Some of you have wondered why, of all places on Earth, I was determined to go to Papua New Guinea. It’s one of the hardest destinations to reach; it has very little infrastructure once you’re there; it rains ungodly amounts up in the mountains where I spent most of my time; the food is awful; the lodging substandard; and there is always that age-old question about when cannibalism really stopped being fashionable there. And don’t even get me started about the 27 leeches that I pulled off of myself in less than an hour just a few days ago.
So why did I go? Blame it on David Attenborough, Alfred Russel Wallace, and Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes.
Sir David Attenborough is my hero and has been for many years. He always tops my list of modern-day invitees in that hypothetical game of assembling the perfect roster of dinner guests. He has taken me (and millions of others) around the world vicariously to see the most fascinating wildlife on this planet, and he does it with the most infectious wonder and enthusiasm imaginable. The first time I saw Attenborough in Paradise (1996) and The Life of Birds (1998) I was hooked. One day, I told myself, I’m going to go and see those Birds of Paradise for myself.
Attenborough eventually led me to the writings of Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned 19th century British scientist, scholar and explorer, a contemporary of Darwin’s and the author of The Malay Archipelago, a brilliant work in which he describes in great detail, among other things, “…the most extraordinary and the most beautiful of the feathered inhabitants of the earth – the varied species of birds of paradise.”
And then two years ago, my sister and I went to a lecture in Washington that was jointly sponsored by National Geographic and The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The speakers that day were Tim Laman and Edwin Scholes and marked the publication of their book, Birds of Paradise: Revealing the World’s Most Extraordinary Birds (2012), the culmination of their nearly decade-long project of studying and photographing all 39 species of Birds of Paradise. Their talk and PowerPoint, and the exhibition that National Geographic mounted to coincide with the book’s publication, were riveting. How much longer do I want to wait, I asked myself that day. And the answer was, not long.
So it is thanks to all of those men that I have stood on a pass near Mount Hagen on a cold and misty afternoon and seen with my own eyes, perched in the distance on the top of a dead branch, The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, his yellow breast aglow, and his two head feathers, or “flags” and “head-wires” as they are known, waving in the breeze as he sat there regally for all of us to admire. And the sublime Ribbon-Tailed Astrapia, his turquoise blue throat aflame as he flew across that same road the next, misty morning, trailing his four-foot long white tails like an ermine cape. And the astonishing Blue Bird of Paradise, preening his dazzling cobalt feathers, turning his black head and body upside down and displaying for the female who watched from above, seeing the virtual apron of feathers that he fluffed out for her benefit. And the more subtle, but still dazzling, Brown Sicklebill female as she came to the feeder at Ambua Lodge, pale eyes glinting, her long, curved beak open wide to receive the fruits that she plucked so daintily. All of them, plus fifteen other species of these magical animals.
I have seen birds so beautiful that they stunned me into silence, so perfect that they moved me to tears, so whimsical that I shrieked with laughter, and so wondrous that I stood there slack-jawed with delight.
All of that and leeches, too. Really, what more could a woman want?