Photo of University Hall
Creative Research Center

A Letter from New Guinea – by William H. Thomas

Posted in: Guest Essay

Landscape photo of New Guinea huts and jungle

Kairik Airport – Porgera Station – Enga Province 

Papua New Guinea – March 3, 2017

Dear Neil: I’m cradling a cup of tea and watching the sunrise over the Porgera Valley in Papua New Guinea.  Although we are straddling the equator at over seven thousand feet, mornings at this airstrip are damp and raw. I am searching for breaks in the layer of clouds that are packed in the Valley, hoping to finding a crack that can allow a plane to get through, land and get me to my next flight. These clouds conceal some of the world’s most rugged mountains.  In spite of the safety briefings we receive before every flight, I have never heard of anyone surviving a crash landing in New Guinea. In the highlands, there is no water to land on and nothing is flat. I‘ve experienced delays like this on nearly every field trip here. Each time I remind myself of something an old Australian bush pilot told me that has since become my mantra during such delays: “You don’t have to take off, but you do have to land.

This is the second of the seven legs on my returning flights to the States. I began two days ago with a forty-minute helicopter ride from a clearing at the juncture of the Urubwa and Laigaip Rivers. One day to get my gear stowed and clothes washed, then a 4 AM ride to this airstrip. I really do hope that I can get out today. When it comes to air travel, the bloom is off the rose.

My next stop is Port Moresby – the capital of Papua New Guinea — for meetings with the Minister of the Environment, the Directors of the Conservation & Environment Protection Agency (their EPA), the Office of Climate Change and Development, and the U.N. We have been awarded five years of funding through the UN”s Global Environment Fund, and now I need to nail down the details.

For the last month, my days have been filled with an endless array of security checks, lines and delays, punctuated by a camping trip to unexplored New Guinea to work on a conservation program with a group of people who have one of the highest recorded murder rates on the planet. When I’m not flying, I am sitting on the ground, or sharing a hut with rats, mosquitos and an assortment of flying insects and predators that would boggle an entomologist’s mind.

When the sunlight begins to backlight the clouds, the walls of limestone of the Kaijende Highlands slowly emerge from the shadows. Dark green and vertical, these sheer cliffs border the airstrip. They dominate the valley and make the landing approach narrow and tricky. The Kaijende Highlands are the second protected area that I have secured (the Laigaip River catchment is the first). They sit 12,000 feet above sea level and surround a unique alpine grassland ecosystem, rapidly disappearing in the tropics. The valley awakens and smoke begins to curl from the huts that line the valley below me, and I can see the birds beginning to move toward the airstrip. Willy Wagtails and Black-throated Robins perch on the electrical wires. Above me, snail kites begin to drift on the thermals looking for prey.

At times like this (and there are many), the lack of sleep and the petty annoyances of travel melt away and I realize that I have indeed been blessed. Most of the areas I visit are roadless and, therefore, unexplored. Topographic lines set at 40-meter intervals blur the map so that the green becomes a muddy brown. Try to imagine a place the size of Massachusetts with fewer than 3,000 people and so steep and wracked by earthquakes that no-one has dared to attempt to put a road through. Central New Guinea’s mountains are so steep that they separate cultures that speak a thousand different languages – one-fifth of the planet’s total — the most culturally and biologically diverse place on earth.

I have spent most of my adult life exploring this ground on foot, and so my trip is an endless series of switchbacks, tree roots and river crossings.  Most of time my head is down, watching my step and walking as fast as I can to keep my guide in sight. There are no marked trails (to the uninitiated there are no trails — period). You spend hours wet and muddy trying to get to the next camp before sundown. It once took me thirteen hours to cover eleven miles.

I am waiting for a helicopter. Helicopters can turn days of hiking into hours of sightseeing. My next flight will turn a six-hour bus ride into a forty-minute flight. Likewise the flight from the clearing at the Urubwa allowed me to eliminate a week of hard hiking and several dangerous, big river crossings.

