“DO you think it will rain tonight?” I ask Joseph, the man with the gun. He looks up, beyond the mist clinging to the valley, doing its damnedest to conceal the river-ridden jungle that is to be our home for the next few days.
He sniffs the air in the same casual manner with which he hangs the rifle on his shoulder. “Will it rain?” he replies. “It depends on the weather.”
To be honest, the weather is the least of our worries. “Expect the unexpected” is the given (and best) travel advice for anyone visiting Papua New Guinea. It’s a country that’s casual about a few things, from plane timetables to customs regulations to automatic weapons.
It’s never been an easy place to visit. Two weeks by the pool, this is not. But head away from the capital, Port Moresby, to travel deep into the jungles and you’ll find PNG one of the most fascinating places on the planet.
The problem is the best spots are also the most inaccessible; roads are not exactly forthcoming, hotels are poor, travelling is tricky. With a little thought, though, the solution is obvious. Employ the method that the local tribes have known about for centuries and get on a boat.
Sepik Spirit is a small, comfortable vessel that chugs up and down the Karawari River, a tributary of the Sepik in the country’s north, allowing you a way into villages and landscapes that can’t be reached by other means.
Step ashore and witness a culture and a daily life that is utterly different from anything you know.
Back on board, you’ll eat well, thanks to the ship’s excellent chefs; there’s beer and wine (though, ironically given the name, no spirits); and the nine two-berth cabins all have picture windows, so you can watch this extraordinary land pass by from the comfort of your bed. And it is extraordinary.
There are more than 800 languages in PNG. It’s rich in plant and birdlife; orchids and birds of paradise are abundant. Germany, Britain and Australia have all laid claim to parts of the coast over the years, but the lush interior was only reached by outsiders in the 1930s.
What these pioneers found were a million people who believed the explorers to be ghosts. They feared the dead had turned white and come back to haunt them.
They had no knowledge of a modern world beyond the trees, and even now they’re still there, hunting with bows and arrows and stone axes, fearing the demons that come out of the jungle at night, and being entirely suspicious of the outsider who arrives in the day.
“The chief welcomes you,” says Alfonso, my translator and guide, as I am offered sago bread, which tastes like a grey flat nothing of mulched tree pulp, because that’s what it is.
I don’t wish to offend. Even so, I turn down the offer of a drink. Drinks in these remote villages can take the form of an initiation ceremony in which a teenage boy’s genitals are cut with bamboo while he imbibes a beverage made from betel nut mixed with ginger and blood from his father.
That’s a cocktail you certainly won’t find at a resort pool bar.
Next morning, I wake as the sunshine burns the mist off the valley, as if to uncover more of its secrets. “Come,” Alfonso says, “it is time to meet the mud men.”
Away from the boat, in the highlands province of Chimbu, I find myself sitting in a clearing, while men with dirt-painted torsos, their faces obscured by demon masks made of clay, perform a ritualistic dance telling of the old ways, when creatures would come from the mountains at night to take their children.
They still passionately believe in these monsters and I begin to as well when they top off their impressive blur of semi-naked rhythmic, sinewy movement and sacred chanting with the mock sacrifice of a child.
Afterwards, as I thank my hosts and make to leave, the village witch doctor beckons me over, muttering his spells as he bids me stare into his bag of bones. Alfonso says, as if sensing my disquiet, “It is his pig-bone bag. For herbs. For his magic. He says not to believe everything you read.”
Today, this sounds crazy. Dead-pig magic belongs to a different time. Yet somehow, if you immerse yourself in PNG, it all makes sense.
As recently as 2013, Britain had a Sorcery Act, which allowed an accusation of black magic to be used as a defence for murder. Though time has moved on and you’ll be safe with the guides and the guards, old beliefs and customs hold sway.
Out here, disputes are still solved by the beating of bamboo on ancestral spirit drums, whose ghosts decide whether two tribes will go to war. And they eat crocodiles.
In this regard, the tribespeople are keen to show me the ropes. And not only the ropes, but the spears, the paddles and the dugout canoes. We cast off late at night on the Sepik, the water reflecting the Milky Way (light pollution is not an issue).
Our mission: to hunt crocodiles, which are killed for their meat and valuable skins. That said, the sound a skull-speared crocodile makes when being dragged on to a boat is something you don’t forget. But the village will eat. That is survival.
Yet the crocodile is also revered, particularly among the Kaningara tribe of the Blackwater River. Here, in the murky tributaries of the Sepik, for boys to become men, they are led into spirit houses and, over the course of weeks, the markings of the sacred crocodile are cut ritualistically into their skin.
The scars last forever, making generations of men with crocodile flesh. In a land filled with the spiritual art of masks, totems and carvings, it’s the ultimate exhibit.
If your idea of a holiday is adventure, if you want to step back in time into a world where painted men gather in huts to make peace with the spirits and women fish on the river banks, their babies clamped to their bosoms, get in early before the tourism dollar turns it all into a theme park.
The river, oblivious, passes by just as time has passed these people by, overlooked by a modern world that has neglected to realise they’re here.
Get on the boat, go find them. Expect the unexpected.
Jon Holmes is a British broadcaster, comedian and writer whose latest book is ‘A Portrait of an Idiot as a Young Man’ (Orion). He was a guest of Papua New Guinea Tourism and Trans Niugini Tours.