(pensive, foreboding music) Narrator: We all know it. Walked it everyday. But none of them were like these. The World’s Most Dangerous Ways to School. Freezing. Climbing for hours. Bailing non-stop. All for the chance of a better life. Spectacular and sometimes simply beautiful, The World’s Most Dangerous Ways to School. (serene music) Papua New Guinea. An island in the Pacific ocean, and one of the remotest places in the world. A seemingly endless jungle landscape, no airplanes land, no trains run. There are hundreds of kilometers without a single road, and yet, people live here, somewhere in the jungle far removed from civilization. And some of them even go to school. At first glance, just an ordinary school with 180 students. But to get here, a couple of the children take one of the most dangerous ways to school in the world. Their villages are far away from civilization, and their way to school is full of adventure, surprises, and danger. Students trek over 100 kilometers through the untouched wilderness of the jungle, barefoot, on a seven-day long march, encounter wild animals, and cross dozens of rivers. The biggest threat of all, the enormous Takali River. The kids take on all that and more for the chance of a better life. The jungle of Papua New Guinea, one of the most important rain forests on earth. A place without a single road, and whose lush growth harbors absolutely unique animal species. The great Papua Plateau is still one of the least explored areas in the world. Amidst this remote and inaccessible forest live the Kaluli people. Their village, Sugu, was only discovered by western missionaries about 50 years ago. At that time, the Kaluli were cannibals and at war with other tribes. Since then, they have slowly adapted to the modern world. To date, the Kaluli live completely independently, and largely isolated from the rest of the world. But gradually they have recognized something that is perhaps more important for their future than anything else. Because for some time now a few of them have begun to send their children through the jungle to go to school. One of the chosen future students is the eight-year-old Junior. Tomorrow, he will have to get going on his way. A seven-day-long trek through the wilderness. (speaks in foreign language) Translator: I want to be a doctor, and if I go to school, then I can help people. Narrator: Junior has never seen a school in his life. In fact, he loves the village life, and likes working with his family on the field. But his father Michael wants more for Junior than the life of a farmer. For over a year, he has been saving up to be able to afford the school fees. Interpreter: The school is very far away, which really frightens me. But I don’t want my son to have to live like us when he grows up, and I’d do anything. Narrator: Together, father and son prepare for the big farewell party. After all, it happens only once every few years that someone from the village has the courage to go to school. And this year, there are even two children. (peaceful music) 12-year-old Ruth will leave for classes tomorrow. Along with her family, she cooks the food for the celebration. Ruth is Junior’s cousin, and has gone to school already a few years ago. Now she’s happy to be soon going back. (speaks in foreign language) Translator: There used to be a school that was only two hours from our village. But then the teacher just left and the school was closed. Now the newest school is in Moro, very far away from here. (speaks in foreign language) (pensive traditional music) Narrator: Teachers who leave civilization to teach in the jungle are difficult to find. Ruth is one of a few children who even know what a school looks like. Ruth makes her way to the farewell party in the large village hut. In the early evening, all the families get together and celebrate the last day in which Ruth and Junior are to be with them.
