.

Despite my earlier concerns, I was met at the airport by a few members of the university PR and HR staff, and presented with a necklace of shell money, as is customary for newcomers to the island.  Publicity photographs were taken, before I was ferried into the nearby town of Kokopo, where I could get some cash from an ATM and buy a sim card for my phone, thus enabling me to reassure my beloved back home that I had arrived safely.  This being done, it was time for the first of many journeys that I have subsequently made along the East New Britain Highway, to the University of Environment and Natural Resources, Vudal… (more on this later).

Arriving after an hour or so of bumpy travel at the UNRE campus, I was introduced to a few of the key HR staff who have been responsible for getting me here.  After the formalities were over with, I was shown to Kairak, the guesthouse part-owned by the university, where I am currently staying until my house is furnished.  It’s a humble affair, but paramount for me is that it has a bed, a kettle, and air conditioning….

Day 2 – Saturday

I had met up with John and his family briefly the first evening I arrived, but by 6pm I was literally falling asleep standing up, so I was delivered back to the guesthouse, where I promptly collapsed on my bed and slept like a brick until around three in the morning.

John and Cathryn’s children and their partners are currently visiting, and I was invited to join them to hike up the side of Vulcan, one of the volcanoes previously mentioned.  Of course I wasn’t going to say no…

Access to land is a deadly serious issue in PNG.  Almost all land is in customary ownership, meaning that it belongs to particular villages of particular tribal groups.  This means that if you step off the public road, you are guaranteed to be trespassing, and this is not something you take lightly here….  Many of the acts of violence that are meted out, and which give PNG a notorious reputation, are the result of transgressing the unwritten rule that if it ain’t your land, if you don’t have permission from village elders to be there, and if you don’t cough up some money to make it worth their while, you don’t go there.  End of story.  Even to this day in PNG, (although fortunately not so much in ENB province), tribal groups fight deadly and bloody battles with each other over lands, and they guard them fiercely.  You are literally risking your neck if you ignore this simple protocol.

Fortunately Thomas, one of the campus security guards, belongs to the clan whose lands include Vulcan.  He had previously arranged for John and family to travel to the village and be guided up the mountain, and so it was that he,  John, Cathryn, their two offspring, their respective partners, Jack the driver, another member of campus security, and myself, all climbed into a 4WD to head there.  Back down the bumpy road towards Kokopo, and hang a left at Fourways towards Rabaul…

Arriving at a small wooden shack selling “GoGo Cola” and buai (betel nut), we picked up a village elder and a young lad of about 14.  As the original gatecrasher to this particular party, I had opted to sit in the boot of the car with Thomas and the other security guard.  And consequently, the two who joined us also squeezed in on top of us.  Three in the front, three in the middle, and five squashed like a can of anchovies into the boot… 

Of course, having just flown 13 hours crammed into the middle row of a Singapore Airlines flight, I  was getting used to this by now….

We bumped down a few dirt roads, before finally arriving at what, I think it is safe to say, most people would describe as a paradise of a beach…

Without wanting to piss on anyone’s chips too much, the paradise beaches of our imaginations are not so much in reality.  All along the strand line there are plastic bottles, carrier bags, and the detritus not only of PNG, but of every country and cruise liner of the world who carelessly dispenses with their refuse.  The coasts of New Britain have the misfortune of being precisely where the ocean currents dump much of the worlds rubbish.  It’s a sobering indictment of our wastefulness, and utter lack of respect for the planet we inhabit.

In 1994, before the last major eruption, the villagers lived on the slopes of Tavurvur on the other side of the bay.  When the eruption happened, they got in their boats and high-tailed it to this side, only to find that Vulcan was also blowing apart.  It would be enough to make anyone think that the gods had it in for them.  We were guided along the beach to a point where we could see the scar on the hillside, where part of the mountain blew out and spewed lava into the ocean.   In the course of doing so, it created an entirely new landmass, which is where the village is now situated.

The new volcanic slopes are where the village grow their food.  Pumpkins, watermelons, taro, and cassava all line the terraces which have been cleared from the encroaching bush.  Papua New Guinea is an incredibly fertile place.  One need only drop a seed in the ground, or discard a pineapple top, and it will spring into life.  I have thought, as we have bumped down the roads and seen the copious amount of food plants growing wild on the verges, that it would be impossible to starve here.

