Axe-wielding bandits in New Guinea (and other musings on traveller safety)

I travel a lot. As a sporadic digital nomad, I like to visit new cities, plop myself into a non-touristy neighbourhood and live like a local for a while. And as an experienced wilderness river explorer, I often find myself in extremely isolated parts of the world, sharing antelope stew with Baka pygmies, packrafting down unknown rivers or enjoying amazing wildlife in distant jungles.

 

I pay for all my adventures through freelance writing, a highly portable profession that allows me to travel whenever I want, to wherever I want, for as long as I want.

 

Recently, I found myself perusing the 2016 Global Peace Index. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s that annual study that forms the basis for all those ‘Safest/Most Dangerous Countries to Visit’ articles that crop up on the Web like clockwork each year.

 

The GPI takes over 20 different factors into consideration in rating countries for safety – both for residents and visitors. This is useful stuff whether you intend to check out New Zealand, Iceland or the Czech Republic (all Top Ten countries for safety) or can’t wait to holiday in Yemen, Somalia or South Sudan (at the other end of the list).

 

It was reassuring to see some of my favourite countries rated so highly: Austria (3), Portugal (5), Canada (8) and beautiful Slovenia coming in at number 10. It was also interesting to note which countries had become a bit safer in 2016 (Panama performed well) and which dropped several spots (Turkey had some problems).

 

 

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Our perception of what’s dangerous doesn’t always match reality. In North America, for example, you’re 20 times more likely to be killed by a cow than a bear. This is the Ecstall River in British Columbia, where I came across 5 black bears (including a very cute youngster) in a single day of paddling.

 

While the Global Peace Index isn’t the ultimate word on global safety, it’s a pretty good indicator. Safety has plenty to do with individual travellers too, of course. If you drink too much, dabble in drugs, ignore local laws, trust the wrong people, venture into dicey regions or are lazy about personal security, you’re going to increase your risk.

 

There are also different kinds of safety. In some parts of the world, it’s the tap water that’ll get you. In others, it’s the insane traffic. Elsewhere, you’ll run into the Zika virus, political unrest, petty theft from ‘secure’ hotel rooms, drink spiking, muggings or shady taxi drivers who partner with kidnapping gangs.

 

 

 

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International safety is a hot topic on every travel forum, but it’s all relative. It’s hard not to chuckle when someone from, say, Chicago (which will come close to 4000 individual shootings and over 600 homicides by the time 2016 finishes) asks forum members whether it’s okay to travel to Uruguay or Chile (two of the safest countries in South America). Incidentally, the USA is ranked 103rd for global safety – below Uganda, Jordan and Morocco and just two spots above Brazil. Chile comes in at 27 and Uruguay is 35th.

 

Culture also plays its part. Go to any Australian city late on a Friday or Saturday night and there’s a good chance you’ll see some serious binge drinking. Go to Portugal and you’ll see very few inebriated people wandering around at night – it’s just not the way folks enjoy an evening out. In Argentina, the nightlife doesn’t really kick in until after 11pm and can go until dawn (many restaurants don’t even open until 8-9pm). You often see families with little kids strolling around the plazas at midnight (that midday siesta is the key here). So it’s important to understand where you are, how the locals normally operate and what is considered socially acceptable.

 

In over thirty years of global travel, I’ve visited some truly wondrous places. I’ve tracked jaguars in Bolivia, dodged bears in British Columbia, explored unknown tributaries in the jungles of Guyana and once made a wild orang-utan cranky in Sabah, Borneo. I’ve visited cities I’ve loved (Seefeld, Austria and Ljubljana, Slovenia) and others I didn’t (Chile has some beautiful places to visit, but the graffiti-covered centre of Valparaiso just depressed me). Being fairly self-contained and careful, I’ve managed to avoid major safety issues around the world pretty well, except for that memorable time I got robbed while camping on an idyllic, picture-perfect desert island….

 

 

Paradise, at least for a little while

In my younger days, I decided to explore the Kulu River on the island of New Britain (part of Papua New Guinea). It looked like an interesting place and I wanted to check it out. I made the acquaintance of an Aussie expat who operated a primitive fishing lodge along the river and he let me use his jungle camp as a base while I hiked and canoed through the area.

 

While there, I asked him if he knew of any uninhabited islands off the coast where I might be able to camp, do some snorkelling and chill out on my own. He said he knew the perfect spot and a few days later I was dropped off by boat on a tiny, palm-fringed island – so small it could be circled on foot in 15 minutes. He promised to pick me up 6 days later.

