11 In the Shadow of Sumburipa

Two roads diverged in a wood – and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

- Robert Frost

 Across Islands

The brooding peak of Mt. Lamington loomed over me as I walked alone through a now-peaceful valley, towards the north coast of PNG. In January of 1951, the long-smoldering volcano had erupted with cataclysmic force, sending a cloud of burning hot gas roaring down the slope into the fertile valley where I now walked, wiping out Oro Province's district headquarters of Higatura. The entire population of some four thousand natives and 35 Europeans died instantly. Now, hiking through the lower valley, there was no sign of the previous destruction.

The long, pleasant, two-day walk from Kokoda brought me to the new district headquarters of Popondetta, established at a safer distance from the volcano. The road held a fusion of scenes: wooden bridges spanning small rivers, villages with their gardens and palm groves and friendly people waving as I marched past. Several times a day, an open truck filled with passengers standing in the back raced by on the narrow track, leaving me momentarily engulfed in its trailing dust cloud.

Months earlier, in the library at the university in Port Moresby, I met a girl named Paharija, whose family lived in a village near here. When she finished that year's course, she returned to her village and wrote a letter inviting me to visit her family's farm. We shared a love of mountains so she finished her letter with: “Come and we can climb Sumburipa.” Mt. Lamington, called Sumburipa by locals, is quiet now except for steam vents and a hot crater. The natives who have returned in recent years to the mountain slopes know of places where they can bake vegetables simply by putting them in a shallow hole in the ground. Sumburipa is far from dead – just sleeping for now.

By chance, I met Paharija and her mother at the Popondetta Post Office. They were surprised to see me, particularly after hearing I walked all the way from Moresby. At the general store, we loaded bags of rice, sugar, two tins of tea and powdered milk for Paharija's sister's baby. Carrying their supplies, we walked the two miles back to their farm. After turning onto a footpath, we crossed over a stream on a log foot bridge and entered a clearing where their houses stood, concealed from the road by thick gardens and rows of palms.

In the compound, three simple huts stood close together, raised above the ground on posts. One hut was for the parents, one for Paharija and her sister, and one for her four brothers. Near them, under a thatched roof lean-to, was a cement oven and a wooden table for taking their meals. The houses were typical: bamboo walls and floor and hand-hewn timber frames with bundles of kunai grass for the roofs. The four sturdy posts that raised each dwelling off the ground helped keep them free of some of the jungle pests and allowed a cooling breeze to circulate freely. Alongside the huts sat an open-sided guest house where I set down my backpack.

Beside a stream, staggered rows of coconut palms bordered the gardens of pumpkin, cassava, bananas, pineapple and taro root. Hidden behind the rest was a grove of cocoa trees, then a string of wire fence stretched between wooden posts enclosing several acres where the pigs run. The climate and soil are so favorable that young trees cut down and trimmed into fence posts and pounded into the earth take root, sprouting green tops and budding branches within weeks. Another rivulet, used for washing clothes and bathing, ran opposite the gardens. Upstream from there, the clear, cool creek provided pure drinking water.

During the night, I listened to the dull thumps from falling ripe coconuts as they hit the ground. In the mornings, Paharija and I gathered all we could find and carried them to the pigs. Since pigs cannot open the hard nuts by themselves, my job was to split them open with an axe, while taking care not to strike any pigs as they pushed and shoved to get a feeding place. I would inevitably be knocked off my feet and splattered in mud and coconut water during the pigs' excitement to get at the rich, oily coconut meat. Some of these baconers weighed over 300 pounds so they simply pushed me aside with gluttonous indifference. At least it provided great amusement to Paharija, who shouted warnings and instructions from the safety of the other side of the fence. To enhance their coconut diet, a few times each week the pigs received a wheelbarrow full of cooked green bananas and cassava root and steamed leaves from the papaya tree – a tropical hog's banquet.

