9 Adventure Country
There is no sea innavigable, no land uninhabitable.
- R. Thorne, Merchant and geographer, 1527
I'd been sailing all day and there were still coconuts and papayas rolling around the anchors and tangled lines strewn about the cockpit. Sails needed mending, the wind vane was acting sluggish and needed its swollen nylon bearings filed down again, the bottom was beginning to foul with barnacles and grass that should have been scrubbed off, and loose gear inside the cabin wasn't properly stowed for sea. I hated to begin a trip without first putting things in order. Sloppiness of this degree was an invitation to a thousand possible problems. My only excuse was the hurried, forced departure and the fatigue I suffered from a flu virus that likely arrived on the island aboard last month's mail boat from Honiera. It had been circulating around the island from village to village, slipping into the huts like a Fijian war party out for blood.
With the boat moving slowly to the west-southwest under reefed sails, I crawled into my bunk, letting the rest go until later. It was a lousy way to begin what might be one of the toughest legs of my Pacific crossing – 1,400 miles across the Coral Sea to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. For three days, I was mostly in my bunk, unable and unwilling to give anything more than minimal attention to the boat's navigation and maintenance. I did get up to see the high peak of Vanikoro Island in the Santa Cruz Group as I passed a safe 30 miles to its south. Fortunately, the winds had returned to the southeast and steadied so I wasn't needed much on deck until I recovered a few days later.
After I passed the dangerous Indispensable Reefs (Who ever thought of naming hull-rending reefs after the high-sounding names of the ships that first reported them?), the feeble trade winds exhaled their last dying gasp for the year. It was now the transition time between the southeast and northwest monsoons, a time of calms and light airs from all points of the compass. For hours at a time, the sails hung exhausted and limp, panting for air as the swell rolled them with the boat. With constant attention to sail trim, we recorded two days of 40-mile runs; a big change from the easy progress I'd become accustomed to in the trade wind zone.
For two days, I sailed through what must have been the scattered remnants of the same fields of floating pumice I'd encountered 2,000 miles and four weeks earlier between Tonga and Fiji. In a kind of tortoise and hare race across the Pacific, the pumice, pushed by current and wind, passed by while I laid over in Tikopia. Now I moved ahead of it again. After a rare windy night, I walked around the deck in the morning and brushed off the gravelly bits of stone the waves had tossed aboard. Some of the stones had a colony of small creatures clinging to them. In the past month since they were created, the stones had become floating islands for tiny clams, crabs, grasses and a kind of jelly fish that gripped with suction cups. The apparently empty waters around me were full of opportunistic life in search of a home.
Even the fish and birds became scarce some days. Twice I saw a ship on the horizon and once heard a jet high overhead. Otherwise, I lived alone. Slowly, Atom and I ticked off the miles westward while the days flowed one to another from sunrise to sunset, moonrise to moonset. Across the Pacific, I had been amazed and enchanted by the ever-changing moods of the sea, the glorious landfalls and the friendly people who helped me on my way. Remembering it now is like being drawn into a strangely familiar and vivid dream.
The spinnaker was my best ally to harness the light winds; its billowing spread of light nylon allowing me to gain a knot or two above what the jib provided. It meant the ability to sail even at one knot – an extra 24 miles a day – instead of sitting dead in the water under a breeze that barely flickered a candle. It was something of a handful to manage alone. It had the nasty habit every now and then of wrapping itself around the forestay during wind shifts. Somewhere on the Coral Sea, it played this trick and wound itself so tight around the forestay I had to climb hand over hand halfway up the stay to unravel it. Then, I dashed back to correct the helm before it could wrap up again.
