Sunday, July 29, 2012

Papua New Guinea 1. Lae and Bulolo

My aerial introduction to New Guinea included this view of the Markham River.
The town of Lae, capital of the Morobe Province, sits on the coast near the
mouth of the river.
This is the first of what will be many posts on my travels in Papua New Guinea.  Altogether, I spent about 14 months there, on three separate occasions, first as a graduate student in 1971-72, and later in 1978 and 1989.  I was there primarily to gather specimens and information on the many species of native palms.  Along the way, of course, there were many other botanical delights, as well as the diverse and fascinating people of the the country.

Metroxylon salomonense, with its massive terminal
bloom spike, was one of the palm prizes in the
Botanic Garden in Lae.  It comes from the Solomon
Islands, part of which lie within the nation of Papua
New Guinea. Various species of this genus, have
dense stores of edible starch in their trunks, and
are called Sagos.
I arrived at Cornell University in the Fall of 1969, to work under Dr. Harold E Moore, Jr., then the world expert on palms. He was about to submit a new research grant to the NSF, and so we sat down one day to discuss where I would like to do my doctoral research project.  Various parts of tropical America came up, but it was clear he was leaning toward New Guinea.  He had been there for a short visit a few years earlier, and could see that there was a great diversity of palms that were barely know.  I put up no resistance!  I had been fascinated with the south seas for years, having read the Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy and the Thor Heyerdahl books.  A graduation trip to Hawaii after high school only heightened my intrigue.

A New Guinea Impatiens, growing wild near
The grant proposal was successful, and I set off for Papua New Guinea (the eastern half of the island) in the Fall of 1971.  The Australian administrators at the time had a well-developed network of patrol stations, there were good roads in some areas, and regular air flights and boats in other areas.  I was to work with the  Division of Forestry Herbarium in the northeastern port of Lae.  The legendary John Womersley, who had pioneered the modern botanical exploration of New Guinea, was the director, and would set up a number of field trips for me around the country.  The western half of the island, known then as West Irian, was part of Indonesia, and would be off-limits to me.  There were more political and social problems there at the time, and no botanical or governmental network to assist me there.

A wild ginger, in the genus Pleuranthodium,
growing near Lae.
The island of New Guinea, is more than an island, more like a small continent.  Nearly 1500 miles long from tip to tip, it has mountains more than 16,000 feet in elevation, some with permanent glaciers, despite being a few miles south of  the equator at its northwestern tip.  With 50 peaks more than 3750 meters (12,300 feet), the island provides much unexplored territory not only for biologists, but for mountain climbers as well. Tropical rain forest dominates the lowlands, but in the south, around the capital of Port Moresby, a long dry season limits the vegetation to a grassy savanna with scattered eucalyptus trees.  The mountain slopes support a gradation of montane rain forests, cloud forests, and alpine meadows.

Dancers at a "Sing-Sing" in Lae, with their spectacular headgear made of
bird feathers. Lae is home to several sing-sings each year.  The equivalent
of our state fairs, the emphasis is on dancing by local tribes, rather than
displays of chicken breeds and apple pie contests.
Another local tribe dons traditional dress and performs their
unique dance.
The mini-continent also is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, each with a unique language, and with varied physical features.  Most of the people superficially resemble Africans, but they are genetically and linguistically distinct.  The Papuans of the interior have roots on the island that go back thousands of years.  More recent immigrants, living in coastal areas and the many adjacent island chains are related to Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians in other parts of the Pacific.  I will introduce you to some of these people as I go about my botanical ramblings. Coastal peoples in general were brought into the fold of western civilization earlier, and in the 1970's many were educated and moving into the ranks of government officials, teachers, office workers, etc.  The peoples of more remote areas, particularly in the highlands, had managed to avoid much of the trappings of modern life up to that time, and many were still living as hunter-gatherers and farmers as they had for thousands of years.  Of course, really useful things like metal pots, pans, knives, and the occasional pair of trousers, had found their way to remote villages before the white faces of their would-be administrators.  In many places that I went, I was as much a curiosity to the locals as they were to me.
Bulolo lies in the mountains of Morobe Province, which in
1971 were still covered in forest.

To Bulolo

My first outing in Papua New Guinea was up to the mountain town of Bulolo, not far from Lae by road.  It wasn't so much to look for palms, but to tag along with a group of botanists from the Herbarium who had business at the forestry station up there.  It is a pleasant little town, and the cooler climate was was a welcome relief from the lowland heat.

A Nothofagus tree stand out in the
forest near Bulolo.
Out and about in the woods the flora was anything but tropical. Several species of Rhododendron were in bloom.  There are about 100 species in New Guinea, many of which have been introduced into cultivation.  Some interesting gingers, flowering vines and staghorn ferns were also to be seen.   In the northern hemisphere, we might expect pines and firs at this altitude, but here the only conifers are Araucarias.  The southern hemisphere  Nothofagus (in the oak family, Fagaceae) was also common on the hillsides.
Karl Karenga, who later became Director of the Division of Botany in Lae, shows off a massive staghorn fern (Platycerium sp.) growing at a field station near Bulolo.

Techomanthe dendrophila, or New Guinea trumpet vine,
 in the Bignoniaceae.
Rhododendron aurigeranum near Bulolo.

Rhododendron phaeochitum.

Rhododendron macgregoriae.
A series of stamps commemorating some of the native Rhododendrons was issued by Papua New Guinea.
A beautiful Pleuranthodium growing near Bulolo.
Massive prop roots emerge to support
a giant Pandanus tree.

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