Lake Wanam


Deep in an eternal sea of greenery lies a jewel of a lake, far from the outside world and contact with “civilised” man, a place where, as far as history is concerned, no-one had ever set foot until recently. It takes its name from the tribe living in the valley where it lies:  the tribe are called the Wampar, and the lake Wanam, while the valley retains its old name of Markham, and runs through the Huon pensinsula of Papua New Guinea.



The map shows German New Guinea at the turn of the 19th century (above the dotted line, the area below is British New Guinea)

The history of humanity in the Markham valley is a bloody, and at times gruesome, one. That of the lake remains unrecorded. This report will reveal the truth of the matter, and, hopefully, open at least a few people’s eyes.  If men wish to kill each other then that is their own affair.  But when they overwhelm and destroy Nature then that should – must – be a matter of concern for all humankind. We are but guests on this planet, not its owners, and we should behave accordingly. Our continual destruction of Nature and the environment has got to stop, even if only a single little fish is involved. So, the facts about a valley and a lake…


The natives of the Markham valley and their dances, at the turn of the 19th century

According to the records it was not until 1870 that the white man first explored the Markham valley, home of the Wampar (and other tribes), who lived on the right bank of the Markham river, which is also where Lake Wanam lies. The following Wampar story has come down to us from those days:

A man named Rizib and his son Zanaz lived in one of the Wampit villages on the right bank. Rizib was a garaweran, an important man, unpopular and feared on account of his arrogant and overbearing behaviour.

He cunningly used his reputation to advantage. Whenever a family or clan was preparing a feast, Rizib and his son Zanaz would send them the following message: “Don’t forget to let me have a bone to gnaw on.” As a result the recipient of the request, fearing Rizib, would invariably send him a large piece of food and various other foodstuffs, and so Rizib always had a good supply of meat. He lived this life of luxury for a long time, but people began to get more and more annoyed and suspicious about the whole business. Eventually a number of them met in secret to discuss what they could do to rid themselves of the snooty Rizib and his offspring. They decided to attack his most vulnerable point, his greed for good food. They organised a great feast, slaughtering large numbers of pigs and preparing huge quantitites of vegetables. An invitation went out to Rizib and Zanaz. But the hosts had secretly prepared a deep pit, its bottom set with sharpened bamboos; they carefully covered the hole with branches and earth, spreading a bark mat over it, supposedly to welcome their guests. Rizib and his son duly arrived.


