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.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Island Paradise / Working Headache

A weeks jaunt to a tropical island for work? How could you say no to that. Well as luck may have it that is what I have done during the last week. Jetting in to Manus, the northern island province of PNG to retrieve Unitech owned equipment. Appropriately for the distance learning department the equipment was all over the place in the remotest parts of the islands. Adventured beckoned, and adventure is what I got. Well sort of. It was a good experience all the same especially considering it was my first time on a tropical island paradise.

A bit of background info for you. About six years ago the provincial government of Manus had the fantastic idea of using radio equipment to have a school-of-the-air style system which would be connected back to Unitech. It was supposed to allow lecturers in Lae chat to the students in the remote sites of Manus and have a real-time class. Well to cut a long story short it did not work - or it worked once at the main site in the capital Lorengau but didn't work at the three other remote sites. Sounds just like a typical 3rd world project.

Anyway I turned out to be one of the lucky people who got the job to go there, collect the stuff from all the sites they were scattered to, throw them into a little 4m² shipping container and send them back to Lae. Here is how it panned out.

Monday 23rd of August

The team consisted of me, John my colleague from DODL, and Robert from another department in the Uni who was supplying the local knowledge as he was a Manusarian (I just made up that collective term, I have no idea if it is correct - sounds good though, like a race found in a Star Trek episode).

We all took off to Nadzab airport and checked in the 80 odd kilos of stuff that we were taking. If that sounds like a lot it is because it is. The weight was mainly taken up by two computers and a load a books that we were donating to various schools while we were there. In PNG if you go in to a site to remove something it is expected that you give something in return (this is something that I found out first hand later in the trip).

Manus is part of the Admiralty islands and they are well and truly in the tropics being in fact only 2° south of the equator. If I was a holiday brochure writer I would put down something like this - "A chain of jewel islands, dangling like a necklace around the neck of the equator. In the middle the centre-piece, Manus, being an emerald set in sea of turquoise ... yada yada yada".

Anyway the furthest island to the south of Manus but still part of the province is Baluan. Here was our first destination where we had to retrieve an antenna, a radio control terminator and some microphones, pretty much the same stuff that lay around at the other sites we had to go to.

Baluan from the air

Touch down on Los Negros island where the only airport for the province is located and we piled all our stuff in to the waiting car that Robert had organised for us and headed off to the capital Lorengau to check in at the lodge there. Straight away I knew that I was going to enjoy this trip, the sun was shining and the view out the window of the ute of the waves from the pacific crashing onto the reefs dividing the deep blue with the shallow sky coloured water close to shore was fantastic.

At Lorengau we checked our surplus equipment into a room at the Kowai Lodge and then waited while Robert organised the purchasing of marine fuel for our three-hour banana boat trip down to Baluan. He came and collected me and John and we head off down to the "Marina" at the Lonio passage that separates Los Negros and Manus and loaded up the pre-arranged 25ft banana boat.

Once on board we pushed off and headed down the passage, through the channel cut in to the reef and onto the mighty Pacific. We had about 30km of open see to cross in our little boat and I was glad that they had handed me a yellow rain jacket as I would have been soaked in no time from the spray with out it. Pity it was not a life-jacket though. Those things have not made it seems to this part of the world yet.

In the weeks before we had headed up to Manus, John had talked about getting himself a life-jacket to take, as he was pretty worried about this part of the trip. Being a man from the highlands of PNG, where the largest body of water is found in the local river, I found this angst is understandable. I myself was having thoughts about emergency situations, if they occurred and what would happen. Swim or stay with the boat - if it floats.

In the end the only thing that John had to worry about was getting sea sick from the constant up and down and ploughing through the endless swell, as we made it safe to Baluan after a three hour trip. The trip itself was not that eventful, though I did get to see plenty of flying fish leap out of the ocean and skim across the surface for about 10 seconds, before plunging splashless back in.

Stepping ashore on to Baluan, there was the usual handshake all round as the locals came out and greeted their returned son Robert and met the new white guy, with wide open stares from the pikinis, I also found out why the locals call it the "rocky island". Basically it is devoid of any beach and volcanic rocks dominate the landscape. Baluan is an extinct volcano so they said, but between it and the nearby island of Lou which we had passed on the way over, is a sunken caldera of a volcano which had erupted in 1954.

