Thor's Travel Notes


Expedition to Snake River, PNG
April 1987


Independent travel in Papua New Guinea can be difficult and dangerous (even more so now in 2002 than in 1987 when this story was written). There are many reasons. PNG is not so small, and its road network is minimal. When the Australian government withdrew from its United Nations mandate over the territory in 1975 it offered to build a highway from the capital, Port Moresby, over the Ownen Stanley ranges to the new nation's second city, Lae. The PNG politicians declined that offer. They were literally afraid of mobility amongst their own people. That highway is still not built, and the capital remains severed from the reality of the nation it governs. There is a highway from Lae into the highlands (probably the best road in the country). It has been a scene of frequent carjackings, robberies and kidnappings.

Recall that PNG is home to a thousand tribes and eight hundred languages, peoples within one generation of stone age culture and struggling to grasp the insane descent of a sudden electronic universe from the sky. The potential for confusion, misunderstanding and violence is huge, and tragically, too often realized. As usual, the main victims are poor local people themselves, but visitors can easily become collateral damage. When the cultures of Papua New Guinea finally do find their balance, this incredibly diverse country will surely be one of the world's great holiday destinations.

During 1985, and again in 1987, I taught at Lae's University of Technology. Unitech was a slightly unreal environment, insulated to some extent from the raw edges of Lae city a few kilometers away. Security was part of everyday calculations, for a shopping trip, for a picnic, for a late night return to the residential compound. For more than a few, such precautions evolved into a siege mentality. The risks were real, but it was perhaps too easy cut off contact with the lives of the people who really mattered - the Papau New Guineans flooding down from villages to some dream of an enticing future, people whose only asset was hope. They had no money, no jobs, no marketable skills, usually not even a common language. Somehow, together they would make a new city, however long it took... But the staff at Unitech were also atypical. Some were academic refugees, some were adventurers, some idealists, some just mercenaries (for the money was good then. It isn't now). Some were graduates from Third World countries themselves, hoping to skip from PNG to a more secure paradise like Australia.

One bunch of these Unitech characters, mostly engineers, had a kind of 4x4 jeep adventure club for exploring those tracks and villages which a tough vehicle could reach. I myself had a little Suzuki 4x4 truck, and this is the tale of a trip we made out through the Markham Valley to the village of Tawiane in the Snake River Valley. The Snake River Valley violently cleaves a mountain range, running back more or less northeast from Mumeng towards Lae, with Salamaua over the peaks to the east.

An unsealed track winds inland from the little settlement of Mumeng, fording the Snake twice, and a tributary once before climbing up amongst the mountains. Mumeng was thus the jumping off point for our Unitech convoy into the untraveled reaches of the country. The exit was easy, but returning two days later, the ford closest to Mumeng, supported by a concrete spillway, had become quite submerged from heavy overnight rain.

For much of the way up to Tawiane the road clings midway between heaven and earth on precipitous valley sides, with the river way, way below. Hidden somewhere above the peaks to the west there must be a plateau, for at one point a tributary cascades, from the sky it seems, in two huge leaps down sheer cliffs. The vegetation is mostly kunai grass, with trees and shrubs lining the rivulets that score their way down the mountains. At odd spots near the road it is also possible to find small orchids and rhodadendrums in the coarse grass.

The three hamlets of Singaia, Tawiane and Siawai nestle on a couple of ridges two hundred meters or so above a tributary of the Snake River. Surprise, surprise, the locale is known as STS. STS had an all-up population of about one hundred and twenty in 1987, diminishing as young people moved out to the towns.

The final approach to the villages is a steep, bumpy grind, especially after rain. Here there is a great variety of vegetation, and many gardens which are fenced off from the pigs; (pigs are the main livestock in PNG, and an important measure of wealth). Most striking are the datura (thorn apple) trees with their bell-shaped flowers that seem to frame each view of a village house. No doubt the locals know about the hallucinogenic drug that can be extracted from these imported datura trees !. Coffee bushes are everywhere too with their red and green berries. Coffee the the main cash crop throughout the highlands. Below the houses and gardens, foot tracks plunge suddenly into the gorge.

Our convoy was waved down by a lapun (village elder) just before we entered Tawiane. Traditionally Morobe clans have no chiefs. The story goes that when white men first turned up and demanded to see the headman, the locals would shove forward the village idiot to see what happened to him. Anyway, this little old man claimed to speak for the people, and negotiated our entry fees at K5.00 per head for accommodation (eventually reduced to K2.50 because the roof leaked) and K5.00 per head for visiting rights.

Tawiane's lapun spokesman, Java (pronounced 'Yaba') was definitely no idiot, even if his style owed nothing to the spin merchants of the West. He was an amazing sight though. His name was tattooed on his chest, and a jet black wig (gift from a wontok in Port Moresby) perched on top of his old grey beard. Java was apt to ramble on a bit, but his instincts and intentions were benign. He led us to the village 'motel' which extended off the end of the haus boi (men's long-house). It was a perilous affair of split bamboo and thatch, separated into three rooms, with a narrow verandah in front. I promptly fell through the rotten bamboo floor. The thatched roof leaked like a sieve that night, even though we had brought some tarpaulins, and a lot of fellas ended up sleeping in the haus boi.

Amongst our group was an aging American artist who had come with a clear mission; (in fact, he may have been behind the whole scheme). Mal Rollison hustled off to do his drawings as soon as we tumbled out of the cars. The rest of us munched sandwiches, watched by lots of wide-eyed kids, and old Java clambered up a tree to collect us mulis (oranges). Later we headed off to explore some limestone caves.