Native skirmisher still fighting today with bows and arrows

Festively clad, they marched haughtily into the village, as ever, spear in hand. Their hosts hastened to greet them, and invited them to sit themselves down in the place of honour, on the mat. And, all unsuspecting, the pair fell into the trap. As they sat down, the flimsy covering collapsed and both fell onto the bamboo spikes in the bottom of the pit. Rizib was badly injured, but Zanaz managed to clamber out of the pit and tried to escape. But their enemies were ready for them, and killed them both. According to the Wampar people, this event was the source of future war and unrest. The deaths of Rizib and Zanaz were avenged by members of their clan, and the conflict led to people abandoning their villages in the Wampit lowlands;  some of them crossed the Markham river to settle on the other side, but this in turn led to the ousting of the people who had lived there since time immemorial.
A second story from the same period goes as follows:  as usual, the children were playing in the village while their parents were out working in their fields. Suddenly a few of the children discovered a praying mantis (Mantis religiosa), and played with it for so long that the creature was badly injured. Now, the praying mantis was the totem of another clan, and when the children of this clan saw what was happening they were very annoyed. But the other youngsters refused to abandon their game, and continued to torture the insect, eventually killing it. A fight ensued, and when the adults returned home and heard what had happened, they too joined in and a regular battle deve-loped. This incident caused hostility and strife among a group of people who had previously lived together in amity.
A third story, which again ends in tribal warfare, tells how a quite insignificant matter, but one involving a not unimportant aspect of the traditional view of right and wrong, flared up into something serious. A number of women had gone fishing, and had dammed a stream for the purpose. They had, however, omitted to ask permission of the rightful owner – a serious mistake. The incident resulted in strife and conflict among the various tribes of a large group that at the time shared a common language.
These three stories all deal with events which are considered forerunners of the general conflict and disunity that still exists today. Not long ago, du-ring an expedition to the highlands of Papua, my cameraman and I found ourselves caught up in a local war (see following page).Two tribes had come to blows close to a stream, in which I was busy studying the flora and fauna. While drawing water 2 men from one tribe had (probably unintentionally) killed a boy from another; unfortunately the boy was the chief’s son, and the incident had escalated into a war. The protocol was laid down in advance:  the hostilities were to continue for 52 moons, 6 days a week, from 6 in the morning to 6 at night, with straightforward man-to-man combat. Women and children were to be left unharmed and organise food on the battlefield. Whichever side had sustained the greater losses after 52 moons would be declared the loser, and must submit unconditionally to the demands of the victor. (What a pity that wars everywhere aren’t as well-regulated…)
One of the opposition’s arrows whizzed by my right ear, luckily missing me by about 2 centimetres before shooting between Wolfgang’s legs (we were the only people in the war zone without shields!). We immediately beat a hasty retreat, our interest in the flora and fauna disappearing in a trice…
But, to return to the Markham valley and Wanam:  the white man first appeared on the scene and began to explore the Markham valley area in 1886. It was the Germans who annexed the northern part of Papua, later christening it Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land and giving the settlements names such as Friedrich-Wilhelmshafen (today Madang),
Konstantinhafen, Stephanshafen, and Finschhafen, to name but a few.
The Governor, Georg Freiherr von Schleinitz, was the first (1886) to venture up the Markham valley, but after only 2 miles he discovered that the river is not navigable, when shallows and rapids made further progress impossible. 1903 saw a new expedition, which was, however, driven back by the Wampar. The 1905 expedition, this time starting from Friedrich-Wilhlem-shafen, was even more unlucky:  a number of the casualties provided the main course at a native feast!
A German missionary, Georg Bamler, embarked on a solo expedition on 9th February 1906. He came across the adventurer, prospector, and farmer, Wilhelm Dammköhler, who told him that the 400 or so Laewomba (= Wampar) 40 km upstream were harmless.
Bamler was, however, attacked in another village, on the right bank, but after he had shot a few of his assailants he was able to stay, unmolested, in the same village.
Dammköhler returned to the Markham valley in 1907, with a survey team, and witnessed a couple of tribal battles in which the Laewomba killed 68 and 30 opponents respectively. The survey team remained unscathed. In December 1907, after their work was finished, Dammköhler, accompanied by the geo-logist Otto Fröhlich, decided to venture further up the Markham. With 15 porters (including a man from Tikandu who was the father of the wife of the current Foreign Minister of Papua, Albert Maori Kiki), they followed the bamboo inland, avoiding the settlements of the natives.
On the 4th day they reached what is today Erap;  the next day, Christmas Day, they crossed a flat area covered in kunai grass;  and on the 6th day they reached the spot on the Zafir stream from which the valley opens northwards. They crossed the Leron river and came to the village of Sangang, surrounded by huge banana plantations. Native warriors, armed to the teeth, surrounded the expedition, but Dammköhler spoke words of peace. These completely naked natives were large men, quite different to the people of the coast.Their hair was shoulder length, sometimes coloured black and red, and they carried spears and wooden clubs as well as huge shields (like those of the natives in whose war I became involved, see photos). The single woman accompanying them, wearing a yellow/red/brown striped grass skirt, urged the warriors to attack the intruders. The warriors approached closer, and the situation became critical. Dammköhler fired a few warning shots and was thus able to keep them at a distance and continue on his way. Shortly afterwards they were challenged by the Ngarowapum tribe, but were able to evade them by crossing the Umi river.
The expedition now traversed the northern side of the Krätke mountains where they came across huge coconut plantations and more villages. Here little notice was taken of them, but they were welcomed in friendship when they proferred gifts.
The men were naked, in general of heavy build and sometimes more than 180 cm tall, with shoulder length hair as well but clean-shaven, and sometimes wearing necklaces of banana seeds or mussel shells;  they were fascinated when Dammköhler showed them how the white man made fire, and they had no idea what a knife was for.
They were living completely in the stone age, using finely-crafted stone axes and spearheads, as well as skillfully carved tobacco pipes and wooden clubs. Their round huts were spacious, similar to those of the other tribes but rather taller and roomier. Tame cockatoos strutted around their well-tended plantations, but they had no pigs.
Later on Dammköhler and his men reached the highest point (400 metres above sea level) in the valley, and hence passed into the Ramu valley, confirming his suspicion that the Markham and Ramu valleys were linked by a single, unbroken, wide plateau. The extremely accurate map resulting from this expedition showed for the first time the existence not just of this beautiful valley, but also of Lake Wanam, and made an almost incalculably valuable contribution to knowledge of the Markham-Ramu region at that time.


