Sunday, August 17, 2008

Iruupi, like every place you’ve never been

Papua New Guinea today remains one of the most culturally-diverse and unexplored nations on the planet.

Scattered inland are many small villages, each group practicing their own native tongue and traditions, eking out a living from the surrounding land.

Travel to the remote village of Iruupi, Western province, and you will have to be prepared to do lots of walking.

To travel to Iruupi, you have to fly in to Daru Island, and then be prepared to make a crossing back to the mainland on a fiberglass dinghy.

Despite the short crossing, with a heavily-laden boat, it can be quite treacherous at times when winds make for heavy seas.

Once across the strait, the dinghy sets a course adjacent to the mainland shore along the beach and an extensive coastal coconut grove comes into view, the subject of a fierce land dispute between Badu-suki tribe and others for centuries.

The dinghy gives the mouth of the Fly River a wide berth, paying respect to its strong currents before again trekking close to the shore, and to the mouth of the Kura River about 30 minutes later.

From here the 5 to 8km journey along the Kura is much slower, low tides necessitating care is exercised in negotiating fallen trees, sand banks, the occasional goanna and keeping an ever-present watch for a disgruntled crocodile.

Finally, it reaches the landing point Lani, the mangroves and palms along the muddy riverbanks giving way to grassland and a few of the ubiquitous gardens that would later become evident.
From Lani is a narrow marsh road to Iruupi village.

A short walk by village standards, some 5-6km, weaves through overgrown grasses, bamboo forests, swamps, marshes, and surprisingly, many eucalypts.

For the people of the village, every tree, every scratch in the dirt and ever tract of water is inextricably linked to some significant story or event.

Traversing a waist-deep small swamp reveals the first sighting of traditional Iruupi houses – bamboo constructions on the outskirts of the village, supported by poles with an under storey platform where inhabitants can gather away from the heat of the day, each distinctively different in those erected in other provinces through Papua New Guinea.

Upstairs are verandahs, bedrooms and a traditional kitchen – the timber strutted floors covered with woven mats to maximise comfort (in Daru, many of the more ‘westernised’ pre-fabricated houses still have a traditional bamboo kitchen erected at the rear).

In the main village, houses are erected around the periphery, enabling the central areas to be used as common meeting, play and performance areas.

Villagers do all the hunting, cooking, washing and other chores, leaving visitors idle to simply enjoy the surroundings.

Villagers tend to their gardens each day, rich with taro, bananas, greens, melons, pineapple and other fruits planted for harvesting in the dry season.

Skilled hunters meant there is a ready supply of deer, wild pig, wallaby and cassowaries.
These will be brought back to the village strung over bamboo poles, while hunting implements are carried in a free hand.

Kupilute is a large lagoon, believed to be sourced by a well of unknown depth in the middle, and linked to creation stories of the Bewani people.

It is believed the well forms the basis of a tunnel that goes all the way to the Australian mainland.

When diving for fish, prawns or lobster in the lagoon, locals skirt the edges, fearful of an encounter with Sapi-dade, a dreaming spirit.

Paying homage to the spirits in the appropriate way ensures there is a plentiful supply of seafood.

Yet another walk to a place called Imbade reveals a broad and pristine river that must be crossed in a dugout canoe or outrigger to reach the village of Masingara, home of warring tribes and family of the Badu-suki tribe of Iruupi village, some 2-3 hours away.

Most nights are filled with exotic and traditional dance in preparation for an upcoming event.
Pointing the torch to the lagoon beyond the washhouse reveals the red eyes of a crocodile, each night keeping watch.

For the people of the village, a simple taro or coconut is treated as a prize, yet readily shared among others, to ensure no one goes without.

Each and every person is proud of and well-schooled in their culture and identity, benefiting from an almost unspoiled existence with limited contact with the white people, in contrast to some of the major centres where the negative effects of colonisation and decolonisation, subsequent to Independence, can be observed.

In leaving the village for the long walk to Lani, through a procession of well-wishers and tearful souls, one can enjoy the breathtaking scenery.

At Lani, it is last goodbyes, the sun poking through and the promise of a return in the future to renew special bonds, as the dinghy heads for the open sea.

Minji, Mamne, Ato!

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