Thursday, 28 July 2016

PNG 6 New Ireland part II - Nouvelle France

Our host - Tribal land owner at Irish Cove + brick
From Irish Cove towards Lambom Island
This is Irish Cove. Other accounts of the land which served as the landing point for the colony have referred to this site as English Cove but our guides were adamant that the French based their settlement here at Irish Cove. English Cove sits a short distance away, by foot or boat, in the same bay but to the south. There is fresh water available at both though they described the English Cove spring as better quality. Irish Cove, where 300 European colonists were to establish their community, now supports just one family who live a subsistence existence having planted out much of the arable land.

We met the family who make it home and visited their house built high on stilts like a Queeenslander. Our guide from Lambon Island asked his permission to show us over his tribal land and he agreed.

From the narrow beach where the Italians would have landed the land runs inland gradually widening to form a valley about 200 - 300 metres across at its maximum. It appears to have been cleared, perhaps the settlers played their part here, and is quite open, dotted with coconut palms until the land rises steeply and becomes dense jungle.

Blockhouse site perhaps?
A walking path, which we followed, meandered through the palms. The first hundred metres or so didn't look arable - it was stony and bordered on one side by mangroves. Further along we came to an area which had obviously been the site of a cluster of buildings though the only indicators of this were a few scattered bricks (the Marquis had sent thousands of them for the construction of his promised cathedral) and some rock formations roughly in a rectangular form which might have been part of the base of a simple rough building - the Blockhouse perhaps. The site felt dank and damp, with little sun penetrating.

The existing family have built their house another 150 metres further inland on an open sunny site, on land that appears to be more promising. They've planted cocoa, tapioca, chinese yams, bananas, sweet potato and some vegetable crops in the vicinity of their house but, productivity wise, it was nothing like the lush growth we later saw in the hinterland of New Britain or later still in the Central Highlands of mainland New Guinea around Mt Hagen. In the Highlands you can poke a dead stick in the ground and it will grow.

The only moment when I felt at all hopeful when imagining the Italians trying to eke out an existence here was when we next came upon a beautiful fast flowing stream another 100 metres inland. This reminded me of Far North Queensland. It was only small, about 10 - 15 metres wide at it widest and maybe three or four at its narrowest. On the other side the soil seemed to offer more hope. From rough and stony volcanic soil it appeared to be deeper and finer. This was, most likely, the stream that is spoken about in accounts of the site over which a rough crossing was built. Our guides were sure that the settlers had crossed the stream and continued to the end of the valley, maybe 500 metres distant where it rose sharply into the hills. Mt Vernon sat prominently overlooking the site. Our guide said that there were pathways beyond the valley but that the closest next village was far distant in the mountains.

It's likely that there was contact between the locals and the visitors but it would have been these lowland coastal dwellers, the Tolai, rather than those further inland. The Tolai are New Ireland based but centuries ago invaded nearby New Britain and drove the local coastal tribe, the Baining, into the hills. They have a fierce reputation and were active cannibals (exercising it as a form of power over rival tribes) until the 20th century.

Palm Lily
Our guides were keen to show us one final site before we left. It was located a short distance around the bay and accessible by boat. We landed on another narrow sandy beach and stepped ashore to find an narrow open area partly cleared which rose quickly to higher land. The locals pointed out sites that they said were burial places for those who had died here. The evidence was slim but nevertheless believable. There were lines of red Cordyline (Palm Lily) which we were told were traditionally planted to mark gravesites; there were mounds of volcanic stones which resembled cairns which might have marked gravesites. The site was separated from the main colony as befits a cemetery and faced east which one of our party suggested might have been significant to the Catholic community. It certainly felt like a special place and had clearly remained so in the memory of the locals.

Looking to sea from Irish Cove - Lambom island to the left.
As for a protected anchorage, Irish Cove is not a deep bay but is deep water and would have been protected from the prevailing southerly winds by Lambon Island which lies close by and south of the bay.