A few hours later, the spinnaker halyard broke and the whole sail went overboard, pinned against the hull as we moved over it. By the time I got the mainsail down, the spinnaker had wrapped around the rudder and propeller and would not pull free. I dreaded the thought of leaving the boat in mid-ocean, even on a calm day, and hung my head over both sides of the deck to make sure there was no shark hiding under the hull. Then, I lowered the rope ladder and attached a floating safety line to my harness, in case the boat should drift away faster than I could swim. After a few dives, I had the sail untangled and hoisted it back on deck. I was relieved there was only one small tear in the sail that I patched in a few minutes. Not to be beaten so easily, I hoisted the wet and salty sail on a spare halyard and had no further troubles with it that day. For five hours I hand-steered under a fierce sun before the wind freshened enough for the self-steering to take over.
At sunset on my fifteenth day at sea, I sighted the mountains of New Guinea off the starboard bow. For the last fifty miles to Port Moresby, I sailed cautiously along the reefs that extended five to ten miles off the coast. A few miles from the harbor lay the hulk of an old freighter stranded on the reef, within sight of the calm harbor I wanted to enter. I might have taken the wreck as a warning and kept my distance. Unfortunately, I noticed that my traced copy of the chart of this coast lacked detail and I had unwittingly strayed too close to shore. In a moment, I found myself in a sea of foaming breakers and could see the brown coral heads a few feet under the keel. I swung around to an offshore tack, any minute expecting to feel coral crunching into fiberglass. Somehow, I managed to avoid contact with the bottom and gained deeper water.
A mile farther down the coast, I found the buoy that marked the true inlet to the harbor. I steered through the shallows of the harbor, probably appearing to be a ghost to passing fishermen in canoes, as I was draped in a white sheet against the scorching sun, which had badly burnt me during yesterday's long stint of hand-steering.
From seaward, the capital city of Port Moresby lies hidden behind a hill until it suddenly exposes itself with a few modern multi-story office buildings and a hotel. Around the next headland, The Royal Papua Yacht Club docks and clubhouse contrasts sharply with the dilapidated shacks of discarded tin and lumber that comprise the squatter settlements on the city's perimeter. With all the anchorages within the bay being exposed to the variable winds of this time of year, I went straight into the security of the yacht club's inner basin. Leaning over the bow I picked up a line to a guest mooring. As with my neighboring boats, a second line tied the stern to the shore so that more boats could squeeze into the small basin.
Aha, New Guinea at last! A name in my mind that was synonymous with adventure. The name still quickens my pulse when I envision its rain forests and impenetrable swamps, snow-capped equatorial mountains, a recent history of brave missionaries facing headhunting stone-age tribes. Here, I planned to cease my sea wanderings for a few months of jungle trekking.
There was little hint I was in adventure country when I walked in to register with the Yacht Club secretary. Its formal atmosphere (no t-shirts or sandals at the bar, please) and white-washed tidiness conjured up images of a British colonial outpost from the past where tea is served promptly to club members by silent, white-uniformed, dark-skinned natives. For a small monthly fee, I had a guest membership giving me indefinite use of the mooring and club facilities. Even if it hadn't been so agreeable, this was the only safe place on the south coast to leave the boat to explore the interior. As I exchanged my last $100 bill for some similar amount of local kina dollars, I was reminded that I also needed to find temporary employment here.
More than 30,000 years ago, New Guinea was a bridge for man's migration from Asia to Australia. Among islands, its size is only surpassed by Greenland. The Portuguese explorers called it Ilhas dos Papuas (Island of the Fuzzy Hairs). With no visible wealth to exploit and some very inhospitable natives, the island was ignored for a few hundred years by the colonial powers as they sought out more valuable “ungoverned” lands to occupy.
Such a sizable island ultimately could not go unclaimed. First, the Dutch included the western half of the island in their Dutch East Indies Archipelago and named it after the African country of Guinea. In 1884, Britain annexed the southeast section of the island and Germany claimed the northeast corner. After World War I, the Australians controlled the former British and German sectors. In 1962, Indonesia pushed the Dutch out of western New Guinea, later changing its name from the awful sounding Irian Barat (West Hotland) to the less descriptive but more appealing Irian Jaya (New West). By 1975, Australian New Guinea became fully independent Papua New Guinea, although Australia still supports its former colony by subsidizing a sizable chunk of its national budget.
