Well, my adventures continue apace, as we travel to some of the most remote and isolated places on Earth. Truly, there is nothing quite like this country, which extends from the ocean and wet tropics to mountains higher than the Alps, and deep valleys where it is downright cold at night and the suspicion among tribes – even those in the next valley – runs as deep as it has for centuries.
When we landed in Tari up in the Highlands of PNG, there were throngs of people at the airport. When we inquired why, we were told that they were waiting for the delivery of The Post Courier, the daily newspaper which our plane carried and that had news of the continuing corruption scandal with the Prime Minister and some of his cronies. To see some men with headdresses and skirts made of leaves, sporting bare chests, machetes and partially painted faces waiting for the daily paper was a juxtaposition that captures one of the many mysteries about PNG. Add to that the fact that even the most desolate stretch of road has little stands to top up your minutes and data plans for your cell phones that even the most traditional people have, and you begin to understand this country that I am traveling in, a place at once a throwback to decades, if not centuries, ago, and yet one where little smart and bright eyed village girls chat you up and share their dreams of becoming lawyers and scientists.
PNG is a richly diverse country culturally, with over 800 spoken languages, many of them used in just one village due to the extreme difficulty of getting anywhere, and especially in the mountains. The first white men came to The Highlands only in 1930, led by three Australian brothers named Leahy, who came and did what most colonizers do: they looked, they took and they profited handsomely at the expense of the local people, irrevocably altering the course of their lives in the process. A fascinating 1982 documentary called First Contact details that era in the Highlands, and it interviewed local Highland people who were alive at the time of the Leahys and knew and worked for them, or in the case of the women, were sometimes literally sold to the brothers as common law wives and bore mixed race children with lighter features and hair, some of whom we saw as we passed through villages. The film also interviewed the two surviving Leahy brothers, and the difference in perspectives is not only fascinating, it is deeply disturbing. A group of us watched it on a rainy afternoon at Ambua Lodge (it rained almost all of the time we were up there- and this is the dry season), and I recommend it highly for anyone who plans to visit this part of PNG.
We stayed at Ambua Lodge, a series of thatched roof huts in a spectacular setting and, most importantly, with wonderful fruiting trees that drew all manner of gorgeous birds, including several species of Birds of Paradise. To see these gorgeous birds up close, long tails fluttering behind them like banners on small planes that fly over beach towns, throats that turn iridescent shades of blue and purple when the light hits them, is to feel yourself part of something truly magical and mystical. I forgot the rain, my worsening sinus and ear infection and the general discomfort of hours spent on buses, and just appreciated a beauty so ancient and sacred and, frankly, so designed to lure and woo (after all, what bird needs a four foot long tail?) that I understood in my bones why every female bird within miles was drawn to the males’ extraordinary displays. We watched a male Ribbon Tail Astrapia fly across the road one morning and then settle in a nearby tree and preen himself, deftly swishing and tossing his pristine four foot long white tail. I can only imagine the envy that all of the men in our group must have felt just then.