PAPUA NEW GUINEA
-- A LAND OF CONTRASTS
by "Henry A. Martens"
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a land
of scenic, biologic, and ethnic diversity. Comprising the eastern
half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world,
PNG is geologically active with earthquakes and volcanoes.
Elevations range from sea level
to over 13,000 feet, with hot, humid lowlands and cool highlands.
Biologically, PNG is more closely related to Australia than
Southeast Asia. There is a great ethnic diversity: the native
peoples speak over 700 different languages, a third of all the
languages in the world! You can understand why it is a fascinating
country to visit.
During my three-week trip to
PNG, I visited, and found landshells at, four of the many biologic
regions: the southern lowland rainforest at Port Moresby, the
highland rain forests at Mts. Hagan and Tari, the steamy meanders
of the Sepik River, and the hot north coast at Madang.
The Lowlands at Port Moresby
Our morning at Port Moresby was
spent in the Variata National Park, a lowland coastal rain forest.
We drove up the Launa Valley which is cut in thick layers of black
agglomerate. The 200 foot Launa Fall was below us near the summit.
We took the Circuit Track and saw the carnivorous plant Nepenthes
mirabilis (but I outran it) and the plant Banksia digitata, one
of the villains of Australian children's stories. I didn't realize
Banksia came this far north -- additional evidence for an Australian
connection. Along the trail were two empty, very well preserved
35mm Hemiplecta cairni shells with their angled periphery.
The Highlands at Mount Hagan
We returned to Port
Moresby and took a short flight to Mt. Hagan in the Highlands.
The Haus Poromon Lodge was outside town at about 6,000'. We
had to use a 4-wheel drive vehicle to climb the 1,000' to get
there! Sleeping accommodations were round houses about 15-20'
in diameter, with springy, thatched floors. The pleasant temperature
at this elevation encouraged me to go for a little walk before
and after dinner, but I didn't see any snails. Maybe they're
too fast for me.
Got up early and had a nice view
of the countryside. A nearby village was in fog! Walked into
the canyon through the native forest. I met a local man along
the trail and asked him about snails. He said, "I crushed
a snail on the road and there was a snake inside." He invited
me to visit his village but I didn't have time. Everyone is
very friendly and wants to shake hands. I found no snails but
saw a beautiful waterfall.
Sepik River Lowlands
In the morning we left
via jeep to Mt. Hagan to board an 8 passenger charter plane
for the Sepik River region in the middle of the Armbak territory.
One of the world's largest rivers in terms of annual water flow,
the 700 mile long Sepik River drains northwestern PNG and is
navigable for almost its entire length. It is to PNG what the
Congo is to Africa and the Amazon to South America. Flew northwest
for an hour to a small dirt airstrip at Amboin and went by boat
up the Karawari River, past several villages, to the Karawari
Lodge. The lodge is 100' above the river which is at 60' above
sea level. From my cottage I could look north across the Sepik
flood plain to the volcanic islands off the north coast.
After lunch we went by boat to
Kundaman. Ronald, our guide from the village, said the people
wear western clothes normally but go native for visitors. The
people at Kundaman had face and body makeup of white clay or
lime. Most children were naked but some girls had colorful skirts.
Entering a village, as a courtesy, you first looked at the items
for sale. If something was of interest, you asked for a "first
price" and then for a "second price." There usually
was no "third price." The second price was 50 to 70%
of the first price, but you always asked for the first price.
We received a friendly welcome
and were instructed in the making of sago, from the tree to
the plate. Sago is the staple food of the Sepik people. The
long process and its final result is not very appetizing to
western taste, nor is it very nutritional, being almost pure
starch. But in a land too swampy to grow anything else, it is
an extremely important food and there is no sago shortage since
sago palms grow everywhere. Sago preparation is a joint men-women
effort. The men cut down the palm, cut away the bark, and chip
and pound out the pith, producing a fibrous sawdust. The women
knead the pith and drain water through it to dissolve the starch.
The starch-water is collected, usually in an old canoe, and
the starch settles as an orange, glutinous mass. It is then
dried and ready for use. The sago is sometimes mixed with water
and fried into a rubbery pancake, or it is boiled into a gluey
mush. It has a taste that has to be acquired! We spent about
two hours there and then returned to the lodge by boat.
Up early the next morning for
a bird walk. Took the boat down river to Mandam, where we walked
through the village and then on a trail through the woods. Saw
the Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise with its long bill, brown
head and throat, yellow breast and twelve tail feathers, each
10" long. Arrived back at the lodge in time for breakfast.
