TACKLING TAIPANS IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA

One of the goals of my work in Papua New Guinea is to broaden the current understanding of the toxins deployed by the Papuan taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus canni) against both its prey, and unwitting human victims.

James Cook University PhD student Ronelle Welton was asked to help by exploring the proteomics of all three Oxyuranus spp.: the Australian coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus) and the Papuan taipan. Ronelle needed samples of Papuan taipan venom, and venom gland tissue to answer the question of whether anything in the venom of this subspecies differed significantly from its Aussie cousins, and we began planning a fieldtrip to Papua New Guinea to come up with the goods.

When I mentioned the trip to my mate Dr Wolfgang Wuster from the University of Bangor in the UK, he jumped at the chance to join us, and we began planning to meet at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Congress of the International Society on Toxinology in Cairns, North Queensland, and to fly from there to PNG at the end of the meeting.

Neither Wolfgang nor Ronelle had been to PNG before, but had heard all the stories doing the rounds about the dangers to life and limb - not from taipans - but from marauding Raskol gangs. 

God only knows what their initial thoughts must have been when I told them our plan would be to take a PMV (aka a 10 tonne canvas-covered truck with crude bench seats) 250 kilometres south-east of the capital Port Moresby to a village with no electricity, no phones, no airport, and frequently impassable roads that ... well yes, were occasionally frequented by the aforesaid marauding Raskol gangs ...

David Williams with a freshly caught male Papuan taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus canni)

Several weeks later however, the three of us boarded an Air Niugini plane in Cairns, and within two hours had emerged from the relative cool of Jackson's International Airport in Port Moresby into the heat of fine July afternoon. The captions with the photographs give the highlights of our journey ...

Some of the wonderful local people we shared a PMV with on our journey from Port Moresby to Moreguina in search of Papuan taipans.

Typically you turn up at the PMV stop in Port Moresby early in the morning and ask around until you locate a vehicle going in your direction. Then you climb aboard, stow your gear and wait ... sometimes for hours ... until the driver has a full load. Then you set off for a whistlestop tour of the other PMV stops in town as he hawks for more passengers ...

This is PNG-time and you have to be content to go with the flow ... a smile and a "G'day" soon gets conversations started to kill the time, and eventually after a last stop at a service station to allow passengers to fill their kerosene containers, buy last minute supplies of buai, tobacco and kaikai (food) ... the PMV rounds the corner at Six-Mile and heads out past the rubbish dump and squatter settlements onto the Magi Highway (if you can really call it "a highway")...

Patience really is a virtue ...

180 kilometres or so out of Port Moresby, our PMV reached the village of Upulima and we once again found ourselves waiting by the side of the road for transport. 

In no time we were surrounded by a throng of happy, laughing locals, who all shook their heads in amazement at news of the purpose of our journey. At the same time several people told us that PMV's had not been getting through the next stretch of "road" to Kupiano because of muddy conditions, and nobody seemed optimistic about our prospects of continuing that day.

Getting anywhere in PNG is always an adventure in itself, and while it can be frustrating and worrying if you are not used to it, this is just the way things are. There was nothing left to do but make ourselves comfortable and hope that a vehicle of some sort would pass by with sufficient space for our little group.

You want me to put WHAT in my mouth ???

Chewing buai or betel nut is ubiquitous throughout many Melanesian cultures, and PNG is no exception. Harvesting and selling betel nut provides a fundamental income to many families, and almost everywhere you go you will see the red stains left by the spitting of buai-stained saliva.

As we sat by the roadside at Upulima, Ronelle decided to find out what the attraction was, and a couple of local girls soon had her peeling a nut and chewing madly. The trick to buai chewing is to mix the chewed nut with native mustard dipped in lime (crushed reef coral). The combination of the lime, mustard and betel nut produces a red paste, and in addition to the buzz that comes from chewing, buai produces intense salivation making it necessary to stop chewing and spit the red saliva out through your teeth.   

Throughout the afternoon a group of young men from Kupiano had arrived and began working on a broken down Toyota utility across the road from us. After some discussion between them and our new local friends, we were offered a lift to Kupiano once they got the broken front CV joint repaired. 

We jumped at the chance, and eventually we were on the way again in the back of their second vehicle. but 20 kilometres further up the road we came to yet another halt as the front wheel of their battered vehicle threatened to part company with the axle. Eventually we left half the group with the broken down ("bugarup") ute and headed off again towards Kupiano...

Bogged to the axles ...

Just outside Kupiano our progress ground to a halt yet again when we came upon a PMV bogged to the axles in the thick black mud that was the main road into town. 

To add to the fun a Police Landcruiser was equally well mired in more of the same thick ooze just off to the side of the road!

Our drivers soon got out a length of steel cable, and within minutes had extricated the Police vehicle so we could make our own attempt ... only to become hopelessly bogged ourselves ... 

Pulled from the mud by the Police, we made several more failed attempts before eventually deciding to shoulder our gear, wade across the mud to the other side, and accept a lift into town from yet another good samaritan ... a local who had hoped to get through and head to Port Moresby, but who turned back upon seeing our predicament.

Early morning overlooking Marshall's Lagoon at Kupiano.

In Kupiano we were put up for the night on the verandah of a house on the banks of Marshall's Lagoon. After having taken all day to travel just 200 kilometres, it was a pleasure to stretch out in our sleeping bags on the timber floor and doze off while the moonlight glistened softly on the water nearby.

The next morning we thanked our hosts and headed into town to the local Health Centre hoping to contact their colleagues in Moreguina and let them know we were okay, but in need of transport.

The sister-in-charge was more than helpful, and in no time at all we found ourselves in the back of another utility and after negotiating the now rapidly-drying mud wallow that caused us so much trouble the night before, we were finally on the last leg of our journey to Moreguina.

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Except where stated otherwise all site content David Williams (1998-2007)