PNG: Country of contrasts

By James Castrission 9 September 2009
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In preparing for his world first paddle by kayak to New Zealand, James Castrission visited Papua New Guinea – the land of a thousand tribes and cultures.

Crooked, blood red teeth peered out from a heavily tattooed face of a Madang local. Piercing his nose was a ‘sutim nus’; a pen-sized possum rib, craftily shaped and then punctured through the grisly cartilage separating his nostrils. He advanced towards us.

It was May 2007, and I had sailed to PNG from the Royal Brisbane Yacht Club aboard a 40 ft sailing boat with a Kiwi skipper and another deckhand, Kelly. Our mission had been to deliver the boat to PNG. Additionally, a personal goal was to gather vital ocean experience in preparation for crossing the Tasman Sea by kayak. I get seasick, really seasick, even on Sydney Harbour, so it was important for me to trial some motion sickness remedies on the open sea.

I left Brisbane armed with wristbands, three different anti-nausea tablets and a handful of suppositories (yep, those lovely capsules that head where the sun don’t shine). Ten days later we arrived on Samarai Island in Papua New Guinea. Despite a variety of seasickness remedies, I’d lost 6 kg feeding Nemo and his mates and I was pretty down in the dumps about the whole Tasman project. I thought it was over; I just couldn’t find a remedy. But as soon as we sailed into Samarai Island, my anxiety disappeared. For the next two weeks I travelled and marvelled at the raw happiness of the local people and their culture.

Sure, it’s a developing country and most families have fewer possessions than we can shovel into our rucksack for a weekend’s bushwalk. But the truth is it doesn’t matter. The locals fall into two distinct groups; the highlanders and those living on the coast. Everything about these two groups is different. The highlanders are much shorter, stockier and as a rule, more aggressive. However, the coastal people are the complete opposite and during my journey, I began to understand why. Locals say the diet has played a big part in forming these anthropomorphical and behavioural differences with the coastal people eating much more seafood, fruit and vegetables compared to the vast quantities of meat consumed by the highlanders.

Travelling around PNG is not easy. Mountains abound and there just aren’t many suitable roads. The locals simply stay put in their village, and outsiders either fly or walk. This is the main reason why there are over 800 languages spoken in such a small country (that’s a whopping 12 percent of all the world’s indigenous languages). To the traveller, this means neighbouring villages can have quite distinct cultural differences in both colour and vitality. 

For example, sailing between Alatotua and Tofi (only 100 km as the crow flies) the contrasting body art and the divergent material and colours used in the clothing and billums (those funky oversized handbags) blew me away. In a crowded market place in Madang, a small town tucked up on Papua New Guinea’s North coast, we were awestruck by the variety of fruit, the lively colours of the artwork and the welcoming locals. Right on our doorstep, Papua New Guinea is a country of colour, contrast and contradiction.

The heavily tattooed Madang local advanced; his stubborn eyes locked on Kelly and me, the only white people in the village marketplace. We felt like stalked prey. A pair of old rugby shorts sat uncomfortably around his tiny waist. He looked like a greyhound. No fat to hide his sinewy body. An armband choked his bicep. Curled between his fingers was a machete – something everyone carried. To escape imminent attack, we quickened our stride. And then his face burst into the most open, friendly smile I have ever seen.

“Hello Sir” he said politely, “Would you like to try some of our betel nut?”

Yes, he was a village chief and a warrior who had fought in countless local battles and yes, he had eaten human flesh. But that beautifully crafted armband that he wore with so much pride (and which had been passed down from his father, now a tribal elder) was given to me as a gift as I left Madang – a gift from Papua New Guinea. The people are truly amazing.

Oh and as for the betel nut, it tasted like one of those sour gummy lollies on steroids.

James Castrission and Justin Jones, successfully crossed the Tasman Sea from Australia to New Zealand by kayak – a world-first. Read Australian Geographic’s coverage of their adventure.