By Max Elliot Anderson
“Wake up! You’ve gotta get outa here!”
Picture yourself in a remote jungle, torrential rains pour down on your flimsy tent, it’s pitch black all around, and a voice cries out like that.
I’d like to take you on a trip to New Guinea where I shot a film in a remote jungle.
Our trip began with an extremely long flight from the US to Australia. From there we jumped on a smaller plane for the short hop over to Port Moresby, in Papua New Guinea, on the Coral Sea. Next we loaded our cast, crew, and equipment into large, open trucks for the bumpy ride down a dusty road.
After hours of bouncing around in the back of those trucks, the road came to an end at the side of the Sepik River where specially constructed, double canoes waited. Gigantic fruit bats circled high above us while my eyes kept scanning the water for crocodiles.
Suddenly our boat lurched forward, then came to a stop. Our guide informed us the propeller had broken off. Fortunately, on long river journeys like this one, the boatmen not only carry extra gasoline, tools, and repair parts, they also have spare motors on board. After a few minutes of drifting helplessly on the river, in the darkness, we were on our way again.
In New Guinea, because the canoes ride so low in the water, it isn’t uncommon for children, or women, to be snatched from their dugout canoes by the jaws of powerful crocodiles, taken to the bottom of the river, and never seen again. Mothers don’t even name their babies for the first year, because most don’t make it to the age of one. Their infants are susceptible to all kinds of diseases in such a harsh, jungle environment.
Our village was only fifty miles downriver from headhunter country. It’s in this part of the world where downed WWII warplanes are still discovered in the thick jungles.
On the first night in this village, we set up our tents on the ground. I’m sure the village people looked down from their houses, high up on wooden stilts, and wondered what was wrong with us. Then, in the middle of the night, the rains came. I’ve never experienced such downpours as I heard that night. I wondered, too, what must be slithering past my tent in the dark. That’s when the group leader hurried to each of our tents calling out his warning, “Wake up! You’ve gotta get outa here. The river’s rising rapidly!” Well, he was right. The river did come up and swallowed our tents. We had to move them onto wooden platforms, high above the waters, just like the village huts.
Any of my camera equipment, that ran on batteries, failed in all the heat and humidity.
Ultimately I had to resort to a hand-crank camera which meant the shots needed to be shorter, and sound would be recorded later back in the studio. Still, I was able to complete all the critical scenes necessary.
In many ways, living in this village was like going back to the stone-age. These villagers had never seen so many people from the outside world before. And yet, they were gentle and keenly interested in what we were doing.
When I returned home from this project, there was an open ulcer on one of my ankles. I’m sure I picked up some kind of parasite while sloshing around in all that dirty water. I went to my doctor who gave me some powerful antibiotics. He told me to only take half a pill each day for the next five days. If it didn’t clear up, I was to call him. It healed quickly and returned to normal. But I wondered about the people I’d met who live in those watery conditions all the time.
When they get sick, it can be the end. In fact, here in America, we think it’s funny if someone gets a case of laryngitis. The people in this village believe that life is in the throat. It’s no joke if a person goes into a coma, or loses the ability to speak for any reason. If it happens, that person is buried alive.
In all my travels and film projects, I’ve never worked in a more hostile environment.
At the same time, the location was beautiful and compelling. Even today, I can still hear some of those night sounds, from the jungle, in my imagination.
When people ask me where I get ideas for the middle grade adventure and mystery books I write, all I have to do is point to experiences like New Guinea and many others like it.