There is a sad truism about the South Pacific that if Captain Cook failed to make an extended visit to an island, it will be virtually absent from the historical record. The Endeavour merely touched the southern coast of New Guinea when "hideous opposition" forced him to abandon the enterprise. Accordingly, the numerous islands that belong to Papua New Guinea (PNG), the eastern half of New Guinea, have slipped from the modern geographical radar as if by tacit agreement.
My decision to explore this forgotten part of Melanesia--the southwestern division of Oceania--came from its extreme isolation and the islands' reputation for beauty and tranquillity and the preservation of their ancient cultures. Cultural transformations of unimaginable pace and depth have taken place in these islands since 1907, when the 'German Professor' Richard Parkinson published the first exhaustive account of the Bismarck Archipelago.
When independence from Australia was granted in 1975, the distinct cultures of one of the world's most diverse regions--there are more than 700 Papuan languages (20 per cent of the world's total) in more than 60 language families--were wilfully cobbled together to constitute the political convenience known as PNG. Cultural differences were ignored, or worse, attempts were made to diffuse them.
It was in the decidedly untropical High Tatra mountains of Poland that I first learned of the exotic Trobriand Islands in a book sensationally entitled The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia by the Polish ethnologist Bronislaw Malinowski. This led me on to the feverish history of the German New Guinea Kompagnie, the ferocious cannibals and flying witches of the D'Entrecasteaux Islands and the extraordinary achievements of the 19th-century Russian explorer Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay, who searched for men with vestigial tails in the Archipelago of Contented Men.
Port Moresby is the Rome to which all roads lead in modern PNG, the dreaded hub of most excursions to the country. In the dry season, the final approach by air is over and brown hills bereft of vegetation and a polished turquoise sea.
In my first brush with PNG's law-and-order problem, the taxi driver at the airport informed me that the bullet hole in the corner of his windscreen was from raskols (a misleadingly benign Pidgin word meaning 'violent criminal').
Vicious crime has become such a serious issue in modern PNG that a contingent of some 230 armed Australian police were recently introduced into the ranks of the demoralised Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary. Their highly visible presence has done a great deal to curb the number of robberies and casual atrocities, but the move has had some serious political ramifications and has been accompanied by rumblings of neo-colonialism.
The experience will present unfamiliar challenges from more 'primitive' times for the Australians. Alleged sorcerers have been murdered in some parts of the country, while in the Highland province of Chimbu, two men were set alight with kerosene by a village mob who suspected them of killing an old man with incantations.
The original port of entry to the British Protectorate wasn't Moresby, but the island of Samarai in Milne Bay Province. Here I began my journey as the guest of the grandson of a cannibal, a fervent Christian who spoke reverentially and compulsively of the shedding of the blood of Christ while humming, with a delightful lilt, All Things Bright and Beautiful. This was also my first encounter with the fertile tension between evangelical Christianity and animist belief that was to accompany me throughout my expedition.
Minutes by banana boat separate Samarai from the enchanted island of Kwato in the China Strait. Kwato's legendary mission station, established by the evangelical missionary Charles Abel in 1891, gives rise to strong passions and controversial opinions. "He was the best type of Englishman, not an intellectual or mystic," the last pastor of Kwato observed as we ascended a tortuous path sprinkled with emerald beetles and white orchids. …