We had been on land for less than three hours but Mick and I felt satisfied that we'd seen almost everything that was available. The only additional thing I would have liked to do would have been to follow the valley further inland and into the forests as the land began to climb. I was interested in what the Italians might have encountered as they explored the area. I've imagined all that in my book but that will be as close as I get to it. I doubt if there will be a next time.

We would have needed another four hours and we'd agreed to meet John's boat at midday. As it was we were in a different inlet from where we had started and John couldn't find us though we could see him. For a moment we had the rising fear that we might be the next generation to be marooned on the southern tip of New Ireland.

After leaving Port Breton/Port Praslin we trawled our way northward along the coast of New Ireland fishing for travelly and mackeral (successfully). John loves fishing so that was where our interest in our history aligned with John's interest in game fishing. The slow trip north revealed village after village established on the coastline. Small canoes were launched from these as we approached. Where possible John sailed close to the shore and had his crew throw cans of coke and fanta to the kids in the boats. A nice gesture if you can ignore the unhealthy sugar hit we were offering.

As the sun began to head west we headed east towards Kokopo and arrived back about 5pm with two good mackeral and a couple of travelly stowed in the ice box. Great day. Thanks John.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

PNG 13 - Magic Mountain I

Mt Hagen 
Magic Mountain
Magic Mountain could also be known as Misty Mountain. Soon after we arrived at 3.30pm the mist began to close in, rolling up the narrow valley like a wave. The next morning as we had breakfast on the open deck visibility varied. The valley came and went. As the day passes each time we thought about heading off for a walk towards distant, and invisible, Mt Hagen, the mist would again envelop us.

It was almost 2pm before we had the confidence to set out. We were expecting to head off alone and risk getting lost but we were wrong. Wannie, chef and guide, led the way followed by me and Gabrielle. Moses and his machete brought up the rear. Gabrielle and I were each offered a walking stick (stik long walkabout) in deference, it seemed, to our age. Wannie set a gentle pace. Gabrielle and I could walk all day as long as we took breaks and Gabrielle took her time up the steep sections. Breaks weren't a problem as Gabrielle likes to film the sights every 100 metres.

Wannie decided to take us on the walk to a high ridge rather than the four hour walk up Mt Hagen. At the lookout a majestic valley spread out below us and a second higher plateau lay nearby -  Moses, whose English was limited and who didn't know his age, proudly showed off all his hard work. Not only had he cut the path which we were following including hundreds of steps cut into the clay of the hillside but he had been one of the men employed by a German company which had come ,many years ago to log the mountainside.

Along the way Wannie shared his thoughts about PNG and the changes occurring in the community. His 13 year old son comes home from Hagen to the village reluctantly; he shows no interest in learning the traditional songs, some of which are sung in ancient languages at ceremonies; the young people no longer participate in the 'trow im leg' courtship rituals where groups of young adult boys and girls participate in an elaborate song and dance ritual to meet and mix with eligible partners - now they meet each other at school, in the street or at church.

He is concerned that in twenty years time all these practices will be gone - the songs, the dances, even the language. No one dresses in traditional costume outside of ceremonies, the chiefs have lost the respect of many - and yet the expected benefits of the modern world have not been delivered. Everyone has access to modern communication systems but most families live a subsistence life; hospitals have been built and medical centres established yet the death of infants and mothers in childbirth is still high - most still live in communities remote from transport and medical facilities and often when these exist, the government has failed to fund them adequately or in a predictable fashion.

The one tradition which has not disappeared, and is perhaps even stronger, is the bride price sysrem. It's an opportunity for people to shown off their wealth and to create a level of indebtedness, a binding debt which they can call in, in the future. In some cases tens of thousands of Kina, dozens of pigs and promises into the future are involved. It's a way of creating mutual interdependence. It's got a bit out of control since independence. Many years ago the Austtralian authorities , the administrators of the territory, brought all the chiefs together and helped negotiate a standard bride price but that has long been ignored.

Wannie's story echoed Teresa Bolga's.

