Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sandaun Province

Formerly known as West Sepik Province, this most North Western corner of PNG is now referred to as Sandaun or “Sun Down” Province. This is the west for PNG and it is in the west that the Sun goes down every night. As they say, getting there is half the fun. My plan was to go to Jayapura, the provincial heart of what I always learnt in school to be Irian Jaya or as it is referred to now, West Papua, or even (in some circles) West Irian. Jayapura started off its life as Hollandia and was the Colonial headquarters for the Dutch who had administration duties of the left half of New Guinea before the Indonesians took Sovereignty.

Like I said, getting there was half the fun and what could have been a disaster, turned out in the end, a good rollicking rollercoaster of a ride which as with many adventures in PNG start with a flight delayed call at Jackson’s domestic Terminal.

There we were, a small group of 4 sitting in Jackson’s when the announcement came over the PA, “all people flying to Wewak and Vanimo, your flight has been delayed…”, a few audible groans reverberated around the (at the time) mangy carpeted attempt of a departure lounge that serves the Air Niugini patrons in PNG’s capital. It was later we found out that this delay then meant that our pre-arranged driver in Vanimo had felt that we were not coming.

But we boarded our F100, and we were soon in the air and heading to Wewak, not a bad flight, you cruise along to the north west skirting the PNG southern Motuan coastline until you get to Yule Island, where you then start to drift inland and up and over the sort of saddle between the Owen Stanley Ranges to your right and the PNG Highlands to your left. After flying over the top of these ranges you then start to head over the Ramu Valley and then skirt the PNG northern coastline until Wewak comes into view. Always a right hand circle over the sea then lines you up with the air strip at Wewak. Touch down, now 30 minutes (ish) on the tarmac while passengers are exchanged and luggage hopefully, a dash of fuel if there is a tractor to pull the fuel tank out and then up and flying along the north coast heading west to Vanimo. Again, a quick circle over the sea, this provides gorgeous views of the Timber logging wharf and one touches down at Vanimo Airport.

After collecting our packs, we then headed to the carpark where we were to meet our driver who would take us to the Indonesian border. Vans came and went and no-one driver seemed interested in taking us to the border, but it soon became clear that the driver wasn’t there and he had decided to go home and chew some betelnut because the plane had been delayed and he was off. It was Good Friday by the way and everyone wants their public holiday. The driver had been seen in an old red Toyota crew cab Ute and some of the locals said that they would go in search of this vehicle for us. As a dozen young men from Vanimo, headed off to all points of the compass, we remained patient and in the carpark of the airport.

And then, a red Toyota showed up and our man Doug was there, he said we would drive to the border, so bags were chucked into the back and we climbed aboard. Doug drove in typical PNG fashion, get the car into 5th gear, and leave it there until it nearly stalls and then start changing back down the gears until the car goes forward again. Then once you accelerate to 5th gear, do the same. So in a slow racing chugga chugga style we made our way to the border. I was in Sandaun Province.

The road to Wutung and the border is gorgeous, it snakes it way gently along the north coastline of PNG towards Indonesia, along the way, and gaps in the jungle expose white sandy beaches and small bays with waves coming ashore and so many children riding old wooden surfboards or planks of wood. Some of the boards are full of borer holes and look like Swiss cheese and none of the children are clothed. They just run and play in the surf without a care in the world. Oh to be able to enjoy such a freedom. The car passes many small villages where everyone waves and nods at the passing vehicle. The road is quiet as not too many people make this journey, although the views are worth the effort alone.

After 90 minutes of driving, we come to the Village of Wutung; at the base of the hill is a yellow gate which today being Good Friday is closed. Doug grunts and mumbles about never seeing this gate closed ever before. We sit for a short period of time, and Doug blasts the horn. No movement but up on top of the hill we see Indonesian figures, these men were there waiting for me, they were going to get us to Jayapura. Doug had nearly completed his work for the day. I talked to Doug about approaching someone in Wutung to open up the gate, and he had an old wantok who could do the trick. We reversed back down from the gate to a road junction and headed into town. While reversing down the hill, Doug’s Toyota was making an awful noise from the front wheels, it looked like Doug was driving with his wheel hubs locked into 4WD and the front left was locked solid when reversing. It was smoking, but Doug just wanted us gone.

We arrived at this house, Doug went inside and spoke to the owner, they chewed some betelnut and we watched the kids surfing just down the road. Doug came back and said that there would be a Custom agent on top of the hill and he could get us to the yellow gate but no further, we would just have to walk the remaining distance to the border. Ok we said, and off we drove again.

We got out of Doug’s Red Toyota at the Yellow gate, shook Doug’s hand and said thanks; he said “Buai” and then drove off at speed. The four of us were now standing at the bottom of a steep hill, with no transport, and no place to stay and the time was marching on. So up the Mountain we climbed, and what a steep climb it was, over 180m change of altitude in a distance of less than a kilometer. At the top of the hill, we met our two Indonesian drivers who were to get us to Jayapura, a handful of PNG policemen and a closed Customs Agency. It was Good Friday by the way.

There were more audible groans.

How were we going to spend our weekend in Indonesia when the sign on Customs said come back tomorrow? We spoke to the half dozen PNG Police officers who were sitting around chewing betelnut and we asked if they had the clearance to stamp our passports out of PNG and therefore clearing us to Indonesia. The answer was “No”. We asked if there was someone in Wutung who could perform this task, the answer was “Yes, but it was Good Friday, so they are not working today”. It seemed no-one was working today.

We asked if the good Police officers could use their phones to call up someone in town to come up to the top of the hill and stamp us in. They tried their mobiles, no coverage, so the answer was “No”. We asked about the phone inside, and they said it was for emergencies only. This was taking time… The police officers continued to chew. We spied a small scooter and we asked if the police officers could send someone down to Wutung and pick someone up for us, the answer this time was “Yes”, but it would happen after they had chewed some more betelnut.

Sometime later, one of the police officers got on the scooter and then put-put-putted on their way down the hill. Some 45 minutes and needless to say, some betelnut chewing later, a Customs officer showed up and stamped us out of PNG. There was relief on everyone’s faces.

Getting to Jayapura is another story. The return leg in Sandaun Province was a smoother process as everyone was back at work, and we eventually boarded another F100 for our return to Moresby.

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