(pig snorts) First, they prepare the feast. Pigs are the most valuable animals that the families of the Kaluli tribe have, therefore they are only slaughtered on very special occasions. Like today. (brisk traditional music) While the food sizzles on the fire, the parents guide their children into the longhouse, and celebrate with them an ancient tribal ritual. (rhythmic drumming) Although since their discovery, most Kaluli are now Christians, they’ve retained many of their ancient traditions. Through their dance and the drumbeats, the tribe communicates with their ancestors. The spirits of their ancestors should accompany Ruth and Junior on their dangerous way to school, and protect them from the dangers of the jungle. Interpreter: Wait, I want to say one more thing. Thank you all for coming. This is something very special to celebrate. Tomorrow, two of our children leave the village and set off to school, my daughter Ruth and my nephew Junior. It’s a long and dangerous way there, and I hope we will manage to protect them until they reach the school in Moro. (rhythmic drumming) Narrator: It is a reverent ceremony full of respect for the ancestors. Also, the two future students. Showing of emotions is forbidden during the ritual, and in the Kaluli culture, it is generally frowned upon. Although they have been at peace with the other jungle tribes for many years now, a show of emotion is still regarded as a sign of weakness. The ritual dance must never be interrupted. It goes on throughout the night until the next morning. (rhythmic drumming)
(bugs chirp) For Junior and Ruth, that would take far too long. Around midnight, their parents send the two to bed. After all, they need to have enough strength the next morning to survive the seven day march to school. (rhythmic drumming) Interpreter: Sleep well, my son. You need strength. (rising traditional music) Narrator: The next morning, Junior gets to sleep a little bit longer than usual. (speaking in foreign language) After waking, he freshens up. His mother is already cooking breakfast. Like all families in the village, Junior lives with his mother and father in a large single room. Translation: Here, you’ll have to eat a lot today. Narrator: It’s Junior’s favorite breakfast. The Papuan call it sagsag, a kind of tough pancake they make from the sago palm. As a side dish, Junior is given lots of fresh, thick maggots. Junior takes only the most necessary things on the journey. A second shirt, a blanket, and the school fees. (speaking in foreign language) Interpreter: We have 200 kina. That is for school. And here are another 200 kinda. That’s for the trip and for emergencies. That must be enough. It is everything that we have. We have sold our last pig. (speaking in foreign language) Narrator: Overall, about $150. To get any money at all, Junior’s family sold almost all their belongings in the city, which is many days away, all for Junior’s future. And since the way to school is far too dangerous for an eight year old, his father Michael will accompany his son. One last short farewell, and the two take their first steps on a great, unpredictable journey. (gentle music) Translation: It’s difficult for me on the farm without my husband and my child, but for both of them, it will be much more difficult. (urgent percussive music) Narrator: Just as it will be for young Ruth. Junior’s father Michael has agreed to accompany her as well on the dangerous way to school. (speaks in foreign language) Interpreter: Take good care of my daughter. I trust you. Bring them safely to school. And you, Ruth, listen to what Michael says. It is important that you do what he says. And when you get there, be a good student, and make us proud. (foreboding music) -: Okay, Ruth, bye bye. (speaking in foreign language) Interpreter: I think my daughter will be fine in the jungle. She knows it and knows what to expect. What worries me a lot more are the many rivers on the way. Especially the One. I believe it poses the greatest threat of all. Narrator: The One is what Papuan people call the Takali River. It is the most dangerous natural border in the entire region. It separates the tribe’s forest from modern civilization. Whoever wants to go to the city and to school has to cross it. Many have died in the past trying to get to the other side. (considered, worrying music) But until the children reach the Takali River, they will have experienced many more adventures. But the first major hurtle is relatively small. For the first time in his life, the eight-year-old junior crosses the village ditch. Until now, it has protected him from the dangers of the jungle. But now his way to school leads him into a new and unknown world. (inspiring music) Translator: I am a bit afraid. I’ve never left my village before. Narrator: Going to school. A privilege in Papua New Guinea. Half of all women and 40% of men are illiterate. In Ruth and Junior’s home village, almost no one can read or write. If the two make it to their destination, they will be the only children from the village who have ever gone to school. But first, they have to get there. And after half