Macintyre: Edge of Existence - Tuesday May 29

macintyre: edge of existence
papua new guinea (1/4)

Donal MacIntyre puts his life and reputation on the line as he tries to live at the absolute limits of human habitation in The Edge of Existence, a new four-part series for Five. Tonight’s opening episode sees Donal travel to Papua New Guinea to live with the Insect Tribe of Swagap.

Throughout the world there are places so inhospitable that humans cannot survive there in the long term. The Edge of Existence shows what it is like to live in these places, as Donal experiences first-hand the natural world at its harshest. Combining survival know-how, anthropology and extreme physical challenges, Donal travels to some of the most spectacular locations in the world.

Deep in the heart of Papua New Guinea’s jungle, several days’ journey away from civilisation, lives the Insect Tribe of Swagap. The tribe is so-named because its members worship the preying mantis, and have in the past been known to engage in tribal warfare and cannibalism. Unknown until the 1950s, they live on fish and whatever they can hunt in the surrounding jungle. For the first time ever, the tribe has allowed a visitor to experience their way of life.

When Donal arrives he is greeted by an impressive tribal dance. “It looks like a cross between a war dance and a welcome,” he says, eyeing the ranks of warriors with face paint and spears. “Thankfully, this time it’s a welcome.” Donal will be staying with English-speaking Samwell, who introduces him to his two wives and three children.

Donal’s first challenge comes on the second day, when he joins the men to catch wild boar. The chief orders Donal to join the village elders on bamboo platforms above the river water, out of harm’s way, while the young hunters venture into the jungle to flush out the boar. Donal stands poised with a heavy metal spear, scanning the trees for movement. When a boar finally emerges from the jungle, it flashes past the hunters and dodges a shower of spears. “I can’t believe its speed,” Donal says. The boar escapes but the hunters in the forest catch a sow and the tribe perform a sing-sing ceremony to give thanks.

One aspect of tribal life fascinates Donal – the status of females. He is warned that any woman caught speaking to an outsider faces death. His guide Philip tells him that a woman who breaks this taboo will have a spell cast upon her. “They’ve got some spirits to kill the woman,” he explains. Donal accompanies the women downriver to dive for clay to make pots. He successfully dredges up the clay, but his efforts at pottery fail to impress: “No good,” is one verdict of his attempted pot.

Now the moment arrives that Donal has been dreading: crocodile hunting in a wooden canoe. The waters of the Sepik River are among the most crocodile-infested in the world. The skin of the saltwater crocodile fetches high prices and provides the tribe with their main source of income. But despite being in the company of some of the best crocodile hunters in the world, Donal is nervous: “Make no mistake,” he says, “this is terrifying.” The hunters mimic the sounds of the crocs, but narrowly miss making a catch.

Alfonse, the hunt leader, takes Donal to see a crocodile nest and talks about the tribe’s fear that a plan to build a goldmine on the river will damage their environment, as it has in other parts of the country. Back at the village, the tribe’s spiritual leader is also despondent: “Sadly, my spirits don’t have the power to remove the mining companies.”

Donal’s stay is not over yet, and he accompanies the hunters as they go on a night hunt for crocodiles. Using a special camera, Donal records the drama as his hosts pursue an elusive four metre-long croc – worth the equivalent to a sixmonth salary. But floating in a delicate canoe in complete darkness surrounded by these unpredictable beasts is enough to provoke a cold sweat in Donal: “If this canoe capsizes, we become the hunted,” he says.

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