Archive for the 'Wildlife in PNG' Category

Rubbish trees

The rubbish trees usually start blossoming twice a week: on Monday and Thursday evenings. This is when the five or so wheelie bins get dragged down to the road to wait for the antiquated Japanese garbage truck to clatter along the road and empty their contents. While waiting – in theory until the next morning, in reality until the next afternoon, or the afternoon after that – the scraps, shards and discards of our compound’s lives and diets rots away under the sun. Rubbish bags split and erupt squirming things that infest the insides of the bins and writhe their way to peer at the outside world, wriggling through the lids held ajar by bloated rubbish bags that threaten to flop out like a lump of blubber onto the road at the merest bump or jolt.

Meanwhile, as the bins wait for the rubbish truck and its dishevelled crew, the trees start flowering garbage. People don’t walk down to the bins on the roads below. Instead their small bags of refuse – the kind of little partly-clear white bags that supermarkets up here are absolutely intent on dispersing into the world in huge numbers – sprout like polyps in the branches of the trees lining the driveway. They pile up where branches meet. Stacked upon each other, like swiftly reproducing blobs, cells that split and grow until excised. When the trees are full the bushes start blossoming, the garbage bags resting on the thicker bits of foliage.

They get put in the trees to keep them out of reach of the dog. The dog isn’t owned by anyone in the compound, but it sneaks in when the guard at the gate naps (which happens often). The dog avoids the open and prefers to linger out of sight behind cars and bushes, or dart about in the shadow of the fence or the buildings. I see the dog and have come to accept it not as a resident but as a permanent visitor. I catch it at times at the top of our stairs when we have left rubbish there to be carried down later. “You bloody dog” I say, and the dog darts away – like a kid caught stealing chocolate biscuits who looks outwardly remorseful but is already plotting the next attempt as he is shooed away. “You bloody dog” I say as I get out of the car in the early evening and spot it slinking about behind some scrappy shrubbery. “Get outta here, bloody dog” as I lean on the balcony rail and spot it darting across an open patch of driveway. It never gets outta here and indeed it will be here longer than I will.

The dog is of course lean and hungry. The odour of wasted leftovers, scraps left in tinpis cans, eggshells, bacon rinds and half-eaten bits of bread: the dog lives for these things, lives because of these things left in the weird plastic bulges left precariously in branches and on top of the shrubbery. In the evening the dog clambers and claws at the bags left on the bushes, lean neck stretched out, whole body focused and taut with anticipation. Like the tomb robber about to snatch a golden idol, mindful of some menace that could interrupt the moment, but nonetheless too close to its goal to consider giving up. Sometimes a cat gets in the trees on its own scavenging mission and knocks a rubbish bag down. Then the dog darts in, disperses the small crowd of felines beginning to gather, and seizes the easy prey. Victory! The dog trots swiftly but jauntily away to some less exposed place to sniff and claw at her prize, licking tenderly inside cans and savouring the most meagre scrap of nourishment. Unless you happen to be on the balcony at that time you will not see this moment of triumph. But if you have your TV or radio turned off, and if the neighbours are not home, you will catch the scrappy rustle of a plastic bag being torn apart and its contents being nuzzled by a keen snout. The next morning, the groundsman scrapes together the scattered detritus with his wiry old rake and removes the evidence of the night time feast.

One thing puzzles me. How is it that this lone dog, of all the hungry mongrels on our street, has honed in on the discarded bounty offered by our compound? Does it conceal its movements from other hounds? Does it have a secret hole in the fence? Or does it even leave the compound, spending the hottest parts of the day nestled privately in a forgotten patch of shade? If it is not a resident, then maybe it is an accepted presence, a family ghost or a weird mascot tolerated despite it reminding us of the desperate life of animals on the street.

Sometimes the banged-up old Japanese rubbish truck does not come for a day, or two, or even seven or ten. The bins cannot accommodate any more as they are already spewing their fecund, maggot-riddled contents onto the road. The rubbish trees and garbage bushes undergo their most grotesque period of fertility. Bulging masses accumulate, teetering precariously, the stench brewing and wafting. The dog has a good time then as the rest of us hold our breath and wait for the garbage crews to remember our street exists. The nightly ritual of stealing and tearing into rubbish bags becomes an orgy of scavenging, and the dog feasts. The morning after the groundsman does his best with his old rake and the bins that are already too full with maggots and filth, working against the odds to erase the physical memory of the gleeful fiesta from the night before, the scraps strewn around like old confetti and tickertape.

