“Visit the flower garden and see the live bridge” I read inquisitively from a text message. A live bridge? The thought of it had me intrigued. Was it simply a typo in the text message? Or was there really a live bridge? And what would a live bridge look like? “Ok, sounds great” I replied and our first trek in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville had been organised.
As a visitor to the Bougainville, a little planning is necessary before a trek. You’ve got to get the right permissions from the right people, depending on the territories and villages you might be passing through. This is where the trek organiser and the guide comes into play, pre-arranging all these things, which would be very tricky or near on impossible without the right relationships. After a flurry of text messages back and forth our trek to the ‘live bridge’ was on.
“Nem bilong mi Adam” I introduced myself to our local guide Tony as we are steadily increasing in altitude towards a small hamlet near the village of Topinang, near Arawa. Cocoa plants with pods larger than my hand, shaded by tall coconut palms towering high above, line the rough gravel track. I get glimpses of old houses being overgrown by the jungle as it consumes anything within reach. Rusted vehicles lie, partially covered in ferns and flax, slowly disappearing from sight.
Locals wave and greet us with ‘Moning Tru!’ as we pass through their village. Children smile, laugh and then run off giggling. A number of people approach with their hands extended and a beaming smile to introduce themselves and wish us a good day and wave goodbye with a “enjoy the bushwalk”.
Before too long we arrive at the hamlet, just south of Topinang and are welcomed by the chief and some of the villagers. The village has a number of simple timber buildings with flax roofs, and are impressively adorned with decorative bamboo, which has been worked into place, as a “welcome to Topinang” sign.
To my left, a bridge comes into sight. The live bridge! Spanning the river from one bank to the other, a distance of 30 feet. A mass of entangled tree roots and entrails, inter-twining to produce a living passage. Passing up through on of the main trees on the nearside of the river, we edge our way across the bridge, keeping a tight grip and getting a firm foothold, progressing slowly across, however, the bridge seems remarkably sturdy, which I wasn’t expecting. Don’t judge a book by its cover right…
I spot a swimming hole, which, albeit being an over-cast and slightly cooler day, looks and sounds very appealing in the 90% humidity.
I quickly peel off the sweat drenched t-shirt and eagerly edge my way out to the deep swimming pools. I feel instantly revived by the crisp, cool water. After 3 weeks of luke-warm showers, the coolness of the mountain water feels amazing as the group flounder and splash around in the river.
I must admit, at some point I think to myself “If I was a crocodile, would I live here?” and decide not to answer the question and furthermore, not to verbalise the thought with the group…
After a freshly opened coconut to quench the thirst of the trek, we stroll around the immaculate village gardens, which offer an abundance of exquisite shapes, colours and smells. Bright red, pink, orange and white orchids growing in the wild was a real pleasure to see – having purchased a number of these as birthday gifts for my mum over the years!
As we make our way back down the mountain, passing through more hamlets and villages, and being greeted en-route, we divert from the main track onto a cut away, which leads us deeper into the forest.
After slipping and sliding our way down a winding track of slick mud and tree roots, we arrive at a clearing, where a giant tree dominates. Hundreds or maybe thousands of epiphytes grow high up within the tree, clinging on for dear life, adding to its already impressive mass. Roots sprawl as far as the eye can see and vines hang from hundreds of feet above, numerous in number, intertwined together and reaching to the ground.
A tunnel had been cut through the vines and rays of light stream onto the vibrant green ferns seeking shade on the jungle floor. I have a brief moment of appreciation, that only be surrounded by wilderness and nature can do, as we pass through the clearing of tangled vines.
As I exit, Tony (the guide) tells me “the live bridge we are about to see has been here for a very long time, since I was a pikinini”. Seconds later, I am presented with a magnificent and significantly larger live bridge as the tree stretches and twists across the river, dwarfing the previous bridge.
Local villagers pass over the live bridge quickly, carrying baskets of washing or food, clearly well practised to the crossing and its slippery tree roots and vines. I cross with caution, edging my way across, looking down at the white water of the river 15 feet below.
We continue through the plentiful cocoa and coconut plantations, homeward bound to the town of Arawa. As we reach the outskirts, I approach a narrow metal swing bridge spanning the river from the plantations across to the township. I cross the swing bridge, it shakes, rattles and creaks in desperate need of repair. I think of the live bridges… bursting full of character – mystical and so full of life and hidden deep within the jungle of Bougainville of which, very few outsiders will ever see. The hidden vine bridges of Bougainville, aka live bridges.
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Hi, I’m Adam Constanza, freelance travel content creator living, working and supporting tourism in Timor Leste, South East Asia.
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