The Stone Age Lingers in a New Guinea Village

Payne is a Laguna Beach free-lance writer

A brochure lists Karawari as having one of the 300 best hotels in the world. But there is no road to Karawari and the closest highway is a string of potholes glued together by mud that wanders through towering jungle more than 100 miles away.

But for those who are immune to mosquitoes, malaria, hepatitis, humidity, blazing sun, snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and can get by without ice, there is a way to get here.

You board a Qantas flight from the U.S. and after a few stops you hop off at Port Moresby on the southern shore of Papua New Guinea.

At that moment a seasoned traveler will know he is in a truly foreign country and is in one of the last places in the world where the Stone Age lingers on. Many of the residents go shopping still carrying bows and arrows. Stone axes are as common as purses.

Bow-and-Arrow War

Our group came across the village of Tari and saw clansmen wandering down paths after winding up a four-day bow-and-arrow war . . . over a stolen pig. The magistrate brought about a touchy armistice and found that it was easier to toss the pig into jail rather than fill it with angry clansmen.

But on to Karawari. After a four-hour Jeep ride through a green countryside of tea and coffee plantations, we reached a town called Mount Hagan. From there we flew back to the edge of time.

A small chartered plane took us over thousands of square miles of dense jungle where the only visible sign of life was small flicks of black as birds darted through the sky.

The plane finally sideslipped down over some tall trees and skidded to a stop in a swampy pasture that dipped off into the Sepik River, one of the main freeways of New Guinea.

Small metal flat-bottom scows powered by temperamental outboards skimmed us down the river, and after a few miles of bends and dodging floating logs, we pulled up at the lodge pier; there we climbed into the back of a rusty pickup truck which, against all odds, churned its way up a muddy road to the ridge of a hill. Suddenly out of the thick greenery appeared a towering long house and a row of thatched huts that trailed on up the hill. We were at Karawari.

True Happiness

The truck backed through the mud to a small dock at the lodge entrance and within two seconds we found true happiness. The refrigerator that didn't do much for ice could cool washcloths. Plastering one to your hot face was like a kiss from a loved one.

Then, as we made our way along the porch past a thicket of silent, smiling, naked children, we went inside. The main room was 40 feet high and carved pillars held up the high arched roof. A welcome waiter handed us each a cooler of rum and papaya juice.

A few minutes after our arrival we met a clansman named Phillip, who might give a picture of the highland people better than a book on the subject.

If Phillip stood on his bare toes he might be as tall as Mary Lou Retton. He's not as cute or cuddly, but he's got his share of trophies. He's tops in a very specialized field. Phillip is the last of the big-time headhunters and has eight skulls to prove it.

Despite his small size, Phillip gets your attention. He wears a lot of leaves and has bird of paradise feathers stuck in his hair along with a few cigarette butts. His face and body are colorfully streaked in white and yellow. His mouth is a bright red from years of chewing betel nut berries. This serves to highlight the curved wild pig tusks that pierce his nose and dangle to his chin.

Hard to Break Old Habits

We were around him for five days and never heard him say a word or saw him smile. But you always knew he was there. The government has outlawed headhunting, but studying Phillip and watching him silently studying you, you wondered just how hard it is to break old habits.

What we also found was nature magnified at its wildest best. Every dawn the resident cockatoo screeched "Cocky eat . . . Cocky eat!" Everyone would hop up, which was great because every morning began with a purple sunrise that rose like a living Japanese print out of the mist.

At the end of each day, sunsets blazed like volcanoes across the horizon, while at the bottom of the hill the normally bottle-green waters of the Sepik turned into a flowing river of fire.

Nor is it likely that any visitor will ever forget a midnight thunderstorm in the middle of the rain forest when it seems like all the drums in the world start beating. Thunderheads crash across the sky, while train-size bolts of lightning fly past like giant tracer bullets. It's a sound track that could have been left over from the Battle of the Coral Sea.

