Birds-of-Paradise, birds in tears and lies and deception in the –
Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea
28th August to 12th September 2010
Garry Daly and Steve Anyon-Smith
Barry-Sean Virtue, my long-suffering travel buddy, told me of Kumul Lodge in Enga Province in the Central Highlands of PNG. He'd heard that this was a good place to find many different Birds-of-Paradise (BOPs). The lodge was said to be well organised, surrounded by a good network of tracks, and offering good food.
So the plan was to seek birds and critters in the moss and water-laden forest at the lodge and at sites readily accessible from it. Barry-Sean, perhaps with the aid of a premonition, decided to go into hospital instead ......(he is much better now).
A personnel change was effected with Garry Daly, an environmental consultant from Nowra, south of Sydney, joining the team. Garry proved to be perfect company, being witty, knowledgeable, and moderately sane.
One week at Kumul Lodge would have been sufficient. I couldn't be bothered leaving home for just a week and as Barry-Sean and I had seen many of the lowland birds in a previous trip to PNG, we had pre-paid the lodge for a two week stay. It was the second week that was to prove the most interesting......
If you are a lover of BOPs and their allies, don't mind being routinely utterly confused by everyone you meet, don't get stressed by the possibility of attack from the local earthworms and get off on crying women, then go to Kumul Lodge. The location is excellent and you will see many good birds.
Itinerary (as executed)
Day 1, 28th August 2010
Go to Kumul Lodge.
Day 15, 12th September 2010
Go home from Kumul Lodge.
Kumul Lodge, Food, Beer etc
The lodge is sited at an elevation of ~2850 metres and within an extensive forest. Although a casual observer may not realise it, the forest is not pristine and has been selectively logged for some time. Never mind, the vegetation is weird and wonderful and full of exciting birds.
The rambling lodge complex is homey and comfortable and structurally interesting. It is made principally of locally collected forest products. The architecture can best be described as evolutionary. In our self-contained cabin various structural members were simply removed when it was discovered that certain things wouldn't otherwise fit, like beds.
Our cabin had an electric jug, vanity unit and shower. Sometimes we had tea and coffee, electricity and water as well. Occasionally we had all these things at once, but this was quite rare.
Room service was erratic, but this ceased entirely after we changed the locks. The "diary" section of this report provides details on why we would do this.....
Food at the lodge was simple, plentiful and wonderful! Three hot meals per day were far more than necessary. The kitchen and its staff were clean and hygienic so our stomachs and the bits attached to them stayed happy. Main meals would feature pork, chicken, beef, fish, or sometimes a choice of dishes.
The lodge sells the rather good SP Lager at a reasonable price.
The cabins and the restaurant / bar are all connected by covered walkways. This was fortuitous as it prevented us from drowning and gave the black-tailed antechinus something to walk on.
Much could be written on the mindset of the lodge staff. They were obliging enough providing they didn't have to do anything.....Alternatively you could ask them three times as long as the task was a simple one. They suffered from the mass delusion that they worked hard for a small amount of money. Somewhere in their job descriptions must be a clause that stated that a maximum of one staff member was allowed to be in motion at any one point in time. If no-one moved for at least an hour they all received a bonus, or so they thought. That they were poorly paid was true enough. This situation was about to be rectified as they were about to find out that they were not going to be paid at all....... or at least this is what we were told by the management.
A track network can be accessed from the lodge. There are no track maps or diagrams and the tracks are not marked in any way. You would need to be quite daft to get lost though, as there are plenty of landmarks and every track connects with every other track. While the tracks could be steep, muddy or overgrown they were quite safe underfoot. Many of those close to the lodge were paved - with tree fern trunks!
The forest is loaded with epiphytes. This region boasts the highest diversity of epiphytic orchids in the world. Some of the epiphytes have their own epiphytes! Flowering rhododendrons grew high in the trees. For fans of Lord of the Rings, I wasn't entirely sure about some of the trees. They may in fact be Ents. I stared at one for a good while to see if it would move, wink at me, or perhaps offer profound insights, like where to see Loria's ex-BOP.
We visited two "off-lodge" sites known as Pigetes and Tonga. Pigetes is about 300 metres lower than Kumul and Tonga a further 700 metres lower again. Some birds were common to all sites but even small changes in altitude triggered big changes in animal and plant diversity. A whole suite of different living stuff could be seen at each site. Pigetes can be accessed from the lodge by foot, taking about 45 minutes. Tonga requires road transport. It is about a 30 minute drive, assuming you live through the experience.
