Island of Secrets
If geologist, adventurer, and risk-prone eccentric John Lane can prove the existence of the elusive tree kangaroo...
“The world is apt to judge of everything by the success; and whoever has ill fortune will hardly be allowed a good name.” —Captain William Dampier, on the wreck of his ship HMS Roebuck after discovering the island of New Britain, 1699
In the summer of 2007, John Lane was driving along a rough dirt track on the western end of New Britain, an immense tropical island off the coast of Papua New Guinea, when he noticed a local man who had set up a large cage by the roadside. Lane, a California geologist and explorer who had traveled to New Britain on a research expedition, stopped to take a closer look. Inside the cage was an animal the size of a large raccoon, with a thick coat of soft gold-and-chestnut fur extending to the tip of its long tail. It moved languorously and looked at Lane with deep brown, heavy-lidded eyes set into a gentle face. In its curved claws it grasped a red jungle flower. From a captive specimen he had seen in the botanical gardens in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Lane recognized the animal as a species of tree kangaroo, one of the rarest and most elusive mammals in the world.
Lane was in his early forties, and his day jobs included running a small environmental consulting firm and working as an adjunct science professor at California State University, Chico. His obsession, however, was cave exploration, and during the previous decade he had mounted ambitious caving expeditions in the far corners of the world, including Borneo and Sumatra. But Lane was not a biologist, and his curiosity about the animal went only so far. The villager wanted 1,000 kina for it, about $500. What am I gonna do with a tree kangaroo? Lane recalls thinking. He snapped a few pictures and drove on.
A photograph circulated online. Lane started getting inquiries about it. A BBC film producer wanted to know where the picture had been taken, and several zoologists wrote asking if he had more photographs. The animal, they told him, wasn’t thought to exist on New Britain. Unlike their Australian cousins, tree kangaroos—genus Dendrolagus, from the Greek for “tree hare”—have, true to their name, evolved to live in trees. They are extraordinarily agile climbers, living high in the forest canopy and descending only to forage. Their long tails provide balance, and their powerful legs are like spring-loaded shocks, allowing them to jump from the upper canopy—as much as 60 feet up—to the ground, unhurt.
Today, most of the known species of tree kangaroo are threatened, several of them critically. They are endangered by overhunting and by massive habitat loss as New Guinea’s rainforests are cleared to create oil palm plantations. There are twelve known species, ten on mainland New Guinea and two more in northern Australia. The last known new tree kangaroo species was discovered in 1995 in a remote mountain range on the New Guinea mainland. In the world of comparative zoology, the discovery and description of new species are the building blocks of a career, but from what Lane could tell no specimen of tree kangaroo taken from New Britain had ever been studied.
Although New Britain lies only 50 miles offshore from New Guinea, deep water has always kept the two geographically isolated, and most evolutionary biologists believe the existence of native tree kangaroos on the island to be highly improbable. Even if the tree kangaroo Lane had seen was from the island, the theory went, it was likely the product of ancestors brought there to be used as pets or food by early human settlers arriving in open canoes as many as 30,000 years ago. The ecological term for an animal that has received this sort of human-assisted migratory boost is ethnotramp. The New Britain tree kangaroo could be a species brought from the mainland, or an altogether unknown variety: since no tree kangaroo like it had ever been studied, its provenance remained a mystery.
Lane sent out inquiries to some biologists in the field and received an enthusiastic email from Ken Aplin, a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution and an expert in Australo-Papuan marsupials who had worked extensively in New Britain. Aplin said he’d spent a recent field survey looking for fossil evidence of tree kangaroos on the island, hoping to clarify their origins as native or introduced. Kristofer Helgen, the Smithsonian’s curator of mammals, who has discovered 2 percent of the world’s known mammal species, sent Lane a note that read: “The New Britain tree kangaroo identity remains unresolved. Perhaps you will find some trophy skulls or other samples that will help resolve the tree kangaroo question.” That was all the encouragement Lane needed, and he began plotting an expedition in the hope of doing just that.
New Guinea and its surrounding islands are among the world’s great reservoirs of biodiversity. According to a tally by the World Wildlife Fund, more than 1,000 new species were identified there in the past decade. The vast majority of these were plants and invertebrates—important to science but hard to put on a fundraising poster. New species of charismatic megafauna, on the other hand, are extremely rare. If the New Britain tree kangaroo were somehow a species previously unknown to science, it would be huge news, alone worthy of an adventure.
But Lane began to develop a grander vision for his mission: Perhaps the discovery of the tree kangaroo could lead to the preservation of thousands of square miles of rapidly disappearing wilderness on the island. By some estimates, half of New Britain’s primary tropical rainforest had been lost since the country gained independence from Australia in 1975. An application for Unesco World Heritage status for New Britain’s Nakanai Mountains had been submitted by the nonprofit Conservation International in 2006 but had made little progress toward ratification. “If there were a major discovery,” Lane told me, “it’d kind of be a freight train for conservation. Maybe there would be a greater sense of urgency.” He seized upon the idea of the tree kangaroo as a catalyst to action, an animal that could catch the imagination of scientists, the media, and the world.
Lane called up a friend at the Sierra Nevada Brewery, which is based in Chico and is known for its interest in environmental causes, and coaxed the beer maker into sponsoring his enterprise. During the following several summers, Lane coordinated expeditions into the trackless wilderness of the Nakanai, a largely unexplored range of limestone karst riddled with thousands of caves. Tree kangaroos had been spotted in the region by locals, and the prospect of exploring its vast and uncharted cave network was an additional enticement for Lane. In 2009, he got together a crew of scientists and student assistants from Chico State and hatched a plan to operate the kangaroo search and conduct other biological surveys from a jungle base camp at the edge of a lake that filled an enormous caldera, the cauldron-like center of an extinct volcano. The area is one of the wettest on earth, receiving more than 24 feet of rain annually. In a world that, to Lane at least, seemed to harbor fewer and fewer mysteries, the New Britain tree kangaroo was a concrete example of nature yet to be discovered. He imagined the creature as an avatar of a wildness he wanted both to witness and to conserve.
There were, it should be pointed out, some logistical hitches to Lane’s plan to find a tree kangaroo, not the least of them the fact that he was a geologist, not a biologist, and knew almost nothing about the behavior and habits of genus Dendrolagus. In addition, Papua New Guinea is one of the most remote, difficult, and expensive places in the world to mount an expedition, with few roads and little infrastructure to speak of, and with a population frequently volatile toward foreigners. Terrible weather, impenetrable terrain, malaria, crocodiles, high crime, corrupt public officials: I easily discovered these obstacles after a few minutes of Googling. None of them are likely to be made simpler by having your chief sponsor be a beer company. And yet in the summer of 2011, when I first spoke to John Lane and he invited me to come along on his next expedition, something about the way he described the landscape of the Nakanai silenced my doubts. I booked a $3,500 plane ticket and packed my bags.
The cloud-draped, dark green coast of New Britain rose out of the impossibly blue waters of the Solomon Sea, its march of volcanic cones vanishing into a haze set aflame by an equatorial sunrise. The crescent-shaped island is 14,000 square miles, home to nearly half a million native Papuans and Austronesians who between them speak dozens of distinct languages. In the previous 47 hours, I had traveled more than 12,000 miles on five flights—JFK–LAX–SYD–BNE–POM–HKN. I had crossed both the equator and the international date line to get there.
Scarcely a road or clearing was visible in New Britain’s forested and mountainous interior, where steep valleys carved their way down the flanks of volcanoes. Near the north coast, the mountains eased into plains. The forests morphed from the rugged texture of native canopy into a flat and uniform pattern of green dots. These were oil palm plantations, an economic bonanza and an ecological nightmare. From the air, the landscape seemed like something dreamed up by a computer: nature expressed in binary absolutes. Millions of acres of rainforest in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea have been razed to make way for “green gold.” An acre of mature palm trees can produce nearly three tons of oil in a year, and palms now supply a third of the global edible-oil market. There is an almost limitless appetite for it, in products from soap to chocolate to lipstick to biodiesel.
