The villagers don’t know where Mengino is on the map, and neither do I. A map of Papua New Guinea is laid out in front of us on the woven mat floor of the hut. I point to the Eastern Highlands, speaking in Pidgin.
“So that’s Goroka, and here’s Crater Mountain.” I circle the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area with my finger. “Where’s Mengino?” My host, Max Hinao, studies the map carefully, but I’m not sure he can read. “There’s Karimui,” I say, trying to help.
“Karamui’s that way,” he says, pointing out the chicken wire window. “Haia’s over there.”
I try to relate that to the map, and fail. I crack open some of the fresh peanuts the villagers gave me on my arrival. “Are you sure we’re in the Eastern Highlands?”
Max smiles. “Yes, Eastern Highlands.”
We were in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea, and where exactly hardly mattered. I didn’t even know I was going to Mengino until a few hours before my flight from Goroka, the provincial capital. Like so many things in PNG, the so-called Land of the Unexpected, it took a long time to happen.
After six days in Goroka waiting for a flight to Haia village, I’d given up on getting to the Crater Mountain region. It was only by luck that I learned of a flight for a village called Mengino that afternoon. So I shouldered my pack and headed for the airstrip, walking down past the shanty town of Genoka, where a billboard of Jesus gushing blood on the cross competed with a giant wooden cutout of the Phantom.
I found the Seventh Day Adventist Aviation hanger halfway down the strip behind a barbed wire fence with a locked gate. A guard eventually appeared and let me in.
“Did someone drop you off?” he asked in Pidgin, looking down the road.
“No, I walked,” I said. “Why?”
He shook my hand. “You’re a strong man.”
Inside, I met Sampson, the manager, and Lisa, the Australian wife of one of the pilots. I paid for my ticket, told them my weight, and handed over my pack to be weighed; I amounted to 90kg of cargo. They weren’t sure when the plane was going, so then I waited.
“This is a Christian organisation,” Boris said. “So we’ll pray.” He clasped his hands over the flight plan on his lap. “Dia Papa God,” he began in Pidgin, praying for a safe flight.
“Amen,” I said firmly as he finished, hoping that Boris had filled out the flight plan correctly. His voice crackled sharp and intimate in my ear as he requested permission for take-off, and I remembered flying in the mountains with my father 20 years before.
As Boris flicked switches and turned knobs, and we taxied along the tarmac, I experienced a kind of grand mal deja vu. The engine roared, we accelerated down the runway and lifted into the highlands sky, and I looked out the window of the Cessna onto the Goroka valley with the eyes of a child.