An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Highlands Hwy Survivor

Well here's the report of my latest big trip all the way up the Highlands Highway to Mt. Hagen, defacto capital of the Highlands, and the one that I have had the most experiences on. So I thought I would share those and a few observations as well.

The purpose of the trip was the same as the others, to deliver computers to our study centre in Hagen. I was heading up there with the boss, George, this time, instead of like the previous trips where I went with one of the office workers. There was a couple of reasons for this: it is a long trip so it is good to have a couple of people who can drive the vehicle, George is also a Hagen man with a house and family there, so he obviously knows the area extremely well, and as he hadn't been home for a while, he decided to give himself a free trip there, with the added bonus of getting a "living away from home allowance".

So we agreed to a plan to leave Lae at 8 on Saturday morning to get a good run and so we didn't arrive too late. I got to the office a little before 8 so we could load the Ute with the PC's. The boss wasn't there so I surfed the internet to check my e-mail, send e-mail, surf some more, make a call to see where he was - no answer - more surfing, pace up and down, and finally see him two hours late. There should be a course or book you can do/read: "How to be diplomatic, when you have been put out by your superior". Well the way I handled it was not to mention it. It seemed to work and from a few drops bit of information he passed on, I gleaned that he had been at the Aviat club last night. I had been out too - at the staff club, sinking beers - but it didn't stop me from getting there on time.

On the road things settled into the usual long driving trip. We exhausted the solitary cassette that George had stashed in the glove compartment for such occasions, which contains such classics as Rod Stewarts - "Have I told you lately" song - twice. The "He ain't heavy he's my brother" song and etc. Luckily I brought along, as per the other trips, my saviour, the iPod with 8000 songs, with enough variety to please anyone. It was not long before George was like a kid in a lolly shop going through the collection and finding artists like Creedance Clearwater Revival, The Eagles and ABBA. Thankfully he could not find Kenny Rogers, which thankfully I don't have - you have to set some standards. I also steered him into finding some Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Dire Straits. So the trip became somewhat of a blast from the past, into the 70's and early 80's.

It was agreed that I would drive to Kianantu (the infamous nothing town from the last e-mail), and then George would take the reins, but when we got there we decided I would go all the way to Goroka. After Kianantu, G started to tell me about how notorious the area was between there and Goroka for hold ups. Masked men jump out in front of buses, waving guns and rob the passengers of their hard earned money made at markets. The good old fashion style highwayman, but certainly no Robin Hood's - steal from the poor and keep. G kept telling me that one of the worse areas was at a top of a hill that takes quite a while to climb up. The raskols (pidgin for troublemaker/vandal/thief/anyone who's bad basically) see the vehicles on the roads below and get ready to hi-jack them.

As I approached the top of the hill I saw two Toyota hi-ace 15 seater buses pulled over on the other side of the road. I also see some men milling about outside of them. I see one at the back of them with a scarf wrapped around his face. I recognise that he is pointing a gun at our car. I hear George yell "Go, go, go, don't stop". I duck down and plant my foot down on the accelerator wanting it to go faster after the climb up the hill, which with a load of computers it was not too happy about. I need to change gears to gain that extra power, but ducking makes this tough to do. I start to think whether my door would stop a bullet - probably not. And I hear one of the bandits outside through my open window shouting something.

We make it over the hill and around a few corners untouched, gaining speed on the decline. It all happened quickly. The first thing George says is "You should have taken a photo of that". He knows that I like photography, but "What The ...?". Hang on I think. Driving a car while ducking down. Trying to change gears. Worrying about getting shot. Yeah I could of taken out my camera from my bag behind the seat, and shot the bandits through a lens instead. No worries.

A safe distance away we pull over and flag down an on coming truck to warn them. Then we proceeded and stop a Hi-ace and then after that, the real prize that the raskols would be after, two 25 seater Toyota Coaster buses, coming all the way from Mt. Hagen. All the drivers (and passengers hanging out the windows too) were thankful for the tip off. After all this drama, we kept on going to Goroka, and George then proceeded to tell me about other incidents that he had been involved in the past, with one time his car actually being shot at and smashing a window. He also said that the raskol I could hear yelling was actually telling us to keep going, they weren't interested in our red Ute it seems anyway, though a gun being pointed your way makes you think otherwise in the heat of the moment.

At Goroka we changed seats after getting some food at a Super-Market and a couple of beers at the Bird of Paradise Hotel (aka the Bird - nice place if you ever go there). From now on I would be heading into new territory. It was also getting late. We left Goroka at 2:30 and it was still a 4-hour drive to Hagen.

