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New Guinea: The Wildest Island

Pepper Trail
An elaborate welcome featured dancing and the breathtakingly magnificent colors of the village of Kopar, near the mouth of the Sepik River in New Guinea.

It is my deep hope that before too long it will once again be possible to travel the world. Paradoxically, travel off the beaten track may lead us back to an unremembered home. What is most strange often strikes a resonant chord deep within ourselves. Nowhere on earth have I experienced this shock of recognition more strongly than New Guinea—the wildest of islands.

New Guinea. The words may conjure up images of cannibals and crocodiles, or of birds of paradise performing amazing and rather ridiculous displays (breathlessly narrated by David Attenborough), or of fierce-looking warriors adorned in the most beautiful and extravagant of feathers. Whatever image arises, it is sure to be wild.

Pepper Trail
Embellished with feathers, this Kopar woman plays a part in the welcoming ceremony that featured dancers in elaborate costumes.

New Guinea is the second-largest island in the world, and still one of the least known. Home to short-tempered flightless cassowary birds, kangaroos that climb in trees, and those incredible birds of paradise, it is also a hotspot of human diversity, with over 850 distinct languages and an extraordinarily rich variety of cultural traditions. Protected by dense swamps and jungles, rugged mountains, and famously warlike inhabitants, it was one of the last places on earth explored by Westerners, despite a very long history of human settlement.

I’ve been lucky enough to make three visits to New Guinea, all as a naturalist for small expedition cruise ships operated by Zegrahm Expeditions, an adventure travel company based in Seattle. In this time when even the most mundane travel is out of the question, I invite you on an armchair visit to three very different parts of this wildest of islands.

The Sepik

The Sepik River is the longest in New Guinea, at over 700 miles, and flows north from the central highlands down into the broad coastal plain where, after many serpentine twists and turns, it finally empties into the Bismarck Sea. Unlike many other regions of New Guinea, the Sepik has so far been spared large-scale mining and logging operations, and the river flows through one of the most intact tropical watersheds in the world.

Near the mouth of the Sepik is the village of Kopar. I have visited Kopar on two occasions, several years apart, and the different circumstances of these visits provided complementary insights into life there. On the first visit, we arrived unannounced, the result of adapting our ship’s schedule to an unexpected change elsewhere—a frequent necessity in New Guinea! Given their location just upriver from the coast, the residents of Kopar receive visits fairly often (that is, a few times a year…), and so our appearance was not a shock. Nevertheless, it allowed us to see the life of the village on a completely ordinary day, without special activities prepared for visitors. Seldom, if ever, have I experienced so strongly the sensation of stepping outside of time, into a rhythm unchanged for centuries.

Feature-Sepik-SagoLog ENLARGED.jpg
A villager demonstrates the arduous process of making sago.

The daily life of villages on the Sepik centers around the preparation of sago. The tidally and seasonally flooded forests do not allow the cultivation of root crops like taro or sweet potato, the staple foods of the highlands. Instead, the essential starch comes from the trunk of the sago palm. The trees are cut down when about 15-years old and 30-50 feet long, split open lengthwise, and then the starch-containing pith in the trunk is laboriously hacked out, producing a massive pile of chips. These are then pounded into a coarse powder, which is kneaded in water over a cloth or sieve to release the starch. The water with the starch passes into a trough (often an old dugout canoe) where the starch settles. After several washings, the starch is ready to be used in cooking. Imagine reducing a tree to very, very fine sawdust, and eating the results—which taste pretty much like sawdust.

Pepper Trail
After the pith of the sago palm is hacked out, what results is a large pile of chips.

According to Wikipedia, a single palm can yield 800 pounds of dry starch. I don’t know about that, but I do know that the extraction process, done entirely by hand tools, is incredibly laborious. We wandered the village, as sago production went on in all its phases, as clams dug from the riverbanks were smoked over old barrels, as mats were woven, and as we gathered an ever-growing escort of kids curious about, well, everything.

The second visit was well-prepared for, and was a much more colorful affair. Preparations had been under way for weeks, and we received two elaborate welcomes—first by the village women, and then by the men—followed by the enactment of an important Sepik legend. The magnificent costumes, and the pride of the dancers in their culture, were breathtaking, and it was hard to imagine that this was the same quiet, humble village of our earlier visit.