New Guineans, or “nationals,” as they are called by Australians living in the country, range from the jet-black-skinned Buka tribe, to the short, bearded people of the highland interior, to those resembling brown-skinned Polynesians along the island's south coast and off-lying islands.
Among the massive mountain ranges that fragment the island are peaks standing over 15,000 feet above the sea. Great rivers, some whose headwaters are yet unexplored, cut through the island's rocky backbone in rushing rapids, then slow and widen in a meandering search for the sea through hundreds of miles of lowland swamps teeming with crocodiles, snakes and malaria. This rugged and uninviting topography isolates the tribes as much as any man-made border, resulting in an island where some 700 dialects are spoken and tribalism runs as deep as the valleys separating each tribe. I had at least six months ahead of me, until the end of the Northwest Monsoon in May when the southeast trades would resume, to explore this enormous and diverse island.
While researching travel routes and copying maps at the University of PNG, I met John Stevens, a resident Australian accountant and weekend explorer. The following weekend I joined him and some other members of the PNG Bushwalkers Association for a day-long hike, or bush-walk, as the Aussies call it, to Mount Diamond, a nearby wilderness area fifteen miles outside the capital of Port Moresby. Six of us climbed out of our van at the end of the road and followed a trail called the Aerial Ropeway. Here a cable car system had carried ore out from a copper mine in the early 1900s and now lay abandoned. Sections of steel cable still drooped low over the valley, suspended from rusting hilltop towers. We ascended some steep pitches on our hands and knees. Then we sprinted down into valleys of tangled bush, bamboo clumps and rock-lined creeks. It was a good day of tough training for future treks. By the end of the day one of our group was laid out with heat exhaustion and I was not far from it myself.
The PNG Bushwalkers Association was largely a social group of 260 members, mostly “expats,” or resident expatriate Australians, living here on temporary work contracts. They gathered mainly for drinking parties and occasional day hikes on the weekends. A core group of the more active members organized occasional expeditions where they would fly into some of the island's remotest corners. John Stevens had just heard about a recently completed mountaintop airstrip in the Goilala Valley, in Papua New Guinea's Central Province. Previously, the people of the valley were cut off from the outside world by an arduous five-day trek through vertiginous mountains and across bridgeless white-water rivers to the nearest road. The several thousand natives in the Goilala area had barely begun the transition from the stone-age to the 20th century. John and I and two other Bushwalkers immediately began planning a trip that would make us the first hikers to fly into the valley.
The airstrip was constructed next to a Catholic mission station in the village of Inonge. Years before, Father Gerrard had walked into the lower Goilala Valley to work single-handedly among the natives to save lives, if not souls. For the past ten years, he had toiled alongside the natives with picks and shovels to carve a short airstrip into one of the mountain peaks. There is no level terrain in the Goilala, and even the finished airstrip runs at a crazy angle with a cliff-hanging dog-leg in its center and sheer drop-offs at both ends. The national airline of PNG described it as the world's scariest white-knuckle airstrip. We found one of the very few Australian bush pilots willing to run supplies, and the occasional passenger, into the valley in his single engine plane.
At daybreak, on a Saturday morning in November, our small group met at Port Moresby Jackson Airport. We had arranged to charter the plane to take us to Inonge and return to pick us up on Monday. There was no way I'd miss a trip like this, even though it cost me most of my last remaining $100 bill.
Our pilot, who introduced himself as Rusty, arrived late, complaining of a hangover. He led us onto the already hot tarmac and opened the tiny baggage door of his single engine six-seater for us to load our backpacks. To our eyes, the plane was a disappointment – no, it actually scared the hell out of me. A window was cracked and taped, the seats and headliner were shredded, and a suspicious puddle of oil lay on the tarmac directly under the engine. When John pointed out the growing oil slick to the pilot, he rubbed his scraggly gray beard, slapped the wing and said, “No worries, mate. This bird's got plenty of hours in her yet. Yer bags aren't too heavy, I hope?”
John echoed my feelings when he whispered in my ear, “I guess it's too late to turn back now.”