An hour boat ride took us down
the Karawari River to Mamjami village. The Tambaran (spirit)
dance was very colorful, men and women in their straw headdresses,
with their faces and bodies painted. After the dance came a
reenactment of a female initiation ceremony. The women had colored
markings painted on their backs. Normally, these marks were
done as razor cuts to produce a pattern of tattooing. As we
left the dance area I picked up two unionid valves from a shell
discard pile in the village. I think they may use the shells
as a lime source for pigments.
Back at the lodge I saw some
25mm empty flat-topped Chloritis shells near the boat dock,
brown, with a reflexed lip. After dinner a local bamboo band
performed: three guitars, 4 or 5 singers, and two men who hit
the ends of horizontal bamboo sections with rubber sandals.
Rained like mad that night but
stopped by morning. Left the lodge early and walked to the boat
dock, finding a few more empty Chloritis shells. A man asked
if I wanted some live snails. We walked along the river bank
past the village and searched in a cultivated field of vines
and corn. I didn't find any shells, but a boy brought me a live
30mm Naninia citrina to photograph. It had a greenish shell
and a single brown spiral band above the periphery.
When the rest of the group arrived
at the dock we took a boat down river to Mamjami village where
the ship Sepik Spirit was waiting. In the village we saw a reenactment
of part of the boy's initiation ritual. The entire initiation
consists of a period of confinement (in the Spirit House), training,
and education. The initiation culminates with a skin-cutting
ceremony. During an hour ritual, the young man's arms, shoulders
and upper body are cut. The cuts are about a half to 3 quarters
of an inch long, quite deep, and arranged in swirling patterns.
These cuts are now made with a razor blade instead of the traditional
bamboo knife. The cuts are filled with clay and ashes to ensure
they heal as raised scars resembling crocodile scales. The ceremony
is fenced off from the rest of the village and drums and flutes
play continuously. For our performance they used paint instead
of the razor blade.
Boarded the ship in time for
lunch. Each day all newly purchased items were sprayed before
being taken to one's cabin. Graham, the captain, was Australian.
The ship was 30,000 pounds (15 tons), 90' long and 30' wide,
and it had a 3 foot draft. It carried 20 people in 10 large,
comfortable cabins. The ship was decorated with beautiful wooden
panels carved by a local artist. In case of emergency we were
told, go to the upper deck -- the river is shallow so the upper
deck will be above water if the ship sinks.
The next day we went to the village
of Kaminabit I. Visited a Women's House and saw artifacts and
another demonstration of cooking sago. Walked about a mile on
the coastal path to Kaminabit II where the men did a dance for
us in a fenced enclosure. There were no women present. The men
wore grass skirts, small headdresses and no face paint. The
village had a small crocodile farm. Called puk puk, the crocodile
still has great cultural and economic importance. Initiation
rites involve scarring young men's skin to resemble crocodile
scales, crocodile heads are carved on the prows of their dugout
canoes, and the animals are an important cash crop. They can
only sell skins from animals under 7'. The tail is edible, with
a fish taste, though the rest is very sinewy. Because crocs
won't bite under water, men catch them by feeling them in the
mud with their feet. It must work because I didn't see any one-legged
On a night walk in Mamjami village,
we saw many tree frogs and insects but no snails. Visited the
house of our guide, 35' by 75'. It was 10' off the ground to
keep it cooler.
Next day we visited three Sepik
villages, traveling by jet boat. Palambei used to be on the
river but the meander was cut off, so the village is a mile's
walk inland. Bought two freshwater snail necklaces of Melanoides
at the landing. The larger Melanoides species is M. plicaria.
Saw some Physidae, a sinistral freshwater family, on the ground
along the walk to the village. Also saw Lamellaxis gracilis
a "tropical tramp," introduced by man and found near
human habitation throughout the tropics.
Tambarans are spirits; consequently,
the Haus Tambarans is the Spirit House, the largest house in
the village, where the spirits live or carved spirit images
are kept. Built on carved piles, it can be 150' long with a
75' spire at each end. The Spirit House was very impressive
with its art work and dim lighting. Though it is for men only,
they allow women in as visitors. We could leave our shoes on
but must remove our hats. I was not allowed to photograph the
priest's chair! The old Spirit House was bombed in W.W. II and
has been replaced by two new ones. We listened to a wooden drum
concert -- very different.
The jet boat stopped next at
Yentchen. The Spirit House here was not as interesting as Palambei's.
Did see some empty Papuina shells resembling the solid colored,
single banded Papuina juliae from Mt. Hagan.
Our last stop for the day was
Kanganamam. The recent high water line was evident on the supporting
timbers of the Spirit House -- about 6-8' above ground level,
for six months! No wonder there are so few land dwelling snails.
