Indonesia was amazing (fran’s insta will have shown that in some detail) with incredible wildlife such as Komodo dragons and orangutans, diving, kite surfing, beaches and boat rides. Yet for all the awesomeness we were not sad to be leave the country.
On the first day of our sixth month of travel we left Bali with Air Niugini. Destination: Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, aka PNG 🇵🇬. We heard and read plenty of horror stories regarding the country, from cannibalism deep in the jungle to mugging and murder by the city raskols. Nonetheless we felt we had to go to this intimidating and unknown country.
PNG is home to an astonishing amount of wildlife, languages and cultures. One only needs to consider the geography to understand why: large rivers, dense rainforest and jungle and the Bismarck mountain range, home to a number of mountains higher than 3500m and many steep lower ones, make it very difficult to travel through the land.
From an early time the level of contact between villages was limited to how much a man could walk, and all villages learned to be self sufficient early in history. The natural boundaries meant that any great unification like in Europe under the Romans or in Asia under Genkhis Khan did not happen, and as a result many different tribes existed alongside each other, leading to the development of over 800 languages.
The lack of development of a central government meant also that virtually all land in the country is owned by the village and its residents. For a tourist this complicates life materially, as it’s impossible to know all the landowners when looking to do a trek through the countryside. There is no chance on remaining unseen either, as agriculture and hence people are everywhere, and they’ll demand payment for use of their land. It is one of the things that make independent travel in PNG complicated.
As one can expect the competition for resources such as food, water and land is great, and PNG’s culture has been very aggressive as a result. Tribal wars about land, women, pigs and honour have been fought for millennia, this village versus that, this tribe against its neighbors. Society therefore developed in a very different way than in the West, and even to this day tribal warfare takes place. As recently as February 2018 fighting broke out between tribes of the Mendy and Tari regions over a judge’s ruling in an election. People were killed with machetes and guns, an airplane was torched and roadblocks erected. The area is still unsafe for locals and tourists alike, and there is no indication tensions will subside soon.
Similarly, when a local kills or injures a person in an accident rather than going to police the tribes sort it out themselves to discuss “compensation”. Both tribes meet in a neutral place and talk for hours to agree the price payable to the tribe of the victim. The amount, payable in Kina, pigs and vegetables, depends on the age and status of the victim. Only when the same person commits multiple crimes the police may get involved, who will however also have their tribal backgrounds to consider.
The tribe therefore remains extremely important in PNG society, and as long as you’re part of a tribe you’re safe, even as a tourist. Going around on your own in villages (which happens rarely as your host won’t let you) is safe, but the cities are a different matter. Raskols, groups of poor, desperate young men who left their villages in search of a better life in the city are a danger to anyone else, especially on the weekly payday. Hotels are prepared for anything with high fences, barbed wire, 24hr security guards and armed (yes you read that right) transport for guests between locations.
With this background we boarded our airplane on Bali for a 5 hour flight to PNG’s capital Port Moresby, followed by a connection flight to Mount Hagen in the central highlands. Mount Hagen is a city with all the aforementioned problems, so when our guesthouse repeatedly failed to confirm whether they would pick us up it led to some tension on my part. We step outside the small airport and on the other side of the fence I see lots of faces staring in our direction. I think to myself that there are a lot of people hanging around to get out on our own. It seems they are here for a reason though, as a few minutes later a fellow passenger is received by several groups in traditional outfit, banana leaves and all. Luckily we see a sign with my name on it and Pym, the owner from PAIYA Tours, takes us on his 4×4 to go to the Magic Mountain Lodge, some 20km outside Mount Hagen.
Pym has arranged a guide, Paul, to take us into the rainforest this afternoon and the following day. We’ll be hunting PNG’s national bird, the bird of paradise. Some 43 species of the BOP exist, most of which are native to PNG. They come with exotic sounding names such as the King of Saxony, the blue sicklebill and the Reggiani BOP. They come in all colors of the rainbow, and their feathers play a prominent role in the highlands’ culture. In addition to the BOP PNG has plenty other bird species, and it is one of the world’s best birdwatching countries.
Paul is from the village of Rondon, some 50km from the lodge. He’s been a bird guide for over 10 years and perfect to show us the local fauna. That first afternoon we walked through the rain forest for a few hours, and we were lucky enough to see a male/female couple of Princes Stephanie Astraphia. From a photography perspective I found a few complicating factors. Firstly, the BOPs are usually found two or three trees away, and for some reason favour the far side of the tree. Secondly, they rarely sit still for longer than 20 seconds. Thirdly, the shadows and dusk made it complicated to get a decent shot. But hey, we got to see them, and see them well enough to get me excited. Fran was less enthusiastic about the experience, partly also because Paul unfortunately exhibited some of the less desirable sides of PNG’s male dominated society, by saying things like “you wait here” to her, or walking off telling me to follow him but ignoring Fran. After an excellent dinner by the in-house chef we went to bed, as our alarm was set for 4AM again the next morning.
We started the day before sunrise and drove for over an hour in the dark over the potholed roads of the central highlands. Sitting in the back of a 4×4 with benches rather than seats Fran and I plus the two other tourists are continously being shuffled from left to right and from front to back. Depending on whether we’re ascending or descending we all slowly slide to the back or front of the passenger area, which would have been fine for a while but after an hour it’s getting on our nerves. Luckily we reach our destination Rondon shortly after. In the early daylight Paul sets off on a good pace up the hill over muddy trails fencing off various crops of his village at first, but as we ascend we get in denser and denser rain forest. Birds make a cacophony of sound around us, but always seem to be hiding from us. We continue higher up until we’re close to the ridge of Mt Rondon.
