The flight to Karkar always gives me a thrill as I gaze down upon rows of coconut palms, the thatched village huts, the white breakers crashing on the black volcanic sand of the beaches, the lush jungle in the gorges, known as barats, and the kirtle of dense cloud that completely obscures the upper slopes and the 1830m volcanic crater of Mt Uluman. You fly in on a bright sunshiny Madang morning where the reflected glare from tin roofs on the mainland 15minutes earlier was painful to the eye, and then you enter the gloomy threatening shade cast by Uluman, skulking in its seemingly permanent clouds. There is almost an air of Mt Doom about it all, yet people live and work here, it is home to 50,000 souls - and probably one of the highest island populations of venomous snakes in PNG. To me Karkar Island is a very special place.
Coconut palms with a cocoa tree understorey.
A rocky volcanic barat.
Kinim airstrip is a grass and asphalt runway that extends inland and slightly uphill from the shoreline a few kms north of Kaviak plantation, our usual base on Karkar Island. I have made this journey, 10-12 times since 1990 but it was Bina's first visit to Karkar Island*.
*Karkar Island was once known as Dampier Island, after the 17th century English explorer, privateer and naturalist William Dampier.
Kinim airstrip looking out to sea.
Island Airways landing at Kinim.
The island measures 26km by 21km with volcanic Mt Uluman sitting slightly south of centre. The volcano erupted in 1974, and then again in 1979, emitting a pyroclastic flow that killed the two vulcanologists camped on its rim and caused the island to be exacuated. Only 100kms northeast is the smaller Manan Island, which was smoking and emitting a red glow while I was on Karkar in the early 1990s. It erupted properly in 2004 and the island had to be evacuated. These volcanoes are a real threat and are being constantly monitored. The centre of Karkar is reportedly a spooky place, a place few have visited, a place villagers claim is inhabited by giant pigs the size of small cars. That makes a volcanic eruption sound like a giant pig roast!
As we neared the north of the island the aircraft turned out to sea and then performed a steep turn to port before coming in low above the waves, to land on the bush airstrip that inclined upwards from the beach towards the treeline.
We usually stay in the guest house at Kaviak Plantation a 20minute drive south of Kinim and the only accommodation at the north end of the island, courtesy of the Middleton family who run half the plantations on Karkar Island and some on the mainland also. There is now a tarmac ring road right around the island but not long ago it was a muddy track that was almost impassible in the wet season, when sections were washed away or flooded.
Kaviak guest house, front view.
Kaviak guest house, rear view.
The weekly shop.
The local bus service.
The ring-road and the side roads.
The main transportation off the tarmac ring road is either by tractor, or on foot.
Bina riding the local bus service.
Time to disembark and walk, husk pilers getting ready
Mark and some of his team.
Trekking in the plantation.
Because of the fertile volcanic soil there have been coconut and cocoa plantations on Karkar for generations and the industry supports a large population (50,000) of islanders and migrants from other parts of PNG, especially highlanders. Plantation workers collect fallen coconuts, husk them on sharp spikes, discarding the husk and bagging the split halves of the coconut for transportation to the driers where the ‘meat’ is dried to form copra, the basic ingredient of coconut oils and desiccated coconut.
The coconuts are husked,
split, and bagged for transportation to driers.
The resultant discarded husk pile goes through a succession, from an airy, barren pile of skins, to decomposed fibrous humus. In their early stages they do not attract colonists, and in an extremely decomposed state they are only home to aggressive ants, termites and a few elongate burrowing skinks of the genus Sphenomorphus. The perfect husk pile is mature but not aged, somewhere in the middle.
We would seek out these huskpiles, surround them, remove the dense covering of introduced, leguminous kudzu vine (Pueraria sp.) and systematically dismantle the husk pile in our search for New Guinea small-eyed snakes (Micropechis ikaheka) in particular, but all herps were of interest.
In this task I am usually provided with a foreman and a few plantation workers, often guys I have worked with before on previous visits. We usually get followed around by groups of small boys known as mankis(monkeys) in Tok Pisin, but because of the risk of snakebite the adults and I generally shoo them away. In 2006 one of my best fieldworker, Peter, a bearded highlander, confessed to being one of the pikininis (children) I had sent back to his village for safety back in 1990.
Local mankis shadowed our
Bina planned to film some of the snake catching action.
Bina and camera, with Peter and Timothy.
Peter and Timothy clearing kudzu vine and dismantling a small husk pile.
The boys dismantle a larger husk pile on a barat edge,
perfect small-eyed snake habitat.
We searched through husk piles in the open, under cocoa trees, on the slopes of barats, anywhere we though might be home to small-eyed snakes. The important factor was to find husk piles in the medium stage, not fresh and sterile, nor decayed and full of ants.
Bina replays some of her footage to an admiring audience.
Bina loves fresh coconut,
and her fans were only too happy to keep her supplied.
While they preferred spiny rats, Rattussp., caught in the husk piles.
Small-eyed snakes are nocturnal so we mounted night searches on plantation trails and up barats. We found herps but no small-eyed snakes this way.
Bina, Peter and Timothy preparing for a night hunt in the plantation barats.
Malaria is endemic so Bina borrowed a long-sleeved shirt from me to avoid getting bitten.