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Where I stayed
in a dugout canoe

Flag of Papua New Guinea  , East Sepik,
Tuesday, August 27, 1996


In the early 1970s no one was even talking about eco-tourism, but Jungleuncl, the founder of Our Jungle House at Khao Sok National Park, was doing it.  John Gray, himself the pioneer of sea canoeing in Phuket, calls him the "grandfather of eco-tourism in Thailand."  The following is his adventure as a tourism consultant in Papua New Guinea. Hired to help tribal villagers set up village tourism, he had a great adventure, but the trip revealed how hard it is to start something green and sustainable in a culture that has its own age-old way of life.


Inside the little cave in the jungle, their buddy was scaring the bats out, while the other two natives  were whacking them as they emerged.  This started as my idea to get a little balance in our constant diet of starch on starch.  But as they become more and more frenzied, I wondered what I'd started.  Finally I intervened  - "Think we have enough?"  Since I was the team leader, they had to listen and slowly came down from their high.

This was my second success of the trip.  I was on my way up the Sepik River in central Papua in a motorized dugout canoe to introduce eco-tourism to the tribal people.  Paid by the German aid agency who were concerned lest these custodians of valuable rainforest sell it to greedy Malaysian timber companies who were courting them.  Four very black natives were my escorts.

On the first few days, they had fed me a diet of starch on starch.  Think of a plate heaped with rice and instant noodles as the side dish.  My first success was chasing them into the forest to pick the wild greens and roots their ancestors ate.  The girls came out balancing on their heads a delicious assortment of jungle greens that tasted like asparagus, onions, and smoky spinach.  From then on we had a more balanced diet.

But not much sleep.  For ten nights, I slept in houses constructed wholly out of the sago palm.  Floors were made of split sago bark , steps were a notched log from the trunk, roof made out of the palm leaves.  The creaky floor woke me up whenever someone moved or rolled over.  Then in the daytime I had to climb mountains, or plod through muddy peat bogs looking for something of interest to an eco-tourist.  Typical of tribal people everywhere, they were totally incapable of communicating distance, so every day the “short walks” stretched out until I collapsed and couldn't go any further.     

So what were the tourist attractions?  Well, there was the man living in a cave who
offered us over-cooked wallaby and told us about his cannibal parents.  There was the exquisite bird of paradise in the trees,  for which the villagers already knew to charge $5 for a sighting. There were night safaris with stick insects and florescent fungi. There were flocks of water birds performing a most graceful ballet in the marshes. And a full complement of men and women with painted bodies and hornbill feathers in their noses.  Their hatchet features were far from our idea of classic good looks, but their uninhibited, radiant smiles made them beautiful. 

One incredible tourist experience I only heard about took place at Ambunti Lodge, one of the few posh lodges in the hills.  My informants got to witness a real tribal war.  They woke up one morning to find there was no hotel staff to be found.  Until they looked from the terrace down into the valley and saw them having it out with a neighboring tribe.   
As for village-run eco-tourism, forget it. Though I gave it my best, I don’t think any eco-tourism ever happened.  The missionaries, who are the best informed people in the islands, told me why it was not to be. Jealousy. These tribal societies were too egalitarian, they don’t tolerate success by any individual member, and anyone with a little entrepreneurial spirit would be soon beaten down.  The money I personally left for construction of a small guest house wound up financing a hang-out for the male village youths who have a tradition of segregating themselves from the females until they are initiated into manhood.
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