The end of an adventure sets the beginning of a new one
My celebration for “Kom-Emine” adventure was rather short. Quick last arrangements and I took the first flight to Papua New Guinea (PNG). This was the official start of my 3rd expedition under the photography project “Vanishing Worlds”.
As a professional strategist, I used to plan things way ahead in time. But at that moment the situation was totally different. It was impossible for me to find answers to so many simple questions. Like, on arrival in PNG will I be able to receive my equipment intact and without any delay?! There were numerous things depending on this fact. So, I decide to make a safe stop in the Philippines. You know: crazy shopping, conservative Christians, cheap Jeepneys, bizarre food, sunny weather, “Fuck You Archie cocktails” …Manila.
After few fb messages my old friends Deon, Angie and Cindy came to pick me up from my hostel in Makati district. They wanted to show me a genuine underground experience of Manila. Usually troubles start with expressions such as “can you do…” followed by “challenge accepted!”.
On the next evening, shortly before boarding the plane to Port Moresby (PNG) I bought rice, Korean ramyon & tuna cans, sufficient for a 1 week of survival in the jungle. Just in case, you never know! At that time, I had no idea how much I will depend on this.
I boarded a small propeller plane that flew just few hundred meters above the jungle. Despite the rough landing, the machine managed to bring me and 40kg of photography, camping and survival equipment in Tari, PNG successfully. The heart of the Southern Highlands was the starting point of my expedition and I was hoping to find there any traces of Huli Wigmen tribe as well as to get in touch with them.
First encounter with locals in Tari
The tinny airport strip cut in the middle of the jungle was surrounded by many locals. There was only a wonky wire fence separating the plane from the increasing crowd. Each person carried big machete, wore some kind of rag instead of clothing and had frightening expression on its face. For the first time in my life, I felt all my survival senses were pushed to the limit. About 20 min passed and I found myself still full of thoughts unwilling to leave the safety of the airport. Maybe I had made a huge mistake by coming to that place without any prearrangement. Maybe I should have gone to another place instead. The minutes were flying like seconds. My head was about to explode, because of all my worries. All those people were looking at me as if saying “Hello white chicken. We gonna eat you alive”. Standing without doing anything wasn’t helping much either. One way or another, I managed to gain self confidence and decided to undertake something. I approached the first person at the gate and asked him to point me towards the nearest guesthouse. Yes sure, as if there were any! The guy opened his mouth. There were no teeth. In broken English he suggested I try my luck at the small Lutheran church and he could bring me there. We were strolling down a dirt road. I was carrying the 2 big bags full of equipment. From the crowd to people decided to walk along with us. All the time they kept staring at me and asking me for money and food. I ignored them. Then some 5 more people joined. It was super intimidating. The more we progressed, the more people came to see the white stranger daring to march on foot in their town. I noticed several SUVs. All of them had fence-alike protection for the windows. I was wondering why?!
Finding safe shelter at a Lutheran church
Finally, we arrived at the church. The building was surrounded by a 3m sheet iron fence, on top with barbed wire. There were also 3 security guards as well. It looked like a local version of Fort Knox. Once I entered its premises I felt a bit relieved.
I was greeted by the priest. Fortunately, he accepted my request and let me sleep in the church’s dormitory. In exchange, he asked me for 100USD/night. What a rip-off! But I had no other solution at that moment. In the inner yard I found the smiling face of Samuel. He was also a pastor who was curious about what I was doing in Tari? Obviously, this was a playground for white boys. I didn’t trust anyone, but decided to share some part of my plan to find Huli Wigmen. Samuel offered to help. At that moment he was my only help to find way to successfully meet the tribe.
All of a sudden some more pilgrims came. For most of them I was the first white person they could have opportunity to communicate with. All of them spoke very good English. So, after I felt more and more comfortable start chatting with all those new people. I was surprised to find so many christians in PNG.
Stuck in the middle of a clan war
On the horizon I noticed big fire smoke. It turned out, there were two clans who were killing each other for several days. Furthermore, clans organized road ambush to whomever dears to pass. Robbery and killing was common. As prevention any traveler should use SUV with wire fence as protection in case need to take the risk. Nevertheless, my hosts told me Tari was the safest place in PNG and there was no reason to worry. Sure!
The Lutheran priests start calling me brother. To make sure everything is fine with me they assigned a teenager boy to walk with me wherever I move. Even though he was young, nobody from the locals could touch him, because this could have mean war with his clan. As a new member of their group I had their full support as well. What a start…just 1 hour after my arrival.
While posing on the backside of the only shop in the town he shared a recent story. The shop was owned by some Chinese. Despite its fortress-like protection the local clan killed the merchants because they felt prices were too high. Since then any foreigners were unwanted. My confidence perished in a second! What could happen to me?!
Samuel is a man of its word. And he introduced me to his friend Himuya, who agreed to be my guide. We could live next morning. So, I had to survive only 1 night in Tari in the middle of the tribal conflict. This was promising!
On the following day Himuya came with a driver and big SUVs. Without breakfast we hit to road to Koroba village. This was supposed to be the last place in touch with any kind of modern civilization where we should find somebody to give us more information regarding the Huli Wigmen location.
Just right after we left the safety of the Lutheran church, we met a group of angry locals who were members of one of the fighting clans. Fortunately, our SUV managed to pass them very fast. But from somewhere a stone was thrown and broke the front windshield. Nobody was injured!
We left the violent locals behind our backs and hurried to made in before dusk to Koroba village.
Our path crossed Kikori river. The bridge was made by elements left in the jungle at the end of the WWII by some German engineers.
Himuya was really funny guy. He was super helpful. The only thing he asked me in return for his service was to share with all my friends in Europe that the people of Papua New Guinea are kind.
Himuya was asking several villagers, if they have noticed any member of Huli Wigmen recently.
We checked at the local store. But nobody could help us.
We talked to several other locals. All of them encounter for the first time a white guy. Despite their curiosity to talk with me, nobody had any useful information.
Finding the secret Huli Wigmen village in the jungle
And then we noticed an old guy walking at the end of the Koroba village. At first look, he was like any other local person. However, a deeper and more profound glimpse revealed few interesting facts. Instead of pants he had a kind of skirt made by plants from the jungle. His skin was covered with tribal tattoos. Max suggested we follow the old guy quickly, because he seems to be a member of a clan close to Huli Wigmen. After a short talk in Tok Pisin, the old guy promised to bring us to Huli Wigmen in exchange for a pack of rice. A happy moment for my soul, but was it safe to go along with all those unknown people in the jungle? I decided to follow my instinct.
We were trekking for few hours till we got to a place, revealing a small hut in the jungle. The old guy pointed with his skinny, bony hand announcing this was a Huli Wigmen village. Max must have noticed my hesitation and tried to encourage me to go further, because the clan was peaceful at the moment, and we should use this opportunity to contact them. All my senses were at the maximum alert again. I worried, if the tribe will be friendly or my presence will irritate them. The question whose answer I will find just in a moment.