And so we turned from the beach and progressed up the side of the mountain, reaching a small watermelon plantation.  It was at this point that my lack of any breakfast, coupled with the fact that I was not remotely acclimatised to the tropical heat, got the better of me.  I collapsed in a heap on the ground, struggling to catch my breath, and feeling my core temperature increasing dangerously.  After sitting for 10 minutes or so and throwing some of my last remaining water over myself, much to the humour of the villagers working in the plantation, I opted to go back to the beach and sit in the shade of the coconut trees while the others continued the ascent up Vulcan.  Embarrassing as it was, heatstroke can be fatal, and wherever you are in Papua New Guinea, you can be sure that it is a long way from any medical help.  There are countless examples of people having died of embarrassment, meaning that they were too stubborn or proud to admit their  limitations, and who have consequently put themselves in a lethal position.  Fortunately for me, I’m not a proud man.

My early return to the village was not without its fortuitous happenstance.  One of the local guys, Martin, accosted this curious white man in conversation, during the course of which I ended up trying my first betel nut, and buying a small coke bottle of the illicit moonshine they make from bananas. (For twice the going rate, obviously…)  If there is one thing you can guarantee when I’m in a strange place, it is that I’ll end up sniffing out the local hooch….

After the return of the rest of the group, we were squashed back into the 4×4, and ferried the hour or so back to the university campus.  En route, we stopped at Keravat; the nearest “town” to the university.  Jack needed to buy a particular kind of taro for Sunday’s meal.  Keravat market not having any, he decided to go back into Kokopo to the market there, and I opted to go with him and Thomas.  And so it was that after dropping off the rest of the gang, we bumped back down the road to Kokopo, which is something that really deserves a paragraph or so by way of explanation…

 

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Traveling the laughably-named East New Britain Highway from the UNRE campus to Kokopo is something that in a very short time I have come to both love and loathe, but probably erring on the side of loathing.  The distance between the two is 33km, but the journey takes approximately an hour or more.  This is because the road is fiercely potholed, great sections of it wash away with every rainstorm, (an almost daily occurrence), and the maximum speed that can safely be achieved on most of it is approximately 20mph.  It climbs from Kokopo heading west up the ridge of a staggeringly enormous but (hopefully) extinct volcanic caldera, which is at some points not more than about 30m wide.  This gives rise to some absolutely breathtaking views, but also some vertiginous drops into the forest, should one veer off the road for any reason.

There are one or two sections of it that are tarmac, and relatively well-maintained, but these are about 100m in length at most, and end at precisely the point where the local government administrative boundaries do.  For the most part, however, it is a bone-breaking hour-long ride if one needs to go to town for any reason.  In the six days I’ve been here at the time of writing this, I have, for one reason or another, had to make that journey on no fewer than 9 occasions…

Day 3 – Sunday  

I had been invited to a mumu; a feast of local stew cooked on hot rocks, in the back yard of the Vice-Chancellor’s house.  Jack had set to work early that day; preparing the fire, heating the rocks etc, while his wife, a striking and elegant woman of mixed PNG and Japanese heritage, and who speaks English with a well-educated Port Moresby accent, was chopping chicken and taro. 

I had carried to PNG in my luggage a bush knife that I had bought in England, having been forewarned that the ones on sale locally were not the best.  I’d only paid a tenner for it; a Brazilian Tramontina of the kind I had used when I was in the Amazon a decade or so ago.  On this particular day, being new to the country and uncertain of the local temperament, I was carrying it with me in case of trouble on the road between my house and theirs.  It took Jack all of about thirty seconds to see the machete, and comment that he’d always wanted one in that particular shape, but couldn’t find one locally.  Naturally, I gave it to him.  His face lit up like a child, and every day since then he has been proudly strutting about, clenching it in his hand.

Day 4 – Monday

My first day of official employment in PNG.

When westerners think of a university, they think of the dreaming spires of Oxford, and people flouncing about in silly gowns and hats, talking some pretentious drivel about things beyond the comprehension of mere mortals.  A university in a developing country couldn’t be further from that romantic notion. 

