Leaving the posh comfort of the Clipper Odyssey behind, our intrepid group struck inland into the great interior of Papua New Guinea; an area that has still been only partially explored by outsiders since its high valleys and ancient populations were first happened-upon in the middle of the last century. The scale of the island and of our adventure became almost instantly evident as our small airplane lifted off and all traces of human activity disappeared beneath an unbroken carpet of forest. The engines whined as we bumped and climbed and finally reached the Tari Gap in the New Guinea Highlands, home to PNGs largest cultural group, the Huli.
The Huli are a proud people, who have been practicing large scale agriculture in this valley for thousands of years. What instantly identifies a Huli man is his huge wig grown from human hair that he wears as part of his daily outfit. Emerging from our plane we were met by guides from our lodge and several of the wigmen themselves. After a short drive on the tail end of the Highlands Highway, we climbed even higher until we reached what seemed like the roof of the world, the Ambua Lodge, our perch for the next few days. From here we could look over the entire Tari Valley and the maze of the Huli's walled villages or walk through the forest of thundering waterfalls. During our entire stay we were treated to the cacophony of unworldly calls made by New Guinea's famous birds and insects. Over the next days we would search for rare birds of paradise in the mornings and then be taught the customs of the Huli throughout the day. As the evenings approached the mountain air would chill, the skies would darken and we would retreat to the warmth of the lodge fire as the first drops of rain fell on the thatched roofs.
Just as we were getting used to the crisp air of the mountains, it was time to press further north, over the central spine of mountain peaks and down to the serpentine river system of the Sepik River. The scale of our excitement grew as the size of our aircraft shrank. Our two small planes seemed to fall out of the sky, through mountain passes and then by some miracle, they landed upon the only patch of solid ground. We had been transported to a vast riparian environment; no roads, no vehicles, and little terra firma. A short slide out of the plane, we descended the mud bank into our two boats which would serve as our transport through this water world. The Karawari Lodge is on the highest bluff for miles around, and overlooks the river of the same name, one of the Sepik River's major tributaries. After experiencing the exquisite view and comfort of the Karawari Lodge's veranda, it was hard to pry ourselves up and down into the boats. Our efforts were always rewarded, however. The muddy banks teamed with natural beauty. Our early morning outings gave us rare looks at more of PNG's unique avifauna. We were even treated to a brief look at the rare twelve-wire bird of paradise. Dotted along the endless twists of the river, tiny communities greeted us with bright smiles and songs. Fishermen standing in dug-out canoes silently paddled by, looking up only briefly from their ceaseless work. Master craftsman produced carvings evoking the dark power of the steamy landscape, and its patron spirit...the crocodile. The highlands seemed a long time away.