IN the early months of 1971 I was leading a small, lightweight patrol through the vast northern rainforests of the Great Papuan Plateau.
We were looking for a small and elusive group of people rumoured to live there.
Most of the day had been spent wallowing through a sort of everglade swamp. When we finally got out of it, by sheer luck we picked up a narrow forest path. That cheered us up because we hoped it might lead us to our quarry.
We proceeded stealthily, as quietly as possible. The two policemen and I were swapped the lead every so often, not for any particular strategic reason but because we had a small wager going about who would be first to spot the creators of the path.
So it was by pot luck that I was first to see the Coca-Cola can.
This was before Coke cans had ring-pulls or pop-tops. We used bottle openers. In those days the openers came with a V-shaped tip used for pressing drinking holes into the cans.
The can on the path was empty. It had two V-shaped holes in its top.
There was some mineral exploration going on in the uplands to the north and I guessed the can had been carelessly tossed out of a passing helicopter. That it had landed smack in the middle of the path of an unknown group of nomadic hunters was a one-in-a-million chance.
Well, either that or the people we were seeking were a lot more sophisticated than we thought.
At the time, as we stood around marvelling at this most improbable find. Its significance didn’t occur to me. That only came years later as I watched the puzzled Kalahari bushman pick up the glass Coke bottle in the South African film The Gods Must Be Crazy.
Nowadays, as I reflect on those heady, long gone times, I realise that punctured Coke can was the beginning of the end.
Let me explain.
One of the most rewarding aspects of work for those kiaps lucky enough to be posted to remote areas was the opportunity to explore niches of pristine ‘newness’. That is, to go to places that were probably the same as they were a thousand or more years ago.
Archaeologists tell us humans first reached the Australian continent 50,000 or so years ago. Since they probably came through Papua New Guinea we can assume humans were in PNG even earlier.
In both cases their numbers were very low and remained that way. So there were many places on the island of New Guinea that people never reached.
I’ve been lucky enough to go to some of those secret places in Australia but they are far fewer than in PNG where the expansion of ‘civilisation’ was nowhere near as extensive.
And by ‘civilisation’ I mean human societies that existed in both places well before the white man appeared.
It strikes me as bizarre and facetious to claim that we Europeans brought ‘civilisation’ to places like Australia and Papua New Guinea when ordered and complex societies had been there for millennia.
Besides, the scale of our barbarity and stupidity far outstripped anything Aborigines or Papua New Guineans had to offer.
But back to the Coke can. There aren’t many places today, even in Papua New Guinea, where the ubiquitous dirty brown lolly-water hasn’t penetrated.
In Australia, maybe the barren interiors of the Great Victorian and Simpson Deserts; in Papua New Guinea, perhaps chunks of the deadly ‘broken glass’ limestone karst country in the Western and Gulf provinces.
That exhilaration and wonder at entering ‘new’ country, where it is highly likely no human footprints ever appeared before, has gone forever.
These days, when I sit in the sun and ruminate, I realise this exhilaration and wonder was one of the gifts I took with me from Papua New Guinea. An ephemeral one for sure, but still there in the dimness of a past reality.
As for the elusive nomads, we finally found them in a longhouse on an isolated ridge. “What took you so long?” they asked.