Tuesday, December 25, 2007

the War in Papua New Guinea. Part Three.

Delonix regia can best be described as a messy tree, and they rely heavily on a good season if they are to be a spectacular tree. I have seen some awesome D. regias in the past and seen some pretty ordinary ones. In Australia they are sometimes referred to as Poincianas and in North Queensland, they are pretty popular, as they grow fast and are tough as boots. They will often in times of dry weather, shed all their leaves and look quite deciduous, other more prosperous times, they will hold onto their foliage. In PNG, they are called Christmas Trees, as this is the traditional time for them to flower (not to be confused with the other Christmas Tree which is Cassia fistula or even C. queenslandica).

As Christmas can often be a time of reflection, so too are the memorials and cemeteries which I have spoken in the last two previous posts and the Bita Paka War Cemetery has a small stand of D. regia within its boundary of Codiaeums. The Bita Paka War Cemetery makes up the trio of War Cemeteries here in PNG.

From my understanding the fighting that took place in East New Britain was a little different to that of mainland PNG. It appears that the Japanese saw Rabaul as a very important strategic port with its deep volcanic caldera and proximity to lands to the east, west and south. The Japanese decided that Rabaul had to be theirs, so they sent some 17,000 troops ashore to pacify a small contingent of Australian troops that were in the area.

The battle was decisive yet the Australians fought valiantly despite being heavily outnumbered. The stories that emerged from the months afterwards are emotional and exhausting, tales of survival as people tried to retreat to mainland New Guinea amidst plantation massacres and those who remained in East New Britain and became spies against the Japanese forces. The Memorial to the Missing at Bita Paka lists more names than those buried in the cemetery itself, many of the names were of servicemen killed at Tol and served as part of the Lark Force.

Members of the Lark Force and many civilians were also killed aboard the Montevideo Maru as she sailed away from New Guinea towards South East Asia. An American submarine thinking the vessel was a Japanese Troop ship, torpedoed and sank the Montevideo Maru, killing all on board.

Once Rabaul had fallen, Lae fell shortly after, and then the push to capture the Coral Sea and Port Moresby was on. Rabaul indeed became a vantage point for the Japanese Troops. Along with the troops, the Japanese bought with them Indian and Pakistan soldiers who were captured on the Malay Peninsula and used in New Guinea as labourers, digging many of the tunnels which dot the shoreline around Simpson Harbour. Some 400 of these POWs are now interred within Bita Paka, many of them unidentified.

The history of the Bita Paka War Cemetery was created before the atrocities of the Second World War, as the War Cemetery is now on the site where a German Telegraph station was positioned during the start of the First World War. Australian exploratory troops were sent to Rabaul too investigate and a small and bloody battle took place where the first Australians to be killed in the First World War lost their lives, just days before Australian Troops stepped onto the shores at Gallipoli.

The Delonix regia are not the main horticultural feature of the cemetery, this honour goes to a stand of Albizia sammans which grace and dominate the entrance. These massive trees are a vigilant reminder of the strength and fortitude that was required not once but twice by Australian Troops in this part of PNG. At this time of the year, let us remember those who served and those whom still provide defence duties for their countries.

Lest we forget.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

the War in Papua New Guinea. Part Two.

Speak to a lot of ex-pat Australians living in PNG and they know of Kokoda, and quite a few have read books on the subject and a few have also read further into the battle campaigns of PNG not centered around that "bloody track". The Battle of Milne Bay and the Naval conflict on the Coral Sea are some of the more decisive campaigns in the entirety of the whole Pacific War. The march into Rabaul by some 17,000 troops was a confidence building victory by the Japanese forces. And their ensuing push to gain control of the whole of New Guinea started when the Japanese landed at Buna and Gona on the Northern side of the Owen Stanleys.

The city of Lae, not far from Buna and Gona was invaded by the Japanese as easily as Rabaul was, and the Markham and Ramu Valleys were strategic pieces of flat land in and otherwise mountainous country. The Australian advance was to eventually push the Japanese back from whence they came and the Markham and Ramu battlefields were as pertinent to the entire conflict in PNG as Kokoda was.

