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The Stone Age Lingers in a New Guinea Village

March 09, 1986|JERRY PAYNE | Payne is a Laguna Beach free-lance writer

KARAWARI, Papua New Guinea — A brochure lists Karawari as having one of the 300 best hotels in the world. But there is no road to Karawari and the closest highway is a string of potholes glued together by mud that wanders through towering jungle more than 100 miles away.

But for those who are immune to mosquitoes, malaria, hepatitis, humidity, blazing sun, snakes, spiders, crocodiles, and can get by without ice, there is a way to get here.

You board a Qantas flight from the U.S. and after a few stops you hop off at Port Moresby on the southern shore of Papua New Guinea.

At that moment a seasoned traveler will know he is in a truly foreign country and is in one of the last places in the world where the Stone Age lingers on. Many of the residents go shopping still carrying bows and arrows. Stone axes are as common as purses.

Bow-and-Arrow War

Our group came across the village of Tari and saw clansmen wandering down paths after winding up a four-day bow-and-arrow war . . . over a stolen pig. The magistrate brought about a touchy armistice and found that it was easier to toss the pig into jail rather than fill it with angry clansmen.

But on to Karawari. After a four-hour Jeep ride through a green countryside of tea and coffee plantations, we reached a town called Mount Hagan. From there we flew back to the edge of time.

A small chartered plane took us over thousands of square miles of dense jungle where the only visible sign of life was small flicks of black as birds darted through the sky.

The plane finally sideslipped down over some tall trees and skidded to a stop in a swampy pasture that dipped off into the Sepik River, one of the main freeways of New Guinea.

Small metal flat-bottom scows powered by temperamental outboards skimmed us down the river, and after a few miles of bends and dodging floating logs, we pulled up at the lodge pier; there we climbed into the back of a rusty pickup truck which, against all odds, churned its way up a muddy road to the ridge of a hill. Suddenly out of the thick greenery appeared a towering long house and a row of thatched huts that trailed on up the hill. We were at Karawari.

True Happiness

The truck backed through the mud to a small dock at the lodge entrance and within two seconds we found true happiness. The refrigerator that didn't do much for ice could cool washcloths. Plastering one to your hot face was like a kiss from a loved one.

Then, as we made our way along the porch past a thicket of silent, smiling, naked children, we went inside. The main room was 40 feet high and carved pillars held up the high arched roof. A welcome waiter handed us each a cooler of rum and papaya juice.

A few minutes after our arrival we met a clansman named Phillip, who might give a picture of the highland people better than a book on the subject.

If Phillip stood on his bare toes he might be as tall as Mary Lou Retton. He's not as cute or cuddly, but he's got his share of trophies. He's tops in a very specialized field. Phillip is the last of the big-time headhunters and has eight skulls to prove it.

Despite his small size, Phillip gets your attention. He wears a lot of leaves and has bird of paradise feathers stuck in his hair along with a few cigarette butts. His face and body are colorfully streaked in white and yellow. His mouth is a bright red from years of chewing betel nut berries. This serves to highlight the curved wild pig tusks that pierce his nose and dangle to his chin.

Hard to Break Old Habits

We were around him for five days and never heard him say a word or saw him smile. But you always knew he was there. The government has outlawed headhunting, but studying Phillip and watching him silently studying you, you wondered just how hard it is to break old habits.

What we also found was nature magnified at its wildest best. Every dawn the resident cockatoo screeched "Cocky eat . . . Cocky eat!" Everyone would hop up, which was great because every morning began with a purple sunrise that rose like a living Japanese print out of the mist.

At the end of each day, sunsets blazed like volcanoes across the horizon, while at the bottom of the hill the normally bottle-green waters of the Sepik turned into a flowing river of fire.

Nor is it likely that any visitor will ever forget a midnight thunderstorm in the middle of the rain forest when it seems like all the drums in the world start beating. Thunderheads crash across the sky, while train-size bolts of lightning fly past like giant tracer bullets. It's a sound track that could have been left over from the Battle of the Coral Sea.

To add to your trivia bank, while it averages about 11 inches of rain a year in California, New Guinea thinks nothing of 15 feet.

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