an hour, the jungle shows its treacherous side. (uneasy music) None of the three know how to swim. Junior especially is filled with fear by the rapids. For the first time, the eight-year-old understands what it means to be in the jungle outside his village. Once in the middle, Junior refuses to continue. His fear of the river paralyzes him. Michael must go to help. (inspiring music) Especially for Junior, the next few days will be more than just a trip to school. They will be a test of his resolve while deep in the jungle. There will be 100s of rivers on their way, and Junior will have to learn to overcome his fear of them. (birds chirp) Some of the rivers are dangerous. Others, beautiful. And sometimes the river itself is the path for the children. After about two hours, Ruth and Junior come to a place that until a few years ago would have been their destination. One of the many abandoned schools. Previously, all the children from the surrounding villages went to school here. Today, the building stands empty. Its doors are barricaded. Young Junior sees a school for the first time in his life. What a classroom looks like, or a blackboard. Translator: It would be great if the school had remained open. Then I could come here every day and then go back home. (bittersweet music) Narrator: But over time, the average pay and life far away from modern civilization was too much for the teachers. Gradually, they all left the jungle again. Today, not one single school in the entire tribal area of Kaluli is still open. Translation: It would be so nice to go to school here. I’m sad that there is no one left anymore. Narrator: School. For families living in the jungles of Papua New Guinea, the only chance of a better future. But the next open school is still more than 100 kilometers from here. The deeper the students penetrate into the jungle, the wider and wilder the rivers become. The eight-year-old Junior has to summon up all his courage. (Junior grunts) Translator: This is a really big river. (speaks in foreign language) The currents are very fast and I can’t see what is under the water. Narrator: In the middle of the river, Junior freezes again. His fear of being swept away and maybe drowning is just too strong. Michael has to help his son again, while at the same he and the 12-year-old Ruth must also contend with the strong current, doing their best to stay on their feet. Little by little, with small steps and joint forces, the family slowly gets to the other side. Translator: I was really afraid that the river would just sweep me away and I would drown, but luckily, I have my dad to help me. (birds chirp)
(percussive traditional music) Narrator: Junior’s fear of rivers makes his father worry, since the largest of them all is yet to come. But for today, they’re almost done. One last round of running, climbing and hiking without a single break, and then, shortly before nightfall, they reach their goal for the day, the village of Wasu. Some villages in the jungle are dangerous. Even to this day, the tribes that live in those villages are rivals of the Kaluli. But here, nothing will happen to them. Only Kaluli live in the village of Wasu, and more importantly, Junior’s aunt, who will give them shelter tonight. (speaks in foreign language) (speaks in foreign language) The children are happy to finally take a break after the arduous march, and to have a roof over their heads for the night. (traditional domestic music) But even more than that, Ruth and Junior look forward to the first hot meal of the day. Sweet potatoes. They give strength and energy, something the children can make good use of. Another six days march to school is still on the program. Translator: It was exhausting, but okay. Hopefully, the next few days are not quite as bad. Narrator: The hardest part of the travels for the children is yet to come, but for today, Junior and Ruth have made it. Now it’s time to sleep and dream. (lulling piano music) The family wakes up with the sun’s first raise, and as tempting as the idea is to stay and rest a bit longer, Michael urges the children to hurry. (footsteps on wood floor) (speaking in foreign language) He leads the two to a nearby plateau. Michael wants to show Junior and Ruth what they are to expect in the coming days, make it clear to them just how long they have to hold on to reach their cherished dream. School. (awed music) (speaks in foreign language) Interpreter: Do you see over there? There, to the very back on the horizon. We need to go there. We must keep on going through the jungle until we reach the very end. Translator: Where is the school? Interpreter: It’s behind the last mountain. We must also go over it. Translation: And where is the big river? Interpreter: It’s at the very end, it winds its way along the horizon. Do you see it all the way back there? Narrator: For the first time, the children see what really lies before them. A way to school through the wild jungle at the end of the horizon. (awe-inspiring music) More than 100 kilometers away. And just before the school lurks the greatest danger of all, the large and wild Takali river. The