Paul stops after a while and looks around. He suddenly cries out and runs off, motioning us to follow him as he’s spotted a BOP. “A Black Sicklebill” he cries out while pointing to a tree a good 40 meters away. There’s clearly nothing wrong with his eyes, as I struggle to resolve the various shades of black, even through binoculars or my camera’s zoomlens. Fran is a lot better at it: “oh yeah there it is”. “Where then??” “Right there, follow the tree branch to the left, and – oh it flew away now”. This conversation happens a few times throughout the day, mostly with me on the receiving end. I did get to see BOPs though, albeit there were from quite distance at times.
At 10AM Paul suggests we call it a day. The sun has risen over the ridge, and it’s rapidly getting warmer. We still need to walk and drive for two hours, so it’s time to head back for lunch. Once we clear the proper rain forest Paul takes off his shoes and proceeds on barefoot. We’ve seen this a number of times across Asia and I have to admit grip on slippery surfaces such as mud is a lot better than with hiking boots or trekking sandals. When we arrive back at Rondon Paul’s feet and our shoes are covered in mud. Paul hops into a stream and cleans his feet. Just as I do the same to clean my shoes he offers to do it for me. I politely decline as it is too weird to accept, but he insists and before I know it he takes a boot and rubs the mud off with his hands. It’s unnecessary but OK, I’ll take it. While he is cleaning more shoes He then spots Fran walking by and offers the same to her. “No thanks, I’m all right” she replies, walking on. A bit further she starts to clean her shoes. When Paul finishes he looks up, turns to me and says “Tell your wife to give her shoes for cleaning”. I’m stumped he actually tells me this, and wonder whether he means this politely or suggests I should control my wife better. “She’s perfectly capable of speaking for herself, she’s a strong woman” I reply. “If she says no then that’s the end of it”. He doesn’t respond and I’m not sure he is actually listening, but the offer is no longer repeated.
I look at Fran later and can tell she is livid by Paul’s comment. It is representative for the apparent position of the woman. PNG has a history of abuse, with an estimated 70% of women experiencing assault or rape in their lifetime, and many aspects of traditional culture are tambu (taboo) for women. Furthermore, young men are expected to work hard to be able to get married, as a “bride price” payable to the bride’s father is still very much part of PNG’s culture. The price itself may even include shell money, pigs or cans of SP lager. This can clearly instill an unhealthy sense of entitlement, and especially in places where poverty is rife lead to violence. We let it slide and head to the car to go back to Mt Hagen for lunch.
So far our stay has been largely as planned, which is somewhat of a surprise given the country’s reputation. Bigman Pym comes to see us and the other couple during lunch. He tells us that his village is involved in compensation discussions and he thought it would be interesting for us to see this for real. We all agree it could be cool so we enjoy our lunch until we leave around 1.30, as the discussions are expected to start at 2pm. Guide Paul, driver Morgan and us arrive at the designated location, only to find it completely empty. A bit disappointing but then again, did we really expect it to starton time? Not to worry though, Paul has a plan. We’ll retire to the lodge, which isn’t too far off, and rest a bit before going to the compensation, after which we drive on to Kumul Lodge to see more BOPs from 4pm. He fails to mention the other location we are supposed to go to, to see PNG’s national bird the Reggiana bird of paradise.
At 3PM Paul calls us and we set out to the car. I know Kumul Lodge is a good 30-45min drive from here in the other direction, so I’m somewhat struggling to see how we can spend a meaningful time at the compensation and also be on time at Kumul Lodge. Furthermore, having learned a bit more about the circumstances I’m not sure the compensation is going to be that interesting. It will involve a large group of men from both villages to discuss the compensation for the death of a young boy in a car accident. They’ll be talking in Pigin and local language all the time, making it difficult for us to follow. It’ll take hours to sort out. After a short conversation Paul comes to the conclusion that maybe it’s not working out timingwise, and we leave for Kumul Lodge.
The Lonely Planet recommended Kumul Lodge as a tour operator and accommodation. However, if recent online reviews are anything to go by it looks like they haven’t updated their opinion to reflect reality. Rooms weren’t clean, food wasn’t provided, tours that supposedly included all fees, but they then had to pay land fees to a local separately, as well as public transport back to the lodge. Twice. Arriving at the lodge I see it’s built with lots of wood, blending in nicely with the surroundings, but it all looks a bit tired. Wobbly chairs, very old photographs, staff a bit grumpy. The road can be heard from the lodge, and it looks like some of the forest has been cleared further afield. One reviewer said “it has gone horribly downhill from when I was there 10 years ago. The son has taken over from his mother but he is not overly interested in being client friendly”. I’m glad we didn’t stay here, and are only enjoying their main benefit: a feeding table for BOPs. It’s a bit cheating but I’ll take it as it’ll be the last opportunity to see any.
From up close the birds are even more beautiful. We spend an hour watching them eat, chase each other around, and be very territorial. It is a good end to our birding programme, as tomorrow we are going to trek in the mountains to a village. At least that is the programme we agreed, but both Paul and Pym keep mentioning more birding. When we ask them about our trek a confused look comes to their faces. Pym immediately puts on a reassuring face, and says we’ll visit plenty of villages tomorrow. We wonder how that’s going to work out, as the other couple is going birding and there is only one guide and one car… Anyway, that’s tomorrow’s problem.