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My first return to Papua New Guinea 1

MY Orion enters Cairns harbour
Orion enters Trinity inlet at Cairns, October 2006


In October 2006 (PNG Attitude had been born in February), I returned to Papua New Guinea for the first time in 30 years on the motor yacht Orion. This is my diary of that journey, slightly edited. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of this blog, I wanted to bathe myself in nostalgia and this short memoir of my rediscovery of a great country is my indulgence.

CAIRNS, SATURDAY - MY Orion berthed at Trinity Wharf in Cairns right on seven o'clock this morning after a passage from Darwin after she had cruised to the the Kimberleys and Timor.

Her raked bow and sleek lines gives Orion the most elegant appearance; and her diminutive size is perfect for expedition cruising and getting into lagoons and harbours that would defeat larger vessels.

With the pilot in charge, the ship glided down a smooth Trinity inlet, silver in the morning light, passing a scene of considerable devastation as the old wharf is being demolished, probably to make way for some monolithic high rise.

Then Orion demonstrated her great maneuverability by crabbing sideways into the assigned berth at Trinity Wharf 2.

Piled on the stern deck were the six Zodiacs that will ferry us to shore on the many wet landings we'll need to make during our three week voyage around PNG.

As I write this, the provisioning is already taking place, so those promised great Hunter reds, exquisite Margaret River chardonnays and Serge Dansereau inspired meals will be safely ensconced by the time we board at 3 o'clock this afternoon. I'm going to enjoy my return to my second home.

Meanwhile Ingrid and I will go hunting in Cairns for a few good books. And I need to buy a cheap waterproof wristwatch as I don't think my present timepiece - a Palm Pilot - is really all that suited for splashing through the surf in Zodiacs and jumping on to rocky beaches.

Orion at Trinity Wharf
Orion at Trinity Wharf

CORAL SEA, SUNDAY – There is something very calming about the irregular motion of a ship moving across a long rolling swell.

As I awaken as usual at 3.30 am for some night-time pondering (like ‘why do I keep waking at 3.30 am?’), I can feel Orion moving around me. It’s like being gently rocked in a giant cradle.

Yesterday evening, after Australian Security, Customs and Migration conspired to render meaningless the word ‘efficiency’, Orion slipped out of Cairns and the city and its embracing hills drifted slowly from view.

Beethoven’s seventh on the stateroom CD revved me up. I was overflowing with anticipation at this splendid way of returning to PNG.

At Trinity Wharf, waiting for Australian Security and others to do their thing, I spoke with a young East Sepik immigration officer who’d flown from Moresby to process passports for tomorrow morning’s landfall at Alotau.

She agreed she had a great job. And she was very proud that her boss was prime minister Michael Somare.

Orion does not have full complement of passengers: there are 59 of us on board of a capacity 100. But there’s not a bed available for the second leg of the voyage out of Rabaul, when the old New Guinea Islands hands are set to come to the party.

Very few of my fellow travellers on this Cairns-Rabaul sector are of TPNG vintage. Most are Aussies around my age group wanting to experience the delights of expedition travel.

As we neared the Papuan coast, the afternoon brought rain and I write this to the theme from the movie ‘Titanic’ (My Heart Will Go On). It should really have been played through the ship’s Tannoy (you can tell I’m acclimatising to seafaring life) during this morning’s lifeboat drill.

We enter Alotau at dawn tomorrow. Here, in the words of Field-Marshal Sir William Slim, "Australian troops inflicted on the Japanese their first undoubted defeat on land. Of all the allies, it was the Australians who first broke the invincibility of the Japanese army”.

The military buffs on board can hardly wait.

No spittle sign alotau
It's fair to say this sign near Alotau market is one of my favourite examples of public communication

ALOTAU, MONDAY - I was fortunate to awake early enough to catch a first shrouded glimpse of the Papuan coast 30 years after taim igo pinis in 1976.

This was a sentimental moment as I recalled my first arrival in TPNG in 1963 at daybreak on the old DC6.

I had observed a mysterious and misty coastline which held such promise to me of great adventure. Promise, I add, which in my case as in many others, PNG fully redeemed.

About an hour or so later Ingrid and I were breakfasting on the aft deck as Orion entered the China Strait, cruising within hailing distance of tiny villages and passing abeam of diminutive Samarai with its massive old wharf and copra sheds.

We are to return here and disembark on the island in about three weeks from now

We berthed at Alotau at 11 am to be greeted by a local singsing group belting kundus like there was no tomorrow.

An hour later Ingrid and I were ashore walking around the dusty streets of what appeared to be a poor and rundown township.

