November 04, 2010
On this primitive island, a modern bowhunter discovers the true meaning of primitive existence.
Famed conservationist J. Michael Fay once said of the jungle in the Congo, "We see no human trails in this forest, because there are no resident humans, few visitors and no destinations."
This is what I was thinking about as we boated up the Fly River in the northwest province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). I had been to remote places before on other continents like Africa's Selous in Tanzania, Asia's Gobi Desert in Mongolia, and aboriginal Arnhemland in Australia, but this jungle environment, with its dense rainforest, seemed more than remote. It was truly primitive. No wonder that, after my trip, I would refer to my bowhunt there as my National Geographic experience.
Entirely in the tropics, just south of the equator, the large island of New Guinea is part of what is referred to as Oceania in the South Pacific. It lies due north of Australia, off the tip of the Queensland Peninsula. Papua New Guinea occupies the eastern half of this rugged tropical island, while the western portion is part of Indonesia.
December through March is the wet season on PNG, although occasional rain can fall throughout the year. A weather forecast might sound like this: "The high today is 90 degrees. The low tonight will be 80 degrees -- the same as last week and the same as next week." Ultimately, I wouldn't have to worry about weather forecasts, because the area where I was going has no radio, no cell towers -- no signal of any kind.
The locals in PNG are Melanesian, living in traditional rural societies known as clans.
They are hunter/gatherers and subsistence farmers. The jungle provides them with myriad foodstuffs such as wild bananas, coconuts, and a starchy paste made from a specific type of palm called Siri.
My outfitter, Bruce Alexander, an Australian expatriate and owner of PNG Safaris, has lived in PNG for more than 20 years. When not hunting, Bruce runs his 40-room hotel and works as a reserve policeman. Bruce has forged friendships and has excellent working relationships with various local clans. He is the only European to have hunted some remote PNG areas in the last 15 years.
Bruce has an extensive hunting background and a keen appreciation for bowhunting. With Bruce at the helm, I felt secure, a fortunate feeling in a place referred to as the "Wild West of the South Pacific." My actual guide was a local clan leader named Kumtipa. He was about 60 years old and knew the jungle intimately. His son Kipi and two others from the village, Jovi and Mitely, filled out the team. Each man had his own responsibilities. Jovi was the boat driver while Kipi and Mitely took care of camp chores -- all under Bruce's watchful eye. The fact that everyone spoke some English and had a good sense of humor made our camp very enjoyable.
The journey began with a commercial flight to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG and, with a population just under 250,000, the largest city on this island nation. For anyone coming from the Unites States, it is best accessed through Australia.
Bruce greeted me at the airport, helped me through Customs and Immigration, and helped me settle into a hotel where I would rest up for the following day's journey to the remote Fly River region. Once a week, a Twin Otter flew to the village of Suki, landing on a soggy, once abandoned World War II jungle strip. Baggage restrictions for the small aircraft left little room for much other than personal gear.
"We will pick up foodstuffs in Suki," Bruce said. Although he had warned me in advance that spike camp would be Spartan, he had not said that "foodstuffs" meant a 20-pound bag of rice and a few cans of sardines and corned beef. However, any concerns I might have had over the menu soon dissipated in camp. Before the shelter was established and wood collected for a fire, Kipi had returned from the jungle with wild bananas, and Mitely had caught a fat barramundi from the river. Now, if I could arrow a deer for venison, we would have an abundant food supply.
Remote and without electricity, running water, or any amenities, Suki was a quaint and quiet place where the inhabitants were rarely troubled by the worries of the outside world. If there had been a local newspaper, I am sure the arrival of an American intent on bowhunting for deer would have made the local headlines.
Suki is a familiar name to anthropologists who know the background of the Suki Headhunters. Due to the dense forest and the forbidding nature of the topography, some indigenous populations in the country still remain isolated. Some reports say that tribes in PNG practiced cannibalism up until the 1960s. One day, as we sat on a log in the jungle to rest, Kumtipa told me a story about how his father (who had died just a few years ago) had been a partaker of the old ways. Kumtipa quickly pointed out, however, that I was safe with him and didn't need to worry. That was comforting.
