14 Surviving New Guinea

When a man does not know what harbor he is heading for, no wind is the right one.

- Seneca, Roman Philosopher


Across Islands

It was now well into the season of the Southeast Trades in the Indian Ocean. I needed to get back to Moresby and prepare my boat for the next leg of the voyage in order to cross before cyclone season. When I passed through Mt. Hagen earlier on my way into the Highlands, I had reserved a plane ticket back to Port Moresby. With the delay on the mountain, there was now just one day left to make my flight.

After his taste of the outside world, Kerowa decided to remain in his village but offered to accompany me to the airport. It took a full day to reach Kundiawa where we were again invited to stay the night at Peter's apartment next to the bank. A cold shower, hot meal and eight hours sleep on a hard cot – such unaccustomed luxury. In the morning, after a late start, I phoned the airport to find the time of the last flight out and felt there was just enough time to catch it.

We arrived at Mt. Hagen by PMV early in the afternoon where we unloaded in the “Chinatown” section of the town, so named because three Chinese merchants ran general merchandise stores selling mostly identical items along that dusty street. My flight was leaving in one hour and I was still ten miles from the airport. Ten miles in New Guinea, I learned, can be impossibly far. We checked for buses at the PMV stop and found none going to the airport. Each empty bus that pulled up was set upon by a horde of people pushing and shoving to get a seat. It was clear I stood no chance of getting on any bus here, burdened as I was with two large packs.

I wasted precious time looking around in vain for a taxi or a telephone. By now, a crowd of men pressed in around us and from the hostile looks on some of the faces, I felt an increasing urgency to get out of there. Some looked to be scrutinizing us to see if they could get away with mugging us and stealing our bags. Feeling like a rabbi at the hadj, I stood out as the lone white man in a crowd of hundreds of ill-tempered PNG tribesmen. To make things worse, Kerowa was from a different tribe. He knew a confrontation of some kind was imminent. Though we each carried a long knife on our belts and tried to look unafraid, I noticed Kerowa's hands trembling.

A man in the front of the crowd, who looked like the headman for at least part of the group, reached down to grab my pack while watching my face for a reaction. On impulse, I grabbed his arm and he froze in a moment of indecision. With my other hand, I thrust a five kina bill in his hand and told him in Pidgin I was hiring him to help Kerowa watch my bags while I went to find a taxi, and that he would get more money when I returned. This move took him by surprise. He seemed to agree and, at any rate, I had no choice but to trust him.

Perspectives of reality change when you're terrified. What I saw in the gathering throng looked to me as threatening as a thousand Zulu warriors rattling spears and bows and hissing at me. In reality, they may have been as indifferent to me as a crowd of New Yorkers. How could I know? There was no time for these thoughts as I pushed my way through the agitated crowd.

At the police station two blocks away, a man inside shut and locked the front door when I approached. I went next door to the fire station and pulled in vain on another locked door. Around back, I peered through a window and saw the fire chief asleep on a couch and woke him up by tapping on the window. He unlocked the fire station to let me use the phone. His five-page phone book listed no cab company. The local phone operator said yes, there was one taxi in town, but his number was unlisted. No, she could not give me the number unless I could tell her the owner's name. Apparently, I was stuck in the Twilight Zone. Hanging up the phone, I explained my predicament to the native fireman, telling him my flight leaves in fifteen minutes, I had no money left with me to stay at a hotel, and a riot was about to break out in the street where I left my bags if he didn't help me.

He listened calmly, then dressed in his uniform and fireman's hat and told me he'd take care of it – as if mine was a common request. He stepped into the street with outstretched arms and stopped the first empty bus that came down the road. When the surprised driver halted, he pushed me into the bus and ordered the driver to take me to pick up my bags and go straight to the airport – no stops. Still amazed that the fireman had done this for me, I directed the driver down the street to where Kerowa waved at me from the middle of the crowd. As the people parted to allow the bus in, I could see Kerowa's expression change from fright to a relieved grin. The crowd pressed back in around the bus but I held them back at the door until Kerowa got inside with my bags. I handed another five kina note out the window to outstretched hands as the bus pulled away.

We jumped out at the airport with no time to spare. At the check-in counter I flashed my minister credentials bought from Universal Life Church, Inc. for ten dollars when I was a teenager. Originally bought as a ruse to keep me out of any possible military draft, the official-looking card had finally paid for itself on the edge of the priest-ridden jungles of New Guinea. The agent at the counter had seen every type of missionary come through there, and with a sideways glance at my rough attire, credited me a twenty-five percent clergy discount. Playing the part, I stupidly said, “Bless you,” and ran for the departure gate.

Kerowa and I had done and seen so much together it was a shock to find we had only seconds to say goodbye, never to see each other again. I had put him through hardships, testing his friendship to the limit. His every waking moment seemed devoted to my welfare and he was as true a friend, in his way, as I've ever had. Kerowa had little concept of where my home lay and the extent of the oceans I must cross to get there, but he imagined many dangers ahead of me. “I hope you live to reach your village again,” he told me, “and will tell our story to your clan.” I promised I would. Through our unlikely friendship, we discovered something of the wider worlds within each of us. He returned to his mountain village and I to the sea. The stories of our shared adventures would be told and retold around the night fires in Pungumu Village and in my own house one day.

