A “Man of the Jungle,” of Sorts

Part 3 of The Trip to Onei.


Part 1: Captain Write-Off

Part 2: Not Dead Yet

Steve and backpack

Steve on the road to Sumo.

Not finding a ride to Sumo, Sebby and I set out on foot. He found someone he knew who let us stay the night. After a breakfast of chicken flavored crackers and tea, we set off on foot again.

We took a shortcut along the beach around a tide pool the size of a lake. We went around it and looking back, the green, tropical mountains provided a backdrop for the tan lines of the beach and the blues of the ocean and the tide pool. I wished that my phone had some power left in it to take a picture.

We left the shore and walked inland along a trail. Morning water drops covered everything: trees, trail, and skin. Wet sand had invaded my shoes and socks and it wore on my skin. There was simply no expelling it until it dried, so I went barefoot. A woman saw me take my shoes off and said something to Sebby about it. “That’s alright,” he said. “Em man bilong bus.” The phrase is hard to translate into English exactly, but it meant something like “he’s a man of the jungle.” I took it is a big compliment.

Unfortunately, the truth of the compliment was soon challenged. Someone had cut down a tree and the log provided a way through a muddy section of path. Sebby walked along it without any problem, but I slipped off the narrow, wet log twice. I growled in frustration. “Look out!” Sebby called. “There’s sago on the ground! It’s got spikes!” At least one variety of sago palm has thin spikes as long as nails, and my feet could easily get punctured with them.

I couldn’t go anywhere. That had never happened to me before. I had walked on logs since I was old enough to walk. If I went forward, I would certainly slip, and maybe hurt my feet. I didn’t know what to do. “Wait!” Sebby called. He took a couple whacks with his bush knife (machete), and soon came back to me with some poles. I used these like cross country ski poles to walk along the log through the sago spike patch. We continued on our way.

We came upon a river. There are no bridges out there, but I didn’t see any boats, either. I wondered how we would cross, until I saw Sebby had removed his shorts. Okay, we were crossing on foot. I took one look at the mud at the side of the river and decided to continue barefoot. That was a mistake. I took off my backpack and lifted it high so it wouldn’t get wet, and stepped into the river. Round stones ranging in size between golf balls and baseballs covered the river bed. I can walk barefoot on gravel, but the stones hurt the arches of my feet. The rains had made the current strong and fast, and it came up to my waist. I had a moment of panic in the rapids but mastered it. I could do this. Sebby saw my face and asked for my backpack, but I carried it across the river on my own. We continued on the trail.

Soon rain came. It came down in tropical torrents. Neither of us minded. The clouds kept the sun from cooking my skin more and the rain kept the heat away. We took cover in a shelter, in what looked like a village to me, but I found out later that it was a camp for processing sago palms. The people make a starchy food called saksak out of the pulpy trunk. As the rain let up, some of the guys came and sat with us. One of them had a computer science degree but was working the sago palms with the rest.

The camp was within Sumo territory, and Sebby is Sumo. Women came out with both saksak and “cook bananas” (plantains) and vegetables in coconut milk. Restaurant food seldom tasted that good and we ate until we were content. I put my pack on, expecting to continue the walk. Instead, we moved to the next building, where I was told to rest. Women brought out more food, this time a plateful of prawns for each of us. I ate about half of them before I could eat no more. The others finished them for me.

We continued on. And on. And on. I had competed in a “sprint” triathlon not much more than a year before and I felt more bone-weary than I did running the end of that race. I sat down on a log. “I’m tired,” I said, a hard thing for an endurance athlete to admit.

“I feel it, too,” Sebby said.

“How much farther?”

“Just a little ways.”

I should have known better than ask the question. There are no vehicles with odometers out there. People have no way of judging miles or kilometers. “A little ways” can mean anything from “a little ways” to “a couple more hours.”

I pulled my pack on and continued. But this time it was truly only a little ways. We crossed a log bridge, saw the former location of Sebby’s house, and then came upon his current house. I could put my pack down and stop.

Sebby’s House

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