Papua New Guinea is a tropical paradise in the Pacific about 160km north of Australia consisting of 600 islands. Though the official language is English, the 5.5 million inhabitants make use of some 800 active languages including Melanesian Pidgin and Hiri Moto. The islands are a mixed bag of mountains, jungle, beach and rainforest, containing wildlife and places of natural beauty enough to excite even the most jaded traveller. You would find the locals welcoming and the economy interesting due to the dual system of hard cash and barter which still thrives today. Your arrival, by one of two airlines which service the country, would be during the daylight hours as night flights just aren't permitted.
Well, the airlines don't operate night flights, but locals and some cryptozoologists think there a rather different sort of night flight taking place in Papua New Guinea.
Is it a Bird? Is it a Plane?
Alright, everyone knows that pterodactyls died out with the rest of the dinosaurs, but in Papua New Guinea one local legend lives on and still draws interest from excited explorers and monster hunters. Locals tell tales of a huge pterodactyl-like creature that inhabits the jungle-covered mountainous regions... and it's a night feeder. Eye-witness accounts – and not just from locals but from visitors too – have perpetuated the legend, making it comparable to the Loch Ness Monster, Mothman or the Yeti.
The 'Duwas' or 'Ropen'1, as this prehistoric bird-like creature is known on Umboi Island, flies silently at night on leather-like wings. It sports two luminescent patches, one on the chest and the other under the wings, which glow red in the night sky and provide warning (if any were needed) that the beast is on the prowl.
The Ropen is rumoured to survive on fish... and people if they're weak enough. The newly-dead are a particular favourite of the creature and graves are known to have been disturbed and their inhabitants removed. This is no mean feat as the graves are usually covered by a concrete stone to deter movement and so considerable strength is involved in breaking through these monuments.
It supposedly nests or roosts in the caves vacated by the Japanese following the Second World War, but where it lived while the war was ongoing is a mystery. They are thought to live mainly on Siassi Island in the Morobe Province, but with such a gift for flight they can wander.
The more logical mind will assume that the graves that have been emptied were the work of grave robbers, and that the enormous creature reported by many is in fact a Blyth's Hornbill. While the Hornbill is officially the largest bird on the islands and can have a wing-span of about five feet, it is a very noisy flyer, lacks built-in illumination and – most importantly – doesn't fly at night.
Assuming something is flying at night: what is it?
World War II veteran Duane Hodgkinson from Montana is perhaps the first westerner to report a sighting – he and his colleague had a close encounter near Finschhafen in 1944. He was interviewed many times and as recently as 2005 maintained that they had seen a pterodactyl.
Further afield, a sighting was reported in 1997 by a husband and wife while out for a stroll:
...in Perth, Western Australia on the coastline around 10.30pm. We were walking along Marmion Avenue between the suburbs of Heathridge and Ocean Reef. This creature could not be written off as a bird as it was bigger than any bird on the planet, it did not flap its wings (just glided on the air current), it had a ruddy reddish brown leathery skin; (we could see it's underneath as it flew over us at about 300ft up; the glow from all the ground lighting made that possible), it had a long tail and a wingspan that we estimated at between 30-50 feet across.
My husband and I both have talked about what we saw many times since that night in 1997... It had a lizard appearance, and was a ruddy reddish brown colour, bearing in mind that all we could see was its dark shape until the ground lighting hit it, it was only for maybe between 5 to 10 seconds... but enough time for us to see it was a living creature. I should imagine a creature that size would have had legs and feet, but we didn't see them. It was gliding across the night sky, flying quite low, without a sound.
The pair preferred to remain anonymous due to the hostile response their report brought.
Most sightings are reported by natives of Papua New Guinea, and fishermen probably meet it most often. They favour night fishing and use torches to 'hypnotise' the fish to make the catch easier. There are reports of the Ropen using a similar method and this could explain the need for their bioluminescence. Then again, if it is a bird it may just be part of some elaborate mating ritual.
Whatever the reason for its appearance, with the large areas of jungle the Ropen could well be an undiscovered big bird or bat, though it is unlikely to be a pterodactyl. Still, that won't stop the rumours, whispers and local legends any more than it will stop the cryptozoologists.
In many cases, a creature's existence leads to photographic evidence as well as anecdotes. Unfortunately, the only Ropen-like thing captured on camera to date has been lights in the night sky. The actual creature is still somewhat camera-shy and remains elusive.
If you happen to be holidaying or stopping in Papua New Guinea as part of a world tour, be careful out there at night. Oh, and keep a camera handy – just in case.