When we landed at the tiny, oil-palm-surrounded airstrip in the coastal town of Hoskins, a throng of Papuans stood pressed against the airstrip’s fence. I was met by a Papuan driver and piled my gear into a white Toyota Land Cruiser with “Hargy Oil Palms Ltd.” stenciled on the door. Conservation attracts strange bedfellows, and John Lane had taken up with an organization that would otherwise be his natural adversary: one of the largest palm-oil producers in New Britain. One of the very industries that Lane hoped to keep from despoiling the forests of New Britain was also a chief supporter of his expeditions.
Palm oil has a serious public-image problem. Environmental groups have faulted the industry for the massive deforestation in Borneo and Sumatra that is pushing the orangutan toward extinction in the wild. In 2004, some companies and nonprofits got together and created the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) with the goal of creating sustainably produced palm oil. The RSPO now includes enormous multinational corporations like Cargill, Unilever, and Nestlé and environmental nonprofits like Conservation International. By meeting a strict set of environmental guidelines, producers could become certified sustainable. What sustainable really means, and whether environmental groups are participating in a greenwash of the industry or an exercise in realpolitik, is a source of much debate and hand-wringing in environmental circles.
Hargy Oil Palms, as part of its effort to meet its RSPO goals—or at least appearing to—was lending its support to Lane’s expedition. When I asked Lane about this, and whether it represented an attempt to make palm oil seem eco-friendly, he was acutely aware of the irony but unapologetic. “They have a very serious mandate to achieve sustainability,” he told me, “and sponsoring us is part of that. They know that I’ve been critical of their industry in published papers, but working with them is really the best way to have input in what they do.”
We tore off in high gear, the diesel 4x4 roaring and jouncing over potholes as the Papuan driver shouted stories to a pair of industry auditors who had arrived on the same flight. He spoke in Tok Pisin, the creole of Papua New Guinea and the lingua franca of the country’s 860 language groups. I stared out at mile upon mile of perfectly straight rows of oil palms, their fronds spliced into gothic arches, our movement opening up ever shifting lines of perspective far into their shady depths. Dark-skinned, shirtless Papuan men with polesaws harvested great bunches of the bright red palm fruit and stacked them in piles by the roadside.
We drove for several hours, over dozens of bridges that wash out with every rainy season, past sulfuric-smelling volcanic springs boiling up from the ground. There are still dozens of active volcanoes on the island; its former capital, Rabaul, was crushed beneath three feet of volcanic ash in 1994. The town can still be reached only by airplane or boat. We finally arrived at the Hargy Plantation, and a uniformed guard opened a barricade as we drove past neatly cropped expanses of lawn and bushes filled with hibiscus blossoms. John Lane was sitting on the porch of the guesthouse when we pulled up, looking out over a wide sweep of coast far beneath him.
Lane kept his thinning hair cropped close, framing a sun-creased face, ruddy cheeks, and a wide gap-toothed grin. His patter was Northern California laid-back, a sort of stoner deadpan. Knowing New Britain mosquitoes carry deadly falciparum malaria, I asked him what kind of malaria pills he was using. “They’re actually anti-malaria pills,” he replied. “I think you might have the wrong ones.”
As we talked, he stooped to pick up a stick from the ground, balancing it on his forearm. Closer inspection revealed it to be a spike-covered, cigar-sized New Guinea spiny stick insect. The enormous bug tried ineffectually to escape, marching slowly back and forth along Lane’s arm. “We make some of our best insect collections on the lawn right here,” he told me. An iridescent green bird-wing butterfly the size of a paperback drifted by on the breeze.
This was the first time in weeks Lane had emerged from his base camp in the caldera. There, a crew of several researchers and a few students from Chico State conducted surveys and collected insect and animal species. We may live in a world that seems bereft of geographical blank spots, but even through the unblinking gaze of Google Earth, the caldera’s low-resolution satellite imagery was obscured by clouds. “There are less and less of these places in the world,” he told me as we studied an old topographical map of the caldera. It was as close to terra incognita as one could wish for, an irresistible attraction for Lane.
Of course, being off the map is not always best for a nation’s economic survival. Papua New Guinea won full independence from Australia in 1975, and 97 percent of its land is still in the hands of its native tribes. It is astonishingly rich in natural resources—copper, natural gas, timber, palm oil—and yet remains one of the world’s poorest countries, with a per capita GDP of less than $1,500. In the past generation, there has been a massive boom in resource extraction across the country, including a $15 billion Exxon Mobil pipeline project, though little of the new wealth has trickled down to the natives. Official corruption is rife, and the nation’s capital, Port Moresby, is a crime-ridden pit where boomtown contractors stay in $500-a-night hotels and gangs of “raskols”—disaffected youth from the highlands—wreak havoc outside compound walls.
Graham King, the Australian general manager of the Hargy palm-oil plantation, sat drinking tea on the porch with Lane and defended the oil palm industry as an economic necessity for New Britain. “No other cash crop survives here,” said King. “Oil palm is a beautiful fit in this rainfall and soil.” He pointed out that in 2010, the plantation paid out $20 million to 3,500 small oil palm growers in the area, on top of wages to plantation workers of $15 million. “In a developing country, people’s livelihoods are important,” said King. “Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth don’t seem to realize that.” Nevertheless, it is one of Papua’s many paradoxes that the palm-oil industry has become critical to its citizens’ survival even as it has destroyed the environment they inhabit.
All of King’s product is shipped to Europe, and the largest buyers of palm oil—multinational manufacturing giants like Nestlé and Unilever—claim they will convert to 100 percent RSPO-certified palm oil by 2015. Even the Girl Scouts have pledged to make their Thin Mints and Samoas contain oil derived from sustainable palm-oil plantations. Less than 10 percent of the 50 million tons of palm oil produced annually meet the RSPO sustainability standard, but King wants to be on the right side of history, or at least the market. One of the key RSPO standards, which has made Lane much more comfortable working with King, is that primary forest cannot be touched. This doesn’t at all mean that the forests of New Britain are protected; it just means that Hargy Oil Palms won’t be clear-cutting the forests. They are nevertheless being rapidly destroyed by logging, expanding agriculture, and oil palm operations not following the RSPO guidelines. King swept his hand over the topographical map of the area where Lane’s base camp is set up. “It would take two years and it would be all gone,” he said. A 2008 report in the journal Biological Conservation showed satellite evidence that a fifth of New Britain’s lowland rainforest had vanished between 1989 and 2000. Since independence, perhaps half of the island’s forest cover has disappeared.
Enter John Lane and the mysterious tree kangaroo. Lane is not a policy wonk or a development expert, and he has little interest in being part of the NGO world with its endless meetings and half-measures. His dream role in conservation is the spectacular turnaround, the heroic diving catch, employing mainly a sense of adventure and force of will. If the tree kangaroo were out there, and if he could demonstrate its value to the world, it might be the tipping point to save this place. There was, of course, the small matter of finding the thing. This was Lane’s third venture into the forest of the Nakanai to look for it, and he planned to push himself farther into the unknown landscape than he had ever gone. His take on it seemed to echo the doomed mountaineer George Mallory’s famous words on climbing Everest. “We’re going out there,” Lane told me, “to see what’s there.”
The Hargy Plantation covers 25,000 acres, and we followed a dirt road to the plantation’s outermost edge, where the endless lines of oil palms ended and the rainforest began, to begin our search. At the trailhead, a half-dozen “bois” waited for us in the shade, wrestling and goofing around with each other in their native Nakanai. (“Boi” is the Tok Pisin term for a guy; the girls are called “meris.”) They were from the Nakanai tribe and lived in a village of thatched huts near the plantation, where many of their fathers and older brothers worked. They were all barefoot, and chewed buai, a mixture of betel nut, mustard, and lime that turned their teeth bright red. Lane had hired them, for seven dollars a day, to ferry loads of fuel and food along the muddy five-mile trail to base camp. One had carried in a 30-pound car battery for the radio, another a huge propane tank for the stove.
The bois were like teenagers anywhere on earth, loud and anarchic when in a group, and basically indifferent to me. The language barrier was nearly insurmountable, with Lane knowing only a few phrases in Tok Pisin and none at all in Nakanai. One of the better English speakers was a good-natured twentysomething named Daure—pronounced “dowry”—who had become a village hero after being chosen for the national cricket team. Daure taught me one of Tok Pisin’s most useful words, bagarap: damaged, broken, destroyed. It derives from the British colloquialism buggered up and can be used to describe anything from flat tires to geopolitics.