The rocks make it hard work for the villages living on the coast, as it is nearly impossible to dig any distance into the ground. There was a good story about a team of Australian army engineers who came in all gung-ho after the war with their bulldozers dynamite to build a "road" (or in PNG this will usually translate into walking track), and got beaten back at the attempt of it. Fifty years later and the villagers talk about this with mirth as if it was yesterday.

We took a walk around in the diminishing light, as sun went down, and I noticed all the little shacks built out over the water. I was informed that these were the toilets, one for the males and one for the females. Because of the ground being so hard pit toilets cannot be made, so they just let the ocean take it away. I took note to remember if I decide to take a swim that I would avoid these spots.

After the stroll we all had a shower from a bucket to wash the dried saltwater spray off our bodies and sat down to a kai kai feast of taro, sweat potato, bully beef and the other usual village food, which was laid on by Roberts sister, who we were also staying with. I learnt that Robert was the local big man for the village. He was sent off to school years ago because his father was the village lapun (chief) which the title has now passed on him.

After dinner we met Michael, who was the local guy looking after the equipment that we had come to collect. Michael is also on the books for Unitech and he would accompany us around Manus during the rest of the week to collect the rest of the stuff.

Later we had a bit of a trip to see the bright stars in this part of the world and then I headed off to get some shut eye.

Tuesday 24th of August

Getting up is not an issue in village life, especially when the house we were staying in was right next to the local SDA church and the pastor with a steel pipe in hand decides at 5:30 to use the rusting gas cylinder hanging from the nearby tree as an anger management device. Either that or he was calling the villages to a morning mass. Not surprisingly it turned out that it was the latter, I guess they think there is no spiritual rest for the villagers, even on a Tuesday morning.

Before that though the roosters try to out-do each other on the vocal scales and get in early to let everyone know dawn is here. Or in the case of one it is coming - I checked my watch when I heard him go off in the pitch black to see that it was 3:30.

Rising early I remembered that this time of day is absolutely fantastic for photography. So whipping out the camera I got a few snaps of the sun breaking the sky over the still waters. It also gave me the opportunity to test out the loos, as I wasn't game to walk out on the log connecting it to the bank in the pitch black. I must say it is a bit weird having a piss and watching tropical fish circle around at the same time.

Dawn breaking over Baluan

After a fabulous breakfast complete with freshly caught fish from that night, we walked down to the school where our equipment was, got it all together and boxed it up. We did a presentation and handed over the school text books that we had bought for the school and then set about preparing for the return trip.

The trip back was pretty much the same as the one coming down. Three hours of up and down over the big blue, getting splashed a lot and watching flying fish. The skill of the banana boat captains is pretty impressive, it would not be particularly hard to capsize the boat by plunging into an up-swell just after coming down a down-swell. We all made it back though, safe but soggy.

We got a lift back into town with our equipment and stashed it at the lodge. From here we headed into town on foot for my first look around Lorengau. A decidedly pleasant and sleepy sort of a place I concluded. Better looking as well than Madang I thought, considering there is a beach in town, and this goes a long way in my books.

Not much else was done in the afternoon apart from have a few SP's at the lodge, and discuss Unitech politics which is always a big topic with Unitech staff.

Wednesday 25th of August

Today the story drops off a bit and routine work was the order of the day (there is nothing like work to get in way of a good story), so I wont bore you with the too many details. Lets just say that in the morning we did a bit of equipment dismantling and Michael our resident Baluarian (did they battle with the Klingons?) climbed a few 30m high Telikom towers. We also arranged to collect a hire car on Thursday from the local "Travel-Car" dealer to enable us to drive up to the villages of Buyang and Kari, where more of our stuff was located. Both of these villages lie along the "Manus Highway", an east-west road link, which apparently was a little bit "worse for wear".

We had to find out exactly how bad this meant in relative terms (i.e. could you cruise along at 110kph, with your arm resting on the door and thumb hooked over the wheel and use your other hand to take sips out of a coffee filled Styrofoam cup, or would it be more like a four wheel drive enthusiasts wet dream). So we asked everyone we could find and the results ranged from completely impassable to "yeah, no worries". To be on the safe side I organised that we hire a trusty Toyota Land Cruiser, a go anywhere style of choice.

