FIVE companions walked with me on that commemorative trek to Tol Plantation from 29 August to 7 September last year.
They included a retired Army officer (who’d been on three trips to PNG with me in the late 1980s), a retired chemistry professor, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, the son of a former RAAF airman and Peter McGuiness, son of a Lark Force survivor from the war in New Britain in 1942.
Our trek was dedicated to the 1,400 Australian soldiers and airmen of 2/22nd Battalion and Lark Force, sent to Rabaul in early 1941 and defeated in the Japanese invasion of early 1942.
Tarvurvur volcano erupted for three hours early on the day we flew in, direct flights from Cairns to Tokua airport near Kokopo but the fireworks had subsided to sonic booms by the time we arrived. Tokua airport was closed for 24 hours as soon as our Air Niugini aircraft departed.
All of the Rabaul Hotel’s louvre windows were shielded by an outer screen of plastic sheeting, but occasionally a vigorous sonic boom would shatter a louvre with a tinkling of glass.
Local expats considered this a relatively safe Strombolian eruption with the sonic booms allowing the volcano to vent rather than erupt with lava. However the prevailing wind blew volcanic dust over Malaguna and, within a few days, it ravaged the gardens of the Malaguna people and every shred of green foliage for several kilometres along the road.
We bought supplies at Kokopo next morning and Avis provided a driver to deliver us and our backpacks and trek gear to Arabam, some 45 km inland from Kokopo, by midday.
The trek was to take eight days, with another day to return by speedboat from Tol to Kokopo.
Arrangements to meet our carriers and guide were made through an expatriate based near Kokopo who had a long familiarity with the Baining people and was able to communicate periodically with me on email.
We learned of plans to introduce oil palm plantations from the coast near Kokopo into the Baining area. We noted how readily the Baining people were influenced by any waitman, who they still regard as the returned spirits of their ancestors.
They are also easily influenced by confidence tricksters, such as the so-called ‘Black Jesus’ who led a malicious cult in a Baining village in recent years until arrested and sent to prison.
Visitors need to be respectful of local ways, pay as they go for services rendered and make no false promises. As with work or travel in rural Australia, or conducting a successful business, one’s word is one’s bond.
On each trip we hired enough men to carry a stretcher if necessary and we also supplied the carriers with rations, cook pots, bush knives and a tarpaulin as a bonus, paying cash on completion.
We crossed the Rapmarina Creek (a tributary to the Warangoi) by 4WD to meet the carriers and continued on a tractor road to Arabam. We spent an hour while our guides, Sylvester, Marcus and Titus, plus seven other Maranagi and Rigel men, sorted backpack loads and I confirmed pay rates and return arrangements. We then walked to Maranagi, about three hours away, staying overnight at the modest guesthouse of one of the carriers.
Next morning I met Conrad and Mark, with whom I had walked from Rigel to Merai in 1987 when they were teenagers. Our group then walked to Rigel and were offered kulau (coconut), bananas, mandarins and pineapple while the carriers collected their personal gear.
We walked to the abandoned Lamingi Mission (the pre-war bench road still visible in places). Father Alphonse Meierhofer’s grave is still tended. German born Fr Alphonse and his brother, Fr John Meierhofer, helped escaping Australian soldiers in 1942.
Our guides showed us the remains of a portable radio transmitter-receiver abandoned at a Japanese Army patrol base nearby. They also pointed out the probable site of a massacre of villagers by Imperial Japanese soldiers, apparently murdered for refusing to provide food.
It seems the villagers were instructed to dig a large trench in a gully near Lamingi, supposedly to protect them from Allied bombing, then herded into it and killed.
We spent our second night at an old hunting camp (no walls, simple thatch roof; pig skulls in branches); and on the third night by the Merai River, where the carrier, using a metre-long piece of No 8 fencing wire previously sharpened and barbed, caught several fish and a couple of eels. The water was crystal clear.
Next morning we climbed to find last year’s marked track junction as a navigation point and continued to the second pig camp. We met four young men from Urai village with hunting dogs. I’d stayed there in 2011 and two of them remembered me.
We then climbed up an increasingly steep ridge to the summit of Mt Uragi (‘Spirit Mountain’) to find three fresh warning signs forbidding entry to the area. Lengths of twisted grass had been tied at intervals across the track to form an obvious visual barrier.
My guides suggested the warnings were meant for us, but I had my doubts because we were obviously leaving the area. Nevertheless I formed everyone into a compact group with me and the senior guide in front, carriers in the middle and my retired Army friend and the other senior guide in the rear, with all members instructed to stay in sight of each other and let me do the talking.
