Sometimes it’s the smallest things that have the greatest impact. Reading through the Lonely Planet guide to Papua New Guinea (an obvious rather than original place to start planning this journey) I came across this, tucked away in a little box at the bottom of one page:
Keep an eye out
Papua New guinea is still very much a biological frontier so it’s worth recording carefully any unusual animal you see. A photograph, local name, and description of where it was found will help a specialist identify it. In little-visited regions, there’s a chance that it will be an undescribed species. There are still lots of species – especially frogs, reptiles and insects – waiting to be discovered.
I’m sorry? You mean there are animals, big things like frogs and reptiles, that I might stumble over and find to be a whole new species? Maybe it’s lazy thinking, or I have got too used to living in well-mapped, well-ordered and built-up Britain, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the world was still so unexplored that anyone like me could ever do any real discovering. This short passage has completely changed the way I think, particularly about Papua New Guinea (PNG). In the past I had assumed it was just another country; now, I think of it as where the wild things are, a place for an adventure.
This is entirely personal, but I like to know that there are still wild places out there, somewhere. And, while I have no facts or stats to back this up, I think we as a people – as a species – actually need them too. (Robert MacFarlane explores this idea better than I could hope to in his book The Wild Places). There is an incredible sense of liberation in knowing that there is still something unknown, something left to wonder over. On the other hand, I worry that, as places like PNG feel the effects of climate change, we run the risk of losing places and living things we never knew existed. Somehow, that seems sadder, as if the loss is doubled.
Finally, the short passage above was written by Tim Flannery and it is not the first time he has quietly shown me just how much I have to learn. Last year, while working for a newspaper, I called him looking for a neat quote for a story on Australian drought. (Yes, this is how newspapers work. No, I know it’s not right). The answer I got was anything but neat. Flannery quickly realised how little I really knew about climate change and, with faultless manners, sent me packing to learn some more, fast. It was a wake-up call, and looking back I appreciate the lesson.
Years before I spoke to him, Flannery wrote the book Mammals of New Guinea. In doing so, he made 15 long, difficult field expeditions to the country, which he later described, saying: “In my naivety, I imagined when I set out on this quest that the world was fully documented, and that the great age of exploration had ended in the nineteenth century...My greatest discovery in New Guinea, perhaps, was finding out just how wrong I was.”
As I plan my own journey to PNG, I find that both a comfort and an inspiration.
As their island homes are swallowed by rising sea levels, the people of the Carteret Islands are being forced to leave in what will become the world’s first official climate change evacuation. Dan Box will be traveling to the islands in April and will be blogging live on his journey at www.journeytothesinkinglands.wordpress.com
The trip is made possible thanks to the Royal Geographical Society (With IBG) Journey of a Lifetime Award