I managed to sneak off to Mt Hagen (the mountain, not the town) by walking from the lodge and not telling anybody. If I had left earlier in the day it would have been possible to climb the mountain (3770m) and get back to Kumul before dark, but the lodge catering arrangements held me back. The management doesn't like people wandering off without telling them because they find it difficult to extract extra money at the Paying of the Bill Ceremony.
We didn't feel threatened during our time in Enga Province and pretty much everyone we met wanted to shake hands, convert us or have a gas-bag. The most dangerous event attended was the Gathering of the Messiahs in Wabag - see diary for Day 10.
Around the lodge and along the nearby roadsides it is probably quite safe by day. I never felt terribly comfortable in towns. The likelihood of crime must be fairly high judging by the sheer number of police vehicles present. Whilst most people you meet in PNG are very keen to downplay the risk of anything bad happening, consider this: according to the Enga Province Museum in Wabag, there were 340 wars between 1991 and 2006 in Enga Province alone. This province is not very big. This resulted in 3800 dead and no record of the wounded. If this is how they treat each other..... The good thing is the wars can be gay and colourful affairs, although they normally get called off if the weather turns shitty or if the footy is on.
The other thing you notice is how the cars and trucks look like extras from a Mad Max movie. They are all plastered with steel cages. I wasn't certain whether this was to stop flying rocks, flying warriors or to prevent employees from escaping en route to work.
The kids were okay. Some were rather fun.
Personally I found the missionaries to be scarier. I'm not alone on that score. And I'm still not sure about the earthworms.
Wildlife and the Environment (see also bird list at the end of the report)
The mountains of PNG are, for the moment, still covered with significant areas of good quality forest. There are sites where the population is small or non-existent and I am sure wildlife does well in these places. In recent times some forests have been set aside as national parks or non-hunting areas. I don't expect access to these places is easy but I am not sure about this. Anywhere you can walk from a road or village has been visited millions of times by local people hunting and gathering. Birds are relatively common but large mammals are very thin on the ground.
There is great potential for habitat and wildlife conservation in PNG.
For bird identification we used Beehler's Birds of New Guinea. Mammals were identified from Flannery's Mammals of New Guinea (or whatever it's called).
We identified 99 different birds and five mammals. This made us happy.
PNG has a wonderful array of delightful mammals. They must all taste pretty good, which makes them very hard to see. Pretty much everything is uncommon, rare or impossible. Locals will expend a hundred times the energy they might gain from a dead cuscus in the act of hunting one. Assuming they succeed it won't just be the cuscus that suffers. Giant trees might be felled in the process. The only possible good news from this might be the trigger for a war, say, if the cuscus crosses a clan boundary or utters a curse at a villager's dog or something.
Whole villages go nuts over a dead rat. Rats were prominent on our mammal list. One of these - the black-tailed giant rat, is a formidable animal indeed. They are as big as a large possum (I am not making this up), much more aggressive, and quite capable of ripping tyres off trucks. Maybe.
We went spotlighting quite a bit along the tracks near the lodge but all the mammals seen were in the lodge grounds. Callaby's pademelon is doing well on grassy patches while black-tailed giant rats rule the roost on the bird feeder by night. A mountain melomys was also seen here. A pair of black-tailed antechinus ran along the walkway cover just after sunrise, whilst the attractive (for a rat) white-eared giant rat was seen on the ground on three occasions during daylight hours.
Cuscuses (including silky), other possums, Rattray's bandicoot, moss forest rats and various other furry stuff also occur around the lodge but were not seen by us. Nervous Doria's tree-kangaroos still occur on the slopes of Mt Hagen but we put in no real effort to see one.
I missed just one of the BOPs or bowerbirds that were possible - Lawe's parotia, and pretty much cleaned up on possible parrots. We found most of the less colourful jobbies.
Some ground-dwelling skulkers were heard but not seen. These included lesser ground-robin, Forbes' forest-rail and spotted jewel-babbler.
Kumul Lodge has a large bird (and by night, rat) feeder that is replenished at least twice daily with fruit and vegetable scraps. Commonly seen visitors included ribbon-tailed astrapia, brown sicklebill, Archbold's bowerbird, crested cnemophilus, chestnut forest-rail, Brehm's tiger parrot and bronze ground-dove. Other less exciting visitors abounded.