As a horticulturist in this country, I spend a great deal of time looking for moments of inspiration, looking for those parcels of trees, flowers, plants, and grass that capture the beauty of this amazing country. In my last post I mentioned the Bomana War Cemetery and the cemetery is an oasis in a rugged country, especially in the dry season, but the Lae War Cemetery is a picture of history, of what the entire city of Lae once possibly looked like.

I have heard storeys of how the red canna lilys once lined the entrance to the city of Lae for kilometres underneath the massive boughs of the Rain Trees. Now these Rain trees are infested with Mastotermes darwiniensis, a monster termite accidentally imported from Australia in timber pallets and is literally eating the city of Lae. And these trees are falling over and busting the fences of the Golf Course, which I might add, is another splendid display of horticulture in PNG.

If you want to see good amenity horticulture in PNG, visit the War Cemeteries, the Golf Courses or a politician's residence.

The canna lilys are now almost completely gone. High cyclone fences and razor wire now line the streets of Lae, it's an aggressive face to a once beautiful city. The old Royal Botanic Gardens shows infrastructure which once would have been gorgeous, and yet it still holds one specimen of Amherstia nobilis, the Queen of all Flowering Trees. And nestled in one corner of the Lae Botanic Gardens lie the final resting place of nearly 3,000 graves of soldiers from the Commonwealth. The Lae War Cemetery is a large expanse of turf, with small garden beds interspersed amongst the concrete headstones, surrounded by a garden bed designed to hide the boundary. Beyond the fence is the Botanic Garden, fastly becoming a termite infested jungle.

The neatness of the War Cemetery, proves what once was, and may never be again. It is a peaceful and reflective sanctuary as are the majority of cemeteries, but the harsh razor wire edge of Lae tends to soften a little as you read the inscriptions of those young men who paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Lest We Forget.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

the War in Papua New Guinea. Part One.

It is nigh impossible to avoid the fact that the Second World War held a theatre of conflict here in Papua New Guinea. At the time, Allied troops had surrendered at Singapore, Pearl Harbour had been blown to pieces and the Japanese were expanding their line of attack ever closer to Australia. John Curtin was caught up between Commonwealth (read Imperial) alliances and the entry into the War by the US. Plus he had a continent in which war had never graced its shores before.

August 1942, Australia was in the firing line.

Papua New Guinea has a very interesting career, the Spanish have been visiting for hundreds of years and only a dozen years before the Second World War reached New Guinean soil, white man had discovered soil in the rich fertile populated Highland regions. What did New Guineans think of the invading Japanese and what did the Papuans think of the invading Australians?

There are no answers at the three War Cemeteries in Papua New Guinea. Only more and more questions but all three War Cemeteries are beautiful places of reflection and peace. I often find myself on my journeys of PNG, stopping to refocus within these places of history. I am not alone as I know of many expatriates who work here in Papua New Guinea who often visit the War Cemeteries as a place of solace and understanding. No where closer to Australian soil has a concentration of Australians fought so valiantly for a nation of multiculturalism (Those in Darwin may disagree, and I understand).

My first blog entry on the War in Papua New Guinea starts with the Bomana War Cemetery in Port Moresby. Here lies close to 4,000 Commonwealth soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice. I have wandered through these grounds and read the epitaphs of many of the fallen, the individuals who's history is forever written include Kingsbury, French, Marie Craig, Bissett, Payne and many more but it is some of the collective stories that bring me back to wander the field.

I must say that am moved by the 438 men of the British Artillery who surrendered at the Fall of Singapore only to be taken Prisoner of War by the Japanese and sent to Ballale Island. There they were instructed to build a runway for the Japanese offensive to continue East. Unfortunately these British men died on the Island and were buried in a mass grave. This grave was soon discovered after the War and the remains were relocated to Torokina War Cemetery on Bougainville. A short time later, they were exhumed and reinterred at Bomana War Cemetery, Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea.... A long way from home, and a long way to get there...

