Living in the PNG bush, far from your family and friends, far from so many aspects of life that you know, can be challenging. When the Mulder’s longstanding friends from home asked to visit, the Mulders were enthusiastic. They wanted to make the most of their time together and show their visitors what the Gulf is like. There isn’t much to see though. The river is omnipresent, the coconut trees and sago palms are ubiquitous. Ahh but the fireflies! They’re quite something! So a group was put together for a boat trip down river and we were invited.
Matt had to travel to Kikori the next day so decided that was more than enough boat transport for one week. I intended to surprise the children. I got them ready after dinner. We put on our long pants and gumboots despite the temperature still being up around 30- the mosquitos you see. We set off in the dark for the jetty. “Stop shining your torch in my eyes Isaiah!” I complained, though it fell on deaf ears.
We arrived at the jetty but it was obvious we were not going anywhere. The tide was out – completely out. With a tidal variation of about 3 metres at Kapuna, a full low tide meant our boat was well and truly stuck. We went for a walk along the long jetty instead promising the kids we would go the next day and this time we would make sure the canoe was right out before the tide went down.
The next afternoon Isaiah went to check on the canoe. He found it still sitting in its normal position up stream with the tide rapidly going out around it. Our driver had gone out and the message had not been passed along to take the boat out. Oh dear. Isaiah went to find the new driver. They decided to push the canoe out and gathered a group of hands to make it happen. Isaiah came home, changed into shorts, then climbed down from the jetty into the deep, thick mud and got stuck in along with the men and bigger boys. He came home triumphant at his success. “Pushing the canoe was such hard work Mummy!” he exclaimed, “I’m going to get really big muscles [bicep flex gesture]. “And I saw a mud snake! It was really big! It was just by my feet!” I have no idea what sort of creature a mud snake is, but as my eldest was in one piece, and no adults were disturbed enough by the incident to feel the need to mention it to me I comforted myself that mud snakes must be serpents of the benign variety.
As dusk fell we prepared ourselves again and this time successfully embarked. I don’t know how the Kapuna drivers manage their work in the pitch black darkness. In Wellington there is always light pollution, but this far from anywhere there is none at all. The sky stretched out towards infinity above us as we moved slowly away from the jetty and the stars gained incredible depth. We tried to make out constellations as we went along and the trees were silhouettes on the banks of the sedately flowing river. Even at low flow, however, the Wame, a tributary of the mighty Purari river moves thousands of cubic meters of water every minute. We were only moving at half speed, but in the near total darkness it felt dramatic and exhilarating. I wondered if I should pinch myself to check I was really and truly there. It was beautiful, it was surreal. I tried not to think about what would happen if we capsized for some reason. How would I reach both children? Isaiah was at one end of the canoe with the big boys and Mercy was at the back nearer the driver with two other little girls. Then we saw our first fireflies and I forgot all of those thoughts.
The first flies buzzed along near our canoe, we could reach out towards them and play games trying to capture them, like tinker bell, in our hands. Our driver skilfully steered us close to the far bank and we saw it was alight with hundreds of fireflies clinging to the bushes like tiny holes poked in the black sheet of darkness. It was magical. We travelled along the bank for several minutes before the driver again crossed over to our side of the river. We came across the famed firefly tree. It was like a huge Christmas tree covered in the warm glow of ever so many insects. The children laughed and reached out their hands for the insects. The second driver climbed skilfully from our canoe onto one the low branches and began shaking the tree. It started raining glowing insects all over us. They were on us and around us flying through the air. They crawled over our hands and lit up our tshirts. The children were delighted. Mercy took one in her hands.
We stayed for some time below the tree, looking up, trying to imprint the scene on our memories. I knew that, for our family at least, this was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Then it was time to go home. The canoe picked up speed and the warm breeze covered us again. Mercy had a little friend along for the ride though, her little firefly. “He wants to stay with me Mummy!” she exclaimed, “I’ll put him in a jar beside my bed”. “But darling” I explained, “if you keep him in a jar his light will go out”. “Oh” she said, unwilling to give up on the idea of a pet firefly just yet. But as we drew up alongside the jetty she told me “Mummy, my firefly has gone home”. Yes, I thought, that kind of magic can’t be held onto.