The Pigetes site had many King-of Saxony BOPs, Loria's cnemophilus, black pitohui, black sittella and heaps of parrots.
Tonga was the must see home of the incomparable blue BOP. Also seen here was superb BOP (common), Macgregor's bowerbird, streaked berrypecker and Madaraz's tiger parrot.
Reptiles and amphibians
One type of skink was common around the lodge, Papuascincus stanleyanum along with a lower altitude one, being Sphenomorphus leptofasciatus. Quite boring but. I think Garry found about half a dozen different frogs. I believe he called them "microhylids".
Insects (annoying / life threatening)
Garry found a single leech, or, more correctly, the leech found Garry.
Insects (not annoying / life threatening)
A few butterflies and moths and some interesting phasmids. Cicadas were heard a few times just on dawn. They soon closed up shop, or maybe they were eaten by worms?
We are dealing with worms here. I asked one of the local guides what caused the noise that sounded like a truck reversing through the forest. He said "worms". I said no, the noise that sounds like truck reversing lights. "Worms". Bullshit, how big are they. This long ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- and this wide ------------------. "How do you know this?" "One ate my cat". Time to be afraid. Although, on the whole, if they eat cats.......
I am still puzzled by the likelihood of noisy worms but more than one of the lodge staff were quite firm on the matter.
The prospect of aggressive or dangerous worms seemed to have a profound effect on Garry. Periodically and seemingly at random he would crash to the ground and start frantically digging. No worms were ever seen. I was hoping he caught one. I was keen to find out what other noises it could make.
The highlands of PNG are orchid fanciers' heaven. Pretty much every mature tree has orchids on it. Some trees had a dozen or more species. Many are undescribed. Terrestrial orchids are also in evidence with road cuttings being popular hosts. Many of the orchids were flowering at the time of our visit. The size of the plants often bore no relationship to the size of the flowers. Some plants were so small they were hidden under moss, yet the flowers were large, colourful and unlike any I have seen elsewhere. Max Mal, one of the lodge's "staff" has established an orchid garden on land near the lodge. It is well worth a visit. Max is very keen on his orchids and we spent some time with him on collecting sorties.
Consecutive fine days do not occur in the PNG highlands. It rained from mid to late afternoon most days. It often stopped after dark, but not always. Fogs were common. Clouds could be seen moving in three different directions at once. It was well nigh impossible to predict the weather beyond about a minute and a half.
Night temperatures dropped below ten degrees and by day got up to 20 something. It was plenty warm enough to sit in the sun in a pair of shorts in the middle of the day and get sunburnt. My nose was so burnt I crafted a new one after the old version fell off.
All told we were happy with the weather.
Roads and Transport
"Buggered up true" best describes PNG's road network. This is very good news. If the roads were in better condition I wouldn't travel on them. The only reason that everyone doesn't die every day on the roads is that drivers are prevented from travelling as fast as they would like on account of the curious shape of the roads. Some of the potholes are large enough to create their own weather.
Our road experiences were restricted to the major road that connects Western Province's Mt Hagen to Wabag, the capital slum of Enga Province. That this road exists at all can be attributed to a very large mine at one end.
There are very few private vehicles in the Central Highlands and all of these are 4WDs. Not one conventional car was seen. Most of the traffic consists of PMVs (public motor vehicles), government 4WDs and trucks. As a hitchhiker, any one of these may stop for you, but it pays not to be in a hurry. You may find yourself as the owner of an excellent working knowledge of a very small section of roadside before anyone will stop. PMV fares are highly negotiable if you happen to be coloured white.
Day 1 - 28th August 2010
A taxi booked for 0430 does not make for a great night's sleep. Our 0605 Qantas 737 to Brisbane was quickly followed by an Air Niugini 767-300 for Port Moresby. All was well until the Air Niugini pilot decided a banana-shaped runway would better suit Port Moresby's Jackson International Airport. He then used a Bastards Incorporated braking system so that all his passengers could be better acquainted with the seat in front of them.
The people processing system at Jackson was pleasant and we soon found ourselves in the nearby domestic terminal waiting for our mid-afternoon departure for Mt Hagen.
