Stella Martin visits Papua New Guinea to see its magnificent birds – and to get to know the neighbours
Their raucous calls resonate through the forest but I can see nothing. Although there must be several birds in the trees around us they are managing to keep out of sight. Daniel, our guide, indicates a vine-entwined tree and tells us to watch. We stare at the empty tree.
I blink, but it's no vision; a raggiana bird of paradise is perching on the vine. It's big, and bushy. Its head is precisely divided between green and yellow but that is where orderliness ends. The bird's back and tail is an ebullient, bouffant, bustle of tousled, gauzy, orange plumes. As it hops up the vine another male flies on to an adjacent perch and excitement levels reach frenzy pitch; there must be a female in the vicinity. Bouncing with ardour, our birds fan their wings, hunch their shoulders and hoist their plumes, flaring them out above their backs like great orange fountains.
This bird is a Papua New Guinean icon. It appears on everything from the flag and the national airline to the favourite beer can, and Daniel has brought us to a lek, an area where males congregate to compete for the attentions of females which have come to inspect and choose a mate. I just don't know how they make up their minds when there can be as many as ten males strutting their flamboyant stuff.
I have joined a bird tour of Papua New Guinea. I've always wanted to see the fabled birds of paradise but I have other motives: Port Moresby is the closest capital city to my home in Cairns – much closer than Brisbane – and I've always had a hankering to meet the neighbours.
Back in our minibus, Daniel makes a startling disclosure. "I used to hunt birds – two or three hundred a week, with bow and arrow, for their meat and their feathers. But now," he smiles, "I just hunt them for the birders." You can tell that Daniel, a confident highland man with keen eyes and an assertive beard, is a hunter. He melts into the forest, moving silently and stealthily, super-alert to every flutter and tweet.
Daniel is the first of several guides we link up with as we travel around the country. They not only lead us to the birds but also provide security. Papua New Guinea is considered an unsafe place to travel and we never put to the test warnings not to venture out unaccompanied. However, wherever we go – albeit in the presence of guides who know the local people – we are greeted with overwhelming warmth.
Birdwatching tends to take you off the beaten track. From Port Moresby we fly west to Kiunga, where we walk in the footsteps of David Attenborough to the tree where he was filmed at a lek of greater birds of paradise, a yellow plumed variation of the raggianas – and we are treated to yet another astonishing display.
We are then taken by boat up the magnificent, meandering Fly River. Rainforest crowds the banks as eclectus parrots, palm cockatoos and red-cheeked parrots – sought after rarities on Queensland's Cape York – fly overhead in the company of hornbills.
The few people we encounter are paddling or fishing from dugout canoes. These self-sufficient people meet most of their needs – from fish traps, nets, bows and arrows to dwellings, boats and bridges – with skilful use of materials from their local environment. Kwatu Lodge, where we are based for three nights, is no exception. Perched high on the riverbank, this substantial structure is constructed entirely from forest materials woven expertly around a frame of saplings. It has no electricity or running water but that is a small price to pay for spending time in this remote location.
We spend our days at Kwatu either drifting along the river or slogging steamily through the forest. Birding in Papua New Guinea is hard work – given their value as food and decoration, the birds are understandably elusive – but the rewards are often spectacular. Near the lodge a hide, built from palm fronds, overlooks the bower of a flame bowerbird. In total we spend over three hours in this leafy igloo before our patience is rewarded with sightings of a bird so stunningly plumaged in incandescent orange and golden yellow it appears to be lit from within.
The rest of our tour is spent in relative luxury and cooler climes. Kumul Lodge, an hour's drive into the mountains from Mount Hagen, is set in a protected area of misty upland forest festooned with mosses and orchids and inhabited by yet another suite of astonishingly beautiful birds. For a change, seeing them is easy as many strut the stage on a feeding table next to the lodge. However it is only in the forest that we find the male ribbon-tailed astrapia, a bafflingly extravagant bird with iridescent purple and green head and breast and, for a tail, two metre-long white streamers that flutter out behind him as he flies and thread their way through the foliage after him as he searches for food above our astonished heads.
While waiting for our flight out of Mount Hagen I buy a bilum, one of the ubiquitous, traditional string bags used to carry everything from yams to babies and pigs. This airport shopping opportunity is in the car park, its perimeter fence decked out with a dazzling display of vibrant and imaginative designs. I ask the woman who has made my chosen bilum to pose with it, knotted across her forehead in the traditional way, and am suddenly jostled with onlookers all eager to insert themselves into the photograph.
At our final stop, Tari, we disembark, like royalty, to find the perimeter fence of the airstrip crammed with locals; plane arrivals are evidently a public spectacle. This is home of the Huli people, famous for their wigmen – one of whom is the baggage handler. An orange safety vest is his only concession to modern workwear. Below it his nether regions are barely covered with a skirt of fibre and animal hair, around his neck he wears cassowary quill necklaces and pigs' tusks and his hair, sprouting from the confines of a beaded headband like a well-risen muffin, forms a matted, mushroom-shaped frizzy mass.
The Huli people are proud of their traditions. Growing a wig is a spiritual undertaking after which the hair is shaved and used as the basis for elaborate headdresses. Huli men are dandies: those without wigs deck their heads in everything from colourful crocheted caps to concoctions of beads, flattened parrots, bird of paradise plumes and/or cassowary feathers. Lacking these, they simply pluck ferns and other vegetation from the forest and weave them into elaborate crowns for everyday wear.
The men model not only their decorations on the birds of paradise but also their lifestyle; seduction is a priority, child-raising is strictly for the females – along with pig-rearing and food production. Benson, our local guide, has two wives. "My first wife has three children. She was too busy to look after my pigs so I got another to do that." When Benson has saved up another 30 pigs – the going rate for a bride – he will get another to look after his vegetable gardens.
The modern world has come suddenly to the Huli people. A gas pipeline being constructed through their land has brought prosperity to some – and jealousy to neighbours. We find ourselves sharing the rather luxurious Ambua Lodge with a multi-national workforce which is whisked away to work in helicopters each dawn while the Huli people, with neither motorbikes nor bicycles, mostly walk.
Flying homewards I gaze down on vast tracts of forest covering the crumpled, inaccessible mountains that make up so much of the country. I am heartened. Down there, where there are no roads or towns, who knows what wondrous birds are flaunting their plumes or even how our great silver bird might be interpreted by people who may be living remotely in that forest. I feel I have only scratched the surface of this intriguing country – and that scratch has revealed much of fascination. I would love to explore more.
Independent travel in Papua New Guinea would be difficult, and possibly risky, and finding birds virtually impossible without organised local guides. Cassowary Tours runs birding trips. More: cassowarytours.com.au
Many parts of the country are accessible only by plane: Air Nuigini: airniugini.com.pg and Airlines PNG: apng.com
Good birding lodges include upmarket Ambua Lodge: babs.com.au/ambua; Kumul Lodge: pngholidays.com.au/kumul-lodge-birdwatching; Kwatu Lodge: flyriverecotourism.com
© S.B. Martin. All rights reserved