Tonight, we dine on passionfruit and parrotfish. Dehydration, festering reef wounds, and a betel nut daze boost the scenario.
Chewing the chalky, bitter kernel of this green nut stains teeth, reddens saliva, blurs brain. Kabau, my host and betel nut aficionado, ejects his spit with extraordinary force, accuracy, and aplomb.
“Human flesh is delicious and very sweet,” he says. “It was like eating the cassowry bird.”
My head spins. Oppressive heat, SP Lager, and two weeks of surf had taken a toll, but the betel nut iced the cake. Known locally as buai and generally chewed with lime powder, it’s an acquired taste.
Melanesians crave the stuff. Down Port Moresby way, roughly 200,000 nuts are consumed daily. City pavement is splattered with crimson spit stains, as is the dirt floor we sit upon. Kabau invited me into his rickety plywood/aluminum home on the edge of a palm forest as I strolled with sunset, snapping photographs. He welcomed the company of a foreigner.
“First time I saw white man, I was confused. Was this a human? Was it a spirit of the dead coming back to life? I did not know.”
He spits again. Twilight wind rustles the palms. Darkness gathers and a candle is lit on a small table beneath a large Bob Marley poster. Lacking electricity, Kabau embraces night through dim touch and sound, surrounded by absolute black until dawn.
Fatigue soon ensues; I opt for sleep. A final spit/rinse/beer swig, and I bid a warm farewell to this man.
“The shoreline will take you to your bed, my friend.”
Outside, the ocean, insects, and breeze take me in. Sweet hibiscus fragrance is there; muted weight of thick, wet air presses into all senses. Walk to the sand and reflect on Kabau’s solitary, single-flamed alcove on this microscopic island. Yes, island life perseveres—a throwback fragment on the edge of nowhere.
And its surf is good.
* * *
I visited Papua New Guinea in my imagination before making the actual journey. Then, through the windows of Air Niugini, it presented itself.
The island of New Guinea sprawls like a vast prehistoric bird across the sea north of Australia, its accompanying isles arcing up just below the equator; Papua New Guinea comprises the eastern half of the island (its western half is the Indonesian territory of Irian Jaya), is the world’s second-largest island nation after Greenland, and its shape, size, and rugged interior are all the upshot of a peculiar geological history. It is Melanesia’s largest and most diverse country, possessing forests and freshwater wetlands equal in world biological importance to those of the Amazon and Congo basins. Seventy percent of the country is dense tropical forest.
Once considered a land of savages and headhunters holding meager value for the western commercial world, today Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s conservation hotspots. Its rain forests are the storehouse for nearly five percent of the world’s biodiversity, and its ocean and coral reefs harbor some of the world’s richest, most diverse marine environments.
The fringe islands to the north lie in a region of important tectonic activity where the large Pacific, Australia and Caroline plates join, separated by a complex of microplates underlying the Bismarck and Solomon seas. Through eons, Australia drifted north, accumulating islands and bits of other continents along its leading edge, and, like debris swept together by a broom, the clutter evolved into a large, chaotic pile of landforms, confirming the resemblance of Papua New Guinea’s flora and fauna to Australia’s. Abutting southeast Asia, Papua New Guinea lacks rhinos, tigers, and elephants, but it does have endangered tree-dwelling kangaroos.
A pleasant boat ride from Kavieng unveils Nusalik Island, where a surly hornbill welcomes me with a loud squawk and a pair of threatening lunges. Apparently, these large birds aren’t fond of humans, especially weird white ones toting cameras and a boardbag. Nonetheless, I locate my mattress unscathed and, drained by three days of near-constant travel from Los Angeles, perish into a dense 15-hour slumber.
Gleeful voices of four tiny boys inaugurate the next morning. For fun, they ford the channel between Nusalik and Nusa islands, scale a tall overhanging palm tree, and leap from it, laughing, down into the water. Sterile young minds free from Playstations and MTV is a refreshing concept.
Rising with exotic birdsong in the early sun, I wave to the kids. With massive grins, they yell back across the channel.
