This travel story is an excerpt from Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea by Kira Salak.
I left Tahiti behind, still hearing Coco’s words, You always go, non?
The plane rose and I watched the shores of French Polynesia fade to a spread of blue ocean. The fragrance of Tahiti seemed to linger on my skin, in my hair, like a memory that couldn’t be washed away.
A flight attendant handed me an Air New Zealand survey. One of the questions asked: “How do you generally prefer to travel?”
I smiled to myself as I checked the box, “Independently, without prior arrangements.” A lifetime summed up.
I began to look forward to Papua New Guinea; it was one of the most unfamiliar and daunting places I could think of choosing for a journey. In particular, it had a vast, uninhabited jungle that would be so indifferent to my presence that it could consume me without a trace. I would go way into that jungle and get myself out again. It would be hard. It would be the ultimate test. I knew that Papua New Guinea had a reputation for being especially dangerous, was overrun with gangs of hoodlums and terrorized by violence. So here again was the challenge: Get yourself out of the place. I would have to toughen up like never before. No fear. I would be forced to have confidence in myself, and to trust in my capabilities. I would need to become someone new, altogether, an entirely different kind of person. A fighter.
I tried to imagine what the country would look like, and recalled the photos from National Geographic and other magazines showing a jungle so thick it resembled the entrails of a giant beast, vines winding about primordial trees. Here, here, was the place for accomplishing something, for transforming.
And who knows? Maybe through the process I would emerge in some new wild and fantastic place like one of the lands of my childhood imagination. It might be a place similar to what Gauguin had found when he left Tahiti in 1901, fleeing to the remote Marquesas Islands, where he’d written that “poetry wells up of itself, and one has only to drift into dreaming….” I imagined some similar untouched and sacred land, an entry into a true paradise that would offer the kind of rest and peace that I would never want to leave.
Down below, Tahiti’s perfect illusion was succumbing to the chaos that had started just as I left. French authorities seized Greenpeace’s ship, Rainbow Warrior, arrested the crew, and went on with the first of five nuclear tests on the Mururoa atoll. Papeete’s idyllic harbor, its quaint oceanfront stores, became the scene of riots. A state of emergency was declared. The airport was firebombed. Looters destroyed and ransacked shops and businesses until French forces were called in to restore order. Through it all, I knew only one thing: The sunsets would look the same, as aloof and splendid as always.
Cairns, Australia. I sit at a café table, sipping from my third glass of Fosters. The beer does little to calm my nerves. Tomorrow morning I’ll be flying to Papua New Guinea, and if even a shred of what I’ve heard about the place is true, I’ve got reason to be nervous. The country’s reputation for violence has been backed up by every Aussie I’ve talked to. Port Moresby, the capital, ranks among the most dangerous cities in the world.
Add to these facts the difficulty of altogether abandoning the familiar— the difficulty of abandoning it on my own. No more of the safety and luxury that a place like Australia offers. I can only hope I’ll be strong enough for this trip, that I’ll have what it takes, whatever it might be.
But maybe if I can get a vague plan going, I can waylay the anxiety. I take out my map of Papua New Guinea and smooth it down on the table, my beer bottle putting a wet ring in the middle of the Coral Sea. The map shows a marvelous mass of jungle without roads or railroads. One big landmass with tiny circles to mark the occasional village—lone circles a hundred miles from each other, circles in the midst of mountain ranges, circles hidden in swamps. Many of the circles don’t have a name. I try to imagine reaching the circles. Surely it can be done. Rivers branch into streams, which branch into creeks and swamps, all of which one could conceivably cover by canoe. And, for those lonely circles in the mountains, one merely has to walk.
Drunk—or nearly—I see that PNG has two main rivers: the Fly River in the south, and the Sepik River in the north. In between them is the Highlands, a 14,000-foot-high backbone that traverses the island of New Guinea. British explorer Ivan Champion had been the first European to cross PNG by going up the Fly, over the Highlands, and down the Sepik in 1927. Why not try doing the same thing? Does it make any difference that I’m a woman, wanting to do it alone? Should it make any difference?
Of course none of the New Guinea explorers were women. Men were always the ones surveying the new terrain, figuring out convenient routes from one valley to another. The jungle had been informally declared off-limits for women: It was considered too hot and dangerous; it had an annoying habit of muddying up clothes, sweating up bodies. And women were supposed to be too frail to go climbing up mountains by themselves, too squeamish to tolerate the assorted jungle creatures. Men in the adventure stories were always intentionally leaving their women behind—burdensome, awkward charges— only to discover, paradoxically, that they were the reason to return home. I’m not ready to buy any of it, though. I want all the mud, sweat, bugs, toil. Worse, if possible. I haven’t a single romantic notion in my head about this trip: I know it’s going to be the hardest thing I’ve done yet.
Learn more about Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea.
Kira Salak won the PEN Award for journalism for her reporting on the war in Congo, and she has appeared five times in Best American Travel Writing. A National Geographic Emerging Explorer and contributing editor for National Geographic Adventure magazine, she was the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea and the first person to kayak solo 600 miles to Timbuktu. She is the author of three books—the critically acclaimed work of fiction, The White Mary, and two works of nonfiction: Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea (a New York Times Notable Travel Book) and The Cruelest Journey: Six Hundred Miles to Timbuktu. She has a Ph.D. in English, her fiction appearing in Best New American Voices and other anthologies. Her nonfiction has been published in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, Washington Post, New York Times Magazine, Travel & Leisure, The Week, Best Women’s Travel Writing, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She lives with her husband and daughter in Germany.