When we received a copy of Mandy’s autobiography about her experiences growing up in Papua New Guinea we couldn’t put it down. Often known as ‘the last frontier’, Papua New Guinea is a country reserved for only the most daring of adventurers but is the place Mandy called home for some of her teenage years.
Packed with adventures in the wilderness and a unique insight into this fascinating but largely untravelled country, this book rivals any adventure story and should be on every travel fanatics must-read list. When Mandy agreed to let us feature some extracts on our blog we were thrilled – so here it is, an insight into a childhood most of us could only dream of!
Mandy Sunderland spent her teenage years travelling the world with her parents. One of the most interesting times was the years spent in Papua New Guinea. Inspired by taking a degree in English and creative writing and a later career in teaching English, Mandy has been writing creatively for the last ten years. She has published a successful blog, written a dystopian novel for young adults, and begun many, many other writing projects…She has three children, one long-suffering husband, two grandchildren, five step-grandchildren, two badly behaved sausage dogs, and a tiny black cat who is in charge of everyone!
Papua New Guinea – The Crocodile Farm
If I were painting my past, this part would be executed in oils, richly textured, thick and viscous; representing exotic, slightly unnerving landscapes; a painting in the manner of Rousseau or Gauguin. Probably executed with a pallet knife.
The contrast between being in Papua and my place of upbringing was as marked as putting a Lego brick next to a snakeskin. Neither held any elements in common and the brick could never have prepared me for the snake.
The conversation about going to Papua New Guinea in 1974 didn’t have a specific beginning: there was no dramatic announcement that we were moving across the world. Just a trickling of mood; a zeitgeist that flowed from my father’s need to work abroad and my mother’s sense of loneliness as he took jobs in far-flung places like Kuala Lumpur, while the family ploughed on with the ordinary and mundane world of 1970s British suburban life.
‘That’s it,’ she announced when he returned home that Christmas, ‘I’m not staying on my own anymore. If you go, I’m coming with you’, her mouth in a familiar, determined line.
Weeks of stiff, sore arms later, arguments about leaving friends and familiars are long-spent and our life is packed into large chests that are being shipped ever-so-slowly to us after we depart, and I am flying for the first time ever.
‘Ooh, I hate flying’, says mother, her eyes shut, her head rolling against the seatback. I don’t, I find. It is exhilarating to feel, for the first time, the magnetic pull-back as the plane thrusts its way into the air. Camel cigarettes fog the cabin and are sickening their way into my throat, my stomach and my memory as air-sickness takes hold somewhere over Bahrain.
Lifting my head from the paper bag I am retching into, I stare at the impossible landscape outside my tiny, porthole window. It’s more like a clichéd Christmas card than a real landscape: a sunrise, sand dunes, a camel and its rider silhouetted against the orange of the sun.
Before we left for Papua, the family narrative began: did we know that PNG has some of the world’s most dangerous fauna? There is the blue-ringed octopus, from which you will die within minutes if you are unlucky enough to encounter one. So too with the stonefish, who in an unsporting manner lies just under the sand, I am told, waiting for the unwary pedestrian’s foot. It’s the most painful death you can imagine, but mercifully quick. The Black Widow spider, and so it went on….
From the perspective of time and the distance of living back in Europe, these things seem hard to believe. They are gross and have little to do with a sanitised, Western way of life. But accepting, and living with them, was the norm. Telling my children that I swam in crocodile-infested waters may be a pathetic attempt to impress them, Indiana Jones-style, but it didn’t seem out of the ordinary when we did exactly that in PNG.
Like the visit to the crocodile farm.
The crocodile farm, just outside Port Moresby, is something of a tourist attraction, and at that age, notions of how a crocodile became a crocodile handbag did not surface in my brain.
A gravelled car park lies beside the enclosures which have high fences and concrete walkways. We park amongst the dust and flies to emerge into the unyielding heat of the afternoon. There is in fact little difference between the heat of the car and that of the outdoors, mother being against air-conditioning on the basis that it sends a cold draught down the back of her neck, but the breeze as we drove is now absent and dark rings begin to form under the arms of my halter top. I feel the sweat trickle down, joining the moisture gathered in the small of my back and the waistband of my shorts.
The crocs sit low in the murky water, their hooded eyes, ochre and reptilian, the only thing showing apart from the occasional nostril. Some are draped across the ridged concrete surrounding the pools. Flies circle them, then move onto us, as fresh meat perhaps.
We gather around a pool, the crocs held at bay by some kind of leather noose on a stick, while they toss rotting chicken carcasses at them; we are treated to an impressive display of teeth. These teeth are often prized as a tribal decoration by native men. I ponder the process of catching and subsequent extraction.
I flick at the flies as the talk proceeds: they are fed this or that, at this time, but not every day. Babies are born after this many weeks and are this size. They grow at this rate, until they are fully grown, when they are this size…
This size is, in fact, a most impressive three and a half metres in the male freshwater croc, a fact which is clearly underscored by the arrival of a new croc. A van pulls into the car park as we are leaving. It stops next to the wire gates. On its roof is a cross between a rudimentary wooden coffin and a ski-box. This is hoisted down by sweating and shouting men, who strain to bear the weight.
A sudden slip, and the box begins to teeter towards one end; the two men holding this end bending their knees in an effort to take the imbalance in weight, like an adult on a seesaw with a child.
There is more shouting, and running, but not before the end of the box flies open. A crocodile emerges, like the birthday boy at a surprise party, taken aback by the unexpected light and noise.
There is silence for a beat.
Then the crocodile opens its mouth. Wide.
As if it has shouted, ‘go!’ the men run for the nearest car and clamber onto its roof. We get into our car, quickly, slamming the doors. Others retreat up the hill behind the car park.
Clearly there has not been a risk assessment written, entitled ‘what to do in the event of an escaped crocodile’. The men crouch on the top of the car, while the croc looks this way and that, before lumbering towards the gate into the compound. The gate opens, facilitated by the man who just so happens to find himself on the other side, and the croc walks slowly into the compound, past the man squeezed flat behind the gate, and slides into the water.
It is only now that we realize that we have been holding our breath.
Mandy’s book detailing her many adventures in Papua New Guinea, Nigeria, and beyond will be available to the public soon. Send us a message for more information – [email protected]