Just when you think you have seen every possible way you can inefficiently get people onto planes, along comes Port Moresby Domestic. There are no electronic screens, blackboards or sandpits to tell you what flight is going where and when. Nor are there any announcements in English. So at 1450 all departing domestic flights - about eight of them - all boarded at once through the same gate. Several hundred people charged the giant plane parking lot.
I reckoned our plane would be some beat up relic but my seat allocation - 20G - suggested otherwise. Our Air Nuigini Fokker F100 left and arrived on time. Every seat was occupied - even mine. Except it wasn't me that was sitting in it. Not unless my skin colour had dramatically changed and I'd inherited a world-class collection of tatts on my bulging muscles. I sat in another seat. Pointless causing a fuss....
We were happy to see the smiling Janet from Kumul Lodge with one of those little signs they carry. Janet and her sister Kim soon had us out of the arrivals dog kennel and into a modern mini-bus for the fairly short ride to the lodge. It rained most of the way. If Mt Hagen (the town) has anything to sing its praises, I failed to see it.
Kumul Lodge is about 1000 metres higher than Mt Hagen. We made a short stop to rejoin a part of the van that wanted to scrape along the road, arriving just on dusk. We hurled our gear into Cabin #2.
Months earlier, while in the process of booking and paying for our accommodation, I sent a number of emails to Janet and Kim. Janet was very obliging so I told her that I would bring her a small gift from Australia. Something like a T-shirt or an eastern brown snake or something. Janet responded with a request for a medium-sized digital camera. As it happened I had an old camera that would have languished forever in a drawer before eventually being thrown away by the beneficiaries of my estate. So it was this relatively ancient machine that I gave Janet. She was disproportionately happy with the acquisition. It got her to thinking that other things might swing her way if she played her cards right.......
We repaired to the fireplace near the lodge's bar; single malt in hand. Here we conversed with a Christian nutcase doctor couple and a 78 year old scientist who was trying to set some sort of record for upsetting wildlife. This guy was attempting to put every known vertebrate into a box. Not all at once, just one at a time. What he did with them was a closely guarded secret and likely to have broken a number of laws.
The large and rather splendid bird feeding table outside the restaurant played host to a monstrous black-tailed giant rat. It was in the process of eating a baby. I wasn't going to tangle with it. It got our mammal list off the ground in any event.
The altitude, whisky, general exhaustion and anticipation of the day to follow made for a rather ordinary head experience as I hit the bed.
Day 2 - 29th August 2010
Pre-dawn excitement got the better of me, so I went spotlighting. What else would you do? This was a masterstroke as I soon had excellent views of Callaby's pademelon in the lower car park.
The lodge's bird feeding tray was next. This was just ridiculous with ribbon-tailed astrapias, brown sicklebills, Archbold's bowerbird, Brehm's tiger parrots, chestnut forest-rail, bronze ground-dove and a host of honeyeaters.
We enjoyed a big breakfast before hitting the tracks. The forest is exciting, not too tall and with an enchantment factor of 9 /10. Almost every step revealed something to delight in, with flowering orchids and other plants, birds, frogs and no people. We walked what I believe to be the standard circuit that takes you past Max's orchid garden - a patch of forest being tended by an interesting chap named Max Mal where fallen (and not so fallen) orchids get rehoused. Max knows the names of all his pets, which is an achievement in itself.
Lodge manager Lyn, the sister of Janet and Kim, moved us from Cabin #2 to Cabin #5. This is the cabin which the male crested cnemophilus tries to break into.
Fish and chips, lying shirtless in the sun and trying not to see everything on the first day were now the priorities.
The afternoon's birding highlights were the brilliant Papuan lorikeet (both colour morphs), plum-faced lorikeet and brown-backed whistler.
Post-dinner spotlighting returned various frogs but no mammals.
Day 3 - 30th August 2010
With head torch attached and with a mug of coffee, the pre-dawn gloom was ideal for writing in my diary. All around was birdcall on a cloudless, windless morning. As often happens, the time spent waiting for and eating breakfast was the best time of the day for birds......
We reversed our walk from yesterday. Whilst it was delightful we didn't add very many birds to our list. The shape-shifting and rather bizarre lesser melampitta was the best of them. This weird little beast - an all black ground-dwelling lurky thing - called constantly and moved about within a few metres of us, never showing more than 5% of itself at any one time. According to taxonomists (who should never be trusted) the lesser melampitta is a BOP! Really?
