I blame it all on the skull caves.
If the early inhabitants of Papua New Guinea's Milne Bay hadn't treated their dead so ghoulishly I might never have got hooked on mysteries, murder and all things macabre. I certainly wouldn't have become so fascinated with corpses that I made a career out of them.
Instead of crime fiction, I might have poured my creativity into something a little less bleak, like Literature or poetry or, better yet, smothered it completely as normal people do, and got myself a decent job. You know, one that doesn't involve slaughtering people and pays a weekly wage.
But oh no, those pesky headhunters of Doini Island had to go and haul their ancestors' skulls to the top of that bloody hill, thus igniting a morbid interest in my childhood self that I've never quite managed to extinguish.
Allow me to explain.
I was born and bred in PNG's shabby capital, Port Moresby, a place of hard-drinking expatriates, Mahjong-addicted housewives and a drab, disappointing beach. My father, a surveyor, was offered the chance to invest in an old copra plantation on a deserted island called Doini, for the proverbial price of a song. Located on the otherwise peaceful eastern tip of the country, Doini had the postcard-perfect bay -- crystal-clear waters, shell-scattered sands, you get the picture.
Yet it was what lay beyond the beach that had me so intrigued -- its dark, mysterious past.
The place had been deserted by the locals long before. A lack of fresh water was the official explanation but its history of 'evil spirits' and a resident witchdoctor certainly didn't help. Or at least that's what I decided as I stood gawking at those brittle, mouldy skulls when I was just seven or eight years of age.
It was our first family holiday on Doini and we'd clambered through the thick forest for a good hour, sweat mingling with tropical-strength Rid so that it trickled white creeks down our arms and legs, mosquitoes hovering over the neglected bits, the ferocious sun snapping at the rest.
Just when I was ready to play the Tired Child card, our local guide called out in Pidgin English, "Stopim! Now lukim'."
And look we did, with eyes of wonder and delight, at the skulls of 27 long-dead locals perched below a rocky ledge. They were the remains of a proud people, potentially cannibals, a once common practise in these parts. More indubitably, they were the skulls of the most respected members of their clan. They had to be, didn't they? Why else would anyone bother to haul their noggins all the way up to this secluded place?
Today an inscription marks the spot, a neat, white noticeboard explaining the history of the cave. Back then we had to piece it together with broken English and our own fertile imaginations.
Fine young cannibals
According to local folklore, in 'the traditional days', a 'significant' member of the village would be buried vertically when he died, his head sticking ghoulishly out of the ground, a claypot placed over it to contain his dignity (odour, more like it) while time slowly snapped it from its base. The clansmen would then carry the skull to the sacred burial cave where it would spend eternity watching out over the vivid blue waters of the China Straits just waiting to haunt the dreams of anyone who dared to visit.
Okay, so I made that last bit up, but you can imagine how my thoughts were super-charged at such a young age, and it really didn't help that there was a second skull cave hidden in the deep, dark foliage beyond.
The Mystery of the Missing Cave
Yep, you wouldn't read about it, would you? There's another skull cave, an even more intriguing one as far as I'm concerned, because it holds the heads of slaughtered English missionaries, or so the (delicious!) rumour goes. The second skull cave has only ever been sighted a few times before, by past local owners apparently, but disappeared long before my family ever set foot on Doini, mysteriously vanishing into the forest, never to been seen again.
No one knows if it caved in, was devoured by the ravenous rainforest or ever really existed. Cynics suggest it was just an island myth conjured up to terrify the dim-dims* and their wide-eyed progeny, keeping them up at night.
Whatever the truth, it worked!
I do stay up at night, tapping away at my keyboard, the memories of Doini swirling through my brain as I weave another tale of murder and mayhem into an 80,000-word book. No wonder I went on to write eight murder mysteries, two of which are set at this extraordinary place.
The first, An Island Lost, elaborates on the history of the caves should you be interested, but if you'd rather witness the spectacle for yourself, now you can! Today, Doini Island boasts a stunning eco-resort with a proper website, mobile phone coverage and a tourist-friendly track all the way to the cave.
My clan no longer co-own the island, but we visited again recently, all 18 of us, including my own gob-smacked kids who were probably thanking their lucky stars we do things differently Down Under. There's no need to haul my head through snake-infested jungle to prop below a rocky ledge. A quick, clean cremation is all I ask.
Thank goodness, though, that the Milne Bay locals once did things differently, providing fodder for my creativity that never seems to wane. And while my latest mystery is far from this madding island, the corpses still as fresh as a butcher's leg of lamb, it's those clansmen who can take a bow with each new book I produce.
Love it or loathe it, without those cannibal skulls, my head would be in a very different place.
*dim-dim: a local Milne Bay nickname for white people (and I'm not sure they're referring to our skin color!)