“Hey, sir! What your name? What your name? Hey, sir! Wooohooo!”
The water, 30 degrees warmer than California’s, feels grand. I swim over and step onto the tree, shaking hands with the boys—the happiest, friendliest children I’ve ever met.
“Surfer! You surfer? Look!”
One of them points excitedly across the channel out to the far shore of Nusalik, where a windpocked left crumbles into coral. I smile and hoot with the boys. One Love Spiritual Upliftment won’t be long now.
* * *
“…the extremes of experience which are often so far removed from daily life elsewhere….” —David Kirkland
Dreaming of tomorrow, missing today. Picture a delicate Pacific island culture rewound from…us. Our vastly material, monetary influence; our tired timecards and painfully brief lunchbreaks; our gridlocked highways and luxe SUVs; our immense network of communications; our world-altering trends and status quo; our saturated diet and rampant societal obesity; our gross consumerism. Picture this, then picture a licorice-skinned people, unspoilt, at the twilight of their innocence.
“The local crew, yeah…the whole mindset and peoples’ values and their judgements, their headspace. Yeah, very primitive in many ways….”
Nick relays his view as we lounge in pitch-blackness beneath a rain-slammed bungalow awning, gazing out across the strait—at nothing, essentially. Nick, sharp and slight-statured, is proprietor of Nusa Island Retreat, a rustic accommodation outfit on the southeast corner of tiny Nusalik Island. Shedding Australian society, he has effectively created a harmonious existence here, with the bungalow retreat a business byproduct of his 1997 homecoming.
“My old man came up here from South Oz when he was young and started working on plantations. Myself, my brother, and my sister were all born just south of here, in Rabaul; we grew up there for 12 years. We didn’t even grow up in town—we grew up in the bush, basically, in the jungle on a plantation. No roads. We went to Rabaul every two weeks by boat, stayed a night there, then went back. It was a few hours by boat to Rabaul. Out in the plantation, it was just our family and the local crew. We had neighboring plantations—expatriate guys—but there weren’t many kids around, so it was just us three, and all of our friends were local crew, which is something that gave us good familiarity.
“Then we moved back to Australia, learned to surf there, and started living in Australia for quite a long time. Moved up to North Queensland and Victoria, then came back to Papua New Guinea five years ago on a see-the-family/surf trip. That’s how we came across this place.”
The rain intensifies, pounding the palm frond roof, gurgling in miniature waterfalls down to the sand. We guzzle long pulls of cold beer and absorb the raw vibe of Papua New Guinea’s wet season—high summer and the hottest, stickiest time of year, even at this late hour. Beer is consumed quickly, effortlessly. A two-inch-long black beetle lands suddenly from nowhere onto my leg, then flies away. Nick rolls a cigarette and the conversation resumes.
“I’ve traveled around a bit and I’ve seen other places in the world that are so-called ‘exotic,’ and I reckon Papua New Guinea offers that and more in terms of exoticness. Easily. It’s better, I reckon, because it’s more undeveloped and the local crew are more…just more basic, more traditional. It’s not so modern as the rest of the world is. It’s different; it’s still got it’s own thing going on….”
More beer is opened and our words fade. The squall continues; the earth steams. Warm rain, cool sweat, mustiness, mugginess. Thick, tropical darkness allows for olfactory awareness.
Nick nods good-night and leaves me with my thoughts. Two degrees below the equator, a long way from anywhere and surrounded by rain drops, a vision of World War II seeps from the stillness. Not far from here, the ocean floor hosts several famous relics of South Pacific warfare as it were: Loud fighter planes, sinking battleships, bullets, societal unrest, rampant death, unchecked destruction. The South Pacific campaign of World War II set new standards for savagery in modern warfare when the U.S. Marines landed at Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands and the Australians repulsed the Japanese advance across New Guinea.
