My first return to Papua New Guinea 3
05 February 2021
My Papua New Guinea odyssey continues as, for the first time in 30 years, I set foot in Rabaul, the Sepik and Madang. It's my wife Ingrid's first contact with the country
BISMARCK SEA, THURSDAY - Orion wound her way out of Simpson Harbour yesterday evening on her way to the Sepik River.
Since our arrival in Rabaul early Monday, Tavurvur volcano has continued to belch a thick cloud of black ash which the prevailing south-easterly caused to drift remorselessly over Rabaul leaving the town, and us, grubby and sulphuric.
The ash gritted between my teeth and a medical condition, which I will call ‘Tavurvur Throat’, could only be soothed by the application of a large libation of ice cold SP beer.
It was on the long, hot and dusty walk from Orion to the Hamamas Hotel (around which there is a story) that the future of Rabaul became clear to me.
On Malaguna Avenue I again met the middle-aged Tolai man from Matupit Island, in the shadow of Tavurvur.
I’d first encountered Matthias when Ingrid and I were out walking on Monday. He’d rushed to greet me yelling, “G’day Bill! Where are you from?” To Matthias, everyone was Bill.
He was now standing alongside a pick-up truck parked in front of Seeto’s decrepit trade store at the town’s western fringe. In the tray of the truck squatted a group of ten glum men. At their feet, a few bush knives, sarifs, kulau and other possessions.
The only good cheer came from Matthias. “G’day Bill!” he shouted again. I asked him where they were going. To the New Matupit, Matthias told me, a resettlement area in the hills near Vunakabi beyond the Burma Road.
They were giving up on Matupit. The most recent eruption had destroyed most of their canoes and generated a tsunami they feared might annihilate the village.
It turned out that no one was hurt, but they’d had enough. They were voluntarily taking a step that protracted government persuasion since the 1994 eruption had failed to elicit.
Demoralised, they were abandoning Matupit for good. They were miserable – and it showed.
“You were in Rabaul in 1970, Bill,” barked Matthias happily. “They are leaving. Give them some words.”
So I stumbled my way through an inadequate speech in Pidgin about how sad I felt for them but I had driven past their new home yesterday and it was beautiful place with rich soil and fine trees and I was sure they would find it a good and safe home.
I feared I did not sound, and I am sure I did not look, convincing.
Matthias, however, was pleased. “He was Radio Rabaul”, he announced to the men.
I wished him luck, we shook hands and went our separate ways.
When the Matupit islanders start leaving, I thought, that’s the end for Rabaul.
Of course, for so long as ships can still enter the harbour, there will always be a port. But there is unlikely to be a viable Rabaul community.
After a long walk around a fractured Rabaul, fellow passenger Bryan Grey, Ingrid and I finally trudged into the Hamamas Hotel for a welcome cleanser or two.
Owner Bruce Grant had saved his investment in 1994 by shovelling volcanic ash of the roof faster than it fell. The hotel is now the only intact building in this part of town.
Even as we were there, the ash fell constantly and, while it won’t drive out the stoical Grant, another blow to tourism just might spell the end.
People in Rabaul are talking about Vulcan erupting again and about a new underwater volcano, Togirgir, south of Vulcan, emerging.
They’re worried and the Matupit villagers are leaving. It’s just possible we’re witnessing the end of Rabaul.
[I was much too pessimistic. From the vantage point of 15 years later, Rabaul and the nearby town of Kokopo have jointly resuscitated the tourism industry. The Jackson family among the many visitors to this fascinating and prosperous region of PNG.)
SEPIK RIVER, FRIDAY – Overnight we sailed from Rabaul to the mouth of the Sepik River for a bit of an expedition along the coast to explore the village of Watam.
Ingrid and I disembarked Orion, along with 60 other life-jacketed passengers looking like a seniors invasion force.
We rode eight bucking Zodiacs for half an hour through a four foot swell and across a boiling reef. (I use the word ‘bucking’ advisedly.)
Our destination was a fine example of a traditional village located a few kilometres east of the mouth of the Sepik River.
After such an arduous trip, it wasn’t hard to understand why Watam, a community of about 200 people, doesn’t see many tourists.
That’s why, as we entered the tiny protected harbour, we were surprised to see more than 30 canoes and banana boats and the village teeming with over 1,000 people and half a dozen police, some armed with AK47s.
It seems that, for a fee of 30 kina a group, the Watam people had invited their neighbours for 50 km around to establish a mass impromptu artefacts market.
I was escorted around Watam by a new found friend, Arnold, from whom I bought some artefacts and who, with that spontaneous generosity of Papua New Guineans, reciprocated by giving Ingrid and me gifts of his own.
Spending an hour or so conversing with Arnold allowed me to shake the cobwebs off my rusty Pidgin and, for his part, he seemed pleased with the dialogue.
With a singsing going flat out, a 14-man pandanus and pitpit ‘dragon’ bouncing up and down at the village entrance and a lapun meri painted everyone’s face with an indelible red mark which will require a skin graft to remove.
Every passenger quickly entered the joyful spirit of the day. Money was spent.
Negotiating the reef to get to the open sea from Watam proved a challenge even for our experienced boat crew. But we did get back to Orion feeling we had a real adventure.
MADANG, SATURDAY – On our way to Madang last night we sailed abeam of Manam Island, still in eruption and its population unhappily resettled on the mainland,.
Then we passed Karkar Island, a favourite posting during colonial times, before entering Madang Harbour at seven this morning.
Although its public infrastructure is deteriorating, Madang remains one of the South Pacific’s prettiest towns and it must surely be one of the most prosperous, with tourism and agriculture flourishing.
The sweet smell of copra hung in the air and, despite overwhelming humidity, it remains the most pleasant of towns to wander around.
Some 35 years ago my dear friend Phil Charley established and managed the radio broadcasting station in Madang after coming from the same role in Goroka.
With these two postings, I always reckoned Phil had the best of PNG. And, on visiting Madang for the first time in over 40 years, I see no reason to change my mind.
Meanwhile, life at sea on this luxurious expedition vessel remains vibrant, as you can see from this picture of Ingrid with the ship’s self-proclaimed “Driver”, Captain Peter Greenhow.
(While Rabaul has shaken off volcanic eruptions and, hand in hand with Kokopo, is thriving, Madang has run into harder times and has had much civil strife. Now the community is rallying to do sort this out. Let’s hope it succeeds and what was once known as ‘the Pearl of the Pacific’ regains its former glory.)
Tomorrow: Orion sails to the Tami Islands and on to Tufi and Samarai
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