Published: July 2007
Jennifer S. Holland

On the trail of the buff-tailed sicklebill, National Geographic senior writer Jennifer Holland crosses Papua New Guinea's Koko-o River, boots and socks in hand. "I routinely took them off to keep them dry when crossing," she says. "But it probably wasn't worth it because it always poured rain when we returned in the late afternoon. My boots were wet and completely soaked in mud besides. No matter how close to the fire I left them at night, they never really dried."


To be in a country like Papua New Guinea, climb steep mountains aided by agile barefoot kids, and see incredible, thick, broccoli-top forests was unlike anything I've ever done. But when it comes down to it, I was there to see the birds of paradise, and seeing them was extraordinary.

My particular favorite was the Carola's perotia. Its mating dance is so absurd that I could hardly keep from laughing. I watched—from within a blind—as the male did his thing, bowing and flapping and jutting his neck side to side in hopes of winning a romp with one of the watching females. But I had to stay quiet or risk scaring the birds away. So I'd sit still for hours, aching from my position and itchy from sweat and mosquitoes. I'd wait and hope that the birds would do one more act before my back gave out. And when they did, all that aching and sweating and itching was forgotten.


We had camped in tents for much of our time in the Papua New Guinea highlands, but for a couple of nights we stayed in a tiny village in one of the hand-built bush houses. While we appreciated the clan's hospitality, the sleeping arrangements weren't ideal. I wasn't bothered by the tight quarters; after all, entire families live in the single room that three of us had to ourselves. But in the highlands the local people build their fire pit in the center of the room, and smoke forms a constant cloud inside. With little ventilation in the room, the onslaught is nearly unbearable if you aren't used to it. My eyes watered constantly, I coughed like a new smoker, and I had to step outside regularly to get fresh air—much to the delight of the local kids who sat on the steps waiting for us to emerge. Sleeping was especially difficult, as we had no choice but to spread our sleeping bags right next to the ashy pit on the floor. To add insult to injury, cockroaches are prevalent in the bush houses. I tried to cocoon myself in mosquito netting, but could still, now and then, feel little legs skitter across my face. Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep on those nights.


I traveled with David Mitchell (of Conservation International) by small boat from the southeastern tip of Papua New Guinea to Fergusson Island, one of the country's smaller satellite islands. The four-hour trip was beautiful, and the people who hosted us on the island were extremely kind and tried hard to make me feel at home. Still, it became clear on my last day that not all of the villagers were thrilled by my presence. As is typical when visitors come and go, a large throng gathered as we packed the boat to leave. But this time there was a newbie in the crowd: a naked toddler, perhaps two years old, whose mother had walked him down to the beach for better viewing. This child had obviously never seen anyone who looked like me, and when he got his first glimpse, he began screaming in terror and ran crying into the woods. The adults and older kids laughed and tried to comfort him and lead him nearer to me, but he squirmed from their grasp and continued to wail as if I was some ferocious beast come to eat his family. I'll always wonder if his feelings about differently colored folks are forever tainted by that first terrifying moment.