thomas m wilson

Tim Flannery: The Great Australian Explorer

October 21st, 2008

Tim Flannery is an Australian expert on tree kangaroos.  In the 1980s he spend a lot of time in remote parts of Papua New Guinea.  I quite recently read the book that recounts his Papuan memoirs: Throwim Way Leg.  What follows are some hastily scribbled impressions of the book.

Tim goes to villages where people smell sicky sweet because of skin diseases, limbs are swollen, outbreaks of amoebic dysentery are regular… he himself records a frighteningly long list of diseases experienced over the course of his trips to the island: cerebral malaria, typhus, gardia, the list goes on.  He is almost killed by the people of one tribe he visits.  He meets people whose very high rate of infant mortality is only remedied by their irregular raids on nearby villages to kill the adult men for food and take the children to be raised as their own, and who accept this cultural norm without a qualm.  He goes to wild, wild places deep in the heart of the big tropics, and despite the sweat bees and mosquitoes swirling around him he manages to appreciate the beauty of the trees and the views and the animals.  He floats down a wild river on his inflatable mattress and circles through a log flotilla, looking up at the rainforest canopy rotate far above his head (later for find out that the river is infested with crocodiles).  He records this experience as one of the most magical afternoons of his entire life.  He meets people for whom their valley is the centre of the universe and for whom the outside world barely exists.  He meets great elder tribesman who are master hunters and perfectly imitate the sound and movement of a great eagle of their region catching its prey.  After everything what remains as a tension in my mind is the huge contrast between the dignity, ecological literacy, advanced cultural framework, and variety of the traditional peoples of PNG, and the atrocious and endemic violence, sexism, superstition, and crippling and painful disease that they also live with.  I would hate the outside world to impinge too much on some of the remaining ‘lost tribes’, and yet… how can I say this when their cultures also contain so much ignorance, violence and disease?  It is all very well my marveling at these people, but when their culture has such a paucity of scientific knowledge to lead to a belief in sorcery which can spark brutal murders of innocent human beings in the tribe next door, or to lead to people dying of things that might be remedied by some simple anti-biotics, then maybe my cultural curiosity should take a back seat and ‘development’ should take place using Australian aid money.  I don’t know.  It is a tension in my mind.

I do know that I have learnt an enormous amount about the identity of Australia’s closest neighbour through reading this book.  A salutary experience that I would recommend to all culturally curious Australians.  It was gratifying to read accounts of walking along a walking path thousands of years old through highland beech forest, or walking through an Aracaucia grove protected by custom as a sacred grove where birds of paradise sport with impunity, or stepping on a frog that gives a high pitched human-like scream and is then found to be new to science.  So much beauty and profusion of life seems to reside in the mountain forests of the island to my north.  It was also fascinating to learn about the cultural diversity of this island, for example to learn of an old woman weighing only thirty kilograms who suckled a particular pig in its infancy from her own breast and who still looks after the great beast in her old age.   And then to think about how much good a simple multi-vitamin or aspirin or mosquito net can do for many of these village people.  It made me want to take a trip up there with a load of these things and become a kind of regular benefactor of a village.  But then the tales of being constantly harassed by bugs and rats and being constantly wet, eating badly, and having no privacy, did not make me want to go there.  And having to fly to get around (with its attendant high financial costs).  The book has taught me that these people are terribly cruel to many non-human animals – cooking things alive often.  And sometimes terribly lacking in a spirit of conservation – felling a rainforest giant for some bark to make a roof for an overnight hut for example, or hunting species of mammal to local extinction.

However the bottom line is that this book is full of adventures in an amazing land which is just next door to Australia.  I was fascinated to read it.  I think Tim Flannery should be more widely recognized in Australia as a great naturalist and adventurer – if only on the merits of his memoirs in Throwim Way Leg alone.  He writes in a clear, and lucid English prose that does much to dissolve confusion and to express a humble and enquiring spirit.  He has shared some of his wonder at the great natural and cultural diversity of PNG with me, and for that I am thankful.