A walk from Oksapmin, Papua New Guinea

by Steve Salfield. 9th January 2007

Having completed our contracts with the Health Department of Papua New Guinea late in 1973 I and my wife decided to explore a remote area of the country where few outsiders had ever been. I had worked in the country for eighteen months and had heard about the area around Telefomin and seen photographs of men wearing “Telefomin trousers” as the traditional penis gourds were fondly known by expats and others. I had met a few of the people in the hospital as my patients. My wife had been to the outstation during her nutrition survey of the East Sepik District and what she described fascinated me. Living here we knew the places to go and how to arrange to visit.

We knew that the country was entering a phase of rapid change and we had a unique opportunity to visit people from a stoneage society and places virtually untouched by modernity. I felt then that modern lifestyles were in many ways retrograde and wanted to understand more of the traditional way of life lived by the people I was meeting.

My brother, his girlfriend and two friends flew in from Australia to join

“The weather’s fine so we should reach Oksapmin in about 40 minutes”

shouted our Ozzie pilot over the roaring of the Cessna’s twin engines. “The air’s pretty thin up there but I think I can get enough altitude to drop us into Oksapmin. On the way back though, I’ll have to collect you in two loads ‘cos we won’t be able to climb out of the valley with six of you on board.” As we climbed from Wewak, the small administration town on the north coast of Papua New Guinea we saw to our right Boram Hospital our home for the last year, our garden touching the turquoise blue South Pacific and to our left rose the densely forested mountains of the Sepik District.

Forty minutes later we saw far below two or three of the familiar Australian built administration buildings and a small airstrip and nearby a traditional thatched village. We were above a steep sided valley high in the mountains and after descending into the valley we held our breath as the pilot circled round and round the valley descending all the time, the wingtips almost touching the valley sides until we landed on the bumpy grass strip.

We were surrounded by twenty or thirty small smiling people. Most were in everyday traditional dress, penis gourds and a few leaves covering the backside for the men and mudstained old grass skirts for the women. A few men were dressed in torn dirty shorts and teeshirts. They had pierced ears with the lower part of the ear dangling where it had been stretched by heavy ornaments, the redundant earlobe often hooked over the top of the ear. Some had pierced noses, the hole often sporting an insect’s proboscis as decoration or used as storage for a partly smoked leaf cigarette.

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“Kiap i no stap. Em i go long liv. Mi wok wantaim Kiap, Mi inap helpim yupela.”

“The Kiap (Austalian patrol officer) isn’t here. He’s gone on leave. I work with the kiap. I can help you” said a smiling small man with a cigarette in the end of his nose. This was Bobbin who became our guide.

We explained that we wanted to go on a patrol into the bush and would need some carriers. He eagerly offered to arrange that for us and told us that there would be a singsing in Okspamin that afternoon.

We had seen twenty or thirty singsings in our eighteen months in Papua New Guinea but this was the most spectacular of all. As we waited near the airstrip in the warm afternoon sun we saw a line of a hundred or more people moving along a track from the forest on the nearby hillside, approaching the valley where we stood. As they neared we heard singing. The men yodelling and whooping, the women singing in high pitched voices and sometimes screaming and wawwawing with their hands on and off their mouths.

When they arrived we saw the most wonderful display of traditional dress. The men wore penis gourds, long pointed gourds strapped around their waists and exaggerating their phalluses, their testicles dangling below. Around their waists were several cane hoops like a belt. They carried bows and arrows and spears and as they ran and danced they beat an adrenaline pumping rhythm on the lizard skins of wooden hand drums. Their bodies and faces were painted red or black and their heads were adorned with complex headgears made of birds of paradise, other feathers, vegetation and possum furs. Some men had impressive dreadlocks although they could not know of rastafarianism. Many wore shell necklaces although they had never seen the sea. Some had large pigs tusks through their nose piercings.

The women wore fine grass skirts, clean and new and with an upper and lower layer. Their faces were painted and their bodies decorated but with less finery than the men. As they ran and danced to the infectious drumming, the young girls’ firm bare breasts bobbed up and down to the rhythm with a life of their own, whilst the older women’s sagging empty “razorstrops”, well used by numerous hungry suckling babies and precious piglets, drooped listlessly.