In my “day job” with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, I work to fight the illegal trade in the feathers of protected birds, and so my reaction to the feathers on display was complicated.

The almost otherworldly feeling of the day was completed by the presence of an allegedly tame, but every intimidating cassowary in the village. These large and famously aggressive flightless birds possess a dagger-like claw on their big toe which is quite capable of disemboweling a man, and the sight of “Kris” snapping sago-coated raw fish out of the hands of the villagers did not set my mind at ease. But in the end, we all returned to our ship un-disemboweled, and deeply impressed with the richness of the culture created by the Sepik people in one of the most challenging tropical environments on earth.

Pepper Trail
The laborious endeavor of processing sago ends up producing a starch than can then be cooked into a sort of pancake.

The Asmat

The island of New Guinea is divided in half politically—the result of complex past dealings among various colonial powers. The eastern half (containing almost the whole of the Sepik River basin) is the independent nation of Papua New Guinea (PNG), while the western half is part of Indonesia. The Indonesian territory was formerly known as Irian Jaya, but now is divided into two provinces, Papua and West Papua.

My second visit to New Guinea focused on the Indonesian side, and began on the island of Sulawesi in the center of the Indonesia. We sailed east through the extraordinary array of islands and coral reefs known as Raja Ampat, and then along New Guinea’s southern coast to the remote and rarely visited Asmat in the province of Papua.

The Asmat refers both to a vast territory of southwestern New Guinea, and to the ethnic and linguistic group of people inhabiting the region. They were not in regular contact with Westerners until the 1950s, and remain one of the least assimilated cultures on that wildest of islands. Their tradition of headhunting and ritual cannibalism is one reason why they were given a wide berth by early Western explorers. Eventually, however, their extraordinarily skilled and powerful woodcarvings became known to the outside world, drawing collectors—most famously Michael Rockefeller, heir to the Rockefeller fortune, who disappeared on a collecting trip to the Asmat in 1961. While it will never be definitively proven, a recent book has argued persuasively that Rockefeller was killed and eaten after his boat overturned.

Pepper Trail
Making friends in the highlands.

Zegrahm is one of the very few expedition companies to visit the Asmat, and is able to do so only because of the long connections of our Indonesian tour manager to the area. So, join me on our visit to the village of Komor, which had not received outsiders in seven years prior to our arrival.

It had been a long run up the broad, shallow river, the color of milky tea. We were packed shoulder to shoulder, sitting on the rounded bulwarks of our Zodiacs, the inflatable boats carrying us from our small expedition cruise ship to our day’s adventure. At first, the sight of our six Zodiacs speeding in formation upriver, with brightly colored parrots flying overhead, and with herons flapping away at our approach, had been a thrilling spectacle. Now, after an hour in the hot sun, the main thing keeping us awake was our sore backsides.

Then, up ahead, the lead Zodiac slowed. Mike Messick, our expedition leader, and Leksmono Santoso, our Indonesian expert and agent, stood up. We could see them consulting, and Leks pointed ahead. Only then did we see that a line of dugout canoes was arrayed across the river in the distance. Our boats all gathered together, and we motored slowly forward. Soon enough, we could see that each dugout was filled with six or seven imposing bare-chested men, most adorned with white pigment on the face and body, and wearing crowns, armbands, and necklaces of feathers and animal fur.

Pepper Trail
Asmat warriors greet the boats.

As we neared the dugouts, the men suddenly burst out in hoarse and threatening shouts, shook their boating poles and paddles, furiously splashed the water, and flung clouds of mysterious white powder at our boats. Seeing us all cowering in the face of this impressive and chaotic display, Leks gave a broad smile, threw up his arms, and shouted “Welcome to the Asmat!” Sorry, but when Asmat warriors perform a traditional village “greeting,” complete with threats to demonstrate their intimidating strength, no amount of preparation beforehand will keep you from being intimidated.

