David Attenborough's long association with Papua New Guinea
18 March 2019
Journeys to the Other Side of the World: Further Adventures of a Young Naturalist by David Attenborough, Two Roads (Hodder & Stoughton), ISBN: 978-1-47366-665-8, 414 pages, about $20-30 from most booksellers
TUMBY BAY - I think everyone with access to a television set has heard of David Attenborough, the British naturalist, broadcaster, writer and film maker.
Attenborough is 92 years old and still working. He is a passionate advocate for action on climate change and recently warned it is an existential crisis for humanity that could, if not remedied, lead to our extinction as a species.
I first saw him at a live presentation for school children in the late 1950s at the old Regent Theatre in Adelaide.
He had just published his book ‘Zoo Quest for a Dragon including the Quest for the Paradise Birds’ and it was the beginning of my fascination with the natural world and Papua New Guinea in particular.
I’ve still got my copy of that book but was interested to note that much of the PNG section has been recently republished in a compilation called ‘Journeys to the Other Side of the World’.
In 1956, Attenborough and his cinematographer, Charles Lagus, spent four months in the Highlands based at Edward Hallstrom’s experimental farm at Nondugl.
Lagus was the first cameraman engaged by the BBC to shoot natural history footage. He originally came from Czechoslovakia, now lives in Mauritius and, like Attenborough, is also 92 years old.
From Nondugl the two men walked into the Jimi Valley to join kiap Barry Griffin at the new patrol post he was building at Tabibuga.
They eventually walked with Griffin across the Bismarck Range to Aiome in the Ramu Valley and flew from there to Mt Hagen and then Nondugl.
Along the way Attenborough and Lagus got to see the work carried out by the taciturn and unflappable Griffin while they filmed and collected animals along the way.
One of the highlights of the trip was the filming of men making stone axes at Menjim in the Ganz Valley.
While on their assignment, both Attenborough and Lagus picked up a working knowledge of Tok Pisin and it seems developed a lifelong interest in PNG and its people.
Attenborough returned to make further films, including the very interesting if unfortunately titled ‘Savage New Guinea’, about first contact patrols.
The patrol was “still trudging wearily up never ending grass ridges with no sign of human habitation in sight” when Attenborough asked Griffin, “What lies there?” pointing “westward to a cloud filled valley”. “No one knows,” Griffin replied. “No one has been there.”
Attenborough’s first films and books had titles beginning with the words ‘zoo quest’ but this was later dropped as he developed an interest in not just the animals but the people he encountered on his expeditions.
Many of his films and books that describe these early encounters have become valuable records of societies that have since changed forever.
This new book gives a brief glimpse of life in Papua New Guinea that is long gone and will never be repeated.
The BBC fairly recently aired a program and showed Attenborough's early photos of the birds of paradise. In black and white of course does little to reflect the wonderful colours of the bird.
Yet B & W in our movies still enthralled us kids in the early post war years.
Posted by: Arthur Williams | 19 March 2019 at 12:44 AM
The Australian section is good too Johnny. I particularly enjoyed the stuff about the 'no hopers'.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 18 March 2019 at 04:57 PM
This is a bloody good book, I really enjoyed it not just for the PNG part, but for the section about Madagascar as well.
It's as much about the people as the wildlife.
Posted by: Johnny Blades | 18 March 2019 at 04:49 PM
Thanks Phil. Will look for a copy.
Posted by: Joe Herman | 18 March 2019 at 01:54 PM
Some great men of history like Alexander the Great died when he was only 33 years of age. He was a conqueror - death and destruction was his path to greatness.
But David Attenborough 92 and still working, still concerned for the continued existence of planet earth..
I visited the bedroom of another great man who invented the very electric light bulb I am using right now - Thomas Edison.
He kept working to create another 1000 inventions to improve living conditions of humanity.
Such men, no doubt live long .
Posted by: Daniel Kumbon | 18 March 2019 at 08:29 AM