Later, while planting pumpkin seeds in the cleared garden soil, Paharija grabbed my hand and told me to use a stick instead of my thumb to press the holes in the soil for the seeds. She explained that a year earlier, her sister had pushed a seed into the garden earth and been stung by a spider that injected a poison egg under her skin. Her thumb had swollen to three times its normal size. The doctor in town said he could do nothing; the egg must hatch and then the spider would eat its way out of her thumb. If he tried to cut it out, it would release its poison and she'd lose her hand or it could possibly kill her. It took months of tormenting pain for the flesh-eating spider to come out and her thumb to heal. Even innocent-looking soil held terrifying dangers.

In the cocoa tree grove, the ripening purple cocoa pods were soon to be harvested and separated from the inner nuts, which were baked and crushed to produce the aromatic cocoa powder. While the girls pruned the cocoa trees, my job was to clear back the bush with the machete. The tangled vegetation I was clearing around the gardens required clearing several times a year. So fast was the growth on this farm that one man with a machete could not keep more than a few acres clear. The rest of their land was left in its natural forested state, which was good to see because once an island habitat is clear-cut, it can permanently lose many of its original animals.

I stayed with the Hotota family for two weeks, helping where I could with the farm's daily work. Whenever I thought we had finished our work, there was more to be done. Once we caught up with tending gardens, we collected bamboo and thatch for a new house. These bush houses need replacing every two years as the grass roofs dry out and wood rots and becomes riddled with termites. Fortunately, all the housing materials grow nearby and constantly replenish themselves in a timeless cycle. Resting at night, I imagined I heard the jungle growing with buds bursting open and vines creeping out to willfully fill any sunlit void.

When the day's heat overwhelmed us, we retreated to the cool waters of the river. I remember wading knee-deep up that lovely stream bed of sand and smooth stones and swirling clear waters to lay in the shallows next to the bank. Vines reached down to touch the water. Brightly colored butterflies the size of two hands swirled around us as sparkling flakes of color dancing on air. Paharija's dark, wet skin was bathed by an emerald radiance of diffused sunlight filtering through the forest canopy.

In the evenings, Paharija's family of eight and I gathered around the table next to the cook house for dinner. Her father began dinner with a prayer. Afterwards he told long bible stories in Pidgin, as related to him from the resident white missionary from Ohio. The country seemed to hold more priests than tourists.

I started out my travels eager to criticize the motives and effects of missionaries attempting to convert souls and cultures to their version of God's own way. I had largely bought into Gauguin's version of Polynesia and the noble savage myth. However, it soon became clear to me that what the missionaries created, at least on this once dark island, was far better than what they had found. Though they did not perform miracles and there was much help these people still needed, I saw many instances of how missionaries across this island had assisted the natives in lifting themselves up from a short and miserable life filled with fear, violence, disease, ignorance and suffering. The whining and cruel-tongued anti-missionary crowd are as self-righteous as those they try to tear down. Yet, by comparison, what have they done to help the islanders? Few of them came to share the islanders' diseases and poverty and work alongside the natives to ease their sufferings.

The road to town was deserted at night and cool enough for pleasant walking. On an aimless evening stroll, we looked up from the road to see the silhouette of Sumburipa in the moonlight, its peak continually wreathed in steam-filled clouds. I felt drawn to it and wanted to see the people who bravely returned to live on its slopes. Because it was their land, and they had nowhere else to go, they defied the mountain to strike out at them again.

Early one morning, Paharija and I hoisted our packs and set out with hopes of climbing the mountain. She had relatives in most of the villages along the way so we could expect assistance if needed. Outside the vegetable market in Popondetta, we found a truck going in the right direction, so we stepped up into the back and found a place on one of the two wooden benches crammed with passengers. Between the benches were piles of string bilums, stretched to the limit with fruits and vegetables the people were taking home from the market. Other people followed and found seats on sacks of flour and rice. After we got moving, the truck made circles around town for an hour, picking up more people and packing them into places I thought already filled to capacity.