The caves were a bit of a surprise. The entrance is not promising -- lots of crawling and squeezing -- but this was only a side vent into what looked like the course of an ancient underground river. Huge caverns open out, perhaps twenty meters to the ceiling, and tracks lead off into dark and mysterious places. Country for dwarves and balrogs this. There were spots where, amazingly, thick tree roots disappeared into the rock; they must have been scores of meters long. We could try our luck playing a tune on the hollow stalactites. At odd spots, five centimetre-long, pink, tentacle-like lifeforms waved aimlessly, one of their ends anchored on the damp limestone. Lucky, weren't we! Heaven knows what those things eat for breakfast, and they must have a tough time finding a lover.

Our guide led us on for about two hours, with Tom Bentley doggedly lugging his video camera. One vent branched off to a heart-stopping vertical shaft with water roaring in the blackness below. Eventually we found ourselves on a high underground cliff, looking down into a cavernous tunnel. Where did it go? We decided to leave that to mystery and imagination. We retraced our steps, and just before leaving the guide made us turn to look up. There was the cliff ! We had gone in a complete circle.

The other big attraction in STS is bones, human bones. In pre-Christian times it was the custom to leave your dead relatives on the high ledges of the limestone cliffs in the gorge. Now nature's windows in the rockface are decorated with ghastly piles of bleached skeletons. Some unknown rock artists have painted strange red figures on the cliff face as well. They were the object of our artist, Mal's attention.

A number of the figures have heads and bodies and many-pronged arms : tentacles ? antennae? weapons? Others look for all the world like German military crosses. It is known that pre-WWI some German military officers, resplendent in pith helmets, puffed their way up to the site. Any reasonable guess about the real meanings of the drawings must await a detailed study of the myths and ethnology of the people in ST. New Guinea belief structures tend to be highly syncretic. It is quite an experience to come face to face with mortality on this scale, but it would do the bones no favour to have too many tourists tramping over the area.

The noon was sunny, but in late afternoon came the rain. Some of us had a wet and slippery time making it home from the gorge. No chance of a hot shower and dressing up for dinner in Tawiane ! On the gas stoves Kathy, with Doug trying to be helpful, cooked us a stew to go with vast quantities of rice. You couldn't get fresher coffee than the Tawiane beans themselves. We huddled damply on the treacherous bamboo slats trying to dodge rain drips in the semi-darkness. OK, we were chocolate-cream weekend explorers, but this was closer to Exploring than to a Club-Med fantasy. Our hosts could be more blasé about the conditions : their people had called this home for several thousand years. Who knows if the ancestors were showing their real opinion of these intruders when a trembling mongrel crept into our shelter and shat on the floor, while pigs snuffled for feces in the blackness beneath the bamboo slatted floor. Picturesque, as they say.

An army man in civvies, Bill Coombes, had tagged along. He was up at the next dawn, miraculously clean-shaven, with plans to catch photos in the early morning light. Most of the rest though made a fairly late start on Sunday. We spent a little time in the smoky haze of the haus boi trying to dry out. Even women crept in (sacrilege!). Hugo, a brewer, kept the kids amused by playing naughts and crosses with stones in the dirt, and making bits of magic string disappear. Olgeta save olsem em i kusai tru ! Eventually three of us, feeling clammy without our regulation daily wash, headed off for a swim in the river. Somehow a magic track was set down by hill sprites, and led us to a Hollywood film set. Well almost. Where else would you expect to find a crystal stream tumbling over huge blocks of pure white marble in the jungle? Sadly, the nymphs and other fey critters who surely lived there chose to stay invisible.

The final weekend drama was a downer. It turned out that our friend Java was really retired. The contemporary boss-man turned up in the form of a dude in a wide-brimmed hat and tight jeans. He felt aggrieved that he hadn't been summoned immediately from a nearby hamlet. The other villagers were somewhat embarrassed by his hostility. But he cast around for a cause, and with logic that took some plumbing decided that photographs of the burial site were alright, but drawings were to be absolutely forbidden. The target was obviously Mal. As it happened, Wally Bolger had been serving as Mal's faithful shadow and had a few drawings of his own. Through some quick thinking on Walley's part, these were passed off as two day's work and triumphantly pocketed by the little bigman. (He would certainly try to flog them to the next credulous visitor as work by a famous artist).

So we got away with some loot after all. Mal with his drawings, Tom Bentley with several miles of video film, some people with hand-woven bilums for a kina or two, and lots of bags of mulis. Me? I displeased the bones somehow and became violently sick the day after. You can't win them all.

Related links on this site:


Other documents by Thor May touching on New Guinea

1. Photographic Memories of Papua New Guinea @

2, Expedition to Snake River, PNG,1987 @

4. Friends - Irimo Street PNG 1985 (a prose poem) @

3. Super-Culture and The Ghost in the Machine (..reflections on human innovation and insight) @

6. This Is Your Problem Friend, Not Mine -- towards a cure for formal language errors in Papua New Guinea and elsewhere.. @

7. Case Study 6, English for Special Purposes in Papua New Guinea 1985, Language Tangle (doctoral dissertation, 2010, University of Newcastle, NSW), pages 121-128 @ or

8. Background Information on New Guinea @


* Note on personal names: all names in this Diary have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals,
unless stated otherwise.

"Expedition to Snake River, PNG"... copyrighted to Thor May 2002; all rights reserved