Papua New Guinea land of river, sea and clouds

I have visited Papua New Guinea three times. My first visit included working in Port Moresby Schools for a week, followed by a trip to New Britain to see how the Rabual volcano had swamped that town with twelve foot of ash, onto New Ireland to snorkel and see the feeding of the gigantic eels and finally to Buka of Bougainvillea to listen to their famous bamboo and flip-flop (rubber sandals) band.

During my second visit I canoed up the beautiful, serene Sepik River, visited the lovely Wewak coastline and visited the Goroka dance Show, where I saw the Bundi boys dance group. They were dancing to raise money to buy a water tank for their village. The group of fourteen boys, from 6 – 14 years, were dancing with their straw and material snake. The smallest boy, Nura, inspired me to write my picture book THE LOST TAIL.PNGcover
My latest visit was to teach at 4 schools, earn what looked like a bucket full of Kina which I would spend in PNG, and sell 60 copies of THE LOST TAIL which was all I could carry on the plane.

28_port_moresby Port Moresby hasn’t changed, which considering how much money Australia gives the PNG government seems a bit odd. The Town and the once beautiful Ella Beach are littered with plastic, I was warned never to take a taxi, a warning I ignored. I took five taxis (hailed off the road) and found all drivers to be delightful and helpful. But there is a new Chinese owned shopping centre called Vision City. This shopping centre turned out to be the most expensive shopping centre I have been in in the entire world. I have visited 115 countries. I was so shocked at the prices I couldn’t buy anything. My hand would not go into my purse. But I did discover a book shop. YEAH! The only one in PNG. This shop was interested in stocking my picture book.PNG8
The saving grace of Port Moresby was the small Raintree Lodge with its lovely staff and its garden full of orchid plants, tropical palms and the Port Moresby Yacht Club. I do so love sitting on the terrace, sipping a gin and tonic, looking at the yachts. Then I know I am in the tropics.
School over I met up with my friend, Ulrika, a Queensland Opal Miner. Ulrika looks like the blonde, blue eyed fairy on the top of the Christmas tree, but she is actually a tough business woman with her own plane, and various enormous drilling, digging, and earth moving machines. We flew to Wewak where we stayed at the, Wewak Boutique hotel. This hotel an entirely white colonial building with countless staff keeping it painted white, washing the white tiled and the white wooden floors. The view from its white balcony looking over the palms to the islands in Wewak Bay is gorgeous and its restaurant has a chef extraordinaire.

From Wewak we drove along a winding road for four hours to reach the Sepik River. The problem is that both Ulrika and I get car sick at the slightest bend. Arriving at the river we were greeted by Philip and James who were to canoe us up stream. The canoe was a long hollowed out tree just wide enough at its middle to hold two bamboo chairs, one behind the other, and two paddlers with an outboard motor and all our belongings. Seated on our chairs we felt very royal as we headed out onto a very broad river full of crocodiles.

We travelled downstream to see two famous Mens’ houses (shaped like the to prows of a large boat). Their top floors contain Sepik River carvings. We bought a carving each and Ulrika bought many string bags called billums from the women who miraculously appeared when we did.
We spent the night in a village guesthouse made of bamboo. The house was on stilts. We climbed a ladder to reach the main room. The floors were split bamboo, which were not meant to be walked on. One walked on the rafters. The beds were mattresses on the floor with mosquito nets. Phillip and James cooked a lovely dinner and we sat on our armchairs overlooking the river and ate.

Next day we skimmed up river passing smaller canoes with children or women paddling them or fishing from them. The bird life was amazing, white cranes, black sea eagles, beige hawks that swooped so low we could see their ruffled breast feathers, cormorants by the hundreds flying by in a long line of black wings.

The second night we stayed at Mathew’s guesthouse and washed by swimming in a creek that could well have had a croc or two in it. Unfortunately my mattress had bed bugs and I awoke itching all over. I remember Mathew from my last visit. He was a handsome, ambitious man trying to get a school opened in his village. Alas he has become a betel nut addict and his once white teeth are now black stumps, his mouth is red raw from the coral lime that is chewed with the betel nut, and he can no longer eat fruit because it stings or chew meat or fish. Betel nut is the scourge of the Pacific and definitely PNG where it is sold by thousands of women on street corners and in markets. It is soon to be outlawed in Port Moresby.

