Posts Tagged 'Papua New Guinea'

Trying to Find a Tree Kangaroo in the New Guinea Highlands

 

After hitching a ride from a pickup truck up the absolute continuously bumpy road I have ever been on, Danny, Thomas, David, Kiuau and entered one of the main villages where we would get some supplies and start our journey.

Thumbs up with the village kids

Thumbs up with the village kids

A de facto marketplace formed every day at the main village gathering area, where mainly women would sell cucumbers, fried flour cakes, raw peanuts, sweet potatoes, leaf greens, carrots, some kind of really fatty meat that I’m still unsure over what it was, and a host of other foods.

Two Women at the De Facto Market

Two Women at the De Facto Market

I gave Danny some money and he bought us sweet potatoes, cucumbers and raw peanuts. Those would be our supplies – we hoped we’d be able to kill a cus cus for dinner if we got lucky.

 
After some chit chat and pictures (I was the first white guy to roll through the village and hang out with the people in a long time apparently), we set off. They had pointed to the peak that was our destination from the valley, but it was hard for me to gauge what the trek would be like. In Papua New Guinea, time estimates are pointless. Plus, I had a pretty egotistical view of my hiking/trekking abilities, and kept telling myself that running around in Yosemite was probably more taxing than anything they had here. I probably also made a subconscious effort to deny any impending hardships; I knew we were going to sleep in the bush but didn’t ask how. I’m not a big camping guy so I didn’t really want to think about it.

Me, David, and Kiuau on the path

Me, David, and Kiuau on the path

 
As we set off from the village we followed a pretty well-traveled path that wound its way up along the river, passing through little huts and even gardens. There were women carrying bilums (their traditional woven bags) back from chores and boys carrying fish they had just speared. We bought five from one of the boys for the equivalent of probably around 50 cents.

Kiuau with our fish

Kiuau with our fish

 
Though I tried not to dwell on it because it was still early in our trip, thus far our luck hadn’t necessarily been good. Our bus driver insisted that we wait around in the highland town of Goroka for 4 hours so that he could fill the van up to capacity for the remainder of the trip to Hagen. That had made us arrive much later than Danny wanted, meaning we were getting a really late start. Danny said there was a small cave halfway up we would try to get to to spend the night in. He seemed anxious, and I could see why: clouds were forming and did so daily. It was September and the rainy season was officially starting.
 

Danny and some boys standing under a huge pine tree. The vegetation up there was alpine mixed with jungle - incredibly unique.

Danny and some boys standing under a huge pine tree. The vegetation up there was alpine mixed with jungle - incredibly unique.

Also, the hunter in the village with a kangaroo-hunting dog had gotten into a fight and hurt his leg, and couldn’t come with us. I was still hopeful we could find a tree kangaroo, but they said that a dog was necessary to sniff one out in the dense jungle.

These were the bridges to cross the river around the village. They only got worse from here.

These were the bridges to cross the river around the village. They only got worse from here.

 
After about 2 hours of walking we still had yet to reach the dense jungle, when suddenly a light patter of rain began to fall. As it is with Papua New Guinea, within literally two seconds that patter became a torrential downpour, and we were getting buckets dumped on us. And we were running. I had absolutely no clue where, but we all were in a full on sprint. We ducked under some rocks that gave us minimal cover, and Danny and Kiuau had a brief pow wow in their native tongue. Danny then turned to me and said, “we go,” and we were sprinting again. After a few minutes I saw our destination: a tiny round grass hut with a small plume of smoke escaping from its tiny doorway. We sprinted to it and ducked in. This is where we’d spend our first night.

Searching for a Tree Kangaroo: To the Highlands

I got up to the New Guinea Highlands through a friend at Divine Word University, the local college that housed us for the first few nights in New Guinea before we shipped off to Karkar Island. I had gone back sporadically to work on a a project and, when I got potassium poisoning, had befriended an associate professor named Sam, who was from a village in the Highlands.

After finishing up at Karkar some of us went to crash with Sam at his house at the University. Sam and the others wanted to stay there to watch a Cultural Show, but I was eager to get going to the Highlands. One of Sam’s students instantly made that happen, introducing me to Daniel, who was from a village near the town of Minj, in the Western Highlands Province, and was willing to take me up to try to find a tree kangaroo as long as I paid for both of our ways up. I was more than happy to do so.

tree_kangaroo2Danny was a short, stout, really muscular guy, characteristic of a Highlander. Danny spoke a bit of English, but by that point I spoke a bit of Tok Pisin (Pidgin… Coolest translation: naked = ass-nahthing), so we mixed it up. We caught a “bus” at 7:00 am that next morning, which was really like a really big VW van. And they packed it as much as they could, mixing in tons of food in addition to people. Three guys operated the bus. One drove, one sometimes slept (they alternated), and one just stood in the doorway shouting Hagen! Hagen! Hagen! (a city in the Highlands the bus was eventually headed to) at everybody he’d see on the side of the road.