Wannie and Teresa are intelligent people who are caught between the past and the future; who watch and hope for a balanced future but despair at the lack of progress towards a more secure and honest system.

PNG 12 - Teresa Bolga

After 42 years Gabrielle and Teresa met again. Two young women from the 1970s were now two mature women in their mid sixties.

I'd wondered what it was that held such a strong place in Gabrielle's memory, such a strong emotional connection to this person. Since the moment that we touched down at Mt Hagen airfield Gabrielle had been asking each person we met if they knew her. Many knew of her but it was in the KaiKai Coffee Haus where she struck gold. "Yes I know Teresa," the waitress said. "She's my aunty." Gabrielle nearly fell over. "Can you get a message to her? She will know me as Gaye."

Now two days later we're on our way to visit her. We're in the Mt Hagen Mission Home minibus with Vanessa, Teresa's daughter, who is directing Gibson, our muscled Christian driver to her village compound on the edge of town. Gibson is a bit nervous. "It's a bad part of town," he says. "Lots of drugs and bad people." Gibson is a giant of a man who goes to the gym every day and plays rugby league for his province. It's a Iittle incongruous that this gruff footballer should be afraid of anything. As we approach NewTown we are surrounded by a hundred colourful beach umbrellas under which people have spread their wares for sale. Rubbish piles dominate the scene. Everywhere. It's filthy. We have arrived at betel nut central. These are the druggies Gibson was referring to. Bright green arrays of betelnut sit beside plastic bags of lime and sticks of siri pona (timor name).

We turn down a narrow lane and find ourselves in the middle of manicured hedges and compounds of neat bungalows. Teresa's place is only a few hundred metres from the beach umbrella chaos. It's a quiet haven. She is sitting at the entrance to her plot wiith her sister and another relative as we approach. The two girls now in women's bodies changed by time recognize each other instantly. Teresa is on her feet and she takes Gabrielle's hand and leads us to her house. I am the observer and watch as these two relax in each others company as if the forty two years were forty two days.

She and Gabrielle trade questions and offer answers about the past four decades. There a directness about it that belies the soft emotional connection between the two of them. Teresa talks about the hardship of living a subsistence life and complains about corruption and government inaction, implying that forty years on, things are actually worse. She pulls no punches. Once a devoted Catholic, she has become a born again Christian. She became disillusioned with the Catholic Church because she no longer felt an emotional connection to her beliefs. "Too much of it was routine. The priest telling us when to stand and when to sit and say this and say that. The Pentecostals make me feel a connection. I need to have an emotional connection."

The land she lives on is her family's traditional land. Her brother lives in a house adjacent hers, her nephew and his three wives live on the other side. The families share the land which supports a banana grove, orange trees and vegetable plots which they harvest for the market and for their own consumption. It's a simple life.

Teresa's house is tiny. A central room not much bigger than a kitchen is flanked by four rooms which house her daughter and three children in one room, her sister and aunty in another and Teresa in the final bedroom. The last room is the kitchen and storeroom. It's a house of seven women. The central room contains a single soft chair, a double seater lounge and a tv on a stand covered in cloth. At one end, the entrance to the house, is a door. At the other, a matter of three or four paces distant is a window. The room is about two paces across.

Jobs are scarce. There is a lot of talk of work in Australia picking apples. They want us to use our influence to help set up job opportunities for the family. Gabrielle says she will do what she can but makes no promises. Vanessa seems happy at the prospect of leaving her three young children behind for six months. Child rearing seems like an extended family responsibility.

Teresa is poor. There's no other word for it and yet she presses gifts of fruit and hand made bilums on us before we leave.

Over the next days Gabrielle tells everyone the story. And everyone seems to know Teresa. "The red skin?" they ask us, referring to her colouring. Her skin is quite light for a highlander and she seems to have rosy cheeks. Two days later Teresa calls us at our lodge in the mountains. She's determined to see Gabrielle again before she goes.