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“Bigpla pik blong Kwin i bai kam!”

Pigs are fantastic beasts. I was smacked by this revelation as we stood under the twilight stars and lazy palms negotiating a price for a boat ride the following day. While our companion discussed the details with the boat owner I looked around and saw two mottled swine rummaging through foliage. One was seized by an urge and backed itself against the trunk of a palm, vigorously scratching its backside by rubbing it against the tree. For some the purest image of uninhibited freedom is a hawk in flight or perhaps a motorcyclist at top speed. For me it is a pig shamelessly scratching its arse on a coconut palm in the tropical twilight. This may be linked with my outlook on life. For some, the ultimate itch to scratch is that of itchy feet, relieved only by travails across the globe and residences in exotic cities. For others, sex or addictions. My equivalent is much baser, and much more easy to satisfy – provided one has a similar attitude to a pig in paradise.

I have found that the best justice I can give our two weeks away can really be best rendered in momentary glimpses, the snippets of memory that persist vividly despite the jumbled competition of everything else that preoccupies me. The best of these images of our two weeks away, especially during our two nights in the Eastern Highlands, are all swine-related – as evidenced by the example above, or the too-cute piglet tied by the leg to a Goroka pikinini as they both sat and waited for ‘mum’. Other pig related moments also stick solidly in the mind – like the nun we heard on ABC radio who was explaining the source of tribal conflict in the Highlands – invariably land, women and (of course) pigs.

What beast can stand atop a heaped mound of organic market refuse, snout its way through the debris until it finds something edible, and still look magnificent? Only the mighty Highlands swine! These fantastic animals have no fear or hindrance, and seemed to roam parts of Goroka as one would expect a stray dog to – except there would never, ever be a ‘stray’ pig in PNG. The animals seemingly face only two grave dangers in life. The first danger is that of the speeeding PMV. These vehicles – typically fifteen-seater minibuses – career recklessly around the sharp corners and over poorly-maintained bitumen up and down the length of the Highlands Highway, from Wabag or Mendi to Mount Hagen, Hagen to Goroka via Kundiawa, from Goroka to Lae or Madang on the coast (the Madang-Goroka route was incidentally the trip we took, up into the Eastern Highlands and back – what a ride!). Villages line the highway, inhabited by people who are not accustomed to the general rules of road safety that are drilled into the typical suburban Aussie kids’ head (Get off the road! Get here! I said get off the bloody road! etc etc). Mind you there are many suburban Aussie roads that are trafficked more heavily than the Highlands Highway, by vehicles that often travel faster – except the PMVs. With a roadside population unfettered by road safety worries, it can be understood why concern for animals straying onto the road is also minimal. Thus the three (maybe more) situations on our rides to and from Goroka where the PMV we were in had to brake suddenly, veer wildly, or simply rely on the self-preservation instincts of the unsuspecting pig who moments before had been snorting away, merrily and unmolested, on a nice sunny patch of road. Our PMV drivers were both skilled and lucky, and no pigs were killed or injured during our travels, however there is no way every pig on the highway could be so fortunate.

The unfortunate event of a pig’s injury or death is not a cheap one. I have been told of a Chinese saying, that if you run over a chicken then it’s the chicken’s fault, but if you run over a duck it’s definitely YOUR fault. Substitute the chicken for a skinny dog and a duck for a mighty Highlands hog and you have a pretty solid PNG aphorism too. You accidentally kill a pig, then you’d better have some handy cash – maybe half a grand, maybe two grand, depending on how angry the villagers are, how big the pig is, and whether or not you managed to speed away without anyone taking note of the vehicle you were in. Pigs are items of huge value, especially in the Highlands, they are not killed and eaten willy-nilly. They have ceremonial functions, and are ‘outlaid’ to settle tribal disputes, bride prices, or to honour guests of high esteem. It is simply not cool to smash one up with your car.

This brings us to the other certain danger of the Highlands pig – the mumu. A mumu is a feast, involving the cooking of pigs and other (less important and delicious) items underground using the hot-rocks technique. A mumu takes hours and is accompanied by an event of great significance – as aforementioned, a wedding, or the brokering of peace between feuding parties, and honoured guest, or maybe an aspiring leader trying to impress his ‘constituents’ with his magnanimity and generosity (and thus consolidate his constituents’ obligation to support him in elections). Many, many pigs have died over the ages thanks to the threat of the mumu, often en masse. They often don’t die well from what I have read – accounts include pigs only just stunned being thrown onto fires to burn off their coats of hair, or bludgeoned brutally by hands wielding sticks, the same hands that until moments before had nurtured the animal, fed it and comforted it with as much pride and dedication as would be given a human child – perhaps more. A dire end to a previously unfettered life of luxury. This was probably the fate of the pig who we saw trussed and hanging from a long pole carried between two men as we sped on our way back to Madang.

