By Eric Mackenzie-Lamb
Where the expression I’d love to have you over for dinner may not be what you think.
With an area of 178,700 square miles and an estimated population of a little over eight million known inhabitants, the Pacific island nation of Papua New Guinea-commonly referred to as PNG-still remains, even in the twenty-first century, one of the most unusual and mysterious countries on the planet. Its tourism industry is sparse, with only around 70,000 visitors per year. And roads are still virtually nonexistent. For the most part, air travel still provides the only link between the capital, Port Moresby, and dozens of isolated settlements in the country’s rugged interior. As I learned on my flight from Port Moresby to the rural town of Goroka, a substantial proportion of the country’s inhabitants, particularly those from the highland areas, have often flown in a modern passenger airplane, but have never been in a car. Or even know much about them.
But, by far, the country’s primary attraction for visitors looking for something truly different- perhaps even to the point of bizarre-consists not only of its magnificent scenery and amazing flora and fauna found nowhere else, like the legendary Bird of Paradise ,but also its amazingly colourful and varied cultures.
And the word varied, in the case of Papua New Guinea, is nothing if not an understatement. Amazingly, more than eight hundred distinctlanguages are spoken in PNG. Much of this is due to thousands of years of little or no social interaction between its isolated tribes. Although each group might live only a few miles apart in dense tropical jungles or rugged mountainous areas, their inability to communicate with each other is largely due to language barriers and a long history of hostility between many tribal groups. (That situation, however, is now gradually changing as technological advances, such as radio and satellite television, begin to connect isolated groups with the outside world).
But that’s only a small part of a very complex reality. Even to this day, tribal wars still occur in the more remote areas of PNG. (Just as in parts of the Brazilian Amazon, there are still populations which are believed to have never had contact with the outside world). Almost all conflicts-although not always-involve either some long standing grudge between tribes which was never settled (final peace agreements, when they do happen, can sometimes take generations to consummate) or because of traditional beliefs that, by eating your enemy-especially one who was an outstanding warrior-you will assume your deceased enemy’s spirit and inherit his bravery. And that’s without taking into account the long-established tradition of head hunting.
Sorcery also plays a big part. There have been a number of documented cases in the past-many involving women-of victims being burned alive or beheaded after being accused by village elders of practicing black magic or witchcraft. Sometimes even members of the local police force, blocked by hordes of angry villagers, have been powerless to save them.
Most readers, I’m sure, have heard of the famous Rockefeller family. But many might not be aware of a tragic event which happened to Nelson Rockefeller’s 23-year old son, Michael, in 1961.
Michael Rockefeller, whose father Nelson was Governor of New York State (and who later served as US Vice President under Gerald Ford after Richard Nixon’s resignation) was a graduate of Harvard University and an avid collector of primitive art. He was also a seasoned traveler whose daring expeditions to some of the world’s most isolated communities had already brought him fame at an early age. Many of the exquisite artworks and artifacts which he found were, for the most part, donated to public museums. To be able to share such cultural treasures with others who would otherwise never have even known of their existence-this was Michael Rockefeller’s true passion.
On or about November 20, 1961, Michael and a fellow explorer, René Wessing, were sailing off the southwest coast of what was then Dutch New Guinea when their boat was was capsized, presumably by a sudden storm. Both men managed to climb onto the catamaran’s overturned hull and waited for 24 hours in what turned out to be a vain hope that a passing vessel would spot them and come to their rescue. Finally, realizing that it would be futile to wait any longer, Michael decided to swim to shore and seek help. Wessing tried to discourage him, pointing out that, depending upon waves and currents, it might take him as long as ten hours, or even more, to reach the coast. But Michael had already made up his mind. After attaching two empty gasoline jerrycans to a belt which he then fastened around his waist, Michael instructed Wessing to remain on the overturned boat and keep an eye out for any passing vessel. This, he explained, would double their chances of a rescue. He then lowered himself into the sea and started swimming.
It would be the last time that Michael Rockefeller was seen alive.
Despite intensive efforts by the Rockefeller family and the Dutch navy, including the use of search and rescue aircraft, Michael’s body was never found. Eventually, the inevitable conclusion was that he had perished by drowning or being eaten by sharks. Or both.
But, being a scion of one of the world’s richest and most prominent families, he was far from forgotten. Over the next fifty years, Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance became a consistent topic of media speculation and, eventually, one of the world’s greatest unsolved mysteries.
But not everyone accepted that he had met his death by drowning. For some, there were far more sinister circumstances at work.
And then, almost 53 years after Michael Rockefeller’s disappearance, this appeared.