Employing the bois was part of the bargain for being allowed to set up base camp in the forest, Lane told me. The Nakanai tribe communally owned all the forestland that lay before us. The problem Lane faced was getting the tribe to recognize the lasting value of conserving the place. Everyone in the tribe was aware that their forest represented millions of dollars in quick and easy wealth, and the material temptations of modernity are pervasive and ubiquitous. Money, materialism, capitalism: Lane knew he couldn’t shield the Nakanai from the corrosive influences of the developed world. “In the past five years, I’ve seen the rapid Westernization of the landowners,” said Lane. As if to illustrate this, one of the bois walked by, a pair of bootleg “Calvin Klain” underwear showing above his waistband.
We descended along a steep trail, the bois leaving barefoot prints in the black mud. Hornbills flapped overhead, their wings carving a deep whoosh whoosh whoosh through the air. Epiphytes—plants that grow upon other plants to reach sunlight and nutrients—dangled from overhead branches like chandeliers. Understory plants grew head-high where an old-growth tree had recently fallen and opened up a gash in the canopy. The perfectly smooth and multihued trunks of rainbow eucalyptus shot straight through, eight feet across and topping out 250 feet above the forest floor. Those trees are a favorite of pulp companies, Lane explained, and are said to make excellent paper. This was the third time Lane had set up base camp in this spot in the caldera, and each year the jungle swallowed all signs of their presence, the trail erased by crowding plants. There were dozens of water crossings on the walk in, and we scrambled down steeply carved banks and forded knee-deep streams.
On an earlier expedition, Lane had handed out copies of his tree kangaroo photograph and asked several locals to keep an eye out and send him any reports. He had received an email from Angelus Palik, a plantation employee:
For your information tree kangaroos do exist on the island of New Britain. We sighted one adult (female) about 3 km inland from Area 12 next to the Lake Hargy. The adult female escaped and we caught its baby and took it home. We gave the tree kangaroo some sugar cane and banana. Unfortunately it died.
I asked Lane what became of the body of the tree kangaroo joey, which would seem to be a key piece of evidence in the mystery.
“They ate it,” he said.
As I clambered over fallen logs, I scanned the canopy for tree kangaroos and checked the trunks of trees for their telltale claw marks. Lane told me to keep my eyes on the trail. If I wandered off the route, I could easily fall down tree holes, where hot lava cooling around ancient trees had left deep cylindrical shafts dropping as much as 10 feet straight down. I stared anxiously at the jungle floor, and as we walked Lane told me about himself and his previous adventures. He grew up in the middle of a pack of eight siblings, his father a nuclear engineer who traveled the world with his huge family. They lived in Tokyo when Lane was a child, and by age 7 he would wander for hours around the city, searching its strange alleys and corners totally alone. It was a kind of freedom children are rarely afforded today. He thrived on it.
His childhood gave him a taste for exploration, and he got into caving in his twenties. There was something about caves that captured Lane, perhaps the mystery of going someplace no human being had ever gone. Caving was also what first lured him to New Britain, its limestone karst riven with hundreds of miles of tunnels. Lane had heard of whole rivers vanishing into the island’s fissured earth or shooting out of mountainsides like fire hoses. There were vast caverns home to colonies of bats with five-foot wingspans. Throughout the 1990s, in his quest for places as untouched by man as possible, he had traveled the world on a series of caving expeditions. In Borneo, he descended miles into the Sarawak Chamber, the largest cavern ever discovered. “A quarter-mile wide, half a mile long, and 400 feet high,” Lane told me. “They say you could put four 747s end to end and spin them around.”
He soon led another expedition, to the Gunung Buda (White Mountain) cave system in Borneo, for National Geographic. The massive caves were filled with endemic species and spectacular rock formations. Lane was so inspired by what he saw that he arranged to meet with the Malaysian minister of the environment to preserve the extraordinary site. Eventually, thanks in part to his efforts, the Gunung Buda became a national park.
Through that experience, Lane saw how a big discovery could lead a government to act in the name of conservation. If it could happen there, why not in New Britain with the tree kangaroo? He recognized the differences in the two situations. “Getting things done here is a lot harder than any other place I’ve been,” Lane told me. “I keep thinking I’m getting closer to some solidification of conservation of the area, and then I don’t know. Would it just be a paper park?” But having had a taste of what adventure and exploration could achieve, he’d decided to make a life of it.
This sort of life had its victories, but there were great risks. Things could easily go too far and spin out of control toward the irrevocable. And so they did in 2001, when Lane and a good friend and expedition partner, a 34-year-old archaeologist named Adam Bodine, went “tubineering” with a group of 18 people, riding inner tubes in extreme Class V whitewater down the middle fork of the Feather River in California. Running through a particularly difficult section of rapids, Bodine was tossed from his tube and drawn into a strainer, a barricade of boulders and logs that allows current to flow through but can quickly trap a person. He vanished. “Nothing came out the other side but a shoe and a helmet,” said Lane. He and a few of his companions searched frantically, but after 10 minutes had passed they knew their friend was dead, his body lost beneath the rushing water. Lane was devastated, sobbing as he broke the news to the rest of the group.
Bodine’s death had a tremendous effect on Lane, reinforcing the enormity of the risks that he undertook. It was all an abstraction, he felt, “until shit goes down.” But that abstraction had been made manifest in the worst possible way. Lane returned two months later and spotted his friend’s skull at the bottom of a pool downstream. “He always lived his life at the limit,” Lane told me. “I think he accepted that outcome as a possibility.” It was a matter-of-fact assessment, perhaps a defense that Lane had constructed knowing that such a fate might befall himself as well. Lane had a daughter by then, a fact which underscored the consequences of the risks he took. But he couldn’t entirely withdraw from a life of adventure and found himself soon drawn again to the ragged edges of experience.
In more than a decade of globe-spanning cave expeditions, Lane had had a wide array of close calls: A tiger had paced around his tent in Sumatra; an angry tribesman had brandished a spear at him in Papua New Guinea; he'd stepped on a king cobra in Borneo. There were encounters with crocodiles, bears, pit vipers, kraits, sea snakes, and rattlers. But none were so close as one day in August 2006 when he descended into the Bigfoot cave system deep within the Marble Mountains of Northern California. Bigfoot was an adventure much closer to home, one of the deepest alpine caves in North America. The year-round temperature in the cavern is 38 degrees, and he and his group of fellow explorers made a 300-foot rappel from Bigfoot’s entrance down a series of steep pitches. As he lowered himself to the floor of the grotto, a 400-pound chunk of rock came loose from the wall in the darkness, smashing into his chest and knocking him to the ground. At the same instant, a massive boulder broke away from the rock face and became wedged against the wall directly over his head.
Lane was smeared with dirt and blood and badly bruised, and when his companions pulled him up, they discovered he had fractured his calf bone, the break nearly coming through the skin. The group’s first-aid supplies consisted of two Advil and an elastic bandage. Lane didn’t go into shock, but that only made the pain more acute. Worse, with just one usable leg, Lane knew he could never climb back out the way he had come in, even with his companions’ help. But there was, according to their charts, an alternate route, a quarter-mile belly-crawl through a narrow crevice with the Lovecraftian name Lurking Fear.
Dragging his leg behind him, Lane hauled himself forward through the blackness alone, trying to keep his face clear of the 36-degree stream that half-filled the passage. After a soaked and freezing crawl that seemed to take hours, Lane had to climb a steep rock face, his useless leg dangling as he ascended in his harness. The slightest jostling of his leg caused him agony. “The only relief was knowing that each step was one closer to home,” Lane later recalled. He finally scrambled out to sunlight and reached the group’s base camp. After drinking an entire box of wine to blunt the pain, he fashioned a crutch from a branch and limped five miles back to his car.
