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My first return to Papua New Guinea 2

Ingrid on the Uepi Track
Ingrid on the Uepi Track. Orion visited the Solomon Islands en route to Rabaul. We made the most of the opportunity


In October 2006, I returned to Papua New Guinea for the first time in 30 years. This is my diary of that journey on the motor yacht Orion

MAROVO LAGOON, FRIDAY - Jill and Grant Kelly have spent 25 years developing and then enhancing their small but exquisite resort on Uepi (you-pee) Island in the Western District of the Solomon Islands.

Being in a remote part of the country, almost at the end of the line, they don’t make a lot of money but live a fine life catering to the requirements of scuba divers, expedition travellers and people who simply want to drop out for a while.

And, after more than a quarter of a century, they feel a close connection to the natural environment and to the native people who live on the tiny coral islands arranged necklace-like around Marovo Lagoon.

On board Orion earlier today I watched [on the ABC’s excellent Australia TV Network] Alexander Downer fulminate against the governments of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea.

He also fulminated against the Australian Labor Party, which he accused of “supporting foreigners” as if this was a most heinous crime.

With Downer’s petulance still on my mind, I took the Zodiac to shore, where Ingrid and I walked into the centre of the island on a rough-hewn track before returning to the resort for a refreshing local lager.

Marovo Lagoon - nearby is the Uepi Island Resort,  one of the top 10 diving resorts in the world 

There I talked with Jill and Grant Kelly about Solomons’ politics and asking them about the usefulness of Downer’s megaphone diplomacy in addressing the serious problems Australia finds in its immediate neighbourhood.

They were ambivalent: saying Downer’s remonstrations against the poor governance of these nations was understandable but that it wasn’t clear exactly how this would fix relationships that Australia had allowed to deteriorate over many years.

Marovo Lagoon is 30 minutes by speedboat and another hour in a plane from Honiara’s troubled politics and, while the Marovo people know and are concerned about what’s going on, it doesn’t affect them directly.

But I couldn’t help contrast the human values realised by the Kellys in developing a mature and mutually fruitful relationship with the people of Marovo Lagoon and Australia’s failure to do likewise on the larger diplomatic canvass.

It reflects poorly on the competence of Australia’s politicians that relations with our regional neighbours should be in such an unhappy and volatile state.

OFF BOUGAINVILLE, SUNDAY – It’s a good day to spend at sea. As Orion makes her passage from Gizo to Rabaul the clouds are low, visibility is poor and it’s raining.

Somewhere to the east of us is Bougainville - home to my family and me for three years in the early seventies, when I was manager of Radio Bougainville.

It is unfortunate that, in the aftermath of the civil war, Bougainville is not accepting cruise ships, so I cannot return to that beautiful place.

Ken addresses the PNGAA  December 2008
Professor Ken McKinnon in 2008. A pioneering educationist in pre-independence PNG

Around 1972, PNG Director of Education, Dr Ken McKinnon, visited Kieta and, through the radio station, I did him a small favour, to which he quipped: “I’d expect nothing less from an ex-teacher!”

The other day my daughter Sally, a journalist with The Australian newspaper, interviewed Ken, who is the long-standing chairman of the Australian Press Council.

Sally mentioned the blog to him and Ken wrote this comment on the blog:

Until Sally sent me the ASOPA URL information, I had no idea there was an active internet blogging facility for ex PNG people, so I am following your travels with interest.

I can beat your 30 year reunion with PNG, having first landed in Port Moresby in early May 1954 after an ASOPA course between January and April.

My Sydney sojourn came after two years at Oodnadatta, so was mostly a time for savouring the offerings of the city - not neglecting the ASOPA luminaries such as James Macauley and Camilla Wedgewood.

Anyway, at the beginning of 1955 I was posted as Area Education Officer in the Milne Bay District based at Samarai (Alotau did not exist) and got around the Trobriands, Misima etc.

I see you are going to Rabaul and meeting Sam Piniau there. Remember me to him, as I have strong memories of him initiating me into the Dukduk Society, which cost me a fascinating afternoon of dancing and later several fathoms of shell money.

KJ on Orion entering Simpson Harbour  Tavurvur busy in the background
Aboard Orion entering Simpson Harbour.  Tavurvur is busy in the background

RABAUL, MONDAY - Ingrid and I were on the forward deck just in time to see Tavurvur erupt.

As Orion approached Simpson Harbour at 5.30 am, a dense column of black ash spiralled rapidly through the cloud layer reaching about 8,000 feet before being pushed away and diluted by the prevailing south-easterly.

Fortunately for Rabaul the ash was directed away from the town. It didn’t happen that way all the time.

After some stuffing around with an overloaded local telephone system, I eventually caught up with my old mate and boss Sam Piniau – the first and former chairman of the PNG National Broadcasting Corporation.

Sam now trades around the Gazelle Peninsula in cocoa and vanilla and is a long-time member of the PNG Sports Commission, a job which takes him to Port Moresby four times a year.

At 68, he’s in good shape and the 30 years since we’d last seen each other hadn’t blunted the edge of our relationship.

Sam drove Ingrid and me through the bleak wasteland that is the new Rabaul, the occasional skeletal structure being the only sign that, before Tavurvur and Vulcan erupted simultaneously in 1994, a town once stood here.

The once splendid boulevard that was Mango Avenue is now a goat track.

Sam and Kj in front of the devastated Radio ENB  Rabaul
I'm with Sam Piniau in front of the devastated Radio East New Britain in Rabaul

What was the only three storey structure in town, the District Office, has been obliterated.

Radio East New Britain is a roofless shell. “I told Tom Pearson [one time NBC director of engineering and construction] not to give it a flat roof,” Sam joked.

We drove out of town and took the long way to Kokopo: up the Burma Road to reach the plateau of neat villages, substantial houses and rich cultivation. This I recognised.

The Gazelle Peninsula, despite Rabaul’s demise, remains progressive, busy and comparatively wealthy. The education system is strong. The churches active. The politics, as always, dynamic.

Reaching Kokopo, we called in at a small seaside restaurant for lunch. Here I met Francis Rangatin, the son of Chris, the NBC’s first director of news, who died last year.

Death. When old mates get together, the subject they move to before most others is old mates. And many of our old Papua New Guinean mates have died, a substantial number after suffering from diabetes and losing one or more limbs. Over a cold SP beer and a meal of fresh fish, we pondered these and many more matters.

House in 2nd 22nd Street  Rabaul  where we lived in 1970
The simple house in 2/22nd Street where we lived in 1970. It was still there when my daughter Sally revisited Rabaul, her birthplace, in 2019

Later, in our stateroom, back on Orion, Ingrid remarked how Sam and Francis knew much more about Australia than Australians knew about PNG.

And how they implicitly understood it would be the quality of the personal relationships that would improve the strained and testy conversation between our countries. 

I don't think Australians in their foreign affairs and official diplomatic dealings have really taken this sort of advice to heart

Footnote: When we met, Sam seemed to be in good health. He was not. He had lung cancer and died in early 2007, just a few months after our reunion.

Tomorrow: Orion sails from Rabaul to Madang via the Sepik River


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