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Papua New Guinea: Betel nut run Angoram to Madang

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Betel nut run Angoram to Madang | Papua New Guinea | Oceania

[Visited: June 2016]

Instead of backtracking to Wewak from Angoram and fly out, I decide to take the betel nut boat down the Sepik river and make my way to Madang overland. It takes patience: the first night, no boats seem to be leaving, and even the second day, boats and skippers are hard to find. Suddenly, at nightfall, three men show up at the guesthouse, and tell us the departure time is set for 10 that night. Unfortunately, the run seems to go only in the night, but when we walk towards the tree next to the jetty, I feel a taste of adventure coming up. The banana boat, a small engine-powered boat, is empty, and I wonder where our cargo is. We cross the river, and I am asked to wait on shore. The people I talk to all say they are going down the Sepik every day, but when I am finally back in the boat, they all remain ashore. There is a problem with one of our engines, and to my surprise, they fix it by taking a rather large piece out. Or - is it really fixed now? Our boat is tied up to another one, and our engines are idle. For a moment, I wonder about how low we are above water level, but then, I am happy we are on the way in the pitch dark. The skipper urges me to lie down on the betel nuts, and when I look up, I feel dwarfed by a vast, black sky dotted with millions of stars. A deep sense of peace comes over me and I just surrender to the nightly adventure, wondering what lies ahead. Meanwhile, I see one after the other shooting star, and when I run out of wishes, the monotonous sound of the engine works like a lullaby.

Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Carrying betel nut bags from the boat to the shade at Mandi bay

I must have slept a while, because when I wake up, we are on a different part of the Sepik, and the skipper is busy detaching our boat from the other. He then tries to start one of our two engines, and succeeds after trying several times. He steers our boat into a small side canal, while his assistant shines a torch into the dark. Before us, a narrow tunnel seems to be cut through the thick forest, and we speed through it. There are moments where I think that we reach a dead end, but then, the skipper sharply turns the boat, and the tunnel continues. Animals are disturbed in their sleep by us, and we hear a conundrum of frogs and birds react, and jump and fly away. In one case, I see something dark fly straight towards me, and cannot help but scream: the animal disappears, and even with my torch I cannot find it. But we still speed through the forest, so I forget about the unidentified flying object and look ahead, with growing admiration for the skipper who does not make one mistake. After more than half an hour of a thrilling ride, we reach a wide body of water again, and we are back on the main Sepik. We stop and wait for the second boat - suddenly, the heavy silence of the forest and night falls over us. Then, the noise of an engine announces the arrival of our friends in the other boat. Together, we go down the wide river, and to my surprise, in the middle of nowhere, find a house which sells diesel. In a distance, the darkness of the night is slowly seeping away and dissolving into a dark blue, then pink sky. When we reach the mouth of the Sepik, more than 1100 km after its start, we are just in time to see the sun rise above the horizon. When we round the corner and turn east, ahead of us unfolds a stunning scenery: a smoking conical volcano rises high from the ocean. Our skipper steers our boat over the choppy sea, but then, suddenly, stops. It turns out we have run out of fuel. Fortunately, the other boat is behind us, and gives us some fuel. Ten minutes later, we again drift on the waves until the second boat rescues us. I am happy they appear to have enough to give to us, and continue themselves as well. After a few hours on the sea, we reach a white sand beach, and the guys start unloading the betel nut bags from the banana boats. It feels bad to just watch them, so I take my share of carrying the bags to a place in the shade, which the other guys seem to think hilarious. It is only when we unload the last bags, that we find a dead fish on the bottom of the boat. My UFO of the night, a freshwater fish, now lies dead on the beach where saltwater covers her. I enjoy the sunlight, and wonder when our PMV truck will show up, and just after I have explored the beach and want to check the tiny village of Mandi out, a truck really shows up. We load the bags, and are soon on the way. I was told the journey to Madang should take three hours, and expect an early arrival in the coastal town. I am about to learn that Papua New Guinea is the land of the unexpected for a reason.

Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Manam volcano is an impressive sight as you leave the Sepik river

When we are half an hour on our way, a minivan comes from the opposite direction. We stop, reverse, and the betel nut traders in my PMV truck start to energetically talk to the passengers in the van. They drive back a little bit, park the vehicles on a small grassy field, and get out. One of them tells me that the others are Highlanders, who have come down to buy betel nut. The much wanted commodity cannot be grown in their region because of different, ie. colder, climatic conditions. The asked price is 300 kina per bag, but the Highlanders propose 220 as a second price. Negotiations go on, and I decide to walk around the seaside village. When I come back to the betel nut negotiations tree, I see a frangipani tree and pick some of the fresh flowers from the ground. I give them out to some of the beautiful girls of the village, who seem very surprised and react with big smiles. A deal is struck: most bags are now transferred from our truck to the minivan. There are now just over 10 bags left of the 54 we took from Angoram. When we are all ready to leave, one of the girls with a frangipani in her hair runs towards me, and gives me a shell necklace: a gift in return for the flower I gave her before. To my surprise, the truck turns around, and we head back to the west, pass Mandi, and reach Boroi. I wonder if there is a shorter road to Madang which does not show on my map? But then the answer comes: a stack of bags with copra lies on the ground, and since we now have enough space, they are loaded onto our truck. More than two hours after we left Mandi, we leave Boroi. There are many more stops, negotiations with potential betel nut buyers. We pass the mighty Karkar volcano which, like Manam, rises straight from the ocean. When we make the umpteenth stop, the driver who has been saying "sorry" to me already many times, buys me a coconut. Apparently, he assumes I am suffering, while on the contrary, I am having one of those travel days that will stay with me forever. The sun now makes its way towards the horizon, and instead of arriving in Madang early afternoon, it is already pitch dark when the truck finally stops to let me out at a guesthouse. I thank all my PMV friends, wish them good luck with their trade of betel nut, and get off. I feel extremely dirty and hungry, but above all: excited after a great adventure which has taken me closer to the soul of Papua New Guinea.

Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Betel nut boat arriving in Mandi
Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Betel nut boat with Manam island in the background
Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Our betel nut boat friends giving us extra fuel for the last ride to Mandi bay
Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Betel nut bags are seats on the PMV to Madang
Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): The betel nut boat arrives at Mandi bay
Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Mouth of the Sepik river at sunrise
Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Beach at Mandi bay, opposite Manam Island
Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Copra to be loaded on the PMV after most of the betel nuts have been sold
Picture of Betel nut run Angoram to Madang (Papua New Guinea): Sun rising over the wide Sepik river very near its mouth

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