None of this is happening tonight. Out here, in this sweltering 21st century rain forest scene, halcyon harmony of culture and nature embraces a great peace and naivety from the rest of the planet. Today is Sunday, and the islanders’ lethargic stride of life slows further to a blithe crawl. It’s a sensitive portrait.
* * *
“…the richest coral life on our planet. These submarine archipelagoes are bathed in the warmest of waters, and the designs of life are fashioned like tapestries.” —National Geographic.
Monday afternoon. Rolling darkly over the Kavieng coast, an ominous squall line sweeps in from the Bismarck Sea. Whiteout ensues and the session ceases. Was a delightful gig at Nago—chest-high waves working a spell on shallow razor coral. One duck-dive creates a line of shredded fiberglass and fins. Epoxy surfboards withstand great abuse, but the coral insists. Clearly, it’s a no-win predicament.
Tuesday morning. Bright, windless, oppressively hot. Heat and humidity differ slightly: morning flows into the afternoon, the afternoon feels like the night and the night unravels to morning. And so on.
We launch the skiff and motor around the point. Out of the stuff of dreams, palms thrust from the white sand lining Nusa Island: their fronds of green, the source of Earth’s tropical affiliation; their fantastic nuts, the legacy of these sustenance trees. As sunlight sears the mist, the dawn song of the Bird of Paradise echoes through the flora.
Stepping from the skiff, Pacific salt clears my skin. Instant therapy—stroke down and touch the coral, eye the sky, then reach for the surfboard leash. The beginning of another session sublime. Flawless, head-high lefts loop along the reef, expiring into coral heads on the inside. Melanesian waves induce fantasy, yet this is not. Life imitates postcard.
Papua New Guinea’s natural cornucopia is of Oceania’s most pristine. A maze of islands, reefs, mangroves, and passes, here lies a marine domain of dazzling fertility. Dangling from the eastern edge of southeast Asia’s center of coral reef biodiversity, Papua New Guinea’s waters are poorly surveyed, hosting thousands of uncharted of coral reefs—including fringing, barrier, and atoll formations—and is one of the world’s most stunning marine habitats, exceeding species known to the Australian Great Barrier Reef, the Hawaiian islands, and the West Indies combined.
Before surfing above one today, I was informed that because Kavieng’s reefs lie at low latitude, they are hidden from the seasonal cyclone belt and, consequentially, the upper reef slope and reef crest are rarely impacted by extreme high seas. Largely untouched by human activities—result of the country’s low population and absence of material development—Papua New Guinea offers one of the world’s few remaining opportunities for conservation of stellar coral reef zones.
A scuba mecca, the number of fish species recorded on single dives here is usually among the highest recorded during rapid ecological South Pacific surveys. Constantly swept with oceanic and tidal currents, Kavieng has a reputation for being the pelagic species capital of Papua New Guinea.
Sweating and scanning for sharks between sets, I sit on my surfboard and marvel at these facts. Several colorful species—staghorn corals, table corals, tree corals, brain corals—coat the ocean bottom, mere inches from my feet. Basslets, parrotfish, wrasses, groupers swarm. A coral Eden, they say, leading the globe in pure coral glory, but falling far short in native surfing population.
In fact, surfing islanders are scarce. Boat driver Stanley, 19, drops anchor and enters the mood. Rare is the small black figure on a thrashed surfboard atop turquoise translucence. This is not the modern Action Sports Retailer surf image. In Papua New Guinea, reality supplants time.
Stanley’s people, likely migrants from the Indonesian archipelago, arrived here some 50,000 years ago. They flocked in several waves, and the islands sired a unique effect on cultural texture. Since the bulk of Papua New Guinea’s terrain is quite mountainous and rugged, the islanders evolved in virtual isolation, developing their own languages and tribal cultures, lending Papua New Guinea one of the planet’s most diverse and intriguing island demographics. Most still reside in small villages, adhering to traditional tribal customs.
Before the arrival of aircraft, islanders were as isolated from the rest of Papua New Guinea as people living on other continents. Though English is lingua franca in government and schools, the islands feature 800 different pidgin-based dialects.
