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On the Road: Inside Papua New Guinea

On the Road: Inside Papua New Guinea

by Invoice Murray

John Allen Chau, the missionary killed in the Andaman Islands in November, reopened the ‘uncontacted people’ debate. An advocacy group referred to as Survival believes “Uncontacted peoples make a judgment that they are better off remaining uncontacted and independent, fending for themselves.” Most everyone else needs in, missionaries on their missions, docs stopping illness, linguists to review imperiled languages.

Outdoors the Amazon basin most of the world’s uncontacted individuals reside in New Guinea. The world’s second largest island is split between Indonesia in the west the place – so far as we all know – all remaining uncontacted individuals reside, and Papua New Guinea in the east.

My spouse and I took a peek into the inside of Papua New Guinea twenty years in the past. To be clear, we sailed up the Sepik River, in the north of the nation, a area that has had contact with Europeans since their ships scouted the coast in the late 18th century. European settlers pressed indigenous labor into plantation work on the north coast from the late 19th after which, in the 1930s Australian gold prospectors trekked into the inside highlands and climbed out with eyes massive as saucers, having made contact with almost one million beforehand unknown highlanders. (Here’s a exceptional video.)

Apprehensive however with religion in the civilizing drive of the 5 or 6 intervening many years, our higher lips stiffened by the lodge minibar, we flew into the highland city of Mt. Hagen, gateway to the inside. Mt. Hagen comprised a single downtown road, a rugby subject, airstrip, unkempt housing and never far more.

No tour teams clustered round leaders with flags; no backpackers struck poses of studied indifference. The police lived in barracks, prefab models half the size of a single-wide, the place wives and youngsters spilled onto verandas. I anticipate they’d have most popular thatch.

We shared a journey with a dealer from Osaka to the Lodge Highlander, hidden behind a six-foot barricade. Males in yellow arduous hats rolled again the excessive gate, shade of a battleship. A fence surrounded the compound and extra males in arduous hats walked snarling black canine round the inside perimeter.

The kitchen served dinner and stubbies, which is Aussie for brief bottles of beer. Bony hen is bony hen, however they curled the tops of spring onions as garnish. A stab at aptitude.


A small aircraft carried us to the Sepik River. The pilot, already sweaty early in the morning in a decent short-sleeved shirt with epaulets, wielded a toilet scale, weighed up his passengers (simply my spouse and me) and our gear, pulled a pencil from behind his ear and made the figures work on his clipboard.

He flew us to the river at Timbunke, worthy of a jot on the map however so far as I might inform, nothing greater than a grass touchdown strip and 6 buildings. With street entry north to Wewak on the Bismarck Sea, Timbunke was the final city with a street out the remainder of the method upriver.

Your complete Sepik River cruiser, the Sepik Spirit, was ours. No one however us, a crew of 9 and captain Graeme, for 3 days. We climbed onto the third statement deck to view the day by day thunderstorm over a savannah menaced by gathering nimbus and churned by sheets of bathe.

The Sepik Spirit jammed up onto a sandy spit off Tambanum village and we clambered onto its stand-in shallow-draft touchdown craft, the correct one having gone clear to Karawari for restore. Each day that they had matches making an attempt to start out its outboard motor.

The previous beast juddered to a cease beside canoes carved from single timber, dragged onshore and parked perpendicular to the waterline. The son of Namba, the village elder, invited us into his father’s house.

Typical Sepik River Village

All these homes of timber and vines stood greater than an individual off the floor towards animals, flooding and nat nats, or mosquitoes. The littlest child, simply three weeks previous, slept underneath a mosquito internet, considered one of not many concessions to the trendy age. Seven poles lashed to 2 longer ones comprised the ladder to the door. Clay fire-pots allowed cooking inside. Drums, pots and baskets dangled from the rafters.

Tambanum was Catholic, having been transformed by a missionary from down towards the mouth of the Sepik. A portray of Jesus hung at the prime of Namba’s stairs. Under it was a standard Sepik carving, in the form of virgin and Son.

The elder Namba didn’t understand how previous he was. He had lived on the similar patch of floor all his life. He stated his father was bombed on this similar place – good there – by Japan. Namba’s son translated. His home, equivalent, stood immediately behind Namba’s.

With a ceremonial fuss Namba introduced out the household’s most prized possession, a bridal veil manufactured from hundreds of tiny nassa shells. I attempted it on, too flippantly. We handed it round. Lawrence, our information, went full reverential.

“It is byoo-tee-ful!” he murmured.

I advised it took weeks to weave.


Namba walked us right down to his entrance step and bid us farewell leaning closely on his cane, sporting a tattered orange Brisbane Broncos T-shirt, ear lobes elongated by tribal custom, smiling a broad smile ravaged by scarlet betel nut stains.

