by Leif Birger Holmstedt
At the end of the Second World War the Danish travel ban ceased and the door had opened to the wider world. Jens Bjerre, a budding young adventurer could finally realize his great childhood dream of becoming a globetrotter. He left his regular job as political editor on Aftenbladet, sold all his possessions and bought film and audio equipment to record his travels.
New Guinea was the destination. But the journey passed through Australia. Since Jens Bjerre in his early youth had read Spencer and Gillen’s classic work The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), about the Australian Aboriginal people’s mysterious life and culture, he had had a yearning to get to know them.
Major preparations were needed, such as discussions with experts in museums and universities, and with government authorities in Canberra- for authorization to travel into the restricted areas where the remaining indigenous nomadic tribes lived. Jens Bjerre was given a rarely granted authorization thanks to the Royal Geographical Society in London and to Professor A.P. Elkin at Sydney University.
To get to the Warlpiri tribe, Jens first had to undertake a seven-hour flight from Adelaide to Alice Springs. From there he and his interpreter, Jimmy, drove 400 km to the remote government station, Yuendumu. From Yuendumu they continued on a four-day journey by camel in the blazing sun, before Jens, the camel driver, Nich and Jimmy, reached the Warlpiri tribe’s settlement.
There Jens Bjerre was invited to visit one of the tribe’s most sacred places, Ngama. Ngama is the big snake, which according to the Warlpiri tribe’s mythology was the earth’s creator. After a half day’s journey, they reached the Ngama rock, which was surrounded by a 15-20 metre long snake, painted with charcoal, chalk, ochre and blood. The snake’s “guardian”, an elderly tribesman, first had to invoke the snake’s spirit, called Tjurunga, which lay hidden under the rock, before the rest of the company could approach. The tribe’s elder told them the legend of the magical rainbow snake and its power, which for thousands of years had bonded the people together.
The ceremony ended with the men sitting in a circle singing for about an hour, while they beat time with their boomerangs. It was for Jens Bjerre a beautiful conclusion to the visit to the Warlpiri tribe.
After visiting the Warlpiri in the central Australian desert, Jens Bjerre continued to New Guinea’s Central Highlands, where the Kukuku* people lived. A small chartered plane brought Jens Bjerre up to the government station for the remote Menyamya Sub-District and landed on a hillside where he was welcomed by the two patrol officers, Bill Purdy and Jack Mater.
The Menyamya station was relatively new, only two years old. It had been established in this unknown part of New Guinea’s wild mountainous area after reports of fierce fighting between the local indigenous tribes. It was still far from safe for the assigned patrol officers to be able to leave the place without an armed escort.
One early morning three days after his arrival at the patrol station, Jens Bjerre set out with Jack Mater and a caravan of 54 men including 42 porters, 8 armed police soldiers and 2 interpreters, on a lengthy inspection trip to Kukuku* villages that had not previously been visited.
Each week a runner was sent down to the patrol station with a report on what the expedition had been doing. After several weeks on patrol a runner returned with an alarming letter from patrol officer Bill Purdy saying: “There is unrest and fighting between the natives in the west valley. So far, eight have been killed. Need all police soldiers. Reply immediately. Bill”
Jens Bjerre then had to quickly pack up the ethnographic objects he had acquired and follow the inspection team back to the patrol station. Here he waited a week for the next supply flight to take him down to the coast. In the meantime, Bjerre visited Pastor Freund and his wife at the Lutheran mission station. Pastor Freund told him of the Kukukus’* lifestyle and culture. They were a people who had very few and simple ceremonies, and almost all of them were associated with their main interest, fighting and killing. He told of their fear of evil spirits, against which they had no rituals to protect themselves, and that the most important thing in their lives was to create fear among their neighbours. They enjoyed fighting, and did not hesitate to pick a fight with neighbouring tribes.
After the expedition’s abrupt interruption, caused by the troubles in the Kukuku* cannibals’ villages, Bjerre returned to Lae. Here he received information from District Commissioner Downes in Goroka that the Morombo tribe in the Central Highlands, were preparing for their dance feast in connection with the annual harvest ceremonies.
To get there, Bjerre chartered a small deHavilland Drover aeroplane in Goroka, to fly him to the airfield at a small mission station that was run by the American Lutheran Mission Society. He set off the following morning with four porters from the mission station. One of them was Maio, who was both an interpreter and guide and himself a Morombo.
With the help of gifts, Jens Bjerre was given permission by the luluai (the headman) to witness and film the dance feast. Bjerre also wanted to film the boys’ initiation ceremony, but as it wasn’t to take place until after the dance feast, he made a gift of a large knife to the luluai, to get him to move the ceremony forward.
The next morning the luluai came to get Jens Bjerre, who followed him into a small clearing in the jungle, through which ran a stream – the place where the initiation ceremony would take place. First the boys had to undergo the required trials for the initiation rites, which amounted to several hours of long punishing drill. Thereafter, the last and most painful part of the initiation was carried out. One by one, the boys were called to the stream, where the their noses were pierced. A pointed piece of bone was forced through the cartilage between their nostrils. After the bone had been withdrawn, the boys got up and held their heads over the stream, so that the blood from the pierced nose could drip into the water; this symbolized the boy freeing himself of the blood he had accumulated while he had been in his mother’s womb.
Much later after this experience, in 1960 Jens Bjerre took the initiative to organize a Danish scientific expedition – the Noona Dan Expedition. Its purpose was to visit lesser known Oceanic island communities, such as the Admiralty Islands and Bismarck Islands; here Danish and other European scientists were to explore the islands’ flora and fauna. Jens Bjerre’s goal again was New Guinea, this time he would seek contact with the Enga tribes up in the uncontrolled area of Mount Hagen and collect ethnographic artefacts for the National Museum of Denmark and the Moesgaard Museum.
After a busy week in Port Moresby negotiating with the authorities and buying goods for trading, such as axes, knives and salt, Jens Bjerre flew to the district neighbourhood of Mount Hagen and reported himself ready to participate in upcoming missions. A week after having arrived in Laiagam, the most remote patrol post in the controlled area west of Mount Hagen, Jens Bjerre took off with the local patrol officer, Dennis Faithful, on a mission into the uncontrolled area, where the patrol inter alia had the task of carrying out a population census and settling some violent disputes between hostile tribes.
Owing to a heavy storm with thunder and lightning, they had, after half a day’s march, to seek shelter under a rocky outcrop. The site turned out to be an old burial ground where, just below the surface, skulls were scattered, along with stones formed into various shapes. Dennis Faithful said that the natives consider the stones as being sacred and kept them in their ceremonial houses. No one – not even the natives themselves — know where the stones had originated from nor who had made them. Only the heads of the tribe’s leading men were buried with the sacred stones, which are known as “Kepple”. The Kepple stones are now kept in the ethnographic collection at the National Museum in Denmark.
Jens Bjerre made many successful films including one of his adventures in Africa, From Cairo to the Cape, which allowed him to finance his travels across world, including to New Guinea and Australia. He became a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society in London and was awarded the Cherry Kearnton medal in 2014.
*The term Kukuku is no longer acceptable. The people are now correctly referred to as Anga.