PNG 11 - Mt Hagen Refreshed

Mt Hagen has become more familiar as the days have passed. I've discovered other sides of the town which have helped redeem it in my eyes. It still reminds me of a shanty town with shabby broken down store fronts, each one guarded by a security guard; the Westpac Bank, housed inside a pallisade of heavy duty steel bars as thick as my wrist; the main street full of trucks and potholes the size of cows, with people in all sorts of rough garb, young, old,  beautiful, mis-shapen; some faces lined with creases as deep as the potholes, others with skin shining like burnished ebony.

We have not seen another white face in the town streets in three days.

What's changed to make me feel more relaxed, more comfortable?  Firstly the friendly reception we receive from strangers. People constantly making eye contact and saying good morning; people constantly asking to have their photos taken and not asking for anything - even to see the result - as if we are providing some service; then thanking us as if we have given them some privileged experience.

Then there are the ladies at the market where Gabrielle is the honeypot and the bilum sellers the honey bees. They swarm over us whenever we step inside the gate and often before, calling to us through the bars of the metal fence. They laugh, compete, pose for photos but always with their eye on the prize - another sale. The market is bountiful, overflowing with produce fresh from the village plots. It is a heaving mass of people doing business. It's mainly women. They sit surrounded by expanses of leafy green vegetables, absurdly orange carrots, ginger, brocolli, bananas, oranges, vivid red and purple sweet potato, spring onions, beans, smoked fish, trussed chickens; everything you can imagine.  It is a gardener's paradise. So much more than Kokopo and at prices you can imagine people can afford.

Thirdly, we discovered the areas outside the centre where people live largely subsistence lives in family groups on family land. Here the green of the valley returns, where garden plots abound and family compounds are proudly clean and maintained. You can feel yourself breath again as the dust and bustle of central Mt Hagen recede.

We were lucky enough to visit one of these families. Gabrielle managed to make contact with her old friend from 42 years ago, Teresa Bolga.

PNG 10 Mt Hagen - Coffee

Coffee. Every barista or coffee entrepreneur should have to follow their coffee beans to their source. It's a revelation. Here in the Central Highlands coffee is the cash crop and Brian Lahey is the biggest trader. He doesn't own any plantations but is a joint venture partner in a 600 hectare plantation owned cooperatively by a collective of tradional landowners. Barry sources the finance to pay wages and costs; the cooperative manages the plantation; Barry processes and sells the final product to an international trading company which then onsells to the market (including Merlo and Campo in Australia).

He also buys beans directly from village plantations large and small. These are picked at the local level then sold on the roadside to mobile bean traders, utes piled high with the red and green harvest and delivered to Brian's processing plant.

Coffee bean to you.
1. Arabica coffee plant takes two years to produce from planting. Cultivation, pruning, weeding etc are all done by hand. No mechanisation to this stage. The kina goes directly to the village.
2. Coffee beans harvested by hand - May to July.
3. Delivered to processing plant
4. Washed in giant vats, the pulp removed and the beans split (each pod contains a bean which has two halves) as they pass through a machining process.
4. Sun dried for between two to five days to reduce moisture content and to allow safe storage - again a fully manual process
5. Beans bagged ready for advanced processing
6. Beans then go through a series of mechanical processes which do a further clean and polish, then mechanically sorted acccording to size and rebagged by grade - AAA, AA etc (beans that cannot be split are called pepper beans and are highly valued in some coffee circles)
7. Each bag is now manually examined and sifted on the factory floor (literally) to remove any broken, malformed or discoloured beans - the buyers have high expectations of quality control.
8 Next they are rebagged and labelled ready for final inspection and sale.
9. These are sold to international traders/distributors and on to major outlets and chains of roasteries (Merlo, Campos in Australia; and major companies in the USA - the main export destination)
10. Finally it reaches your local coffee shop or the supermarket shelves.