Thursday 26th of August

John, Michael and me picked it up first thing in the morning and heading off up the road. To start off, my choice of vehicle seemed like it could be possible overkill as the road meandered along a little bit bumpy but altogether not that bad. As we continued though it began to go through a few phases. At the start it was a wide graded gravel road, then it turned in to wide dirt road, then the dirt became mainly red clay and then it narrowed dramatically as the grader was forgotten about and became more like a walking track. It then also became evident that hardly any vehicle passes through on the road, as villagers watched slack-jaw as we passed.

The challenge of actually driving the road now came into focus and this is where John's experience of years driving Highlands roads came into play. The road had basically turned into a goat-track and had not been maintained or upgraded since it was built 30 years before. Things grow fast in the tropics and it does not take a scientist to realise that if you don't look after it here, the jungle will reclaim it.

The goat track we had to drive up

After fighting the wheel (getting a knock on the funny bone in the process), tackling the track, sweating in the steamy humidity, using the High Four gears, Low Four gears and general all round high fives, John cruised us into Buyang village two hours (40km worth) of driving later.

My part now came into action. Michael pointed out the pole on top of the nearby hill with three of our antennas attached and I set off up with tool box in hand, looking like a man with a mission. If we wanted to get to Kari village which was another two hours down the track and return before dark we needed to be swift.

John and Michael followed me, as well a local guy who came out to see what was happening. Village huts surrounded the equipment hut at the top and a old local guy came out as well to see what was going on. He turned out to be the lapun and he wasn't happy.

Michael who had been here before a couple of years previously went over and introduced us all to the old guy. Then we all sat down underneath some shelter as the heavens opened up and rain started to sheet down, this was a bad sign (and also not good for the track). What the old guy had to say made me positively gloomy, to match the light of the day at that time. He wanted that dreaded C word, used all over PNG, and now one of the most hated. Compensation.

To be fair though the old guy had a valid point. The aerial pole and equipment hut had been plonked on his land that had been in his family for generations by the provincial government and Telikom and after an initial payment he had not been paid a thing to look after it. Then a couple of years after anyone had bothered to check that it was still there we rock up expecting to just collect.

Of course we tried to explain that we were not taking the whole thing away and just wanted the bits that belonged to us, but he wouldn't have a bar of it and expressed this through some aggressive and rapid pidgin. I managed to pick up one word in five that her was saying due to his speed, but it didn't take genius to work it out. We told him that we would check with the provincial government and get some money for him, we even tried to find out how much would he wanted, but he didn't tell us that. We pretty much just tried to smooth and quiet the guy down before they decided to get the bush knives out.

Before we headed off with tails between our legs, I asked the old guy if he could show me the equipment hut so I could take photos. The beauty of digital cameras these days is the ability to show the person you are photographing their tiny image seconds after you have taken their photo. It turns out to be a fantastic icebreaker as well. The old guy was pretty impressed and had a good laugh looking at the two-inch high version of himself.

The old guy not looking so angry

Kari it seemed was now out of the question, as the rain was really quite set in. On this type of €œroad€� there is a good chance getting bogged. We had had a good run up to Buyang due to the combination of the track being dry from weeks of no rain and John's skill in driving. But if the rain continued for any length of time we could be in trouble.

So we headed off on the two hour trip to Lorengau with John again at the wheel. On the way we decided to do the honourable thing, in this part of the world, and give the people walking into town a lift in the back. Of course we had an ulterior motive. If we got bogged, they could push.

We made it back without getting bogged but with a few tight spots here and there. The guys who got a lift were very grateful for the fact we had saved them a days worth of walking. John seemed like he had gone a few a rounds with Iron Mike though, with blood shot eyes from all the concentration and injured elbows from banging in to the door and me in the middle.

In town the adventure was easing off again. I was still pissed off that we didn't get the equipment that I had come all this way to collect. So I took out my frustration by climbing up the Telikom tower at their repeater station and helping Michael to retrieve the two antennas that were located at the top. I must say that I was a little bit ginger looking down from 20 metres up, with mud still stuck on my shoes. So I was glad when I attached the harness belt I was wearing and concentrated on undoing bolts rather than the climbing up the ladder.