Their “greeting” complete, the village men broke into wide smiles and escorted our boats to shore, where the whole village had gathered to watch the spectacle. The Asmat region is mostly low-lying swamp forest, with tides that reach far up the shallow rivers. Villages are built on slightly higher ground, but many are seasonally flooded, and the houses are raised on stilts. As each of us clambered off the Zodiacs, we were taken by the arm by one of the villagers, and gently escorted over the muddy banks and up to the village. There we were approached by a dignified older man, who, without warning, mashed a handful of something both mushy and gritty on the top of our heads. To this day, I have no idea what it was (later, a guest confided that he was worried it might be seasoning!). Then, we were presented with a gift to wear—a feather crown or a “dilly bag,” the woven sack, worn like a necklace, that is the ubiquitous carry-all in New Guinea.

This ceremony concluded, our escort led to us to meet his or her family. After introductions, conducted with great good will, if considerable mutual confusion, we climbed into the dim long house for speeches of welcome, translated by Leks. As a token of hospitality, a tin bowl filled with large and squirming “sago worms”—the grubs of a giant beetle—was passed around. Many of the expedition staff felt that the rules of hospitality required us to partake of this treat. But that left us with a difficult choice: “pop” the cocktail-sausage sized grub with our teeth to expose its gooey insides, or swallow it whole. Personally, I chose to swallow it whole, a decision I instantly regretted as I could feel the sago worm squirming as it made its way down my throat.

Pepper Trail
Nutrient-rich sago worms are considered a treat.

We then gathered in circles with our hosts for what was described as an “adoption ceremony.” Our anthropologist later explained that we were standing in for deceased members of our “family.” In the course of sharing—with gestures and a few mutually understood words—stories of our own families and our own lost loved ones, a powerful and mysterious connection was made.

At last, it was almost sunset, and past time to begin the long return trip to the ship, anchored offshore. The tide had dropped, and the expanse of riverside mud was far wider than earlier. The villagers had thoughtfully arranged a line of dugouts across the mud for us to cross, with poles driven into the mud for handholds. Waving farewell to our new friends on shore, we piled into the Zodiacs and headed downriver under a spectacular sunset, with scores of giant fruit bats flying overhead on their way to the night’s foraging. An incredible end to a day I will never forget.

Pepper Trail
Asmat warrior enjoying the spectacle of guests.

The Highlands

The highlands of New Guinea are a world apart from the steamy and water-logged lowlands. Here, around 9000 years ago, a unique form of agriculture was invented, based on yams, taro, bananas, and sugar cane. Obviously this was independent of the grain-based agriculture being developed in the Middle East around the same time. The rich volcanic soils of the highlands were so productive that the population of the highlands became some of the densest in the tropics.

It was long assumed that the mountainous interior of New Guinea was largely uninhabited, and amazingly it was not until 1930 that the first Westerners—three Australian brothers searching for gold—reached the highlands and found vast fertile valleys filled with farming villages. It is now believed that the highlands at “first contact” had a population of almost a million people!

Today, the highlands, especially the area around the town of Mt. Hagen in Papua New Guinea, are the focus of New Guinea’s small tourism industry. Visitors come to the highlands for two principal reasons: to view the extraordinary birds of paradise and the equally extraordinary “sing sing” gatherings, in which villages compete to display the most elaborate regalia, composed mostly of bird of paradise feathers.

At the conclusion of the cruise that took us to the Asmat, I had the opportunity to lead a small group of travelers on a trip to the highlands, where we stayed at the Rondon Ridge Lodge overlooking the Wahgi Valley and the town of Mt. Hagen. Here, both the natural and cultural treasures of New Guinea were on full display.

I’m an ornithologist, and seeing birds of paradise has been a lifelong dream. There are 42 species in the family Paradisaeidae, almost all of which are found only on New Guinea and nearby islands (a few of the duller species reach northern Australia). The males of most species are adorned with extravagant plumes, and perform elaborate displays, often in groups, to attract females.

Specimens of birds of paradise first reached Europe via early trading expeditions to the East in the 16th century. The bird skins had been prepared by native traders by removing the wings and feet, but leaving the fluffy underwing display plumes. The footless and wingless condition of the skins led to the belief that the birds never landed but were kept permanently aloft by their plumes. Thus, they came to be called the birds of paradise.

