Papua New Guinea -- A Land of Contrasts

by Henry A. Martens
Papua New Guinea (PNG) is a land of scenic, biologic, and ethnic diversity. Comprising the eastern half of New Guinea, the second largest island in the world, PNG is geologically active with earthquakes and volcanoes. Elevations range from sea level to over 13,000 feet, with hot, humid lowlands and cool highlands. Biologically, PNG is more closely related to Australia than Southeast Asia. There is a great ethnic diversity: the native peoples speak over 700 different languages, a third of all the languages in the world! You can understand why it is a fascinating country to visit.

During my three-week trip to PNG, I visited, and found landshells at, four of the many biologic regions: the southern lowland rainforest at Port Moresby, the highland rain forests at Mts. Hagan and Tari, the steamy meanders of the Sepik River, and the hot north coast at Madang.

The Lowlands at Port Moresby

Our morning at Port Moresby was spent in the Variata National Park, a lowland coastal rain forest. We drove up the Launa Valley which is cut in thick layers of black agglomerate. The 200 foot Launa Fall was below us near the summit. We took the Circuit Track and saw the carnivorous plant Nepenthes mirabilis (but I outran it) and the plant Banksia digitata, one of the villains of Australian children's stories. I didn't realize Banksia came this far north -- additional evidence for an Australian connection. Along the trail were two empty, very well preserved 35mm Hemiplecta cairni shells with their angled periphery.

The Highlands at Mount Hagan

We returned to Port Moresby and took a short flight to Mt. Hagan in the Highlands. The Haus Poromon Lodge was outside town at about 6,000'. We had to use a 4-wheel drive vehicle to climb the 1,000' to get there! Sleeping accommodations were round houses about 15-20' in diameter, with springy, thatched floors. The pleasant temperature at this elevation encouraged me to go for a little walk before and after dinner, but I didn't see any snails. Maybe they're too fast for me.

Got up early and had a nice view of the countryside. A nearby village was in fog! Walked into the canyon through the native forest. I met a local man along the trail and asked him about snails. He said, "I crushed a snail on the road and there was a snake inside." He invited me to visit his village but I didn't have time. Everyone is very friendly and wants to shake hands. I found no snails but saw a beautiful waterfall.

Sepik River Lowlands

In the morning we left via jeep to Mt. Hagan to board an 8 passenger charter plane for the Sepik River region in the middle of the Armbak territory. One of the world's largest rivers in terms of annual water flow, the 700 mile long Sepik River drains northwestern PNG and is navigable for almost its entire length. It is to PNG what the Congo is to Africa and the Amazon to South America. Flew northwest for an hour to a small dirt airstrip at Amboin and went by boat up the Karawari River, past several villages, to the Karawari Lodge. The lodge is 100' above the river which is at 60' above sea level. From my cottage I could look north across the Sepik flood plain to the volcanic islands off the north coast.

After lunch we went by boat to Kundaman. Ronald, our guide from the village, said the people wear western clothes normally but go native for visitors. The people at Kundaman had face and body makeup of white clay or lime. Most children were naked but some girls had colorful skirts. Entering a village, as a courtesy, you first looked at the items for sale. If something was of interest, you asked for a "first price" and then for a "second price." There usually was no "third price." The second price was 50 to 70% of the first price, but you always asked for the first price.

We received a friendly welcome and were instructed in the making of sago, from the tree to the plate. Sago is the staple food of the Sepik people. The long process and its final result is not very appetizing to western taste, nor is it very nutritional, being almost pure starch. But in a land too swampy to grow anything else, it is an extremely important food and there is no sago shortage since sago palms grow everywhere. Sago preparation is a joint men-women effort. The men cut down the palm, cut away the bark, and chip and pound out the pith, producing a fibrous sawdust. The women knead the pith and drain water through it to dissolve the starch. The starch-water is collected, usually in an old canoe, and the starch settles as an orange, glutinous mass. It is then dried and ready for use. The sago is sometimes mixed with water and fried into a rubbery pancake, or it is boiled into a gluey mush. It has a taste that has to be acquired! We spent about two hours there and then returned to the lodge by boat.

Up early the next morning for a bird walk. Took the boat down river to Mandam, where we walked through the village and then on a trail through the woods. Saw the Twelve-wired Bird of Paradise with its long bill, brown head and throat, yellow breast and twelve tail feathers, each 10" long. Arrived back at the lodge in time for breakfast.

