Papua New Guinea: the impossible

mud men

Laid out like a giant green fortress with a wild mountainous spine swathed in rainforest, Papua New Guinea has always been a near-impossible place to penetrate, culturally as well as physically

By Andrea Oschetti

Four Years among the Cannibals, from 1914 to the Armistice under the German Flag in Unexplored Interior of New Guinea, by Hermann Detzner (1920)

Detzner was a German officer sent to what was then German New Guinea in early 1914 to explore and chart the interior. Not wanting to surrender to Australian troops when WWI broke out, he disappeared into the jungle with his small group of almost 20 men.

Detzner and his troops lived in the bush for four years among the cannibals and didn’t surrender to the Australians until years later. During his time in the jungle, he marched about with his full uniform on, ever the loyal patriot.

His writings from his travels were popular in his native country, as Detzner’s work exudes this staunch patriotism. Typical of the era, he comes across with an air of superiority when talking about the indigenous tribes of New Guinea, but he succeeded in firing the imaginations of his fellow countrymen who would likely never see this strange and fabled foreign shore. His colourful narratives describe exotic locales and forsaken imperial colonies in a way few other writers could have.

Editor’s note: There was much commotion and contention after this book was released, with several sources claiming Detzner may have embellished his experiences. Detzner himself later said that this was a work of ‘part fiction’. It is perhaps fitting that such an unaccessible place inspired a memoir that presents its own challenges.


Four Corners: A Journey into the Heart of Papua New Guinea, by Kira Salak (2004)

Kira Salak travels alone and dangerously. She was the first woman to traverse Papua New Guinea (PNG) solo, travelling by dugout canoe and on foot.

She experiences native faces painted for war, remote tribes with little outside contact, cultures and violent traditions that stretch back millenia, and flora and fauna seen nowhere else in the world.

Four Corners takes us on two journeys at once, one into the heart of Papua New Guinea and one into the author herself. Salak allows us to experience the good and evil people she encounters, from cannibals to missionaries to revolutionaries, but also humbly narrates a level of bravado in getting to meet these people that few would want to try and match. The end result inspires as a testament to her, without making you want to retrace her steps.

Under th Mountain

Under the Mountain Wall: A Chronicle of Two Seasons in Stone Age New Guinea, by Peter Matthiessen (1962)

In this book, Matthiessen gives readers a snapshot of a tribal society as it was then, before PNG’s indigenous cultures were affected by outside influences.

Matthiessen’s account is descriptive and honest, and arms the reader with information to understand a culture few could comprend otherwise. The author brings to light the violence and brutality of the time, and seemingly reports only the facts.

Rarely does he voice his opinion, with the exception of when he meets Christian missionaries arriving as he is leaving. Wishing to see this society stay untouched by outside influences, he talks of his frustration at the missionaries’ presence.

The sights and sounds come to life in a way only a writer as talented as Matthiesson could manage. His descriptions of the characteristic ornamental dress and painted faces makes them easy for the reader to visualise and the book succeeds in showing how the culture is slowly being changed by the outside world.

The indigenous names are accurate and challenging making it easy for the reader to get confused: just one way in which this book gives a vivid, realistic picture of a culture and people yet to experience modern life in any way.

Savage Harvest

Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, by Carl Hoffman (2014)

The year was 1961 and Michael Rockefeller (a fourth-generation member of the famous family) was determined to add to his collection of primitive art from PNG.

According to reports from the time, his catamaran capsized, and while a friend stayed with the boat, Rockefeller swam the eight kilometres to shore, never to be seen or heard from again.

This book is drawn from the years that Hoffman spent meeting and interviewing people to get first-hand accounts of what transpired when Rockefeller reached shore. Although there’s no way of knowing what was going through Rockefeller’s head at the time, Hoffman lends his imagination to what he might have been thinking.

What happened is hard for anyone to stomach, as Hoffman gives the reader a glimpse into a world vastly different from our own. Not only is cannibalism still practiced in some areas of PNG today, but it is spoken about by some natives as if it is as normal as grabbing a bite to eat at a restaurant.

Shocking, disturbing, and horrific, Hoffman finally answers the question of what happened, while leaving us wondering at the gulf that separates our culture from theirs.

Through Wildest Papua, by Jack Gordon Hides (1935)

Jack Gordon Hides was born in Port Moresby, the largest city and capital of PNG which during his time was under the administration of the Australian government. Hides was cast from the classic ‘dashing explorer’ mould and thankfully always kept a diary documenting his bold explorations into the wilderness, which he eventually used to write several books.

Through Wildest Papua, his first book, was written in part about the time when Hubert Murray, then Lieutenant Governor of Papua, chose him to lead an expedition of the Great Papuan Plateau, a previously unexplored area that lies between the Purari and Strickland Rivers. Being the early 20th-century, there was no radio and no aerial support for the duration of the trip – as it turned out, this was to be the last expedition in PNG to travel in such conditions.

What begins as a rather mundane account, quickly turns into something more dramatic when Hides and his party are threatened by indigenous tribes. They are forced to kill several men in making their escape and then follows repeated confrontations and negotiations with various other tribes over the duration of the expedition.

A great many of their problems stemmed from Hides and his expedition not having enough food to eat. They originally thought they would be able to trade tools with the natives for food, but these natives were either not interested in their strange implements or were experiencing food shortages of their own. Regardless, supplies were lacking and his men were becoming ill and weak.

Although some natives greeted the men almost warmly, most were afraid of his intentions, which led to the fighting. The fact he had had to shoot some of the natives became controversial later when others traversed the area without problems.

Hides eventually gave up exploration for the government and struck out on his own, including doing some prospecting for gold. His prolific and dedicated journalling enabled him to subsequently produce five successful books and several magazine articles about his adventures.