JT, our guide to the coral reef, stood in the bow of the boat, his fingers flicking to the right and then to the left. Archie, the boat’s driver, watched his every move, guiding the boat according to his directions, aware that if he lost concentration for just a moment, he would lose his propeller.
Just below the surface of the water lay an intricate maze of coral. Farther out to sea, a small group of fishermen were sitting in a circle in their narrow, wooden dugout canoes. Birds shrieked and dived overhead.
“It’s the time of year when the skipjack tuna are migrating,” explained Archie. “The fishermen paddle out to the reef and follow the birds to find out where the fish are. They lay their nets out in a circle to catch as many of the fish as they can. They’ll share the catch between them.”
We knew that these were rich fishing grounds for both humans and seabirds because we had spent much of the past few days underwater. For any scuba diver, Papua New Guinea is high on the wish list, and for good reason.
The water is warm – between 28 and 30 degrees Celsius – the reefs are in magnificent condition and as a consequence there are fish and marine creatures of every shape, size and colour imaginable, and lots and lots of them.
Papua New Guinea ’s terrestrial wildlife, and indeed its human population, are every bit as diverse and intriguing. It would have seemed a travesty if we left Papua New Guinea without at least some experience of the culture and way of life of a people who continue to fascinate and surprise anthropologists to this day .
But that is easier said then done. I have a horror of the sort of 'cultural programs' offered by hotels and resorts in places like this, where you are either bussed in in an awkward group to 'meet the locals' or, even worse, you gather in a soulless hotel lobby to watch a bit of lacklustre dancing and feel morally obliged to join in even though you’d rather poke your own eyes out.
Luckily for us, the resort of Tufi has a different approach. Situated in what was once a government station of the same name, there is little there apart from a small police station, a few old administrative buildings, an airstrip and a football field, both of which slope in a somewhat unorthodox fashion.
Tufi is in Oro Province, a vast tract of land with a mountainous, forested interior and spectacular coastline. Outside the main city, Popondetta, there are no roads anywhere in the province. The only way to get about is on foot, by boat or in a plane.
By necessity, the people who live there have to be very self-sufficient. They may wear Western clothes, and a few have mobile phones, but their way of life is little changed. Most live in villages or in small settlements, sometimes comprising just one family. Shops are few and far between and so is the means to make any money, so everything they need they either grow or get from the forest or the sea.
A Guesthouse Built By Hand
Papua New Guinea has more than 700 languages, but the official language is English and Tomlin spoke it beautifully. With nervous but justifiable pride, he showed us the guesthouse that he had built with the help of two friends, and which, like their own homes, had been made entirely from materials they had gathered from the forest.
High up on stilts, again in common with all the buildings here, the four small, neat rooms opened on to a wide balcony with views over Tomlin’s own immaculate house and garden to the forested ridge beyond. There were jars of flowers everywhere and the palm-leaf walls were decorated with painted bark cloth.
We sat nursing mugs of delicious local coffee and eating, we both agreed, the most spectacular pineapple either of us had ever tasted, fresh from Tomlin’s garden.
“You could come here and do nothing more than sit on this balcony, eat pineapple and watch birds and it would be a nigh on perfect holiday,” I said, licking juice off my elbow.
But lovely as it was up there, we weren’t going to learn much about local life unless we ventured into the forest. Tropical forests are famously diverse and this one was no exception. But what looked a veritable riot of vegetation to us had a different significance for Tomlin and William.
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With almost no access to shops, the forest is their supermarket and their hardware store. In between pointing out a bewildering variety of butterflies and identifying the squawks of unfamiliar birds, Tomlin and William showed us the leaves they cut to roof their houses, the palm they used to weave the walls, the tree to cut for floors, the vine used for rope, the wood used to light a fire, the softwood that’s cut and hollowed out to make the canoes.
Occasionally we would meet people on the path, heading home from their gardens. The gardens provide all the food for a family that they don’t hunt or fish for. A family will clear a part of the forest they own to plant taro, bananas, watermelon, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, papaya and corn.
While the men fish, it is the women who tend to the gardens. Several passed us, some with tattooed faces, which used to be common practice in this part of Papua New Guinea but is rarer now.
Many were with their children, all laden down with woven baskets and bilums – the local string bags – filled to bursting with produce. We visited the local village and put our heads around the door of the school. “It’s all so neat and tidy,” I said to Ludo, and then it struck me.
Without shops there’s no packaging, no plastic, no waste. We had had a brief and privileged insight into a society still intrinsically connected to its environment, with a knowledge that allows its members to survive – thrive, even – in a way that we Westerners have entirely forgotten.
We got back in the boat. Tomlin pressed a pineapple into my hands. “Don’t forget us!” he called, as once again he waved at us from the bank. “No,” I thought, “I really don’t want to do that.”
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This article was written by Kate Humble from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.