It has been another eventful week here in PNG. My rib is causing me less trouble day by day. I have returned to almost full weightlifting now at the gym, which is great news. Today, I had a rather interesting outing.
It’s not K-Mart, it’s J-Mart.
Today, two friends had asked me to join them in setting up a trail that their walking group will follow on a hike next weekend. We drove to the site this morning, which is about 22 kilometres out of Port Moresby.
On the way, we stopped at J-mart. One of the guys wanted to buy a machete.
He has lived here for 30 years and knows the place well so I figured that if he thought he needed a machete then maybe I should get one too. They had a good selection of machetes (which they call “Bush Knives” here). I picked out a medium length bush knife with a carbon steel blade made in Brazil. It cost me 27 kina (about $14).
We drove out to the site and set off for our trail-blazing. We decided to make it challenging and adventurous so we crossed the river four times in the course of our trail.
We ended up in some very thick jungle and the bush knife definitely came in handy. I was hacking my way through the tall grass like Indiana Jones in search of long-forgotten treasure. I was most concerned that swinging it like a maniac I would cut my own legs off. But with a little practice, I soon got the hang of slicing through huge banana tree leaves and tall grass.
We entered some sections that were extremely dense – with a huge canopy of trees overhead so thick that I had to remove my sunglasses to see. There are banana trees throughout – often with branches overloaded by huge bunches of bananas – and a range of plants at different heights.
The ground is covered in fallen leaves and other detritus so that the soil is impossible to see. The place is teeming with life. Beautiful butterflies flutter about untroubled by the light breeze in the tranquil forest.
The first river crossing was a little frightening. The water was waist-deep (enough to take ones breath away at the right height), but warm. It flows very quickly and while it’s not that deep, it is very challenging to keep one’s footing on the slippery river rocks. The river is about 20 metres wide at the crossings. The group will be running ropes across to help the less agile members of the walking party cross the river more easily.
I was crossing one of the rivers and I was suddenly struck by the absurdity of the situation in which I found myself. I stopped in the middle of the river and turned around to look at my friend on the bank and said, “I’m in Papua New Guinea crossing a river and carrying a machete!” (as one does). Me, Christopher Anderson, who drinks half-strength lattes at Starbucks (with extra foam), was taking on the wilds of South East Asia. I felt like the Crocodile Hunter. Of course, I’m just as excited at a Vancouver Punk-Rock show, or even at a half-price name-brand menswear sale, but there aren’t too many of those about which to get excited in PNG.
One of the crossings was easy – an old steel road bridge had collapsed into the water on an angle with one edge still sticking up above the surface. There were a group of local lads loitering around the bank. As we approached, one little boy said, “Ooh – white men!”
A few minutes later, I had the first scare of the day. We were forcing our way through a particularly thick part of jungle and I said to my friends, “This looks just like the jungle in the movie ‘Predator’” (with Arnold Schwarzenegger). That thought made me glance around in case an invisible alien was hunting us. Much to my surprise there was a Papuan fellow about two metres behind me brandishing a home-made knife with a blade about 20 centimetres long. There were two more just behind him, but they were unarmed.
Internally, I was freaking out. I thought that we were about to be robbed, or worse. A dead body yields as much cash as a living one, and life does not have the same value here. It did occur to me that I was carrying a machete so perhaps I was not completely defenseless. But then I fence épée not sabre, so I’m not sure that I would know what to do with a machete should it come to it. “Parry-riposte” might get me out of trouble in a pinch.
I remained calm on the outside and asked if these guys wanted to go ahead of us (assuming that if they weren’t there to kill me, they would probably just want to make their way back to the village where we started). Ostensibly, I was right. I will never know if they had intended to rob us and changed their minds when they saw the machetes. But they seemed such nice chaps, so I am going to give them the benefit of the doubt. I don’t believe that they meant us any harm. It’s hard to differentiate between paranoia and appropriate caution sometimes. We chatted to them along the way and got to know them a bit afterwards. Their names are Renagi (he had the knife), Guya and Daniel.
They moved out in front of us and began working their way through the jungle. We asked them for the best place to cross the river in order to get back to the village. They gave us directions and then for whatever reason, they decided to lead us there.
So we followed them through the jungle and found a nice place to cross the river. The current was faster this time and, while less deep, the water was moving so fast that it was very difficult to keep my footing. I almost slipped a couple of times but managed to cross and then trample up the muddy bank. As we crested the bank, the jungle cleared and in a little opening was a hut. It looked like somebody lived there, but there was no one around at the time. As we moved past the building, I had the second scare of the day. About five metres ahead of me, a snake slithered across our path. It was only about a metre long but it was very fast. I think it was probably as scared as we were and was just trying to escape. But the three de facto guides instantly sprang into action. One chap grabbed a long piece of metal (a rusty fence picket). Another grabbed a long branch. The three of them sped towards the snake and began to swing their makeshift tools like madmen, attempting to strike the snake while keeping out of its range. One managed a hit on the snake, but that just seemed to make it more enraged and it reared up towards him. Then it took off like a flash into a thick clump of grass. They surrounded it and then when it emerged, they struck at it repeatedly until finally someone hit it properly and the thing was fatally wounded. The snake was dead but it took a minute for it to stop moving, and while it writhed about we were able to identify it.
It was a Papuan Black Snake – Pseudechis papuanus. They have a distinctive pattern of brown diamonds and a red tail. It is closely related to the Australian Colletts Cobra, which is the 19th deadliest snake in the world. They are not supposed to exist in this part of the country any more, but evidently this one had other ideas.
I felt a bit sorry for the snake. It was just going about its business. Then again, I am glad that it didn’t bite me. While, I enjoy adventure as much as the next guy, I kind of hope to live a little longer yet, and dying from a snake bite just doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that I would do. Not quite my style.
No one had a camera and one of the guys wanted a photo of it so I picked it up with my machete and we put it in a plastic bag to take it back to the village where we had parked.
We showed it to a couple of local guys at the public bar there and they confirmed the species and also how dangerous the Papuan Black snake is. The Mekeo people from the Central Province know this snake as “Auguma” because of its habit of repeatedly biting victims.
We took some photos of the lifeless, and yet terrifying Papuan Black. There was a woman from Thailand at the bar and when she saw the snake she said, “In Thailand we eat those. Mmm. Yummy”.
After our confrontation with the deadly snake, my friends felt compelled to consume beer to calm their nerves. We had a few drinks and then ate lunch under the shade of giant trees by the side of the river. Despite the danger and discomfort, this place is really starting to grow on me.
A bird crapped on the back of my shirt while I was sitting there. One has to take the good with the bad.