jungle in this region is still relatively unexplored. Scientists are always discovering new animal species here. Frogs with fangs, camouflaged geckos, or cat-sized rats among other things. Countless wild animals found nowhere else in the world. Some are threatening, others strange, and a few are also pretty cute. After another three day’s stretch through the jungle of Papua New Guinea, Michael, Junior and Ruth reach a region with a very particular threat. Interpreter: Careful, children. The kissawail lives around here, a dangerous snake. It’s dark brown and can kill you with one bite. Children have died here recently of snake bites. Watch your step. They often hide between the leaves and the roots. Narrator: Kissawail means in the Kaluli language simply, “dangerous.” For Junior and Ruth, a single bite would be fatal. (grave orchestrated music) (speaks in foreign language) Translation: The snakes make me very frightened. But giant birds and wild boar also live here, and they can also be quite dangerous. (speaks in foreign language) Narrator: Junior and Ruth must watch for any small movement. And all this after being underway for 12 hours at a stretch. Now after four days, their concentration is fading. Junior especially is often distracted and wanders away from the group. Despite Michael’s warnings, the dreamy eight-year-old makes his own way through the pristine rain forest. Michael and Ruth don’t always notice. Their eyes are on their own bare feet. Translator: I don’t want to walk anymore. It’s always just the same. Up and down. That’s totally boring. I would rather play. (grass flute music) -: Junior. Junior! Junior! Junior! (speaks in foreign language) Interpreter: He’s still very young, and naturally, boys want to play. But he’s now coming to an age where seriousness begins. He must learn that it’s dangerous here. Two weeks ago, a boy was bitten by a kissawail somewhere around here. He died on the spot. He was the same age as junior. (grass flute music) Narrator: Of course, Junior knows the stories. But after four days of being forced to march through the jungle, other things are more important. Interpreter: Where were you? Translator: I only just built a flute. Narrator: For the moment, the group is together again. (uneasy traditional music) But after long days in the jungle, Junior is simply day dreaming, and doesn’t even notice that he has once again wandered away from his group. He sees it just in time. (exclaims) Narrator: A green python, lurking for prey. A feast for the taking, just a little different than what was hoped for. Translator: A python. The meat is really tasty. (speaks in foreign language)
Dad, dad! I found a snake! (speaks in foreign language) I don’t trust myself to catch it alone. Do you see? There! Narrator: The green python, an aggressive, quick hunter, is luckily not poisonous. To catch the two meter long snake, Junior builds a noose, just like his father has taught him. Translator: I’ve never caught such a large one before. (speaking in foreign language) That’s exciting. Narrator: Junior puts a braided grass loop around the neck of the python. Then he has to pull quickly. (hissing) (foreboding sting music) Done. With all his strength, the snake tries to free itself. Without success. The Python has been caught. (speaks in foreign language) Translator: I finally got it. Cut that there off. (speaks in foreign language) Interpreter: You did great! I’m really proud of you. Narrator: Junior and Ruth put the two-meter-long python into the bag, still quite alive, so it can be fresh to eat later by the campfire. The snake hunt was successful, and it’s over not a second too soon. It has started to rain. The three must now hurry. The rain can quickly make the narrow jungle trail impassable. And what is even worse, it raises the water level in the river. In Sugu, their home village, the rain is also causing Ruth’s parents to worry. For the past four days, their daughter has been in the depths of the jungle. They can only hope that she is well. (speaking in foreign language) Interpreter: The river water level rises with the rain. That’s not good. The currents become even stronger, and that can be fatal. Two years ago, two children tried to go to school and crossed the great Takali River in similar weather. They did not make it, and they drowned. (speaks in foreign language) Narrator: And the rain doesn’t stop for hours upon hours until the next morning. Day five. The students arrive at the most dangerous stage of their entire way to school. The great Takali River. (sorrowful music) Michael didn’t expect this. The current is extremely strong, and there are no boats in sight. Translator: I have never seen such a huge river. Translation: How are we going to get across it? Interpreter: I don’t know. Without the ferry, there is no way we can get to the other side. We need someone with a canoe or a boat to help us. Narrator: The great river. It separates the jungle, their home, from modern civilization, and above all, from school. Usually there are ferrymen waiting. Canoes that will take you to the other side for money, but far and wide, there