Some encounters with wildlife: Paul Dennett

My first posting away from the coast was at a school about 2 kilometers out of Maprik. An unforgettable feature of the tropical night there was the constant, and for a young expat on his own, mostly comforting chorus from the different insects in the vicinity. However, on some occasions, unable to get to sleep for the din, I was reduced to creeping about with a torch, determined to fix the problem, by locating the source of some strident noise that had begun to bore a hole in my brain. When I had located the culprit that was usually perched in the croton hedge surrounding my sleeping quarters, I apologetically used my thumb and forefinger to end his noisy existence.

When I was eventually reunited with my trusty little Honda 55 motorbike that had been shipped on from Aitape, I could make the trip to Maprik in a few minutes provided the river was not high. Returning after dark was always a bit of a worry as giant spiders used hitch their webs across the path that was quite narrow in places. It was not until I rode into them with a thud that I realised what had happened. Not pleasant!

Unlike the insects, birds had more to say during the daytime and at night were reasonably quiet, though plovers seemed to enjoy themselves, on moonlit nights particularly, calling and swooping about the green sward that was the school’s playground. There was one particular bird round Maprik that called regularly enough, moonlight or no. It produced a ghostly, thin sustained note that soon swelled out slightly, rose up a semitone or two, and then faded away to nothing. When I first noticed it, soon after coming to live at Balupwine school I made a mental note of its call and whistled it before the kids next day to their chilled amusement. They easily identified it as the call of the mikumaikak, the ghost bird, a harbinger of death. From then on, I listened to its call with a little more respect.

A colleague in Lumi told me that he was amused by the antics of his hausboi (male domestic) one night as he danced about trying to shoo a firefly out of the house. What was the purpose of all this to-do, the masta wanted to know. The hausboi replied that the insect’s appearance heralded an imminent death. Next day the masta heard that than an old man in a hamlet a stone’s throw away had died during the night. After that he followed the hausboi’s example and got any such straying insects out as soon as possible.

Like most expatriates, I found the gecko with its loud chuckle an endearing creature and welcomed its nightly presence. They clung upside down without difficulty on the ceiling stalking moths, their tails curling, perhaps in anticipation of their labours being rewarded with a tasty mouthful. They could even manage the difficult manoeuver of copulation without falling down, on most occasions.

One Easter, Helen and I had travelled from Wewak to Kairiru Island by mission plane for a break: a flight of just over five minutes compared to a sea voyage of several hours in a small smelly boat with an inboard motor. We did not realise for a while that the aircraft had returned to Wewak with our bags still sitting in its belly pod. The mission people at Kairiru felt guilty about this and lent us clothes for the four-day stay. These included an extravagant 1940s-style nightdress made of yards of pink satin that turned Helen into a Rita Hayworth look-alike. Their guilt also had them inviting us over for the evening meal as well. The special midday Easter feast was held at St John’s, the minor seminary, to which we were also invited. We sat expectantly at a large table as the nuns organised the local staff. I remember that a Marist Brother, a gloomy individual, was having a whinge about something. One of the younger sisters, a pert creature, responded with, “If you’re looking for sympathy brother, you’ll find it in the dictionary under ‘S’.”

As we sat there with our drinks, I discreetly elbowed Helen to indicate to her the large gecko turd that had just then landed right in my soup plate. Helen scowled and enjoined that I was to make no fuss. (What me fuss!) I passed it to the pert young nun and braced myself for a new taste experience! She was standing at the tureen ladling out the soup and dealing at the same time with the complaints of the gloomy Brother. The plate with the turd, by now full of soup was passed to him!  I breathed a sigh of relief.


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