The incident frightened Lane and his wife, Anna. Of course, it wasn’t the first time: Lane’s frequent absences from his family had never been easy, but with two kids they had become far more of a burden. Anna had been with him since she was 20 and he was 25. She had fallen in love with his spontaneity and curiosity, his willingness to drop everything and go on an adventure. Despite Lane’s broken leg and the thousand other near misses, Anna somehow remained calm about the physical risks he undertook. She knew that worrying would just consume her but accepted those risks were an inextricable part of who he was. Lane had curbed his expeditions after their first child was born, in 2000, but once their daughter was a little older he had persuaded Anna to let him go off again. Now the agreement was that he would not leave home for more than four weeks at a stretch. Lane loves his family but he’s still drawn to the edges of things. Besides, he told me, after he nearly blew up the entire family with a home fireworks display the previous summer, “Anna was glad I wasn’t home on the Fourth of July this year.” When I asked her what she thought motivated Lane, Anna conceded to me that he remained something of a cipher to her. What made him do what he did? “I know him really well, and I’m still trying to figure it out,” she said.
At 6 p.m. on the dot, thousands of cicadas buzzed in the forest. You could set your watch by them: a pulsing hybrid of subway brakes and jet engines. The sun dropped below the horizon, and the forest gloom deepened. As we stumbled the last mile by headlamp, I spotted a strange light along the ground. On a rotted log there grew a colony of bioluminescent mushrooms, each tiny gill clearly drawn in glowing green. Not long after, we arrived at the base camp, a wide clearing hacked out of the forest, with an enormous tarp strung across poles and tied down with vines. A large banner for Sierra Nevada Brewery hung across the entrance. This would be the staging ground from which we’d stalk the tree kangaroo.
A shout of greeting went up from a group of bois in ragged shorts and T-shirts sitting around a smoky fire of half-green wood hacked from the forest and split by machete. One picked up a burning ember and lit a Spear cigarette, a leaf of local tobacco rolled in newspaper. They all chewed betel nut, spitting the juice in theatrical blood red arcs onto the ground. A noisy card game was played by several bois splayed across a stick bed, and a radio broadcast some kind of screechy, saccharine Papuan tween-pop that made me long for the cicadas. A propane stove held a pot with our communal dinner, a glutinous mass of ramen and canned tuna mixed with gume, a spinach-like forest fern. There were about 10 bois and meris in the camp at any given time, and they were beginning to wear on Lane. They would stay up shouting over card games until 2 a.m. each night, and by sunrise at 5:30 were back at their game, seeming never to sleep.
The bois and the meris weren’t the only people besides Lane at the camp, however. As I strung up my hammock between a pair of trees, a bright light shone directly in my eyes. It came from a headlamp belonging to Dylan van Winkel, a herpetologist from South Africa by way of New Zealand. He was chasing a frog that had hopped along the leaflitter past his laboratory, a tarp strung above a table made of sticks lashed together with vines.
Dylan had joined the expedition with his girlfriend, Sarah Wells, a 30-year-old Brit working toward a Ph.D. in ornithology. They were committed zoology freaks. There was nothing more fun than spending weeks euthanizing skinks or scanning for nesting grebes (diving birds) waist-deep in a marsh. They lived together in Auckland, and Dylan had spent months reaching out to every field-research expedition he could find, hoping they’d be able to join one. Their dream was to get on board with one of Conservation International’s legendary Rapid Assessment Programs, well-funded blitzkrieg species surveys in some of the most remote and biologically rich locales on earth. In Papua New Guinea in 2009, 200 new species were found by CI field surveys, including a species of fruit bat that made headlines around the world for its uncanny resemblance to Yoda.
If Papua New Guinea is the World Series of zoology, in comparison with CI’s rapid assessments Lane’s expedition was the Chicago Cubs of field surveys, underfunded and a bit haphazard. But Lane was Dylan’s most enthusiastic supporter, so that is where the pair had cast their lot. They didn’t know much about New Britain, but there was always that lingering dream that something extraordinary and new would manifest. They certainly believed that they were looking in a good place. They had both taken thousands of photographs, gorgeous color-saturated portraits of the strange, tiny, fluttering, slithering things that populated the forest. “The biodiversity is just huge,” said Dylan. “We’ve been seeing all sorts of crazy-ass insects.”
Dylan was a 25-year-old with a surfer’s build, curly black hair, and a three-week scruff of beard. He told me his ringtone alternated between the themes from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. He showed off his collection of “herps” by the light of his headlamp. That’s herpetofauna—amphibians and reptiles—most of which in New Britain are poorly documented. He had collected dozens and went out frequently at night to spotlight them on the wet leaflitter of the forest. Each one he caught would be euthanized with a shot of pentobarbital, the same drug recently approved for administering the death penalty in Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Florida. With tweezers, Dylan would extract a tiny sample of liver for genetic analysis and preserve the rest of the specimen in alcohol. His “lab” was a stick table covered by a tarp, with stacked Tupperware containers filled with coiled snakes, board-stiff frogs, and vials containing scorpions. He was hoping that some of what he had collected would be new to science.
Sarah had already observed and cataloged dozens of bird species around the base camp, but some of their other collection attempts had been less successful. The wire-mesh lizard traps they'd had Lane climb to place high in the tree canopy had been turning up empty. Dylan gestured to a large bundled net on his worktable. “That’s a mist net,” he said. “It’s for catching birds—or mist.” Sarah sounded discouraged. “I think we need to rethink our strategy,” she said. The one mammal they had managed to trap, a large native rat that Dylan believed was a species new to science, bit him on the finger and scampered off into the underbrush.
Three Chico State undergrads had joined the expedition as well: Heidi Rogers, Alan Rhoades, and Emily Ramsey. Bringing them along was part of Lane’s bridge-building with the university, and they had all been working on their own research projects, collecting spiders, documenting and measuring trees, and enduring the discomforts of camping out in an equatorial quagmire. It had not been an easy transition from civilian life. Heidi had maintained an upbeat demeanor despite being covered head-to-toe with a remarkable assortment of suppurating welts, sores, rashes, and bites. Alan and Emily, both 22, had been together since early high school and were now giving their relationship the ultimate stress test. Emily was a soft-spoken blond ingenue whose panoply of food allergies and intolerances to pretty much anything but white rice had kept her on a near starvation diet for weeks. She had been so sick upon arrival that she’d spent the first three days in camp without leaving her tent. Lane suggested in jest that she was also allergic to dirt, as she was the sole member of the expedition who managed to appear sparkling clean at all times. Her hapless, floppy-haired boyfriend seemed wracked between his innate desire to have a fun jungle adventure and the guilty feeling that he should be a full partner in her misery.
Lane felt that the expedition would build character in the students—that it would add meaning to their existences for them to suffer a little. “They’re going to look back on this all someday and realize it was the greatest experience of their lives,” he pronounced.
Of course, expedition life had its deprivations. For weeks, meals had consisted of the limited possibilities afforded by ramen, rice, canned tuna, corned beef, and the occasional side of sautéed jungle ferns. We also consumed packets of Hiway Hardman biscuits, illustrated with a cartoon of a shirtless truck driver and the pidgin phrase “Strongpela tru!” which managed to be at once igneous and homoerotic. The tuna had a garish maroon cast to it, and the corned beef—the same “bully beef” eaten in the trenches of World War I—slid out of its tin in a coagulated cube of compressed trimmings. The joke around camp was that there were basically two options: cat food or dog food.
There were occasional variations in the meal plan. One afternoon, Mesak Mesori, a shirtless, bearded 55-year-old Nakanai hunter with six-pack abs and betel-red stumps for teeth, marched proudly into camp. He carried a long spear with a tip made of sharpened rebar and was followed by a parade of bois shouldering a pole to which a large wild pig had been bound with vines. The pig had been caught in a leg snare—the wire had cut down to the bone by the time Mesak found it—and he had speared it in the lungs to dispatch it. The camp filled with the smell of burning hair as the bois held the carcass over the fire and then proceeded to butcher it with a machete. Mesak stood over them, gesturing and speaking in Nakanai, and the bois listened to him with respect and took the task seriously. Nothing was wasted, save the dark green gall bladder, which a boy plucked from the liver and tossed far into the forest. One of the bois told me that each part would be given to members of the village according to tribal tradition: the heart and liver to the elders, the eyeballs a delicacy reserved for women. Mesak had told Lane that this was why he had come out to help in his hunt for the tree kangaroo—he wanted the forest to be here for his grandchildren, and he wanted them to know its ways.
