Eating Bugs, Braving Crocs With Asia's Swamp People

Bijal P. Trivedi
National Geographic Channel
May 14, 2004
The explorer featured in this story appears in
Going to Extremes: Swamp, which airs on National Geographic
Channel Presents
in the U.S. Sunday, May 16, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the
National Geographic Channel.

Nick Middleton has ventured to the hottest, driest, coldest, and wettest places on Earth to witness how indigenous peoples have adapted to these unforgiving conditions.

But Middleton, a professor of geography at Oxford University in the U.K., was convinced that there were places even more inhospitable yet to be explored—places where life is so unpleasant that few people live there year-round.

Recently he traveled to the humid, malarial, crocodile-infested, possibly headhunter-inhabited swamps of Indonesian New Guinea. He met two groups who have conquered swamp living in very different ways: the tree-house dwelling, reputedly cannibalistic Kombai tribe and the island-building Jeobi tribe. Middleton spoke with the National Geographic Channel about his encounters.

Swamp life doesn't sound necessarily threatening or hostile as much as just plain miserable. Why did you choose to go to the swamps of New Guinea?

Most people live on solid ground—swamps are generally viewed as unpleasant places harboring mosquitoes, malaria, and swamp monsters. New Guinea's swamps were particularly attractive because many indigenous tribes there have only been discovered by outsiders in the last hundred years.

According to some missionaries there are still many villages that have had no contact with the outside world in living memory.

What does it take to survive in a swamp? How have the people there adapted?

I was most impressed by the Jeobi, who actually built their own islands. That was really unexpected.

The Jeobi fled ferocious headhunters on the mainland and moved to an island on the southwest coast of Indonesian New Guinea. They must have been pretty terrified, because the island was swamp with no dry land—so they built it all themselves.

They stack rafts of floating root mats and layer these with mud and grass—it's like a huge floating lasagna. The whole mass is piled several meters above the waterline. When it dries and sinks, it forms an island. Then they plant crops, like banana trees, to stabilize the island. But it takes about three years before they can build a house on it.

That is a tremendous amount of work. Each island is about the area of a tennis court, and each has a house on it. There are even agricultural islands solely for growing crops—yam, cassava, mango, cashews, coconut, sugarcane, sweet potato … just a tremendous variety.

The Kombai chose to live in tree houses in the swampy interior of Papua New Guinea. Why?

Well, I asked them. I figured that the reason would be to avoid mosquitoes. But they said it was easier to defend against raiding parties. They also said that up high there was a cool breeze and a nice view about the dense jungle canopy.

The tree houses are anywhere between 10 and 35 meters [30 to 115 feet] above the ground.

How much exposure have the Kombai had to Westerners?

Well there are thought to be about 4,000 Kombai, about 500 of which have not had contact with white people. They are quite suspicious of outsiders and they have shown little interest in the missionaries that have made contact.

In fact, I think there has only been one convert since missionaries first visited these groups in about 1982. Occasionally a few will turn up in church because they discovered that it can be a good place to get tools, like axes.

The Kombai are known for their ritualized cannibalism. Is it still practiced?

No one admits to head-hunting, and I saw no evidence, but many missionaries have seen human heads and skulls around campsites. But it is not the sort of thing that any of the tribes advertise.

What was your introduction to the Kombai?

Our meeting was particularly tense. When we first arrived they shouted at us, waving their bows and arrows. We had been abandoned by our porters, who were frightened of the Kombai magic, and we were left to say hello without any language in common.

I wanted to offer a handshake, but then I thought, What if sticking out your arm means "I hope all your children die"? So I held back.

Were you surprised by your reception?

No. Just imagine if ten Kombai, wearing nothing but a penis sheath, showed up on your doorstep in Oxford and wanted to know how the English lived. You probably wouldn't be that welcoming either.

Did the Kombai eat anything unusual?

During a hunting expedition we failed to catch any wild pigs or birds, and bugs ended up the order of the day. We had a meal of mushrooms and grasshoppers—which actually tasted just like shrimp after they had been barbequed.

They also ate biscuit-like concoctions made from the sago tree. The pulp of the tree is turned into flour and then baked or steamed. Either way it tastes about as good as cardboard.

They also ate these thumb-size white sago grubs, which infest fallen sago trees. I just couldn't eat these raw. I had to draw the line somewhere. But when they were cooked they tasted a little like a fried egg. They were very rich—you wouldn't want to eat more than one or two.

For part of your adventure you teamed up with a U.S. herpetologist to discover freshwater crocs on the island of Komolon. Did you take protection?

Yeah. We took a torch [flashlight], string, and a wooden broom. We didn't have a gun, the boat had no motor and I was told that a large croc may mistake the underside of the canoe for a competitor croc and tip us over. It wasn't very comforting.

Did you have any major problems or equipment failures while you were there?

One hundred percent deet. The stuff is nasty—it eats through plastic and clothing. It is dangerous stuff that is really supposed to keep the bugs away. I had anointed all my exposed skin with the stuff, except for my eyes and mouth. I was out of the plane for six seconds and I was stung on my eyelid and lips.

Within a few minutes the deet was totally ineffective. My hands were stung so badly, it was as if I had little grains of rice under my skin. And the swelling was so bad that I couldn't close my fists—it was really horrible.

Any plans to return?

No. Of all the places I have ever visited, this is the most otherworldly, remote, and extraordinary place I have ever been. And the people are tremendously resourceful and content.

I am proud that I was able to climb the ladders to the tree houses, because I have an intense fear of heights, and that I suffered through the terror and discomfort of the crocodiles and mosquitoes. But I'm never coming back.

Nick Middleton appears in
Going to Extremes: Swamp, which airs on National Geographic
Channel Presents
in the U.S. Sunday, May 16, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the
National Geographic Channel.

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