The rest of the trip was incident free, but I got some new perspectives on what the Highlands is really like. From the top of the Daulo pass (2478m - higher than Mt Kosciuszko, highest mtn in Oz) you get a fantastic view back over the valley that Goroka lies in. From then on you pass from the Eastern Highlands province into the Simbu province. Once this happens the road get noticeably worse. Obviously they don't spend the same sort of cash on maintenance as they do in EHP.

I also got to see that other danger that is driving in the highlands, something that I had not really encounted on my stay here so far. Pigs. Every little roadside village that you pass through seemed to have them wandering all over the road. Now some people I talked to before leaving Australia already know this, but I will say it again, If you hit a pig and kill it with your car it is only a close second behind hitting and killing a person. Therefore I was glad that George had taken over as I am sure that he could handle the situation better if we unlucky enough to enrage the locals by wrapping one of their prized swine around our wheel.

At this point I might as well mention what the roads are like in PNG, so some people don't get the wrong impression. To start with the Highlands Highway, is more like a country road in Australia, two lanes, one going, one coming. There are certainly no dual carriageway's joining the towns together. Then because of the terrain, especially in the Highlands, the roads meander a lot and there are a lot of corners, making it a good challenge to drive. If you are a motorcyclist you would probably love it. Thirdly, people build their huts and villages right on the roadside, and if they are not doing anything, they will probably just hang around sitting on the side of the road and get up when a car approaches. And finally villagers will use the road as a walking track, so you are constantly giving a toot of the horn in case they don't hear you approach.

We passed through Kunidawa and the road became even worse, and then eventually we passed into the Western Highlands province, and roads were not much better. So by the time we got to Hagen it was 7:30, all up an 8½-hour trip, not including stops. The proposed plan to stay at Georges village quickly went out the window as it was another 40 minutes past Hagen, so instead we stopped in at the motel I was checked into for the night after and checked in for this night instead. Then we went around and I met all of George's family and Leo the principal of the secondary school where I would be setting up the computers.

The next day, Sunday, I collected George and we headed out to pay a visit to his dad, who lives about an hour away in a village off the road to the Southern Highlands. When we got there the entire village came out to greet us. I was immediately the subject of much curiosity, and this included the usual hand shaking of every one there. All the pikininis (kids) came up and were very interested in me, I was probably the first white person most of them had seen. There is certainly no TV in these types of villages. George's dad was a little fellow who came up chest high on me, but it didn't stop him from nearly pulling me over when he gave me a bear hug.

In the afternoon I had a new New Guinea experience to attend - a compensation ceremony. Leo the principal I met the night before, had been doing some extra-marital affairs, which had come to attention of the wrong people. Basically he had befriended a divorcee, but the family of the ex-husband claimed that he owed them, because the ex-wife was still their's. In PNG women basically still get bought and sold by family's as wives. In fact women are basically treated as second-class citizens, and certainly not commensurable to men.

The beef that Leo had had resulted in this compensation ceremony that I now had got to attend, which is unique to the Highlands. Leo had basically admitted to being wrong and therefore the whole process would go quickly. A spot was picked, the two families came together, plus all the other hanger on's - like me. So there was in total over a hundred people. Everyone sat in a circle, and then Leo's dad started the proceedings. He talked in Melpin, their tok ples (local language), which sounded a lot like an Aboriginal language, and explained why they had all come together and why Leo has accepted to pay up. Then they bought out the pigs, four of them and they were tied to stakes, and then Leo came forward and pulled wads of cash from his pockets, put it together, held it up and proclaimed this was 6000 Kina. Even I realised that this was a lot of money for them. The cash was handed over to the other family who accepted it. Then the father of the ex-husband went on in a big speech for about 15 minutes, which sounded like he was talking about everything from the matter at hand to national politics. Then someone else got up, had his view on the matter, then another person, then another, another and another. Every bloke there seemed to have his own view.

Eventually the whole thing ground to a halt and everyone seemed happy, especially the other family who started to distribute money, to anyone they considered important enough to get a piece of the pie. It seems I had got off lucky, and only had to witness a 1½-hour process, mainly because it had been all agreed beforehand. George told me that when there is no agreement beforehand, the compensation can start at 10 in the morning and last until 5 in the afternoon.

