It was then the team leader informed us of the royal visit to Papua New Guinea, including a trip to Boera village. The Prince of Wales would officially launch our mangrove conservation project
WEWAK – On this morning in 2012, I stood inside the greenhouse surrounded by mangrove seedlings and in a state of high anxiety.
Soon I heard distant singing and the beating of kundu drums followed by cheering.
Then a loud hailer announcement sent people running madly to Nadibada beach.
On this morning Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles had arrived at Boera village, about 30 minutes’ drive west of Port Moresby.
The excitement of the people racing to catch a glimpse of the royal couple sent my mind back three months when I had been asked to join a community project to conserve mangroves in Boera village.
I didn’t know much about mangroves then, but agreed and became the youngest member of a group of six.
Our project group comprised energetic people who had standing in the community and could move projects along like I had never before seen.
For two months we travelled through the villages of the Motuan coastline from nearby Papa to Lealea, Porebada and Tubusereia collecting different species of mangrove plants.
We ventured deep into mangrove swamps to collect seedlings and at the end of each day we came home with cuts, bruises and sore muscles from wading sometimes waist deep through the swamps.
On one occasion a team member got lost in the middle of a mangrove swamp near the Papa-Lealea LNG storage plant.
It took us almost an hour to find him and by that time we had exhausted our voice boxes from shouting.
The poor guy was scolded by the mothers for making a bed in the middle of a mangrove swamp and sleeping.
His defence was that he was tired and decided to take a nap.
We also nearly got into trouble with the people at the LNG storage site because we went into their area looking for seedlings.
Despite the intense and tiring work, no one ever complained about walking for hours through the swamps.
When we finished collecting seedlings and sorting them out in the nursery, I could confidently name several different species of mangroves in both their local and scientific names.
This was interesting to me and I spent much time reading about mangroves, learning of their importance in combating climate change and rising sea levels.
We had built a greenhouse on the Nadibada beach front not far from our house and I was put in charge of looking after it and tending the seedlings.
After three months of work, we got together one afternoon to discuss the official opening of the project.
It was then that the team leader informed us of the royal visit to Papua New Guinea, including a trip to Boera village.
The Prince of Wales would officially launch the mangrove conservation project.
We were dumbfounded at first but soon began to discuss what we would need to do to prepare for the visit.
First, we talked about what name we would give to the project, eventually decided upon the Prince Charles Mangrove Rehabilitation and Conservation Program.
I did not know why the prince would want to come and launch a small-time village project but later found out that Prince Charles had a long involvement in environmental projects and was patron of the World Wildlife Fund.
His visit was significant in highlighting the work worldwide in conserving mangroves and protecting coastal villages.
On the morning of the royal visit, Boera was packed to capacity. There were international visitors as well as hundreds of Papua New Guineans who came to witness the event.
Three days before, military and police personnel scouted the village and set up control and lookout points, including a sniper on a nearby hill.
Two days before, a naval vessel was anchored off the Nadibada beach.
The village people were excited and spent many hours practicing their traditional songs and dances to welcome the royal couple.
Our mangrove seedling team, on the other hand, spent days working on the beach: cleaning it and building a small stage for the royal visitors.
On the day of the royal visit a convoy of vehicles brought the future King of England and Papua New Guinea to Boera village.
Upon his arrival, Prince Charles cut the ribbon to open the refurbished Boera health centre and proceeded to Nadibada beach where our mangrove seedling team waited anxiously.
Media personnel with cameras and notebooks scurried around the royal couple to get a perfect shot or a worthwhile quote.
Overhead, children and adults had climbed trees to get a clear view.
As for my mangroves team, two of us stood inside the greenhouse while the other four stood in front of the greenhouse waiting for the royals to approach.
When Prince Charles arrived, he was first shown to a big billboard on the beach. It was covered and the prince was asked to unveil it, revealing what it said.
Charles smiled as a team member read the words aloud, ending with a high-pitched call welcoming the prince.
Charles then shook hands with individual members of the team who stood in a straight line at the entrance of the greenhouse.
Inside the greenhouse, we had built stalls for the seedlings and made an information card for each species of mangrove.
When he entered, my colleague and I showed him around the greenhouse. He was impressed and made several remarks about the importance of the work we were doing.
Although not up close, as a kid I had seen his sister Princess Anne a couple of years earlier at Jacksons International Airport.
But walking around the greenhouse with the Prince of Wales was something I never imagined would happen to me.
After the brief tour in the greenhouse, Charles came out and was presented with a spade and right there on the beach he dug a small hole.
He was then given a seedling and, in the presence of the people of Boera and all the visitors, Prince Charles planted a mangrove seedling.
As I was in charge of the greenhouse and seedlings, I had been asked to choose a mangrove for the Prince. We gave the mangrove a name. ‘Prince Charles’, of course.
After Charles planted his mangrove, he was escorted back to village square and whisked away in a helicopter.
That afternoon, as the sun slowly met the sea, Nadibada beach was once more quiet.
The excitement and fanfares were no more. The only sound was the beat of the waves as I sat in front of the greenhouse and observed the water rushing around Prince Charles the Mangrove.
I made it my job to protect the mangrove and when kids went to play on the beach, I would tell them to keep a distance from Prince Charles. Later I fenced it.
One morning a couple of days after Prince Charles planted the mangrove, I walked to the beach to check out the greenhouse, which was my daily routine.
To my surprise, Prince Charles was gone.
After a careful inspection, I came to a conclusion that the poor mangrove had been uprooted by the waves.
The foolish organisers had asked him to plant it right in the heart of the beach.
With no support, the mangrove was uprooted by the waves and sent packing to god knows where, maybe England.
I went to our team leader's house and informed her of the situation.
She laughed, shrugged her shoulder and said, "The plant wasn't going to survive anyway. Go get a new seedling and name it after Charles - and this time, keep it safe.”
When the seedlings were mature enough, we replanted them on part of the beach that used to be covered in mangroves to bring back what was lost.
I got to name the mangroves I planted after the members of the royal family.
A couple of months later, I left Boera village and went to Goroka to attend school, which I had left for a whole year.
The day before leaving, I bid farewell to the mangroves. That was in 2012.
I have not gone back since and so I don’t know what has become of our mangrove conservation project and the mangroves we planted.
But I’m glad and thankful that I got to be part of a team who worked to fight climate change and preserve and conserve our mangroves.
The experience would change my perspective and outlook on life. Over the years, my passion for protecting the natural environment grew and led me to be an environmental activist and advocate.
My environmental activism has led me to Sepik to join a group of passionate Sepiks and Papua New Guineans in the fight to protect the Sepik River from the imminent threat and dangers of the Frieda River gold and copper mine.
That’s what I do now. And Prince Charles who I met is now King Charles III.
We are both still ardent conservationists.