Time from harvest to final bagging approximately one week. Beans are bought from the local villages at around $1AUS a kilo and sold green (processed but unroasted) for about $2-$5AUS a kilo according to quality and the prevailing market. If there are about 50 cups of coffee to a kilo, at the final point of sale @ $3.50 a cup, the $1AUS price for the village produce has become $175.00 (or in bean form approx  $40AUS).

We visited Brian's joint venture plantation and processing plant and the only dissapointment was that there was not a whiff of coffee aroma in the whole day. It's all in the roasting. Maybe that why a cup of coffee is so expensive.

You might look for Kimul Coffee - Brian's trade name.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

PNG 9 Mt Hagen - Brian Lahey

We spent the day with Brian Leahy whose father, Danny, Gabrielle had known in the 1970s. Danny Leahy was the first white man to arrive in the highlands in 1933 at the age of 21. He was a young Irish lad trying to survive during the depression and heard there were opportunities in PNG. There were rumours of gold in the hills and somehow Danny found his way here with his brother. They  had walked from Port Moresby. There was enough gold to encourage them to stay and he took to the place and began a series of ventures, early coffee plantations among them. He took two highland wives and had 10 children by them. Brian would have been a youngster of about 10 when Gabrielle was here. In fact he would only have been here in school holidays as he was at boarding school at Nudgee College in Brisbane in those years. A series of documentary films was made in the 80s which told the story. Look for "First Contact" or google Danny Leahy.

Brian's mother is a tribal woman and therefore, as a mixed race man, he has the challenge of navigating two families and all the complications associated with that. The most recent challenge was organising the funeral of his older brother who died a year ago. He has played a leadership role in his family and so had the task of navigating the expectations of both immediate family and the traditional village tribe from which his brother's mother came. No easy task.

There were angry scenes, demands and even subtle threats all of which revolved around local protocols and, in Brian's assessment, money. His solution: stand firm and face down those who were not immediate family; make it clear that gifts of money and pigs were not required; and insist the service would be held in Hagen, not the village. Most importantly he found ways to weave traditional rituals throughout the week of mourning. Each day involved mourning and crying rituals. On the final day Brian had arranged for all the mourners to have equal status by insisting that they all come through the same entrance to the open area where the service was to take place and, and this is quite amazing, when the tribal group entered and began their traditional crying and mourning ritual, the white educated guests and members of the family found themselves carried along in that same expression of grief. Brian, a big man, a rugby player, a strong man, said he experienced a cartharsis unlike anything he had experienced before. He said he felt cleansed and was close to tears again as he shared this story with us.

 At the end of the week even the angry village relatives congratulated him on how moving and significant the whole thing had been. They had ignored his bar on gifts and had brought money and 60 pigs which Brian immediately handed over to the tribal family thereby avoiding all the complex reciprocal expectations which exchange of gifts involve.

PNG 8 Mt Hagen Arrival

Gabrielle and I are in Mt Hagen after a disrupted day of flying which saw us sit in the Rabaul Airport terminal for 8 hours and Mick miss his flight to Brisbane.

Mt Hagen seemed like the wild west after sedate Kokopo (though Kokopo itself felt a bit challenging when we arrived a week ago). I often think of Beirut when I feel overwhelmed by chaos and decay (though I've never been there), but Hagen sets its own standard. The roads appear tp have been bombed so large are the potholes, the town is heaving with people none of whom appear to have homes - so many are there on the streets, hanging by the roadside, sitting in open spaces, selling meagre amounts of produce or betel nut on plastic mats by the roadside; the buildings mostly appear to be war surplus and about that old (though only built relatively recently) and everything is coated in a thick layer of dust. It felt threatening. A feral shanty town.

Last night the advice from our hosts at the Mt Hagen Missionary Home (we're travelling as fake missionaries) was a little unsettling. Yes its safe but not at night and not beyond the city centre and make sure you walk confidently, don't look lost or confused and always keep your guard up etc etc. We felt our confidence sapping.