This 2014 headline from the British newspaper Daily Mail was based upon startling claims made in a newly released book at the time, Savage Harvest . Its author, Carl Hoffman, had actually spent several months visiting members of the feared Asmat tribe whose territory included the shoreline which Michael Rockefeller was trying to reach on that fateful day. Not surprisingly, Savage Harvest became an overnight sensation when it was published in 2014
According to Hoffman’s account, he had been told personally by surviving relatives and descendants of the late Asmat tribal chief-who would have been in power in 1961-that Michael Rockefeller had, in fact, almost managed to reach the shore before he was intercepted by several local tribesmen in canoes. Those same surviving witnesses, again according to Hoffman, claimed that Rockefeller was already known to them from a previous visit. Why they now decided to kill instead of welcome him was unclear, but, according to the book’s author, it undoubtedly had to do with a common ritual involving cannibalism and its consequent assumption of spiritual power. What made this event different from others, as explained to him, was that the ritual was kept secret from the rest of the tribe because it involved a white man.
Nevertheless, and up to this day, close friends and members of Michael Rockefeller’s own family have never publicly accepted that he died from any cause other than drowning. Perhaps that’s understandable under the alleged gruesome circumstances. In all likelihood, we will never know the truth.
Fortunately, my own visit to Papua New Guinea was under very different circumstances. But there were still some amazing surprises in store.
Just before our plane touched down at Goroka airport, I happened to glance out through the window and saw a group of brightly costumed men in grass skirts frantically bobbing and weaving just before the runway’s perimeter fence. As we passed overhead , I realized that they were dancing with their arms and faces extended towards the sky. And, although I couldn’t actually hear them, it was obvious that they were also chanting.
I was utterly mystified until, on the way to my hotel, the taxi driver explained that the people I’d seen were actually cult members who worshipped airplanes because they believed that flying machines were incarnations of mystical spirits who were destined to bring them prosperity. Popularly known as the Cargo Cult, it even had its own village which consisted of huts along the runway’s approach path. For them, it was a sacred sanctuary from which they could never be forced to leave.
On my second morning at the hotel, while I was having breakfast along with other guests, the establishment’s general manager came into the dining room, asked for our attention, and made an announcement.
Good morning, everybody. Would anyone here be interested in a war tour?
I wasn’t sure that I’d heard him correctly. I already knew from past experience that Australian accents could sometimes be difficult to understand. Excuse me, but could you please repeat that? I asked him. What kind of tour?
The manager smiled. No problem, Mate. We always get the same question from visitors. W war tour.
He then went on to explain that there was an armed conflict scheduled to take place at noon between two local tribes in a remote jungle area about two hours’ drive from the hotel. Unlike most settings for such events, he added, today’s designated battleground could be easily reached by Land Rover. And of course, he assured us, we would have an experienced driver/guide.
Even then, I didn’t quite believe everything he’d said. I was totally convinced that whatever war he was alluding to, it had been programmed by the hotel itself as a clever gimmick by which to entertain its own guests. And, of course, to make some extra money.
Nevertheless, out of sheer curiosity, I decided to sign up
As it turned out, I was completely wrong on all counts. Although I hadn’t realized at the start what I’d gotten myself into, reality didn’t take long to kick in.
The first indication of that reality was when our local driver stopped the Land Rover in the middle of a shallow river bordered on both sides by dense forest. After carefully removing his shoes and socks, he opened the driver’s door, stepped out of the vehicle and into the water, then turned toward us and respectfully tipped his cap.
I wish you all a wonderful day. I will see you on the way back.
Then, before anyone had a chance to ask him for an explanation, the driver had turned around and was hurriedly walking away in the direction we’d just come from.
Almost at the very same moment, Wilfrid, an enthusiastic German birdwatcher laden with cameras who was in the front passenger seat, spotted a movement between the trees ahead.
Another local man, dressed in a uniform identical to our own driver’s, had emerged from the forest on the opposite riverbank and was now wading in our direction.
Good morning, he said, politely introducing himself as he climbed in behind the wheel. My name is Jimmy. I will be your guide and driver for the rest of the way.
What about the other driver? another passenger, an Italian, asked him. Isn’t he coming along, too?
No, sir. But he will be waiting here to take you back to your hotel.
That’s a little strange remarked a middle aged American lady sitting beside her husband in the back seat. Why do you switch drivers in the middle of a river?”
The driver nodded in understanding. After all, he’d been asked the same question many times before. Ma’am, it is because this river is the border.
Border? What border?”
Between our tribes,Ma’am.
The woman stared at him in disbelief. Is that why he got out of this car just now? Couldn’t he just ride along with us? He’s such a nice guy, we were going to buy him lunch.
The driver didn’t respond. Nor, it was evident, did he want to. By now, most of us passengers already knew what that answer would be. For our previous driver, crossing the river into another tribe’s domain would have been a voyage of no return.
