Papua New Guinea, which lies north of Australia, is a natural paradise – one of the last in the world. Only 21 000 visitors traveled there last year. Our reporter flew into the jungle, where he met bush pilots, crocodile hunters and proud tribal warriors
As the sun sinks over the Sepik, the largest river in Papua New Guinea, 32-year-old Benny Sone is getting ready. He pulls the elastic strap of his headlamp over his bald head, shoulders his spears, scrambles down the embankment and climbs into the bow of his dugout canoe. His son, just seven years old, is already sitting in the back. Dad nods, and junior starts paddling. The canoe cuts silently through the black water. Sone is a genial man. He wants to hunt down a steak for me, the reporter from Germany – a crocodile steak. The Sepik, is 1126 kilometers long and simply teeming with the dangerous creatures, all competing for the abundant supply of fish. The most imposing of these are the saltwater crocodiles, which migrate between the Sepik and the open sea. The males of this species can grow to over six meters long. The hunter shines his light on the reed-lined riverbank. There! A pair of eyes glitters only a few meters away. The son paddles faster as the father leaps from the canoe, his broad shoulders a fleeting shadow. The second canoe carrying my photographer and me rocks violently. At the moment, it seems a moot point which one of us will end up as a steak.
Flashback to almost a week ago. I am sitting in a Beechcraft Baron as the small propeller plane rattles above the steaming jungle. I am on a journey to discover Papua New Guinea, a virtually unexplored, intact natural paradise north of Australia which saw only around 21 000 visitors last year. I am looking for the perfect adventure in a land that is variously seen as particularly dangerous, backward or inaccessible. On water, on foot and in the air, I want to meet people that can’t be found in my native country of Germany. Crocodile hunters and island hoppers, bush doctors and tribal warriors. Below me, I can make out jagged limestone breaking through the carpet of greenery, and brown rivers meandering like sated pythons. Papua New Guinea is one third larger than Germany but only has just under 7.5 million inhabitants. Apart from the Highlands Highway, which in places looks more like a field than a highway, there are barely any overland roads.
But there are 500 airfields which have been carved out of the jungle, and they make up for this. Some runways are so steep they resemble ski jumps. My pilot, 75-year-old Bob Bates, knows all of their pitfalls like the back of his hand. The white-haired Australian with the mischievous expression and the red baseball cap has been flying here for half a century. “There’s no better country in the world to fly in,” he yells above the propeller noise. Almost as if to prove him right, an extinct volcano rises up ahead of us, cumulus clouds dancing around its peak like white dragons. “Mount Giluwe,” Bates bellows. “4368 meters!” It’s Papua New Guinea’s second-highest mountain.
Bates turns the nose of his over 40-year-old Beechcraft slowly downwards. His sights are on a grass-green strip glimmering far below us out of a thicket. Bates has more than 10 000 flight hours under his belt – he knows what he’s doing. Even so, my hands turn clammy as the treetops below me grow rapidly larger. Our landing is as soft as cotton, and as we roll to a halt, Bob tells us his story. He came to Papua New Guinea in the mid-1960s, a young engineer from Western Australia hired for state construction projects. At that time the country was still under Australian administration. It only gained independence in 1975.
Three years later, Bates opened his first hotel in the wilderness, Karawari Lodge, in the northeast of the country. We just landed on its airstrip. “Today I own six lodges and a cruise boat,” he tells me proudly. Bates is now an airline boss, tour provider and tourist ambassador at the same time. For many people in Papua New Guinea, he is also a hero, revered because of his tireless battle to improve the country’s poor reputation.
PNG has a problem with violence, and Port Moresby often ranks high on the lists of the world’s most dangerous cities. At night the capital is a no-go area, as even the fearless experts of the backpackers’ bible, Lonely Planet, report. Excesses of violence in other parts of the country have also made the world news. In 2013, a group of backpackers were waylaid on the picturesque Black Cat Trail. The attackers hacked two bearers to pieces with machetes and injured four tourists. In Papua New Guinea, paradise and hell are two ends of the same canoe.
Karawari Lodge is a supremely peaceful place with comfortable bungalows. The only risk you run here is of being overcome by a deep sense of humility as you gaze out over the jungle from your balcony. The main building, constructed from precious woods and in the style of a ghost house, towers one hundred meters above the river. The decks are six meters high, and below them are stacks of craftworks: ghostly figures with crocodiles creeping out of their mouths, masks with shell-inlaid bats perched on their colorful heads. The carvings from the local villages are world famous. But don’t look too long, or you’ll find nightmares crawling in under your mosquito net during the night.