The twin prop-driven plane to Moresby held about fifty passengers, none of them, I was sure, as relieved as I to return to sea level. After take-off one of the pilots came down the aisle and I recognized him as a friend from the Bushwalkers Association. I rode the rest of the way to Moresby in the cockpit in the navigator's jump seat. Below us lay an exceptional darkness with occasional pinprick dots of light marking the outposts of towns spread thinly across the jungle. The lights marked the relentless spread of civilization, eventually reaching people like the Pungumu who will have to adapt. A navigation instrument in the cockpit flickered as it counted down the miles remaining to Port Moresby. The pilots saw Distance to Go. To me it was a countdown for our time machine back to the modern world.

The population in Port Moresby was probably about one percent European, yet I was still startled to see so many white faces. My first impulse was a desire to hug each and every one of them. Not that I thought less of my Highland friends, for better friends could not be found. It was the way I was scrutinized like an alien life form that had worn me down. Day and night, wherever I went, I was on public display and could feel the unending spoken and unspoken comments of the villagers: “Look, the white man puts his boots on, he stands up, he's walking, where is he going now…” and so on. I was not paranoid and don't like complaining, I was simply exhausted from the months of intense scrutiny.

Before departing New Guinea, some friends at the Bushwalker's Club invited me to join them for a day trip hike from Mt. Diamond to a waterfall just outside Port Moresby. The same pilot who flew us back from the highlands picked me up at dawn on Sunday in his jeep and we drove to a plantation outside town where we met several other hikers. About ten of us walked from there to the abandoned copper mine at Mt. Diamond. I had hiked this area before but had wisely not entered the old mines.

This time several of us decided to explore the mine's tunnels and I followed behind someone who held a flashlight. The close sides and low roof of the tunnel were tarnished green from water seeping onto the copper ore. Bats flying out startled us as we continued in, skidding on the accumulated guano underfoot. A flashlight beam froze a rat staring back at us. Once we lost sight of the entrance, we decided to turn back since we were ill-equipped for cave exploration. As my friends moved ahead, I noticed a smaller shaft off to the right side and stepped into it to see where it led. I clearly remember the absolute blackness ahead of me. I sensed danger in the dark but, inexplicably, decided on one more step before turning back.

Whoosh…with nothing under my feet I dropped down a vertical shaft like a trapeze artist on a final fatal leap. As I fell, I grabbed at the face of the rocky shaft to slow down and succeeded only in burning the skin off my fingertips and elbows. In the midst of a terrified adrenalin rush, the mind works at incredible speed. My first thought was that the shaft must not be very deep and soon I would feel ground under my feet. Two seconds later, I was in full free-fall and imagined breaking bones when I hit bottom, if there was a bottom. A half second later, I thought I was dead and got angry at myself for dying in this mineshaft over a stupid misstep after I had come so far, and had so far yet to go.

The next thing I knew I was under water struggling to find a way up with no reference as to where up was. Long moments later I broke the surface and sucked in a lungful of dank air and spat out a mouthful of muddy water. The relief of a soft landing in deep water was soon displaced by the knowledge that this was a deep pit and no one in our group had a rope to pull me out. Drowning was now a possibility as the weight of clothing, boots and backpack pulled me down. I called up for help and wondered if they'd forgotten me and already left the mine. My thoughts raced; how long could I stay afloat, how far had I fallen? My shocked mind guessed it was hundreds of feet. I wiggled out of my small backpack, dumped its contents, and raised it to trap air for flotation. Within a minute it was empty and I repeated the process. The knowledge that I could do this for hours calmed me somewhat.

Finally someone noticed I was missing and a dim light from above illuminated my prison walls. In answer to my call for help, the man holding the flashlight calmly asked, “What are you doing down there?” as if maybe I had plunged into the shaft for a bath.

Now I could see it was only about fifty feet up the smooth-sided circular shaft that was just wide enough for me to touch each side with outstretched feet and hands. I remembered hearing a story about two men stuck down a shaft like this who escaped on their own by pressing their backs against each other and walking up the sides of the shaft. I didn't expect anyone was willing to join me to try that trick. Instead, they sent a runner to the nearest village to fetch a rope.

About an hour later, a thin rope was lowered into my hole and I secured it around my chest. Several men hoisted me until about halfway up when the rope broke and sent me plunging back to the water. Not only was the rope rotted, it was now too short. They found a solution by tying together their belts and trousers and doubling what was left of the rope.

Once I emerged into the daylight, I saw I was covered in bloody scrapes, clay and bat shit. We walked to the nearby waterfall where I soaked and cleaned my wounds on a pool of clear shallow water. Before leaving, I borrowed a flashlight and forced myself to return for one last look at that watery tomb in the hope of quelling my new-found terror of dark caves. From malaria to this mineshaft, I didn't just visit New Guinea – I survived it.

