A journey across PNG
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).