Wheel­chair odyssey

A jour­ney across PNG

Paradise - - Contents -

I found the peo­ple in PNG very friendly, help­ful and charm­ing, whether it was the flight crew on Air Ni­ug­ini flights or vil­lages along the way.

Frank Gard­ner was on as­sign­ment in Saudi Ara­bia when he was shot six times by Al-Qaeda ter­ror­ists and left for dead.

Gard­ner’s cam­era­man was killed in the 2004 am­bush, which left the BBC cor­re­spon­dent paral­ysed from the waist down.

Af­ter 14 op­er­a­tions and al­most a year in hos­pi­tal, Gard­ner re­turned to work. He’s since been em­bed­ded four times with the mil­i­tary in Afghanistan and trav­elled to Colom­bia, Bor­neo and the Arc­tic.

Just as sig­nif­i­cantly, his in­juries didn’t stop him pur­su­ing a child­hood dream last year: to see a bird of par­adise in the wild.

“I ski and scuba dive,” says Gard­ner, 55. “But the one coun­try I’ve al­ways wanted to go to, one of the most dis­tant, re­mote, ex­otic and dif­fi­cult places, has al­ways been Pa­pua New Guinea.” Gard­ner’s fas­ci­na­tion with the coun­try be­gan at the age of eight when he was given a deck of play­ing cards with colour­ful im­ages of birds of par­adise on the back.

“I asked my mum whether these birds ac­tu­ally ex­isted. When she told me where they lived, I said: ‘Can I go there?’ My dad promised to take me to PNG one day, but un­for­tu­nately he died be­fore it could hap­pen.

It was my great re­gret I didn’t go when I still had the use of my legs and I thought my dream had also died.”

How­ever, a chance en­counter with Bri­tish writer–adventurer Bene­dict Allen res­ur­rected the idea. In his 20s, Allen had lived with the Niowra peo­ple on the Sepik River for six months and un­der­gone the crocodile man ini­ti­a­tion cer­e­mony.

“I’m your man,” he said, when Gard­ner spoke of his un­ful­filled dream.

The ex­pe­di­tion started un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously in We­wak, when Gard­ner and his team had to evac­u­ate their guest­house af­ter a new TV set im­ploded and cov­ered the place in smoke.

The team then headed south, stayed in Yanchi­mangwa vil­lage, and spent time ex­plor­ing the Cham­bri Lakes re­gion in East Sepik Province.

For Allen, the trip was also a nos­tal­gic re­turn to Kandin­gai,

in the Mid­dle Sepik, a vil­lage renowned for its in­tri­cately carved spirit masks.

And just to make the trip even more chal­leng­ing, the team con­tin­ued on to the re­mote Hanse­mann Moun­tains in Madang Province.

“I found the peo­ple in PNG very friendly, help­ful and charm­ing, whether it was the flight crew on Air Ni­ug­ini flights or vil­lages along the way.

“I’m par­tic­u­larly grate­ful to Felix, my lo­cal com­pan­ion, a master car­pen­ter, who looked af­ter my safety and com­fort. He made the dif­fer­ence be­tween a tough time and a hard time.”

As most of the ter­rain was too rugged for wheel­chair ac­cess, Felix de­signed a wood and rat­tan chair with poles, which was shoul­dered by four peo­ple. Gard­ner was then car­ried in re­lays by hired lo­cals as he passed through the ter­ri­tory of dif­fer­ent clans.

“This was quite dan­ger­ous as we were go­ing along very nar­row hill trails with sheer drops,” he says. “If any of those guys had missed their foot­ing I would have tum­bled down and prob­a­bly bro­ken my neck. They took huge care, never missed their foot­ing once and never com­plained.”

Nar­row moun­tain trails and sheer drops were not the great­est dangers Gard­ner faced. Some­thing that seemed much more in­nocu­ous dis­rupted the dream.

Half­way through the ex­pe­di­tion, he dis­cov­ered two pres­sure sores. Look­ing at the pic­ture, medics con­sid­ered the le­sions lifethreat­en­ing and urged Gard­ner to seek im­me­di­ate treat­ment.

“I re­ally fought against the ad­vice at first and said I was clin­i­cally fine,” he says. “To prove it, I did 10 pull-ups on a beam in our hut, but fi­nally ac­cepted that leav­ing was the right de­ci­sion.”

Gard­ner was evac­u­ated by he­li­copter to Port Moresby and then flown to Bris­bane, where he spent five days in St An­drews War Memo­rial hos­pi­tal.

Gard­ner re­turned home, very dis­ap­pointed, to re­cover in London. But the dream was now too strong and he re­turned to PNG four months later with Allen. This time they flew from Port Moresby to Tari and Gard­ner was car­ried through forests in the South­ern High­lands.

Fi­nally, he got to see a bird of par­adise.

“The first time was frus­trat­ing. I could hear the birds call­ing to each other, but couldn’t see them be­cause I was stuck in a wheel­chair. But even­tu­ally I caught glimpse of this amaz­ing cas­cade of golden feathers and choco­late brown plumage.

“The first-ever glimpse of a bird of par­adise in the wild is a

mo­ment you never for­get. It’s a glimpse of par­adise it­self.”

Gard­ner also rhap­sodises about camp­ing in the High­lands and wak­ing to hear “the mag­i­cal, mys­ti­cal call from some­where in the dawn mist”.

“There was noth­ing but birds, fish and sky. It felt like heaven.”

An­other high­light was a river trip, with the ex­pe­di­tion greeted by vil­lagers in two large ca­noes.

“They came out beat­ing their drums in uni­son and dis­play­ing elab­o­rate head­dresses and neck­laces made with feathers from the very birds of par­adise I was hop­ing to see.”

Gard­ner’s odyssey was re­cently screened by the BBC as a twopart doc­u­men­tary called Birds of Par­adise: The Ul­ti­mate Quest.

For Gard­ner, see­ing the birds of his child­hood dream, of­fered “a form of clo­sure” to his in­juries.

“In a coun­try that’s largely in­ac­ces­si­ble to the dis­abled, the good na­ture and re­source­ful­ness of its peo­ple meant that, with a bit of de­ter­mi­na­tion, some­body who can’t walk can still visit one of the re­motest places on the planet and see one of the most beau­ti­ful crea­tures in na­ture.

“In travel terms it’s the holy grail.”

The first-ever glimpse of a bird of par­adise in the wild is a mo­ment you never for­get. It’s a glimpse of par­adise it­self.

On lo­ca­tion ... the wood and rat­tan chair on poles that al­lowed Frank Gard­ner to un­der­take his jour­ney in Pa­pua New Guinea; Gard­ner with a vil­lager (opposite page).

Sepik snap­shots ... vil­lagers along the Sepik River (this page); a bird of par­adise (opposite page).

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