More importantly, I can now — literally — see the forest for the trees. From the air, New Guinea is breathtaking. I can see trees blooming. Their red, yellow, purple and white flowers – flowers I normally see by craning my neck and peering up into the canopy – now spread before me like a bouquet of baby’s breath. Steep valleys are transformed from obstacles to beautiful landscapes with endless gradations of green. Flocks of birds float silently below me. Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Brahiminy kites and the occasional flock of hornbills erupts from the otherwise endless carpet of green as the helicopter spooks them from their perches.

With this new vantage point comes a new perspective upon the people who live here. New Guinea’s highlands are a tough place to live. Life expectancy around the Urubwa River was thirty-two years old at the turn of this century. Traditional ways still dominate life. People eat from their gardens. Most cannot read and are suspicious of anything they don’t hear from me directly. Meetings of the local councils can last all day and usually involve countless translations as my accented Neo-Melanesian Tok Pisin is converted first into the local language and then into the regional dialect. Nothing happens quickly and nothing ever seems settled.

However, now that I am flying instead of walking and converting my tribal meetings into ministerial actions, I no longer feel like I am trudging through quicksand. I have begun to relax and appreciate the land and the people who have helped to shape my life.

When I first arrived back in 1988, nobody used money. I paid my informants in matches and salt. I collected all the stone axes and knives I could carry and every family had a bone knife. I had to carry in all my supplies and trade goods. For the first ten years, each field trip looked like the line of porters you used to see in Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies. Over the years, these people have taught me to live in the bush and to identify the birds. These people unraveled the web of pollination and seed dispersal that connects these forests. These people patiently explained to me the intricacies of their lives.

Most importantly, New Guineans have taught me all the lessons essential to affecting social change – lessons that you can’t learn in  school. Through them, and their desire to achieve a consensus, I have gained the patience to listen.  I have learned that I need everybody to understand what we are trying to achieve through a protected area before we can move forward. I have learned the patience to sit through meetings and the understanding that in a society with no formal leadership positions, it is important that everyone has the opportunity to voice an opinion, to air a grievance – to feel like they matter.  I have learned that ideas and abilities can win the day – if you have the persistence to see things through.

The clouds are clearing. It looks like I will be able to get to Mt. Hagen in time to make my connection to Port Moresby (there are no lights on the airstrips so you have to fly and land during daylight hours. Likewise there are no roads that connect Port Moresby to the highlands – so you can’t drive).  I will look out at the vast tracts of forest and the wild jumble of mountains formed by the collision of the Pacific and Australian plates and collapsed volcanoes that from the air appear more like fishbowls.

I am working to create protected areas, design a carbon-trading scheme and meet with government ministers. The children of the families that first took me in back in 1988 are now my partners in a globally significant conservation project. Not bad for a kid from a mill town in Ohio.

Such is the stuff that goes through my head as we turn eastward to fly over the coastal mangrove swamps.

This landscape has shaped my life.

Bill Thomas 

 – – – – –

William H.  (Bill) Thomas, Ph.D., is Director of the New Jersey School of Conservation at Montclair State University. Funded by the National Geographic Society, Conservation International and the Indo-Pacific Conservation Alliance, he has conducted ethno-ecological research in Papua New Guinea since 1988. He is currently working to pilot the Forest Stewards program with the Hewa Province people of Papua New Guinea as well as in the Kaijende Highlands of the Enga province. Both are in New Guinea’s Central Range and part of the largest, least explored and most diverse wilderness on the island ( His data has led to increasingly-sophisticated interpretations of how native peoples’ awareness of their environment is encoded, processed, and utilized. With this research, Thomas has developed a new methodology that has been recognized by UNESCO as a “Best Practice.”; teamed with Conservation International to discover 50 new species in the heart of New Guinea; and received a Genographic Legacy grant to develop a local language guides to the Strickland River drainage.  With governments struggling over shrinking natural habitats and vanishing native cultures, Bill Thomas’ research has global implications that may provide a blueprint for the rational and scientific preservation of both.