This morning we got the driver at the accomodation to drop us in the town centre which turned out to be one block away. We got out and looked confused and were immediately approached by people not out to rob us but to help. We had a coffee, began to relax and went looking for the house where Gabrielle lived in the 1970s. Gabrielle didn't recognise the surroundings but a couple of blocks from the centre and there it was. Again we looked lost and a group of about ten people came to our aid, one of whom then spent the next three hours shepherding us around town and giving us a tour of the market. We'll see Anna again we hope.

Hagen is the food bowl of PNG so fresh produce was there in abundance along with hand made bilums and traditional bush string cloth and clothing.

We're feeling much more comfortable. Gabrielle has made friends with almost every trader in the market and along the street by taking their photos and we're chasing a couple of contacts we have from Australia. The accomodation is good; we're well and it all feels pretty positive.

PNG 7 Mask Festival

To quote the Post Courier of Port Moresby: "This years (National) Mask Festival was not as successful as some had expected. It was a poor representation of provincial culture."

Well, we've never been before so we didn't notice the difference though there did seem to be more than a little confusion around the event. As we spoke to people around town there were some who told us it had been cancelled, others who said it was beginning on the Wednesday or the Thursday or perhaps the Friday. There were no notices around town and it all seemed a little strange especially given the fact that we had been picked up from the airport on arrival by Elis who told us she was the festival organizer. She did acknowledge that there had been a rough leadup tho the event and she wasn' sure which groups were coming, the withdrawal of national funding and few sponsors etc.

The big event was to be the enactment of the annual tubuan/dukduk (good spirits/bad spirits) ritual where boatloads of Tolai people arrive on the island from across the waters (the Tolai were originally from New Ireland) to challenge the  west New Britain tribes  for the right to come ashore (there's a chance I have this completely wrong). This traditionally occurs at dawn. But which dawn? Again no one was sure. Strange since hundreds of the locals were to be the actors in this event!

The festival has been a five day event in previous years (it began in 1994 - the year of the volcano eruption) but has languished recently. Other province capitals (Kavieng, Madang) have begun to stage their own dance/mask festivals rather than come to this one. In the days when it was a genuine national festival they all came - the mudmen of ....... Highlanders. It was a genuine cultural celebration for and by the tribes axross PNG. This one has degenerated into a display for the tourists who fail to turn up in numbers sufficient to underwrite the costs. Maybe 200 in total over two days.  It a vicious cycle. Even the locals didn't show up.

Having said that, as I said we didn't know the difference, but sensed there was a lack of enthusiasm for the event. The photos tell the story. The dawn event was pretty interesting apart from the insensitivity of some tourists who wanted to walk into the middle of the ritual to get a beter photo. That behaviour continued over the two days and resulted in some Europeans intervening to restrain the overenthusiastic. The real highlight was was the Fire Dance at a local village on the first evening. Two hours of chanting and singing in a field with only a fire burning in the centre as lighting. It was trance like. The masked dancers, all male (the whole mask festival was male), wore giant masks which we were told were based on the native bee. The dancers moved around in an erratic, non choreographed way dancing with tiny steps and occasionaly charging towards the fire to sideswipe the blazing pire or kick a shower of embers into the sky. There was the same uncertainty about the fire event (no surprise - it had become the norm) as about the festival. It was on, it was off, it was transferred to a different village; no one was going.

Gideon, our historian friend, was our guide. He spent an hour in Kokopo talking before deciding it was on; then another thirty minutes at the village on our arrival confirming it was proceeding. Apparently there had been some protocol difficulties There was conflict between two villages who both thought they should be hosting it (there was a profit to be made). Someone had mischievously been putting the word around that it was cancelled. It turned out to be a great night. A full house. Unfortunately, very little light so few good photos.

The worst part of the final day was the tourists and their cameras. The best part was the finale when the tubuan returned to close the festival with a high energy dance full of great singing and dance which had a strange mesmerising power. Great.

