Hurry Up and Wait at Base Camp
by AMNH on
This fall, a team of vertebrate specialists from the Museum—Brett Benz, Chris Raxworthy, Paul Sweet, and Neil Duncan—is heading out to one of the most remote areas in the world in search of new species and specimens on the Explore21 Papua New Guinea expedition. Paul Sweet will be sending dispatches from the field as long as his laptop—and a signal—persist.
On Saturday, September 27, our team arrived in Mount Hagen, the big city of the Papua New Guinea Highlands. Here we met local biologist Michael Kigl, who will be joining us in the field along with Bulisa Iova and Enock Kale.
We spent the day shopping for some additional gear and food: several bush knives, soy sauce, chili sauce, and curry to add a little variety to our staples of rice and noodles, and some luxuries like biscuits, chocolate, and Vegemite. The Brits— Chris and myself—were happily surprised to find Bovril, a thick, salty meat extract used to make a hot savory drink popular in the U.K.
We spent Sunday at the Kumul Lodge. In Tok Pisin, one of the national languages of Papua New Guinea, Kumul is the name for Bird of Paradise. The lodge lived up to its name, and we were treated to close-up views of Ribbon-tailed Astrapia and Brown Sicklebill at the lodge’s fruit feeders. Another great bird at the feeder was Archbold’s Bowerbird, first discovered near the base of Mount Hagen by Museum ornithologist E. Thomas Gilliard in the 1950s. Neil saw his first wild marsupial in the shape of the extremely cute New Guinea pademelon, a small forest wallaby.
On Monday, we arrived at our base camp in Malaumunda after two flights out of Mount Hagen Airport. The first flight, in a Cessna Caravan, brought our large cargo of rice, instant noodles, and tinned mackerel (“tinpis” in Tok Pisin), which will be our staple diet for the next six weeks, as well as some larger field equipment: harp traps for bats and plastic sheeting and buckets for pitfall traps. The remaining team members flew in on the second flight along with our personal items.
The journey was spectacular; we flew low below the clouds though valleys cloaked in pristine forest, at times hugging the mountainsides. Finally the airstrip appeared as a small gash in the unbroken forest cover. Landing in a small plane on a muddy grass airstrip was quite a thrill. The welcoming committee was surprisingly large, with what seemed like the entire village lining the strip. Cargo was quickly loaded into a trailer towed by a small tractor—the only vehicle in the village—and moved to a vacant missionary house, which was kindly leant to us by the village.
The remainder of the day was spent sheltering from the heavy rain and portioning our cargo into white sacks or “Didiman bags,” the standard cargo holder in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, for individual loads to be brought to our high camp. By the time we were done we had over 50 loads.
After our first meal of rice and tinpis, we slept, expecting an early departure to our high camp a day-and-a-half trek away. In the morning we learned that a “bride-price” negotiation was underway in the village, and our potential carriers would be tied up for the remainder of the day. Bride-price negotiations in the highlands are a complex aspect of village politics and include the exchange of pigs. Typically 20 or more pigs are required to complete a marriage, amounting to a price of several thousand U.S. dollars.
The major activity of the morning became the cutting of large plastic sheets for Chris’s drift fences, which direct animals to a capture device. Most of the village came out as helpers or spectators. After a stroll around the village, where we watched a particularly intense game of marbles played by some small boys, we’re back to the mission house to kill time and see what tomorrow will bring.