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Tripping to Tabar & the mystery of Mahur

Mahur Island (Schneider Photography)
Beach scene on Mahur Island (Schneider Photography)


Tracing the Melanesian Person: Emotions and Relationships in Lihir by Susan R Helmer, University of Adelaide Press, Adelaide, 2013, 329 pages. ISBN 978-1-922064-45-5. Free download here

KEITH JACKSON WRITES - Dr Susan Hemer lectures in development studies and medical and psychological anthropology at the University of Adelaide and her book, Tracing the Melanesian Person, resulted from a year spent in the Lihir group of islands in Papua New Guinea.

The incident it tells of occurred in May 1998 when Hemer was about halfway through her doctoral fieldwork in Mahur, the northernmost of Lihir.

The story is not typical of the book’s purpose or direction but provides a substantial basis for it. As Hemer writes in a prologue, it serves “as a window onto themes about life in Lihir …. the emotional reactions of Mahurians, the importance of Christianity to Lihirians and my positioning in the flow of life on Mahur”.

The book, published by the now defunct University of Adelaide Press, has been described as “an engaging ethnographic account of connections, conflicts and loss in Lihir” and it tells of Hemer’s own fieldwork and experiences and he exploration of the gap that exists between being Melanesian and the practical realities of being Lihirian.

The story begins on Wednesday 6 May when a small boat, ‘Maria’, goes missing carrying two men, Nezik and Ngalbolbeh, and two boys, Gilas (16) and Michael (8). The boat did not return as expected from a short trip and, as the days passed, the Mahur people and Hemer react.

Stories are told of other lost boats, prayers are said and dreams are interpreted for clues as the incident became an important and puzzling element of Hemer’s research.

Mahur from the open sea.jpg
Mahur Island

Tripping to Tabar


Ngalbolbeh, Nezik, Gilas and Michael left Mahur Island on Wednesday morning, 6 May, to go to Samo village on the south-west coast of the main island, Niolam.

Their aim was to collect Ngalbolbeh’s wife’s father, Zikmandawit, and take him to Mahur for a major celebration planned for Friday, 8 May: confirmation in the Catholic Church for the Grade 5 school children.

Ngalbolbeh’s oldest son was to be confirmed, as was Gilas. 

Those aboard the boat attempted to collect Zikmandawit from Samo village, but he was unwell and did not want to go.

He watched them push the boat out and begin the two-hour journey back to Mahur. Ngalbolbeh and Nezik thought they had enough petrol to make it to Mahur, but they also knew it would be a close call. 

Ngalbolbeh  told  Nezik to check the petrol when they were at Kunaye village, and if it was low, said they should call in and collect some from Ngalbolbeh’s wife’s sister. Nezik did check, but felt there was enough petrol to make it to Mahur.

Nezik ran the boat slowly, and by the time they approached Mahur it was dark.  They were close enough to see the light of lamps, and hear the beat of kundu drums practising for the confirmation celebrations … and then the petrol ran out.

The boat had no oars, torches, canvas, raincoats, life jackets, flares, cooked food or water. Nezik and Ngalbolbeh pulled up the planking in the bottom of the boat and fashioned some oars from this.

They then did their best to row to Mahur, but the tide was strong, and after a long effort, they gave up.  They anchored for the night using a fishing line off the village of Lakamelen on the south side of Mahur, checked that this anchor would hold, and slept.

Towards dawn the anchor slipped and they began drifting to the western side of Mahur, to the village of Kuelam, where they had left the previous morning. Again they tried to row ashore, but found the tide was too strong.

They tried to signal using a mirror, but it was too cloudy. They managed to stay within sight of Kuelam until about 10 am, but by this time the tide was pulling them to the northern side of Mahur. If they had followed this current they would have been drifting north with no islands in their path.

At this point they realised they were actually in trouble and Nezik commented ‘Yumi lus pinis’ (‘We are lost’).