Rachel, a very pleasant but ever-slothful lodge staffer paid us a visit and scored a stuffed kangaroo for her trouble. This was to have ramifications - the donated kangaroo, not the visit. Max Mal also visited. He was friendly and also pragmatic enough to realise we were his best chance of scoring cargo or patronage.
We said our goodbyes to Brain McNab, one of the world's leading scientists on the study of energetics, whilst simultaneously making wildlife cranky.
Rain arrived in time to answer the question of whether we should go spotlighting.
Day 4 - 31st August 2010 (six days before The Incident)
We had arranged to go to the Tonga birding site, about 15km down the valley along the road to Wabag. Lyn told us we would leave the lodge at 0600. As neither our guide, Max Mal, nor our driver had yet to emerge from their beds at this time, this wasn't very likely. That they should be asleep was not all that surprising as they had not been told of their involvement in this little enterprise.
We arrived at Tonga, a hillside covered by regrowth forest, at 0700. In PNG the likelihood of seeing birds is more strongly related to the local hunting effort than it is to being in pristine forest. BOPs and other birds can tolerate much selective logging before they abandon ship. Tonga's forest has been selectively logged though the hunting effort is said to be small. It is the blue BOP site but our visit found them to be hard to see. We heard them calling readily enough but had to settle for distant views of a female.
We delighted in the different plants at Tonga. Garry was particularly interested in them, and informative, especially with trees and shrubs that have representatives in Australia. Max Mal was a student of everything he could learn, so we made a good team.
Other birds seen included displaying superb BOPs, Macgregor's bowerbird and Madaraz's tiger parrot.
The track at Tonga climbs a fairly steep hill. A village and school sit on top of this hill and the track - an old logging road - entertained a constant procession of schoolkids along with the odd schoolteacher. One was quite odd indeed. She was best described as ugly, but felt the need to explain to Garry that she was married. In fact this was all she said. Bad luck Garry.
Some of the kids were a bit of a nuisance but not too bad in the world scheme of things. They could be encouraged to leave us alone through gentle encouragement, extreme violence, or the intervention of the village chief. This venerable chap had nothing better to do so he joined us for much of the morning.
One very positive aspect of a visit to rural PNG is the universal habit of its people to shake hands and warmly welcome you. They are truly polite and gentle souls. That is when they are not killing each other over border disputes, pig ownership or poor footy tipping.
We had booked our tour of Tonga as a "full day excursion". For reasons that eluded us, by late morning we found ourselves walking along a boring hot road toward Max's village of Anji. This bird-free trek still has me mystified. I am guessing it had more to do with Max than us. Our driver had disappeared and it was unclear whether he would return.
We proved to be the local entertainment for throngs of bored locals, including an entire school, which emptied in our honour.
By lunchtime we found ourselves back at the lodge after our driver discovered us waiting a long way from where he had initially been searching. Serendipitously we found Kim in the lodge car park. A short and measured conversation saw her offer to drive us down the road to the Pigetes site later in the afternoon with the promise that she would personally pick us up a few hours after that. No extra charge. All good.
The first part of our new schedule worked just fine. We were deposited at Pigetes at 1500. We were joined by Max and Tony, the landowner. The forest at Pigetes is remarkably different to that at the lodge, with different soil, altitude and aspect all playing a part. Podocarps are dominant, at least for the moment. We missed many of the birds we heard calling, including Forbes' forest-rail, lesser ground robin and spotted jewel-babbler. King of Saxony BOP is common, and we added sooty melidectes to our trip list.
We could smell the rain before it landed on us. We made a hasty exit. Through the miracle of mobile phones (and everyone in PNG has one) we could call the lodge to pick us up. Calling someone is not the same as getting them to do anything. We learnt that our pick-up vehicle had gone to Mt Hagen. In fact "gone to Mt Hagen" became a familiar reason given for something not happening, whether it was a person, vehicle, key or anything else that couldn't be located where it should have been. We eventually caught a PMV back to the lodge.
SP Lagers were enjoyed before a lavish and good dinner. It was a day where few things went according to plan but we managed well over 40 birds and the cultural experiences were rich.
Garry had continuing minor issues with the altitude and retired early. Rain cancelled spotlighting plans.