Another great pig memory is indeed not even my memory, and it actually had little to do with any pig whatsoever. Martin is a friend who we met in Madang, a film-maker who is from Rabaul but who lives in Germany (prospects in the movie industry are better in Europe). He recounted a tale from his youth, when the Queen sent an elephant on tour of Papua New Guinea as a gesture to celebrate the territory’s imminent independence. The arrival of the great beast was in the offing and many villagers of all ages clamoured exitedly by the roads, giddy with anticipation. A large motor was heard in the distance and the word spread rapidly – “bigpla pik blong Kwin i bai kam!” The Queen’s big pig is coming!

Random observations.

Funniest image so far – just outside the supermarket in Waigani (aka the ‘Stop’n’Shop on the highway), two grown men in security guard uniforms scurrying across the street as the traffic zoomed closer, giggling like school kids and holding hands as they ran. Yes, men hold hands here all the time. Sometimes it’s like a handshake, except there’s not too much shake and you don’t let go. You see friends reaching for each other’s hand’s instinctively in crowds, at PMV stops, on the busy streets of Boroko and Town. What you don’t see much at all is men and women holding hands. Cross-gender touching isn’t well regarded in public here.

Another great image – on one of dozens of posters and banners at big intersections, the portly but stern visage of the governor, Powes Parkop, frowning at bystanders and waggling his finger remonstratively. The posters and banners also bear the slogan ‘MASKI HALF SENSE NA LONG LONG – YU NO KEN SPETIM BUAI LONG ROT NA SPREDIM SIK TB’ (Don’t be half-sensed or crazy – you can’t spit betel nut along the road and spread tuberculosis). And of course the best of these banners and posters feature the unmistakable lurid red splash of buai expectorant all over the governor’s face. TB is a big deal here in PNG and the governor is at the forefront of what needs to be a huge campaign to reduce it. But the idea of getting people over here to quit their betel nut or be more responsible spitters is much like the the proverbial attempt at sweeping shit uphill with a feather duster (or whatever the anology is).

Yet another – the first day we were here, on being driven to the now-familiar but then-zany Gordons Foodworld (it’s actually still a zany place but for utterly different reasons), beholding a short caricature of a man with a fisherman’s cap and a wispy beard proffering a small wallaby to to exiting traffic. The man wore a huge encouraging grin, the wallaby looked anything but encouraged. When we drove out the man and the wallaby were gone. I feared the worst for the marsupial’s welfare.

Still another – at the Renbo markets in the fish section (ie right next to the road), a big awkward jelly-like blob amidst the colourful coral trout and red emperors. The stout woman tending the fish and swatting away flies with a leafy twig notices my interest and says, in the high-pitched lazy PNG meri style: “sqquuuiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiidd.” I guess you had to be there. At the same market, half a dozen or so whole fire-charred wallabies, little forepaws sticking in the air in a macabre pose, their teeth locked into horrible grins. Fine dining, settlement style – think of the last time you were starving and in desperate need of protein before you make any judgements.

Last one – images in the Post Courier, ie Murdoch’s very own PNG daily newspaper, of the PNG national rugby league team cavorting like school kids at Wet’n’Wild waterslide park on the Gold Coast. The national team, called the Kumuls, are in the paper every day nowadays thanks to the League world cup, and they are gods over here – if I was confronted with one close-up I would of course assert without hesitation their Herculean status. But the image of the big men reclining butt-to-butt on an inflatable tube, giddy ecitement writ large on their expressions, was simply beautiful.

Dok bilong Moresby.

I saw on the SMH site the other day that a dead dog was found hanging from a tree somewhere in Sydney. I didn’t get to read the article as it tried to send me to a porn site instead, but I got the gist – Dog. Dead. Tree. Suspended. If that’s the kind of tale that brings on the waterworks then for the love of God (Dog?) stay away from Port Moresby. Here in Waigani Heights there are a few (honestly one or two, maybe three) well-cared for dogs, but mostly the canines in Moresby belong to one of three broad categories – street mongrels, guard dogs, and dead.