are none to be seen. And even if there were, with this current, a crossing would be treacherous. The Takali. The last major hurdle on one of the most dangerous ways to school in the world, and it seems insurmountable. Their hopes fade from second to second. Michael has to make a decision for himself and the children. (speaks in foreign language) Interpreter: The worse case scenario that I can imagine is that we will not get across the river. Without help, we just cannot do it. But we don’t give up. We have to wait here and stay on the shore. We need to build a camp. Narrator: If they were to turn around now, their dreams would be destroyed. There is nothing left for the three to do but wait, and hope that the river level drops again in the next few days. (hopeful, chiming music) Junior and Ruth build a camp for the night from branches and leaves, and luckily, they still have something very special to eat. The fresh python. Now it pays off that they’ve saved the snake for so long. Following an old tradition, they cook the snake inside a bamboo shoot until it is cooked and tender. Just the way the eight-year-old junior likes it. (curious traditional music) Half an hour later, the delicacy is ready. And suddenly, with a roof over their heads, dry clothes, and something hot to eat, everything doesn’t look quite as bad as it did before. Translation: The river still worries me, but not quite as much as before. And the snake meat tastes really good. (rattling traditional music) Narrator: Late in the evening, something else gives the students hope. The rain clouds have moved on and the sky is clear. If all goes well, they somehow might be able to make it over the next morning to the other side of the great river. To school. (dim, hopeful music)
(insects chirp) Dawn brings certainty. The river level has actually fallen over night, and the current is no longer quite as strong. And a little later, another glimmer of hope. A canoe fights its way through the rapids and comes towards them. It’s the ferryman of the river. (bird calls) Interpreter: Can you take us? (speaks in foreign language) We need to get to the other side. Will you do this for us? (speaks in foreign language) Interpretation: At the moment, no, maybe later. But that will cost more money than usual. Interpreter: I’ll give you five kina for each of us. That makes 15 kina altogether. Would you carry us for that? Narrator: About five dollars. Twice as much as normal. For Michael, a lot of money, but they have no choice. All they can do now is wait. The waves are still too high. None of the three can swim, and if they capsize, they would surely drown. The trip across the river is becoming more and more distressing for the eight-year-old Junior. (speaks in foreign language) Translator: I’m afraid of the river. I’d prefer not to go over it. (traditional music) Narrator: Many are swept away by its currents. Others fall victim to the river crocodiles. (speaking in foreign language) Interpretation: Many try to cross the river and go under. Mostly, it doesn’t matter whether they can swim or not, they die, and we never find their bodies. Narrator: Michael tries to calm his son down, and hopes that when the time comes, he is brave enough to cross the river. Three hours later, it’s their turn. Around noon, the water level reaches the day’s all time low. It’s fallen at least two feet. And the current has gone down drastically as well. If they want to make it across the river, now is their best chance. (lightly tense music) Junior hesitates, but he doesn’t want to disappoint his father, and summons up all his courage. (grave, adventurous music) Translator: Hey! Don’t shake like that! (worrying orchestrated music) Narrator: The ferryman chooses the safest route. They row as long as possible along the river shore, avoiding the current, and then cross over at its narrowest point. Stroke by stroke, the canoe approaches its goal. But suddenly– -: Junior! Junior, Junior, Junior! Junior! Junior, Junior! Junior! Junior, (speaks in foreign language)! Junior! (concerning traditional music) Narrator: Junior’s fear of the river gets the better of him. Michael: Junior, (speaks in foreign language). Interpreter: Junior, what’s wrong? (speaks in foreign language) Translator: I can’t go over it. I don’t want to go over there. Interpreter: But we have to. We have to get over there to go to school. Translator: I’m scared. Interpreter: I know that you’re afraid. (speaks in foreign language) (uneasy traditional music) But we can manage! We can do it! (speaking in foreign language) Get up. Come on. Once more. Try it. (speaks in foreign language) We just have to get across this one river and all is well. (speaks in foreign language) You can do this. If you don’t cross here, you can’t go to school! Translator: Then I don’t go! Narrator: His father Michael is at a loss. Junior’s way to school actually seems to end here. Interpreter: Junior won’t go over the river. Translation: And now I still have to get over there. Interpreter: Ruth, listen, you’re old enough. Maybe you can do it alone. But I have to stay here with my son. (speaks in foreign