After our bags were in, Rusty somehow managed to cram in two 50-pound bags of rice for the mission, stowing them under my feet and forcing my knees up nearly to my chest. The plane rattled and shuddered as we labored down the runway, seemingly unable to gain the air. “No worries,” Rusty shouted over his shoulder, “she'll be much lighter on the return trip.” It wasn't the return trip that concerned me at that moment. Finally, the wings found their lift in the humid morning air and we rose and banked to the northwest where a mantle of green below replaced the squatter shacks and outlying settlements of the capital. Below us, the serpentine twists of the Brown River ran like chocolate milk as it doubled and tripled back on itself in a final attempt to postpone its appointment with the sea.
Moments later, we were within the mountains, not entirely over them, but skimming through gaps in the peaks in an attempt to stay below the mist and clouds that built above us on either side. While weaving our way between purple and black storm clouds being buffeted by mountain thermals, Rusty felt moved to announce, “A little rough today. Should have got an earlier start.” He went on to thrill us with the popular bush pilot's truism: “When you see a cloud over New Guinea, you can bet there's a mountain inside, mate.”
Staying below the clouds, we shot through tangled mountains and gorges until a small earth-colored scar appeared in the endless green canopy. We tightened our grip on the seats as we dropped onto the low end of an impossibly short patch of dirt. “Amazing how that 15 degree incline slows you right down,” Rusty said after he braked to a halt a few feet from the cliff edge marking the end of the runway.
Father Gerrard, some porters and a small group of children had walked out along the dirt track from the mission to meet the plane. Rusty shook the priest's hand as he gave him a packet of letters. Then he hustled us to quickly unload the plane as if he were expecting incoming mortar rounds. We helped spin the plane's tail around so Rusty could get out before the lowering cloud deck boxed him in.
“Man's got nerves of steel,” John said as we watched him drop off the low end of the runway and then reappear, a few long moments later, rising up and out of the valley before finally disappearing in those mountain-filled clouds.
“Yes, nerves of steel no doubt fortified by that bottle of booze I saw stashed under his seat,” another in our group added.
Tall and black-bearded Father Gerrard had received our letter on the previous flight and was obviously pleased to have visitors. We had many miles to travel that day, so after the priest pointed out the path for us to follow for a circular trek of the lower valley, we agreed to return to stay at the mission the following evening.
Compared to the sweltering coastal heat we'd just left, here at 6,500 feet above the sea, the air was refreshingly cool. We followed the footpath as it clung to the mountainside, running parallel to, and just below, the encircling ridges. This track, we were told, circled the entire 20-mile-wide valley with one dip down to cross a bridge over a major river. Like walking around the inside edge of a giant bowl, we had the impression the whole world begins and ends in this valley. For the people of the Goilala, that is their reality. The Goilala doesn't just feel remote from the world, it truly is its own world. Below us, the powerful Vanapa River, now in flood from days of rain, brawled and beat its way between great black boulders and over fallen trees.
Our path took us through a village of huts with sides of woven strips of split bamboo and roofs covered in grass thatch. As we approached, we startled a group of women who shrieked in surprise when they saw us and then vanished into their homes. Little naked children ran terrified and crying after their mothers. “I don't think they care much for the looks of your mug, John,” someone called out to John, who was walking ahead of us. Most people here had never been out of their valley or seen any white men aside from the priest. Before Father Gerrard had taught them otherwise, people here believed that all white men were the re-embodied spirits of their dead kinsmen. From the astonished looks we received, it seemed they believed it still.
Alerted by the cries of the women and children, a few men stepped out to meet us. Soon every man in that village had lined up to shake our hands. Emboldened by the men, many of the women and children reappeared to stare at the invaders in wide-eyed amazement. From then on, the same scene of initial shock turned to inquisitiveness was replayed at each village we passed. The natives clustered around us like pigeons around a few seeds as they reached out to touch our skin or clothing.