On Monday I went and delivered the computers to the School (Leo was not there) but found out I could not set them up because the room was not ready. So we just stacked them in a storage room and agreed that I would come back at some point, probably by air to set them up. Beats me why these study centre coordinators tell us one thing and then when I get there find out another. Both me and George were not particularly happy with this. It was the same when I went to Madang. Ohh well.

In the afternoon, George and me took a trip out to his village, so he could show me around. He has a house there and it was quite a good little cabin. Inside it was very commodious, furnished with soft lounges and chairs and even a fireplace included, something that can be needed in the highlands. I was eying the place off as a potential retreat; unfortunately the place is too far away from Lae to be readily accessible. Two creeks run past either side, burbling over rocks that can be heard from the house, which creates, not unlike rain on the iron roof, a very pleasant effect. It was a pity that I didn't get to stay there on this trip as G had business to attend to in town this night. So it was back off to the motel for me.

This time we left early on for the trip back, and this time I got to see what the landscape was like on the approach to Hagen, something that I missed out on the way due to it being dark. There were coffee and tea plantations doting all over the countryside of the Waji valley and glimpses of the highest mountain in this part of the world, Mt Wilhelm (4509m - and one that I will be climbing at the end of the month). I also figured out something that I had been wondering ever since I arrived here. Why aren't there any road signs anywhere? Then when I saw a village hut with a road sign above the door saying, "Hump", I figured it out. Road signs make great house building material. Plus I thought the sign was appropriate, what else is there to do in a village?

We made it all the way to Goroka and then stopped there for a while. I got dropped off at our study centre to finish a couple of things that I needed to do from the week before, and then we went and had lunch at the Bird. I offered to take over the driving, but George wanted to, as the hold-up mountain still needed to be crossed, and this time George wanted to do it.

On the way there, we came across a police truck carrying about a dozen heavily armed cops with M-16 machine guns and shotguns in the back, heading the same way as us. We both thought it provident to stay behind these guys as they could certainly deal with anything on top of the mountain. To keep behind them, as they were quite a bit slower, we did things like pull over for a pit-stop (a bloke thing, if you know what I mean), and buy some bananas from a road side stall (50 toea - 20 cents - for 10 bananas, can't beat that).

Eventually we made it to the bottom of the mountain, with the police truck slowly going up. So we followed. Then the truck stopped, they flagged us to stop, and seven cops jumped down from the tray, ran to us and took cover off our back and jumped in. It seems we were going to provide cover and disguise if needed at the top. It also seemed that the truck was deployed down the highway for the sole purpose of trying to get the raskols.

Our now pernicious red Ute slowly took off, overtaking the stationary police truck. I did a rough count of the weaponry we had, 5 M-16's, 2 Shotguns and a pistol. I got my camera out, this time I would be prepared. I reclined my seat so that I was more hidden, but still could see. I became nervous because I now knew how cops dealt with raskols especially ones that carry guns.

There is no "stop or I will shoot" in PNG. If you have a gun and obviously have the intent to use it, police don't attempt to safely wound you in the arm or whatever. You will get pumped full of lead, as simple as that. George told me a tale how ten years ago in this very spot, there were similar hold-ups happening. Armed police were deployed into buses that were becoming the victims. A few times buses went safely through without incident, but one particular time 16 unlucky raskols decided to hold-up a bus carrying the cops. Seven raskols were killed, four were wounded and the rest managed to get away. That's why I was nervous, would I become a witness to a massacre, or worse would I be in the crossfire. The upside of the events ten years before was that the raskols were shown a lesson and there were no incidents for about six years.

As we approached the top, we came across a number of vehicles parked on the side of the road - the same spot we flagged down the truck on the way to Hagen. There were a couple of buses, it seems they had been informed of raskol activity that had been happening not so long ago. Great I thought. The stopped drivers saw the cops on the back of our Ute and changed their initial signal for us to stop to a wave us through. Great again.

We timidly approached the top (well me at least), and saw there was no one about. No held-up buses and no raskols. Good. The cops banged on the roof jumped off and ran around to see if they could spot anyone. One of them sighted someone fleeing across another hill, and fired off a burst of his M-16. If they weren't running they were now. We said goodbye to the cops and continued, with me at least thankful there was no incident. The only regret that I now have is that I did not get a photo of seven cops sitting in the back of our Ute, brandishing their arsenal.

At Kianantu I took over the driving, and we made it down to Lae 3-hours later, untouched. After a total of 10 hours of travel, I walked back into my home. It felt good to be home.

Looking back I can certainly say that it had been a trip that I will remember for a while. Though I am now looking forward to the next one with all the vagaries that come in PNG.