We studied sketch maps in the Kiap’s office and planned a circular route which we estimated would bring us back to Oksapmin ten days later. The following morning we left Oksapmin with our team of six carriers. Drupe, Gris, Peter and Iyup were young men and wore teeshirts and shorts. Bobbin and another were older and were dressed traditionally. We felt rather embarrassed as the carriers were about half our size but made light work of carrying our rucksacks whereas the combined effects of the heat, altitude and unfitness would have soon exhausted us. Initially we were walking along a muddy track which was being made into a vehicle road. We met some road workers, a group of women in grass skirts working with shovels in the mud, their small naked brown skinned children with

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ginger brown hair looking curiously at us and some bearded men in penis gourds. The women and some men carried the ubiquitous “bilums” (string bags) slung over their heads. These were used to carry everything from a few sweet potatoes for lunch to babies or massive loads of firewood. We spent a night at the mission station at Tekin with Dorothy Harris, an Australian and we passed nearby Aranimap village.

Our route involved climbing over Bimin mountain. We were carrying a small amount of food but hoped to buy most of our supplies from villagers on the route. Half way up the mountain I started to feel shaky and weak. I knew I needed some food but the party was reluctant to stop for lunch so early as we had only walked for two or three hours. I had to stop and was allowed a small piece of sweet potato. Our carriers were anxious, thinking we had finished walking for the day and knowing there was still a long distance to the next village where we planned to stay the night.

We ascended the steep muddy track, clinging onto tree roots as we went. At the summit we were in a cloud forest. The air was cold and damp and visibility was a few yards. The eerie trees with gnarled branches were covered in thick moss and lichens.

We descended the other side of the mountain and arrived at Bimin the village where we had planned our next stop. There were a few tiny wooden huts with thatch rooves. We were shown to a larger hut on stilts made from tree branches with one large room containing a rough wooden bed on tall legs. An anthropologist had lived here for two or three years but the hut was now unoccupied. It was used by the patrol officer when he did his occasional patrols of the district and so was known as the haus kiap. As we were tired, not yet having built up our fitness we decided to have a rest the next day and spend two nights in this house.

In preparation for the night, one of the first tasks was to inflate our airbeds using the footpump we had brought. We hadn’t anticipated the interest and amazement this caused. We were surrounded by a fascinated audience. People had never seen anything like this before and must have thought it was some kind of magic.

Next morning, lying in the sun I decided to read a Time magazine I had brought with me. I was surrounded by incredulous people who were seeing photographs and print for the first time in their lives. I was uncomfortably aware that our mere presence was a catalyst for change in the society which I would have preferred not to happen. But if the people chose to modernise was it perhaps wrong to want to keep them in a museum?

We were alarmed to learn that none of our carriers had ever ventured further than Bimin along the route. They did not know the way and were frightened to proceed as they would be in enemy territory. Luckily we met Memkenya, a Bimin man, who was prepared to guide us from Bimin via various

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other villages and eventually back to Oksapmin so our carriers agreed to continue. Memkenya was an older man with very thin legs and an emaciated body but he was strong and able to carry one of our rucksacks with ease. He wore a khaki peaked cap on his head, a skirt of large black feathers covered his backside and he was otherwise naked apart from a penis gourd and some cane hoops around his waist. Memkenya proudly explained that the cap showed that he had been a luluai or government representative before the arrival of the kiap in Oksapmin.

We continued walking through beautiful rainforest and sometimes open country on this high plateau on a narrow track from Bimin to the small village of Kunana and the following day we saw a magnificent gorge between Kunana and Duban. We crossed raging rapids scrabbling on dangerous bridges made of slippery fallen treetrunks. We traversed sheer mountain sides on tiny paths with vertical drops and waded through many muddy streams.

The population density was low and we walked for hours without meeting people. The villages were generally a day’s walk apart providing plenty of space between traditional enemies and enough land for hunting, gathering and growing food. In the villages we were welcomed by people wanting to sell us vegetables and showing us to the “haus kiap” to sleep for the night. Memkenya knew the route which was fortunate because at times there was no path to be seen and at other times a choice of several uncharted tracks. We stayed overnight at villages called Kweptana and Gowgitamin.

This was one of the most remote places in the world and at times it was hard to believe that we English suburban kids were really here and hiking through such beauty and in such an alien culture. At times our carriers would run ahead and out of sight in the dense vegetation. We had no chance of keeping up. The weather was hot and the going arduous. Would we ever see them and our rucksacs again? Would we be lost in the jungle with no one to guide us? Would we die up here? But then we would round a bend and find them sitting on a fallen tree waiting for us smiling and calling.

We westerners had to stop for our three meals a day but these wiry little people seemed to need little food even though they were carrying our rucksacks. In the evening they would have a small meal of sweet potato but little or nothing else all day. We discussed how they could manage with such a small food intake. There was a theory then current about possible nitrogen fixing bacteria in their guts which might enable amino acids to be synthesised in the gut and thus reduce dietary protein requirement. Another theory suggested that natural selection had resulted in the survival of individuals with a genetic makeup which allowed them to need little nourishment. The genes resulting in people with higher nutritional needs would have died out.

