A small cluster of huts lies near the place where the turn-off to Telefolip leaves the main track. I inquired after Dan at one of these, and an old man led me down the side path through long kunai grass. Soon, we dropped off the plateau into a steep gully, and the environment suddenly changed. We were walking through a grove of magnificent Araucaria trees. Around the edge of the grove they were saplings but, further in, the pines were soaring giants, mist swirling through their crowns. Their straight, clean boles carried patches of bright green moss, which contrasted with their walnut-coloured bark. At one point the path dipped under the trunk of a fallen giant, giving me chance to measure myself against the diameter of one of these magnificent trees. It was about a metre thick.
The most striking thing about the grove was the quality of the sound. It seemed as if, in an instant, we had left the noisy, muddy world of drizzle and people and entered a large, open-air cathedral. The villages with their slippery paths and clamour of pigs and children were left behind. Even the sound of the rain had vanished – high above the drizzle was caught in the canopy. One could not feel or hear it below. The path itself had also become more pleasant, for it now passed over a soft carpet of leaves and moss, muffling our footfalls.
Suddenly, a bird flitted between the lower branches of one of the Araucarias. I held my breath as I recognised it as a male Splendid Astrapia (Astrapia splendidissima). With their long tails and curved beaks, these magnificent birds of paradise are imposing creatures. From a distance they appear to be all black, but when viewed more closely you can see the iridescent patches on their chest and head, which are beautiful beyond description. Their glorious tail plumes are highly valued everywhere. As a result, they are avidly hunted and are usually shy. I looked at my companion for signs of interest in the bird. I was astounded that he took almost no notice of it as it flitted about in the branches just above his head. He simply trudged by, head down, along the path.
Too soon light showed through the trees ahead of us, signalling the end of the Araucaria grove. We came to a fence, and before us stood the wall of a building the likes of which I had never seen before in New Guinea. It was a barn-like structure about as tall as a two-storey house, and as we walked around to the front of it I could see that the only egress lay via a tiny oval door halfway up its front wall.
Stretched out before this remarkable structure lay the village of Telefolip. It consisted of a dozen or so houses, arranged in two rows facing a path leading to the barn-like building. The houses all stood on pedestals of soil about a metre high. The pedestals had been created, apparently, by the soil between and around them being worn away by countless generations of feet. This never happens in most of New Guinea because the village site changes regularly.
What struck me most about Telefolip was that everything was traditional. Not a nail or iron tool, not a plastic bag or piece of nylon rope gave any hint that this village belonged to the end of the twentieth century.
Dan Jorgensen was sitting in one of the huts, surrounded by senior Telefol men. He was in deep discussion with them, but he welcomed me warmly. I was breathless with the excitement of seeing a bird of paradise at such close range, and blurted out my tale of the sighting.
But that particular bird, it seemed, had been displaying for several weeks now in the sacred grove.
The grove of Araucaria trees, Dan explained, belongs to Afek, the ancestress of the Telefol. The large building at the end of the sacred grove was her cult house, where young Telefol men are taken so that the secrets of the ancestress can be passed onto them. No woman is ever allowed to enter it. Indeed, no woman is allowed even to enter the sacred grove of Araucaria trees through which I had just passed. Instead, they had to take a steep, muddy path that passed into the village via another route.
Dan explained that literally everything about the grove was sacred. Not a single leaf, not even an annoying mosquito, could be disturbed in it. Over generations the birds had learned about this, and even normally shy creatures such as the birds of paradise sometimes display fearlessly within easy reach of an arrow. Open displays by valuable birds such as the Splendid Astrapia chagrin the Telefol – which explained the glum look on the face of my guide. It must be a bit like seeing a jewel on the ground, but not being allowed to pick it up.