By the time the chairperson of the festival committee made the closing speech and the hand over of ceremonial spear to thenext host community (again done in challenge mode) had occurred  we were virtually the only people left watching. A fitting , if somewhat low key ending. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

PNG 5 - New Ireland part 1

7am. Boarded John Lau's boat, "Stephanie" bound for the southern tip of New Ireland, home of the French/Italian colony of 1880 - 1882. Took my kwell tablet and held on tight.
John likes speed and he has a fishing boat that behaves like a missile. 150 metres from shore he gunned the 1500hp twin engines and we were almost tossed out the back (stern - boat terms now that we're heading into St George's Channel).
Port Breton, our destination (not called that now - or ever by the locals), lay two hours away. New Ireland was just a hazy undulating line on the horizon. I almost succumbed to  the lumpy, thumping ride but the kwells did the job and we were greeted by a pod of thirty spinner dolphin performing a welcome dance for us as we approached Lombon, the community of two thousand who live on the island at the entrance to the bay.
First impressions: tiny inlet; hardly worthy of the title "port"; dense jungle tumbling from steep slopes to the shoreline; no sign of arable land or a likely site for 300 settlers. What were they thinking? We seemed to be surrounded by a range of preferable options on East New Britain and north of this point on New Ireland. Even on Lambom Island which we now approached. John sounded our horn as we glided past the settlement, trying to attract someone who might be able to assist us; someone to act as our guides for the day. Immediately two canoes appeared from the sandy beach and approached us.
John invited three men on board and after an explanation of our needs, their spokesman, Digel, offered to accompany us. He proceeded to guide us to nearby English Cove (the south arm of a twin cove inlet) where he negotiated a powered "banana boat" and crew for us. Minutes later we stepped ashore at Irish Cove, the main site of the colony.
We were joined  by the traditional owner of Irish Cove and a retired teacher from English Cove who confounded all presumptions about traditional village life by sharing with us his knowledge of national politics, history and the local environment. Remember we were in a remote location accessible only by boat and four hours (by banana boat) from the nearest shop or service.
What did we find? A collection of 19th century bricks intended for the promised church; a foreshore skirted by a rough retaining wall (the Italians were dry stone wall masons) ; a fresh water spring which had been given a stone treatment to create a shallow resevoir;  a clearing containing a scattering of bricks in a format suggesting a couple of buildings had occupied the space; a large cast iron cylinder - probably part of a grinding mill for grain and the odd ceramic shard, a remnant of a water container or similar.
For the next two hours we were given a tour of the site. TBC

PNG 4 - Rabaul Museum

At Rabaul we met Mundon Bray, a Canadian who described himself as of mixed race - part eskimo (Inuit) he insisted. He was introduced to us as the man who ran the Rabaul Museum set in the building which had formerly been the Rabaul Club, now a shabby hulk housing an eclectic collection of war and historical memorabilia.  He and a few eccentric old stagers are working to keep it running and in reasonable condition. It gets no funding so it struggles but at least someone loves it, which is more than you can say about the Kokopo Museum which is open on request but appears to have been abandoned immediately after WWII. It's just a collection of rusting pieces of war machinery and smaller objects with illegible descriptions (or none) and a room largely devoted to Queen Emma.

Mundon was sitting hunched over a bowl of noodles at his desk/table as I approached him. He stood and greeted me enthusiastically shaking my hand and mentioning his Inuit heritage. He looks late 60s maybe early 70s and is wearing boxer shorts and thongs and nothing else, his chest and stomach white and soft. It's a little off-putting in a museum manager but it quickly seems normal and I can see he is in pretty good shape for his age. He has an soft accent modified perhaps by 40 years in the tropics surrounded by Australians and international missionaries and tok pisin speakers. His head is like a bowling ball with stubble.