After 12 hours of bus ride we got off in Minj, a small settlement about 45 km east of Mt. Hagen. Danny quickly introduced me to is tribesmen, one of whom told me about a spot where he’d take me to see some Raggiana’s birds of paradise once we got off the mountain. Danny pointed to the mountain we’d be climbing. It looked far. Damn far.

We got a lift in a pickup truck up the initial road, which was the absolute bumpiest, most pothole-filled dirt roads I had ever been on. And the pickup truck broke down twice, but that was actually below the usual over/under.

Finally we arrived at a village where we got off. Danny quickly bought some sweet potatoes and raw peanuts at an ad hoc market that formed in the center of three clans’ (factions within a tribe) different villages. I took some pictures with the people (they loved pictures), got to see a Cus-Cus a hunter had caught and they were holding a cage (for either an important feast, a bride price asset, or something they could give in reconciliation of a tribal conflict), and talked tree kangaroos with one of the villagers.

I then met the villagers that would go with Danny and me up the mountain: Thomas, Kiuau, and David…

Searching for a Tree Kangaroo: To the Highlands

I got up to the New Guinea Highlands through a friend at Divine Word University, the local college that housed us for the first few nights in New Guinea before we shipped off to Karkar Island. I had gone back sporadically to work on a a project and, when I got potassium poisoning, had befriended an associate professor named Sam, who was from a village in the Highlands.

After finishing up at Karkar some of us went to crash with Sam at his house at the University. Sam and the others wanted to stay there to watch a Cultural Show, but I was eager to get going to the Highlands. One of Sam’s students instantly made that happen, introducing me to Daniel, who was from a village near the town of Minj, in the Western Highlands Province, and was willing to take me up to try to find a tree kangaroo as long as I paid for both of our ways up. I was more than happy to do so.

tree_kangaroo2Danny was a short, stout, really muscular guy, characteristic of a Highlander. Danny spoke a bit of English, but by that point I spoke a bit of Tok Pisin (Pidgin… Coolest translation: naked = ass-nahthing), so we mixed it up. We caught a “bus” at 7:00 am that next morning, which was really like a really big VW van. And they packed it as much as they could, mixing in tons of food in addition to people. Three guys operated the bus. One drove, one sometimes slept (they alternated), and one just stood in the doorway shouting Hagen! Hagen! Hagen! (a city in the Highlands the bus was eventually headed to) at everybody he’d see on the side of the road.

After 12 hours of bus ride we got off in Minj, a small settlement about 45 km east of Mt. Hagen. Danny quickly introduced me to is tribesmen, one of whom told me about a spot where he’d take me to see some Raggiana’s birds of paradise once we got off the mountain. Danny pointed to the mountain we’d be climbing. It looked far. Damn far.

We got a lift in a pickup truck up the initial road, which was the absolute bumpiest, most pothole-filled dirt roads I had ever been on. And the pickup truck broke down twice, but that was actually below the usual over/under.

Finally we arrived at a village where we got off. Danny quickly bought some sweet potatoes and raw peanuts at an ad hoc market that formed in the center of three clans’ (factions within a tribe) different villages. I took some pictures with the people (they loved pictures), got to see a Cus-Cus a hunter had caught and they were holding a cage (for either an important feast, a bride price asset, or something they could give in reconciliation of a tribal conflict), and talked tree kangaroos with one of the villagers.

I then met the villagers that would go with Danny and me up the mountain: Thomas, Kiuau, and David…

Trying to Find a Tree Kangaroo: The Tree Kangaroo

I have a strange habit of trying to find rare mammals in the wild whenever I’m in a country that supports them. From the time I was a kid I’ve seen it as a bragging right and badge of honor. When I was eleven years old I was on a safari in Zambia with my mom and sister, and remember crying because with only one night left I still hadn’t seen an aardvark, which was listed as the rarest animal to see in the area. Luckily the next night we spotted one on a night drive. My high expectations were met, and it was one of the most satisfying moments of my life.