The normal mode of transportation is the dugout canoe, much like those of other indigenous cultures around the world that live around waterways. Knowing we would be going 40 miles up the Fly River to hunt, I was imagining how difficult it would be to travel that distance in one of these primitive crafts. Then, much to my relief, I heard the roar of an outboard motor and saw a fiberglass boat approaching the shore. Still, loaded down with gear and fighting the current, we took most of the day to journey up the river, but my amazement at the flora and fauna made the time pass quickly. With a huge variety of large jungle trees and prolific bird life, it was unlike anything I had seen before.
The rusa deer is considered to be resident across most of the Indonesian archipelago. In PNG, the deer are believed to be Moluccan Rusa deer, one of the six known subspecies. Rusa is an Indonesian word meaning "deer."
On our first foray from camp, we motored to a spot Kumtipa had picked out. As I followed the old man into the jungle, he immediately showed me deer tracks. We followed them for a relatively short distance when he stopped and slowly raised his machete, using it as a pointer. Looking over his shoulder and down the blade, I gazed through the foliage and saw my first Rusa deer.
Kumtipa remained still as I moved slowly ahead, step by step, inching closer but seeing only females some 35 yards away. The muddy ground made a sucking sound as I sank to my ankles with each step, and I quickly learned how to extract my feet to minimize the noise. Then, as the animals fed in front of me, a nice stag appeared. I diverted m
y eyes only long enough to nock an arrow, but when I looked up again the deer were all gone.
I returned to Kumtipa's wide smile. Although his archery equipment was quite different from mine, he knew the frustration of hunting these Rusa with bow and arrow. His bamboo bow, which measured longer than six feet, cast bamboo arrows weighing in excess of 2,400 grains and measuring 36 to 40 inches in length. His broadheads were all different sizes, ranging from six to nine inches long. Each Suki hunter decorates his arrow shafts with elaborate designs, and I was happy to accept one of his arrows as a gift.
He then showed me how he shoots his bow, which revealed an effective range of 12 to 15 yards.
Most of the second day of hunting was a variation on the first. We had little trouble finding deer to stalk, but getting close enough in vegetation open enough to get a shot proved to be a challenge.
Finally, Kumtipa suggested I try it the way they do -- hunting from the boat. Since this was fully legal, I decided "When in Rome (or should I say PNG?), do as the€¦"
We found it relatively easy to cruise the waterways slowly and catch deer on the riverbank at jungle's edge, and that evening I shot my first Rusa stag. Admittedly, he was not a huge trophy, but then this was not really a trophy hunt. The purpose was to assist the local clan in gathering deer meat for the village, an "eco bowhunt" to loosely coin a phrase. It was to help subsistence people with their food supply as well as help to put some dollars into their meager local economy.
By the end of the fifth day, hunting by boat, I had harvested six Rusa deer, which brought big smiles in camp around the full meat-drying racks. PNG has no bag limit for Rusa, and we were confined only by the amount of weight we safely could carry in the boat for the river journey back to Suki. I did manage to take a very nice stag, a trophy, as part of my bag, which was a real bonus to me.
If your idea of a good bowhunt is lounge chairs and iced drinks around the campfire, Papua New Guinea may not be the place for you. But if you desire to experience one of the few wild places left on the planet and have a cultural encounter you won't soon forget, it is the place. Just like me, you are likely to hear that famous National Geographic music playing in your head, too.
The author is the owner and international consultant of Bowhunting Safari Consultants (www.bowhuntingsafari.com).
AUTHOR'S NOTES: To book a bowhunting adventure like this, contact: Neil Summers, Bowhunting Safari Consultants, 1-800-833-9777, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.bowhuntingsafari.com.