The loss of a plane full of passengers in a tragedy anywhere, but one full of Medical staff and wounded soldiers returning to their home after the War was declared over is even more heartbreaking. 28 were on board a flight returning home to Australia when they crashed into Mt Carstenz in Irian Jaya. Recent explorations have discovered a 29th body which was never on the original flight manifest and was always considered lost in action by family. The discovery of remains from the wreckage has finally given closure for families back home, as their burials at Bomana have only recently occurred. One member of the flight was Sister Marie Craig who is the only female buried at Bomana War Cemetery.

At the going down of the sun, we will remember them.

The wonderful part of walking around Bomana is the gardens themselves, they consist of a large expanse of turf surrounded by Albizia sammans, and then the dry tropic areas surround. The headstones are interrupted by a variety of plants which obviously need to be trimmed to be kept in size and a series of low growing plants which sit in front of the headstones.

My favourite photo of Bomana is of a young son of a good friend of mine, we all visited Bomana one weekend and young Scotty enjoyed his time running around, simply oblivious to the impact of some 4,000 headstones should have. I am well aware of the significance of him holding a white feather but it was found from an Egret which habits the Cemetery.

Lest we forget.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Wom Beach

I have had a request to wax aimlessly about some of the flora I have spotted here in PNG and to tell you the truth, the entire scene and the people of PNG makes for better subjects... However.

Recently, I had a moment spare at Wom beach. This beach is some 18kms North(ish) from Wewak which is situated on the North coast of PNG. Some 62 years ago, the boss of the Japanese Navy handed over his sword to the Allied defenders in a Surrender ceremony on the beach of Wom. The local community must have looked on with amazement has an entire garrison of Australian troops were present to witness the declaration. The locals must have thought that these Aussies and Asians were crazy.

Anywho, I recently had the opportunity to check out the beachfront not far from where the aforementioned ceremony took place. Along my trip into the coastal jungle of Northern PNG, I discovered a small collection of perty flowers. Sure, most of them (in fact, all) are found in Northern Queensland, it was nice to get a few snapshots away.

The first flower that caught my eye, was the delicate white simple flower of a Fig Tree. This Ficus grew (well I think it is a Ficus) right on the high tide mark, and had some decent fat fruit/nuts (perhaps the nuts raise doubt over whether it is a Ficus or not) but it did have white sappy sap...

Then, travelling along for a bit, I discovered a gorgeous sweet pink Lantana. So soft in colour and pretty as.

Oh, and I found a member of the Malvaceae family that I once thought was Alyogyne but I am probably wrong. A gorgeous yellow flower nonetheless.

A Clitoria was discovered and photographed too :)

There was other stuff, grasses and weeds and blue flowering thingos, but it was all fun.

Friday, October 12, 2007

the Volcano. part 2.

I was able to visit the Volcano again recently, Tavuvur is the Volcano in question. And although she was relatively quiet, the occasional pillow of ash was blasted into the overcast sky.

It is an odd sensation standing at the base of Tavuvur, getting ash in your eye, and feeling the hot pumice stone beneath your feet. The ocean alongside you is steaming with hot Sulphur and the local young men will boil the megapode eggs in the boiling water.

The amount of ash puffing out of Tavuvur is quite substantial with vast areas of trees and palms now dying from the rain of ash. These are trees that I can remember looking quite healthy some 18 months ago, but the eruption in October of 2006 has caused some widespread devastation.

The good news is that the local hospital is running again, after closing for a few weeks due to the constant ash falling.

The landscape is ghostly, especially around the old Airport, with submerged buildings only just standing. The Main street of old Rabaul town can still be seen under drifts of black snow and there is still an old Hotel in which you can stay which survived the 1994 massive eruption by Tavuvur and Vulcan.

One more image of Tavuvur with green seas as a storm came from across the Harbour and the rain turned the ash to mud.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


I remember back in Geology class, my teacher saying that we should all see an active Volcano once in our lives. Well I never thought it would happen, especially living in Australia, where we have some fine looking extinct cones that people now live on the side of them and drink the water contained within.