The next day I am powering along the Karawari River in a speedboat. After all, I’m not here on holiday here, but on an adventure. This tributary of the mighty Sepik is around 300 kilometers long. Villages fly by to the left and right, their hut roofs covered with sago palm fronds. The sago plants provide the people here with building material and their most important staple food. The fibrous pulp of the sago plant is ground into flour to produce rich flatbread. Life is very simple here. Practically no division of labor exists. Everyone does everything. Hunting, fishing and cultivation are done solely for personal consumption. Most people here have never even seen the inside of a supermarket. Nature provides, and everything is naturally organic. I find myself suffused with envy for this simple lifestyle.
Over here, paradise and hell are two ends of the same canoe
In the village of Yimas, I meet 25-year-old Sagarias Kundi, who has the a sprinter’s physique. Parallel rows of scars resembling crocodile scale bulge along his back. In an initiation ceremony marking their transition to manhood, boys are cut and the wounds sealed with mud. Some women also wear these scars with pride. Sagarias works as a medicine man for some 2000 people in the region. His training? “A workshop with an aid organization.” His payment? “None.” His biggest problem? “Malaria. Everyone here carries the virus.” In his makeshift practice, a length of cardboard serves as an examination couch, boxes full of medication stand in the corner, and a small reliquary pays homage to the Mother of God.
Anyone struck down by a severe case of malaria has to go to the nearest hospital. “The journey takes two full days by boat,” Sagarias informs me. “Many patients don’t make it.” In such cases, the the water ambulance becomes a death ship. I suddenly realise that I no longer envy the people here, and hastily add another layer of mosquito spray.
The few Western visitors who come to the Kalawari today are here to see one thing above all: birds of paradise. Thirty-nine species of these bizarre birds have already been discovered by scientists on New Guinea. Bird fans from the USA are especially hot on their heels, wielding telephoto lenses the size of rocket launchers. For them, the adventure is in the camera viewfinder.
During the crocodile hunt on the Sepik I hear the mating calls of birds in the undegrowth. Cheeping and peeping and cooing and singing, they sound like creatures from another planet. Then there’s a squeal: Sone has caught a crocodile! The little fellow struggling in the strong arms of my hero, letting out heartrending cries, is around 1.40 meters long. “Tu’small,” says Benny in Tok Pisin, the common pidgin language of PNG. He lets the scaly young reptile glide back into the black waters. No steak for me. No guilty conscience either. And also no trouble with a large and irate mother crocodile.
The next day I fly to Mount Hagen. The Western Highlands are alive with excitement. The town’s population doubles to 50 000 for the Mount Hagen Show, an annual dance festival. Costumed “culture groups” come from all over the country to represent around 80 of the 1000 tribes in PNG. Few of them can afford hotel rooms, so the dancers sleep in tents and cardboard boxes by the side of the road.
The groups dance for the jury in a large field. “There isn’t just one winner; in the end, everyone has to win.” That’s how 30-year-old Michael Noki explains the strange concept of the big Sing Sing to me. “Otherwise there’d be a fight – and no one would come again the next year. We are a very proud people, you understand?” I nod vigorously, since Noki really does look quite terrifying with his spear in hand and a brightly colored beret on his head, lavishly decorated with feathers. A flame-red band of makeup stretches across his eyes. The rest of his face is painted yellow, white and black.
Noki is a member of the Kulga tribe, and he and around 20 others are dancing for the fame and honor of his village, Polga. Today’s performance very nearly had to be canceled because the red paint had been used up. “The paint is made from special river mud. Very rare, and very expensive!” One small pot of chima costs 100 kina, around 30 euros, which is a small fortune in PNG. The dance groups take it in turns to perform. Each group tries to outshine the others with their own specialty. The Elibali Sing Sing Group shake their hair and feathers as if they were at a heavy metal concert. The Almami Sing Sing Group beats out a drum rhythm that would do the terraces of Borussia Dortmund proud. And the Kava Paradise Singing Group belts out songs in an up-tempo style reminiscent of the young James Brown. Ethnologists have established that over 800 languages are spoken on Papua New Guinea, around 10 percent of all known languages in the world. It seems as thought the country’s diversity is reflected in the words of its people.
I feel dizzy. Is it the malaria pills I’ve been taking for the past ten days? Or is the flood of impressions this country has showered on me overwhelming my mind? The rush of the rivers, the calls of the birds of paradise, the songs of the tribes at the Mount Hagen Show – all of this is spinning around in my head like an out-of-control roundabout. Yes, I have certainly experienced a real adventure. But at the same time this trip has been incredibly exhausting. Surely I could just pick up some crocodile steaks back home at my local supermarket?