language) When you get over there, make sure you continue on your way as soon as possible. No dallying around, that’s very, very important. Here’s the money for the school. Take good care of it, and don’t let anyone see it. Otherwise, someone will steal it, and the school won’t take you. Narrator: Ruth makes a decision, perhaps the most important one of her life. Translation: I’m also afraid of the river, but I can’t give up now. (speaks in foreign language) Narrator: Ruth gathers her courage. She leaves Michael and her little cousin Junior behind, and continues alone across the river. At first, everything looks good, but suddenly the Takali River starts picking up speed again and pulls the canoe down stream. (uneasy music) Only gradually can the ferrymen get the dugout back under control. They’re already halfway there. (exciting, worrying music) In fact, after a little more than 10 minutes, the shore seems almost close enough to touch. Ruth has arrived unscathed and is in safety. Interpretation: You made it. (speaks in foreign language) Translation: I’m here! I really thought we would tip and I would drown. But I really did it. Narrator: But from now on, Ruth must make her way alone. Junior remains determined he will not cross the river. His way to school ends here. (speaks in foreign language) Interpreter: Of course I’m disappointed, but my son was just too scared. Maybe he’s too young. I hope Ruth is strong enough. She can do it. (hopeful music) Narrator: 12-year-old Ruth quickly leaves the river behind. Entirely on her own but with more determination than ever. Yet for all the joy, she also worries about what awaits her in the new world. Translation: I no longer fear the jungle, but the many people and machines of which I’ve heard, that I am afraid of. Narrator: Up the hill, follow the big path, keep going straight. That’s all that Michael told her about the way there. These are Ruth’s last steps in a dangerous but familiar world, and her first in a new one, modern civilization. Gradually, Ruth approaches her goal. Moro. It is the only place within 100 kilometer radius where the children of the tribe surrounding the Bosavi mountain can go to school. (hopeful, inspiring music) Ruth spends the last night of her journey alone in the jungle. The following morning, Ruth has arrived. She is there before classes begin at the Lake Kutubu Primary School. Although it is sad that her cousin Junior didn’t make it, she’s happy to be here, to live here, to play and to learn here. In Moro, only very few speak the language of Ruth’s tribe, but luckily, she had already been at school for a short time, and can speak enough English to get by. (gentle piano music) Ruth knows that she will stay here for at least one school year if her money is sufficient. The one uncertainty that still remains for her. (knocks) Interpreter: All right, come in. Good morning. My office is over there. Let’s go in there. Where are you from? Translation: I come from Mount Bosavi. Interpreter: You come from Bosavi? Okay. (speaks in foreign language) Actually, our classes are full, but people from as far away as you have traveled we always take on. You will get books and pens from us, and of course, we teach you. (speaks in foreign language) Narrator: School will cost $100 for one school year. 30 more than expected, but fortunately, Ruth has just enough with her. Her family’s life savings. Now, finally, she is more than a child who just wants to go to school. Now she’s a proper boarding school pupil. Translation: This is such a beautiful building. I’m really glad to be here, and I’ve never slept in such a bed. (children murmur) Narrator: But no time for sleep now, and Ruth is too excited. Exactly at eight o’clock in the morning, all 180 students assemble for role call. They pray. ♪ O arise ♪ Narrator: And sing the national anthem of Papua New Guinea. ♪ Let us sing of our joys to be free ♪ ♪ Papua New Guinea ♪ ♪ We are independent, we are free ♪ ♪ Papua New Guinea ♪ (speaks in foreign language) (clapping) (speaking in foreign language) (laughing) Narrator: Then the morning lessons begin. Four hours until the big recess. Ruth is now the only child from her village going to school. What will she learn? Who will she share a bench with? And with whom will she soon be best friends? Countless questions all rushing through her head simultaneously. (gentle music) (upbeat orchestrated music) Today, English is the first subject. Afterwards, math and natural history. (speaks in foreign language) After only a few minutes, Ruth makes her first friends. (speaks in foreign language) Translation: I’m the only one from Mount Bosavi here at school. That’s weird, but it also makes me proud. (speaks in foreign language) I’m really happy. (chuckles) (reflective orchestrated music) Narrator: Ruth’s way to school is something her classmates can hardly imagine. She will tell them about her exciting adventure. Michael and his son Junior didn’t make it this year, but maybe they’ll try again someday, and embark once more on the adventurous way to school through the jungle of Papua New Guinea. (inspiring orchestrated music)