So I am always impressed when I get to travel to the parts of the Pacific where one can see a lump of glowing rock being hurled from a hole on top of a naked mountain. Here are pics of two Volcanoes on the island of New Britain.

Tavuvur has been quite active in recent visits, and not long ago it stopped blowing any steam or ash. This ain't a good sign, because sometimes when it goes quiet, it's a precursor to something big. And it was the case as during the next night, Tavuvur blew quite a bit of ash into the night sky. Still, not as bad as last October or even as bad as the last big eruption in 1994.

But it is fun to stand at the base with the gentle roar of its furnace and the boiling sulphur water at your feet. Kudos Mother Nature.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Babaka Bride Price

What an awesome day! I was invited to attend a Bride Price Ceremony in the Central Province of Papua New Guinea. A day of colour, of joy and a reminder of the traditional ways of Melanesian culture. It was kinda like revisiting those family weddings that one can remember when one is a teenager and some unscrupulous Uncle is taking the piss by plying one with alcohol...

But this time the unsober feeling came from the joy expressed in the family that attended the ceremony and the local village people who crowded the front yard with support and well wishes. As one of only three white people in attendance, I kinda felt like a fly on the wall who was privvy to too much information, but the hospitality and warmth provided by the Bride and her ceremony was more than enough to feel welcome and to feel part of her family.

And, the children of the family and of the village behaved the same way that one did when one was 8 years old and attending the wedding of some Aunty or Uncle, whom one may never see again for some time. The kids ran amok, and played chasy and were cheeky to all of the vintage crew and also those not much older than they.

What a special day, witnessing the delivery and distribution of 50 bags of rice and flour, pigs, yams, shell money and the modern equivalent; cash, all attributing to the value of the Bride in question. A local man of the cloth arose and prayed for the Bride and her Price. Senior family blokes all got up and spoke of not losing a daughter but gaining a son (well, it sounded like that to me) and then the handover ceremony where the Bride was to leave her family for the comfort of her new Husband...

Come to think of it, I am not sure if I saw the Husband throughout the ceremony??? This day is for the Bride and is an event I sha'n't forget for some time to come. Ever.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Twin Lakes or a Tale of Two Lakes.

Lake Two. Kutubu.

Lake Kutubu is situated in the Southern Highlands of PNG, linguistically it is an interesting location for PNG. On one half of the lake, one enters true Highland country where the people still proclaim to be Niuginians, and on the southern end, they may call themselves Papuans, and indeed, many of the older members of the community will still speak in Motu rather than the Highland influenced Pidgin.

The opportunity to spend a day with the local people of Lake Kutubu was fantastic and I saw things that will remain with me. The group of us boarded a small boat and we then spent the day cruising on the tranquil water. Our first stop was the Village of the "Captain of our boat" and we stopped to refuel. All of the children of the village came to the water's edge to look and giggle. We took photos which only encouraged more giggling. It was only as our vessel chugged away that the children would call out "Bye" at the top of their lungs and wave until we could no longer see them.

Our next point of call was a small village with a massive Longhaus. The Longhaus was were the men of the village lived and talked stuff to do with being men. All the women and children lived in smaller huts away from the Longhaus. The women of our party were not allowed access to the inside of the Longhaus, but us men all wandered in and proceeded to talk stuff to do with being men.

The interesting thing with this village was that only the young boys of the village came down to greet us, we did not see any women or young girls for the introduction to their village. As we (the Men) wandered around the Longhaus, the young boys whom met us journeyed into the Longhaus also. It was apparent that the young boys were not normally allowed inside such a building as they thoroughly enjoyed being inside with their new white friends.

But wait... I discovered some Bixa orellana which is a plant in which the Native South American women would paint themselves in the red seeds. It also provides Margarine with it's anatto food colouring. The village people showed me how to decorate their noses and faces with the dye from the seeds. Now, my camera, my clothes and backpack are stained red...

