YUNGABURRA, ATHERTON TABLELANDS - Just two months after I started work in Papua New Guinea in 1980, the wet season in Central Province stopped abruptly in mid-March and it did not rain again until December.
The rainfall records at Laloki Plant Quarantine and Horticultural Research Station went back to its establishment in 1949. The average rainfall was 1,500mm, which to an Australian is a lot of rain.
But the year before I arrived, 1979, was the driest year on record with only 600mm; and just 900mm was recorded in all of 1980.
So I walked into two years of drought conditions and many of the people of Goilala began to walk to Port Moresby and its town water.
Their graffiti was all over town, most notably ‘GOIPEX 105’, the tag of a notorious raskol gang. Martyn Namorong has written that, at the time, the Goilala were among the most marginalised people in PNG.
With the Independence long weekend coming up in September 1980, I signed up for a walk with the Port Moresby Bushwalking Club from Woitape to Tapini. It would be my first trip into the Goilala.
Early on a cloudless but windy Friday morning, seven of us with packs and gear took off in a Central Air Services Islander from Jacksons to Woitape – ahead of us a four-day walk.
After about 40 minutes the young Australia pilot was circling over Woitape but the airstrip was not visible due to low cloud.
Instead we flew a bit further west and landed at Fane’s steep strip, disembarking outside the mission station where a large group, including the Catholic priest, met the plane.
I took some time to go inside the bush materials church and was stunned by the beauty of the decorations on the walls.
As we were readying to start our walk from Fane rather than Woitape, the pilot received a message that the strip at Woitape was open.
We jumped back into the plane and took off down the steep incline and cruised low over the hills to Woitape.
With only a few hours of daylight left and an estimated four hour walk to Kosipe we wasted no time and started our trek uphill to Kosipe Mission. The track had been built as a mule trail and we were to follow it for most of the next four days.
In 1956, Father Alex had been sent by the Catholic Church to establish the mission. At the time of our visit he was back in France having a hip replacement but the brother in charge allowed us to stay in Fr Alex’s house for the night.
It was built in the style of a chalet. The library had a large collection of Asterix and Tintin books, all in French. At one end was a smokehouse where he could cure meat from his herd of goats, cattle and horses.
Fr Alex being a practical man had used the cross to suspend a pipe carrying water from a spring down to his house.
The Catholic missionaries opened up the Goilala using pack horses and mules and there was an extensive network of trails throughout the region to make travel and supplying the missions easier.
By 1980 some of the bridges on these trails had rotted away and landslides had taken out the graded track.
Rather than following the contours to build a new route the villagers constructed tracks that went straight up the mountains and down the other side - what we termed ‘Goilala Specials’.
Leaving Kosipe we had a long day ahead of us and a high pass to negotiate before arriving in the village where we were to spend the night.
For some reason the haus kiap was not available so we were given a house that had been used by the village pigs. The entrance was a tiny hole which was not a problem for the small statured villagers but a tight squeeze for us. I certainly would not fit through today.
Although the villagers had cleaned the house for us, it still smelled of the pigs, which all night long tried to break through the walls.
Lighting a cooking fire inside filled the space with smoke but we had some butane stoves and cooked our rice and bully beef before falling asleep after the exhausting day’s walk.
Next day we reached another village from where we could look over the valley to Tapini government station.
The house in this village was much more comfortable and, with an early start we began the steep descent to the river below and an even steeper ascent to Tapini, where we slept in a teacher’s house near the bottom of the airstrip.
At the other end of the strip the Tapini Hotel was open and the thought of a cold SP put some energy into my tired legs for a trek to the top of the station and the hotel. Judging by the hangover I was suffering on the balus next morning plenty of cold ones had been consumed.
The young pilot of the Islander had only been in PNG a short while and this was his first flight to Tapini without a check pilot on board.
We took off down the hill and soon after takeoff banked to the right and started the climb to get over the range.
Cloud descended soon after take-off and, after circling for what seemed a long time, the pilot spotted a gap in the clouds and we headed for Woitape to wait for the weather to clear.
The Owen Stanley Lodge at Woitape was operating and a popular weekend destination for visitors from Moresby. At 1,500 meters above sea level the climate was cool and ideal for vegetable production.
The aroma of brewing coffee was too compelling and we encouraged the pilot to let us have some breakfast and finish our coffee before heading once again to Jacksons airstrip in Port Moresby.
The droughts of 1979 and 1980 caused severe food shortages in the Goilala. In 1982 another group walked from Fane to Bakoidu and found that all the villages on the route were abandoned.
A road to Tapini was opened soon after I was last there but has never been regularly maintained. There is huge potential for food production in those highland valleys of Goilala which are so close to Port Moresby.
In 1980 strawberries were introduced to Woitape with support from a New Zealand Aid project and they flourished but flying them to Moresby was too expensive. Coffee can also be grown but, without reliable road access, the beans just rot on the ground.
It is to be hoped that money can be found to maintain rural roads throughout PNG so people can grow crops and get them to markets and ensure their livelihood.
I have not been back to the Goilala since 1983. The only people left in the villages at that time were the old and very young.
There were six airstrips serving the Goilala back then but the third level airlines flying into these remote areas have largely disappeared and many of the airstrips have closed due to lack of maintenance.
The expatriate priests have all departed and some missions such as Kamulai have been abandoned following the murder of a priest.
But I’ll never forget that adventure in the drought of 1980.