Tuesday, 20 November 2007

UP THE RIVER WITH A BAG OF MONEY



In the 1960's, The United Nations Trust Territory of New Guinea still included many places deemed to be too dangerous to allow access by anything other than armed patrols. The upper waters of the Sepik River had only recently been removed from this no-go category when I started regular flying visits to collect native artifacts for re-sale in our store at Toniva on Bougainville Island.

On the Sepik River en route to Hunstein Lagoons

I owned and flew my own aircraft and had the advantage over other seekers after Sepik carvings and artifacts, as most collectors baulked at the cost of hiring an aircraft, the only practical means of entry into this remote area.

Loading our aircraft at Ambunti for the return flight to Bougainville

I could leave Bougainville in my Aztec and be on the ground at Ambunti, hundreds of miles up the Sepik River the same day.
Leaving the aircraft tied down but otherwise unguarded at the end of the short, very slippery Ambunti airstrip, I would hire a large dugout canoe complete with a predictably unreliable outboard engine to penetrate the billabongs and narrow tributaries of this aquatic world where a treasure-trove of authentic carvings and ceremonial objects could be bought from willing sellers in the villages and hamlets.

Ceremonial Shield. Maprik. Lower Sepik

Sacred Flute stopper.Upper Sepik. Now in The British Museum. London

Lack of respect for the religious significance of these carvings was not an issue. Masks, drums, weapons were all ceremonial objects on the Sepik River. They were only ever used a few times then discarded to decay and rot under village huts and sellers were only too willing to dispose of them when their ceremonial use ended: the problem was to penetrate the maze of waterways and backwaters and find them in time and then get them back to what passed for civilization in the coastal towns of post WW2 New Guinea.

The dagger was once a human thigh-bone. Not for Sale !

Silver coins were the only acceptable currency. Paper bank notes did not long survive in this hot, wet climate and were usually rejected. I started every expedition with canvas bags, each containing several thousand dollars in coins, hiring young villagers to carry and guard them. No money ever went missing.
Anyone foolish enough to do what I did in today's lawless and violent Papua New Guinea would be lucky to survive more than a few days before being assaulted, robbed and probably killed. White men could be, and sometimes were attacked and killed in the 1960's, but never for robbery in the jungle and I was never concerned for my personal safety.

Autres temps, autres moeures.

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