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The Unthinkable

The plan was to get up early and go birdwatching in the forest near the village. Perhaps we'd see Victoria's Astrapia, a rare bird of paradise known to frequent the Papuan Highlands at this altitude. The getting up early bit went according to plan.

As I relieve myself in the outhouse, a square hole in the ground with a ten-foot pit beneath, my wallet (containing my passport, credit cards, cash in several currencies, travel insurance, and flight tickets) slides off my belt. I hear a resounding plop, then silence. Rapidly buckling up my shorts, I turn around, drop to my knees, and thrust my head into the hole. By the light of my head-lamp, I can see my wallet, floating like a baby turtle in a pond of slurry ten feet down. Shit. I get to my feet and scramble back up the mud steps to the hut where we're staying and hunt for a stick. There are sugar canes of suitable length, but these are bendy. I find a four-foot stick and reject that, too. I need two long, sturdy sticks. My i…

Welcome to Maikmol

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We stop dead in our tracks. Two men are sprinting towards us, one priming an arrow on his bow, the other brandishing a spear. They are splashed from head to foot in white war-paint and are naked but for the leaves covering their genitals. They brake in front of us, and, scowling and hissing, start lunging with their weapons. Nadya and I take a step backwards. Two women, one wearing a parrot-feather coronet and waving a bunch of marigolds, are hard on their heels. As the scouts retreat, we advance tentatively down the path to the village and hear singing voices. Some fifty people have gathered at the gate, a temporary construction of bamboo decorated with flowers, and they are of all ages and also plastered in white. A little boy takes two steps forward and holds up a sign. "Welcome to Maikmol."


This is the fourth day of our first hike in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Our party is larger than expected. Paul Riss, the guide I communicated with via email from Australia, sa…

Betel Mania

The importance of betel nut in PNG, especially on the Sepik, cannot be overstated. As Mathilda, the woman who hosted us in Korogu village, mentioned, betel nut is the first thing people exchange and it is used to cement relationships. How often we have seen people giving and receiving betel nuts.

Without realizing it at first, our relationships with people changed and deepened when we started buying betel nuts for our travel companions and hosts. People would say: "Gut pla pasim"and "Em meri/man gut pasim," which mean "They are kind people" and "She/he is a kind woman/man".

Betel is used to settle disputes or make amends. One is expected to give a chicken, a branch of betel nuts and 10 or 20 kinas to settle a personal issue, but, if the dispute is between families, the cost is higher and a pig and a bushel of betel are expected with money.

Betel is also an important part of the funeral ritual. Big branches of betel nuts are hung in the "hou…

Scarface

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"... He's closer to a ton than half a ton, but we don't get to put him on a set of scales, so that is just an educated guess... We had one of our smaller tour boats out the other day, and Scarface was swimming alongside, and he was well over haaalf the length of the boat, which, ladies and gentlemen, makes him fiiiive metres long."

It was a surprise to me that, in the five weeks Nadya and I spent paddling down the Sepik and exploring its backwaters in Papua New Guinea, we only once saw a crocodile (that wasn't in captivity): a log of a creature, basking on a mudbank on the far side of the river. Yet we heard of crocodiles and saw images of them almost every day. A skull of a monster crocodile resided in the Middle Sepik's oldest and most venerated Haus Tamboran in Palembai. Carvings of crocodiles decorated the supporting pillars of all spirit houses. Our hired paddlers talked of going on croc hunts at night, and crocodile steak was on the menu for dinner when…

Day 20: Haus Tamborans

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Papua New Guineans call their country the "Land of the Unexpected." I never would have thought eight days ago, when a tropical storm ended our hopes of paddling to Kaminabit, that we would relaunch our canoeing expedition for a third time. But here we are, Nadya with a short paddle, me with a long one, digging into the muddy, brown river, bound for Angoram, largest and last significant village on the Lower Sepik. Our company for the final three-day leg of our voyage is Cyril Tara, an exuberant tour guide; Nick Lumat, wood carver and Seventh-Day Adventist; and Chris Tupma, carpenter and canoe maker.

Cyril's canoe is a fine specimen: no leaks and plenty of room for four people, their bags, three plump papayas, a plastic bin of mugs and plates, even two wicker chairs with backs and armrests. With a 45 HP outboard engine weighing down the stern, the paddling will be as hard as before, but Nadya and I have never had it so good. For the first time, I can stand up in a single c…

Bartering at Korogu

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"This is my cousin-sister" Mathilda says waving at a woman in her canoe. "We sit next to each other at the market". As we cross the lake, we greet more than a dozen other 'market mothers' from Korogu. Our host, Mathilda, is one of them and has her bag of fish to exchange with women from the inland villages of Selai, Aulimbit, Kosingbi, and Yamuk. If she is lucky, she will sell some and make a small profit.

The barter system is well established in Korogu, explains Mathilda. "First we need to buy betel nut and look at the garden food". For a good hour, not much seems to be happening. Market mothers from inland continue to arrive and display the garden food items. The women carrying fish sit in their respective areas but don't display their fish yet. People with money in their hands buy betel, sago, vegetables and fruits.

Suddenly, as if someone had rung a bell, women display their fresh and dried fish. A few people buy some and then the barter s…

Day 12: Waves and Whirlpools

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"It's no good, Tony. Water's coming in again at the front. I have to stop and bail."

"Can't stop here! Waves are too big. Let's try going faster, get over to the far bank where the water's calmer."

"No. NO! Stop paddling! STOP! It's coming in over the side now."

"Shit. SHIT! Knew in Pagwi the waterline was too low. Can't even carry our bags on this frigging thing!"

Nadya tosses her paddle aside and starts bailing feverishly with half a plastic Coca-Cola bottle, but it is too late. If only our pirogues were equal to those we bought in the Upper Sepik. Roped together, the two had formed a sturdy raft that could carry six people with bags, bananas, and coconuts. But in Pagwi, the hub of the Middle Sepik, there had been no choice. Most people got about by motor-canoe. We could only find for sale a two-man fishing pirogue in poor shape and another suitable for a five-year-old. Maybe if we joined these, we might continue ou…