The King of the Jungle

On the second day of our trek, we picked our way down another incredibly steep hill and finally reached a creek bed. Five minutes later, I was walking in the middle of the stream, when one of our native guides called for me. He put his fingers to his lips and motioned to a tree. I strained to see what he was pointing at and saw something coiled around a branch. I almost jumped when I realized it was a large snake, perhaps a Papuan Black, one of the most venomous snakes in Papua New Guinea and the world. New Guinea is home to over 80 species of snakes, some of them — the Papuan taipan, New Guinea death adders, the New Guinea brown snake, and the Papuan black — highly dangerous.  

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When I reached for my camera, the guide stopped me, “No pictures,” he said. By then, the rest of the group had caught up and one of the other trekkers made a move toward the opposite bank of the creek, just feet away from the tree where the snake sat. I grabbed his arm and pointed up above. We stood there awe-struck, examining the snake. “Let’s keep moving,” the guide said.

When we reached our lunch spot, we learned the entire story of the snake. Our lead guide explained that some of the carriers had come upon it as it slithered from the underbrush. Had it been another species they might have killed it with their machetes, but this snake was something to be feared and respected. The carriers, he said, assured it that we were just passing through, that we wouldn’t disturb it or its jungle home. And they saw to it that we kept to that promise. When we inquired about swimming in a pool beneath a waterfall to wash the sweat and grime from our bodies, they told us no. At first we didn’t understand. Then they explained that it would be disrespectful to disrupt the snake’s home and by taking pictures and swimming in the pool, we would be doing just that.LRG_DSC00991

We had another four hours of hiking left, and for the rest of the day, I thought about that snake and the carriers’ reaction to it. Somewhere along the way, I came to understand that the snake was their totem – the king of the jungle. It was an animal they revered.

 

Warriors’ Welcome

On our trek across Papua New Guinea, we walked 8 hours every day through jungles, through rivers, through mud, and up and down mountains. The landscape was rugged and pristine. But whLRG_DSC02125.jpgat made the trek even more meaningful was the isolated villages along the way. As we approached the villages, children covered in mud would spring from dense thickets of brush, shrieking as they charged us with spears, sticks, and machetes. At first it frightened us, but it was a ritual the children loved, and one we encountered each and every time. By the end of our trek we came to expect it and were no longer alarmed.

LRG_DSC01182.jpgOnce we entered the villages, which were often nothing more than a dozen thatch huts surrounding a dirt clearing, the colorful ceremonies began. We’d walk under an arch made of vines, leaves, and petals while women and men, adorned in red paint, headdresses made from bird feathers, and pig tusk necklaces pounded on their kundu drums.  Then the women and young girls of the village would drape flower necklaces over our heads and lead us to the center of the village where the real singing, dancing, and drumming began. That was followed by a series of speeches, which were translated by one of our native guides. 

LRG_DSC02814The gist of the speechess was that the villagers looked forward to seeing more outsiders and to the prospect of eco-tourism. Then the prayers began. After the last blessing, they lavished us with food and coconuts and treated us to more dancing. Though exhausted we felt lucky to be among the kindness and generosity of our Papua New Guinean friends, who had so little but gave so much.

 

Strongpela Meri

“Rule Nambawan,” one of our New Guinean guides called over his shoulder as we trudged up a mountain, “Never look up. Longwe tumas. You lose strength.” He spoke a mixture of Tok Pisin and English, and I understood him perfectly: this trail was hard. It was the steepest trail I had ever seen. Barely wide enough for two hiking boots, it was surrounded by thick jungle and it went straight up. Leaning hard on my trekking poles, I wondered if the Papua New Guineans who used the trail to hunt and take their betel nut, peanuts, coffee beans, and cucumbers to the Port Moresby markets had ever heard of switchbacks. My dad and I had trained in Colorado and Montana, but we’d never seen a trail this rugged.

LRG_DSC01030After two hours of tiresome climbing, we made it to the top of a high peak, and were rewarded with a view of the Kemp Welch River valley, green and dense. We enjoyed it for a while and soon began our descent – again straight down. All the roots and rocks that I had used for footholds on the way up were now my enemies. One slippery misstep and I’d be tumbling into the valley, possibly all the way to Goreba, our first village stop.

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It wasn’t until day 6 that I developed what I called my “ jungle feet.” I learned instinctively to place my feet between the slick roots and rocks rather than on them, and I learned how to navigate the stretches of wet clay. I grew fast and efficient at climbing up and down the hills and peaks, and soon I was keeping up with our guides.  I felt agile, strong, and exhilarated. Cresting a hill, I would hear our guides exclaim, There’s our lead girl!” I had earned their respect and a new nickname, “Strongpela Meri.”

Elevation Profile:

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Rule Nambawan- Rule #1

Longwe Tumas- Long way to go

Strongpela Meri- Strong girl