The rest of the Sepik River trip was lovely, we visited more carvers, a high school that had wonderfully clean cut lawns but no school books, and villages surrounded by women and children. Ulrika had a huge supply of lollies and I had a huge supply of biscuits to give away.

Back in Wewak we flew to Goroka to the dance Show to see the 5000 dancers dressed in traditional costume. I searched for the Bundi Boys dance group and the Sili Muli Sing Sing Dance group but they weren’t there, instead there were hundreds of different dancers that I hadn’t seen the first time.Image-(23)

While in Goroka we were invited to visit the village of Julia, an opal mining friend of Ulrika’s. Julia’s sister and fiancée arrived and drove us two hours into the mountains to a village entirely populated by Julie’s extended family. Here, sitting on straw mats waiting for us were five generations of the family numbering about fifty. They were so lovely and friendly and shared fruit with us and Ulrika astounded me and everyone else by feeding a banana to the ninety year old matriarch who loved her for it.20130918_114024s
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Next day my friend Margaret picked us up at the Bird of Paradise Hotel and drove us the eight hour journey through Mount Hagen to Wagbag. Wagbag is the capital of a far western province of Enga. Enga is famous for having the second largest gold mine in the world. (the first is over the border in Indonesian occupied Western Papua New Guinea).

Imagine our astonishment on turning the corner of the dirt road to see an enormous banner strung from one side to the other welcoming Ulrika and I to Wagbag. Plus twenty Sili Muli dancing girls in straw skirts, moss wigs, shells and arse-grass playing drums to welcome us. We walked between them waving and smiling like the Queen. Two hours later, after much more smiling, waving, speech making, dancing with the girls and shaking hands, I now know how exhausting being the Queen of England can be.
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Wagbag is seldom visited by tourists. This is because it is an unattractive corrugated tin town but it does have a wonderful modern art gallery, a brilliantly organised museum telling the story of Papua New Guinea and Enga, a forward thinking governor and a great council building. Which was just as well as I had taken Joseph Bepi, the manager of the Ili Muli dance group, a small lap top for his son Chris. On handing over the laptop to much drumming from the Sili Muli girls, I realised that Chris was wearing one shoe (the other had broken) I also realised that his home had no electricity. Apparently he planned to boost the lap top batteries daily by plugging it in to an outlet in the council building. I bought him a pair of shoes.

Next day we were taken to see the mine. The badly broken, pot holed road, made so by the mines huge trucks going up and down to Mt Hagen and Lae, made us both sick, but the views took our mind off it. The mountains, crowned with clouds, the water falls, the beautiful valleys were breathtaking and the smiling people on the side of the roads waved non stop and shouted avanoo (afternoon) and other pigin greetings. Unfortunately we were not impressed with the high barbed wired fenced mine. All around it is the only slum town we saw in PNG. (I’m sure there are slums in Port Moresby) but there is no hospital, no school, no decent building built by the mine to compensate for ruining the Enga country side and the pollution of their river. I was told that PNG gets 2% of the money earned by the mine. All gold is airlifted to Cairns. All works are airlifted to Cairns. Very few PNG people work at the mine. Corruption, e.g. the paying off of officials and politicians is rife.
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Nevertheless Papua New Guinea is a lovely, exciting place to visit if a lot more expensive than Fiji or Bali. The people are a welcoming, smiling delight, I never at any time felt fear. I cannot understand why the Australian Government makes it so difficult for PNG students to study here (instead they go to the USA, Philippines, Indonesia and China). Or why PNG people cant get a 1 year working visa when the Australian Immigration gives this type of visa to every European Backpack under 26 years. PNG deserves more of our help other than paying the PNG government millions of dollars that doesn’t trickle down to the ordinary people before it is syphoned off into bribes, kickbacks, and ends up back in Australia banks or real estate market. There are very rich, very smart politicians, lawyers and builders ripping off both the PNG and Australian government, and no one in Australia seems to care. They will care when the students return to PNG with loyalties to Indonesia, Philippines and China and not to us, all because we didn’t help them.

Yes I will go back to PNG again. And I am trying to bring out ten of the Sili Muli sing sing dance group to perform in Australian schools in 2014. It will be hard to raise their air fares but once here I have sufficient people to look after them and Waverly Council has offered a free bus for the week. Anyone else who wants to help please contact me.

Patricia Bernard

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