An hour boat ride took us down the Karawari River to Mamjami village. The Tambaran (spirit) dance was very colorful, men and women in their straw headdresses, with their faces and bodies painted. After the dance came a reenactment of a female initiation ceremony. The women had colored markings painted on their backs. Normally, these marks were done as razor cuts to produce a pattern of tattooing. As we left the dance area I picked up two unionid valves from a shell discard pile in the village. I think they may use the shells as a lime source for pigments.

Back at the lodge I saw some 25mm empty flat-topped Chloritis shells near the boat dock, brown, with a reflexed lip. After dinner a local bamboo band performed: three guitars, 4 or 5 singers, and two men who hit the ends of horizontal bamboo sections with rubber sandals. Very interesting.

Rained like mad that night but stopped by morning. Left the lodge early and walked to the boat dock, finding a few more empty Chloritis shells. A man asked if I wanted some live snails. We walked along the river bank past the village and searched in a cultivated field of vines and corn. I didn't find any shells, but a boy brought me a live 30mm Naninia citrina to photograph. It had a greenish shell and a single brown spiral band above the periphery.

When the rest of the group arrived at the dock we took a boat down river to Mamjami village where the ship Sepik Spirit was waiting. In the village we saw a reenactment of part of the boy's initiation ritual. The entire initiation consists of a period of confinement (in the Spirit House), training, and education. The initiation culminates with a skin-cutting ceremony. During an hour ritual, the young man's arms, shoulders and upper body are cut. The cuts are about a half to 3 quarters of an inch long, quite deep, and arranged in swirling patterns. These cuts are now made with a razor blade instead of the traditional bamboo knife. The cuts are filled with clay and ashes to ensure they heal as raised scars resembling crocodile scales. The ceremony is fenced off from the rest of the village and drums and flutes play continuously. For our performance they used paint instead of the razor blade.

Boarded the ship in time for lunch. Each day all newly purchased items were sprayed before being taken to one's cabin. Graham, the captain, was Australian. The ship was 30,000 pounds (15 tons), 90' long and 30' wide, and it had a 3 foot draft. It carried 20 people in 10 large, comfortable cabins. The ship was decorated with beautiful wooden panels carved by a local artist. In case of emergency we were told, go to the upper deck -- the river is shallow so the upper deck will be above water if the ship sinks.

The next day we went to the village of Kaminabit I. Visited a Women's House and saw artifacts and another demonstration of cooking sago. Walked about a mile on the coastal path to Kaminabit II where the men did a dance for us in a fenced enclosure. There were no women present. The men wore grass skirts, small headdresses and no face paint. The village had a small crocodile farm. Called puk puk, the crocodile still has great cultural and economic importance. Initiation rites involve scarring young men's skin to resemble crocodile scales, crocodile heads are carved on the prows of their dugout canoes, and the animals are an important cash crop. They can only sell skins from animals under 7'. The tail is edible, with a fish taste, though the rest is very sinewy. Because crocs won't bite under water, men catch them by feeling them in the mud with their feet. It must work because I didn't see any one-legged men.

On a night walk in Mamjami village, we saw many tree frogs and insects but no snails. Visited the house of our guide, 35' by 75'. It was 10' off the ground to keep it cooler.

Next day we visited three Sepik villages, traveling by jet boat. Palambei used to be on the river but the meander was cut off, so the village is a mile's walk inland. Bought two freshwater snail necklaces of Melanoides at the landing. The larger Melanoides species is M. plicaria. Saw some Physidae, a sinistral freshwater family, on the ground along the walk to the village. Also saw Lamellaxis gracilis a "tropical tramp," introduced by man and found near human habitation throughout the tropics.

Tambarans are spirits; consequently, the Haus Tambarans is the Spirit House, the largest house in the village, where the spirits live or carved spirit images are kept. Built on carved piles, it can be 150' long with a 75' spire at each end. The Spirit House was very impressive with its art work and dim lighting. Though it is for men only, they allow women in as visitors. We could leave our shoes on but must remove our hats. I was not allowed to photograph the priest's chair! The old Spirit House was bombed in W.W. II and has been replaced by two new ones. We listened to a wooden drum concert -- very different.

The jet boat stopped next at Yentchen. The Spirit House here was not as interesting as Palambei's. Did see some empty Papuina shells resembling the solid colored, single banded Papuina juliae from Mt. Hagan.

Our last stop for the day was Kanganamam. The recent high water line was evident on the supporting timbers of the Spirit House -- about 6-8' above ground level, for six months! No wonder there are so few land dwelling snails. If you are not freshwater or arboreal, you drown. Saw Lamellaxis gracilis (it doesn't know it can't swim) and some freshwater shells, Physidae and the spiral ribbed Melanoides tuberculata.

