My first return to Papua New Guinea 4
06 February 2021
Continuing my diary of a sea journey in October 2006 when I returned to Papua New Guinea for the first time in 30 years.
TAMI ISLANDS, SUNDAY – These islands, situated 13 kilometres south-east of Finschhafen, are best known for their great natural beauty and magnificent across-the-grain carvings which are traded as far south as the Trobriand Islands.
Orion anchored just outside the reef and, as we headed to shore, dozens of high spirited dolphins leaped and spun around the Zodiacs in magical display.
I write this as we depart the islands and, through the stateroom window, a large dolphin pod is racing alongside the ship as we begin our passage to Tufi.
This morning we waded ashore from the Zodiac to be greeted by a singsing group which was providing a rhythmic counterpoint to a theatre troupe which in music and dance told a series of stories about the Tami people in a setting framed to represent a canoe.
In all my years in Papua New Guinea, I had never seen such a precisely staged or exquisitely danced performance.
As we arrived, villagers dragged rough-hewn desks and benches from the nearby schoolhouse to provide seating in a natural limestone amphitheatre.
The rhythms and melodies were hypnotic. “I think I was here in a previous life,” murmured a fellow passenger.
After the performance, Ingrid and I strolled to the school, inspecting the Grade 6 classroom at close quarters. I was especially taken by the class rules that were prominently displayed. No excuse for miscreants here.
Then we clambered five meters up a rugged limestone sea cliff, picking our way through gardens pockmarked with rocky outcrops of ancient coral.
Then down the other side for a level 20-minute walk along a flotsam strewn path (thongs and parts thereof being the most common items) to a village of about 100 people.
Here a new Lutheran church was being constructed – the only permanent material building in the place.
“It’s cost 20,000 kina so far,” a villager confided, “and we’ve run out of money.” Alongside it, the old bush material church was cuter, cooler - and cheaper.
Then a walk-and-wade around the island before variously motoring and canoeing to a beach where the galley crew had established one of Orion’s spectacular desert island lunches – rum punch and barbecued tiger prawns.
I’ll let you into a secret, travel doesn’t come much better than this.
TUFI, MONDAY - Orion made a number of valiant but unsuccessful attempts to anchor in the narrow, reef fraught Tufi fjord.
With a big swell running, the harbour bottom offered no purchase for a dragging anchor and, at one point, our stern closed to within just eight metres from the reef.
Captain Peter Greenhow ultimately opted for prudence and anchored well offshore.
We surfed back into the fjord on a Zodiac and, after disembarking at Tufi jetty, began the uphill walk to Suicide Point, two kilometres away.
The Tufi area is overcome by drought and the coffee trees are dying but it wasn’t lack of rain that bothered William, our guide.
He said he felt ashamed of the decrepit state of the buildings at the old Tufi government station. “There’s no money, no maintenance. Sometimes we wish the kiaps were back,” he said.
Suicide Point lies on a prominent bluff overlooking two fjords; perhaps 300 metres above sea level. It’s infamous as a place where spurned lovers swallow dived into oblivion.
The point offers a panoramic view stretching as far as the Owen Stanley Range, silhouetted like a cardboard cut-out against the bright morning sky. Far beneath us a clutch of outriggers lazily tracked a school of fish.
FERGUSSON ISLAND, TUESDAY – Overnight we made passage to Fergusson Island in the D’Entrecasteaux group where Maria (‘Sound of Music’) von Trapp was resident 50 years ago.
Until arriving at this blissful spot, I had no knowledge of Fergusson’s geysers, hot springs, mud pools and insect-eating plants.
The locals use Dei Dei’s sulphuric water boiling up from unknown depths for cooking, washing and as a source of salt.
Here, in bygone years, the islanders would also boil captives alive before eating them on the spot, bones and offal tossed into another scalding pool nearby where they would be quickly reduced to consommé.
There was an incident a couple of years back where a young village woman, upset after an argument, threw herself into the biggest geyser.
Death by fjord; death by geyser. Add these to the list of bizarre ways of ending it all.
SAMARAI, WEDNESDAY – Orion arrived at Samarai late morning and Ingrid and I walked around the decaying remains of the once bustling town.
Fellow guest, retired planter Jim Grose, who was a member of Papua New Guinea’s first House of Assembly from 1964-68, told me he had last been here as a passenger on the Malaita in 1949.
Samarai, along with Port Moresby, was one of Papua’s original towns. A busy trading post which later had the unusual distinction of being bombed by the RAAF in World War II to prevent the Japanese making use of its buildings.
The 24 hectare island is now one of PNG’s heritage listed areas. Not that such nomination seems to count for much.
Many of the original buildings and warehouses stand, but they have been allowed to deteriorate for lack of money. The once fine wharf is broken and unusable.
People continue to live in Samarai, and the power station still runs, but – apart from the faint promise of an embryonic cultured pearl business, the place is fading away.
Samarai is symbolic of today’s Papua New Guinea. Removed from the aggrandising opportunities provided to the elite, bereft of readily extractable resources, almost beyond government, it is largely reliant upon itself for a meagre level of survival. It’s a real shame.
After lunch on Orion, we clambered into a Zodiac for the two kilometre ride to Kwato Island, the last island of this voyage.
The Kwato settlement was established by the London Missionary Society’s Charles Abel in 1891, who practised a practical Christianity.
While the Abel family has gone, their heritage lives in an active church and an outstanding boat and house building tradition.
Charles Abel chose a fine place for his mission: petite islands, craggy mountains, azure sea.
It’s not wholly correct, though, to say the Abels have gone.
From the beach, we walked underneath a leafy canopy of raintrees and hibiscus up a wide, well-formed track which switch-backed to the top of a hill.
Here stood a fine stone and wood church with a commanding view of Samarai and the China Strait.
Just behind the church was a small graveyard with a monument testifying to the earthly remains of Charles Abel, his wife Beatrice (Bea) and many family members, the most recent who had died just this year.
To my surprise, also in this graveyard, were the remains of my onetime Government Broadcasting Service colleague, John Smeeton, and his wife Marjorie (Badi) Smeeton.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, I suppose, since I knew that John (and his broadcaster son Ian) had come from Kwato.
John, a gentle and avuncular man in his sixties when I knew him, died in 1991 at the age of 82. He rests in a truly exquisite place.
And so ended my return to Papua New Guinea. Over the succeeding years, I have returned a number of times, but never in such perfect luxury. Though always with joy and wonderment.
Before the voyage, I had recently moved into a period remission from my ME/CFS condition, and Papua New Guinea and Orion provided me with a flawless moment to enjoy and exploit that relief.
Within a short time of my return to Australia, the illness once more enveloped me.
But my relationship with Papua New Guinea had been renewed and recharged.
I would now return whenever I could and PNG Attitude, through the Crocodile Prize literary awards, and later my son Ben and his family working in PNG, provided meaningful opportunities to do this.
One way or another, I’ve spent 30 years of my life engaged closely with Papua New Guinea. I intend for that to continue.
And, although my ability to travel has become more compromised, I don’t believe that another splendid sea voyage around those magical ports and islands will ever be beyond me.
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