I have always liked to read about explorers. Some time ago I read an account by Wilfred N. Beaver, which was published in 1920 and called Unexplored New Guinea: A record of the travels, adventures, and experiences of a resident magistrate amongst the head-hunting savages and cannibals of the unexplored interior of New Guinea.
Long titles of books were once common and are beginning to be popular again. Beaver’s book often records the “exotic” in his contact with people in the southwest region of what was then simply “New Guinea.” His book includes photos of a “Bamu River archer in full fighting dress,” and others with elaborate body and head coverings. There are Gama and the Turama men who had missing front teeth and built their houses on stilts. The Goaribari area featured cannibalism, unusual burial customs, cassowary daggers, and “thieves.” A photo shows a woman with a fishing pot, five feet high and made of black cane. A few Kikori Hinterland people wore dried hands as decorations around their necks. He also traveled further west and met the Purawari (Mobi or now Foe) people, who were friendly and stored stacks of skulls in limestone caves. An underground river system ran through the area.
Beaver’s observations are the kind we read about in early explorations of New Guinea and in National Geographic. I have also had the opportunity to do some exploring in what is now called Papua New Guinea (PNG), including some of the areas Beaver described. In 1972, I was granted money from the Australian National University (as a post-doctoral project) to “explore” the Gulf Province and adjacent areas and classify its languages. The only difference is that I did it by helicopter and that I had seven men who assisted me.
There are still tree houses, unusual burial customs, stone axes, and skull houses. I met a woman wearing her dead baby’s hand (smoked and dried) as a necklace, but I heard nothing about cannibalism or giant snakes. My team’s purpose was to collect linguistic data, and we landed at some unusual places. One was at a “village” (actually a few scattered houses) in a remote jungle area on a tributary of the mighty Strickland River. The pilot found a suitable landing place, and I was able to communicate in a trade language enough to inform the men that I wanted to write down some of their talks. I had a 200 wordlist and some sentences prepared, and it usually took me about 2 hours to elicit the data. (I have done dozens, in various languages in the country).
Somehow, one of the village men thought that we were going on to Port Moresby, the capital city and that he would like to go as well. He started making buzzing sounds and moving his arms about like he was flying. Obviously, he wanted us to take him in the helicopter. “What should we do,” the pilot asked. I hadn’t recorded all I wanted and needed more time. “Take him for a ride in the helicopter, and when you return, we will get him out as quickly as possible, I will get in and we will leave.” The man had put on his best and probably only shorts and shirt and gotten some money from his relatives. He was ready to “do Port Moresby.”
The pilot took off with the man, and I hurried to complete my work. The pilot thought he would simply fly a big circle and then come back. However, in the meantime clouds had begun to form, and the pilot couldn’t see the house (or me). He needed more circuits before he saw us and landed. True to our plan, we left a bewildered man in his village, and we left quickly.
On another occasion but on a different survey, I had a pilot leave me in a village to collect data from a language group that I had learned about. I had recorded a word list from a man who was in a government jail. The government official told me, “We have a man here who is from an area east, and no one can speak his language.” I was able to record some of his language and wanted to find out more about the language. So here I was, months later, at a village location the government official told me about. I decided I would stay overnight and asked the pilot if he could come back for me sometime the next day. I told him, “If I find someone who speaks Tok Pisin (the main trade language), I will stay.” Upon landing, a man came up to me and began to speak fluent Tok Pisin, so I gave the pilot the thumbs up to leave.
The people were friendly and offered me a sweet potato and a place to stay. I began my language work and asked the man where he had learned to speak such good Tok Pisin. “In jail,” he said. “What were you in jail for?” I asked. “Oh,” he replied nonchalantly, “I murdered a man.” That was unexpected, but I had a good night, except that the man who loaned me his “bed” forgot to tell his dog not to sleep with me.
I had other “explorations,” including accompanying a government patrol into an “uncontrolled” (at the time) part of the Southern Highlands. Joice and I had taught the responsible government patrol officer linguistics at a course, so he was friendly and invited me on the patrol. A colleague from SIL went as well and our patrol had 10 or 12 police, and dozens, of “carriers.”
The apostle Paul explored new areas and took the Gospel to places where the people had never heard of God and Jesus. He tells of some of the dangers he faced in prison, being flogged. He received forty lashes five times and was beaten with rods three times. He was shipwrecked three times, spending a night and a day in the open sea. He was constantly on the move, with dangers from rivers, bandits, his fellow Jews, and Gentiles. Besides all that, he had the daily concern for his churches.
My explorations did not experience such hardships, nevertheless, I am thankful for God’s protection and care. We don’t know how many times God protects us, but he always does.