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.

Friday, October 01, 2004

PNG Tour Guide

The last couple of weeks have been interesting, it all started off while mum was still here and me trying to do something different in terms of PNG tourism - which usually consists of Sing-Sing, beach side dive resort, a cruise up the Sepik river etc - and tried to take mum off to a remote village called Maimafu in the south of the Eastern Highlands. Maimafu is in part of what is called the Crater Mountain wilderness area and you can do "eco-tourism" stays at village guests houses there.

I had organised a stay there through the Research Conservation Foundation (RCF) in Goroka a couple of months beforehand after being told about the place by Monica who had visited in March. Though like most things in PNG, plans did not go as expected. To start with I should have realised there would be issues when I rang up to double check my bookings made by RCF with the village servicing airline MAF (Missionary Aviation Fellowship), for the flight to the village, and was told they did not have any bookings in my name.

They also told me that they only flew in there on Mondays and Wednesdays and not Thursday like I was told by RCF. So I made a new booking all the same for the Monday and to come back out on the Wednesday. It meant that my planned hike in the area would probably not go ahead but it would mean that we would both get to experience some highlands village life. The weather had other ideas though as it turned out.

We took off with MAF at about one o'clock, after waiting around all morning for the clouds to break up and flew off to the first of four villages that the plane would land at. First stop went off without a hitch, although we did have to circle around a couple of times to wait for a Cessna already on the hill top strip to go - not enough room on these strips for more than one plane. Second stop was at a village called Herowana, and this did not work as well, as the strip could not even be seen due to low level clouds over it. The pilots did try admirably to locate it by circling in a gap in the clouds but it was in vain.

They headed off instead for our stop at Maimafu which seemed like it could go the same way as Herowana and with us not even finding the runway. It was found though after we crept up a valley wrapped by a blanket of clouds, but the approach to it was whited out and only half of the strip was visible anyway. There is no chance of a fly-by at Maimafu as the strip is on the side of a mountain and at a slope of 14°. If you miss it the first time you plunge into the mountain.

The pilots decided to abort the approach and headed off to the next stop which was Guwasa, which was in the bottom of a valley and very visible, so they had no problems landing there. They told us they would stay here for a while to sort out what they would do next, so while they thought they told us to get out and stretch our legs.

We did as we were told and climbed out only to be greeted by the entire village of Guwasa it seemed. The weeks entertainment had arrived and they were not going to miss a minute. First Act was mum climbing out, white hair and skin a showing, and this was greeted with a rapturous cheer.

The crowd forms around the weekly entertainment in Guwasa

As we huddled underneath the wing to keep the rain off our heads all the locals surrounded us. I got busy taking pictures of the excited crowd, while mum took off to do a lap around the village, shaking hands with everyone and being treated and acting like she was the queen.

After this bit of excitement we headed off again for another attempt on Maimafu. Luck was not with us though and this time they could not even see the runway, so we circled around and headed back to Goroka. MAF gave us a refund for both of our tickets as we did not wish to try again for the next day, a wise choice in the end as we heard that they could not land then either.

Our plans changed instead and we decided to catch a bus down to Madang on the coast. As with most of these inter-city buses it was just a little Toyota Hi-Ace crammed full of people and baggage. When it pulled up at the Market bus stop in Goroka and the boss-crew called out Madang, I did not think that we would be able to fit in. But somehow they did and we managed to get on the road with us in the front seats with a bag between our legs and one on my lap.

So there we sat for five hours, as we headed down the highlands highway to Madang. The bus was not too bad in retrospect apart from being cramped, because the driver was competent and the bus clean. My view for the entire trip involved looking around a chain of daisies hanging as bilas from the rear view mirror. Mum at least got the box seat for coming down the Kasam Pass from the nice cool highlands into the hot and sticky Markham valley.

I got the driver to drop us off at a cheap clean place in central Madang that I had stayed at before, and then we went for a walk around town. Did a few touristy things over the next few days like take a trip out to a nearby island and have dinner at the nearby resort.

After exhausting the few tourist features that Madang has to offer, I booked us into a resort called Jais Aben up the coast where you can actually dive and snorkle, plus it has normal sandy beach that Madang lacks. The place was very picturesque and quiet, perhaps a bit to quiet for me - I get bored easily if I have to read books all day and then cool off with a swim or beer.

After a few days of this luxury I felt it was time mum came back to Lae and spend some time there, where we could see some of our local sights (not that much more than Madang really). So on Saturday morning, the first day of the school holidays we got dropped off in town at the bus stop and then waited for a bus.

This was a major mistake as being the first day of school holidays demand for buses was increased a lot more than usual. So we arrived too late and all the good buses that ply the route had collected their passengers and taken off. What we were left with (after a two hour wait) was a dodgy bus that usually goes to Mt Hagen but could not get the customers so decided to go to Lae instead.

The contrast between the trip from Goroka could not have been more profound. Again we sat in the front seats next to the driver, but this time it felt like I was sitting on top of a stove. Instead of looking at daisies, they had a stuffed toy that looked like a dead rat hanging from the rear view mirror.

The driver kept falling asleep and I had to jab him in the ribs a couple of times to stop him veering off into the jungle. To counter his fatigue he had a constant wad of beatle nut being chewed that consisted of four nuts at one time (one usually does the trick).

On top of this the bus itself was a piece of junk and broke down twice. Firstly from a flat tyre (one bald tyre was replaced with the spare bald tyre) and then because the radiator hose blew off.

Our bus getting it's tyre changed, with mum looking on

Eventually though we did make it to Lae, safe but maybe not so sound. The driver and boss-crew wanted to oust us in Lae itself, so I had to tell them that they needed to take us to Unitech because my mum was old and we had lots of bags (conversation goes something like "Mama bilong mi em olpela na mipela gat plenti bag stret! Yu mas kisim mipela long haus bilong mi em stap long Unitech"). That didn't quite work, as they still wanted to turf us out, so then I told them I would give them an extra 5 Kina if they would do it, this did the trick.

So home at last and then the rain came for the next 3½ days, so our activities in Lae became limited. I did though take her to the Rainforest Habitat on campus and to the Melanesia Arts Centre and did the tour of the town on the local buses, which is a bit of a sight seeer in itself.

And now I am back at work, and mum is back in Oz after a no doubt eye-opening experience of PNG life. I am sure she will have a few stories to tell, after my introductory tour efforts.

I reckon if you go to a place you may as well do it like the locals.