About the author: A world adventurer with SouthCoast roots So how did a fellow from South Dartmouth find himself trekking through the jungles of New Guinea in search of cannibals, you ask?
Matthew Von Ertfelda, 29, says he "was always keen on taking the path less traveled." The son of Harry and Kathleen Von Ertfelda, Matthew was born in Hong Kong but grew up in South Dartmouth. His love of adventure took hold as a teen-ager, he says, when he went on two Earthwatch expeditions. The first involved a trip to St. Croix, one of the Virgin Islands, to help a team trying to save the endangered leatherback turtle, the second to the island of Rarotonga in the Cooke Islands in the South Pacific, where he studied ancient Maori settlements.
During his senior year at Middlesex School in Concord, Matthew took part in an underwater excavation of a galleon that sank off the Mariana Islands in the Western Pacific. The search for sunken treasure, he notes, was "every kid's dream."
These adventures ignited Matthew's interest in travel and foreign cultures. He graduated from Cornell University, where he majored in restaurant development, after studying French cuisine for two years in Paris. "My dad always said that if I could cook, I'd always be able to support myself," he says.
After graduating from college in 1994, Matthew headed back to Hong Kong, inspired by his father's recollections of the fabulous food there. He took a job developing restaurant and entertainment concepts, allowing more travel throughout Asia, the Philippines, New Zealand and more. After three years, investors became skittish about the area's economic situation with the return of Hong Kong to Communist China, so Matthew decided to move on.
Today, he lives in Taiwan where he is studying Mandarin in hopes of making a career in the international hospitality field.
So, why on earth did a young man with a taste for fine food and entertainment decide to go off in search of cannibals in New Guinea? Matthew readily admits to an interest in "recreational activities that involve a certain amount of risk." He counts skydiving, rock climbing and mountaineering among those interests. His adventuresome spirit was further whetted by a risky trek through a stretch of jungle in Panama and Colombia, dangerous in the extreme not only because of the hardship of the environment but also because of the criminal element roaming there. But he "enjoyed living in the jungle immensely and found the challenges posed by the environment (weather, terrain, animals, insects, etc.) really fascinating," he says.
"I read some articles about tribes in New Guinea who are believed by some to practice cannibalism and headhunting in places for which there aren't even any maps. The idea of visiting a place where few, if any, foreigners have ever stepped foot was irresistible. The idea of a face-to-face encounter with a possible cannibal was too good to be true. A trip like this would be the adventure of a lifetime."
Matthew, hooked onthe idea, began researching Irian Jaya and its people. He learned the native language, Bahasa Indonesia. The first sentence he committed to memory was, "Tolong ambil teman saya duluh," he recalls, which means "please take my friend first." "Luckily," he jokes, "I never had to use this line!"
His research turned to the Internet, where he found others who had traveled through Irian Jaya, the western half of the island (the eastern part is the independent state of Papua New Guinea). From those contacts, Matthew and traveling companion Brad Frank, a college pal, eventually found Yonis, a Lani tribesman, who for $2,000 led the month-long expedition into the wilds of Irian Jaya to find the Korowai Batu tribe -- at one time reputed to be cannibals.
Not exactly a Caribbean cruise. "These types of trips are not for everyone," Matthew concedes. Besides the stamina necessary to succeed on this demanding trek, there was the constant threat of injury and illness. "We carried more medicine in our backpacks than any of the 'jungle hospitals' we encountered along the way," he says.
And how do his parents back home in South Dartmouth weather their son's expeditions? No sweat, says dad Harry, an orthopedic surgeon -- most of the time, they don't find out about Matthew's adventures until they are an accomplished fact, he chuckles.
But the Von Ertfeldas have raised two independent-minded children (Eric, 30, is their elder child), and they trust their decisions.
"He's got very good judgment," Dr. Von Ertfelda says of Matthew. "He's always been adventuresome. ... We don't worry."
Besides, as he tells his kids, "The only thing you have in the end, when you get older, is your experiences."
-- ANNE L. HUMPHREY, features editor