Pepper Trail
An Asaro Mudman, complete with clicking bamboo fingers and an otherworldly mud mask.

Rondon Ridge is home to several of the most spectacular birds of paradise, or BOPs, including the Blue BOP, the Superb BOP, and the one I most hoped to see, the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise. But first, we set off to experience the culture of the highlands.

Different villages demonstrated different cultural traditions. One of the most impressive, if the least colorful, is the Mudmen. This tradition originated in the Goroka region east of Mt. Hagen. Legend has it that members of the Asaro tribe were fleeing from an enemy, and took refuge in a nearby river. They waited until dusk before attempting to escape. The enemy saw them rise from the banks covered in mud and thought they were vengeful spirits. The enemy warriors fled in fear, and the Asaro escaped. The effect is now enhanced with massive mud masks covering the head, and long bamboo fingers that snap menacingly. If I was an enemy warrior, this would definitely have worked on me!

The most famous New Guinea cultural tradition is of course the adornment of warriors with the feathers of birds of paradise and other birds, along with body paint, pig tusks, and other decorations. We were honored with several such displays, and the feathers were truly spectacular.

Pepper Trail
Used in so many ways, feathers are a major component of the culture throughout New Guinea.

In my “day job” with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, I work to fight the illegal trade in the feathers of protected birds, and so my reaction to the feathers on display was complicated. As a conservation biologist, I am concerned about the killing of wild birds for their feathers. But I also honor cultural diversity and indigenous traditions. According to experts on the birds of paradise, the traditional use of feathers in New Guinea may impact local populations of the birds, but does not threaten the survival of any of the species. A more serious threat could arise from international trade in bird of paradise feathers. All species in the bird of paradise family are protected under international treaty, meaning their feathers cannot be exported or sold without official permits. On all the trips I lead, the guests and I discuss conservation issues relevant to the areas we are visiting, and our conversations in New Guinea were some of the most thoughtful.

Back at Rondon Ridge, I had been thrilled to observe the Superb and Blue Birds of Paradise in the forests near the lodge. The King of Saxony Bird of Paradise, however, could only be found at higher elevations, requiring a long, steep, and slippery hike through dense forest to the top of the ridge. And, because the birds display only at dawn, the hike up to their courtship area had to be in the dark, so as to be on the spot at sunrise.

Why was I so determined to see this particular species? Because they have perhaps the most amazing feathers of all the birds of paradise. Compared to other species, they have few ornamental plumes: just two, to be exact. But what plumes they are! One long feather projects from each side of the head, and is composed of a series of shiny, pale blue plates. These plates are formed by fusion of the feather barbs, and are unique structures, found in no other bird. The antenna-like feathers can be moved independently in display, and each is much longer than the body length of the bird. So, for a student of feathers like myself, seeing the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise is an ultimate dream.

The hike was as long, steep, and slippery as advertised, following a rough path hacked in the red clay. Our headlamps illuminated only a few steps ahead, and there always seemed to be a root lurking just out of sight, ready to trip us up. But we struggled upward, and as first light began to penetrate the forest, we heard an extraordinary call, like pouring water, or pebbles dropping through a “rainstick”, followed by a weird sound like an electronic buzzer. Our local guide, Joseph, whispered “King of Saxony!” and urged us to hurry. Now we needed no encouragement!

Pepper Trail
Dreams do come true: Silhouette of King of Saxony Bird of Paradise.

For the next hour, we watched three males display, whipping those amazing plumes around and giving their otherworldly calls.

All too soon, the day began to heat up, and the birds of paradise flew off to search for fruit in the shade of the forest. We made the long descent back to the lodge in silence. Yet again, New Guinea had given us an experience so strange and wonderful that we hesitated to put it into words.

Pepper Trail is a writer and conservation biologist living in Ashland.

Pepper Trail is a naturalist, photographer, writer, and world traveler who has lived in Ashland since 1994. He works as a biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and in his spare time leads natural history trips to every corner of the world. Pepper is a regular essayist for the Jefferson Journal.