After viewing the Longhaus, we wandered down to the village green where games of football would be held, but on this occasion, all the women of the village came to greet us after their Sunday Church services.

It was a shame to leave such a warm reception but we had a lake to lap. The next stop was a limestone outcrop in which the bones of the long departed were laid in the sunshine to bleach. Allegedly some of the remains had been there since World War Two, or so our friendly guide told us. The osuary that lay in front of us was moving testimony to those who certainly lived in a different time to ours.

Our next village stop on the edge of the lake was also time for lunch, so the local women of the village had been busy cooking river prawns, Sago, Sago Palm bugs, Pumikin kourou, Kaukau and smoked fish. Within Lake Kutubu, there are some 11 species of fish that are found no where else on the planet. One of them tasted ok.

And I was a big fan of the Sago Palm Bug. I ate more than my fair share.

After a sumptuous PNG style banquet we wandered around the local Orchid and Butterfly gardens of which the Orchids were gorgeously maintained and spectatcular.

And then we watched a bit of village Basketball, boarded our boat and headed off home.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Twin Lakes or a Tale of Two Waters.

Lake One. Lake Sentani.

Our small baby Toyota wagon pulled off of the smooth two-lane road and parked amongst the mud and mosquitos. The driver told us that this was Lake Sentani, so we left the car and stood in the mud and admired the view.

Lake Sentani is 45 minutes drive from Jayapura, the Capital of Papua (formerly known as Irian Jaya and Hollandia). The road to the Lake is smooth, well sealed, and complete with sign posts, armco barriers and line marking. These things are a rarity just east of the border.

The small group of us took photos of the view and appreciated the stop. We then asked the driver what was next on the agenda, and he said we should wait for the boat.

Well, the boat arrived and aboard we hopped. The small outboard motor buzzed away and was only disturbed by the dial tones of the driver's mobile phone. How a mobile had range in the middle of a great lake 45 minutes from a major Capital centre was a mystery for those of us who had made the journey west into Papua.

The small timber boat chugged around the lake and we passed by stilt villages where the locals waved with excitement and went about their daily routine. We passed fish farmers, large 'Dutch' churches and larger smiles from the kids whom would cry "Foy".

At one Island we stopped and disembarked. There on the Island, the women of the Village showed us some traditional bark paintings which were beautiful in design. Needless to say, we handed over some rupiah in exchange for some of their artwork. The people of the village lived in and amongst the graves of the Dutch settlers whom sent their missionaries some years ago.

After the lake, we visited the Town of Sentani which is a bustling small community of shops, cafes (re: take aways) and traffic all trying to view the concrete bridge which collapsed during the last heavy rain. It was impressive to see the damage that the rising river had caused to some of modern bridge construction... Still, the scooters and Kiangs drove happily over the temporary wooden bridge.

Hati hati.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

When Road Rage goes horribly, horribly wrong.

This Post contains alleged violence.

The other day whilst running errands, I returned to my jobsite and further up the road, I could make out what looked like a commotion... In hindsight, the commonsense thing I should have done was to do a U-turn and seek an alternative route. But I thought I'd be alright...

Two cars in front of me was a Police truck so I thought, these guys will sort things out. It appeared that things had been sorted just prior to the Police arrival.

It was at a section of road which has some serious tyre deflating pot holes and the action of choice when approaching these potholes is to either leave the road completely and drive on the 'shoulder' or drive around the other way using the better bitumen on the opposite side of the road. It appears a PMV (mini-bus, legally would seat 18, but 30 can fit) had opted to take on the opposing traffic. There was some glass and a bumper bar on the road so it seems that there may have been contact between vehicles. The PMV was stationary in the middle of the road as I approached cautiously as the traffic was starting to slow-up and get congested as other vehicles tried to squeeze between the increasing crowd and the stationary PMV.

By this stage, I was driving at a crawl and the Police truck has pulled over to the shoulder. People immediately attacked the Police Truck with aggressive gestures and finger pointing and yelling.