From Mt Uragi we followed an old bagarap but walkable 10km logging road downhill to Nongia (Adler Bay) just south of Merai, eventually using torches and arriving after dark on the fourth night.
Absolutely nothing happened along the way, so the warning was probably aimed at coastal villagers not us.
We were met by Jeffery Miranlali, former head of the local landowners’ trust which kept the forestry company to agreed standards; now the owner of a canvas transit-house at the beach.
He generously allowed us to stay free, including the use of the nearby guesthouse toilet and shower, provided we purchased some tradestore items. Otherwise Jeffery charges K50 a night to stay in his well-built guesthouse at the end of the PMV road back to Kokopo.
Nongia, or Adler Bay has a small breakwater with white sand circling the beach; it is a great stopping place for banana-boats which ply back and forth to suit themselves, between Kokopo and Tol Plantation.
Banana boats are so-called because of their graceful, curved fibreglass hulls. Powered by 25hp-40hp outboard motors and relatively narrow with minimal seating, they are fast on flat seas, wet and uncomfortable on bumpy seas, and occasionally broach and capsize in heavy seas.
It is impossible to book a banana boat trip without appearing in person; fuel supplies away from town are unpredictable and fuel prices are not negotiable and must be paid to the boat owner in advance.
Politely ensure that the boat, outboard motor, fuel and driver will all be present at the desired time and day. Life jackets are rarely seen; the boat operators are unlikely to travel in heavy seas, nor should trekkers or tourists.
Be aware that the south-east trades in late October can make the seas dangerous for small craft. The safest way to see the PNG coast is by chartered motor launch or aboard a coastal ship operating on set routes and mindful of weather conditions.
Next day, after a heavy rainstorm, we walked the coastal route south to Ili village, noting numerous women and children but very few adult men. Apparently the men had moved to town looking for work.
Much of the road bench is still walkable; and it continues intermittently around the coast to Karong. It was obviously aligned by experienced engineers using machinery, possibly in the 1960s; crushed coral surfaces and concrete culverts still exist but the bench has long been cut by rivers and creeks.
The south coast is a mix of shingle and black sand beaches with long stretches of fringing coral cliffs and foreshore; anyone lost overboard from a capsized banana boat would be lucky to reach shore without serious injury.
As a result of the heavy rain, the creeks beyond Nongia and Ili village carried silty run-off from the old logging roads in the surrounding hills. We had no Millbank filters and limited water-purifying tablets but the carriers boiled a large pot of water for lunch and let it settle; we drank tea and coffee and later refilled our water bottles from it.
We walked on, stopping early on our fifth night at Eber Bay, near Cape Borgan. The landowner had died and Kuluraka hamlet was abandoned. We camped on a white sand and coral-fringed beach; our guides found a spring of clean water flowing from the sand; stars came out after dinner; a distant ship’s mast light glided gently across the horizon; this was a wonderful campsite in peacetime, with guides, carriers and adequate rations and without a savage enemy in hot pursuit.
Next day we crossed the mouth of the Baining River, whose lagoon is reputed to have a pukpuk; the river mouth was shallow so we crossed as a group, rather than leaving a straggler exposed to any lurking crocodile.
We walked on to Karong for our sixth night. I’d stayed there overnight in 2012 after walking over Mt Isimurigarok in the central Bainings with former Army reservist Peter Ramm.
The Karong people had arranged a community welcome, presenting each of us with a baked taro in a small traditional bilum (string bag), followed by drumming, chanting, spirit dancers and singing. The provincial flag was raised and all trekkers were introduced to the crowd.
I explained our interest in military history; we asked for a place to stay and were given the headman’s house with tent space on the grass close by.
Our retired Army friend bought a medium size pig for K100 which the villagers killed by suffocation (four men held its jaws and nostrils shut). Usually the pig is stunned or killed while tethered, with a single heavy blow to the head and its throat cut, then hung up by the back legs to allow the blood to drain.
This pig’s carcass was singed in a fire with hair and bristles scraped off with bush knives, then washed in the creek, its jawbones and breastbone neatly severed with an axe, its anus carefully dissected out, its belly and throat skin neatly sliced open and its entire abdominal contents carefully removed intact without spilling faecal matter into the carcass.
It was then washed again, cut into portions and very well-cooked, which is absolutely essential. With trekkers’ noodles, local greens in coconut milk, plus local vegetables, the pork made a great meal for everyone.