One afternoon after arriving at Kunana, our destination for the day we met an impressive man. Handsome and taller than average at around five feet, he was muscular, proud and charismatic. He was a fight leader and a village big man.

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He wore a possum on his head with a long white feather attached and a red headband with a pigtusk in the middle. He had an impressive insect proboscis pointing forward in his nose piercing and a fine dogtooth necklace . Of course he wore his penis gourd. We sat with him and from a pouch he wore around his neck he took out a mouth harp like a jew’s harp made of wood and began to play. You had to sit close to him to hear his tune as the volume was quiet.The music was rhythmic and melodic with a repetitive riff followed by improvised embellishments. This was modern jazz played by a stoneage fight leader who had never left his homelands or heard a radio. It was a moving experience to hear such wonderful music in such a remote place.

These people spoke their tribal language, one of the seven hundred or so in Papua New Guinea. Only a few of them spoke Pidgin English and none we met spoke English. I tried to learn a few words. I learned the words for “the man goes to the garden” and then learned the word for “dog.” I then tried to say “the dog goes to the garden” by substituting the word for dog in the sentence in place of the word for man. This caused hoots of hilarity. What I had said was complete nonsense as the word for “to go” and the word for “garden” differ in the case of a man being the subject or an animal being the subject in the sentence.

When my nutritionist wife asked whether a certain type of leaf could be eaten, the women laughed uproariously. This was akin to aliens from outer space asking us if toilet paper could be eaten.

From Kunana we walked to Dunan with magnificent views across the Bok gorge. We had completely stunning views of the Strickland gorge.

On the way we met a very thin old man standing outside his hut and clutching his belly looking very sorry for himself. I found a large lump in his abdomen and other than giving him a few painkillers there was nothing I could do and there was no health care facility within many days walk. I suggested he should be taken to Oksapmin and then flown to Wewak hospital but this seemed an impossible undertaking given terrain and the fear of leaving their territory that these people had.

On the fourth day of our walk we stopped in a small one roomed haus kiap for the night. We were taken to a small singsing held to ward off evil spirits following a funeral. Before going out we had fixed a tarpaulin to the underside of the leaky roof as it had already started raining. Returning from the sing sing in heavy rain we lay in bed listening to the water dripping through the roof. Half an hour later an almighty scream roused us as we dozed off. The tarpaulin had collapsed under the weight of a large puddle of rain water it had collected, soaking my brother and his girlfriend. The rest of us were unable to contain ourselves and giggled hysterically.

On our final day our carriers took us to their home village and told us they would cook us a celebration meal, a mumu. Taro and pandanus nuts were prepared and wrapped in banana leaves. They built a large fire on which they heated a pile

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of stones until they were white hot. The stones were then lifted between two sticks and put into a hole in the ground and the food wrapped in banana leaves was put on top of the stones. The hole was then covered with soil and the food left for several hours to cook. When cooked the taro was kneaded into a base rather like a pizza base and then covered in the bright red pandanus sauce. The process took several hours and we were ravenous when the enormous delicious looking pizza like dish was ready. But we had to conceal our disappointment when we tasted the meal and found it was almost completely tasteless.

Eventually we walked into Oksapmin and flew back to Wewak three by three. I loved what I had seen and didn’t want it to change. I knew this was hopelessly simplistic and paternalistic. They had land, space and community and strong traditions, no deadlines and no bureaucracy. But they had no health care or education, no running water and no conveniences or comforts and they had fear of evil spirits and danger from their enemies. Given the choice these people would probably opt for the safer and more comfortable lifestyle which I enjoyed.

In my Wewak garden that evening I, my brother Phil and our friend Rick danced in penis gourds and brandished spears.

I shouted my warcry,
“Keep out twentieth century. Leave these people to their lives.”

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2 Responses to A walk from Oksapmin, Papua New Guinea

  1. oswald tumku says:

    Nice to read this script. Oksapmin has changed since then. I can only imagine what it must have been.

  2. Shekh rabbani says:

    Actually, you bring up a good point. This blogs have native feeds (build-in feeds) but many add Feed burner, Feed Blitz or another feed service to their blogs. Now they have their own feeds, but those feeds, and where do the numbers get tracked? WordPress.com has yet to get a real handle on all the feed tracking confusion, so I’m not sure if all feeds are incorporated into those numbers or not. We need to learn more about what is track able and what isn’t and how to make our choices accordingly.

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