'Do you believe in God?'  he asks me within the first few minutes of our conversation. 'I was brought up Catholic' I tell him and he corrects me - 'Roman CathoIic,' he says. I don't argue. 'And you?' I ask. It's a game I'm amused to play. 'Church of England', he says. 'Anglican,' I reply. 'No Church of England,' he corrects me. I ask the difference half knowing the answer will be part of a new riddle and we segue into conversations about Rabaul and the war and why PNG would have been better off being retained bt the Germans after WWI rather than being handed to the Australians. 'Australia has been lazy' he says. 'Germans get things done,' he says. I'm tempted to defend my Australian compatriots but hold my tongue.

We get back to religion. I promise him I'll ask the Anglican Bishop ('Church of England,' he corrects me) in Brisbane to consider funding the restoration of the Rabaul Anglican Church.

'What do you believe in?' he asks me before I leave. 'Me, the universe,' I reply.
'Maybe as you get older you'll find the need to believe in a god of some kind,' he says, suddenly looking as though there's something in him that needs this escape route from life. It feels like he's trapped here in this dying town. It once had a population of 40 000 and is now 4000. At some point he knows he'll be going and it will be 3999.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

PNG 3 - Queen Emma

Kokopo has seen its characters. 
    It was the mainland base of the 19th century American Samoan trader Emma Coe and her copra empire (she had begun her PNG empire on nearby Duke of York island). She became known as Queen Emma and her sprawling Kokopo mansion and gardens are now the site of the Gazelle International Hotel. Only the concrete front steps of her residence Gunantabu, survive.
    Australian writer Geoffrey Dutton has written "Queen Emma of the South Seas", an entertaining account of her exploits. She was beautiful, wealthy, ruthless and independent. She had lovers and a series of husbands and when she finally sold her business holdings in the early 20th century (perhaps sensing the approaching calamatous world war and being intimately connected to German Nue Guinea), she retired to Melbourne and later Europe (where she died), a millionaire. 

The main restaurant at the Gazelle International in named after her.


It's the 8th of July. Day one of our trip to PNG. Weirdly that is the exact date 136 years ago on which the Italians boarded the steam barquentine, the "India", in Barcelona to begin their adventure.
    Kokopo, our base on New Britain is a dusty, run down coastal town a 25 minute drive from the  old capital Rabaul. Rabaul sits on an impressive harbour (Simpson's Harbour) with the quietly rumbling Mt Tavurvur close by. All that changed in 1994 when the volcano chose to remind the world of its latent power. Rabaul was wiped out, its houses and its array of impressive colonial buildings, links to its  past. Collaped sunder the weight of volcanic ash.

    Kokopo was the beneficiary of its demise. Overnight it became the new centre of business and government for east New Britain.
    Kokopo, largely lacks charm. As well as having lost its beautiful old colonial buildings through neglect or misfortune or redevelopment, it lacks a harbour and a genuine centre. Rabaul, though generally regarded as a ghost of its previous self by those in Kokopo, retains an impressive main street, a wide boulevard lined with frangapani trees. Its harbour has allowed it to survive as the import/export centre of east New Britain. It's a designed town;  designed by the Germans in the late 19th century as the capital of German New Guinea. Kokopo by contrast has grown around an access road which skirts a foreshore with no shelter. One long street with no plan. Since 1994 there has been money spent upgrading it to the standard of a provincial capital, with a new market, roundabouts and government offices but its never going to be a silk purse, always destined to be the sow's ear.

Monday, 4 July 2016

PNG 1 -

On Friday I head off to PNG for two weeks with brother Mick and friend Gabrielle Samson.

The first week will be in New Britain exploring the remnant history of the Nouvelle France colony and my Italian heritage. We
ll travel by boat to the southern tip of New Ireland to spend a day in the same jungle that Lorenzo and the Italians struggled to survive for three months in 1880.
The second week Gabrielle and I head to the Highlands, Mt Hagen, to explore her history. She lived there for a time in the 70s where her daughter was born. Were a little nervous but excited by the prospect of seeing the central highlands up close.. For Gabrielle it will be familiar but much changed. Hagen has gone from a village with one street to a town of 40 thousand. For me it will be an adventure into the unknown. A country so close and yet so little visited by us, Australians obsessed with Europe and central Asia.