I observed to Lane that a bunch of Californian college kids in the middle of a jungle sounded like the archetypical setup of a 1970s exploitation movie. And it did seem as though an F/X crew was on the premises. One morning, Lane woke to find a 10-foot web stitched between the same pair of trees as his hammock, an orb weaver spider the breadth of my palm splayed at its center. There were at least three species of scorpion in camp, and the native amethystine pythons were known to grow to 25 feet. Tiger leeches waited in ambush on the undersides of leaves, squirmed through the eyelets in hiking boots, and crawled to out-of-the-way sites to feed undisturbed. A few days earlier, Lane thought he felt a loose piece of skin on the inside of his cheek and discovered a leech feeding in his mouth. Alan discovered the same while brushing his teeth. One morning, Sarah had felt what she thought was a bit of dirt in her eye. She asked Heidi to take a look and was informed that a leech had attached itself to her eyeball, where it was happily engorged. As the camp gathered around to observe, Sarah maintained clinical detachment while Heidi attempted to pluck it off with tweezers.
The students, despite their physical afflictions, were lucky to have made it to New Britain at all. Their presence had apparently raised some red flags with the Chico State administration, which was not pleased at the idea of students heading off with an adjunct professor to crocodile-infested volcano territory. Perhaps they had read the State Department’s extensive travel warnings. In any event, the morning of his departure flight, Lane was called in to meet with Chico State president Paul Zingg and the university’s risk manager, who threatened to block the students from participating in the expedition. Chico State is an institution perhaps best known for being ranked America’s number one party school by Playboy in 1987, a title it held for 15 years. When the Office of Risk Management calls something into question, watch out. Lane informed them that Alan and Emily had purchased their tickets on their own and were already en route, laid over in Fiji, and the president ordered Lane to fly to Port Moresby, rendezvous with the students, and escort them directly back to Northern California.
After planning dozens of expeditions full of ego clashes and unpleasant surprises, Lane had developed various coping strategies. This, in part, explained his deadpan affect and seeming inability to get worked up over almost anything. He received the Chico State president’s direct order not to bring the students along with stubborn unflappability. “If you let that stuff get to you, you end up with a nine-to-five as a pencil pusher, stuck in traffic,” Lane told me. There was something in his tone that implied such a fate was the one defeat he really feared. So Lane had simply ignored Zingg’s request and met up with the students in Port Moresby to begin the expedition. And now here they were, deep in the New Britain jungle, far beyond the reach of any administrative consequence, ready to fan out in search of Lane’s elusive quarry.
On my third morning in camp, we all walked out to a small machete-cut clearing on the shore of Lake Hargy. The volcanic caldera’s lake had filled with millions of years’ worth of rainwater, and the sun burned mist off its glassy surface. From the rough dock of vine-lashed logs the bois had fashioned, I could see 10 feet down through the astonishingly clear water. The lake reaches three miles across, and a ring of forest-covered mountains rose above the far shore. The jagged mountains formed the edge of the Nakanai range, hundreds of square miles of unpopulated, untrammelled country divided by steep gorges and knife-edge ridges, and full of thousands of limestone caves. Lane told me the Nakanai never travel to the far side of the lake. The Nakanai are afraid of the thick mists at higher elevation, which they call “snow,” swirling with malevolent spirits.
Lane’s mission in the region was to search for the tree kangaroo and whatever else he might find. If he came across one of the creatures and by some extraordinary circumstance managed to grab hold of it, Lane and Dylan agreed there was only one option: a massive dose of the barbiturate sodium pentobarbital. To prove the creature’s existence, he would have to kill it. The mystery of the New Britain tree kangaroo seemed to be as much a problem of ontology as zoology. But Lane was not vexed by philosophical questions. He had always been drawn to the unfilled spaces on the map, and he wished them to stay that way. These lost places were a screen upon which he could project his desires. And by that same promise of mysteries to be revealed, most of us had been drawn here by Lane’s mercurial vision.
Lane, Dylan, and I gathered our gear by the lakeshore. Given the limited rations and certain difficulties of our plans, only the three of us would travel into the Nakanai, while the rest of the group continued their research in the forests around the base camp. We carried a machete, climbing harnesses, several hundred feet of rope, a small cookstove, Dylan’s collecting equipment, and a camera trap for identifying animals moving along game trails at night. Lane carried a GPS unit, but it would be of limited use. The only topographical maps that exist for the region were created by the Australians in 1978, and the gradient on Lane’s copy was so coarse that a 200-foot cliff wouldn’t even merit a line. I’d brought a dozen freeze-dried camping meals. Lane and I had jungle hammocks, with rain flies and mosquito netting attached. Dylan would have to improvise, building stick beds with the machete. Considering our remoteness and the extreme topography, I asked Lane why he hadn’t brought a satellite phone. “Sat phones take the fun out of it,” he replied dismissively. “Our lives are soft enough as it is.”
I was beginning to understand the ways Lane elevated improvisation to a life philosophy. On our expedition, there was always some crucial supply missing, some unexpected obstacle to overcome. For example, Lane had planned for us to have a small aluminum rowboat to transport our heavy gear across the caldera’s lake. The boat had been acquired, but it needed to be helicoptered in from the plantation. Despite Lane’s persistent pleading for more than a year, the helicopter pilot had never gotten around to doing it. So we would make do, and that would be half the fun, according to Lane. He showed me the vessel that instead would ferry us the three miles across: a pair of inner tubes to which the bois had lashed a latticework of sticks with vines. The platform was scarcely bigger than a front door, and there were three hand-carved paddles. This didn’t seem terribly safe. Hargy is a lake where crocodiles—which can grow to 20 feet—had migrated inland and now basked along the shore. “I really don’t think they’re likely to come out to the middle,” said Lane.
In Lane’s world, the abstract concept of risk was divided into two subcategories, perceived and actual. The idea of a comfort zone and an individual’s position relative to it is perhaps a peculiarly postmodern preoccupation: whole industries have been developed to remove customers safely from it, after all. Think of bungee jumping, roller coasters, zip lines. Innertubing across a volcanic lake home to crocodiles did the trick for me. But having come so far, I allowed no thought of turning back, and I resigned myself to Lane’s plan. We piled our packs at the center of the raft and clambered precariously aboard. Lane knelt in front, and Dylan and I sat crushed side by side at the rear, each forced to dangle a foot in the water. I stared down at the stick platform, a couple of inches above the deep blue water of the lake. “How many kangaroos do you want us to bring back?” shouted Lane to the crew of students and bois we were leaving behind. The equatorial sun blazed as we pushed off and paddled toward the jungle-covered mountains rising on the far shore of Lake Hargy.
As we paddled, our raft seemed a little society adrift in a wilderness outside of time. Lane recited his litany of corny and mildly dirty jokes to offset the spookiness of our isolation. (“What’s the difference between Mick Jagger and a Scotsman? Mick Jagger says, ‘Hey you, get off of my cloud.’ A Scotsman says, ‘Hey MacLeod, get off of my ewe.’”) After three hours, we reached the far side of the lake, where we dragged the raft through thigh-deep mud to the shoreline and stashed it in the 10-foot grass. There was no trail to be found. Great sails of buttress roots propped up forest giants, and the high canopy cast a cathedral gloom over the forest floor. A strangler fig the size of a house grew from a hillside, its mossy roots a dendritic maze. Lane studied the map and decided to make for what appeared to be a ridgeline rising from the lake edge toward the cloudy heights. We shouldered our heavy packs, and Dylan struck out first, machete in hand, hacking at vines. I gradually picked up on his personal lexicon of Kiwi-influenced slang, generally used to denote varying levels of approval: If he was excited for something, he was “frothing”; if deeply disappointed, “gutted.”
Dylan told me tree kangaroos give off a strong, musky odor, so I inhaled deeply, hoping for a whiff. Instead, I smelled rotting vegetable matter and my own sweat. As ever, I searched overhead for a glint of chestnut fur among the mossy branches. Almost immediately it began to rain, pounding down so hard that it was like being held beneath an open hydrant, the roar so loud we could barely hear one another. We didn’t even bother with raincoats, which would only drench us from the inside with the humidity. The jungle was filled with mutant versions of flora more familiar as houseplants and garden flowers, 10-foot ferns, head-high begonias, and fluorescent-pink impatiens erupting from the rotting crevices of trees. Rattan, that Pier 1 standby, was here a flesh-tearing horror, with stems covered in three-inch spikes and cat-claw thorns lining the undersides of its fronds. My clothes were soon shredded and my forearms bloody with deep scratches.
