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Then along came a guria to break the monotony of the day

Kabwum airstrip (PNGAA)
The airstrip at Kabwum (PNGAA)


GOLD COAST - The Sub District Office at Kabwum was an extensive complex composed of steel girders and locally made concrete brick walls.

Every time a guria [earthquake] began the entire government staff would rapidly vacate the building accompanied with low level mutters of, “Oh, oh, stone house”.

During one guria, the Council adviser’s wife was caught in the shower and vacated the premises clad just in a towel and shower cap.

I will always remember the sensation of feeling the earthquake as it passed underneath me. Every molecule of soil and stone is in motion and the result is akin to floating; it seems there is nothing solid beneath you.

And with a really big ‘quake you can actually see the earth moving like waves.

In 1972 I was conducting a census amongst the people around Derim airstrip in the Kabwum Sub District.

All of us were assembled at the head of the airstrip where I’d set up my patrol table with the census book on it. In front of me, sitting, there were about 500 people; men to the right of me and women to the left.

Looking beyond them, I could see along the valley to the junction of the Yalumet River from where it continued north to the nambis [coast] to the west of Wasu Patrol Post.

Suddenly there was a rumbling as of distant thunder and Constable Netato standing behind me said, “guria ikam masa” (‘There’s an earthquake coming, sir’).

The noise got louder until it was deafening. The mountain sides at the mouth of the valley began to shake forcefully and the trees shuddered backwards and forwards. The pulsating ground moved rapidly up the valley towards us like a gigantic Mexican wave.

Huge slabs of red soil and jungle began sliding down the mountains exposing the brilliant white limestone beneath.

The crowd became agitated and stood up but there was nowhere to go. Then the quake arrived with a frightening roar and the nearby buildings and trees rocked and shook while we looked on helplessly. The haus kiap nearby threatened to jump of its piles and tear itself apart.

The quake passed as quickly as it arrived and we settled down to continue the census.

I don’t recall ever seeing much earthquake damage to locally constructed village buildings, constructed to be held together with kunda vines and bamboo lashings, able to absorb the shaking without breaking apart.


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Robert Wilson

I was seconded from DASF as the Madang Provincial Wildlife Officer beginning from scratch in the mid 1970's (forgot the year), having to find an office and start developing infrastructure and then a plan of attack for the fledgling wildlife division.

What jogged my memory about a Madang guria was in my role, I arranged for the gazettal of the Balek wildlife sanctuary located on the Usino Madang road near the Gogol river bridge and on the Madang side.

I was giving a lecture to a group of forestry cadets about wildlife conservation at this sanctuary and we were in a large limestone cave above a large sulphur pool. The cadets were standing on the wooden bridges built over the pool leading into the cave.

One moment I was talking when in the blink of an eye, 15 or so cadets turned tail and ran like crazy out of the cave. I immediately wondered if it was something I said when I then felt the ground shuddering.

It was too late for me to escape so I sat down and watched everything go crazy. I figured this cave had been through much worse so I was as safe here but there was no way I could have walked or run anyway considering the movement.

This was around late mid morning I seem to recall but I do remember telling my now wife about two years after and she recalled that her house (the high covenant government style on stilts) was flexing around enough to cause much plate and glassware to fly around leaving a hell of a mess.

Ah the memories!

Garry Roche

When a strong earthquake struck Madang late in 1970 I happened to on patrol with Fr Arnie Steffen in the bush in Dei Council near a place called Wiyapeng.

I was only a month or so in the country and was still very new to the whole bush experience. That night we were both sleeping in a crude bush house and I was on a rough fold-up camp-bed of some description.

I had never experienced an earthquake before (no earthquakes in Ireland) and when my camp-bed started shaking I at first thought a pig or something had got into the house and was shaking the bed.

Then I realised that everything else was shaking, but I was too shy to raise any alarm. Fr Steffen never said anything either until next morning when he casually asked me “Did you feel the guria last night?”

My Pidgin English was still rudimentary and I had to ask him “What’s a guria?” He laughed and said “an earthquake.” I responded in the affirmative and, gazing out at the surrounding hills, was amazed the power that could have shaken those hills that night.

When next day we got back to Kumdi and Notre Dame High School we heard that some of the high school girls in the second floor dormitories had been really scared by the guria and were tempted to jump out of the windows.

That Madang earthquake was indeed felt even in the Highlands.

Paul Oates

The guria that wiped out half of Madang at 4.03 AM and then struck Pindiu at 4.15 AM from memory. All I remember is that I couldn't get out of bed and out the door as the bed was jumping all over the floor of the Single Officer's Quarters (SOQ).

Philip Fitzpatrick

I was on patrol up in the Star Mountains when that one hit Ross. We were in the Murray Valley about ten days walk away from the nearest mission at Bolivip. The patrol post was another extra day away. All together about 300 kms west of Madang. It must have been a whopper.

As I recall it was early in the morning and we were on a ridge and watched the wave coming towards through the forest, just like Paul describes.

Ross Wilkinson

In my time at Kabwum the sub-district office was a kunai shack that greatly absorbed the impact of gurias.

I don't know who first told us about gurias and how to handle them. I strongly suspect that it was one of the old hands instructing us during our orientation period at Kwikila.

We were told that they ocurred frequently at varying degrees of severity and you became inured to them. The instructions were that if we were in a permanent materials building to just stand in a doorway as that was the strongest point in a building.

When the fatal earthquake hit Madang in the early hours of one October morning in 1970, I had guests staying with me at Mumeng about 200 kms away to the south-east. The house shook violently and caused panic among the guests. "It's just an earthquake," said me as I ushered them to doorways to ride it out.

later that day we heard the news that Madang suffered badly with collapsed buildings and several deaths.

However, whoever that was that gave us that early advice, he was right and we became quickly oblivious to them other than a fleeting recognition of their occurrence.

Paul Oates

I wonder if the current PNG Governor General was there at the time, since he comes from Derim, and does he remember that particular guria?

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