Upper black dot is the position of Lake Wanam

During the 39 day journey Dammköhler, who was an experienced gold prospector, had, not surprisingly, discovered places where he expected to find gold. He later mounted further expeditions in search of the precious metal, having in the meantime gone to Australia to fetch 9 horses for the purpose. On 29th July 1909, during his last expedition, accompanied by his friend, another gold prospector, Rudolf Oldörp and 3 men of the Lahe tribe (after whom the modern provincial capital, Lae, is named), and 4 horses (the other 5 had died during the previous trip), he again penetrated the Markham valley. It was a very punishing journey, from which he was not destined to return alive. First of all he was abandoned by his porters, and then attacked by unnamed natives. He was struck by 11 arrows and died of his wounds. Oldörp, with only 6 arrow wounds, survived and escaped downstream on a raft he built himself. But despite this horrendous experience he could not abandon the gold. Without telling anyone the exact location, he managed to organise another expedition in Friedrich-Wilhelmshafen that same year, but was lost, together with his ship, while rounding the Huon peninsula during a storm.
Earlier the same year, the German doctor and ethnologist Richard Neuhaus, and the missionaries Lehner, Mailänder, and Keysser, had met with better luck. In April and June the following year they “converted” the Laewomba and established peace between the tribes, supposedly finally ending the bloody warfare that had persisted uninterrupted from 1870 to 1910, and with it the feuding between neighbouring tribes, the need constantly to uproot and flee, and the repeated genocide. Although I have good reason to doubt their claim!
It is, however, a matter of record that in 1910 the missionaries established their first mission station in the Markham valley, whose population at that time was estimated at 10,000. But when it came to converting the natives, they constantly found themselves beating their heads against a brick wall.


Lotus plants at Lake Wanam
The productive gardens of the Laewomba furnished food aplenty, without their needing to work hard. They spent their lives hunting, fighting, feasting and dancing, and clung fast to the traditions and beliefs handed down from their ancestors. Nobody died a natural death;  it was always at the hands of an enemy. The prime consideration was (and still is) to exact revenge, by violence or magic, in order to appease the spirit of the deceased.
The closest relatives were obliged to wear black bark hats until the sorcerer or another enemy had been killed in battle and his head brought home as proof that vengeance had been exacted in full. Thus head-hunting was a regular event (less so today), chiefly in the upper Markham valley, in the Azera area.
A month after the First World War broke out on 17th August 1914, the ruling Governor of Kaiser-Wilhelms-Land, Dr Haber, signed a surrender, enabling Germans resident in the country, and who had sworn an oath of neutrality, to remain and go unhindered about their business. The mission expanded further in 1921 when military rule in Papua gave way to civilian and the former German New Guinea became a mandated territory of the League of Nations under Australian administration. In March of that year the German Örtel performed the first baptism, and by 1922 the Christian faith was widespread in the Markham Valley.
As Dammköhler and Oldörp had opined back in 1908, the valley was ideal for agriculture. First of all huge cotton plantations were planted (but failed on account of the high humidity), and subsequently peanuts.
By the outbreak of World War II a 25 km long road had already been driven all the way into the valley, and nowadays there are excellent metalled roads into the highlands and part of  the way to Bulolo and the region where, following Dammköhlers disco-veries, the gold rush started. The latter continues to the present day and has transformed most of the region into a state where, from the air, it looks as if an army of moles has been at work. It is a great shame the way Nature has been devastated, without any pause for thought. The relatively harmless activities of the earlier white prospectors have today escalated to total destruction by the natives.
And yet, despite all this, through some miracle of luck the beautiful Lake Wanam has survived unspoilt. Even so, a quite different catastrophe has occurred here – caused by Man, of course!
Despite the nearby well-constructed and commonly metalled roads, the lake is still practically inaccessible, deep in the Markham Valley. If one drives along the modern road from Lae to the new airport, in the valley some 40 km from the city, then one cannot avoid passing the turning to Bulolo.