Dylan stopped frequently to roll over rotten logs, each one like a lottery scratch-off whose jackpot was yet unnamed species of spiders, beetles, and frogs. At one point, he squatted and poked at something on the ground with the machete, a slimy heap of half-digested seedpods. “Cassowary shit,” he said. We all took pictures. Five feet tall and weighing perhaps 60 pounds, the Bennett’s Cassowary is one of the more dangerous creatures in the forest. It resembles a flightless steroidal turkey, with a royal blue neck streaked with red, a mound of shaggy black feathers, and dagger-like spurs on thick legs. The birds can be territorial and will attack humans, leaping and punching with their spurs or head-butting with an ax-like crest of bone atop their skulls. “He can jump up to a meter in the air, and he’ll go for your throat, your stomach, or your groin,” Lane casually observed. He had been charged by one, of course.
The terrain suddenly steepened. We scrambled up the muddy hillside, wedging against roots and grasping at saplings to pull ourselves upward. We seemed to have missed the manageable ridgeline we had spotted on the map and were forcing our way up a drastic incline. As I climbed, I knocked loose a chunk of limestone the size of a basketball, and it smashed 100 feet down the hillside, echoing against the trees. The forest grew claustrophobic, offering nowhere to gain a view outward. With the thick canopy overhead, it became difficult to get the GPS unit to even register a waypoint. Finally, smeared with mud, we arrived at a slightly flat spot and hacked a camp for the night from the vine-tangled undergrowth.
We were at nearly 3,000 feet now, and the air turned chilly and damp as soon as the sun had set. I had decided not to bring a sleeping bag, assuming the tropics would be hot enough at night to make one unnecessary. Within a half-hour, I’d put on all the dry clothes I had, including my otherwise pointless raincoat, and still shook uncontrollably with cold. Lane dug into his pack and tossed me a small packet containing a Mylar space blanket. There was a picture on the package of a smiling woman wrapped in one—presumably not in the euphoric end stages of hypothermia. I found myself constantly glancing upward at the silhouetted branches, looking for some sign in the dripping expanse of foliage: a long dangling tail, a moving shadow, anything.
From a scientific perspective, of course, stomping through inaccessible rainforest and looking around at random trees is hardly a methodologically sound way of finding a tree kangaroo. Some of the best research on tree kangaroos in the wild has been done by Lisa Dabek, director of the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program at the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. She used native hunters with tracking dogs to locate the animals, then sent climbers up into the branches after them, until, to escape, the tree kangaroos leaped to the ground, where they were promptly tackled, radio-collared, and released. There are few other ways to make long-term observations. But Dabek’s research and dedication have achieved real results; she persuaded local landowners to create a 180,000-acre conservation area around the heart of the tree kangaroo’s habitat on the mainland’s Huon peninsula. It took Dabek 10 years, and extraordinary cooperation by the native communities, to establish the protections.
That is exactly what Lane would have to do—a long process of diplomacy and trust-building with the local tribes—but it was unclear whether he had the patience for that. Lane was aware of this, of course, but rigorous methodology and slow diplomacy were not his preferred M.O. My own feelings wavered between resentment at having come halfway around the world on a half-assed goose chase and a sense of wonder that we were searching for something rich and strange at the far end of the earth. But there I was, and there was nothing much to do but follow Lane deeper into the jungle. He was out there trying for the big win, the Hail Mary that would save New Britain with one grand and miraculous discovery.
There is a phrase in Tok Pisin, longpela taim, which means “a long time ago.” And from a long time ago until the present, outsiders have rummaged through this corner of the world for supporting evidence of their dreams. It has filled the popular imagination as a place where desires could be imprinted onto an unknown, “primitive” landscape. This has led to resource booms in copper, timber, gold, natural gas, and palm oil. But it has also spurred far more esoteric and less financially rewarding quests. The blank spaces on its map have beckoned a long parade of entrepreneurs and eccentrics in pursuit of their fantasies, and Lane is hardly the most unusual.
Papua New Guinea’s history with foreigners is filled with both seekers and the lost. Michael Rockefeller, the 23-year-old scion of one of America’s wealthiest families, traveled there in 1961 to collect tribal art and vanished. There were rumors for decades: He had drowned or had been eaten by sharks or crocodiles or natives, or was living out a Colonel Kurtz–like exile deep in the jungle. A cult of searchers arose, but after 50 years they’ve failed to unearth any solid evidence. Similarly, a retired Australian aircraft engineer named David Billings has spent 17 years, and $100,000 of his own money, searching fruitlessly in the jungles of New Britain for the Lockheed Electra piloted by Amelia Earhart, which took off from the mainland. But these, at least, are quests for something that actually exists.
The Creation Research Society (CRS) stands out even among the many oddball Western groups obsessed with Papua. The CRS bills itself as a “professional organization of trained scientists and interested laypersons” devoted to a version of creationism based on a literal reading of Genesis. The society publishes a quarterly “peer-reviewed journal” that seeks to build an evidentiary basis for young-earth creationism, the Bible-based belief that the planet was created around 6,000 years ago. In March 2006, CRS Quarterly published an article titled “The Fiery Flying Serpent,” by David Woetzel, a New Hampshire business executive and avid cryptozoologist. Woetzel described a 23-day expedition to Papua New Guinea in search of a living, possibly bioluminescent flying dinosaur natives call the ropen.
Woetzel recorded interviews with several natives of Umboi, a volcanic island 40 miles off the coast of New Britain, who claimed to have seen the flying creature. One night, while alone in his camp, he witnessed a “spine-tingling sight”: “a glowing object passing low on the horizon. … The whole sighting lasted for only a few seconds, too brief to photograph it. … [We] spent five nights looking for the Ropen. Our vigils were to no avail, despite the excellent view and our even employing a dead wallaby as bait.”
Lunatic as the CRSers’ quest seems, there was something in Lane’s mission that accorded with the ropen hunters, the Amelia obsessives, the Rockefeller-heads, and all the other seekers after lost things who pilgrimage to this part of the world. But the outsider adventurer who inspired Lane to come here was none of the above. Instead, he was an American World War II reconnaissance pilot, a Minnesotan named Fred “Hargy” Hargesheimer. In June 1943, Hargesheimer had been shot down over the Nakanai range, and an Australian cartographic unit during the war named the newly discovered lake in the caldera in his honor.
By mid-1943, the war in the Pacific was beginning to turn. Guadalcanal had fallen, and the Japanese had been driven from the New Guinea mainland. Their largest outpost in the region was the massive airbase at Rabaul, on the eastern end of New Britain, where more than 100,000 troops were stationed. As a photo reconnaissance pilot, Hargesheimer flew unarmed over Japanese-held territory, his machine guns replaced by a trio of cameras. He recorded the landscape for mapmaking in anticipation of an Allied land invasion and kept a constant lookout for signs of Japanese movement across the island: newly built airstrips, hidden supply barges, troop encampments. Then as now, much of the interior of New Britain was a mountainous wilderness; the only signs of human habitation were found along the coasts.
On the morning of June 5, 1943, Hargesheimer flew his twin-engine, twin-tailed P-38 Lightning, named the Eager Beaver, out over the Dampier Strait. He traced along the north coast of New Britain, searching for Japanese movement. He spotted what he thought was a new air strip in the jungle and prepared for a low-altitude pass to photograph it. His plane quivered, and he watched as his left engine burst into flame. He went into a defensive dive and felt bullets ricochet off the armor plate behind his cockpit. When his second engine died, Hargesheimer knew he had no choice but to bail out. He pulled the canopy release and was sucked out into open sky. Drifting slowly down beneath his parachute, Hargesheimer watched the Japanese fighter swing back around, certain it was coming in for the kill. But the pilot veered away. Hargy came back to earth, crashing down through a grove of eucalyptus trees.