Then we rode to meet the Sepik Spirit at Timbunke where we'll take our charter flight to Tari in the


Highlands at Tari

Left Sepik Spirit this morning. After breakfast walked through Timbunke to the grass airstrip and saw shells of Chloritis and the tropical tramp Subulina octona. It was hot already with some scattered clouds.

Flew south to Amboin for gas and then circuited the major peaks (13,000' +) to Tari -- an hour flight over some very rugged, forested terrain. Glad we didn't have to stop for directions. Across from the airport at Tari was a local market swarming with people, men with beards, face paint, outlandish hairdos. One man, in native dress, playing a bamboo flute, was wearing gold-rimmed sunglasses! I have never seen such bizarre costumes or faces in my life.

From Tari at 5,000' to Ambua Lodge at 7,200' was 45 minutes by van. The lodge, with a commanding view of the Tari Valley, was in the highland rain forest. Consequently it was raining when we arrived.

After lunch we took a walk in the rain forest across two suspension bridges to a beautiful waterfall. The damp, mossy trail had many ferns and orchids. Before sunset we rode to The Gap at 9,000' and saw several beautiful orchids and the King of Saxony Bird of Paradise with its spectacular 16" head plumes.

Today is an all day excursion to three Huli sites. Huli are one of the local highland tribes. There was a clan war going on, and yesterday three men were killed. As we approached Tari about 150 armed men, in native costume and all painted up, came marching toward us in two lines, carrying bows, arrows, machetes, spears and homemade rifles. We stopped and they waved as they walked by. One man made faces and waved his arms to show how fierce he was, but allowed us to take his picture! Our driver must have belonged to the correct clan because they didn't bother us. He said we were safe because we were not involved -- prize fighters don't attack people in the audience (most of the time) either. Huli culture has a strict payback policy -- eye for eye. The homes we passed had a surrounding trench and wall and an entrance through a wooden fence with a very small opening into a sallyport, then another gate before you were inside.

Our first stop was the Kara Wig School. The Huli men wear wigs made from human hair, which is grown at the Wigman school. Men must be single and stay for 1.5 years. Their heads are sprinkled with water several times a day to make the hair grow. They sleep on their backs with a neckrest to avoid crushing the hair. After 18 months, when the hair is about a foot and a half long, it is cut at the scalp and tied together to make a wig resembling a Napoleonic hat. The day wig sold for 200 Kina ($140) and the ceremonial wig for 400 Kina ($280). Letting your hair grow sounded like a pretty stress-free job, but they wouldn't take an old bald-headed man.

A short distance beyond Kara, at Alungi, we witnessed a sing-sing -- really spectacular! Men in costumes of feathers performed a very colorful combination of singing and jumping. All the species of Birds of Paradise were represented by feathers in the headdresses. It looked like something from National Geographic, or a page from a bird watcher's wish list.

After a picnic lunch we visited Pajai, the medicine man or witch doctor who told us about local remedies and then showed us the skulls of his mother and father, just as we would keep and show photos of our parents. I always thought the skulls in their villages were enemies they had eaten; instead they were their "family tree." He also showed us "meteorites" used in witchcraft. They were round and heavy and not pitted like meteorites, and looked like old cannon balls to me.

North Coast at Madang

This morning we drove to Tari. I photographed snails in the airport waiting area's vegetable garden -- an unusual feature! We barely made our connecting flight at Port Moresby, arrived at Madang, and drove a short way to Jais Aben Resort, on the Madang Lagoon of the Bismarck Sea. We had individual bungalows with a screened porch overlooking the sea. Saw an empty Achatina fulica shell in the lawn rakings.

Had thunder and lightning most of the night, and a really hot, muggy morning. After breakfast our group walked to the Christensen Research Institute (CRI). The Director told us Mr. Christensen was interested in art and frequently visited the Sepik and Madang areas. He became a partner for a time in the Jais Aben Resort and established a scientific research center on the resort property. CRI didn't have much information about landsnails.

Before lunch we drove up the coast, then canoed a short way to Tadwai Island. Mostly coral sand, the small, 50 by 250 yard island has a maximum elevation of a foot or two. Many empty Pythia scarabaeus shells were on the ground, and on the windward side of the island I saw many live specimens, only on pandanus leaves.