Next day we set off for Marunga, but our guides began talking about getting a ride in a truck and after several kilometres took us on a shortcut, uphill. Suddenly we found ourselves at the end of a new logging road, perhaps 12-18 months old and already damaged by heavy rain.
A bulldozer was working; another was stacking logs; a third had a missing engine. Few other workers and no logging trucks were seen. Our guides said that a ‘big-man’ wanted the road extended from Marunga to Karong to service his village; but it will need considerable work to complete and even more maintenance; tracked vehicles and pedestrians will manage but landslides and wash-outs will remain a problem.
This south coast route now includes eight kilometres of steep logging road after Karong, which joins some 10 km of flat oil-palm plantation road to Marunga. Oil-palm has been planted on the foothills beside the road in recent years, awaiting a mill to produce the palm oil product.
After Marunga there is a further 5 km of flat road to Tol Plantation, with its re-opened airstrip and new concrete jetty. The trek ended at Tol Plantation’s memorial plaque, near where some 160 Australians were murdered in cold blood in 1942.
We stayed the seventh and eighth nights at Marunga in a thatch guesthouse owned by Ambrose, a brother of Sylvester, Marcus and Titus.
We visited Tol Plantation by speedboat to find Isidor Tiensten, brother of Paul Tiensten MP, addressing local people amidst traditional dancers and local food stalls. We were shown the partly finished Lark Force school (funded by the Chinese government) and were invited to attend the gathering as guests.
We paid our respects at the stone cairn with its Lark Force plaque near the plantation manager’s two-storey house. The location of this building requires aircraft using the recently re-opened Tol airstrip to operate “one way” only, for safety reasons.
There are two other large houses nearby and a very large warehouse, complete with trade-store and ‘cafe’. There is a new concrete jetty and two or three km further south around the bay is a logging yard, from which logs are periodically ‘rafted’ out for collection by logging ships; the method of pick-up is unknown; there is no shipping channel through the coral as yet.
Funds have been promised for an oil-palm mill, to be built nearby, which will please the various Pomio, Baining, Tolai, Sepik and other tribal groups who have been developing the plantations for some years, with nowhere to sell their product, at present.
On return to Marunga we visited Fr Bart Advent whom I’d first met at Tol in 1987; his large Catholic church needs maintenance but the different tribal groups involved with oil-palm have quietly developed their own religious leaders while keeping some of their traditional ways.
Today there may be 2,000 or 3,000 villagers from five or more tribal groups gathered around Marunga and Tol Plantation. Clean water for washing and drinking is available from a nearby river; food gardens are scattered among the foothills.
Toilets within the village appear little used; the villagers use the nearby sea or wait until they are in the bush. There is a hospital which has its own banana boat for transporting the sick to St Mary’s Hospital, Kokopo.
We arranged for Sylvester and the Rigel men to walk back from Marunga via the ridgeline rising to Mt Isimurigarok. We gave them our remaining rations for the walk; and they expected to be home in two days.
After a night of village men chanting and drumming in the community house, we were farewelled on 7 September by eight young men dressed as forest spirits, clad entirely in green fronds, with masked faces and flattened, yellow cone-shaped hats (made by splaying out the fibrous core of a local plant), running round and round, back and forth in a circle while the other village men chanted and drummed with sticks on sounding boards placed on the ground.
Previous versions of this dance included a single clay-daubed man in a loincloth with spear, presumably representing ordinary mankind among the performers.
We shook hands with some 200 villagers and walked to the launching place; the banana-boat was loaded with our gear and we shoved off; ten minutes of anti-climax bobbing around avoiding coral outcrops while the boatman sorted out the fuel line, then we were away on a flat sea.
We stopped at Nongia for fuel, seeing occasional flying fish and a pod of dolphin before turning for the final run past Kabakaul Jetty (where the AN&MEF landed almost 100 years earlier) to arrive at Kokopo after four and a half hours travel.
We carried our gear to the front of the Skowhegan Inter-Oil service station; rang Rabaul Hotel to collect the trekkers and an Avis vehicle so I could take the two Maranagi men home.
Reg Yates is a former Army Reservist, ambulance paramedic and trek leader who has visited PNG nearly every year since 1984. He has walked all the WW II battlefield routes in PNG; paddled 360km down the Sepik River; walked the Hindenburg Wall section of Karius & Champion’s 1927-28 crossing between the Fly and Sepik Rivers; white-water rafted down the Watut River; and worked as a paramedic on seismic sites in PNG.