On the next day’s schedule was a spectacular chartered flight from Amboa Lodge to Karawari. A small plane held Sylvester, the pilot, and me, the passenger. Just before takeoff Sylvester gave the safety talk which consisted of, “If the wing catches on fire, exit by the rear.” Since no parachute was issued and given the advanced age of Sylvester, I comforted myself by reciting to myself the motto, “There are old pilots and there are bold pilots but there are no old bold pilots.”
After flying over mountains covered by rain forest jungle for over an hour we landed in an even smaller field by a river. A thatched shack open on all sides boasted an ambitious sign – Karawari Airport. Gate 1 Arrivals. Gate 2 Departures. I was met by Paul, my guide, who retrieved my small backpack and a red carry-on and we trudged through the damp field to a launch on the Kariwari River. In ten minutes we landed at a wharf where we climbed into the back of a truck dating from the thirties or forties. It rattled its way up the hill to Karawari Lodge, where I was now not only the only person on the tour but also the only guest.
My quarters in the lodge were a little way up from the main building built to resemble a Spirit Lodge. I had a breathtaking view of the river and a mosquito net on the bed.
Karawari was hot, sticky hot with a humidity that felt like 200 per cent. Returning from a visit to a neighboring village to watch the making of sago, a staple crop, morphing from wood to flour pancake, I collapsed on the sofa in the main room of the lodge. The time until dinner was spent drinking glass after glass of iced tea and admiring the religious carvings and statues that surrounded the room.
The next day while the morning coolness was still with us, Paul and I paid a visit to the hospital halfway down the hill. It was more of a clinic with two hospital rooms. Serious cases were evacuated by launch to the hospital in Wewak. Two doctors, who I think were more like paramedics, saw between 100 and 150 patients a day, the majority being women with sick children plus many cases of malaria and asthma.
That day, my second in Karawari, was spent almost entirely in the launch going down the river. Elvis drove the launch very fast except when passing the many people fishing from canoes. We stopped at a school run by a church group where I was recruited to speak to students in four different classes. When I asked them what they wanted to do after they left school, the boys wanted to be soldiers, pilots, doctors and one a sailor. The sole bashful girl who answered wanted to be a nurse. I got into the rhythm of telling them they could do anything they wanted to do as long as it didn’t hurt anybody. I think my words fell on deaf ears, as they mostly wanted to know how many grandchildren I had.
Our day’s journey ended with a climb up a steep hill from Paul’s village to see the Catholic Church where Paul was an elder. At St. Michael of the Archangel Church the walls were open at the sides, the pews low planks set on the dirt floor, and the statues beautiful wood carvings.
Yanked away from breakfast the following morning with the news delivered via radio that my chartered plane to Mt. Hagen was about to land, I packed hastily and took off in the launch with Elvis going at top speed. Saying a quick hello to four incoming guests from Seattle and a sad goodbye to Paul and Elvis, I found myself once again ensconced in the plane with Sylvester piloting. After taxing up the hill to take off, Sylvester revved up the engines which sounded a little off even to me and definitely to Sylvester. We taxied back to the airfield shed while Sylvester radioed Mt. Hagen to send another plane and an engineer to fix the ailing engine. We, Sylvester, a man I think from the lodge, several village women and a bevy of children, waited in the shack. With a swiftness that would never happen here, in several hours a plane piloted by Bob and carrying an engineer with tools landed on the grass. In a very short time I was in Mt. Hagen, PNG’s third largest city, at the Highlander Hotel and in the company of another tour of 15 Americans who were all very nice and welcoming.
The big Sing Sing was scheduled for my last full day. I was half looking forward to it and half dreading it because, after 23 years in Datil, I am not comfortable with crowds. Beyond my wildest dreams, it was glorious. We watched and photographed the participants dress in their elaborate costumes and put on their makeup. Clan by clan, they marched by, stopping to dance and sing in front of the pavilion holding the 40 or so tourists. Once the 12th tribe had passed, all of them marched, drums beating, singing and dancing all at once covering the entire field. Very stirring, it was nothing less than spectacular. My camera couldn’t take pictures fast enough. My favorites were the mud men and the skeletons. Once back in Mt Hagen, we explored the Main Market, an enormous building filled with stalls and people selling mostly foods – beautiful fresh vegetables, coffee and meat. All the vendors said “good noon” to us and wanted to shake our hands and thanked us for visiting their country.
Then it poured rain and I left PNG the next evening....
And that is the end of my story.
Picture: Karawari School