 

I was in heaven. It was like a page out of Robinson Crusoe. I had plenty of food and water, green coconuts to drink, a sturdy tent and time to kill. It was a beautiful island, several miles offshore and surrounded by clear waters and stunning coral reefs. The snorkelling was incredible, though the sharks were curious and plentiful.

 

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Having a tropical island paradise all to yourself can be wonderful – until you get robbed by bandits and come down with malaria…

 

I enjoyed tranquil solitude for the first few days and was then visited by some locals in motorised canoes from a nearby village. They were fishing and stopped to spend some time with me. There were men, women and children and they all seemed friendly enough (except for a couple of the men who never smiled once, even when I gave them some fish hooks as a gift). Eventually they all left and I was alone again.

 

Two days later, just before midnight, I was in my tent when I heard the sound of voices outside. Before I could react, the tip of a machete was thrust through the tent fabric and pulled upward to make a huge slit. Three men with tee-shirts covering their faces ordered me out of the tent. One had an axe, one had a machete and the third carried a spear. They had come to rob me. Since I had no weapon, I got out of the tent and went to stand knee-deep in the shark-infested water while they ransacked my belongings. They ended up taking about $350 in cash and a couple of pieces of clothing they took a liking to.

 

Obviously, word had spread that a defenceless tourist was all alone on an island and some unsavoury lads decided to take advantage, approaching in stealth (I never heard a boat motor, so they must have paddled the last bit).

 

They could just as easily have killed me and dumped my body in the ocean if they’d wanted to, so I was fortunate. The following morning I was picked up by my friend, so I didn’t have to endure another night of wondering if the trio would be back to polish me off. In the end, I lost some money but kept my life – an excellent outcome, all things considered.

 

Naturally, I reported the theft to the police in Kimbe (the nearest town) but nothing came of it. The police chief was pretty sure he knew at least one of the culprits, but without positive ID that was that. I suspected the stern-faced men I’d met on the island previously were part of the plan – they’d given off bad vibes from the beginning.

 

Two weeks after I returned to Australia, I discovered I had contracted malaria as well. I had been religiously taking my Chloroquine tablets but I think the sheer volume of mosquitoes on the Kulu River had overwhelmed the medication. Incidentally, the doctor in Australia cured me by giving me a mega-dose of the exact same stuff that had failed to prevent malaria in the first place!

 

So I learned some important lessons from this journey:

 

(a) Don’t put yourself in a position where you’re alone and vulnerable and where your location is common knowledge

 

(b) Malaria tablets are useful but not 100% foolproof, so do more to prevent getting bitten (the Original Bug Shirt company in Ontario, Canada makes excellent bug-proof outfits that I now use when needed)

 

(c) No matter how young, strong and experienced you are, it’s easy to get outnumbered (and out-weaponed) if you place yourself in a vulnerable position. I was a sitting duck out on that island and, in hindsight, rather naive. Nobody is bullet-proof – or axe-proof…

 

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Even in the world’s safest countries, you can still have bad luck. My worst travel injury last year didn’t happen during an epic wilderness adventure – instead, I slipped on an icy path on top of a touristy mountain in Austria, landing with full weight on one finger (note the improvised snowball ice-pack). It took months to heal.

 

A friend of mine, one of the world’s top underwater cinematographers, regularly visits Milne Bay in Papua New Guinea, which he considers one of the best diving spots in the world. And  there are certainly some physically beautiful and wild parts of this country – but for obvious reasons, I feel no overwhelming urge to return.

 

Back when I visited New Guinea there was no Internet, no TripAdvisor, no online travel forums and no Global Peace Index (it was first published in 2007). We now have a lot more information at our disposal when it comes to assessing global safety before we travel. There are still no guarantees, of course. This is the real world after all – stuff happens.

 

When we do it right, travel broadens our horizons, expands our circle of friends, increases our exposure to adventure and creates memories that last forever. A life without risk is no life at all. I always tell people that the most dangerous part of all my wilderness river expeditions is the car trip from my house to the airport – and I mean it. Statistically, this is far more likely to kill me than a mugging in a foreign country, food poisoning at a dubious hotel or being caught in a terrorist event abroad.

 

The media loves to talk about the 30,000 or so annual deaths from terrorism, while the 5 million+ yearly deaths from diabetes (a largely preventable ‘lifestyle disease’) or the increasing numbers of people who die a few miles from their house from texting while driving don’t get the same coverage. Like I said, safety is all about perspective.

 

Be safe. 

 

 

Kevin Casey is a professional freelance writer and author of The Jet-setting Copywriter: How to Fund All Your Overseas Adventures through Freelance Writing.

 

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