We stop dead in our tracks. A man splashed from head to foot in white war-paint and wearing a tanket-leaf skirt, a cassowary feather headdress, and sunglasses is sprinting towards us. Hard on his heels is another with a red and white face and fronds of bracken in his hair.
The first primes an arrow on his bow; the other gets ready to launch a spear. They brake two meters away, and, scowling and hissing, lunge at us with their weapons. Nadya and I take a step backwards. Two ululating women, the older wearing a parrot-feather coronet and waving a bunch of marigolds, follow behind.
The warriors retreat, yelling and shaking their weapons, and we advance tentatively along the dirt path to the hilltop village. Now we can hear a chorus of voices. Some fifty people, also plastered in paint, have gathered at the gate, a bamboo arch decorated with flowers. They sing at the tops of their voices in a language we have not heard before. A boy of about seven steps forward and holds up a sign: "Welcome to Maikmol."
This is the fourth day of our first hike in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Our party is larger than expected. Paul, our Papuan guide, said we might trek into the mountains in Jiwaka province, see birds of paradise, and get an impression of village life. He suggested hiring a local guide and a couple of porters to carry our food. We said one porter would suffice and agreed on wages. Our core team appears, however, to have swollen from five to nine, and sometimes we are as many as twenty-curious villagers tagging along behind.
Extra mouths to feed when it comes to mealtimes stretch the five to six days of provisions we have brought, but Paul dismisses this concern: "The others will feed themselves," he assures us. It puzzles me that, apart from their bush knives, the Papuans carry nothing—not even a water bottle to refill at streams. We have been sweating our way through dense tropical rainforest, sweeping aside lianas, vaulting moss-cloaked logs, our boots lathered in mud. They treat it like a simple walk in the woods.
Nadya and I pass under the floral arch. The warriors who had challenged us suddenly seize me under the arms, and, before I can protest, hoist me into the air. Sturdy women do the same with Nadya. They carry us-backpacks and all-down a flight of steps and into the village square. There, they set us down, and two elderly women put flower garlands around our necks. Taking our hands, they lead us to a bench, and the villagers squat on the ground in front. Girls bring pineapples, bushels of peanuts, and sweet potatoes, and one of the old ladies presses a cassowary-feather bilum (a shoulder bag) into Nadya's hands and then hugs her around the waist. My wife and I look at each other, dumbfounded.
"When did they last see a waitman?" I ask Joe, the local guide, when he joins us on the bench. "Have they ever seen one?"
I think of the book I read before leaving Canada about the first whites to visit the Papuan Highlands. Until Australian gold prospectors Michael Leahy and Michael Dwyer mounted their expedition in 1930, the interior was for Westerners a blank on the map, a mountainous unknown thought to be uninhabited. It would turn out that there were over a million people living there. Michael Leahy took a camera and recorded their encounters, gaining footage of first contact that is possibly the most striking ever captured on film. The images are ones of shocked and bewildered tribesmen and women unsure whether to approach or flee from the white-skinned apparitions.
"I was terrified," a man called Kirupano Eza'e from Seigu village in the Eastern Highlands admitted decades later. "I couldn't think properly, and I cried uncontrollably. My father pulled me along by the hand and we hid behind some tall kunai grass."
"We were howling and shouting in excitement!" Onguglo Komugl of neighboring Kerowagi village recalls. "We were saying, 'these are our dead people, come back!'"
Books from the Author:
Buy The Dragon Run at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
Buy Back in 6 Years: A Journey Around the World at your local bookstore, or get it online here: