Sunday, January 11, 2009

Southern Highlands Province

Been there twice. Fantastic place, if you look at a map, the Southern Highlands are at the south-western edge of the Highlands. It was the first and second Highland Province I visited and I like the place. Some of them even consider themselves to be Papuan and I have met a few who speak Motu. It was a corker moment to say “Oi Namu” in the Highlands and score a smile and a response. I was stoked.

The first time I traveled to SHP, there were some problems. The 2002 elections had destroyed Tari and Mendi and left both Towns a smoldering wreck. I arrived in Tari some 4 years after the devastation to find a charred and screwed up Town. It kinda reminded me of Wilcannia… kinda.

While Tari was just a shell of its former self, Mendi was struggling to rebuild itself, only marginally calling itself the Provincial Administrative Centre, the Southern Highlands was, and still is in disarray. Marijuana and Guns were rife, Clan warfare had reached a peak and some of the fighting between clans had been an ongoing problem for more than a generation. What was once dealt with bows and arrows was now being conducted by automatic rifles. Tensions continued to escalate and the PNG Government called a State of Emergency. Additional Police and the PNGDF were called in to enforce a Gun Amnesty.

I thought it would be an ideal time to plan a holiday and a visit to the Highlands, extra Cops for extra Protection and less Guns on the streets, sounds like a win-win situation. As it evolved, I had a wonderful time, safe and I managed to avoid anything that remotely looked like a dodgy situation. Moresby and Lae were considered to be a bigger threat.

I spotted three Birds of Paradise, the King of Saxony, the Ribbon Tailed Astrapia and the Superb. I spent time with the most fearsome of all Highland Warriors, the Huli, and I learnt much about their culture and their way of life, from childhood to funeral rites. I was able to trek into the Mountains as high as twice the height I had ever been in Australia. It was one of my first forays outside of Moresby and I had discovered the warmth and gorgeousness of the people of PNG. The plane I was on when it landed at Tari was greeted by thousands of locals all seeing who was coming and who was going. It was a daunting sight.

The next year in 2007, I returned to the Southern Highlands but this time I snuck in by a different way. After flying eventually to Kikori, I then drove inland through the Gulf Province (but this is another story) and on the next day I flew from Gobe to Moro in the Southern Highlands on the edge of Lake Kutubu. What a gorgeous location to mine for Gas.

On a Sunday with a few crew from the Gas Field, we took a slow boat to complete a lazy lap of Lake Kutubu. Along the way we stopped and visited the local Villages, we stopped and visited a Long Haus, a Skull Cave, and an Orchid Farm and had lunch with the local ladies.

There was a moment of joy where I spent some time talking about Bixa orellana with some of the local kids. This was a find of mine when I recently lived in the far North of Australia and had never seen this amazing seed and its pod before. The kids knew the whole deal, and there weren’t much I could tell them, this plant had been there long before they were born…. The only catch was that none of them knew that this plant was introduced to their country from South America, many, many, many generations past.

The next day, I then flew out, again flying over the Lake as the Sun was once again rising on the Southern Highlands. A beautiful place and a magical place.


Wendy Johns said...

Oh, your pictures bring back so many good memories. We lived in Mendi 1974-1976, my husband being a pilot there. Your comments about the town were not so good though. When we lived there it was so beautiful and safe. We had the best time of our lives. I know if we went back today we would be very disappointed, that's progress I suppose. I have enjoyed reading you blog.

Steve Bennett said...

Thanks Wendy,

I re-visited Tari in the last fortnight and although the quilted vegetable garden landscape still exists, it only looks like recently that they are trying to rebuild the town centre of Tari itself.

Perhaps it will again one day be a beautiful place? Safe? I ain't sure, but maybe some pride will one day reign?

There are serious plans afoot to separate the province into two.