From Jayapura in West Papua, Indonesia, I easily hitched a lift past the border to Vanimo in Papua New Guinea. As I continued east, however, the road turned to 4-wheel drive only and bridges came up less and less while rivers didn't. The payoff was stumbling on a remote bush camp where the conservation-minded owners are in the process of building comfortable eco-tourism facilities. Called Wamupa for "We all meet under Paradise," it came at the perfect time.
The dump truck driver stopped in a cloud of dust and listened to my request for a lift down the coast with a bewildered look on his face, before telling me to throw my backpack in the bed. I took my place with two dusty workers on top of the cab. Fifty kilometers later they turned on a logging road toward a village called Leitre. I was left in a shadeless intersection of two roads heading seemingly infinitely in both directions.
I knew we had climbed away from the coast and into the hot Serra Hills, somewhere around 1,000 feet. A 2,182’ mountain caps the range. To the south the much larger Bewani and Torricelli ranges are famed for their tree kangaroos and other animals found nowhere else on earth. To the west lay the enormous Pual, or Nemayer, River and to the east the Piore. The driver told me to head that way, but hesitantly. "If any car comes, you stop that car!" he said with downward thrusts of his hand.
An hour later no car had come and I was fighting off heat stroke in a small, ant-infested mound under a tree at the road’s edge. Sweating and with heart pounding, I rose and walked over a hill where I saw a few huts in the distance. Through glazed eyes I made out papaya and banana plants and then, as I drew closer, orchids, sweet potatoes and a woman with wild hair and bush knife bent over in a steep garden.
Julie Kamuli, 40, eyed me curiously with her one good eye, then welcomed me merrily, telling me she wouldn't chew betelnut (made from a local palm tree) out of respect for me. From Manus Island, a mountainous 100-kilometer strip of land out in the Bismarck Sea to the northeast, the three small dashes on her forehead from her 16 year birthday were just barely visible.
She told me she sat on the Sandaun Council of Customary Landowners, representing 2000 acres of Puare traditional land. Most of the 500 Puare villagers, she said, live near the coast "This is a new thing," she told me in Tok Pisin, or Melanesian Pidgin. "We’re trying to promote tourism."
As I talked to Julie, her son made his way out of the mountains where he had been up all night with five cousins. Tobit appeared from behind a bamboo hut with six wallabies, a cassowary and a couscous, enough meat for a month, he announced. In a mere three or four kilometers, he had crossed two rivers and four mountains, he said, a typical, grueling hike of anywhere in Papua New Guinea.
Later he walked with me around camp. Between him and his brother, they named every tree and bird that caught my attention. Some they named in English, some in Tok Pisin. For the smallest birds, they knew only their tribal word. Bush pigeons, hornbills and cockatoos were visible everywhere. Birds of paradise are seen and heard primarily in the morning, his younger brother Timothy said. Just as we were talking about the difference between white and black cockatoos, a white one flew over and tore open the night sky with its raucous almost tortured call.
The stars popped out and I hung my headlamp in an enclosure of what they informed were Areca palm branches. I stripped. A full kettle of boiling water brought the water in a bucket to the perfect temperature. The night was cool and each cup of the water cut straight to my weary muscles. A generator was noisy but powered a porch light for me to hang my towel after my shower.
Six of us gathered and I was urged to eat first. Sweet potato and bananas cooked in coconut milk were life saving. Cumu, edible grasses and shoots, was complemented with canned corn beef and was surprisingly flavorful.
I asked again about the meaning of Wamupa and told them "paradise" is a fitting description of the camp. I found added irony because conservationists such as Greenpeace also know their area as paradise, or Paradise Forests rather, which encompass much of Southeast Asia. These are old growth forests. The largest tracts are found on New Guinea. I didn’t know if I could express it all with my limited Tok Pisin but Tobit said it for me. "All of Papua New Guinea is paradise," he said. "When I die, who knows? Paradise is here and I celebrate."