LAE, Papua New Guinea — Even the insects are quiet in the wet heat of Huon Gulf, and dust refuses to rise. It sinks to the ground with a plop when kicked, like flour.
Ahead of us a band of menacing gray clouds drapes the shoulders of the surrounding mountains, lingering, taking pleasure in the burden they dispose. In summer the clouds concede defeat and Lae basks for a while in the sparkling intensity of the tropical sun. Soon they will garner their strength once more.
A fine drizzle is falling, casting a lacy veil of dampness that collects on the branches before falling in larger droplets to the ground. "Better get used to it," says our river guide, Tim Whitney, pushing aside the liana vines hanging across the road. "If you can't take this, you'd better turn around now." We laugh, toss our watertight rubber personal gear bags into the pickup and jump in after them.
Tim hops into the cab, leaving us in the open back, which we share with two women and a wiry old man who grins at us all the way to Bulolo. His smile reveals stumps of blackened ivory rotted by a lifetime of chewing betel nut. He turns in profile to wave at a relative and a thick pencil of light bursts through his septum where he once wore a nose bone.
We race along a washboard road at breakneck speed, avoiding the occasional pig that teeters about in confusion. Past the botanical gardens with its exotic orchid collection and war cemetery where Allied soldiers slumber in a bed of saffron petals. Past bright and giddy banana trees and wispy, looming palms on stalks so thin that they bend in anorexic bows across the road.
A Bumpy Ride
We head southwest toward the violent black anvils hunched above the Owen Stanley Range, climbing through the mountains in high gear. We stop suddenly, kicking up a cloud of dust that claws for the ground in the humidity almost as soon as it is disturbed. I am sent sprawling across the lap of one of the women.
The old man heaves himself free and jumps to the ground. A few words of farewell to the driver and he is gone, scurrying into the dense bush.
"All out!" shouts Tim farther up the road where we come to a halt beside a wooden bridge. Below, a sickly river pushes its way through stands of kunai grass.
Two large rubber rafts ("The very best," Tim assures us) strain on their leashes, eager to free themselves from the oozy mud. The Watut River pulls demandingly, riding high on its banks.
Afloat in the Jungle
Within minutes we're off, cast adrift on "the finest jungle white water in the world."
We're at 9,000 feet. Three hours from Lae by road. Gold prospectors of the 1920s took eight days to hike a 100-mile trail from the coast, pitting their wits against headhunters and the famous Kukukuku cannibals. We'll be back in five. Hopefully safe and sound. The natives of Morobe Province are a little friendlier these days. But the river, we can tell, is in flood.
Open fields of grasslands glide by, a lime-green sea of waves studded with the scimitar fronds of papaya and pandanus ferns. Rusty hydraulic dredges line the river banks. In the heydays of the gold boom, air freight into and out of this region surpassed that of the rest of the world put together. Now only the natives are left, panning in the shallows of a soupy river.
The Snake suddenly merges, so black it looks like syrup. Our two-tone candy bar river swings west into the heights of the Kuper Ranges. A canopy of greenery closes in over our heads. The river gathers speed, thrusting headlong into the jungle. Confined within this dark enclosure we crash forward, tumbling through a tropical "Fantasia" world of feathery bamboos, ferns and palms.
Above the treetop canopy a misty, incorporeal veil hangs heavy with rainfall, feeding the Watut and the vibrant, insatiable jungle.
Except for the occasional sulfur flash of a parrot, the insect chirrups and calls and screech of birds are lost in the shadow of the forest. Above the foamy water, butterflies dance with whimsical, carefree gaiety. Giant butterflies the color of glittering coral waters. Bright red ones splashed with tints of blue and black.
And clusters of tiny golden butterflies shimmer on riverside rocks as they vibrate softly. As the river undulates against its banks they hover, letting the waters wash over the pewter pebbles before settling for a few seconds more.
"Look," calls John Mason, our second raft guide. A bright, iridescent kingfisher has broken from the bank. Then another. Skimming the frothy wave tops, they pilot us through the rapids. But we cannot trust their instincts; we steer a line of avoidance plowing between two goliath boulders that block our path. We cascade forward, buffeted and pummeled by waves of solid water that drench us.