The street dogs are pitiful but you don’t touch them. Mange, ribs and weeping sores are the only common trait, otherwise they don’t look much like any canine genus I know of. They’re everywhere, even here in sleepy Waigani Heights. We hear them fighting every evening, and the same dog yelps pitifully after each bout. I would advise a change in career for that particular dog but I guess there aren’t too many options for the ignoble hounds of Waigani Heights besides scavenging and fighting (and preying on newcomers… read on).

The guard dogs tend to be better catered for however they’re often gaunt – keep ’em lean, keep ’em mean. They’re mostly German Shephards but there’s a stocky mongrel outside a chemist in Boroko that I can’t pick the breed of. Yes, guard dogs outside chemists – once I thought Marrickville was a bit rough with a bouncer outside the pharmacy, but here in Moresby you always have them, and they often have dogs. Mostly the animals seem thoroughly disinterested in chewing on raskols, sleep being the preferred pastime during scorching business hours. I’ll leave it to someone else to see what they’re like when roused – although from what I saw on Independence Day they can get excitable. One weekend outside the big supermarket in Gordons a security truck drove by with about twenty dogs in the back. The brutes gnashed and barked at the Sunday shoppers, making their presence well known as the truck did a lap through the carpark. I couldn’t figure out why there was a need to take the dogs on a tour of Gordon’s Foodworld. Maybe the security personnel were out trying to impress the locals: Hey everyone – look at these fucking DOGS!

As for the dead type – do I need to explain? Common trait is bloatage, common habitat is beside the road. I’ve actually only seen two. The first was decapitated. The second was being closely examined by some people for reasons I don’t need to know.

I really haven’t had personal problems with the latter varieties – guard and dead. The same can’t be said for the street mongrels. Yesterday just outside our compound I saw one of the usual dogs uphill from me, which is nothing out of the ordinary as they tend to sniff around and shit wherever they want – as dogs do. A few moments later I turned around to find the same dog coming at me. Friendly fellow, I thought. Wrong! For some reason this fella didn’t like me and wasn’t shy about getting close and personal to make the point. Of course as soon as one starts something the others join in – so within moments I was keeping four of the filthy beasts at bay with my cumbersome sandals and a few (panicky) yells. Someone inside one of the houses on the road was shouting at the dogs but it’s safe to say they aren’t the most obedient or disciplined creatures. They kept a distance of a metre or so when I faced them but as soon as I stopped looking at them one or two would dart in and snap at my legs, and because of my clumsy footwear walking backwards wasn’t as easy as you’d think. Thus the hounds and I had reached an impasse, broken only when a fifth dog bolted out of a yard – a black one who wasn’t as reluctant to get stuck in as the rest. He got a bit too close and I really definitely was worried. Then inexplicably one or two paid attention to the unseen person yelling out and within moments they had dispersed. I was left alone on the dusty road muttering ‘dogs! fucking dogs!” to myself incredulously.

I went about my business and on my way back called in on the Anglicare workshop down the hill, where beardy Dave from Cape York supplied me with some dog repellent – ie a spare bit of thick poly pipe that made a nice whoosh sound as I swung it a few times. I was on guard on my way home but nonetheless the only warning I had was the scratch of claws on the bitumen – and behind me were another three or four of them about to snap at me! Thankfully the dog repellent worked. It worked again this morning – on the same pack that had a go at me the first time! The boys who mind the gate at the compound weren’t far away and with a few of us around the pack scarpered behind a fence. The  boys seemed more amused than concerned when I explained that asde dispela dok olgeta laik paitim mi, not maliciously I am sure but I’m certain I look pretty foolish with my dog repellant. I was told that they didn’t like my stick. “They didn’t like me yesterday without the fucking stick!” was all I could reply.

I’m not sure how this is going to work out in the long term but the situation is already a bit tiresome. I’ve been told that payback compensation will be offered if I get bitten – if an owner steps forward to claim responsibility that is. Just because you see them in someone’s yard doesn’t mean the residents own the dog! Someone mentioned that a while ago the dogs were out of control, prompting some Highlanders to take matters into their own hands. As a result I’m having fantasies about upgrading my dog repellent to a bush knife or a slingshot of some kind but I’m not sure how much I’m up for an all-out bloodbath on my own street. I doubt I’d impress my new neighbours when they see me holding a dog’s head in one hand and a bloody bush knife in the other screaming dispela longlong dok bilong husait motherfuckers!!!!???

Nah. Probably not a good look.