Many people in this province speak three languages. The first language they learn is Ples Tok, literally “Place Talk,” which is usually confined to one or two adjacent valleys. Hiri Motu is an ancient language spoken along the southern coast and by those mountain natives who have trading contact with the coastal areas. Melanesian Pidgin is a corruption of English taught in mission and government schools throughout the country. This Pidgin, or Tok Pisin as it's called, is used as the lingua franca throughout the linguistically divided islands of Melanesia. Two members of our group spoke Pidgin, I had a basic and growing vocabulary of Pidgin that I had first heard in Tikopia, and John Stevens spoke some Hiri Motu. Between us, we communicated in a mishmash of Pidgin, Motu and hand signals.
At this first village a gray-haired old man, wearing a bark cloth laplap and wide grin of black stumps of teeth, took hold of my arm as I passed. He kept repeating “Yangpela!” (Young one) with a look on his face like he just discovered a missing son. My 26-year-old pale baby face was the youngest of its kind he had seen. In the mountains of New Guinea, the hard life aged people prematurely. Living with untreated tropical diseases and malnourishment takes its toll.
Later in the highlands, I was to see people existing on little food besides kau-kau (sweet potatoes) and sleeping through cold nights on the bare dirt in their huts with no blankets. The average life expectancy in PNG was around 40 years – although no one counts the passing years or could tell you their age. It was enough for them to know which still-living generation they belonged to in their family. After we were well past the village, the old man released my arm and indicated he would catch up with us later after returning to his village. Someone joked that he wanted to take me home as his adopted son, which was probably true.
We walked past neat garden plots where kau-kau and corn clung to the steep hillsides surrounded by fences of vine-lashed logs. Outside the fences, pigs heavier than men freely roamed the bush. At Visi Village the population consisted of some 30 people and at least 100 pigs kept in pens. Along the trails we encountered pigs of all dispositions. The bravest ones held their ground as we approached only to crash into the bush at the last moment. Pigs are an important source of wealth throughout New Guinea. They are far too valuable as symbols of wealth and as trade goods to be eaten except on special occasions. Pigs were then used, as they most likely still are, for purchasing brides; the number of pigs paid to the girl's father depending on their social position and her reputation at working hard in the gardens. Even after marriage the women usually live, not with their husbands, but in separate huts they share with the young children and the family's pigs to ensure the pigs are well cared for. In those days, it was not uncommon to see a woman breastfeeding a piglet whose own mother had died or run off.
Often when coming around the corner on a trail, we met people traveling to or from their gardens. Upon seeing us they inevitably started walking backwards, tripping over each other as if Martians had materialized in front of them. Usually, they regained their senses within a few moments and we'd exchange greetings and handshakes all around.
The natives used to live in fear of meeting strangers on the paths between gardens and village. The cannibal Kukukuku tribe (pronounced “cooker-cooker”) inspired such dread they were referred to in whispers as “the terrible ones in bark cloaks who come down from the mountains to kill us.” Such was the ferocity of the Kukukuku, and the universal horror of them by the other natives, that they were recruited by security companies in Port Moresby and often guard the homes of expat Australian families. Knowledge of one diminutive Kukukuku, armed with a spear and bush knife, protecting a compound, was enough to dissuade any modern street gang.
Native tracks crossed these valleys for thousands of years but this road, as they call it, was not typical of native paths that mostly run helter-skelter up and down the hills. This track, begun by Father Gerrard, was laid out at an average incline of within five degrees from level, was clearly designed for easy traveling.
As we made our way along the valley perimeter, we passed under icy waterfalls cascading over the road before they plunged headlong into the river that rushed along the valley floor. At each turn in the trail we had another view to the east of vegetation-soaked gullies rising to cloud-splattered peaks. From one vantage point, looking across the valley, I counted ten small clearings where clusters of bush houses stood among fenced gardens. We stopped for lunch in a shady spot next to one of those convenient waterfalls, filling our water bottles from its cool mineral-laden waters. Soon enough we were moving again to the music of crunching boots on the trail, the hypnotic rush and rumble of the river over rocks, and the squeal of pigs fleeing our approach.