Historic pipe-smoking ladies sat cross-legged alongside the path from Namba’s home, weaving baskets. A knot of males suggested two others with Swiss-made metallic instruments and hand-carved mallets how you can carve a desk into the form of a crocodile.

Two dugout canoes glided down the russet-colored Sepik as if on hearth. When river people caught a fish they smoked it in a clay pot proper on the boat. The smoke stored away the nat nats.

Household in a dugout canoe on the Sepik River


Elsewhere by ritual it’s essential to are available, sit down, drink Pepsi, make small speak earlier than negotiating can start. Impecunious Tambanum obtained proper right down to enterprise. When a ship tied up they produced a practiced mise en scène of artifacts. And got here too shortly with their fallback place.

“How much?”

“Fifteen kina.”

“Second price twelve kina.”

That they had no jobs for there have been no jobs, 3000 individuals with no energy, ice or medical care. They constructed their very own homes and taught the arts of weaving and carving to their youngsters. Their meals lived in the river and the timber.

We gave them their first worth. That might be the village’s foreign money revenue for the day, perhaps the week. It took lots of hand-carved vacationer masks for a village to save lots of up for one thing helpful like an outboard motor.


At twilight we’d sit on mats up entrance with Benny the pilot, watching cooking fires kick up lambent shorelight. Creatures of the night time emerged from the forests; the sky darkened with no mild from shore to chase it again. Inky sapphire settled over creation, and the deck can be thick as black snowfall with bugs in the morning. They’d sweep it clear.

At sunup, river glassy clean, we crawled onto the touchdown craft, vacation spot Angriman village. As quickly as they have been free of the ship, the deck arms broke out the betel nut and turned full-animated.

The individuals of Angriman have been the greatest crocodile hunters on the river. They raised them for his or her pores and skin. When perhaps 4 years previous, a medium sized croc fourteen inches round may convey 200 kina from the Japanese agent who sailed in each three or 4 months. The most important would deliver 300. Fifteen or 20 three-footers lay about in a picket stockade.

The croc stockade at Angriman

Every Sepik village chosen a councilman. The Sepik Council met each different month or so, typically at Karawari, typically at Timbunke, and elected a consultant to ship to parliament.

Peter Mai, the Angriman councilman, greeted us. We gave him a postcard from the place we lived, a spot with skyscrapers. 4 teenaged women sang The Marvel of It All from a Seven Day Adventist hymnal, after which we stood in a receiving line as the congregants every shook our arms.

The Seventh Day Adventists received right here first. Simply sailed proper up the Sepik profitable converts. Now they have been dropping floor to the Catholics as a result of they’d tried to banish conventional beliefs. They wouldn’t permit conventional gown.

Angriman produced watermelon, Malay apple timber, yams, mulberry bushes and a surplus of smoked fish. With extra fruit and greens than it wanted, crocodiles on the market for foreign money and fish in exportable amount, Angriman prospered. However Angriman wasn’t served by a street and sadly, it was not on the river.

The Sepik modified course some years again leaving Angriman a literal backwater, off the most important channel. Nonetheless, the crocodile commerce yielded wealth: Evinrude outboard motors hooked up to longboats.


Upstream that night time, anchored offshore, we peered into meager adumbrations of an unknown village. A few of the villagers owned kerosene lamps, however kerosene wasn’t for use flippantly. In the new day that village, Mindimbit, got here to life as positively mercenary.

Mindimbit Village

One man had introduced an immature cassowary, a blue-necked flightless, four-foot chook named Betty from Karawari. He charged a kina a digital camera for footage. With the Sepik Spirit a typically customer, Mindimbit was comparatively grizzled at the artifact commerce. Costs have been greater.

Beside three Evinrudes and a Yamaha outboard in a shed of thatch, a body of two-by-fours and four-by-fours stood unfinished. “They run out of money,” Lawrence defined. Planed wooden is simply not as sensible as conventional homes lashed along with palms. With manufacturing unit wooden there was extra to purchase. Like nails.

A person named Wesley invited us into his home.

Up the stairs (watch your head!), three ladies cooked lunch and minded the youngsters, everyone on the flooring. With a bathe dancing on the roof, Miss Julie smoked a spatchcocked fish on somewhat spherical metallic range. Grandma minded a bit boy, a number of cooking pots and plates of greens, and Wesley’s spouse made sago pancakes.

To make the staple meals you narrow down a sago palm, drag it to the village, pores and skin its bark, chop it into hunks, then smaller hunks, then pummel and pulverize it to pulp, and eventually sluice it via banana leaves right into a paste and dry to a powder.