To add to your trivia bank, while it averages about 11 inches of rain a year in California, New Guinea thinks nothing of 15 feet.

A couple of moonless nights after our arrival, our tour leader, Jack Crawford, who has a history of wrestling snakes in the Amazon as well as playing trumpet for the Long Beach Symphony, got what he thought was a great idea. "Let's go crocodile hunting," he suggested. Then, to make sure we heard him right, he added, "We won't try to catch one, just get close enough for a picture."

Significant Thought

Minutes later, the lodge manager had us in a couple of river trucks, handed us a couple of lanterns, and forgot to tell us that we were going to run out of gas.

He did leave us with a significant thought, though. As we churned off into the dark river we heard him call out: "Don't get too close to a crocodile on land--for 30 yards they can outrun a quarter horse!" He sounded as crazy as Jack.

After an hour our hunt was over. The lanterns flickered out, which was a cue for the outboards to quit, too. We drifted silently and blindly, bumping into logs and banks of the river until adventurer Fleet White croaked, "By golly, it's blacker than the inside of a cat."

Fortunately, we were upriver, and as we got soaked by a foot of rain we drifted aimlessly until we rounded a turn in the river and saw the welcome lantern on our pier. That flickering light was as pretty as any painting I've ever seen.

The next morning, the still-jolly Jack said, as one of the waiters was carrying away a snake that had slept under the dining room table, "What do you want to do today?" Without a pause, his brother Don said, "Wait till it's time to go to bed."

After waving goodby to Karawari, we flew and Jeeped our way to a town in the lowlands called Tari. That is where it's still closest to the Stone Age and where the war over the pig took place. The people seldom see strangers from another land, and when they do, they are very polite and shy. They will also come right up to you and stare at your eyes or shake your hand.

I met one warrior, and through our guide asked if I could take his picture. He didn't understand my camera but smiled.

Making 'Lightning'

He stood with his bow and a fistful of arrows. I took the picture and he jumped a foot in the air and came down in a crouch, glaring at me. I quickly asked the guide what was wrong. They mumbled at each other, then the guide said, "He's never seen anyone make lightning before."

I had forgotten about the flash on my camera. A second later he rushed over to me and shook my hand until I thought it would fall off.

We also learned not to admire any necklaces or feathers the tribesmen wore. They had little, but if you admired something they did have, they insisted that you have it. Try that on Rodeo Drive.

Money as such is very rare. In most parts of Papua New Guinea pigs are money. You buy food with pigs, you trade them for favors, and if someone is mad at you they can go into a spirit house and put a six-pig curse on you. Rather than come down with a bad cold, the offended party will take your six pigs and you'll get well.

But more than anything, the men use pigs to buy wives. The women of New Guinea are complimented by their pig value. A recent celebration was held in honor of a wife whose husband gave 1,000 kinas (like dollars) and 400 pigs plus a Toyota four-wheel drive pickup. Miss Piggy would have been proud.

As we made our last takeoff to return to Port Moresby and then on home, we were picked up by a plane built for six. But there were eight of us. We barely made it over the trees, and it took the pilot a few minutes for his hands to stop shaking so he could write down our time of departure.

That got me to thinking of a talk I had with an Australian bush pilot. "What sort of pills should we take for New Guinea?" I asked. He thought a moment and glanced at the sky. "Forget the pills, mate," he advised. "Just take along a lot of Scotch so you won't know where you've been."

Splendor of Rafting

That wasn't quite true. We missed the splendor of rafting on the Waghi River, which has only been run a few times, but we did live in bush camps like the tribesmen had for 30,000 years.

Each day we did things that few travelers have done, and we blearned firsthand what "adventure travel" means. It means memories as someone said so well: "New Guinea is like no other place I've never been."

For more information contact Niugini Tours, 2618 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach 92663, phone (714) 675-2250. The cost of the tour described was about $300 a day including all hotel, food and flights within New Guinea.

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