In a late afternoon mist, we entered Oro Village, the halfway point of our walk around the valley. At this point we planned to descend to the river, cross its log bridge, and return to Inonge along the valley's eastern ridge the following day. At the village we met the local headman, or chief, of the fifty village inhabitants. The chief warned us that the Vanapa River bridge had been washed away again by flood waters a few days before. We walked down to look at the missing bridge and saw that it was quite impossible to get across. The rain-swollen river still ran fast and deep as it rushed over its boulder-lined bed. The height of the flood was such that now there was little sign that there had ever been a bridge here. To reach the next village, which lay clearly in view on the river's opposite shore, would require a two-day detour to the very end of the valley and back up again.
Since we could go no further, we accepted the chief's invitation to stay the night in the village schoolhouse. The villagers built the schoolhouse a year earlier in hope a volunteer teacher from the Peace Corps would come to stay with them – they were still waiting. The two-room building built of local timber and a corrugated tin roof sat on sturdy posts that raised it high enough off the ground to allow a family of pigs to make their home underneath.
The entire village followed us up the stairs and into the building. Those unable to fit inside crowded on the porch looking in at us from the windows. In the dim light I looked up at a mass of dark faces with white teeth and eyes that glowed with delight as we unpacked our gear on the floor. The crowd, who were dressed in an assortment of native fabrics and donated western clothing, discussed among themselves with great detail every strange new item that emerged from our packs, the ones in back pushing forward to see. The novelty of strangers in town began to wear off with the wet chill of evening and most people returned to sit around the smoldering earth fireplaces in their windowless huts.
From what I later came to know from living with similar tribes, here the villagers would undoubtedly talk late into the night, debating what important mission had brought us here, unable to believe we had come all this way only to meet them and look around at the scenery as we had claimed. No, it was inconceivable that we would walk away tomorrow, never to be seen here again. Surely, now their prayers to the new white God would be answered, and at least one of the white men would remain or come back to be their teacher, assistant to the missionary, or perhaps open a health care center, as Father Gerrard had promised would happen one day.
In the last light of the gray afternoon, clouds formed around and below us to drift along with the mist hanging in the air. On the near opposite ridge, inaccessible to us, smoke rose like puffs of cotton from the cooking fires of a village. These low, wet skies brought a dank, brooding atmosphere of wilderness, despite our location at the edge of a village.
As we settled in to our quarters, I heard the familiar cry “Yangpela” from my gray-haired old friend, coming up the schoolhouse steps. He said only “kai-kai” (food) as he proudly presented us with a basket full of steaming ears of corn, roasted over a fire only minutes earlier. With some difficulty, I persuaded the old fellow to accept a few of our PNG dollars, called kina, named after the island's traditional shell money. To anyone who might doubt the paper's value, there was a picture of a kina shell printed on it. We chomped on the roasted corn and listened, without quite understanding, to the old man's monologue, given in a mixture of Pidgin and Ples Tok.
After a long day of straining muscles too long underemployed, sleep came easily, in spite of the hardness of the uneven wood floor and the noises of the pigs rooting around on the ground beneath us. Up before dawn to get an early start, we found the sky had cleared, exposing stars shimmering in the chill air. We shared a breakfast of cracked wheat cereal cooked over our kerosene camp stove, then packed up and were gone with the gathering light. Because of the washed-out bridge, we retraced our course of the previous day back to Inonge. We walked under clear skies typical of the mountain mornings while below us puffy clouds decorated the sides of the gorge. In several directions, columns of rising smoke revealed the morning cooking fires.
All morning, the hills were ringing out with the haunting hoots and yodeling cries from villages near and far. These strong-lunged criers passed information from one village to another, akin to relay stations on a telegraph line. We were clearly the main feature in that day's news bulletin because we were surprising fewer people along the trail and some were even expecting us with hands outstretched to grip ours as we passed. Then those eerie yodeling cries began anew as we moved on towards the next village.