Once we thought we were finally underway, the truck pulled to a stop in front of the general store next to the market – the same spot we had boarded an hour earlier. One of the passengers had some last-minute shopping to do. This was Melanesian time, where bus schedules did not exist and waiting around was of no consequence.

While we waited, a couple of women came out of the store and stared at me blankly. Our driver exchanged a few words with them before they lowered their heads and crept away as the whole truck burst into laughter. By this time I spoke Pidgin well enough. Unfortunately, I knew nothing of the local languages, such as Orokaiva, which was spoken in this province. When the uproar settled down, Paharija explained to me there was an old custom here that before a crop of taro was planted, the women needed to do something auspicious, either procure magic from a sorcerer, visit a sacred place or make an offering. So when the driver asked them what they wanted, they replied that someone had told them there was a white man in the back of the truck. This being somewhat rare, they came to have a look. The native driver had then bellowed, “All right, you've had a good look at our white man. Now go plant good taro.”

Eventually, we got underway. By ones and twos, everyone was unloaded at villages or farms along the route, slowly bringing us nearer the mountain. The empty truck dropped us at the dead end of the road. By my map, I calculated the half-day truck journey had brought us less than twelve miles in a straight line. We might have walked it instead.

Nearby we found the home of Paharija's aunt, where we asked directions for the best route to the summit. She became nervous and asked us to forget about the climb and go back. Apparently, a local sorcerer was stirring a pot of trouble and claiming people should stay off the mountain until he had pacified the spirits with certain sacrifices. Paharija also became worried, but I assured them both we would be alright. Reluctantly, the aunt called a young boy to guide us to the village near the sorcerer's camp, where we could spend the night and get further instructions.

Three of us now plunged into the bush, the boy leading us quickly down dark, narrow footpaths that forked off into other paths every few minutes. The boy must have had the route imprinted in his genes, for he always knew which of two identical-looking paths to take, even after I was hopelessly lost. We climbed to the ridges, descended to cross shallow streams, then up other hills. The late afternoon sunlight was fading under the green roof of the forest. Vines hung down in massed loops from the treetop canopy to the ground, creating a surreal dream world around us. Our footsteps were muffled into silence as we stepped on a carpet of decaying plant life.

Suddenly, the boy stopped. We stood, staring up where the boy stared, and listened intently to a bird singing a song sounding oddly like flute music. Still hidden, it ended its song and we heard the faint fluttering noise as it flew away. The wide-eyed boy said he must get home before dark and vanished down the trail.

“We're almost there. Let's go ahead quietly now,” Paharija whispered. Later, she explained the bird we heard was the bisohi, or messenger bird. An Orokaiva legend says it warns people of impending danger with its mysterious song. “The bisohi keeps singing until you interpret his message correctly. Then he moves away,” she said. According to the boy's interpretation, the bird was warning me not to enter this place.

“With your education,” I asked, “Do you really believe that story?”

She gave me a look of indulgent pity and replied, “You heard it yourself, didn't you?”

We moved on regardless, since there was not enough light left for us to safely find our way out of this maze of paths. When we approached a few huts in a clearing, she asked me to wait out of sight while she went ahead to see if we were in the right place. She found our sorcerer, Haugaturu, and afterward came back and told me that he'd been expecting us. Even though no one had time to tell him we were coming and before she could tell him herself, he had told her she had a white man with her and that we were on our way to the mountain. “Must have been that loud-mouthed bird that gave me away,” I joked.

In the fading twilight, I walked up to the tall and thin Haugaturu standing on the step to his hut. With expressionless face and deep-set eyes that seemed to look right through me, he sized me up carefully before reaching out to shake my hand. He motioned for us to sit next to him. A decrepit woman gone senile sat nearby talking to herself while laying sweet potatoes and taro to roast on the glowing coals at the edge of a fire. He welcomed us to stay the night – where else could we go? – then warned us this place was tambu, under a bad spell. His father, he told us, had died the week before and we must take care not to offend his spirit. “The white man,” he told Paharija, “must never raise his voice or walk around alone. He may shock my father's spirit.” It seemed she had interpreted the bisohi bird correctly.

