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Read an excerpt from Kira Salak's new book, The Four Corners, in the November/ December 2001 issue of Adventure. Subscribe now! Only $12 (U.S.)
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Q&A
   
Writer Kira Salak
Author Kira Salak

“I like to travel to places that would make other people cringe. ...”

 
 
Papua New Guinea: Trek Into Danger

Crossing an unstable island nation didn't kill writer Kira Salak. And, yes, it did make her stronger, she says in this interview that takes you behind her article in the November/December 2001 Adventure, "Long Way Too Much."

In 1995 Kira Salak crossed Papua New Guinea, the country on the eastern half of New Guinea island, by dugout, on foot, and—in a pinch—by chopper.

Then 24, Salak charted a three-month course through rain forests, down rivers, and to places few visitors experience—including a refugee camp where the previous Western visitor went missing for good.

Now Salak has detailed her trek in her first book, Four Corners, excerpted in the November/December 2001 issue of Adventure. Here she explains what made her journey such rough going and, ultimately, such a success.

—Nicole Davis

What inspired you to cross Papua New Guinea?
 

I felt like if I took on something particularly difficult, I could discover things about myself that I hadn't known were there. I could become more secure in who I was and in my abilities. On another level, I like to travel to places that would make people cringe if you suggested going to them.
 

What made you the type of woman who would attempt this?
 

I think this sense of "let me show you what I can do as a woman" [influenced my decision]—a need to show that I was as capable as the male adventurer. I would see people like Redmond O'Hanlon, who wrote a book about going into Borneo [Into the Heart of Borneo], and I would think, I can do that.

Whenever I've read accounts of male travel writers or adventurers going to these places, I've always felt like, Why do they have the monopoly on this experience in life? What's preventing women from achieving this sort of thing?
 

Why aren't women traveling to more adventurous locales?
 

I think a lot of it has to do with the way women are raised, the examples that we're shown. The travel genre is 98 percent male written. I know a lot about this because I'm studying travel literature as part of my Ph.D.

There's a very legitimate fear that I happen to know about pretty personally: We have the omnipresent possibility of being raped. That's a very reasonable reason not to go out and do these sorts of things. On the other hand, though, I think women are taught not to go muddying their clothes up.
 

Had you traveled much before Papua New Guinea?
 

When I was 20 I backpacked around central and East Africa by myself. I saved up a lot of money in a factory packaging croutons and said, "I'm going to do this." I think a lot of people didn't believe I would do it.
 

When you began traveling, did you think you would write about it?
 

No, not at all. Before I went to Africa I'd studied abroad in Holland and traveled all over. I went to Egypt and I wrote in my journal, "I feel like I've found what it means to live." I went to Africa not really searching for anything tangible—just a sense of aliveness.

I think in many ways travel writing is a grand attempt to capture that aliveness and convey it to other people, to maybe share those experiences with others and to make life richer for other people.
 

How did you prepare yourself for Papua New Guinea?
 

I read a lot of books about it, and up until the time I went I was saving money religiously, putting away a dollar a day—I had that much of a sense of focus that I wanted to go. But at the same time I was wondering if I would have the guts to get on the plane at the end of it all.
 

How did your African travels help prepare you for Papua New Guinea?
 

In East Africa I had gone through Mozambique when they were having a civil war, and I had come very close to being gang raped and possibly never getting out of the country alive. I literally had to flee across the border into Zimbabwe, and I was so damn happy to be alive and out of that horrible situation.

So I had Mozambique in the back of my mind when I was thinking about New Guinea, because New Guinea is notoriously violent, and that reputation is justified. I wondered if the fear of having something similar happen in New Guinea would stop me from going at the last minute.
 

Why did you risk visiting a guerrilla/refugee camp?
 

While I was doing my trip across Papua New Guinea, I'd just been struck by what I'd been hearing about [the resistance movement in neighboring Irian Jaya, an Indonesian territory]. It's called the Silent War, because the world doesn't know about it.

I decided I would try to get into this camp [in Papua New Guinea], where the guerrilla resistance movement [the Free Papua Movement, or OPM] was headquartered and try to talk to the leader and find out what was happening.
 

What is the Silent War?
 

It's kind of the same situation as in East Timor, but it's happening in the western half of New Guinea, called Irian Jaya, which was taken over by the Indonesians in 1967. The indigenous people are trying to get the Indonesians to leave, or they're trying to just stay alive and stop the genocide [of their people].

The OPM, this ragtag guerrilla group, doesn't have a hope against the Indonesians but is trying to preserve their homeland. The OPM's headquarters is in PNG [Papua New Guinea] because the Indonesians aren't technically allowed to cross the border [to go after the OPM].
 

What's the fighting like between the OPM and the Indonesians?
 

The Indonesians will go into a certain area [of PNG or Irian Jaya] and decide they want to look for gold. If they find sources of gold, they'll tell the indigenous people they have to leave, and if the indigenous people don't like the idea, the Indonesian soldiers will kill them.

All the OPM is trying to do is stop the genocide, but they don't have a lot of funding, and the Indonesians have one of the largest militaries in the world [per capita]. So you're talking about a David-and-Goliath scenario. The Indonesians are so utterly powerful and so terribly hard to fight. They're just extremely oppressive and brutal.
 

What did you see in the refugee camps?
 

I saw people who would show me a gap in their teeth where Indonesian soldiers had ripped their teeth out. There's a lot of suffering.

In Mozambique it was complete anarchy—15-year-old boys with AK-47s, waving them at me. In the OPM camp I was welcomed and treated as an honored guest, but in many ways it was a lot more frightening because I had to have those bodyguards, and I had a man attempt to hurt me.
 

Why didn't you turn back at that point?
 

I felt like I needed to complete my goal. I wanted to get from the south to the north, to the Sepik River. I didn't want to surrender. I'm just really stubborn, I guess.
 

After the camp, why did you race into the jungle, to Hotmin Mission?
 

[My trip to] Hotmin was this crazy response to all the tragedy I saw in the camp and my inability to cope with it. I just wanted to get lost in the jungle; I really didn't care about consequences. I just wanted to get away from humanity for a while, because I'd just been so horrified by some of the things I'd heard and seen.
 

How do you feel now that you're home?
 

I'm glad. I experienced a lot of cool things after the Hotmin hike, which was pretty terrible. The New Guinea trip felt like a lot of masochism in a way. I felt like I had pushed myself to the extreme, and I was trying to find out why.

The whole refugee camp [experience] stayed with me for a long time; it still stays with me. It was a risky thing to do. The last person who went to the camp before me was this guy from Switzerland, who never returned. But I'm not regretting having done it.
 

 
Did you find the self-confidence you were looking for?
 

I would say so. I would say that I definitely felt a lot more confident. But other things I do now make me feel more confident, like practicing martial arts.

I thought confidence was something that could be found externally, that I could stumble upon it. It basically took me that trip to learn that I don't need to go to such lengths to find it.
 

Photograph by Kira Salak

 

Related Web Sites

Papua New Guinea: Country Facts and Maps
Get the basics on this South Pacific state: maps, population figures, average life expectancy, and more.
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November/December 2001:
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