Monday, November 29, 2010

Encountering the Warrior

Monday, November 29, 2010
Warrior, of the Huli people in Papua New Guinea.

On an afternoon trip from Ambua Lodge to a nearby roost site of a sooty owl, our birding group got its first encounter with a member of the local Huli people. The roost site was in a cavity in a tall eucalyptus-like tree in the middle of some hand-planted crop fields.

I wish I had photos of our initial moments with the man I came to know simply as Warrior. He was a Huli wigman who appeared in the middle of the road as we were trying to execute a too-tight turn in our combi-bus. He initially waved and smiled, and beckoned us to drive after him down the road. He was running barefoot down the road in front of us, feathered headdress waving with his movement, a bundle of leaves covering his backside.

That's Warrior on the right, walking in front of our bus.

As our bus started to follow him, he suddenly whirled, notched and arrow and aimed it at us through the windshield. I must admit that I jumped and dodged behind the seat back in front of me. A palpable surge of momentary fear had gone through our group. And just as quickly, the man smiled and laughed, turning to resume his trot down the road.

Fewer than 100 yards later, a washed out bridge prevented our further progress, so we dismounted and continued on foot. The wigman immediately came up to me to show me his bow and arrows. I was fascinated, and he could tell. Our conversation went like this:

"I sell you all 75 kina!" he said.
"No thanks. Please tell me your name!"
"Is that really your name?"
"Yes, I warrior. What name bilong you?"
"My name is Bill."
"Beel! My fren!"

Warrior tried once or twice more to sell me his arrows, but each time I politely declined and asked him another question. Despite our language difficulty—he did not speak much English and I could only discern certain phrases in Pidgen, the language most common in Papua New Guinea, a mash-up of English, German, and various local tongues—we learned a lot about each other. The land where we were going to find the sooty owl was owned by him and his clan. He did some farming, but mostly hunting and guiding people. I asked him is this was how he dressed every day, and he confirmed it. Looking closely at his headdress, I could see cassowary feathers, two sulphur-crested cockatoo feathers, fresh plant stems and leaves, and a carefully folded and pinned-in-place label from a food product. A long tan reed was centered beneath the tip of his nose, inserted through a hole in his septum. Elaborate patterns were painted on his face in red, yellow, and black.

We'd be instructed to ask for permission to take photographs of the people we would encounter—this is only common courtesy after all. But we'd also been asked/advised not to pay money for this privilege, since PNG is trying to maintain a spirit of friendly hospitality for visiting tourists. The concern being that if every photo-taking tourist is made to pay to take photographs, the local culture and customs could devolve into mercenary commerce, opening the door to more of the problems caused by so-called "rascals" who commit crimes against tourists and travelers.

It can be a rare thing to enjoy an authentic encounter with someone native to a country you are visiting. Sometimes a place and its people are so inured to tourists that they have little interest in answering the same handful of questions from yet another busload of visitors ("Do you really live here? What do you eat? Did you make that yourself?"). Or, and this is becoming much less common in our modern world, you visit a place where few outsiders go and the people are very shy and reticent. Either way, it can be difficult to get an authentic feel for the people and place.
Waiting for the owl.

I suspect that Warrior could easily rev-up his guiding "act" for a bunch of oblivious tourists. He shot several bamboo "arrows" for us—at a cloud, at a distant tree. He did not shoot any of the more finely made arrows he held in his hand. As we walked along, talking, he seemed to enjoy getting to know me as much as I did him.

We crossed through a farmyard and over a series of creeks, then through planted fields, trying our best to avoid stepping on the vines of the plants growing from the ground. Once at the roost site, one of the local men went forward and used a 30-foot long pole to scratch the side of the tree. This was meant to get the owl to peek outside, which it did. But the owl was startled enough from his daytime slumber that it flew off to a nearby copse of trees.

The roost tree, with the cavity (on the upper left fork)

I had been videotaping the tree scratching, but when the owl peeked out I went for my binoculars and completely missed getting any shots or footage.
After-owl group photo with the local family and our guides.

Our group posed for some photos with the local family and our guides at the owl roost.

The farmer, including Warrior, are paid a fee each time a group of bird watchers visits. This is an excellent example of grassroots ecotourism. The local villagers know that by protecting the owl and its roost tree, they can earn money from visiting groups. We discussed ways to show the owl without spooking it from its roost, and the local folks assured us that the owl usually peeks out for a minute or so and then goes back down inside the cavity to sleep.
Walking through the cultivated fields.

On our way back to the road it began to rain quite heavily. Within minutes we were all soaked through and getting chilled. At the road, we parted company with Warrior and his family. I did buy an arrow from him and he told me about how he made it. He made a slit along one side of the arrow shaft. Into this shaft he inserted some small seeds. He told me that when this arrow goes into his enemy, those seeds will make it hurt more. Knowing how intense the fighting can be among rival clans in PNG, I did not doubt Warrior's sincerity or intent.

The arrow's construction was ingenious. It was designed to come apart mid-shaft. And it was beautifully carved and decorated with paint. The balance was perfect and though I will never shoot it from a bow, I am sure it would fly straight and true.

Before we left Warrior and his family I asked if I could take his photograph.

"Yes, Beel, you my friend! Take photo!"
Warrior posed for me to take his photo.

I did and we shook hands and turned to go our separate ways returning to our separate and very different worlds. I'm not sure Warrior will remember me, but each time I look at the red arrow, I surely remember him.

That's me with my arrow, wearing one of the traditional hats worn in PNG. This one is woven in the colors of the national flag.


On November 29, 2010 at 8:36 PM Anonymous said...

Does Warrior have something from you he can remember you by?

On November 29, 2010 at 8:38 PM Anne Kogge said...

Not sure why that comment showed up as's from me....Anne

On November 29, 2010 at 11:32 PM NW Nature Nut said...

His face paint and head dress is wonderful! Anne's question is a good one!

On December 1, 2010 at 8:21 AM Larry said...

This had to be one of your most interesting birding excursions Bill. Warrior looks like a fun guy to lead the tour!

I am so incredibly encouraged to read of ecotourism successes like this and hope that the trend continues in these beautiful places. To preserve what we have left on this planet, in its most natural state, is inspiring.

On December 3, 2010 at 3:50 AM indianapolis said...

Generally I do not post on blogs, but I would like to say that this site really forced me to do so! Thanks, very good site.

On December 3, 2010 at 11:29 AM Bill of the Birds said...

Anne: I'm not sure I left Warrior with anything to remember me by, other than our shared experience.

On December 3, 2010 at 3:05 PM Anonymous said...

What a fasinating post. How did you get the arrow through airport security? thanks for sharing.
Lynda in Michigan.

On February 15, 2012 at 5:57 PM Ian said...

Bill, love the shots of warrior! Mind if I use a couple of them on my site? - I'm doing a page on a story about some people who were in PNG and encountered a four guys like your warrior.

On February 2, 2014 at 10:06 AM William Adams said...

Bill, please e-mail me at --- I'd like to discuss licensing one of your photos of Warrior.