I inched past, whispering to myself "...dont look so obvious dont look so obvious..." and there by the side of the road was perhaps one of the motorist or maybe even a pedestrian who was laying down on the ground in the Jesus Christ Pose. Looking very relaxed and at peace.

I had enough time to see if his fingers were twitching, or if his chest rose and fell with breath or even if his closed eyes were shut tight or just closed. There was no movement. At all. Now, I am not a good judge of liquids but I would guess there was 2 or 3 litres of claret pooled around his shoulders and what appeared to be the back of his head.

Once a gap appeared at the front of my vehicle, I ensured that I made my way out of there quite quickly. I am sure that there was little that I could have done to help the situation. There were more than enough onlookers and Police in attendance.

The thing I have noticed is that Road Rage is virtually non-existent here, especially when compared to places I have lived before. Perhaps this is how the people up here display their unhappiness when it comes to judgements of error on the road?

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Equal Opportunity in the Highlands?

Some time ago, I wandered around the Southern Highlands of PNG. The Highland regions are densley populated and are among some of the last tribal areas to come in contact with Westerners in the world. Clan warfare is still commonplace, to the extent that during the last general elections in 2002, some serious, permanent damage was sustained in Clan fighting to the majority of the amenities in the major centre of Tari.

The Huli men live in the Tari Valley and it is the Warriors of this region that intrigue me about the Highlands of PNG. I was fortunate to spend some time with the Huli people and learn about their way of life. Men and Women still, rarely live together and the children are raised seperately when it is deemed that they themselves are aware if they are a boy or a girl. The Huli men spend a great deal of time preparing for war and defence of their clans.

So it seemed odd to me that recently in Port Moresby I witnessed a traditional Huli Sing-sing group perform, and I noted that attached to the end of the row of brightly painted, dancing Huli men, there danced a trio of young girls. On their faces were the looks of caution as many white tourists took photographs of the entire Sing-sing group.

My gut feeling was that these three girls were experiencing life for the first time in a city like Port Moresby and were most likely witnessing such a large group of white people for their very first time. The Huli people have a simple yet seductive dance that draws the audience in. It would be a truly terrifying spectacle to see a full clan of Huli men preparing for warfare.

I plan on visiting the Huli people again, I may have to wait until the end of these 2007 elections before doing so.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

I think I have something stuck in my eye...

I spent the day wandering around a nearby rainforest... I spent the whole time with one of my dearest and closest Papuan friend whilst he continually told me to be quiet, to stop and look, to step away from and to make sure my centre of balance was alright....

We walked through some treacherous mud, and up and down some disgustingly steep inclines that some of us were spending more time sliding on our backsides than going forward to the top of the hill. We started to liken ourselves to the Australian Soldiers whom trekked from Moresby to Kokoda during the second World War. My friend soon became a "fuzzy wuzzy angel" in our eyes as he helped my stricken companions up each muddy climb...

But all along the way he would stop and say "Yumas lok wantaim antap long diwai, em i narapela Orchid bilong Dendrobium" to which I would look up at the tree he was pointed at, and see the grape-like cluster of ruby red orchids, each one no larger than half the size of the fingernail on my smallest finger.

On other occasions he would stop and make me listen to the call of the Bird of Paradise, but unfortunately, they were too alusive for us to see. We heard the calls of the Greater Bird of Paradise and the Sicklebill. He would tell me that the Sulphur Crested Cockatoo was making such a noise, because a Pig or a Wallaby was coming our way. We should prepare to kill it and perhaps cook it for lunch...

My friend's quietest moment came when we stood at 900metres ASL and looked out over the lowlands in front of us. I asked him "Mi laik save wonem yu tingting?" and he told me that he could see his home, the place were his wife was, where his children were, where they lived whilst he lived and worked in Moresby.

I have been to his village and met his last born son whom was sick at the time. I spent time with the kids at the school and saw their joy and amazement of being with a white guy. I saw the bridge that the Australians built which was destroyed in the last flood and I struggle to help...

What a tough and beautiful place to be.