PORT MORESBY - It was a little past four o’clock that Sunday afternoon when we arrived at Ambua Lodge, nestled amongst the Doma Peaks near Tari town in Hela Province.
The light drizzle that seemed to have followed us from Mt Hagen had ceased and the gravel car park was wet and soft. Around it the trees were wreathed with thick leaves and green moss.
Few resident birds, probably disturbed by our arrival, chirped sharply somewhere in the dense canopy before joining their friends in a melodious chaos of trills.
I had visited Hela several times but never had the chance to see the “award winning and eco-friendly” Ambua Lodge close up.
The lodge was still closed to the public following the devastating earthquakes of 2018, but the management confirmed the doors would soon be open again.
The main reception was architecturally attractive and connected to a comfortable lounge and restaurant built around a nicely designed fireplace, like a scene from those royal manors in old English films.
At almost 7,000 feet above sea level, the lodge’s green backyard and its flower gardens seemed to slide downhill to the west, crashing into the Tari valley below.
In the distance, serrated mountain ranges loomed behind a blanket of mist.
In these mountains were some of Hela’s many natural resource projects – the PNG LNG areas of Hides, Angore, Kutubu, Moro, Moran, Juha and Mananda.
That was the week I met the chairman of Angore Wellpad B, Hari John Akipe, who was also Papua New Guinea’s defence secretary.
He would be travelling to Undupi village the next morning for a special ceremony. This is where Wellpad C is located, one of the key sites in the Angore area.
Also there would be the members of the Hela provincial administration and representatives standing in for ExxonMobil as well as police, defence and company security personnel.
For over 20 years, drilling at Wellpad C had remained frozen with all agreements shelved as the principal landowner Mango Kurali and his tribesmen refused to allow ExxonMobil to drill.
This came after the company took out a permanent injunction restraining Mango and his tribesmen from entering land within the fenced area of Wellpads A and B, their own leased land.
Kurali ended up on the wanted list for questioning and this sparked a long-standing tension between the company, tribesmen and Kurali, but that is another story.
Kurali had finally said he would to sign the agreement for ExxonMobil to access the land and conduct assessment work as well as commencing drilling at the site.
It was a decision that would provide much wealth for his tribesmen and their families.
I asked to join the team observing the signing ceremony because I knew there would be a lot of pork meat.
Hari John Akipe agreed.
He was accompanied by the principal of Kamuta Lawyers, Tau Kamuta, who was representing Mango Kurali, and other advisors to the landowners.
The next morning we left the lodge and headed for Undupi village, almost a two hour drive out of Tari, to witness the ceremony.
Wellpad C sat at the edge of a hillside overlooking the basin below.
Weeds and thorny shrubs grew around the drilling site and thick iron bars lay across its opening, obviously untouched for years.
On the other side, freshly butchered pork was laid out in a long mumu pit in the Hela way, or so they told me.
Some mothers shied away from the camera as I watched them prepare the meat and bananas while the young men tended the red hot stones. Elderly men barked orders which everyone obeyed.
A feeling of understanding could be sensed. They knew their gardens would be destroyed and their valleys and rivers taken away but it was a decision they had made.
Kurali also said he understood the inconveniences he had caused and he now wanted to let it all go. He wanted to stand with his tribe to see the drilling begin.
When signing the agreement, he said he would ensure strong support would be provided by his entire tribe to ensure the gas was piped to the PNG LNG project.
He said he respected the fact that ExxonMobil had the right to fulfil its obligations and undertake construction to upgrade its existing gas lines under the licence.
Kurali appealed to ExxonMobil to recognise the signing with his tribe as a heartfelt statement of sorrow from the heart and he called on the company to resume drilling.
The ceremony proceeded into the afternoon hours, sealed by handshakes and full dishes of pork, chicken and many cans of Coke.
“This is a family thing and we have to sort it out as a family for no one will do it for us,” Wellpad B chairman Hari Akipe told the tribe.
It was almost dark when we arrived back at Ambua Lodge, to be hypnotised by the sweet aroma of grilled beef, onions and broccoli.
It was a moment that made me pity my skinny frame and tight little stomach.
Dinner that night was cosmic, full of stories and jokes until the lodge’s warm beds dragged us into comforts, dreams and silence.