Wilfrid saved the day. Turning toward the American lady, he told her in his heavy German accent Madam, they are on a shift system. The other must stay here und take his lunch break. Union rules, you know.
That was the end of the conversation. As for Jimmy the driver, the relief on his face was obvious for all to see. This time, he’d been spared.
As we continued along the primitive dirt road, the surrounding jungle gradually became less dense. I realized that we were now steadily climbing toward an area of open grassland and low hills. Soon, a narrow river with rushing rapids appeared. We crossed over a rickety wooden bridge and continued our ascent along the opposite bank. Here, the sky was filled with flocks of colorful birds darting and swooping in every direction. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking.
A few minutes later, Wilfrid, who’d been scanning the surrounding landscape through his binoculars, turned to the driver.
That’s strange, he said, pointing toward a nearby hill. I thought I just saw somebody moving along that ridge, He peered through the binoculars again. Ja! There he is. Looks like he’s waving at us. What is he doing up there?
The driver nodded. You are right, Sir. On every hill along this road there is a watchman. He is signaling for us that it is safe to proceed. There are no police.
As the rest of us leaned forward in our seats and listened in fascination, Jimmy went on to explain that, under PNG law, any kind of violent conflict, including those between tribes, was technically illegal. If caught in the act by police or special military patrols, all participants could be arrested on the spot and given either a fine, or, if the battle resulted in a death or serious injury, imprisonment. In most situations, he added, people just ignored the law. But they still took certain precautions. If police did show up, which was rarely, their approaching vehicle convoy would be spotted well in advance by the tribes’ sentries, who would then signal to another lookout on the next hilltop, like a human telegraph. By the time the police arrived at the actual battle area, it would be completely deserted.
About fifteen minutes later, Jimmy pulled over to the side of the road, switched off the engine, and turned toward us with a dead serious expression on his face.
Please, if anyone needs to relieve themselves, there is a portable toilet just behind those trees. Once we arrive at our destination, nobody must get out of the car. And very important for your own safety, do not open your door or roll down any windows. Not even to take photographs.
We gave him a collective nod to indicate our agreement-although, to me at least, the reason behind his announcement was somewhat puzzling.
When we rounded the next bend in the road and finally reached our destination, it was as if we’d driven straight into a scene being filmed for a Hollywood movie. Just ahead, in a clearing at the edge of a small stream, about a dozen men in grass skirts, their muscular bodies and contorted faces covered by war paint, were frantically running in every direction as they held their protective shields in front of them.Then, just as our Land Rover came to a stop, we heard a loud thunk on the top of the roof. A few seconds later, another one.
Suddenly, one of the female passengers who’d been peering through a side window uttered a gasp.
Oh, my God! She pointed to a small object which had just tumbled to the ground next to us. That’s an arrow!
Now we understood the reason behind our driver’s warning.
From our vantage point, we were unable to see the warriors from the opposing tribe. But there was little doubt, judging from the shrill cries and constant rushing back and forth, that this was a conflict of major proportions.Peering through the windows, we soon realized that primitive bows and arrows weren’t the only weapons in use. There were long handled spears, knives of every imaginable size and shape, even some objects which appeared to be slingshots. But, amazingly, not a single gun.
Our driver would later explain why. Firearms of any type, he said, were not considered traditional tribal weapons and therefore strictly forbidden. Any person caught with one in his possession-unless that individual had been granted a special permit for the purpose of game hunting-could face severe punishment, including immediate execution, for violating the spiritual rights of ancestors of either warring party. That was strictly taboo, totally against the rules.
We also learned that many of the shields we’d seen were actually hoods from abandoned cars which had been cut to size and modified by adding a handle on the inside, then installing a small plastic window through which the warrior could see his opponent. The term recycling suddenly had a whole new meaning.
We also learned that, in many regions, tribes have a long standing agreement between themselves that a scheduled conflict will never take place on a Sunday or public holiday. Nor, for that matter, whenever a major rugby match is about to take place. Rugby is considered the national sport of Papua New Guinea, whose avid fans number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Whenever a match is announced, tribal border crossing restrictions are temporarily suspended. Hordes of fans, no matter from which tribe they belong , travel from even the remotest of villages- by foot, canoe, bicycle, scooter, or bus-to the nearest Long House, a traditional thatched roof meeting place, where everyone -even those who’d been savagely fighting each other a few days before-can sit together and cheer on their team as they watch the match live via satellite television.
Less than three hours later, we were back in the comfort of our hotel, enjoying a French-inspired gourmet dinner and a complimentary glass of Australian Cabernet Sauvignon.Compared to where we’d just returned from, it could well have been another planet.
And that’s precisely the point.
Papua New Guinea is truly the ultimate destination off the beaten track. As well as the travel experience of a lifetime.
But, as you may have realized by now, definitely not for the faint of heart.