If you are not freshwater or arboreal, you drown. Saw Lamellaxis
gracilis (it doesn't know it can't swim) and some freshwater
shells, Physidae and the spiral ribbed Melanoides tuberculata.
Then we rode to meet the Sepik
Spirit at Timbunke where we'll take our charter flight to Tari
in the highlands.
Highlands at Tari
Left Sepik Spirit this
morning. After breakfast walked through Timbunke to the grass
airstrip and saw shells of Chloritis and the tropical tramp
Subulina octona. It was hot already with some scattered clouds.
Flew south to Amboin for gas
and then circuited the major peaks (13,000' +) to Tari -- an
hour flight over some very rugged, forested terrain. Glad we
didn't have to stop for directions. Across from the airport
at Tari was a local market swarming with people, men with beards,
face paint, outlandish hairdos. One man, in native dress, playing
a bamboo flute, was wearing gold-rimmed sunglasses! I have never
seen such bizarre costumes or faces in my life.
From Tari at 5,000' to Ambua
Lodge at 7,200' was 45 minutes by van. The lodge, with a commanding
view of the Tari Valley, was in the highland rain forest. Consequently
it was raining when we arrived.
After lunch we took a walk in
the rain forest across two suspension bridges to a beautiful
waterfall. The damp, mossy trail had many ferns and orchids.
Before sunset we rode to The Gap at 9,000' and saw several beautiful
orchids and the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise with its spectacular
16" head plumes.
Today is an all day excursion
to three Huli sites. Huli are one of the local highland tribes.
There was a clan war going on, and yesterday three men were
killed. As we approached Tari about 150 armed men, in native
costume and all painted up, came marching toward us in two lines,
carrying bows, arrows, machetes, spears and homemade rifles.
We stopped and they waved as they walked by. One man made faces
and waved his arms to show how fierce he was, but allowed us
to take his picture! Our driver must have belonged to the correct
clan because they didn't bother us. He said we were safe because
we were not involved -- prize fighters don't attack people in
the audience (most of the time) either. Huli culture has a strict
payback policy -- eye for eye. The homes we passed had a surrounding
trench and wall and an entrance through a wooden fence with
a very small opening into a sallyport, then another gate before
you were inside.
Our first stop was the Kara
Wig School. The Huli men wear wigs made from human hair, which
is grown at the Wigman school. Men must be single and stay for
1.5 years. Their heads are sprinkled with water several times
a day to make the hair grow. They sleep on their backs with
a neckrest to avoid crushing the hair. After 18 months, when
the hair is about a foot and a half long, it is cut at the scalp
and tied together to make a wig resembling a Napoleonic hat.
The day wig sold for 200 Kina ($140) and the ceremonial wig
for 400 Kina ($280). Letting your hair grow sounded like a pretty
stress-free job, but they wouldn't take an old bald-headed man.
A short distance beyond Kara,
at Alungi, we witnessed a sing-sing -- really spectacular! Men
in costumes of feathers performed a very colorful combination
of singing and jumping. All the species of Birds of Paradise
were represented by feathers in the headdresses. It looked like
something from National Geographic, or a page from a bird watcher's
After a picnic lunch we visited
Pajai, the medicine man or witch doctor who told us about local
remedies and then showed us the skulls of his mother and father,
just as we would keep and show photos of our parents. I always
thought the skulls in their villages were enemies they had eaten;
instead they were their "family tree." He also showed
us "meteorites" used in witchcraft. They were round
and heavy and not pitted like meteorites, and looked like old
cannon balls to me.
North Coast at Madang
This morning we drove
to Tari. I photographed snails in the airport waiting area's
vegetable garden -- an unusual feature! We barely made our connecting
flight at Port Moresby, arrived at Madang, and drove a short
way to Jais Aben Resort, on the Madang Lagoon of the Bismarck
Sea. We had individual bungalows with a screened porch overlooking
the sea. Saw an empty Achatina fulica shell in the lawn rakings.
Had thunder and lightning most
of the night, and a really hot, muggy morning. After breakfast
our group walked to the Christensen Research Institute (CRI).
The Director told us Mr. Christensen was interested in art and
frequently visited the Sepik and Madang areas. He became a partner
for a time in the Jais Aben Resort and established a scientific
research center on the resort property. CRI didn't have much
information about landsnails.
Before lunch we drove up the
coast, then canoed a short way to Tadwai Island. Mostly coral
sand, the small, 50 by 250 yard island has a maximum elevation
of a foot or two. Many empty Pythia scarabaeus shells were on
the ground, and on the windward side of the island I saw many
live specimens, only on pandanus leaves.