The prominent presence of guards around any building related to banking, petrol or beer evidenced security concerns, although the people retain a customary friendliness and we never for a moment felt unsafe.

KJ Radio Milne Bay
I pay a visit to Radio Milne Bay for a yarn with the assistant manager

As I happened to be passing by, I called in at Radio Milne Bay and said g’day to assistant manager Milela Gisawa, 27 years in the service of the National Broadcasting Corporation, which I’m proud to say I had helped establish in 1973.

The main road through Alotau as well as the boat harbour and market were crowded with purveyors of betel nut, leaf and lime – seemingly a staple of life and a driver of the economy.

After an hour we ended up at the fine Napatana Lodge, on the edge of town, where manager Edna honoured her claim to “serve the coldest beer in Alotau” and I quenched my thirst on my first SP brown in three decades.

We trudged back to Orion with the afternoon heat starting to stake its claim on us. Along the road we encountered further interesting signs and scores of warm and welcoming people.

It was good to be back. The sweetness of the welcome lingers. The dust washed easily off my shoes.

Brian bungalow
John Peter near Brian White's bungalow and an empty yam house.

LOUISIADE ARCHIPELAGO, TUESDAY - We spent yesterday anchored in Deboyne Lagoon in the Louisiade Archipelago.

We took the Zodiacs to unpopulated Nivani Island to variously sea kayak, roam around a long abandoned and overgrown coconut plantation and snorkel above a ditched World War II Zero before a beach barbecue and, thoroughly exhausted, returning to Orion.

TROBRIAND ISLANDS, WEDNESDAY - At seven this morning Orion anchored off Kitava Island in the Trobriands and 70 passengers and crew boarded seven Zodiacs which, en masse, as local custom was said to dictate, headed for shore and a traditional dance welcome from the Kitava islanders.

These included a group of pubescent boys who were clearly embarrassed by the whole thing and fled into the bush the moment their act concluded.

Ingrid and I went on an hour’s walk into the hills to pretty Kumwagea village – clean, neat and with scores of blossoming frangipanis forming an avenue through its centre.

At the entrance to the village was Kitava Primary School, established in 1962 and with the original head teacher’s quarters decrepit but still in use.

Kumwagea village
The central avenue through beautiful Kumwagea village

It was here that I befriended John Peter, a man from nearby Lalele village.

We got talking about the past and the school, which he had attended in the late 1960s.

“It’s not the same now,” he complained, “they don’t teach in English anymore.

"The kids don’t learn it and they get pushed out before high school."

“Who taught you?” I asked. “At first an Australian,” he replied.

“What was his name?” “Mr White.”

“Mr Brian White?” John Peter looked at me surprised. “Yes, he said, “that was his name.”

Kitava Primary School
Kitava Primary School where my good mate Brian White was headmaster for some years and found and married his sweetheart, Nammie

When I mentioned to John that I knew Brian well and that he had died just a few months ago, a single fat tear rolled down his cheek.

Brian (BP) White was an esteemed and much loved colleague on the education officers class of 1962-63 at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA).

Upon arriving in PNG in November 1963, Brian and I taught together briefly at Mandi in the Sepik District before he was posted to Milne Bay.

He was assigned to Kitava Primary T in the mid-sixties a couple of years later.

It was at Kitava, as I understand the story, that Brian met his wife Nammie who continues to live in the family home at Meringandan outside Toowoomba.

At Kitava a yam house still stands holding Brian’s gift of a prized local yam.

This he was given when he wed Nammie and which he never came back to collect.

Brian White and Mandi teaching staff  1963
Brian White and teaching staff, Mandi, 1963

I paused for some minutes at the school, standing silently beside Brian’s bungalow perched on a small rise.

The scene was peaceful and picturesque: classrooms on two sides; teachers’ houses on two sides; a lush soccer field between.

Around the perimeter were large shade trees, bare patches beneath scuffed clean by generations of resting students; a school bell rendered from an old gas container.

I struck it three times and called assembly. “That’s for you, BP,” I said.

Tomorrow: the voyage moves on to Rabaul, where I have arranged to meet my former boss and dear friend, Sam Piniau


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Richard Jones

Well done, KJ, for sounding the gas cylinder bell in memory of our old and much-loved colleague, Brian White.

BP passed away in late February 2006. Not sure of his exact age but he might have been only early to mid-60s.

I understand he suffered from oesophagal cancer. Was he a smoker Don't think I remember BP doing the drawback during our ASOPA days, 1962 to late '63.

A confirmed roll-your-own man. And a correction to my earlier note, Richard. Bill Brown took the time to let us know that Brian was born on 21 July 1940, so he was 65 when he died. A most admirable bloke - KJ

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