Grinning a toothy grin, Wesley’s spouse scooped the powder right into a clay pot. A fireplace crackled beneath. Together with her cup she pressed it into pancakes. She’d press every right into a foot-long oval and fold it in half. When it cooled all of us tore edges off and popped them in our mouths. Captain Graeme stated his spouse added powdered coconut for slightly taste.


The solar would set in an hour and the river had smoothed for sundown. Benny smoked his hand-rolled faggots right down to burn his fingers whereas steering by way of swamp and brief grass. The forest rolled again to disclose mountains underneath cumulus. 

We eased up alongside the north financial institution of the Sepik. Thatch imbricated a primary provisioning middle the place we sought curry, matches, tobacco and a Sydney Morning Herald dated March 28th. It was September. However this newspaper wasn’t for studying. It was rolling paper for the tobacco. Three broadsheets bought for fifteen toea.

Outdoors, imposing, voluble males loitered, however provided solely pleasant chews of betel nut, gesturing amused directions. We cut up ‘em open and popped the nuts into our mouths. You chew, producing saliva, and spit the juice via your tooth, retaining the meat.

The juice is white. You dip a little bit of mustard stalk into “lime,” pounded from mussel shell, and chomp it. It turns the juice vibrant pink. Chew, spit, chew. It’s somewhat bitter and it will get your coronary heart shifting a bit, a bit blood rushes to your head, the whole lot’s a notch extra intense, after which it fades. Assume kava, Indonesian kratom or your first deep drag of nicotine.

Going for a swim from the previous touchdown craft

After darkness unfold full and full, Mirja, Lawrence and I sat on rattan and cushions in the middle of the Sepik Spirit. Bugs threw up a wall of sound whereas canoes glided alongside silently. Adolescent boys peered in, cupping their faces to the home windows.

Lawrence had a narrative to inform.

“Now I’ll inform you how our elders taught us the secrets and techniques of the spirits.

“I was fourteen. I was working since I was twelve, with westerners. I ate western food. I did not believe there were spirits.”

Nonetheless, at fourteen, there was room for doubt.

“It was scary. We might begin at six p.m. they usually stored us awake till six in the morning. For days.

“They constructed a wall in entrance of the spirit home with a door too small to stroll via. They lit the palm fronds over the door into a fireplace and advised us to run as quick as we might and squeeze by way of that little door, and to not get burned by the falling ashes.

“My grandfather was the village leader so I had to go first. Five boys were behind me. I was scared but I ran fast as I could and I squeezed through that door and up the steps into the spirit house.”

The squeeze symbolized the return to the mom’s womb, since you should reunite together with your mom’s spirit as a ceremony of passage earlier than your father can train you the religious secrets and techniques.

“Inside the spirit house, bad news! The men from the village were there and they were whipping us with canes to show us the power of each spirit.  Ohhh, and it hurt!”

Lawrence grimaced and held his brow. His eyes widened in order that white confirmed clear round his pupils. He chewed a knuckle.

“And now it was late, about 5 in the morning. They gave every boy a betel nut. My grandfather advised me the one he gave me was a particular one. They advised us to chew them, it might be good for us. We spit out the juice and stored the meat inside our mouths.

“They gave us items of ginger and informed us to chew them. They performed drums and these flutes at the similar time. I felt like perhaps I had a gin and tonic!

“I used to be dizzy after which I began seeing skeletons dancing after which I had these unimaginable goals. And I consider in Jesus and Mary however since that night time I’ve additionally recognized that spirits are actual, too.

“We consider the father provides us the information however the blood comes from the mom and so it should return to her. So my mom’s brother got here from one other village.

“The night of the skin cutting we stayed up all night. When it was very late the men made us go into the water and stay for one hour so our skin would get soft. Ohhh, it was so cold!”

Lawrence was sweaty as a bayou preacher. He massaged his temples and pulled his legs up on the couch.

“When it was time I laid down on top of my mother’s brother. So the blood would fall on him. And they cut me.”

With a flourish he raised his proper sleeve to point out the outcomes.

“Sometimes they cut your back but I asked they only cut my arms because I had to go back to work.”

He needed to have time to heal.

However he didn’t heal. He was contaminated.

“I requested for drugs however my grandfather refused. He requested me, ‘What have you done wrong?’ I stated nothing, nothing time and again however he stored asking me till lastly I admitted I had stayed with my girlfriend the night time earlier than.

“Before they would use sharp bamboo leaves but now they use razors. I asked my grandfather if the razor was old but he said no it was bought new for this purpose. My infection was punishment for this bad act.”

His grandfather, who Lawrence referred to as, “A famous headhunter,” advised him at the finish of his weeks of religious coaching that he would have unbelievable alternatives in the future. Certainly one of the individuals he had led on a cruise like this just lately provided him a visit to the U.S., and to Lawrence, that was proof constructive it was so.

Extra photographs from Papua New Guinea at

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