Day 1,016: The Land That Time Forgot

13.10.11: Stan usually works out of his office in Lae, but today he needed to go up to his family’s poultry farm and asked if I’d like to come along. Knowing that it would be a lot more fun than sitting inside and waiting for internet pages to load up, I said yes please.

Bumping along the road on the way to the farm, Stan told me something that was as unexpected (but in hindsight so bloody obvious) as it was interesting: Stan’s surname is Leahy. The first white guy to make first contact with the tribes of Papua New Guinea’s Highlands (previously assumed to be uninhabited) in the 1930s was called Mick Leahy. Are they somehow related? You better believe it – Stan is Mick’s grandson. Anthropologists everywhere will hate me, but in Stan’s family home overlooking the farm are some historic artefacts that would make Indiana Jones gnaw his fist off with envy.

Mick Leahy set off from Salamaua in 1930 in search of gold. He travelled up the Markham river into PNG’s rugged interior, but there was no gold to be found. He did, however, discover a handful of tribes who had not met a traveller from another land in over 60,000 years. The following year Mick and his brother Dan were given a grant by a gold mining company to search deeper into the Highlands. Again, they didn’t find any gold, but what they did find was a bustling stone-aged civilisation of over one million people living in the Central Highlands.

You can watch clips from this very expedition here:

These people had never seen aeroplanes before, they had never seen guns, they had never seen a book, a watch, a gramophone player, a pen… they had never seen a wheel. Moreover, they had never learned to use metal: this was the closest anybody has ever come to building a time machine, going back 10,000 years and chatting with the natives. Within 15 years of that first meeting, events a million miles away would conspire to produce the A-Bomb… welcome to the 20th century kids.

But just think about the stones on these guys: marching into unfamiliar territory is pretty ballsy as it is, but mountainous jungle terrain? Weeks from any possible rescue? No mobile phones, no helicopter search parties, nothing but some bandages and Savlon in case of illness: and did I mention that most of the natives were incredibly hostile and, more often than not, cannibals?

This incredible journey was captured on film at the time and forms the basis of the movie ‘First Contact’ (no relation to the Star Trek film) which I heartily implore you to watch – a moment in human history that will never and can never be repeated: the moment a stone age civilisation was catapulted into the present. It’s been 80 years since that first meeting and PNG is still finding its feet.

The Leahy family now operates a poultry farm which produces 85% of PNG’s eggs and a large proportion of its chickens. Stan gave me a bit of a guided tour around the facility which employs 900 locals. The scale of the operation is impressive, as is the fact that new born chicks are big enough for the chop when they’re just 32 days old – that’s not through steroids, by the way, but through selective breeding. As stressed birds don’t lay eggs (or simply die) it’s in the farmers interest to keep their livestock happy, and the conditions weren’t bad at all – the broiler chucks had plenty of room to move about and I’d wager the set up was 100 times better than the vast majority of other poultry farms in the third world. Complaining that the chucks aren’t allowed to go outside is a bit like complaining that a premature baby can’t leave the incubator or that a coma patient can’t go for a picnic.

That’s not to say that animals should suffer unnecessarily. Anybody who has seen the documentary Food Inc. or the recent episode of Australia’s current affairs show Four Corners concerning Indonesian live cattle imports will (quite rightly) be disgusted at what goes on when the government allows the industry to regulate itself. But as for imagining that a one month old chuck wants to go sunbathing…

After lunch (roast chicken, of course) I got to have a tour of the family home and visit granddad Mick’s grave out the back. He passed away in 1979 – just seven days after I was born. The housemaid, Mara, took me up the hill to the source of the natural spring that feeds the farm with its water. As we followed the water up the hill, I got to meet the kids of the workers. They had finished school for the day and were busy collecting firewood. One thing I really love about PNG is that everybody is so happy to have their picture taken: something that concerned me in Africa as the belief that cameras could steal your soul is still alive and well.

That evening Stan and I returned to Lae for din-dins. At around 8pm the news started filtering through that there had been a plane crash: an Airlines PNG prop plane en route from Lae to Madang… the EXACT same route and plane I took just a couple of weeks ago. The latest news is that the Aussie Pilot and New Zealander Co-Pilot survived the crash, as did the stewardess and a Chinese national – the only passenger to survive. 28 people burnt to death. Most were on their way to attend their children’s graduation ceremonies at Divine Word University in Madang.

I stayed in the Airlines PNG compound in Port Moresby and there’s a more than fair chance that I met the pilots when I was there. I’ve never been this close, both physically and emotionally, to a real plane crash. It’s a weird feeling. I’ve texted my friends at Airlines PNG, but so far I’ve heard nothing back. It’s the 20th plane crash here in PNG since 2000 – make no mistake, this country is unforgiving place.

Graham Hughes

Graham Hughes is a British adventurer, presenter, filmmaker and author. He is the only person to have travelled to every country in the world without flying. From 2014 to 2017 he lived off-grid on a private island that he won in a game show, before returning to the UK to campaign for a better future for the generations to come.

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