Wawoi Falls, Papua New Guinea

Finding the Okari-nut tree at Wawoi Falls 

I came across the Okari-nut leaf as I was crashing and slipping through some very wet, leech-infested rainforest whilst on a plant-collecting expedition in Papua New Guinea in 2004.

 We had chartered a light plane to get out of a remote part of the country and as we were flying over a spectacular waterfall (Wawoi Falls) that had a serviceable grass/mud airstrip nearby, I asked if we could drop in for a quick walk to the falls. We buzzed the strip to make sure it looked OK and then came around again for a perfect landing. The pilot stretched out for a nap and said to be back in half an hour as there was a lot of cloud closing in and we had to get across the main range. Local guides took us to the falls through some spectacular primary rainforest in which we saw an amazing variety of wildlife: there were many birds which we heard more than saw including hornbills which we heard and then did see (their wings sounded like huge bellows as they swept over the canopy); clouds of butterflies flew up and around us as we passed through occasional sunlit gaps in the forest; huge, bird-eating-spider burrows pocked the track in places and of course the leeches were very pleased to see us (I picked 15 off my ankles in the half hour).

 The Okari-nut tree was dropping ripe fruit as well as the gorgeous leaves that I painted.

Sampling the Okari Nuts

Actually, the guides told us, fruit bats had knocked the fruit down the night before. Sure enough, closer inspection revealed teeth marks and scratches in the fleshy coats of these large, bright purple fruit. One of the guides split open some of the fruit for us with his machete, revealing clean, white kernels about 6 by 1.5cm; crisp and delicious.

 We got near enough to the falls for a good look before scrambling back to the plane, vowing to return one day for a better visit. We made it over the range – just: we circled for some time at 10 to 11,000 feet looking for a gap in the clouds and a gap in the mountains that were hidden in the clouds. After three circles the pilot (next to me – I was in the co-pilot’s seat) was chewing his nails but then the clouds parted to reveal the gap he was looking for and we slipped through a few hundred feet above the ground with mountains either side and rain streaming across the windows.

 What a way to get painting material!