Wanang [iii] – The Opening

27 05 2010

The day of the opening was upon us. A small grandstand had been specially built and decorated for this occasion – you can see it under the welcome banner (which should read ’50 hectare plot’ by the way) in the background.

The Opening Ribbons

The plan was that the special peopled helicopter would land on the football pitch and they would be welcomed by dancers. Then these guys…

Simbai Men

… would spring forward aggressively with their bows & arrows and threaten to kill the guests. However, the way they were prancing around to a bit of light reggae pre-landing led me to believe they would not be able to frighten a small cat with a nerve disorder. They were very funny though.

School assembly

The kids looked great in their school uniforms and they had an assembly that morning during which the PNG & Madang Province flags were raised while they sung the National Anthem under the stern gaze of their headmaster.

An expectant village (+ Bridget)

Part of the village await the ‘copter landing. Other parts of the village await as well, but they’re not in the picture.

The welcome committee

I think I’m right in saying this was the first ever helicopter landing at Wanang! It went without a hitch (well it didn’t crash), having circled a couple of times, and it was quite impressive to see it come in over the tall trees.

The Frightening

Then, quick as eels, the Simbai warriers attacked! This is how it should’ve looked but in the event, there were so many people crowded round I couldn’t get a decent picture. Anyway, the guests seemed to enjoy being threatened, so all was good.

Bill Rothery (CEO of Swire) is greeted

The guests made their way to the grandstand up the ‘red carpet’ lined with school kids and villagers in traditional dress. On the way they were presented with a bilum each (traditional hand-made shoulder bag). Finally in the grandstand, there were several more presentations. At this point, the sun was threatening to take my skin off, so I retreated to the shady trees behind.

Um... men in bags

The ‘copter then made two trips to Wanang iii (site of the new station, 50 ha plot, and normally a punishing 15km walk through hot, undulating jungle). Meanwhile, quite bizarrely, some men dressed in bags were made to dance to music while trying not to fall over.

Gifts of pigs and rice

Traditionally, on important occasions such as marriage, pigs are gifted to neigbouring tribes. This time the pigs, along with bales of rice, were distributed to other village clans. The guests were then returned to Wanang i (as it’s known). By now, helicopter landings were so pass√© that some refused to watch, citing excessive air-borne dirt as the reason!

Wanang Conservation School

There followed a quick tour of the school classrooms and several speeches from Bill, Vojta & George, and then that was it. The helicopter departed for the final time, we prepared to walk out to the broken bridge for pick-up, and the villagers could return to normality. Before that, though, they were treated to a slapstick drama starring the Simbai who delighted the crowd with their innuendo and bare bottom scratching. Judging by the squeals of laughter from kids and adults alike, they really loved it, which made me think they would probably appreciate Benny Hill!


Wanang [ii] – Singsing Taim

26 05 2010

I got to bed about 4:30am after the village men decided to have  an impromptu singsing Рthey were in high spirits assisted by a low tolerance to alcohol. The sight of village head honcho, Filip, ripping open a box of white wine to get at the dregs was hilarious! A singsing normally involves traditional dress, kundu drums (like a horizontally held bongo), and tribal singing. This was merely a prelude, though, the official singsing was due to begin the following midnight.

Filip being interviewed by George & Toby

To document the carryings on, we had a cameraman (Toby) from the Smithsonian Institute, US. His remit was to put together a short film to present to the corporate sponsor (Swire Steamships) after the opening. Also above is George Weiblen, professor of Botany at the University of Minnesota, and long-term collaborator with BRC and Wanang Conservation.

Wanang from the river/bathing area

There are no bathrooms in Wanang. One must get in the river to wash, generally under the gaze of hundreds (or tens) of villagers. You can see the new school classrooms on the left.

Bridget playing Ludo with the police!

We had a day to kill before festivities truly began. As ceremonies have historically been marred by drunken outsiders, we had hired two policemen (seated on the veranda) from Madang as a deterrent. One was packing a piece! Here, Bridget, a student of George’s, introduces them to the delights of Ludo.