First contact between white men and the islanders occurred in the early 16th century, when Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses sighted the place, naming it Ilhas dos Papuas (“Land of the Fuzzy-Haired People”). However, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that traders and missionaries began settling. Throughout the following decades, Papua New Guinea was claimed by England, Germany, and Holland, finally succumbing to Australia after World War I.
The inland Highland area, thought to be too inhospitable for human habitation, wasn’t explored until the 1930s. European gold-seekers instead found a million people living in fertile mountain valleys—cultures steadfast since the Stone Age. By the 1960s, a significant independence movement emerged, and, in 1975, after a brief period of internal autonomy, Papua New Guinea declared full independence.
Stanley realizes none of this. He does, however, realize his reef’s charm and ideal symmetry. A regularfoot, lefts are not a problem, evident by his confidence and savvy positioning. Without a DVD or VHS machine for miles in either direction, surf videos are alien things; Stanley draws inspiration and technique from within and from sojourning surfers, mostly Australian. His is a realization of imported stoke, a life path forever altered by the gift of a surfboard.
Skimming fast above the reef, one eye on the horrific coral heads, my own realization of Fletcher’s epoxy shaping genius unfolds. Later, wide-eyed Stanley is bequeathed the 6’0” Patagonia fish following his premier interview:
What did you do before you started surfing?
“Before I went out surfing I talk with God first, then I go out surfing.”
What do you like most about surfing?
“I like surfing with people happy. We sing and make fun when the waves coming.”
Does singing bring the waves?
“Yeah. Singing to make a waves getting bigger. We call it tolak.”
Will you surf forever?
“Yeah. On and on.”
* * *
Evening settles like song over reef and lagoon, enduring idyll. Flanked by palms and fallen coconuts, we sit on the white-sand pocket beach. Young Tim’s dark features are aglow with twilight, eyes fixed on the break. Dim rights spin off unridden, unknown. Melanesian outpost. The calm ushers a fishing boat past Long Long, a class barrel that churns during large swell and slack wind.
“Burning Spear….yes, me like Burning Spear. Anthony B, Luciano, Sizzla, Lucky Dube. And Augustus Pablo…yeesss.” A relaxed white grin.
Sony’s Mega Bass speakers thrust deep reggae drum and bass into the Tim psyche. Apt sounds for a paradisical scene, acknowledgement of high Jamaican vibes courtesy a portable boombox. His Bob Marley “Redemption” T-shirt, torn and dirty, reflects Papua New Guinea’s massive popularity and engrained faith of reggae music. Rasta tricolors (red, gold, green) are everywhere, and the locals—many dreadlocked—realize the message behind the music. This is Jamaica of the South Pacific.
Behind us, far beyond any road, a faint trail unravels into lush forest. Nightfall arrives and it is time to go. Tim leads the way. A warm, musky, moldy, earthy scent permeates all as we immerse.
Enter his primitive abode, light two candles, and sit on the dirt floor. The boombox chokes on its last batteries after Tim changes the tape; Ras Shiloh now, crooning of Jamaican repatriation to Africa. I explain this to Tim; he assesses the concept and responds.
“This is home. I not surf anywhere but here. We happy but no need go nowhere else. Not have to.”
Next morning, Tim paddles out to Nago in his dugout canoe; beaten surfboard balanced on top, his cutoff jeans used for boardshorts. Minimum gear, maximum authenticity.
Essence of a Papuan surfer? Leave your coco palm-encompassed island shack with buai in mouth, untie the canoe line from the tree trunk, and stroke out to the reef unhurried. Anchor in the channel with a rope and stone, then paddle over. Kabau, Tim, and Stanley bring it all home for me: Beginning and ending with paradise, Papua New Guinea is a departure from the modern world.
And David Kirkland said it best:
"It’s the incongruities and extremes of daily life that hold my interest, the accessibility and visual richness of its culture, the uncertainty of what will unfold each day, and the likelihood that just around the corner is an experience which will challenge my perspective on life."