Until this time they had felt they would be seen or would be able to row to Mahur—they had not been afraid until this point.

Luckily, the wind was blowing to the Tabar islands and thus they decided their only chance was to head quickly for there.  They had to think about young Michael, and the dangers of dehydration.  They rigged up a sail from Gilas’s laplap (sarong)and set sail.

Night fell. They were very close, and spotted lights on the southernmost island of the Tabar group, Big Tabar. They tried to aim for the lights, but adjacent to Tabar there was a current and they were unable to make it.

They paddled, and eventually landed on a small, uninhabited beach at about 8 pm. Ngalbolbeh carried Michael to a cave for shelter; he had vomited three times from lack of food and water and was crying for his mother. 

They made a fire and cooked some mami they had got from Zikmandawit at Samo village, while Ngalbolbeh looked for water.  Finding none, he sent Nezik to climb a coconut tree (one of two on the beach), despite it having a golgol taboo on it. They got six coconuts, which they shared and ate with the mami and then they settled down and slept.

In the morning Ngalbolbeh climbed up the cliff hoping to find nearby inhabitants. He found a road that he followed a little way in both directions, and found a few fallen coconuts.  These he took back and they ate them with the last two mami

Then they all climbed the cliff and set off to find some people.  They wandered into a hamlet where an old man and woman and a young boy were staying. They were startled, and the old woman tried to talk to them in the local Tabar language.

Ngalbolbeh and Nezik then explained their story. They were taken into the main camp where they were fed and looked after. Ngalbolbeh recognised some people from his days in high school on the New Ireland mainland.

By this time it was Friday 8 May and it was obvious that Gilas was going to miss his confirmation, which was to be held that morning. Ngalbolbeh did his best to send word to Mahur that they were safe but this was by a very circuitous radio route, and those of us anxiously waiting on Mahur never received this message.

Thinking that the people of Mahur knew they were safe, Nezik and Ngalbolbeh agreed to stay and have a proper, though small, feast in their honour.  The women went to  the gardens  to get vegetable  foods, while  the young  men  went  and  retrieved  the  boat  from  the  uninhabited  beach and caught fish for the feast.

Meanwhile the four ‘trippers’ had a proper meal and then slept.  That afternoon they feasted and then prepared to leave early the next morning.

That afternoon they feasted and then prepared to leave early the next morning. Next morning, Saturday, they pushed the boat out and were farewelled by the Tabar people.  They started to motor away when something in the boat motor burst into flame. 

They had to row all the way back to the shore, and were in grave danger of drifting again.  The boat motor was fixed, but they hesitated to leave that day, fearful after nearly being lost a second time.

Instead, they waited until Monday morning when they were able to be accompanied by Bruno, a Tabar man, with his boat motor as a back-up to their own. They finally arrived back on Mahur on Monday, 11 May at 1.30 pm.


By Monday morning I had basically given up hope that the boat and occupants could all be found safely. At 1.30 pm I was just finishing a language class when two boats went past to go ashore at the wharf.

I paid little attention until I noticed some of the young children from my hamlet running to the wharf. I asked one what boat it was and she said ‘Maria’. In amazement I turned and walked very quickly to the wharf.

All four occupants were safe and sound. I was nearly in tears from relief. I expected to see Kwildun at any moment sprinting to the wharf to hug her child to her and check he was still in one piece, but she didn’t arrive.  The only person who seemed to be amazed was me.


When the boat arrived Kwildun did not rush to see her husband and son. Neither did Gilas’s family, who were all up in the gardens finding food. I went to Lalakam hamlet and reported to Kwildun that her son was fine.

She seemed to take it for granted that this would be the case. She calmly told me that there had not been any bad signs to say they were really lost. Such calmness baffled me at the time: I had expected joy and relief and tears.

Link here for a free download of ‘Tracing the Melanesian Person’, of which this story triggers a fascinating Dr Hemer’s fascinating insights into the life and thinking of the Lihir people


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