Unlike our sociable trek, the first Australian patrol officers, called kiaps, to arrive in the mountains of New Guinea were regularly under siege from hostile natives. The grandfathers of these same hilltop criers that called out the news of our movements had alerted the warriors to prepare an attack. If the friendly intentions of the natives were not known to us, we would have been filled with fear at the haunting sound of the criers.
As we passed under a slope of tobacco plants, we met a group of women carrying string bags, called bilums, bulging with vegetables on the way home from their gardens. Since the telegraph had announced our presence throughout the valley, there were no more scenes of hysteria such as we caused the day before. The women laid out some of the corn, kau-kau and cabbages from the bilums onto the trail for us to take, then shyly stepped back for us to pass. We thanked them for the offering, stepped over the piles of vegetables and moved on out of their way.
Afternoon brought the inevitable rainy-season torrential downpour of cold rain teeming down from low curtains of clouds. We found shelter under an open sided lumber mill powered by a paddle wheel in a creek running noisily under its floor. Constructed by the priest and his helpers, the mill wheel was engaged only when a local building project was underway. Without roads to transport it out of the valley, the lumber cannot be exported, thus saving the forests from man's greed. Their practice is to fell only enough trees to complete the project at hand, thus balancing the people's needs with the regenerative powers of nature – then the mill blade falls silent again. Sharing the shelter were two families that came in from the muddy trail shortly after us. The men sat patiently puffing harsh local tobacco stuffed into a long bamboo pipe they passed between them.
The rain eased slightly so we shouldered our packs and walked on to the mission. We arrived, wet and cold, during another heavy cloudburst, to a warm welcome by Father Gerrard. He led us to a new guesthouse next to the church where we rinsed off the mud from the trail under a cold shower fed by gravity from an overhead tank. When the spirited French priest met with us that evening, we learned more about the many development projects he was involved with in the Goilala. Besides building the church, lumber mill, visitors' guesthouse and airstrip, he ran the mission school and worked to introduce new crops to the valley. He hoped the mission could earn a small income if more visitors like us come to stay in the guesthouse while sightseeing in the valley. This was a man who could not be idle. He had accomplished much here and intended to do much more.
In his parish, I noticed that the people were not coerced to abandon their traditional culture and the women were not forced to cover their breasts in Western civilization-induced shame. Unlike many zealous missionaries who flocked to New Guinea over the past century in a race to transform the societies they encountered to fit their ethnocentric view, Father Gerrard's way was to convert souls through the quiet persuasion of example and tolerance. The natives responded to his example by working alongside him on his many projects. We had to admire his resourcefulness. I was sure that a man of his drive and compassion would have come to help these people even without a church's sanction.
The pragmatic style of some early missionaries in PNG is illustrated by the story of Father Ross, an American missionary working in the New Guinea highlands in the 1930s. By then, a few missionaries had been killed by natives anxious to get their steel tools and other equipment. Once, a visiting priest from Port Moresby accompanied Father Ross on his weekly rounds between villages. Several times, when they passed natives on the trail, the visiting priest held out a crucifix at them as if fending off vampires. He told father Ross, “Over by Port Moresby, when we go out and meet natives, we show them the crucifix, so they know who we are.”
“You do, eh?” Father Ross said, and pulled a .38 revolver out of his holster. “Over here, we show them this.”
Another time, a village chief approached him and said, “Let us go to Ginde Village – they are our enemies – and clean them up. We'll take all their pigs and young women and burn their houses and run them right out of the area.”
“Oh no, we don't do things like that,” Father Ross said.
“But you've got the guns and the dogs! Why don't you do it? It doesn't make sense that you've got the power to take what you want, and you let the Ginde people come down here and haggle with you over the price of a pig!”
Gradually, the missionary's ideal of living in peace with their neighboring tribes took a tenuous root. Yet even today, tribalism and clan enmities frequently erupt into feuds. Despite the best efforts of the colonizers to vaccinate the natives of New Guinea with Christianity, the ancient beliefs, and the practice of sorcery, run deeper in their soul than Western teachings can yet reach.