(Photo Courtesy Peter Greenberg)

(Photo Courtesy Peter Greenberg)

Twelve years later my rare mammal fixation is as strong as ever. In Papua New Guinea, my focus was the tree kangaroo. I’m not sure how much I really need to write to convey how ridiculously awesome a tree kangaroo is. First off, it’s a kangaroo that lives in a tree. They are thought to have evolved from kangaroos and wallabies from the Australian continent, with their main physical differences being exceptionally long tails, stronger forelimbs, and longer claws – all developed for mobility while in trees. Tree kangaroos are very rare, and seven of the nine existing species are live only in Papua New Guinea. So, if you’re looking for tree kangaroos, Papua New Guinea happens to be the place to go.treekang33

There’s also some great mythology surrounding the tree kangaroo in Papua New Guinea. Hunters believe that you have to be extremely accurate when throwing a spear at a tree kangaroo for two reasons. First, if you hit it and don’t kill it, they say the tree kangaroo will grab the spear, pull it out of itself, and throw it back at you with more force and accuracy than your throw at it. Second, it is considered bad luck if you miss the tree kangaroo. Papua New Guineans take their bad luck very seriously, as bad luck is pretty synonymous with death.

If you take a look at the tree kangaroo, it’s pretty funny to imagine this donkey-faced monkey dog hurling a spear at you with deadly precision. Still, regardless of whether the little guy can actually mow people down, the tree kangaroo has to be one of the coolest mammals out there. The look, the rarity, the mythology – it’s really like the five-tool player of the animal world.

kang14

After completing the PANANGO program in the Lowlands, I went to the local university in Madang to meet up with some friends from the Highlands I had made while there. Telling them of my desire to see a tree kangaroo, they arranged for me to go up with one of their friends. There wasn’t too much planning involved. I was introduced to Danny, who was about about my age, from a village in the Western Highlands, and in true Highlands fashion, was about 5’7 and built like a heavyweight wrestler. Danny happily agreed to take me to his village and help me find a tree kangaroo. The trip was on.

Trying To Find a Tree Kangaroo: Introduction to the New Guinea Highlands

I think a nice way to start off this adventure blog is to tell the the story of my journey to find a tree kangaroo in the Papua New Guinean highlands. Some background:

highlands12

I was in Papua New Guinea (PNG) helping launch Panango, a student-initiated organization promoting Education, Empowerment, and Exchange between American students and Papua New Guineans. While we lived in villages on the coast in the lowlands, which were awesome in their own right, I anxiously bided my time to get up to the Highlands.

All the stuff that one might associate with Papua New Guinea – cannibals, tribal warfare, fiercely face-painted warriors – originates from the Highlands. Those short, powerful guys with a boar tusk pierced through their septum – that’s a Highlander. Before I left for PNG, I remember Robert Siegel, an associate professor of immunology at Stanford who spent some time in the Highlands, telling me about men in his village casually explaining to him how they had just torched huts of another village because there was a tribal conflict and retribution was part of their way of life. I was definitely intrigued.

The Papua New Guinean Highlands’ history helps explain its wild reputation. Europeans first discovered the island of New Guinea in the early part of the 16th century, landing and staying in and around the lowland areas. They didn’t even bother venturing to the center of the island, assuming that only mountains and dense jungle existed. In the 1930s European explorers finally made the trek up there, only to discover about a million people living amid the rugged landscape. Think about that. A place that was “discovered” by Europeans only about 75 years ago.

highlands22

Tribal warfare was and is a very real thing up in the Highlands. While as recently as the 1970s, warriors used traditional bows and arrows, spears, and shields, at some point some guy brought a gun to the battlefield and ruined it for everyone. I heard a lot of men talk about that with regret, as warfare with spears and arrows, while still deadly, was more like a game to them. One of my friends from up there told me about how his dad got stabbed in the leg with a spear, and immediately upon release from the local clinic, went right back to the battlefield as though it were a playoff soccer game and he was their injured star forward.

From what I could gather, the introduction of guns to tribal warfare was like our introduction of the atom bomb to conventional warfare. It totally redefined the rules. So these days, tribal warfare seems more akin to gang warfare. Your tribe members are your people, and if one of them gets crossed, you’re obligated to back him up.

highlands31

Hence retribution as a culturally significant and necessary action. But now they use pistols and AK’s instead of arrows and spears. Interestingly, poverty usually prevents most disputes from becoming too drawn out. Once both sides agree they are spending too much of their respective resources on bullets (expensive to them), they agree to call it quits. Still, a good amount of people die.

And yes, cannibalism was indeed practiced among certain tribes, a few relatively recently. Apparently cannibalism still exists in isolated places, but for the most part, it’s a thing of the past. I guess it offended the missionaries.

highlands41

While the mystique of the Highlands certainly drew me, I did have an ulterior motive: finding the coolest little fuzzy wuzzy animal on the planet.


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