There was a stark loneliness about this little settlement, perhaps because there were no children around to lighten the mood. Smoke from the cooking fire hung in a dense low cloud as if held down by the heavy moist air. The four huts of the compound sat on a bare dirt courtyard bordered by tall areaca palms, the type that produce the ubiquitous betel nut that all the native men chew. Selling betel nuts at the town market was Haugaturu's main source of income. Meanwhile he worked his sorcery and watched the crops grow, as his father did before him.

The guest hut we occupied sat on the usual stilts a few steps above the ground and carried a thick roof of pandanus leaves. It was as simple as it could be: no furniture, no lantern, no walls. Near the foot of our steps, a mound of fresh earth marked the grave of Haugaturu's father. His presence was very near indeed.

Paharija crossed the courtyard where she spoke in low tones with the sorcerer. She returned saying our host did not think it wise for us to continue up the mountain just now. He reminded her that his father had died from black magic and that another man had recently died on the mountain of mysterious circumstances. Probably because of Paharija's irresistible way of pouting, he relented, saying if we were determined to go, he would stay up late that night to make magic for our safety. “Go if you must,” he added, “but you will not reach the peak.”

The slightly mad woman, hunched over from her many years, appeared suddenly out of a fusion of shadows with a basket of cooked vegetables for our dinner. She turned and was swallowed into the night. Later we unrolled our blankets on the bamboo floor and tried to sleep. Fireflies blinked on and off in random patterns above me. I pulled a sheet over my head as the drone of hungry mosquitoes, homing in on our breath, filled my ears.

The mosquitoes of New Guinea have evolved into efficient blood-sucking machines. Unlike the timid and harmless mozzies in Western countries, here they seem to dive head first and stab their rapier-like stinger into your skin and are drinking your blood before you know it. What they leave behind is the malarial parasite to inhabit your liver, periodically erupting to fill your blood with disease. I'd been taking anti-malarial medicine continually since I first stepped foot on the island. But there was still a risk of the deadly fever, for there were several strains of malaria here, some of them now drug-resistant. Despite having occasional access to medicine, the natives of these lowland areas are never free of malaria. Everyone in Paharija's family has suffered the fever numerous times without much complaint, because it's a fact of life. If a native lives past their second year without dying from the fever, they usually will not die from the malaria directly. Their survival through infancy means they are partially resistant. That is, unless the dead blood corpuscles of a relapse inexplicably gather to coagulate in the brain. In that case, death is swift. Another worse possibility, is the dread blackwater fever, in which the kidneys slowly dissolve, turning the urine black before a painful death. With these continual assaults on their health, it is no mystery why their bodies are worn out by the age of forty.

For hours, Haugaturu chanted spells from his porch, joined from time to time by the old woman. I could just make out her face, eerily illuminated by the fire she huddled over. The remainder of the night was broken only by the jungle's eternal nocturnal chattering.

I did not sleep at all that night and thought of the explorers who came to this area of New Guinea in the late nineteenth century. They reported the natives engaged in a particularly gruesome form of “living cannibalism.” An unfortunate victim, captured by an enemy tribe, was staked out alive and strips of flesh were cut from his body, as needed, to fill out their mostly vegetarian diet. To prolong life, and so prolong the feast, the wounds were bound and covered with banana leaves. Meanwhile, the victim was subjected to the most sadistic torturing the women of the village could devise, which I won't go into here. The poor wretch lived in this agony, sometimes up to two weeks before succumbing. And we modern Westerners still blame the missionaries for destroying native “culture” in New Guinea.