In the first instance, nothing really works.  Buildings in the tropics don’t take long to fall into disrepair, and become reclaimed by the jungle.  There are termites eating the wood panels and furniture, and cockroaches scuttle into the shadows to avoid becoming a meal for the numerous lizards and toads that haunt the place.  The electricity supply is sporadic at best, and frequently goes out for days on end, as does the internet.  The fact that it has internet or electricity at all is  a marvel in itself, being situated where it is, in the arse-end of nowhere.  The cheap, Chinese-built student accommodation is located in front of the university abattoir and pig sheds, and has open sewers and bare electrical wires sticking out of the walls.  The girls accommodation is surrounded by a razor wire fence, to prevent lusty boys from sneaking in.  It would be easy to come here and be overwhelmed into despair at the sight of the place.  It is also true to say that my first impressions were certainly that it is worse than even I had expected.  However, John has done some fantastic work here in the last year, and there is a mood of hope and aspiration amongst the students and most of the staff.  And it is a mood that is as infectious as malaria…

Day 5 – Tuesday

On Tuesday I met with Alex, the head of estates, for a tour of the university grounds and facilities.  He’s a big man with a warm smile and handshake, but an absolutely fierce sense of fairness, and definitely not someone to trifle with.  He struck me immediately as a good man, and we hit it off from the outset.  We bumped around in the Hilux to see, amongst other things, the dilapidated balsa mill.  The mill was a project that was started by a German entrepreneur in 2009, ran for a few years, but subsequently fell into disrepair, has had parts of it pillaged, and has all but been reclaimed by the bush.   Provided that I am here long enough, and no political skullduggery prevents me from staying, I will be making it my mission to find some funding and get the mill running again.

Day 6 – Wednesday

Wednesday morning, 7am, and I decided to bimble over to the campus and see if anyone was about.  What a ridiculously naive thing to think…

Not finding anyone, I wandered back up the road to the little shack near my guesthouse that sells  “Spear”; the rough Papua New Guinean cigarettes made from the local tobacco they call “brus”, and that you can buy individually for about 20p each.  Apparently, one of the things to check is if the newspaper they are rolled with is in Indonesian or Pisin.  It is said that the ones rolled with Indonesian newspaper are better quality, but I really couldn’t say.  

As I sat there outside the shack smoking my Spear and drinking a GoGo Cola, I was spotted by Pinki, a bubbly and friendly chap who works at the guesthouse.  Apparently I had left without eating the breakfast he had made for me, and he as good as manhandled me across the road and to the kitchen, where he produced a tomato omelette and buttered toast on a paper plate wrapped in tin foil.  He good-naturedly guarded me to make sure that I ate, all the while grinning  at me with his toothless maw, red-stained, like everybody else’s, from chewing buai.

Having eaten under supervision, I was allowed to return to work.  I got to the forestry department office and was able to procure a key.  Could I finally sit down at my computer and try and do some work?  Could I, bollocks!  There was a blackout, and the internet cable wasn’t connected.  I had to sit and shuffle through some admin papers while I waited for someone to turn a generator on.  If they had remembered to get some diesel for it.

After a while I received a message from John.  The family and Jack were going to go to some virgin rainforest, and did I want to come along too?  Of course I bloody did!  It’s my job, after all…

We piled in the 4×4 and headed west, down a part of the ENB Highway I haven’t been to before.  If I complained about the road to Kokopo before, I really shouldn’t have.  It’s a veritable Brands Hatch compared to the section of road going west from the university…

An hour and a half later, I emerged from the back of the 4×4 feeling like I’d done ten rounds as Chris Eubank’s punchbag while being wrapped in Duck tape.  However, the location we found ourselves in was nothing short of absolutely spectacular.

Most of the forest in the part of PNG where I live is what we foresters call secondary forest.  It was formerly cocoa or coconut plantations, which have subsequently been reclaimed by the bush, and reverted back to being forest.  These secondary  forests, while being naturally far richer than ours, don’t harbour nearly the same breadth of biodiversity as virgin rainforest which has never been cut.  The real forest is like something from The Lost World.  Every stem and every branch is covered with a profusion of ferns, lichens, and other plants.  Tree ferns many hundreds of years old tower above your head, and the high forest canopy contains the crowns of trees which are easily 30 or more metres across, from which hornbills call at each other.

We had stopped the 4×4 at the first river crossing that did not have a bridge.  The bridge had been there, but it had been washed away in a storm shortly after having been built.  A serious-looking chap with natty dreads was sitting on his heels by the river, watching a Hilux belching black diesel smoke make the crossing.  It lost one or two pieces of its load, and a guy jumped out to retrieve them before they were claimed by the river. 

