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‘Pipia bilong nambis’: Our beaches deserve better than rubbish

Port Moresby Beach  flooded with plastic waste
A Port Moresby beach inundated with plastic waste

PHIL FITZPATRICK

TUMBY BAY - Before my wife and I left Hervey Bay in Queensland to move to the west coast of South Australia, we sold our hulking great Toyota LandCruiser but kept our little red Suzuki Jimny.

The 20-year old Jimny is a true four-wheel drive with a narrow wheelbase, no rear hang over, H-frame chassis and mechanically operated transfer case.

It will go places where big, heavy four-wheel drives come to grief and it is an ideal vehicle for one of the pleasures of life, pottering along remote beaches.

Because we are far away from any city or urban areas the beaches here are pristine.

They are especially nice where they occur in little coves surrounded by rocky cliffs well away from any road and only accessible by boat, on foot or in a little red Jimny.

We usually park the Jimny in the sand dunes and set out on foot along the beaches. Even though the beaches are pristine there is still a fascinating array of marine debris to see and pick among.

It is only occasionally that we pick up bits of ugly plastic to cart away. Usually we come back with collections of shells, driftwood and interesting rocks.

There is very little fresh surface water here, but where it does occur you can find the remains of ancient Aboriginal campsites including flaked tools, shell middens and bones. These are fascinating but best left alone - so we just look and don’t plunder.

I’ve been a beachcomber for as long as I can remember. I think it started when I was at the Australian School of Pacific Administration where I was able to poke around the bottom of the cliffs at Middle Head.

It was something I also enjoyed when the opportunity presented itself in Papua New Guinea. There are still great swathes of isolated beach there, especially in the islands, which seldom see human footprints.

Whether they are black sand beaches, like those on New Britain, or white sand, like those around Manus, they all have their unique collections of debris: piles of weather beaten timber, sprouting coconuts and palm fronds all mixed with a giddy array of shells (some as big as footballs) and the hulks of abandoned and rotting canoes.

Beaches were also used as convenient roads in many places and still perform that function. Mother Nature looks after them better than impecunious governments and drivers can usually rely upon them so long as they are aware of pitfalls such as boggy patches and buried hazards.

District Commissioner Kingsley Jackson has an interesting account of one of these hazards in his book ‘Not Always Wise’.

In the 1960s, he was travelling back to Kerema from the Vailala (Ihu) River in the station LandRover when he came to grief. He had on board his two children and Constable Eba and there was an onshore breeze with a heavy sea spray making visibility difficult.

“Our old LandRover was reasonably reliable apart from a badly cracked windscreen and no hood,” he relates. The next thing I knew was the LandRover cartwheeling in slow motion end over end.

Of all the natural debris on that beach, Jackson had hit the protruding tip of the propeller of an old Catalina aircraft buried in the grey sand.

They managed to right the Land Rover and drive to Huiva Plantation but Constable Eba had been badly injured and unfortunately died there.

I’ve always remembered that account. I’m not a confident driver at the best of times but I take extra care on beaches.

The other tricky bit on these sandy roads occurs when rivers making their way to the coast intrude. Many of them used to have ferries serviced by a nearby village. These simple affairs, often only a couple of big canoes with a wooden platform between them, could usually be hired for a small fee.

I have vivid memories of paddling like buggery or tugging desperately on a frayed rope as a rocking and rolling LandRover hogged all the available space on one of these contraptions. Thankfully the ferrymen always got us to our destination.

Quite a lot of beach pipia [rubbish] came down those rivers and this is still the case.

In the old days, bloated bodies full of arrows provided an early indicator of the large populations living in the interior. Nowadays it is likely to be plastic, especially bottles, that float downstream.

A bottle carelessly tossed off a bridge in the Wahgi Valley can easily end up as litter on a beach in Gulf Province.

Another source of plastic debris, especially in Papua, is Indonesia. Their rubbish is carried by tides and washes up on beaches in Timor Leste, the Northern Territory and Queensland as well as along the Papuan Coast. Fishing nets and various bits of industrial waste also make the same journey.

Little red Suzuki JimnyAlong the way fish, turtles and aquatic mammals gobble bits of it and kill themselves, often painfully through starvation.

The situation is nowhere near as bad in Australia or Papua New Guinea (except perhaps in Hanuabada) as it is in other parts of the world. If you want to see what they have to deal with try typing in ‘beach debris’ or ‘tide wrack’ into Google.

But, like most bad habits, Australia and Papua New Guinea are well on the way to catching up.

When we do, where my wife and I will take the little red Jimny is hard to know.

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