The pilot’s voice crackles over the headset, snapping me out of my entrancement: “You can just see the village in the clearing.” I’ve been mesmerised by the hundreds of kilometres of natural rainforest blurring together below, the steady drone of the helicopter’s swirling blades soothing me into calmness. Now my heart leaps into my throat. My eyes search the landscape and, just when it seems impossible, there appears a small settlement among the thousands of trees.
“We’re going to land,” the pilot says. “Get all the gear out and stay down until I take off again. Remember, channel five on the satellite phone if you have an emergency.”
As the chopper descends, I see children running to the landing spot, their bright red and yellow clothes swirling around their lean bodies. They line up to watch this great apparition descend from the sky and their eyes scrunch against the force of the wind. They stand captivated, watching our every move.
With our camping gear, medical packs, satellite phones and bottles of water unpacked, the four of us crouch away from the helicopter, covering our faces as it rises. Within seconds it is gone, as if the long journey here has all been a dream and the resounding silence that follows is our awakening.
We have arrived in Sodiobi village, deep in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea and one of the most remote places in the world.
As the biggest bead in the necklace of islands strung across the Asia-Pacific, New Guinea is home to the largest rainforest tract in the region, and a 2 000-kilometre-long central mountain range soaring to over five thousand metres. We are standing almost directly in the middle, the dividing line separating Papua New Guinea from Indonesia 50 kilometres to our west.
With the landscape virtually impenetrable, the area has been in almost total isolation for thousands of years, resulting in one of the highest endemic rates of wildlife in the world. There are more than 21 000 types of plants, 242 species of mammals and 762 species of birds. Regarded as ‘megadiverse’, Papua New Guinea is one of the top five countries that harbour the majority of the earth’s species.
The social diversity is equally compelling: with a population of only seven million, there are more than 820 living languages stemming from more than 100 different cultural groups, accounting for one third of all recorded languages in the world.
We stand for a while in silence, the villagers staring at us and us staring at them. They are enraptured by the colour of my skin, my red hair, and the multiple camera lenses hanging from my belt. I am equally entranced by the huts that seem to sprout from the trees, the density of the forest around us, and the sceptical expressions on the faces looking back at me.
The silence is broken as our translator steps forward to introduce us. He explains that we are here to find out more about the village, the people in it and their way of life. We will be travelling in and out for three days, gathering stories and taking pictures. Through a complex series of engagements with the villages beforehand, spanning months, the village leaders are aware of our visit and step forward with big smiles, welcoming us.
We walk in single file following a thin muddy trail through the trees, a bouncing line of eager young boys carrying our gear, and eager young men leading the way. A local man named Gelamo offers to show us around. He explains that the Samo people have always lived here. Using timber and grass harvested from the forest, they construct simple stilted houses and live almost entirely off the land. There is no electricity or running water, and each hut has a smoky fireplace inside, used for both cooking and dispelling the swarming mosquitos at night.
There is no school, no medical clinic, no cellphone reception, and the nearest town is a seven-day walk through the jungle. Some children live in town with distant relatives and friends, known as wantoks (Tok Pisin for ‘one who speaks the same language’) to get a formal education, but most stay in the village and receive only the most basic schooling from neighbouring mission stations.
“Traditionally we don’t build our houses close together like this in a row,” Gelamo explains, as we meander down a line of picturesque huts. “They used to be built in small clusters throughout the area, and we would use the land in between for gardens. That was how we protected ourselves – if another clan attacked us at night, not everyone would be killed and others could light fires to signal an attack.”
All of this changed, though, in the 1960s when Australian government patrol officers, known as kiaps, ‘discovered’ the land, part of the colonial administration’s system to impart governance in remote locations. The kiap essentially acted as a one-man representative of the government, taking on policing and judicial roles, and conducting censuses. As populations were exposed throughout the jungles, kiaps centralised the villages, making their patrol houses the hub of all regulated activities. Later the missionaries arrived and this lifestyle was reinforced, supplemented with a set of ideologies that would forever change indigenous traditions.
The village is intensely quiet. Two boys play with a grasshopper under the shelter of palm trees, and a washing line of children’s clothes hangs between poles. The air is heavy with humidity and the heat sweltering. Gelamo explains that most of the women are out in the gardens, hidden behind the long elephant grass that reaches more than four metres into the sky. With a diet of predominantly sago and sweet potato, the villagers must tend their gardens constantly, and the harsh reality of subsistence living is shouldered by the women and girls.
We join a group of old men sitting in the shade. “Where does that path lead?” I ask, noticing a thin, overgrown trail disappearing into the jungle.
There is chattering among the men. “To the river where the spirits live,” says one, as he peels a small nut, his skin as weathered as its shell. “The spirits are powerful and they must not be disturbed. We only go there for ceremonial reasons. And no whistling, otherwise you will be chased home by strong winds and thunderstorms. These are sacred areas.”
I nod solemnly, respecting the delicate balance of beliefs that exist in this country. While forms of Western influence have infiltrated even these remote villages, there is a strong undercurrent of traditional beliefs that must simply be accepted.
Later, I sit with an elderly woman making a bilum, a traditional woven bag used for carrying wood, sago, green leaves or sleeping children. The thread is made from the bark of the wild tulip tree, almost as coarse as the hands that weave it. Some women return from gardening and collecting water, suckling babies strapped to their sides. In a system of communal living, all the women look after all the children, and the baby hanging from the tired breast of one woman could easily have been born to another.
The men show their skill at retrieving fresh coconuts, nimbly manoeuvring a six-metre-long pole into the trees, causing a large, hairy fruit to plummet to the ground. With a quick slash of a bush knife – the single most-used object in Papua New Guinea – the sweet juice inside is released, a refreshing delight.
The beauty of the land is overwhelming, but so too is the difficulty of the lives of the villagers. While the country around them is surging with economic growth from natural gas, minerals and corporate investment, little of this burgeoning national wealth reaches remote locations. Rather, a series of social ills have increased, including alcohol abuse, gross violence against women and materialism measured by monetary gain. A mother places a 2 Kina (US$1) note into the hand of her child, a display of their wealth as he poses for my photograph.
We walk to a neighbouring village, an old mission station with two sports fields. A whistle blows and a rugby game begins, the sun glistening off the dark bodies that take their place on the grassy field. There is also a basketball match in full play, the ball kicking up red dust as it lands on the earthen court.
Elsewhere in the village, it is just an ordinary day. A man sits with a young boy in the shade, enjoying a freshly cut pawpaw. Mothers mind a litter of children climbing the poles of stilted houses. Teenagers linger by a trading store with its neat display of coloured sweets spread across a banana leaf.
In a sudden rumbling of thunder, dark clouds form in the sky and there is a heavy downpour. I wait out the rain with a group of children beneath a rickety structure. I take in their tattered clothes and dusty feet, calloused fingers that belie their young age, and pockmarked skin from untreated diseases. They watch me cautiously, intrigue in their bright eyes but hesitance too, reflecting ambition that would likely not be reached, trapped by the very remoteness that makes them so alluring.
The rain ends as suddenly as it began, and we walk back to the village.
Three days later, as we ascend into the clouds in the helicopter, I watch the village disappear, seemingly untouched by our visit. It would take a lifetime to understand the depth of these people and all that I have captured is a brief glimpse into an unknown world. The uplifted faces blur together and the huts turn into small dots punctuating the thick rainforest, the experience becoming a vivid yet unreachable memory, like those left after the deepest of dreams.