At the end of the day we had got all the stuff we wanted and we all had a few beers at the lodge to discuss the events, and then retired to our rooms to have a deserved sleep.

Friday 27th of August

Like Wednesday, Friday morning was a bit on the boring side adventure wise. We collected all the stuff while we still had the vehicle and organised a container down at the wharf to ship it back in. I found a giant clam shell that nobody wanted and threw that in as well. It will look good on my sideboard, and I thought I may as well use the container while I have the chance as the thing weighs about 20kg.

I also kept busy going along to our study centre high school and installed the two PC's that we had brought over for them. As you can see the events were not that exciting.

The afternoon though, which we gave ourselves off, was spent making use of the vehicle to go and find a good spot for a swim and snorkel. Martin (my next-door neighbour) had lent me his flippers, mask and snorkel and I was keen to test them out and check out the reefs for the first time.

We found a spot out on the road to the airport and we all had a swim around. I was blown away from snorkelling over the top of the reef, I can now see what the fuss is all about. It was absolutely amazing. I wasn't too fussed though, in fact it freaked me out when I swam out over deep water all of a sudden and looked straight down in to the pitch black. I made it back to the reef in no time flat.

Saturday 27th of August

Market day and we had to go and visit the towns market due to the instructions people had told me before I had came. Maria wanted octopus, Dr Nyondo wanted smoked fish and I wanted to check it all out. I got a lot of fish and a lot of octopus to keep the others happy and bought myself some mud crabs.

I was a bit disturbed though to see a lot of cuscus' in cages not much bigger than their bodies. One in particular was a rare all white one inside a woven cane cage. The down-set eyes made my heart bleed. Here was a passive little animal not doing any harm, locked in a cage in which it could not possibly move, ready for someone to buy it so they could knock it on the head and cook it in a pot or over a fire. I just couldn't let him suffer like that, especially considering that right next to him was pre-cooked version, skinned, splayed and roasted, so I paid the woman 20 Kina and bought myself a cuscus.

I know foreigners get excited when they visit Australia and see kangaroo's get blasted and their meat and skins sold. I don't really have too much of an issue with this. But then again I grew up in country New South Wales and saw plenty of Kangaroos and know there are millions hopping around. Somehow I don't think though that there are millions of cuscus' roaming around Manus, so when I saw the rare white cuscus I just knew that I had to save the little fella.

My only problem now was what was I going to do with a cuscus. I entertained the idea of keeping him as a pet, taking him back to Lae, and taming him and let him wander around the house eating the paw paw and banana scraps I leave for him. This was a tempting idea and my heart said yes. But my brain said no. What would I to do when I went away on trips? And what right have I got to take a wild animal and try to tame it just for my amusement? I would also have to keep it in the tiny cage for over 24 hours because I had nothing else to keep it in.

The cuscus not going anywhere

In the end the brain won, so on the way out to the airport we found a quiet spot that was away from the villages as far as possible and I set the little fella free. I had no qualms about spending the cash on doing this and thought it was a worthy investment, even though a sister of Robert's thought I was a bit crazy to spend that kind of money, to just throw it away.

In the evening we found a cool bar that had just been recently set up by an Australian local (probably the only one in town). It was set over Lorengau harbour on a couple of old war pontoons that they had dragged close into shore. It was a pity we didn't find it earlier as it was a great place. If you ever go to Lorengau, make sure you check out Ronny Knight's place.

Sunday 27th of August

We packed our smoked fish and octopus' etc into plastic bags and boxes and headed out again to the airport for our flight back. Breakfast was at the nearby market to the terminal, where we ate roasted sak sak (sago), mussels, scones and kulau's (green coconut to drink). I noticed there were a few cuscus' in pots amongst the stalls. Ahh well.

Three flights back instead of the direct flight like we came up on and it was again good to be home. My longest trip yet and probably the most adventurous. Fortunately there will be more adventures travelling in a couple of weeks when I take mum up to Goroka. Keep your eye's peeled.