“Motorbikes and mummies”
Of all the crazy shit I've seen in PNG, nothing holds a card to the smoked corpses of Aseki Province. No one knows why in a land where cannibalism was so ingrained that people even feasted on their late relatives, the people of Aseki began smoking and mummifying their dead. In 2015 I returned to PNG to find out. It was conspicuous timing as my old wantok Tossa in the east coast city of Lae had recently launched Niuguini Dirt, PNG's first motorcycle touring company. Which is how the 'motorbikes and mummies' tour was born.
My guide on this adventure is Tossa's right-hand man Malcolm, who’s half New Guinean, half Canadian. “I could live in Canada if I wanted to,” he says. “But everything's been done there. PNG is still developing and any business you open – be it a fishing charter or a motorbike company – becomes an overnight success.” It's just short of midday when we tear out of Lae on the Highlands Highway on a pair of highly strung KTM EXC 350s. At the 20km mark, we snake left onto the Bululo Highway and hit a 515m long single-lane bridge crossing the mighty Markham River. A second left turn down the old Wau Road takes us deep into a wet jungle, and in no time at all, we're covered from head-to-toe in gooey lukewarm mud. The river crossings are a blast, though less so for Malcolm who has to waddle in first by foot to check they're shallow enough to ride our bikes across.
Late in the afternoon, we hit a section of river that's so flooded it looks like a delta. We're sitting on our bikes trying to figure out what to do when two dudes in dugout canoes rock up and offer to take us – and our machines – to the other side. The canoes are quite thin but are anchored with outriggers and we cross without incident. We spend the night at Bulolo, a former gold mining town with a 9-hole golf course and plantation-style clubhouse where we smash a couple T-bones and a six pack of South Pacific Lager before passing out. By sunup the next day we're back on the road, darting through pine forests and valleys so vast they look like sets from Jurassic Park.
It's early in the afternoon we reach Angapenga, one of the villages in Aseki known for smoked corpses. There, we pick up a wantok of Malcolm's called Dickson who takes us to a spot a few kilometres down the road where we park our bikes and continue on foot. It's a gruelling half an hour slog through the jungle to the site under a cliff where the smoked corpses are assembled in bamboo shrines. They are more gruesome than anything I ever imagined, with perfectly preserved fingers and toes, skin clinging to bone and eyeballs dangling from sockets screamfest-style. I ask Dickson why and when the custom of smoking corpses smoking began. He tells me a bunch of crap that doesn't check out but redeems himself by picking up a loose bone and posing for a photo with it clamped between his teeth. The shot ended up on the cutting room floor but you can see some of the others I took for the BBC here.