The people of this part of New Britain are generally known as the Baining, and they are the original inhabitants of the Gazelle peninsula.  The predominant occupants of the peninsula today are the Tolai people, who moved over from nearby New Ireland when, according to their legend, they were chased out by a giant wild boar who was eating them.  The Tolai displaced the Baining, and drove them further inland and away from the coast.  So here at this river crossing it was Jack, a Tolai, asking permission of Nateks, a Baining, for permission to be on their land.

We were welcomed in and guided through the bush to a river away from the road.  We walked a little way up the bank, until we were brought to what looked like a natural weir.  Nateks nimbly sauntered across the lip of the weir effortlessly, before deeming it safe enough for a bunch of white people to cross, and beckoned us to come over.  I was first across, being keen to get my feet wet and break in my new US army jungle boots.  After a few steps, and realising that my jungle boots were great in the mud, but absolutely useless on slippery rock, I thought “to hell with it”.  Making sure my phone and notebook were out of my pockets and into my shoulder bag, I jumped in up to my waist, and waded across.  John followed after, and then Cathryn, and their children, and their partners.  We stood in the mud around a small waterfall, and gazed in awe at the surrounding jungle.  There were more species of plants in every square metre than I’ve ever seen anywhere.  On a single 10cm section of a small tree stem, there were upwards of 20 species of epiphyte growing.  And that was on just one small tree.  The forest was literally dripping with them!  Needless to say I immediately fell in love with the place.  I’m just annoyed that I didn’t write down the name of it; “Makin”, “Mapin”, something of that nature….

Nateks and one of his companions from the village, carrying a bushknife, gave us as long as we wanted to gawp at the place, before his mate started clearing a path ahead.  I followed along close behind him, with Cathryn and John behind.  The “kids” were soon out of sight, when a sudden scream pierced the air.  It didn’t sound like a scream of terror, but Cathryn went back to check.  John and I followed on behind Nateks.  After a while longer, John stopped to wait for Cathryn and the others, and I followed our guide alone.  We came to another creek feeding the main river, and we started to ascend it.  I had replaced the machete I had given Jack earlier in the week with another, much larger one, which I was using to clear a bit of bush and prop myself on where I needed to.  At one point on the ascent, I had to climb up and over some fallen trees, which were covered in slime and extremely slippery.  Nateks gestured to me to pass him my bush knife and free my hands to climb with, which I absent-mindedly did.  It suddenly dawned on me that now our entire party were separated, and I had just given the only bush knife we had between  us to a complete stranger…

My eyes narrowed, I became hyper-aware of my surroundings, and I watched Nateks’ body language like a hawk for any sign of animosity or ill-intent, as we carried on just a little further.

I needn’t have.  Nateks brought me up to a log into which had been chipped a few rudimentary steps, and at the top of it to plunge pool fed by another spectacular waterfall.   With a beautiful big grin on his face, and eyes which really showed nothing more than pride, he gestured toward it.  John came up behind me in a moment, followed by Cathryn and their kids.  The earlier  scream had just been Nikki, one of their partners, being a wuss about some silly thing or other.  She had opted to be taken back across the river and stayed there with Jack, and Eleanor’s boyfriend.  We all stripped off and dived into the plunge pool.  Nateks produced a bar of soap from seemingly nowhere, and started to wash his dreadlocks.

We spent a half hour or so pratting about in the water, before heading back down the creek and wading across the main river again.  We were joined by the others, but not before Jack decided to race back up the creek and take a bath himself.

Back at the jeep, Cathryn customarily gave Nateks about 20 Kina for taking us around.  He moved to give me back my bush knife, which he was still carrying, but I told him to keep it.  This gesture almost floored him, and with a happy cry and an enormous grin he shook my hand tightly, hugged me, slapped me on the back repeatedly, and told me he would treasure it as a great memory.  I should have remembered from my time in the Amazon that a decent bush knife, (especially a brand new one), is often more highly valued than money by people who depend on them for their subsistence.  I have resolved to buy another three or four when I’m next in Keravat, so I don’t keep giving my only one away to people….

After a few more hugs and handshakes, we piled back into the jeep, with an open invitation to return to the village any time we wanted.  Despite the bone-cracking journey to get there, it’s exactly the kind of place I would like to go into and sling up my hammock for a few nights, so I anticipate that I will return again to do just that.  

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