Back to the lodge for lunch and then a motor boat to Tabat (Pig) Island in the mouth of Madang Lagoon. It's a mile long and 100 - 150 yards wide. I had only 45 minutes so I walked to the windward side -- a repeat of the Pythia scarabaeus on the pandanus. Mangrove trees were also present, but I could find no snails on them in this hot, dripping place.

Next day I inquired at CRI if anyone was going to visit the Kau Wildlife Area managed by CRI. There was a group leaving at 8:30 and returning about 2:30. I got my camera bag and joined them. At the Area, 20 minutes from CRI, a museum is under construction, with a great view of Madang.

My guide, Mika, was about 18 and spoke some English. We saw Achatina fulica near the parking lot. The terrain was open virgin forest, in contrast to the rain forests we had been seeing. Along the trail I photographed some Cyclophorus kubaryi, Rhyncotrochus tayloriana, Canefriula cynthia and Chloritis fruhstorferi, which is covered with short, projecting hairs.

At the Kau River we saw the freshwater snails Neritina sulcosa and Melanoides rustica. We waded the river and went up a vertical cliff to the top of the ridge. I lost my confidence in Mika when we came to a fork in the trail and he asked me which way I wanted to go! We started walking at 9:30 and quit at 1:45. I think he was trying to kill off the old man. I saw and photographed about ten species -- the best snail day of the trip, so far.

At the CRI library I found the preliminary report of Andrzik Wiktor, a Polish malacologist who was at CRI for 3 months in 1990. He noted that empty shells decompose in less than a year. Consequently, the only shells seen are those from the current year.

Today I made arrangements with Charlie, manager at Jais Aben, to go to the Balek Wildlife Sanctuary, a small area from the highway footage back to steep, forested limestone hills. We walked about a hundred yards from the road to a beautiful shaded pool and spring -- a scene from a Tarzan movie. The spring is slightly sulphurous and came out of the limestone.

The ground surface from the road to the spring was literally covered with Achatina fulica, not thin shells but thick solid ones. On both sides of the spring, the damp soil had Pupinella (dead and live), Cyclotis (dead and live), Lamellaxis gracilis, Chloritis fruhstorferi, Helicina, and Canefriula cynthia and Rhyncotrochus tayloriana. Looked for live "Papuina" in the foliage and on the trees, but didn't see any.

"Papuina" lives in the crown of the trees and this accounts for rarely seeing live specimens. I have never photographed such nice material in such a beautiful setting.

The next day we drove toward Madang. Turned south and went until the road was unpaved, then on a dirt road to Ohu village in the Alderbert Range where a local man had a private butterfly farm. Butterflies were raised for export as decorations or mounted in wall plaques. We visited the enclosed rearing area and then the collecting site. He said, "Common butterflies feed on common plants and rare butterflies feed on rare plants." On the bush walk, saw birdwing spiders and their webs between trees in the butterfly flyway. Also a few snails, Lamellaxis gracilis, Achatina fulica and Chloritis fruhstorferi.

After lunch at Jais Aben, walked to nearby village of Riwo. It was a village in cultural transition: traditional buildings next to abandoned automobiles.

At dinner it began to pour and continued most of the night, but was not raining next morning. I met my guide to Nobonob Lookout at 9:00. The Lookout was used as an observation post by the Japanese during WW II. We then walked through planted areas to the base of the Nobonob Hills. Up and down through second growth forest and small planted or formerly planted areas, we waded streams very muddy from the rains last night. Saw live Cyclophorus kubaryi and Neritina sulcosa and dead Canefriula cynthia. Rhynchotrochus strabo dampierensis. Chloritis fruhstorferi, the tal

l freshwater Melanoides rustica, Achatina fulica and the helicoid operculate, Leptopoma perlucidum. The last is called Translucent Leptopoma because of the appearance of the empty shell. When alive the shell appears green because the animal's green body shines through. The green body is thought to be due to the chlorophyll it eats.


After lunch went to Madang City and stopped at Smugglers Cove Lodge to see the artifact workshop, visited the post office, local museum and then the Madang Resort Hotel. Later we visited the 30 meter high WW II Coastwatcher's Memorial. It is visible 25 km at sea and is a reminder of the men who remained in Japanese occupied territory to report on Japanese troop and ship movements. I remembered the coastwatchers from "South Pacific."

Next day we flew from Madang to Port Moresby via Mt. Hagan, and then on to Cairns, Australia. Papua New Guinea was a unique experience. The geological, biological and cultural diversity is found in few places in the world. I suggest you visit PNG before more changes occur.