He was banged up, with a deep gash on his head, but alive. He bandaged his wound with parachute cloth and took an inventory of his supplies. He had a small inflatable raft, a machete, a compass, a pistol, a packet of matches, a fishing line and hooks, penicillin, two chocolate bars, and a booklet, Friendly Fruits and Vegetables: Advice to Air Crew Members Forced Down in the Jungle. He was in the middle of a wilderness, 75 miles behind Japanese lines, in a region where tribal loyalties were uncertain and rumors of cannibalism still abounded. And although it was ostensibly the dry season, it rained torrentially every day. Hargesheimer decided to make for the coast, hoping to encounter some friendly natives who would shelter him until he could arrange a rescue.
He walked for 10 days, sucking on his chocolate to make it last, sleeping under a tent of parachute cloth, and struggling through a landscape of steep ravines and difficult vegetation. Finally, he came across a grass-roofed native shelter by a small river and set up a base for himself. He managed to start a fire with his final match, and he lived on roasted freshwater snails and a single fish he managed to shoot with his pistol. He was soon near starvation and crushingly lonesome. What if he had survived the crash only to die a slow death in the jungle?
Finally, after a month alone, he heard voices approaching. Before he knew it, a few tribesmen stood before him. He wished he had run and hid: He didn’t know if they were friendly, and he spoke only a few words of Tok Pisin. Then one of them handed him a letter. It was a greeting written by an Australian coastwatcher, a member of one of the small radio teams that hid behind enemy lines and provided early warnings on the Japanese.
Deciding they were on his side, Hargesheimer followed the natives to their village on the coast. There, they made him a feast of bananas and smoked fish. When he contracted malaria and couldn’t eat for 10 days, a nursing mother fed him every day from a teacup filled with her breast milk. In a few months, he became fluent in Tok Pisin and came to care greatly for the people who helped him. They risked their lives by hiding him. When Japanese soldiers approached the village, the natives hustled him into the jungle. He once had to climb high up in a eucalyptus tree to avoid detection. “At the top I found a mossy nest that had evidently been the sleeping place of some animal,” he later wrote. “It was a perfect hideout.”
Finally, nine months after he was shot down, the coastwatchers made contact with an American submarine, and Hargesheimer and several other stranded airmen were rescued. He sent a telegram home: “Safe and well, regret circumstances prevented answering your letters.” In two weeks, he was back in Minnesota.
After the war, Hargy thought often of New Britain. In 1960, he returned to the town, now called Nantabu. The villagers all remembered him and were delighted that “Masta Predi” had come all the way around the world to see them again. He wept with joy. Later, the villagers performed an elaborate “singsing” for him. Hargesheimer had brought gifts, but he wanted to do more for the people who had saved his life. He ended up building a school nearby, providing a free education to generations of native children. He even moved to New Britain with his wife and taught there with her for several years.
Ultimately, Hargesheimer retired to a vineyard in Grass Valley, California, and self-published a memoir. At 89, he got a call from a caver who lived in nearby Chico. John Lane was planning his first caving expedition to New Britain, and a friend had recommended he contact Hargesheimer for advice. They soon became good friends. Lane promised Hargesheimer he would go to New Britain and try to find the Eager Beaver.
That first expedition didn’t go quite as planned. After losing all their gear connecting through Tokyo, Lane and his companions had trekked with burlap bags to a village near where they thought the crash site might be. They went to an enormous bat-and-spider-filled cave several hours’ hike above the village, but there was no sign of Hargesheimer’s plane.
Lane left a disposable camera with a villager. The manager of the Hargy Plantation offered a reward to anyone who could find the wreckage. Then, three months later, Lane got an email with pictures of the Eager Beaver. In July 2006, Hargy and Lane traveled back to New Britain. Lane hiked in to the site to cut a helipad, and a group of native Kol tribesmen showed up and demanded $70,000 for outsiders to enter their territory. The Kol are nomadic hunter-gatherers, among the least assimilated tribes in New Britain, but luckily Lane and Hargy had a local missionary with them, one of the few white people in the world who speak Kol. They negotiated the price down to 15 cans of tuna, a tarp, and the plastic chair they’d brought to carry Hargy to the crash site.
A group of villagers carried Hargesheimer up to the Eager Beaver. The wreckage was spread over a quarter-mile area down a steep streambed. They found a section of the tail riddled with bullet holes and one of the enormous propellers stuck into the ground like a javelin. Even the cameras that had been mounted to the P-38 were there.
Hargy died almost a year ago, but the school he built in New Britain still exists, and Lane sits on the board of its nonprofit foundation. He was a different sort of person than Lane, but one who had clearly inspired him deeply. Hargy had led a life that was at once a humble service and an extraordinary adventure. Perhaps there was a way for Lane’s own life to encompass both of those things. “When I met Fred, caving sort of went on the back burner, and this became more of a conservation project,” Lane told me. Everything he had struggled with, everything he had hoped to achieve here, had grown from that strange, serendipitous friendship, and with Hargy in mind he would push on no matter how absurdly long the odds appeared.
Day after day, we pushed onward into the depths of the Nakanai. Things were starting to unravel. The landscape itself was our biggest adversary, steep and vicious, the air heavy with decayed vegetation. Dylan hacked a route through a wilderness of bamboo and neck-deep tanglefoot ferns. The ferns were so woody and interwoven, it sometimes took 20 minutes to go as many yards. Stinging caterpillars dropped down on our exposed necks. My waterlogged leather boots were nearly sliced through by vines; they smelled like a damp catacomb. I had an angry rash across my chest, and Dylan diagnosed himself with the early stages of trench foot. We were also running low on provisions, with little remaining but corned beef and Hiway Hardman biscuits, but Lane cheerfully assured us we would be fine with no food for a few days. We hadn’t seen so much as a tree kangaroo claw mark or scat pile.
Carrying our heavy packs also slowed us down. On a high forested ridge, we decided to make a base camp. Hoping to capture a still shot of a tree kangaroo, Lane set up his motion-sensing camera trap every evening, but he only wound up taking inadvertent portraits of himself. One morning I heard a loud rustling outside my hammock and prayed that it was a tree kangaroo rifling through my pack. I sat up and watched as an enormous wild boar crashed its way down the ridge. The forest seemed spooky and echoing, and Lane speculated that this was the domain of the Nakanai’s dreaded one-armed, one-legged Pomeo people of local legend. There was no sign that anyone else had ever been to this place, too far for even the most ambitious native hunters to roam. Lane judged from the map that we were above a series of steep ravines that cut into the heart of the Nakanai wilderness.
Fallen logs held their shape but collapsed into compost at a touch. I could see the jungle’s soil being created before my eyes. On one steep section, I clung to a root, then slipped and fell into a rotten log. Thousands of furious inch-long red and black ants swarmed out, and some stung me, white-hot and electric. I was surprised by the sound of my own screaming, raspy and high-pitched, echoing through the forest as I tried to brush them off in panic. Lane looked up from below me, unconcerned. When I made it down to him, ant bites swelling across my stomach, he gave me a look that seemed to say, Suck it up, kid, this is part of the deal.
We stumbled down into a dry creek bed, and I suggested to Dylan that he mark a notch in a fallen log so that we would know where to turn back up the ridge. As he swung, the blade of the machete glanced off the wood and sank into his knee, blood flowing down over his shin in rivulets. Dylan sat down, and we looked at the cut, a wide red smile just below the patella, going nearly to the bone. “Uh-oh,” said Lane, in a kindergarten-teacher voice. “Machete owie.” Dylan seemed unfazed. Part of the grand project with our tree kangaroo hunt, it seemed, was trying to make living itself hard work again. Dylan refused to turn back and wrapped a dirty bandanna around the wound to stanch the bleeding: a machete wound would proffer significant bragging rights back home.
We picked our way carefully over the mossy boulders of the streambed. After several hundred yards scrambling along the ravine, we came to an abrupt stop. The dry streambed dropped over a smooth saddle of rock and plunged straight down for 100 feet into an even deeper canyon. Lane told us we would need to return the following day with our ropes. We turned and began the long climb to our base camp, hundreds of vertical feet above us through the jungle.
