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Part I- A ship awaits

I was jolted from my slumber as gravity almost pushed me to the floor. A speaker from the cockpit blared, “WARNING.WARNING.WARNING.”  As the plane banked a hard left and climbed at a startling angle, I could see the blackened volcanic crust below recede until we were over cerulean blue water.

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Flying over blackened volcanic crust of Kilauea on  the Big Island of Hawaii

We landed moments later in Kono on the big Island of Hawaii, all of us thankful for our pilot’s expert skill at avoiding the violent downburst that had threatened our landing. Once on solid ground, we stepped into the warm, moist tropical air that signaled we were now in the South Pacific. Yet soon, after our brief refueling stop, we would once again be on our way. This was merely halfway to our destination, Papau New Guinea and the Bismarck Sea.

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A map of Papau New Guinea from WW2 era

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The Mountain tops of New Guinea through the clouds

I have long been fascinated with Papau New Guinea, a storied land, remote and mountainous just north of Australia. New Guinea has been known as many things; Shangri-La, blab bla bla,. Most famous for the late discovery of a lost civilization of warring people high in a cloud shrouded mountain valley, the land is also well known for its tangled jungles & vast mangrove swamps and for the cannibalistic tribes that inhabited them.

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The volcano Tavarvur as seen from the sea

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The wrecks hulls of ships litter the Rabaul Harbor

Once a sign of their fierceness, warriors would eat their enemy in order to possess their soul- the ultimate act of revenge for an insult, infraction or ancient deadly feud. Michael Rockefeller had lost his soul in the 50’s after he had inadvertently collected a sacred totem for the primitive art collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The totems can still be seen there today, on display in front of a large window overlooking Central Park and the Manhattan skyline. Only Michael’s underwear and distinctive eyeglasses were ever found.

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Some totems from Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the MET, and Michael with his camera

My wife, Mariann, fearing the current state of affairs, asked a myriad of questions of our host and was told in a stoic way, “Oh, the natives haven’t really practiced cannibalism since it was outlawed by the Dutch in the 1950’s.” It was the “haven’t really” part that made her squirm uneasily.

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The korowai tribe of Papua said to have engaged in cannibalism as recently as 2012

We touched down on the edge of the jungle on an abandoned Japanese airstrip, stopping just short of the gravel at the very end of the short runway. Towering coconut trees swayed in the thick warm breeze as we made our way through customs and to the vans that awaited us.

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A mural at Rabaul customs

A short drive later, we were met by a throng of people at the pier. We wondered what the event was, only to learn that they were there for us- they wanted to see the people who belonged to the boat.

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The boat wasn’t any boat; it was the M5, the tallest sloop in the world; a modern marvel of naval architecture, she was anchored in the distance awaiting our arrival. As we boarded our launch our weariness evaporated; our journey had just begun.

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A quick watercolor of the view of the boat