Tilapias introduced in Lake Wanam

Some 20 km down this fork, amid unspoiled verdant terrain and surrounded by hills, there is a large chicken farm to the right of and a short distance from the road. Just before this a dirt track forks steeply downward from the paved road, apparently as good as never used, judging by its overgrown state. This “road”, runs through metre-high grass and scrubby woodland before ending abruptly in the middle of nowhere. But if you look closely you will find it is possible to go further provided you have a four-wheel drive and it hasn’t rained recently. After about 8 km there is a clearing filled with reeds, and at its end trees can be seen standing in the water, with a backdrop of green-cloaked hills. When the sun shines on them they look quite unreal – like a Hollywood set, or the most carefully manicured English lawn.
If one is lucky then there may be a canoe here (without rudder!) or one may encounter one of the natives who live beside this fairytale lake – there is, in fact, just one family, numbering 7 in all. No-one else!.
It is necessary to paddle about a kilometre further, meandering through masses of glorious Nymphaea lotus  with their enchanting pink flowers, past trees growing in the water, in order to view the lake in all its glory. Set among green hills, it lies tranquil and calm in the valley, as if undisturbed by Man for millions of years. But this is but an illusion. Look beneath the water’s surface and all is murky chaos, with thousands of tilapias swimming around in a muddy brew, and hardly any other fishes to be seen.


Packing of the collected Glossolepis wanamensis

It is not known exactly who introduced these African cichlids. Although tilapias are widespread throughout New Guinea, having been introduced into practically every lake and river system, it is incomprehensible why this should have included even this isolated and virtually uninhabited lake.

In 1977 Dr Gerald R. Allen discovered the fantastic endemic rainbowfish, found only here in Lake Wanam, subsequently scientifically described Glossolepis wanamensis by him and Mrs Kailola in 1978. Jerry remembers that there were no tilapias in the lake at that time, so they must have been introduced at a later date.
It was not until many years later that I first visited Lake Wanam. My activities are not restricted to ichthyology and ethnology, and I have visited New Guinea annually since 1974, collecting live specimens of native fishes and taking them back to Europe to found captive populations, and I hoped to do likewise with the Wanam rainbowfish, which had never been imported live to Europe.
This ultimately enables people all over the world to enjoy keeping such fanta-stic creatures, and to learn much from them; besides which an aquarium has a relaxing and tranquillising effect.
Captive breeding also helps to preserve species which become extinct in their natural habitat – as is the case with the Wanam rainbowfish – with the hope that one day they may perhaps be reintroduced in the wild. For make no mi-stake, wild populations of all sorts of creatures – and this applies to tropical fishes more than to any other group of vertebrates – are doomed to extinction. Man refuses to alter his way of life, and his relentless destruction of Nature continues unabated, regardless of any Washington Convention or similar conservation measure passed in Europe or America.

I first managed to reach the lake in 1992. I could not help but notice the impact of the tilapias on the native flora and fauna, but at that time the problem didn’t appear too dire. It was a different story by my next trip in 1994 (I had caught only a single male rainbowfish the first time, not enough to start a captive population!). This time I found that the introduced Oreochromis mossambicus  had taken over completely and the native fauna had almost vanished.

Image Image




                                   Left: Wild Glossolepis wanamensis. Right: A captive bread Glossolepis wanamensis

A painstaking search of the small (estimated at 3 to 5 square km), almost circular, lake revealed only a few individual adult specimens. This prompted me to make another trip the following year (1995), this time accompanied by my intrepid Italian friend, Paola Pierucci (photo right hand), and this time it was clear that the magnificent ende-mic rainbowfish had been completely supplanted by the tilapias. Millions of them, with only the family of 7 to catch them, and how many does it take to feed a husband and wife and 5 children?! They had undergone a massive population explosion and now occupied every corner of the lake. An exhaustive search produced just one small group of rainbowfishes, adults 2-3 years old, 7 males and a single elderly female (left-hand page). No juveniles, no eggs. The water was murky from surface to substrate, with tilapias as far as the eye could see. 

Like all of Nature’s creatures these huge masses of tilapias have survival as their prime object, and to that end eat everything that comes within range. The soft substrate offers little nutriment, and, apart from a sturdy and resilient goby, Oxyeleotris fimbriatus, there are no native fishes left.  Before long the introduced tilapias will themselves start to diminish in numbers, when the food supply runs out. And all this because of Man’s ignorance.

As a result, the world is one glorious creation of Nature the poorer. Man, who must be the most ignorant and unthinking species in the long evolutionary history of the, has done it again! It is almost impossible to estimate the number of species disappearing every day as the result of his unconsidered actions and his destruction of the basis of our existence, Mother Nature. I have little doubt that Homo sapiens will eventually completely destroy his environment, and with it himself…

Text & photos: Heiko Bleher
Drawings & old photos: ag archives

This post is also available in: Italian German French Spanish Português

One thought on “Lake Wanam

  1. Joel Johnson

    Very Nice and an interesting article.

    I am from Gabensis village near Lake Wanam in Morobe province of Papua New Guinea. I’d like to thank the author of the article, ‘Heiko Bleher’ for his great effort in writing this article..

    Thank you.

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