Back in camp, the afternoon rains pounded down. Dylan tossed me a little envelope dug from the depths of his pack. It was a suture kit. Illuminating the wound with my headlamp, I used a syringe to wash it with rainwater, trying at least to get the mud out. I grasped the curved needle with tweezers and pushed it through the edge of the wound, then drew the suture through. I repeated this process through the top edge of the incision. Dylan directed me as I went, and I tied the thread into a sloppy but passable stitch, the wound closing like a Ziploc bag. With the next suture I hit a vein, and blood gushed down his shin. I tied it off again, and finally it was closed. “That’s a mean cut,” said Dylan, with a hint of pride. “Wicked!”
We returned to the waterfall in the morning, 200 feet of climbing rope looped over Dylan’s shoulder. Lane tied a secure anchor around several boulders. Despite his often laissez-faire approach to safety, Lane took preparations for the descent seriously. He clipped our line into the anchor and tossed it over the lip of the dry waterfall. One at a time, we rappelled into the abyss, kicking away from the mossy rock face and sliding down the line.
Limestone cliffs rose sheer above us and formed a slot canyon, as vertical gardens of ferns and orchids dripped down. It was like looking up from the bottom of a well. The sky was barely visible as we scrambled down the narrow canyon, and it seemed certain that no human had ever before been in this exact place. I was so lost in my ruminations about the wilderness that I almost ignored Lane’s warning to stop. I looked up and saw that we had come to the top of a second waterfall, probably twice as high as the first, and we were out of rope. It would be impossible to go any further. “I guess that’s the end of the line,” said Lane, looking out at the dark jungle valley below the falls. His voice didn’t sound frustrated or relieved, merely matter-of-fact that his endless search would now turn elsewhere, like Ahab with ADD. I wondered if, for him, it was not as much about finding things as looking for them. Not finding them just meant he had a reason to come back and try again.
An immense tangled tree jutted from the cliffs beyond the waterfall. I tried to will a silhouetted tree kangaroo to climb out along its branches and gaze down from its secret world, indifferent to our presence. Ethnotramp or not. Real or imaginary. I knew that wishing for it to appear was just another form of magical thinking. I knew that just proving the tree kangaroo’s existence was not likely to be the most effective way of saving this wilderness. And yet the forest beyond still seemed to glow with mystery and possibility. I did not want a world bereft of such secrets. I thought of Peter Matthiessen’s Zen-like acceptance when he failed to reach his eponymous goal in The Snow Leopard. “I think I must be disappointed, having come so far, and yet I do not feel that way. I am disappointed, and also, I am not disappointed.” Looking out from the edge, I did not feel ashamed at our failure.
Having literally reached the end of our rope, we turned back up the canyon and scrambled to the base of the first waterfall, where our lifeline of rope hung down. Without it, we would be completely trapped. I attached a set of ascending devices to my harness and clipped into the line, inch-worming my way up the 100-foot rock face. Halfway up it started to rain, a driving vertical torrent, and water began to run down the slick, mossy wall. By the time I pulled myself over the top, the rain was blinding, pouring off broad leaves and filling the dry pools of the streambed. I perched on a log that had braced itself across the ravine.
Fifteen minutes later, Dylan pulled himself up, and by then the stream’s pools had filled and begun to join together, running in a steady flow over the edge. New streams burst in along the sides of the ravine, adding to the fast-rising torrent. The anchor for the climbing line was soon underwater, and the stream below cranked up to a muddy brown roar, cascading over the edge to where Lane was trying to climb up to us. Dylan scrambled up to my log, and we stared at each other, wordless at the chaos that had erupted below. I could not see Lane and feared he had been trapped by the flooding water, maybe swept downstream or pinned against the rock face by the flow. We were both powerless to help him, and we both knew that if he was hurt or trapped, it would take days for us to bring help. I thought of his friend Adam Bodine, drowned years ago. Lane’s adventure-promoting decision not to bring a satellite phone now seemed the height of hubris. A dull panic stirred in my stomach. The water pounded down from above and roared over the falls, the thin lifeline of rope stretched taut.
And then a hand splashed up, followed by another, followed by a waterlogged Sierra Nevada Brewery baseball cap. Lane dragged himself over the edge, stood in the knee-deep flow, and gasped for breath, the water running off him. He whooped, shouting for the first time since I’d met him: “That was epic! Super hairy.” I wondered if this moment of danger and then a last-minute reprieve was what he had been looking for all along.
We were out of rope, out of time, and almost out of food. So the next day we made the long, treacherous descent back to the lake’s edge, where the raft waited. We paddled across the lake through driving rain, the mountains of the Nakanai receding in the distance.
When we returned to the camp, we were happy to find that the place hadn’t devolved into Lord of the Flies in our absence: There had been no nasty breakups or petty acts of violence, and no sticks had been sharpened at both ends. Even so, the Chico State students were more than ready to go home. The bois began breaking down the camp. Dylan and Sarah dismantled their lab and packed the specimens, hoping that something new to science was floating in one of the little jars or stacked in Tupperware. (Lane warned Dylan to be careful bringing specimens back through Australian customs. Last time, a giant cockroach had scuttled out from his baggage and customs had confiscated his penis gourd.)
We all stumbled over the shoulder of the volcano, back to the edge of the known world, the oil palms marching across the landscape in formation. In a few months, there would be little sign that anyone had ever been at the camp in the caldera, save a few collapsed stick beds decaying back into the earth. We were just visitors here, the ultimate introduced species.
I got a ride down from the plantation to the coast, into the little town of Kimbe Bay. Hundreds of Papuans bustled among the stalls of a market. A man tried to sell me a baby crocodile, its jaws bound shut with string. There was a small resort in town that catered to tourists, mostly foreign scuba divers who had come to explore the sunken World War II wrecks and coral reefs. A guard let me in the gate, and I walked down a path lined with bougainvillea and jasmine perfuming the humid air. Far to the back of the grounds, in the shade of a spreading tree, I saw it at last. It was perched on curved ebony claws, crouching upon a branch mounted to the inside of a 10-foot steel cage. Its long and impossibly soft brown-golden tail hung straight down, like the pendulum of a stopped clock. The creature turned slowly to watch me as I approached, its face placid, limpid. Its soft brown eyes looked out at the human world through a grid-pattern of bars. Wherever it was from and however it had arrived on this island, this tree kangaroo was a captive now to the dreams of men. It blinked sleepily, slowly turning and curling up on its branch.
Months later, I emailed Lane at home in California. He was back to the routines of ordinary life—his day job, hanging out with his kids—perhaps feeling as much a captive of the modern world as the creature I’d seen in the cage. He was trying to persuade the university and Sierra Nevada to get on board for another expedition next summer. Lane planned to return to New Britain regardless, despite—or because of—the fact that we had found nothing. The Eager Beaver, the tree kangaroo, the grand and noble plan of turning the Nakanai wilderness into a national park: All his obsessions derived from one prime motive. What Lane really wanted was to strike out in search of lost things in our networked, globalized, utterly found world.
Looking back he still felt, given his crippling budgetary limitations and the elusive nature of his quarry, that the expedition had been a success. He recognized all the things we could have done differently in our search for the tree kangaroo: Hired local hunters with dogs, gone from village to village with photographs, or offered a bounty for its capture. But Lane felt that he had made some progress toward the larger goal, building relationships with the native landowners and the plantation. And perhaps some of what Dylan had collected would be new species to science. “The unknowns, the unexpected, or just bad luck can be debilitating,” Lane told me. “At times I wonder how bad can it continue to get, and sometimes I think about throwing in the towel, but overcoming those situations is extremely empowering.”
Lane’s dream now was to persuade the native landowners to build an ecotourism resort where the base camp stood. He envisioned kayaking, canyoneering, cave exploration, and bird-watching. Tourists would come from around the world to see the Hargy caldera. Of course, the logistics would be formidable. Where would he find the money to construct permanent structures? How would they build at such a remote site, miles from the nearest road? How would they train the Nakanai villagers to run it, given Western expectations of creature comforts? And then there were the crocodiles and scorpions and giant spiders. Lane understood all those things, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded. “It takes time, money, patience, and fortitude,” he said, “but most of all, I have to keep moving forward and trying.”
Next year, he told me, he was going to build a zip line.