No cannibals, just bats
‘Extreme ecologists’ New Guinea mission a success despite setbacks
A team of environmentally minded explorers is back from unmapped areas of Papua, New Guinea, and no, they didn’t get eaten by cannibals.
Subterranean Explorer John Lane returned to Chico Feb. 13 and, from the comfort of his downtown environmental consulting office, talked almost nonchalantly about swimming across flooded rivers, evading insistent natives and witnessing a bloody bat barbecue.
He was more fazed by having to follow up an 11-hour flight and seven-hour runway delay by spending 24 hours in a Japanese airport with 10,000 travelers waiting out a snowstorm. And they lost his luggage.
“I got it the day before I left to come back,” Lane said. “I wore the same socks for three weeks. … My rain jacket would have been really nice to have.”
On Jan. 20, geologist Lane and exploring partner Ralph Cutter, an expert on fish, reptile and amphibian species, went on the “reconnaissance mission” to seek new species and film their adventure with the ultimate goal of securing environmental protections for the island, which is located off the coast of Australia.
When they finally reached the island, they met up with filmmaker Gordon Brown, who had flown in from Los Angeles.
Brown had all his supplies, but Lane and Cutter were stuck with flimsy packs and sleeping bags as they trekked at least 40 miles all told in search of new species and the remains of a P-38 plane that was shot down by the Japanese in World War II.
They found pseudoscorpions, strange-looking bugs and a frog that Cutter is certain is an unrecorded species. Armed with information like this, the Subterranean Explorers try to convince foreign governments to protect sensitive lands. In New Guinea, logging practices are particularly disturbing.
“We got done what we needed to do in terms of reconnaissance,” Lane said. He was able to meet with conservation officials and lay the groundwork for the next visit and filming.
Rain—which never let up during their stay—threw off their plans, as the helicopter they’d hired deposited the team not in the intended Nakanai mountains, but in the foothills in rural New Britain. “He drops us off at this oil palm plantation in the middle of nowhere,” Lane said. “A thousand people rushed to meet us. … We came out of the fog; they thought we were spirits. Most of them hadn’t seen white people.”
They set off on foot, their gear in a burlap sack, in search of the plane as well as caves to explore.
Part of the time, they slept in a “houseboy” hut with a dozen other men, and when they set out to leave some of the villagers tried to stop him—a few following for three hours. In another area, they were charged by a man wielding a spear and shield.
Lane said the natives overall “were the friendliest people. … As we went into these villages, people would line up and we’d have to shake everyone’s hand.”
But they have some habits that would startle Westerners. The “jungle refrigerator” consists of tying a live bird to a string until you’re ready to eat it. Everyone chews beetlenut and spits the juice on the ground. And the children, Lane said, eat lice off of each other. “They’d pick ’em and pop ’em in their mouth.”
When they entered one cave, their native guides began knocking bats from the walls with a stick, gathering armfuls of the creatures, which they cooked alive over a fire. “They’d snap their legs off and munch them; blood was dripping down their faces,” Lane said. Then, as a game, they began throwing the wings at each other.
And they never did find that plane. “Everyone would say ‘yes’ [they’d seen it] but everyone had a different answer. We found ourselves bouncing back and forth.” They finally left a disposable camera with the villagers and asked them to take a picture of the plane for next time.
Lane is already looking forward to the explorers’ return trip, in June 2007. Cutter is returning solo this summer.
“It was quite an interesting trip,” understated Lane, who is planning presentations at local schools, Sierra Nevada Brewery and Quincy’s Feather River College in the coming weeks.