Saturday, January 30, 2010

Milne Bay

The pointy end of PNG; and I am disappointed that I never made it out to the Islands. But I did get a reasonable look around the East Cape. It is interesting, I was always under the impression that the coastal people of PNG were taller and leaner then their Highland cousins, but Milne Bay was not the case; the size 28 girls were quite short in stature and petite to describe it at best. The young men of Milne Bay were similar in that I was reasonably tall amongst a crowd.

I once asked my host if there were any raskols in Alotau, and the answer was "No, no raskols, everyone peaceful and loving"

"Sounds good" I say, "I might take a walk down to the markets"

"No, no, no, I will come with you... for safety."

"But you say there are no raskols?" I ask.

"No, no, no raskols but someone might steal your backpack..." was the response.

Ok, so I had my guide for a stroll around town. Tall white guy stands out a bit amongst the locals, so I thought I'd err on the side of caution. On other occasions I have wandered around Alotau on my own and no-one has tried to pinch me backpack, they have tried to sell me all sorts of carvings and shell necklaces, but no raskols. I did buy a fish carving once and he sits above me on the shelf.

Alotau is made up of its various cultural groups, all the Trobiand Islanders live in one part of town, all those from Samurai live in another, all those from the East Cape live elsewhere and the people from Alotau live in the biggest grouping. I soon discovered that there was rivalry between the clans???

Walking through the town of Alotau one day with my friend Tom, I spotted a long waterfall cascading off the nearby mountain. Alotau is a harbour town surrounded by many, many peaks, some over 1,000metres tall, and it was off of one of these peaks that I spotted the waterfall. I asked Tom if he was up for a walk to the waterfall, and he replied that it was a very long walk. I asked "How long?" and he replied "One hour there and one hour back".

"Well let's go!" and off we did. We decided to shortcut through, past Tom's house and right through the middle of the Trobiand clan, but this was cool for Tom was from the Trobiands. He taught me a few phrases in his Tok Ples and I was a riot as we wandered through his village. We stopped and kicked a football around, we sat and told stories with Tom's wantoks and we then continued on our walk up the hill. As we left the Village, a group of young size 28 girls were all calling out and laughing, and slapping each other, and I didn't need to speak the language to understand that their calls were directed at the Tall White Guy. Tom was giggling, so I played along and said "Hey Tom, what are those girls saying about me?"

Tom, between giggles said "They are all saying 'Tom, where are you taking my white husband, why are you taking him up the river'". Tom and I had a good laugh as we continued our journey. Now the road we trod crossed a stream, which I thought was a good thing because waterfalls often end up in streams and we were heading in the right direction. I asked Tom if I should take my boots off, to keep them dry and he said "No point, we'll cross the river only once". I think he meant to say "Once we enter the stream, we will remain in the stream until we return to this point." because we crossed this stream maybe 30 or 40 times, to the extent, we just stayed in the water and waded up.

A fair way up the stream, we came across a group of men working on an inlet to a pipe, the catchment area had silted up during recent floods and these men were restoring the inlet so that the town of Alotau could have fresh water again. We stopped had a chat and said about the waterfall. The interesting thing here is... hardly anyone speaks Tok Pisin in Milne Bay, everyone speaks their Tok Ples and many will speak English. They say they do not want to speak the language of the Mountain people, and they will continue to learn English. The Cameron school has produced some fine and upstanding citizens of PNG, I used to work with a few of the graduates and the people of Milne Bay speak and understand English very well.

So we kept walking and soon afterwards, about one hour from our start including football and stories, we made it to the waterfall and what a poor display of a waterfall! There was this small cliff of rocks with a busted tree leaning up against it with a trickle of water cascading off the rocks. I said "Tom, this is not the same waterfall we saw from Town?"

Tom said "I'm sorry, but that waterfall goes through a clan that I do not trust and I cannot take you there on my own, if we had many friends with us, then it would be okay, but not today."

I replied "Hey that's cool Tom, I am glad you thought of your own safety as well as mine, and this waterfall is alright, besides its a nice spot for a rest and a story and some kaikai"

So we sat down enjoyed some PNG made Twisties, and a can of PNG made Coke and we rested and told stories.

And afterwards, we walked back down to town, through the Trobiand Clan and home again. Maybe one day I shall return, find Tom, organise a big posse and walk to the other waterfall?

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Western Highlands Province

80 years ago, tho opinion about PNG was that it was a large tropical Island in the Pacific with a scarce coastal population. Most of the other mountainous islands or countries around the world had the majority of their population living on the coast and why should the Land of the Unexpected be any different, and more likely it was too bloody cold for Melanesians up in the Mountains. Many of the early explorers to PNG were having a hard time of it, what with aggressive locals trying to run one out of town everytime an explorer set foot on their patch, so what was on top of PNG was unknown, until the Leahy Brothers showed up and decided they would fly up into the mountains.

