Wanang [ii] – Singsing Taim

26 05 2010

I got to bed about 4:30am after the village men decided to have  an impromptu singsing – they 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.

If you want to be alerted by email when I make a post, subscribe over there –>

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

Back soon… x

Český Krumlov

13 04 2010

So Tom & I headed to Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for the day. It’s famous for it’s castle, quaint town architecture and the fact that the artist Egon Schiele once lived there.

Český Krumlov

A Frontispiece

A mere half-hour on the bus from Budweis, we were soon back out in the bitter cold (perhaps -5) and wandering down towards the town.

Part Castle & Tower

Apparently, in the warmer months, this place is absolutely mobbed with tourists. There were a few here and there besides ourselves, but I felt fortunate to be there in relative calm, and with the town rooftops ghosted in snow it was certainly a picturesque place.

The only down-sides were that the castle was shut and the sky was boring and featureless (from a photographic point of view).

Part of the Castle

Tiddly Widdly

Krumlov was a lovely place awash with attractive crumbly old buildings, cobbled streets, and colours that really came to life under the soft lighting of an overcast sky. I think it would lose some vibrancy under the glaring sun, but then there are other benefits aren’t there?

There is also the Eggenberg brewery here, part of a brewing tradition dating back to the 14th century, and we managed to find time for a quick schnozz of dark ale in a nice old boozer.

Sadly, Tom left the next day to make his way back through Europe, but not before an evening of, what can only be described as, ‘Czech beer sampling’

The Hundertwasser House

4 04 2010

Now, ladies and jellybeans, on our roooooaaaaaaad trip, Tom & myself rested up for a night in Bad Soden, Frankfurt, roughly half-way between Leeds and České Budějovice. Inquiries at reception in the Ramada revealed that Bad Soden was host to ‘The Hundertwasser House’.


Hundertwasser Toilets

I bristled with gladness because, having seen his public toilets in Kawakawa, New Zealand, I knew roughly what to expect.

To explain: Friedensreich Hundertwasser (translation: Peace-Kingdom Hundred-Water) was an Austrian painter and architect whose work was characterised by bold colours, irregular forms and environmentalism.

The Hundertwasser House

House Detail

He rejected rational, “ugly” architecture and believed that sterile, monotonous buildings compounded human misery. He wrote essays and manifestos to reinforce his beliefs that the environment should be an important consideration in any building.

He built an apartment in Vienna with undulating floors, a roof covered in earth and grass, and encouraged the planting of urban trees: “If man walks in nature’s midst, then he is nature’s guest and must learn to behave as a well-brought-up guest.”

This particular Hundertwasser House is a residential building, by the way. So what do you think? Tom & I were at odds regarding the merit of such a building. Tom was distinctly unimpressed. He didn’t see the point of it and thought it could’ve been designed by his young son, James!

Side View

I loved it, as I did the public toilets in NZ. I think anything that brightens up the otherwise drab urban landscape is to be lauded. If a walk in the forest can promote peace of mind and feelings of general well-being, then I think architecture such Hundertwasser’s can have similar effects in an urban environment. It made me smile, anyway.

I thought it would be interesting to run a little poll to see what you thought. Let’s see over there ——> !

The Beginning

28 03 2010

On the 7th February I arrived in the Czech Republic to begin a PhD at the University of South Bohemia. The University is in Ceske Budejovice, which was covered in several inches of snow when we arrived. ‘We’ being myself and cousin Tom, who very kindly agreed to give me a lift in his van all the way from England.

The trip was good fun and took two days. On the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam two days before, our alcohol-related hi-jinx were cruelly curtailed as we pigged-out at the buffet dinner and made ourselves feel massive and unwell!

On our approach into Ceske Budejovice (a.k.a. Budweis) it suddenly dawned on me that I had no idea how to get to the University. With no town plan and two failed attempts to converse with petrol station staff, it took several phonecalls and one intense orientation session, stood freezing in the falling snow staring at a public town plan, before we were finally on track.

The view from my dorm

These mild glitches aside, we made it to the University and the grumbling security chap was forced to open his precious gates on a Sunday, an action which gave him great displeasure.

My home for the indefinitely future will be an on-campus dormitory with en-suite toilet and shared kitchen. It’s used for guests and more ‘mature’ students so it’s nice and quiet. There is a half-squashed daddy long legs on the wall close to the ceiling above my bed, too high to remove by hand. It’s like a magnet for my eyes, I can’t stop looking at it. I think I will grow to love it.