This horrid practice ended before I got here, but the black magic continues. Poisoning is still a favorite method for the sorcerers to use to back up their magic. People have become so terrified when told a curse has been put on them, that they die within a few days, victims of the toxicity of suggestion. This confirms the sorcerer's powers, and the next victim's fears are reinforced. Although the missionaries have worked hard, the natives have been merely vaccinated with Christianity and still live in a spirit-filled world. None live free of the fear of sorcery and the witch doctors do a thriving business throughout the land.

The demons fled with morning's light and our world seemed less hostile. We received directions from Haugaturu to guide us through the maze of trails and villages that lead to Sumburipa. The old man acknowledged my ten kina banknote, and my wordy thanks for his hospitality, with a deep grunt. We shouldered our bags and moved back into the tangle of vines, creepers and trees. We passed the familiar banana, mango, sago palms, rubber trees and blooming orchids. As I pointed to an unfamiliar plant, Paharija named it for me and explained how it might be used for food or medicine: “This plant the women know how to make into a tea, that when drunk regularly, prevents pregnancy,” she said with authority.

Our pack load was light and we easily scrambled up the mountain slopes, along ridges and across narrow ravines, slowly and steadily gaining altitude. We walked through or around several villages nearly buried under the weight of the jungle. One village of over fifty huts was sprawled out along a riverbank. There was no road in the area so we often met people commuting along the well-worn footpath.

We took lunch along the trail and soon were joined by a group of Ragiana Birds of Paradise gathered on a branch overhead. Three males, resplendent in red flank plumes, made trumpeting calls to a plain-feathered female on another branch of the same tree. They fanned wings and tails, calling out raucously as they hopped up and down in what was certainly a dance contest. If sufficiently impressed, the female offers herself to the most inspired dancer. Birds of Paradise live only in this corner of the world and even here are becoming rare, as the native population hunts them down to add their colorful plumes to ceremonial headdresses.

Birdwatchers have counted some 650 species of birds on this one island, almost as many as in all North America. Animals are comparatively few, the commonly seen ones being the wallaby, large bush rats, wild razor-backed hogs and a raccoon-like tree-dwelling marsupial called the couscous. Crocodiles infest some rivers, but snakes and insects are the more common threat. I brushed through countless silken webs of spiders whose outstretched legs sometimes were as big as my hand. Not knowing which varieties were poisonous made each encounter memorable.

Arriving in remote Kiorota Village we met more relatives of Paharija. They recognized her immediately, even though they hadn't seen her in years. An older man with an uncommon sparkle of youth in his eyes shook my hand vigorously, introducing himself as Sinclair, and insisting that we stay for tea. Sinclair moved his family back here thirty years ago to rebuild the village that had been destroyed by the eruption of Sumburipa. Every single thing that lived or grew between here and the summit began life less than thirty-four years ago. Already, a thin forest covered the slopes. As in most of the villages I had been to on the island, every bush and blade of grass had been removed around the huts, probably to reduce insect and snakebites, leaving the rich volcanic soil exposed.

With tea finished and the usual warnings given us to turn back unheeded, Sinclair grabbed his walking stick and led us down one of the many trails out of the village. In spite of thick bush, we caught a few hopeful glimpses of the summit drawing closer as we crested the succession of ridges. Sinclair led at a young man's pace, stabbing the ground with his walking stick and telling stories as he went.

At the edge of a cliff he halted, saying, “Me olpela tumas. Me go long haus bilong me. Yu mas wokabot long hap” (I'm too old for this part. I'll return home now and you can cross over there). He pointed below us to a chasm in the earth a hundred yards deep. It was clear why he was going no further. Below us lay a near vertical wall of wet clay, vines and rocks. He assured us it was the best crossing place available. We thanked him and dropped over the side, groping from vine to vine and sliding to the river below. Fortunately, the opposite bank was less steep. In a half hour we were up and entering Kenbata, the highest settlement on the mountain.