What a brand new world they found, but this has been documented far more successfully by others and is not what my blog is about, my blog is about what I discovered in these mountains.

So there I am sitting in the passenger front seat of a Toyota PMV, the small version like a Hiace. My GF is sitting in the middle seat and Enga's answer to Ayrton Senna is in the Driver's Seat and her Sister is asleep in the back. Now we had already been raced across the Western Highlands with this driver before a few days earlier so we had tried to crawl into the back of the van and somewhere akin to the most central point of the vehicle, but our driver wouldn't have it. She had such a wonderful few days with us, that she decided the pair of us will sit up front with her at the very front of the vehicle. So we climbed in and held on.

On the descents which there were plenty of in the mountains, she would push the accelerator pedal all the way to the floor, to where it would stay, and the Van would screeeeeaaaammm down the road, and as the road then went up, she would keep the foot there on the gas and it would not budge until, due to the steepness of the incline, the Van was nearly at stalling point. At this moment she would then start to change down through the gears until she got to first and then the Toyota would screeeeeaaaaammm back into life. Cornering was the same, wait until the Van was nearly about to topple, then left off the gas and try a little braking, whilst looking for a more appropriate gear.

This was a rollercoaster.

To help set up the story, a few nights earlier, GF and I were sitting around a cosy fire in a well constructed timber lodge, we were drinking SP and chatting to the staff of the lodge about life in the Mountains and we were regaling them with stories of Moresby and of Australia. One of the young ladies was telling us about her life, and that she was the eldest of many siblings and it was the time in her life to decide would she continue her education (which she and her parents could not afford) or should she get a job and help out at home, so it was working in the lodge for the time being. Her plan was to save and head to the bright lights of Moresby one day. I thnk she was asking whether or not GF and I needed a hausmeri... but I digress...

Our driver was with us that night and she had travelled the world more than us, yet her stories were all about home and family and snakes. Boy did she not like snakes, and while telling these stories her skin would dry up and she would go all clammy, she went pale just talking about snakes. So 2 days later while driving through the Mountains at breakneck speed, what do you think happened when we saw the Snake?

This was no ordinary snake, this was easily a stunt double snake for that one in the movie Annaconda, you know the movie with JLo and that Ice guy. This was seriously the biggest snake I had seen, it looked like s speed hump! It was stetched out on the Highlands Highway from one side of the road to the other! This made me think it was dead, no snake slithers with a straight back, and there was a man standing alongside the snake, just looking at it. I think this man had put the snake there and was waiting for people to drive over the snake, and somebody already had, you could see two tyre tracks through the snake.

Now back to our driver, she was descending like I mentioned before, pedal through the firewall and she liked a chat, so she was yacking away going as fast as the car, and then she saw the Snake.

She Screeeeeaaaaammmmeeeeddddd! She covered both her eyes with both of her hands and she screamed some more. Each scream would exhaust her of breath so in between gasps of breath and trying to get some more oxygen, she would sob, and then she would scream once again, all the time her leg would be locked in place on that accelerator pedal and her hands would be over her eyes. Still screaming and the little Toyota was hurtling down the mountain road.

GF had grabbed the wheel and made sure we were heading in a straight line, but we could do little to wash any speed off. It was at this moment that I thought that once again in PNG I would die, I remembered swimming with sharks off Rabaul, I remembered being smashed and cut up on the reef in Bougainville, I remembered the forcewave that followed a massive boom from Tavuvur, I remembered the amazing energy from the lightning bolt in Moresby and I remembered not feeling too good climbing a mountain with pneumonia and it all felt like this one moment maybe my last. Here I am sitting in a passenger seat of a Toyota with a screaming crying Engan meri covering her eyes and hurtling towards a snake.

But then, oh yes, it gets worse...

The car hits the snake, the tyres hit the snake like a heart beat; da-dum. This triggers another wave of hysterics, screaming and crying and sobbing and screaming and crying and screaming! This wakes up her sister in the back and she says "Whassup?" Our driver screams "Snaaaaaaaaakkkkekeeeee" and the sister looks through the back window and sees the snake we have just run over.

Needless to say, the sister does not like snakes. So she screams and screams and screams and screams. This sets of the driver who screams again, which triggers off screams from her sister. By this stage I think GF wants to join in, but she is too busy trying to keep the car on the bitumen.

So there I am, about to die with not one, but two screaming Engan meris in a van in the Mountains... and seeing as I am here to retell the story, GF did a fantastic job keeping the bus on the road, everyone settled down and we continued our trip acrsoo the Western Highlands.

Oh yeah, later on while in Hagen, we stopped for the best coffee in PNG at the Airport Coffee Cafe and in a quiet moment I said to our driver "How big was that snake?" . The screams started again, the tears, I got punched by an Engan meri again and again (a sign of affection apparently)...