David Tipling gets to experience the bird-watchers’ paradise that is Papua New Guinea where he is prepared for the unexpected.

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Machine gun fire penetrated the stillness, a quick burst coming from the densely-forested slope below. Glancing to my right, Benson and his brother Alus, my guides, seemed calm as they scanned the forest with binoculars from where the sound had originated.

Be prepared for the unexpected I had been repeatedly told before setting foot in Papua New Guinea. “Got it,” Benson exclaimed. And there, below us, a black-looking bird with a ridiculously long tail was flying above the forest canopy – a brown sicklebill, one of the spectacular birds of paradise and owner of that rattle-like call.

The island of New Guinea is best known among naturalists as the home for birds of paradise (BOPs). Papua New Guinea, or PNG for short, hosts 38 out of the 43 species.

I had long wanted to set foot here to see and to try and photograph some of this extraordinary family, and explore the deep-rooted cultural connections these birds have with people. Images of birds of paradise appear throughout Papuan society from bank notes and coins to tail fins of aircraft, while many businesses incorporate the paradise name.

New Guinea factfile

New Guinea is split in two – Irian Jaya is the western half of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is in the east with its southern tip just a few miles from northern Australia.

More than 800 languages are spoken in PNG but English is widely used even in some of the remotest areas.

Kina is the currency – about 3.65 kina to £1.

Most of the country is undeveloped and there are few roads so air travel is essential to reach most places away from the capital Port Morseby. Air Niugini runs a modern fleet of aircraft with international routes from Port Morseby to Australia, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. It also operates an extensive domestic service.

Travel in PNG is for the adventurous, however the accommodation is generally very good and there is a good network of guest houses and lodges for visitors to stay in.

It is advisable to use local guides when exploring towns and villages. People are extremely friendly, taking good care of visitors.

Temperatures range from a cool 15C in the Highlands at night to an average 30-34C in the Lowlands. The dry season is from May to October although it can rain frequently in the Highlands any time of year.

David Tipling flew with Air Nuigini. Visit the website at www.airniugini.com.pg

Accommodation in Papua New Guinea was at the Airways Hotel in Port Morseby. Website: www.airways.com.pg

Tari in Makara Bird View Lodge is run by Country Tours. To find out more log on to www.countrytours.com.pg

Mount Hagen in Kumul Lodge – e-mail Kumul-lodge@global.net.pg or telephone (675)5421615

More tourist information is available from the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority – visit the website at www.papuanewguinea.travel

Most prominent of all is the use of the raggiana bird of paradise as the national emblem of PNG. The plumes of this beautiful bird are commonly used in tribal head dresses.

The Tari Valley, in which I stood, supports more species of bird of paradise than anywhere else on Earth. While many are quite common they are far from easy to see in the tall forest trees. Soon after my encounter with the sicklebill, another species performed beautifully.

The king of Saxony BOP possesses extraordinary tentacle-like plumes, like aerials on some extra-terrestrial being. He then envelops this visual extravagance in the most unearthly sound. Mouth wide open, he expels a crackling song that increases to an almost explosive intensity and resembles tiny electric castanets played at insane speed.

Running through the Tari Valley the quiet Highlands Highway offers the visiting bird-watcher not just great views of the forest but access to the many birds that would ordinarily be tough to hunt down. The road climbs to 9,000 feet and a plateau of grassland bordered by forest-cloaked mountains known as the Tari Gap. This beautiful untouched landscape has an extraordinary primeval feel. Yet forest like this covers much of New Guinea and, with a population of only 7.5 million people, the second largest island in the world is one of the last great forested places on Earth.

The valley is home to perhaps the best known of all New Guinea tribes – the Huli. Its so-called wigmen have traditionally adorned themselves with elaborate wigs decorated in bird of paradise plumes. Benson arranged for two wigmen to come to the lodge. Timan Tumbu and Hale Johu did not disappoint they looked magnificent with faces painted yellow and head-dresses adorned in feathers. Both wore necklaces of the large curved bills of a huge forest bird called a Blyth’s hornbill, which were bordered by pigs tusks. Their head-dresses contained the blue display shield of the superb bird of paradise on their forehead then Papuan lorikeet feathers in an arch above this. Sticking out from the sides were the hair-like plumes of Lawes parotia, a bird of paradise that displays in a cleared court on the ground. On top of the wig king of Saxony and lesser bird of paradise and then the long tail feathers of tibbon-tailed astrapia, black sicklebill and Stephanie’s astrapia. Both carried hollowed out cassowary leg bones, that act as purses and rolls of money were stuffed inside them, Timan suggested his bone was perfect for keeping his money hidden from his wife!

Timan and Hale spoke Huli for most of the two hours I spent with them, one of more than 800 recognised languages in PNG which illustrates why there is a strong tribal and varied culture to experience on any trip taken across the country. Most people speak their own tribal language along with English, Tok Pisin (Pidgin) and its southern counterpart Motu.

Pidgin phrases can be amusing to our ears. For example, maus gras (mouth grass) is a beard.

Tari has a reputation for being a little wild with tribal disputes not uncommon. Despite this, visitors are highly respected and looked upon as friends. Walking along the road one morning local people came over to say hello and shake my hand, keen to know from where I had come. When they discovered I was English broad smiles and much hand-shaking ensued with often mention of the Queen. As a member of the Commonwealth, many Papuans I met felt a shared bond with British visitors. I cannot think of another country I have visited where I have encountered such warmth from complete strangers.

As we walked I asked Alus about his family.

“My father had five wives and I was the first offspring. If you have many pigs you are rich and it means you can afford many wives. We measure our wealth in pigs and land and whenever we fight it is to do either with pigs, land or women,” he explained.

The people of the Tari Valley are largely subsistence farmers but even here, in one of the more remote corners of New Guinea, Western material culture is beginning to penetrate.

Nearly every Papuan I encountered clutched a mobile phone. Mobiles reached here only three or four years ago.

“When we have a spare two kina [about 60p] we used to buy a bottle of Coca Cola as a treat, but now two kina buys credit for our phones,” Alus said.

Leaving Tari, my journey took me the 300km along the Highlands Highway – a spectacular road that that runs up and down mountain valleys to the Western Highlands and Mount Hagen.

Here I settled into Kumul Lodge, high up in the cloud forest, where nights were typically cool enough to enjoy having electric blankets in my bed.

Kumul’s large bird table offered fabulous views of birds hard to approach elsewhere. The stars of the show were once again the birds of paradise. Both brown sicklebill and ribbon-tailed astrapia were regular visitors – the latter has the the longest tail feathers in relation to its body size of any bird in the world, but most striking was his iridescent plumage which shone with colour when it caught the light.

Just a short drive from Kumul lies Magic Mountain Lodge, my final base from where I would travel down to the Mount Hagen Show, surely the greatest show on Earth.

1 comment

  • Spotting birds with binoculars is a splendid passtime, I dare say. However, there are so many options! I found mine at a website which provides a lot of background information which facilitates the decision making process: http:www.binoculars-expert.co.ukbinocularsbirding-and-nature

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