A group of noisy children surrounded us as we approached the village elder resting on the steps of his hut. No matter what we said, the chief remained adamant in his refusal to let us continue. “Sumburipa is tambu,” he repeated over and over. “Come back in a fortnight when the spirits may be quiet again.”

From here we had a clear view of the steaming forbidden peak, tantalizingly near. Because of superstition and fear, I could no more reach it than I could clutch a handful of its smoke. These people lived precariously on a mountain of fire that awed them with its mystical powers and could destroy them again at any time. Because this village owns the upper slopes we needed to pass through, and claims possession even of the smoldering crater itself, we had to respect their wishes. Reluctantly, we turned away and followed a young man that led us down to a road on the other side of the mountain. Eventually, we came full circle around the mountain by the time we reached Popondetta.

The final leg may have been the hardest of all as we walked several miles along the road, under a blistering sun, carrying the disappointment of the failed climb. The first empty truck that came by stopped to give us a ride. We climbed in the back and then found out it was used for hauling drums of oil. Every surface was covered in a thick black goo of oil and dirt. To increase our discomfort, the truck rode empty as if it had no springs and the driver managed to hit every available pothole and rock in the road. We suffered this for an hour or so before being dropped near Hotota's farm.

There was more work to do on the farm and I stayed for two more days to help out. My last day there, I helped cut and haul the posts for a new hut to be built along the river next to the pineapple patch. When she married, Paharija planned to raise her family here with the gardens and river at her doorstep. I planted a sprouting coconut next to the site and she smiled in approval as I carefully packed the soil around it and asked it to grow quick and tall to shade her home and provide fruit for her family. She and I lingered at the site of the new house that evening. With a rising moon, we sat protected by a mozzie net hung under a branch. Each passing breeze caught the green tops of giant bamboo, rubbing their tapering segmented stems together with creaks and groans. The soft, bubbling noises of the river and the ever-present insect chirps completed the gentle night orchestra.

Next morning Paharija joined me for the long walk down to the coast at Killerton Bay. This now peaceful road had been the scene of a bloody rear guard retreat during WWII as the Japanese were pushed out of the Kokoda Trail. Some 16,000 Japanese died between here and the beaches of Buna and Gona at the end of this road. Walking past these now empty settlements along the bay was a personal triumph. I had crossed a part, even a narrow part, of this untamed island in twelve days of walking, not counting the detours. Despite my fatigue and blistered feet, I was too happy for words.

At Killerton, we found the 90-foot inter-island trader of the Lutheran Shipping Company tied to the wharf. I had a couple hours to wait until it sailed for the town of Lae, so we walked down to the bay where a point of land juts out into the sea. We relaxed on a blanket on the sand under the welcome filtered shade of the palm fronds.

A solitary outrigger canoe approached the beach and the man began unloading baskets of produce from his gardens to be sold at a nearby market. Paharija grabbed some coins and went to see what he had. She returned with a couple of green drinking nuts and an armful of soft vegetables they call pitpit. These pitpit resembled a small ear of unhusked corn on the outside. Once roasted on our driftwood beach fire and peeled, they tasted like a soft sweet squash. We ate as many as we could, washing them down with the slightly sweet coconut water.

It was well after sunset when the gate to the wharf opened. Inside, it was as a refugee camp. Hundreds of people waited around with their belongings in bilums, cardboard boxes and crates seemingly scattered in chaos all over the yard.

By the time I got to the ticket booth, all the 14 kina (US$12) “below deck” tickets were sold, and I got one of the last 21 kina “above deck” tickets. The gang plank lowered and the rush was on with two hundred people and their cargo negotiating one narrow plank. As the others boarded quickly to seek out the choice spots for the overnight passage, Paharija handed me a note containing the address of her relatives in Lae. I thanked her as best I could and said my goodbye.

“Will you come back and stay with us after you return from the Highlands?” she asked. I said I would and started my way up the gangplank. “When you return we will climb Sumburipa to the very top,” Paharija called out.

Yes we would, I thought, spirits willing.