Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Ireland

Eloi tasig!

New Ireland is really pretty, it is what most travelers to this country would expect when they first imagine stepping onto a Pacific Island, but there is one exception to this thought and I’ll get to it later. The Australian troops that were sent to the mainland of Papua and New Guinea during the Second World War were disappointed when they arrived at Port Moresby to find a relatively dry landscape with a few Gum Trees dotting the countryside and also small clumps of heavy barked Cycads reminiscent of the Australian grass trees or “black boys” as they were once called before political correctness stepped in. The troops were expecting Coconuts, white sandy beaches and well tanned, bare breasted Melanesians wearing only their grass skirts. While you can find all of these things if you know where to look in Moresby, it is much easier to achieve if you get away from the Capital.

I spent a few days on a tiny Island off the coast of New Island, it took me 15 minutes to walk a lap of the Island and that was a slow lazy lap and 1 hour and 30 minutes to swim a lap of the coral reef that lie below the crystal clear waterline. During my stay, I opted not to wear footwear as there were no roads, and few rocks, for it was a white sandy island with coconuts, a few Mango trees, a Frangipani or two, some Hibiscus and a gorgeous white ginger. But not wearing shoes for such a period of time had its pros and cons. Firstly, my feet have never looked cleaner, the abrasive sand particles had ex-foliated my skin to perfection but upon returning to the mainland and having to walk along a concrete pathway, my feet were in pain because of the hardness of the ground beneath. Ouch.

While I was able to find the utopia that the Soldiers found missing in Port Moresby, there is a slight physical difference to the bare breasted Melanesians of mainland PNG here in New Ireland. Along with the people who live in East New Britain and across the sea in Bougainville, the New Irelanders share a common trait with both these neighbours. Like the Bukans of Bougainville, the New Irelanders are of darker skin tones but like the Tolais of East New Britain, the New Irelanders often will have blonde hair colour.

A really pretty part of the country despite the ever expanding Oil Palm plantations, but even these has a lineal symmetry that is peaceful and entrancing. The Boluminski Highway is an easy and attractive coastal road, in good condition which cruises through a few small tiny villages as it winds its way to Namatanai. I know of others who have cycled this road and had a wonderful time doing so. In envious rage I shake my fist at them, but not too threateningly, they know who they are… Next time I return to New Ireland, I’ll take my bike.

And getting back to those soldiers who were disappointed with Moresby in 1942, they should have know better as Australian troops saw action and casualties against the Germans in New Guinea during the First World War and two of those soldiers of the 1st and 4th Tropical Force are buried on the island of New Ireland. Vale.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

East Sepik Province

I have traveled to Wewak on occasion and one time, I was able to get up in the hills behind the town and my aim was to overlook the Sepik Basin, well one thing lead to another and the Sepik never appeared before me so I returned back to the Airport and back to Moresby.

This experience left me with a desire to experience life on the river and after meeting two Austrians in Enga, I decided to spend some time on the Karawari River, high up near the mountains of PNG but well inside the East Sepik Province. I would use the Karawari Lodge as my base and spend my days languishing on the river in a canoe or jetboat and visit the nearby communities.

Planes, Boats and Automobiles, PNG style.

The tally stood at one diesel jetboat silently cruising downstream with the current after the engine died, one diesel generator cutting in and out providing lights and darkness, followed by lights, followed by more darkness at the Lodge, one diesel 4WD which had front wheel diff problems, followed by some burning of the rear bearings, followed by the passengers all jumping clear as the 4WD rolled noisily backwards and over into a drain, one light aircraft heading our way only to turn around because of mechanical problems and Airniugini showing up 22hours late with their F100. And this was after I bought my Karawari Good Luck Idol.

But back to life on the river; apart from the odd 15hp outboard motor for a canoe and the odd commercial fishing net, life on the Karawari has not changed much over the years, the people still living with the river as they have for many generations. The one thing that impressed me was how clean the villages were, no plastic bags, no tin fish cans, no trukai rice bags, there was the occasional bleach and coke bottle used as a fishing reel and/or float and the odd flame flour bags stitched together to make sheets and sails. Everything else was traditional fibre.

The houses were huge and sago was the roofing material of choice and would give good shelter for at least 15 – 20 years, far greater than pit-pit or kunai thatched homes in other parts of PNG, and apart from termites and the occasional change in the river, most homes were solid and expansive. Apart from a longhaus spotted at Kutubu, these homes were the largest in the country, and designed well with the kitchen at one end, and sleeping on either side of the large open space. Mosquito netting was the only protection against mosquitos which in this part of PNG is a big issue, the gnat gnats were everywhere as soon as you got out of the village and into the tall grass and trees. But the mozzies were no where near as bad as I expected.

There were some demonstrations in place for us tourists and we learnt how to make sak sak and how to fish, but I think one of the better moments was when a concerned debate started between the Councillor and some of the local businessmen, a group of kids and I decided to go for a bit of a look around the rest of the village and see what the rest of the crew were up to. This provided a more natural demonstration of true village life and we were able to visit the local church, chat with the guys who were building a new Spirithaus and talk with a couple who were preparing some more sak sak.

The kids were fantastic, as they always are in PNG, I sat and listened to a group of young boys with a home made ukulele playing a song a girl named Lolene, inspiring stuff, I was disappointed not to meet this young lady and another bunch of kids were happy to continue running the entire length of their village just to wave good bye.

But my return to school was an emotional journey. Lucy the teacher came up to see us in the evening and let us know that the school kids would be happy for us to join them in the morning. When we arrived, the entire school assembled in their best clothes and presented us with wreaths of flowers that we wore Roman style around our heads. The school then turned their back on us and sang the PNG National Anthem to their flag; this was an emotional experience as I find the PNG National Anthem a stirring and interesting song about the modern way of life in PNG. They then sang another anthem about their country followed by a rousing welcoming song to their school.

After the singing came the dancing and the laughter and then we had to give a small introduction about ourselves, and where we had come from. It was a fantastic moment and a joy to see all the students have an opportunity to learn in such a remote part of the country. This year saw the introduction of 4 new teachers raising numbers from just the Principle to a staff of 5. Not bad for 120 kids.