After chewing betel nut at Raymond's

I was invited to Raymond’s house to take photos of him & his family. Once there, Bridget and I tried the great PNG pastime – chewing the betel nut. Not strictly a nut, it is the seed of the Areca Palm, and, when mixed with lime and a bean-like member of the pepper family (daka), is a mild narcotic.

Sleeping dog interlude

First you chew the nut, the alkaloids of which cause you to salivate like mad. You must spit out the excess saliva before dipping the daka into the lime and biting off the end. The chemical reaction turns the mixture red and provides a mild high. I must admit, I felt like disco dancing afterwards. I also got a stomach ache from accidentally swallowing some.

Singsing begins

The singsing actually began at 7:30 in the evening and ended at dawn (6:00) the next morning – not a bad effort!

Singsing man

A good, well-behaved crowd encircled the performers as they danced around a central oil-lamp in many varied arcs and directions. The kundu drums and singing rang out loud and long into the starry night. I crashed rather early for an intermittent, but not at all unpleasant, sleep.

The Road to Wanang

25 05 2010

15 years ago, Wanang was a small village surrounded by vast lowland rainforests in the Middle Ramu valley of Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. A huge part of the Ramu Valley was designated to be intensively logged and for the majority of villages, the cash they would reap in return for their forests would be too much to resist.

George getting supplies at the betel nut market

In 2000, however, under the visionary leadership of Wanang’s ‘Bikpela (Big) Man’, Filip Damen, 11 village clans united to protect around 15,000 ha of their forest, which became the Wanang Conservation Area. They sought support from the New Guinea Binatang Research Center (BRC – where I’m based) among other partners and the area is now a model for progressive conservation in PNG.

Log stock pile on the road to Wanang

The collaboration has had a huge impact on the Wanang community – they now have a school with three classrooms, better transport and medical access, and employment as research assistants and carriers on pioneering tropical ecology projects, such as a permanent 50 ha plot for monitoring rainforest dynamics.

Carriers traversing a collapsed bridge

This particular trip was for the official opening of a new corporate sponsored field station at the Wanang 50 ha plot. Logistically complex to organise, it would involve important people, helicopters, vehicles, planti food & drink, dancing, drama, and several pigs. But more of that in the next post. We still had to get there and in PNG, that is never guaranteed.

Carrying supplies to Wanang

On rounding one of the many twists and turns in the logging road, we were suddenly in the way of a large and fully laden logging truck. Logging roads are generally wide enough for two but all vehicles hog the centre as the roads are ridged and fall away at the margins. Logging trucks, especially, do not budge. Without going into a skid, we just managed to careen into the roadside ditch before it blundered past. It was very very close.

Last year, vehicles could get to within a half hour’s forest walk of Wanang, but a wrecked bridge has added an extra hour on top, and on open road under the full force of the afternoon sun.

We had between 20 and 30 carriers to help with supplies and you know when you’re close thanks to the whoop-whooping of the Lesser Birds of Paradise, who have a display tree near the forest edge.

Wanang Conservation Area '09

After a few hours rest I had stopped perspiring and we put on a film for the villagers, projected onto a sheet hung from the football goalposts. Twas supposed to be Avatar, but there was a region code ‘issue’, so we settled for Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom… followed by Spiderman… followed by Tomb Raider.

The walk-in rainforest movies

Meanwhile, the men got on the pop ’till the wee hours!

Pip Goes Melanesian

16 05 2010

Yes, that’s right!

I have arrived in Madang, Papua New Guinea, this time for a seven month stint. I’ll be initiating my PhD projects, supervising the Binatang Research Center (BRC) staff, learning the local pidgin, and sinking the odd SP (that’s South Pacific beer, the local brew).

A new building is in progress at the BRC and it’s looking quite grand. I’ll post some photos when it’s stopped raining. It will free up much needed space here as the BRC is pretty much running at maximum carrying capacity.

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Oh, and the Hundertwasser poll results were: Groovy! – 80%, Indifferent – 20%, Crap – 0%

Back soon… x