BBC journalist Frank Gardner reveals the story of his BBC2 expedition to Papua New Guinea, to fulfil a life-long ambition to see Birds of Paradise.
Schumann. I remember it was Schumann’s Carnaval that my father was playing next door on the piano. I was eight years old and we had this shiny new deck of cards we were playing with, up in our flat in the Hague.
On the back of nearly every card was a painting of a different bird, its plumage an explosion of exotic feathers. They were called “birds of paradise”, my mother explained. And where do they live, I asked. Oh, in a country called Papua New Guinea, a long, long way away. Can I go and see them? You’ll have to ask your father, I was told.
A male Stephanie’s Astrapia.
A long way away was an understatement. Papua New Guinea is remote by anyone’s standards. It’s the world’s largest tropical island, its forest-clad mountains and ravines home to bird and animal species found nowhere else on the planet. Yet somehow, in several decades of travelling and birdwatching in distant places, Papua New Guinea had eluded me. Until I met the explorer Benedict Allen.
Benedict had spent months living with a remote tribe in the Sepik river valley in the 1980s, volunteering himself for their horrific bloodletting manhood-initiation ceremony. He relished the idea of returning and I grasped at the chance to go there with someone who had left a part of their soul in a palm-thatch hut clearing, accepted completely by a tough, warrior tribe known as “the Crocodile People”.
Our plan took six years to hatch, but once BBC2 was on board wheels began to turn and cogs ground. On a blisteringly hot morning in June last year I found myself in a dugout canoe, perched on the edge of my wheelchair as we emerged from a malarial, mosquito-infested swamp in northern Papua New Guinea.
The air pulsed with the beat of a dozen drums as two huge wooden canoes approached us, one bearing the men, the other the women. The men wore vast arrays of feathers in their hair – birds of paradise feathers – and sharp, curved boars’ tusks around their faces. Their powerfully muscled bodies were painted in white clay above loincloths made of grass, and around their necks and chests were draped elaborate necklaces of tiny cowrie shells.
The women were chanting, rhythmically, their faces, too, were smeared with clay and they waved great palm fronds up and down in an undulating motion in time to the beat of the drums. I looked over, expecting to see Benedict beaming from ear to ear, but instead he seemed lost in thought, his face etched with worry.
I didn’t know it then, but he told me afterwards that these drum beats were exactly the same as those that accompanied his ritual scarring at the hands of the village elders here all those years ago. Clearly this had stirred up some powerful and painful memories. For me, though, it was one of the most intense, mesmerising moments of my life. This was not some staged display for tourists, this was a ritual welcome for a homecoming son: Benedict.
We had already travelled for four days, across rivers, lakes and swamps to get to this isolated village, a place with no electricity, running water or mobile phone signal. How, I wondered, would I be treated here? Word had it that people with any kind of disability were often shunned, and apparently the local pidgin English expression for someone in a wheelchair was “Em All Bugger-up”. I blame the former Australian colonists for that one!
But what really mattered to me was how was I going to get myself and my wheelchair up-country from these hot, humid swamps in the river valley into the cooler cloud forests where we might have a chance of seeing the fabled birds of paradise?
The crew, and a brilliant Papuan carpenter, Felix, turned out to have a cunning plan. Using local wood and twine, they constructed a portable sedan chair for me, with long poles protruding at either end so the men could take it in turns to carry me along the trails. I felt like some undeserving emperor, being transported high on their shoulders, deep into the interior of this mysterious country.
The plan worked, but at a cost. The intense heat, the humid air saturated with moisture, and the constant chafing as we made our way over steep, muddy footpaths, led to a pressure sore that threatened to turn into septicaemia.
At one point it looked as if the entire quest would prove a failure, but no one wanted to give up, least of all me, so we persevered. And always, spurring me on, was that childhood memory of those emotive bird-of-paradise playing cards, leading me all these years later to pursue a quarry so enchanting it made any amount of personal discomfort worth bearing.
Birds of Paradise: the Ultimate Quest is on Friday 9.00pm, BBC2