Primal Travel: Alone in Papua

Two years ago, National Geographic Traveler contributing editor and bestselling author of The Lunatic Express Carl Hoffman shared with me an idea for his next book.

It struck a chord because when I was ten I was drawn to the subject: the mysterious disappearance in 1961 of Michael Rockefeller, the youngest son of future U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller, in what was then Netherlands New Guinea (now Papua, a province of Indonesia).

Did he drown? Was he shredded by a crocodile or shark? Or, most grisly, was he eaten by cannibals?

“I became aware of Rockefeller in my 20s, and his story never left me,” Hoffman says. “He just disappeared into myth, leaving many unanswered questions. I thought I’d go into this alien world and discover the truth of what took place.”

Book contract in hand, Hoffman had a researcher comb Dutch archives for any documents on the young man’s disappearance, and set out for the Asmat region, where Rockefeller was last seen. I read Hoffman’s first draft and made suggestions. He returned to Asmat with Kickstarter funding, and finished Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest for Primitive Art, a gripping tale of what probably happened.

In Traveler’May issue, Hoffman offers a glimpse of a culture few of us will get to experience (read the feature). It’s an example of primal travel.

“I had to dig deeply enough into both myself and the place to learn its secrets,” Hoffman says. “I discovered how little I really understand foreign cultures, even after all my travels. The experience changed my perspective, made me less cocky.”

His book and his story for Traveler are paradigms of what good travel journalism does: It makes you think and imagine. Since our sister magazine, National Geographic Adventure, went dark, we’ve made adventure a success online–and now want to bring more off-the-beaten-path experiences to our pages. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment.

Keith Bellows is editor-in-chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow his story on Twitter @KeithBellowNG.

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  1. akajill
    April 26, 2014, 11:18 pm

    I love reading all travel literature, but most especially the stories from places I will most likely never visit. I have been on so many virtual trips… Some places I fall in love with on the page and dream of an actual trip, others I know I never want to visit in person, but boy I loved reading about them.

  2. Sara Chukoian @Green Travel Review
    Atlanta, GA
    April 17, 2014, 10:39 am

    I have a great respect for National Geographic and all the members of the organization, so when I stumbled across this post I definitely had to read. I love seeing posts illustrating cultures as well as travel. These topics discussed interest me and I would love to see more. Great post, thank you for sharing!

  3. Elizabeth
    April 16, 2014, 5:56 am

    I love reading about adventure and experiential travel. I would happily read more posts on these topics and fewer on top tourist destinations.