Australian Filmmaker Of 'First Contact' Returns To PNG Highlands After 25 Years

Feature

By Bob Connolly

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Sept. 14, 2016) – The last time filmmaker Bob Connolly was in the Papua New Guinea Highlands, he was caught up in one of the bloodiest tribal wars in the region's history. That was 25 years ago. Now, Connolly has returned to the Highlands to catch up with the key characters from his award-winning trilogy of documentaries centred on the Leahy family, made with his late partner Robin Anderson in the 1980s and 90s.

My house is full of souvenirs from our years in the PNG Highlands, among them arrow-pitted shields, gold lipped pearlshells from a moka ceremony and a black palm bow I no longer have the strength to draw back.

But the souvenir that means most to me has sadly disappeared, lost a decade ago when my attic became an upstairs bedroom for my two daughters.

It was a nondescript piece of cane, twisted in the shape of a figure eight, about the size of a matchbox.

Robin Anderson and I had spent all of 1991 in that attic editing Black Harvest — the last of our Highlands Trilogy.

The piece of cane was pinned to the wall above our editing machine, and throughout the year I would look at it and be reminded of our last few weeks in Mount Hagen.

On a pristine day in November 1990, I was buying vegetables at the Hagen market when a group of Ganiga tribesmen surrounded and led me off to a quiet corner.

They had somehow made the perilous journey through enemy territory to town.

One of them handed me the piece of cane.

"What's this?" I asked.

"Just listen. Put it in your pocket and listen," they said.

"You know some of our Ganiga women are married to enemy Kulgas? They bring us news, and last night two crept away and came through the bush to tell us things. They risked their lives to do this.

"The night before, the women said, the Kulga had a big meeting, talked about how many of their men had been killed.

"They want payback. They have a list."

"Yes?" I said.

"You're on it. Definitely," they said.

"That's what this symbol is for — to show you we're really serious.

"The Kulga were angry when you helped our wounded, very angry, but not enough to kill you.

"That's what our women said. But now they have found out you cried when Ganiga Madang was killed. They know he was a friend of yours, and so now they think you helped buy the guns the Ganiga used to avenge Madang's death.

"That's what they think. That's what we would think."

"I see. What about Robin?" I said.

"Oh no, they would never touch her. But you for sure," they said.

"What do I do now?" I asked.

"No more coming to town. Stay all the time up at Kunguma," they told me.

"Because they will wait on the road and kill you with axes.

"Maski, wantok. Nogut yu kamap belhap. Mi stap long namel, harim? Namel!" — "Easy does it my friend. Don't get angry. We're neutral, do you hear? Neutral!"

For most of the fighting in 1990, that often repeated declaration worked a treat.

Now it seemed we had run out of luck.

English writer Samuel Johnson said the prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully — and I know just what he means.

Jumping into my four-wheel drive, I locked all the doors and drove the five kilometres up to our little guesthouse at Kunguma in the hills above the town, expecting a killer squad of axemen around every bend.

None eventuated.

On arrival, I sought out Robin and our two-year-old daughter Katherine to make sure they were safe, and then hired two sturdy locals as bodyguards.

For the next three weeks, they never left our sides.

At the end of that time, we flew out of Mount Hagen bound for Australia and I have never been back.

When it comes to payback, Highland warriors have long memories — but not that long, it seems.

If any of the Kulga harboured thought about belated revenge during my recent Foreign Correspondent trip, they kept it to themselves.

I was treated with kindness everywhere I went.

I look increasingly relaxed as the days went by.

Finally, let me tell you the provenance of that piece of twisted cane.

In the days before contact with Western civilisation, the principal wealth objects in the Highland valleys were pearlshells.

Traded up from the coast, they were incredibly sought after, incredibly rare, their origin a mystery.

Explorer Michael Leahy said the people thought they grew on trees "somewhere off in the distance".

A tribe living in the centre of the valley might wait an entire year for a single shell, its access into the highlands controlled by the tribes living on the valley's periphery.

When a shell appeared, a symbol would be passed from tribe to tribe ahead of the shell, alerting the shell's designated purchasers that something of colossal importance was coming their way.

And what was that symbol?

A nondescript piece of cane, twisted into the shape of a figure eight.

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