The wild beauty of Torasi – not as it was but still amazing
08 June 2016
HEMBOKO Nema’s unshaven cheeks crumpled beneath his wrinkled brow as the old man quickly turned away, attempting to conceal his teary eyes.
He faced me again, pushing his hands into an dirty string bag strapped to his side from which he took a lighter and a half piece of rolled tobacco.
I watched him, hoping this is not the end of the interview as he shakily lit the tobacco, inhaled and let out a puff of smoke that swiftly vanished into the cool afternoon breeze.
It was late on a Thursday afternoon and we were sitting quietly on the grassy lawn at the Bensbach Wildlife Lodge alongside the snaking Torasi River.
It’s located in the remote Morehead area of South Fly District deep in the heart of Western Province.
I sat waiting for Hemboko, a retired Army Sergeant, to gather his thoughts. I stared out to the Torasi River as it slowly zigzagged downstream to the distant flat plains.
The river’s journey formed deep puddles along its banks with water lilies and shrubs creating a beautiful and breath-taking scene.
The setting sun hung like a red-hot gold disc casting yellow and orange stripes across the pale sky and flocks of pelicans, sea eagles and other birds searched below for their evening meal.
“It is not like before,” Hemboko said, catching my gaze again and shaking his head.
He pointed to the other side of the river. “The plain was once filled with deer which came here to drink and wallabies grazed in those grasslands with their offspring.”
He lit his tobacco again and smiled at me revealing betel nut and nicotine stained teeth before continuing his sad story of the continuous poaching and destruction of this hidden paradise.
The Tonda wildlife management region is a vast wetland of international importance and the largest protected area in Papua New Guinea.
It forms part of the Trans-Fly savanna, home to herds of deer, wallabies, monitor lizards, crocodiles, cassowaries, sea eagles, pygmy geese and other rare mammals and birds whilst barramundi and saratoga fish enrich the waters.
The Torasi River and Bensbach flood plains were a dynamic stopping point for assorted migratory birds on their seasonal journey to and from breeding grounds and feeding areas between the northern and southern hemispheres.
Hemboko talked of the more than 250 species of resident and migratory water birds and the mammals that were disappearing fast.
Many were killed by poachers and local people to sell at the PNG border post at Sota.
Some took the meat across the PNG-Indonesian border into Merauke city, less than an hour’s walk from the border.
The sun had completely set behind the trees and the place was getting dark as I sat there feeling the weight of Hemboko’s sad tale.
Western Province covers nearly 100,000 km² and is the largest province by area in PNG. It’s the home of several large rivers including the Fly and its tributaries the Strickland and Ok Tedi as well as Lake Murray, the largest lake in the country.
The terrain is flat, generally less than 45 meters above sea level and includes tidal river reaches, mangrove areas, swamps, grassland, savanna woodlands and patches of monsoon forest where most trees are gum trees - acacias and melaleucas.
Bensbach Wildlife Lodge itself was built in 1972 and nestles amongst wild bamboo and eucalypt and mango trees with its well-kept lawn flowing into the Torasi’s swampy banks.
For all those years it has provided comfort to tourists, bird watchers, fishermen, interested researchers and writers from around the globe who have travelled to see the stunning natural beauty and to have the captivating experience of being in a wild place.
Earlier that Thursday, at around 2pm, we had arrived at the kunai-roofed Bensbach Lodge after a six-hour flight from Kerema on a PNG Defence Force Bell helicopter.
The team included foreign affairs, mapping bureau, customs and police representatives who were investigating poaching allegations and other illegal activities along the border.
That’s when I met the old Army Sergeant Hemboko Nema and heard his tale of good times past.
On Friday morning we travelled downstream along the Torasi River to be greeted by curious wallabies, sharp-eyed sea eagles, iguanas swimming in the river and exotic water birds. I understood what Hemboko meant.
I never knew some of these creatures existed but one thing was for sure, they all seemed to be enjoying the warm morning sunshine in their grassy home.
I’d like Hemboko to know that there are some places which are still something like they were before.
Great read, Alexander. Vistas of natural beauty marred by contemporary history.
Posted by: `Robin Lillicrapp | 08 June 2016 at 07:04 AM