Back to the lodge for lunch and
then a motor boat to Tabat (Pig) Island in the mouth of Madang
Lagoon. It's a mile long and 100 - 150 yards wide. I had only
45 minutes so I walked to the windward side -- a repeat of the
Pythia scarabaeus on the pandanus. Mangrove trees were also
present, but I could find no snails on them in this hot, dripping
Next day I inquired at CRI if
anyone was going to visit the Kau Wildlife Area managed by CRI.
There was a group leaving at 8:30 and returning about 2:30.
I got my camera bag and joined them. At the Area, 20 minutes
from CRI, a museum is under construction, with a great view
My guide, Mika, was about 18
and spoke some English. We saw Achatina fulica near the parking
lot. The terrain was open virgin forest, in contrast to the
rain forests we had been seeing. Along the trail I photographed
some Cyclophorus kubaryi, Rhyncotrochus tayloriana, Canefriula
cynthia and Chloritis fruhstorferi, which is covered with short,
At the Kau River we saw the freshwater
snails Neritina sulcosa and Melanoides rustica. We waded the river
and went up a vertical cliff to the top of the ridge. I lost my
confidence in Mika when we came to a fork in the trail and he
asked me which way I wanted to go! We started walking at 9:30
and quit at 1:45. I think he was trying to kill off the old man.
I saw and photographed about ten species -- the best snail day
of the trip, so far.
At the CRI library I found the
preliminary report of Andrzik Wiktor, a Polish malacologist
who was at CRI for 3 months in 1990. He noted that empty shells
decompose in less than a year. Consequently, the only shells
seen are those from the current year.
Today I made arrangements with
Charlie, manager at Jais Aben, to go to the Balek Wildlife Sanctuary,
a small area from the highway footage back to steep, forested
limestone hills. We walked about a hundred yards from the road
to a beautiful shaded pool and spring -- a scene from a Tarzan
movie. The spring is slightly sulphurous and came out of the
The ground surface from the road
to the spring was literally covered with Achatina fulica, not
thin shells but thick solid ones. On both sides of the spring,
the damp soil had Pupinella (dead and live), Cyclotis (dead
and live), Lamellaxis gracilis, Chloritis fruhstorferi, Helicina,
and Canefriula cynthia and Rhyncotrochus tayloriana. Looked
for live "Papuina" in the foliage and on the trees,
but didn't see any.
"Papuina" lives in
the crown of the trees and this accounts for rarely seeing live
specimens. I have never photographed such nice material in such
a beautiful setting.
The next day we drove toward
Madang. Turned south and went until the road was unpaved, then
on a dirt road to Ohu village in the Alderbert Range where a
local man had a private butterfly farm. Butterflies were raised
for export as decorations or mounted in wall plaques. We visited
the enclosed rearing area and then the collecting site. He said,
"Common butterflies feed on common plants and rare butterflies
feed on rare plants." On the bush walk, saw birdwing spiders
and their webs between trees in the butterfly flyway. Also a
few snails, Lamellaxis gracilis, Achatina fulica and Chloritis
After lunch at Jais Aben, walked
to nearby village of Riwo. It was a village in cultural transition:
traditional buildings next to abandoned automobiles.
At dinner it began to pour and
continued most of the night, but was not raining next morning.
I met my guide to Nobonob Lookout at 9:00. The Lookout was used
as an observation post by the Japanese during WW II. We then
walked through planted areas to the base of the Nobonob Hills.
Up and down through second growth forest and small planted or
formerly planted areas, we waded streams very muddy from the
rains last night. Saw live Cyclophorus kubaryi and Neritina
sulcosa and dead Canefriula cynthia. Rhynchotrochus strabo dampierensis.
Chloritis fruhstorferi, the tall freshwater Melanoides rustica,
Achatina fulica and the helicoid operculate, Leptopoma perlucidum.
The last is called Translucent Leptopoma because of the appearance
of the empty shell. When alive the shell appears green because
the animal's green body shines through. The green body is thought
to be due to the chlorophyll it eats.
After lunch went to Madang City
and stopped at Smugglers Cove Lodge to see the artifact workshop,
visited the post office, local museum and then the Madang Resort
Hotel. Later we visited the 30 meter high WW II Coastwatcher's
Memorial. It is visible 25 km at sea and is a reminder of the
men who remained in Japanese occupied territory to report on
Japanese troop and ship movements. I remembered the coastwatchers
from "South Pacific."
Next day we flew from Madang
to Port Moresby via Mt. Hagan, and then on to Cairns, Australia.
Papua New Guinea was a unique experience. The geological, biological
and cultural diversity is found in few places in the world.
I suggest you visit PNG before more changes occur.