While I healed from the scrapes from my spelunking adventure, my grandmother, an aunt and a cousin visited me on their way to Hawaii, after a tour of Australia. With no room aboard Atom for four people, they stayed a few days at the only good hotel in town, which was a short walk from the yacht club. One day I borrowed a friend's car and drove them along the coast and into the nearby mountains for sightseeing. Along the road to the interior we stopped and met a transplanted highlander decked out in his ceremonial finery. He turned out to be a shrewd businessman when he waved us over to take his photo. In Pidgin he told us it would cost “one kina for the little camera and two kina for the bigger camera.” Before they left for Hawaii, I took my relatives aboard Atom for a sail under a blistering hot sun around Port Moresby's spacious harbor.

New Guinea was full of strange characters, especially those from the white “expat” tribe. Someone had labeled the majority of them “missionaries, mercenaries, or misfits.” Old plantation managers and assorted white bosses could still be found in the yacht club bar, bitterly complaining over the loss of their prosperity to the post-independence nationalists and criminal gangs.

Among the new generation of expats I met at the yacht club was Marek, a Russian dentist who fled the Soviet Union when it was not entirely legal or safe to do so. He needed temporary work while his application at the local hospital was processed, so I helped find him a job rebuilding the deck and cabin top of a plywood catamaran owned by an Australian businessman at the club.

“How hard can it be, this carpenter work?” Marek shrugged as he began ripping the deck apart with hammer and saw. Over the next couple weeks, while the owner of the boat was in Australia, Marek moved aboard. I wondered what plans he worked to as the cabin sides grew high and square above the deck. One hot afternoon, I saw a local girl stumble disheveled out of the boat pushed along by Marek, who then stood on the dock and shoved a water hose down the front of his shorts. “In this country, I suggest you wear two condoms for protection,” he said with a twisted smile.

The next time I saw him in the bar and asked how the project was going, he said, “Terrible. That damn Australian fired me and he won't pay me. Claims I ruined his boat, that it looks like bloody Russian cathedral, not sailboat!” To the relief of the yacht club members, Marek gave up his new shipwright trade and went back to drilling, hammering and chiseling the teeth of the locals.

I was fortunate to make friends with a German couple and their young son on a 32-foot steel sailboat who were upgrading the boat at the yacht club. They gave me their old, but still serviceable cockpit dodger, manual anchor windlass and slightly rusty anchor chain. They installed new equipment as I attached the old hand-me-down gear on Atom. I also took the opportunity to careen Atom at the yacht club dock and applied fresh bottom paint while standing ankle-deep in mud between tides.

Also hanging around the yacht club was Peter, an Australian with his local fiancé who were looking for passage on a yacht to Australia. The month before they had left Moresby in a hurried departure to sail to Australia in his small sailboat. Two stormy days later they had wrecked on a reef and were luckily rescued by a passing boat that returned them to Moresby. Problem was, Peter could not afford the bride price of two thousand kina her parents demanded, so in their view she was stolen property and they were hunting him down. I was sorry to explain to them I was on a solo voyage and could not make the detour. Eventually, I heard they found a boat to crew on before the angry parents could catch up to them.

While I was there, the Prime Minister of PNG repeatedly announced on radio and newspaper that they would soon bring television to the island. He did not say why they needed it, other than to say it was part of his “modernization program.” At the same time, he declared a curfew and martial law to clamp down on the lawlessness in the cities. My impression was that European-style civilization was utterly failing here in the capital city. In total contrast to the purposeful, disciplined family life in the rural areas, native men in the city had a penchant for drinking the white man's alcohol until they were either out of their minds or unconscious – a symptom of their broken spirits in a competitive city full of strangers. And still the Australian business community and PNG government were calling for more foreign investment and industrialization. To what end? To turn a proud tribal people into hopeless city dwellers? The biggest improvement, I thought unkindly, would come by sending people back to their villages and burning this city to the ground.

But that is not how I choose to remember New Guinea, this land that took so much out of me and gave back so much in return. There has always been the human impulse to seek the unknown, to test oneself in the wild places. New Guinea is where this “Ulysses factor” – the exploring instinct of man – can be pursued until fantasy comes face-to-face with reality.

I will remember the people of the timeless Goilala Valley and everywhere those that took me into their villages and families. There was Paharija and her clan who helped me explore the haunted slopes of Sumburipa, the strong-minded people of Chimbu Province who put down their spears to line the mountaintops with flaming torches of friendship on Palm Sunday night, and my friend Kerowa, who saved my life when malaria struck and who clung alongside me for days on the frozen crags of Mt. Wilhelm. He did not feel a need to go, but went because his guest and friend needed to reach another elusive summit. In return, I failed to conquer my highest mountain, but learned the experience of a journey is more important than its destination. If you ever go to New Guinea and live with the people as I did, it will both transform and haunt you for the rest of your life.