BY MARC McEVOY
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
When it rains, it can fall so heavily that it is impossible to see someone standing a metre in front of you.
Anyone who tries to climb the muddy tracks in this primordial world faces a huge physical test, as Australian soldiers in the Kokoda campaign discovered when they were debilitated by exhaustion and malaria.
In 2004, Drusilla Modjeska took it on with her friend David Baker, an oceanic art gallery owner, to meet the Omie, a tribe of fewer than 2,000 people who live on the southern flank of Mount Lamington, a volcano to the east of the Kokoda Track that erupted in 1951, killing 4,000 people.
Baker, who died in 2009, had invited Modjeska to accompany him to meet the mountain people. She was 57 but had lived in Papua New Guinea as a young married student in the pre-independence days of the late 1960s and early '70s and had an interest in the country's indigenous culture. The Omie wanted Baker to show them how to sell their barkcloth art.
To get there, the two Australians drove from Popondetta, near the New Guinea coast, towards Kokoda before heading off on foot to the remote Omie villages. The walk takes a couple of hours for locals, but Modjeska and Baker clambered for 10 hours up and down the steep ridges and slopes in the oppressive heat.
''It is a miracle I didn't die getting up there,'' Modjeska says in her home in Sydney, where she is surrounded by a vast library and indigenous artefacts.
''It was very, very hard physically, but it was very beautiful. We were fully clothed - and I would be bright red - but at the bottom of the slopes I would lie in the streams until my blood pressure and heart rate and colour returned to normal.''
Modjeska and Baker were the first white people many Omie had seen. They were welcomed with song and dance and slept for weeks on bamboo mats in grass huts. But, most importantly for Modjeska, it was the first time she had laid eyes on the Omie's beautiful barkcloth, a pummelled tree bark with designs painted exclusively by women.
The experience was ''groundbreaking'', Modjeska says, and inspired her to rework her first novel, The Mountain, which she had been writing on and off for 20 years.
Now 65, Modjeska, a former academic at the University of Technology, Sydney, and the University of Sydney, is one of Australia's most acclaimed essayists and non-fiction authors.
Her skill as a writer has been compared to Robert Dessaix's and Helen Garner's and she has won numerous literary prizes including several NSW Premier's awards for non-fiction.
Her first book, Exiles at Home, published in 1981, was based on her PhD about Australian women writers between the wars. Poppy, her 1990 book about her mother, was considered trail-blazing for blending the techniques of fiction and biography.
In 1999 came Stravinsky's Lunch, a biography of the painters Grace Cossington Smith and Stella Bowen that ''transcended conventional notions of genre''. A theme of Stravinsky's Lunch - the dilemmas creative women face in balancing the demands of love and art - appears in much of Modjeska's work.
Her new book, though, is her first foray into fiction. The Mountain tells the story of a group of people drawn together in Papua New Guinea on the eve of independence in 1975.
The first part, set in 1968-1973, focuses on Dutch-born Rika, whose anthropologist husband, Leonard, is filming the lives of a remote tribe. At the new university in Port Moresby, they become involved with an idealistic circle of people who will shape the birth of the nation.
The point of view shifts in the second part, set in 2005-2006, to Jericho, a Papuan art historian whom Rika cared for as a child. He has returned home from Oxford University to find his identity among his mountain tribe.
This part reveals the realities of post-colonial life and the repercussions of choices made 30 years earlier, particularly those relating to Rika's infertility and her tragic love affair with Aaron, a minister in the first Somare government.
In some ways, The Mountain is a sad story but it's also revelatory, since there have been few significant Australian novels set in Papua New Guinea other than Randolph Stow's Visitants and some of Trevor Shearston's stories.
The Mountain is not autobiographical but Modjeska describes it as a ''passionate response'' to having known ''this beautiful, heart-breaking country.
''The characters are imagined from a world I knew quite intimately,'' she says. ''There were several cross-cultural relationships at that time between young white women and the young new Papuan elite, and it caused a lot of disturbance … there had always been a tacit acceptance of white men with black women but the other way around was inflammatory.''
Born and raised in Hampshire, England, Modjeska, the eldest of three sisters, was educated at Sherborne school for girls in Dorset. Her father, Patrick Medd, was a barrister and judge as well as an army major in the Burma campaign during World War II.
He wrote several books, including Romilly (1968), a biography of the British legal reformer Sir Samuel Romilly. Modjeska's mother, known as ''Pookie'', was a housewife until she divorced Medd, went to university and became a probation officer, the story told in Poppy.
In 1967, at age 20, Modjeska married an anthropologist, Nicholas Modjeska. The following year, the couple left for Papua New Guinea, where he conducted fields trips and was a tutor at the University of Papua New Guinea in Port Moresby while she studied history there.
Modjeska says it was where her education began and she first read Fanon, Achebe, de Beauvoir, Camus, Conrad and Baldwin. Other students became key players in the independent government from 1975, including prime ministers and foreign ministers.
''I just totally fell in love with the culture, the landscape, the people, and this great sort of moment of optimism,'' Modjeska says. ''When you look at it now, there is a lot that is wonderful but a lot that is very difficult, as we know from the current politics.''
The Modjeskas remained there until 1971, when they moved to Australia, later divorcing. ''The transition to PNG was enormous, but I am grateful for it,'' she says.
''My husband had said we would be going there when we married and you don't have to be Dr Freud to see that I fell in love with the first person who said he was going a really, really long way away. He was a really nice man and we are still very good friends.''
Modjeska never had children, although she is very close to her grown-up nieces Amy and Martha (who is visiting her in Sydney now), and her ex-husband's daughter from a subsequent marriage, Obelia, whom she considers her stepdaughter.
Some of the most powerful moments in The Mountain are driven by Rika's failed attempts to have a child. ''I suppose part of the mix for me in thinking about Rika was about not having children,'' Modjeska says, ''although the reason she didn't have children was infertility; mine was a different thing.''
But Modjeska says she still felt qualified to translate the complexities of having children. ''By the time you reach your 60s, as I have, you know a bit about love and loss and grief.''
The novel's mountain is fictional, but Modjeska's imagining of it was ''enabled'' by her relationship with the Omie, whose story and art - the barkcloth, or nioge - are a central motif in the novel.
Like the good intentions of Baker in 2004, its characters offer possibilities to a people deprived of everything except their culture and identity.
Modjeska makes regular trips to Papua New Guinea and has set up SEAM (Sustain Education Art Melanesia), a fund that helps maintain the art and culture of the Omie as well as the Korafe in the fiords of Cape Nelson.
She is also working on a new novel. ''I have few regrets in life,'' she says. ''I don't think I regret not having children. It has been a regret at other times … but it is not a source of regret now. But the one thing I do regret is not starting fiction earlier.
''After Poppy, I think I coasted on what I could do. And I wish at 40 I had done what I have done in the last 10 years. And boy, would I have written some novels.''
‘The Mountain’ is published by Vintage at $32.95