Father Gerrard told us that the heavy traffic we passed on the trails the past couple days was from people busy preparing for a sing-sing ceremony to be held next week. The event would involve several villages in a ritualized system of gift exchange, mostly of pigs and the valuable kina shells acquired through trading runs to the coast over many generations. This was a carefully crafted compensation settlement to appease the clan of a young woman who was “stolen” from her parents by a man from a neighboring clan. After the ceremonial payoff, they would feast on pork and kau-kau. As the feasting went on, warriors would face each other in a dance of mock battle carrying spears, bows and arrows, and wearing bird-of-paradise plumes in their towering headdresses. The government and the churches encourage the sing-sings as an alternative to the inveterate and bloody tribal wars sometimes involving hundreds of warriors and lasting several months.
At dawn the next morning, Father Gerrard invited us to breakfast in the main house adjacent to the church. In his simple and solid colonial style home, the five of us sat around a finely-crafted circular hardwood table with rotating centerpiece. On it, his native servant and cook placed bowls of scrambled eggs, loaves of hot homemade bread with jams, and a pot of locally grown coffee to wash it all down. The priest sent the loaded centerpiece slowly spinning with a turn of his hand and we served ourselves as items rotated within reach. This medieval scene, with us like knights out of King Arthur's Court, was in stark contrast to the dirt-floored thatch huts of the natives. The church's view, Father Gerrard told us, was that the natives were favorably impressed by their spiritual leaders living in relative grandeur, and that they were uplifted and learned more by this example than if the priest lived in a more humble abode. As they learned, they too would improve their living conditions.
Our plane was overdue. We watched the clouds rolling in and wondered if Rusty was sober and more importantly, if he would be able to find us. If he could not locate this little mountain pad in the overcast conditions, he would be forced to return to Moresby and try again another day. My fellow hikers were watching the sky anxiously as they were expected back at their various jobs in the city that morning.
While waiting at the edge of the airstrip Father Gerrard approached me and asked if I would consider staying at the mission for a while and help him with his various construction projects. I could tell he was a man used to getting what he wanted. As much as I would have liked to stay and help, I knew I had to return to the city and find a paying job right away since my empty pockets made me nearly as poor as his parishioners. I told him he could write me in a few months if he still needed someone and I would try to come back then. He never wrote, so I assumed he found other volunteers. In the years since my life has led me in many directions, yet I often feel the urge to return to the Goilala to engage in the honest, hard work of charity.
We heard the distant hum of the plane as it searched for an opening in the clouds. Rusty made several passes overhead, unseen by us, until he found a clear spot of sky to drop through. He lined up and literally dived onto the airstrip. No chance to go around for another shot here. Moments later, we were loading our gear. Having settled our bill earlier with a donation to the church, we said goodbye to Father Gerrard and hastily got underway before the clouds rolled back in. We raced downhill at full throttle using every bit of the bumpy dirt strip, and then ran off the end while still dropping into the thousand foot deep gorge. The engine strained as we dropped into the abyss, every soul on board praying in his own fashion and willing the plane upward. Once we gained enough air speed, we made a slow ascent out of the valley.
Our one-hour flight back was a twisting course around mountain peaks and dark rain clouds. As an empty beer can rolled back from under the pilot's seat, I made the same oath here that I took on the way in – that I would never for any reason fly again. Though cursing “this bloody New Guinea weather,” Rusty expertly interpreted the scrambled jigsaw puzzle of terrain and cloud and brought us safely home. Hazardous flights like these make for hard-drinking pilots and short careers.
Back among the concrete high-rise buildings of the capital, I marveled at the contrast of our one-hour leap back to the 20th Century. One mighty mountain range was all that separated the Goilala from the logging roads that would perhaps, one day, destroy its rugged beauty. The double-edged sword of an airstrip or a road brings the people what they want – we can't deny them that. But we can also hope some of these last wild places will be left as they are. It should be enough to know they are out there and they do exist. Now can we let them be?