Day M15: A Day Off School

12.10.11: Jimmy met me in the morning to take me across the bay to the local school. We knew it was going to be closed today as one of the regional governors died last weekend and the kids were given the day off as a mark of respect. But I still wanted to have a go at paddling around in a dugout canoe, so we went anyway.

The canoes in PNG are, quick frankly, cruel and unusual punishment. They’re so narrow you can’t sit in them, you have to sit on top with your legs stuffed inside, one in front of the other. The rim of the carved-out interior digs into your arse and your feet soon get pins and needles. To make matters worse, as there is only one stabiliser, if you lean to the left you run a good chance of tipping the boat over. It’s the nautical equivalent of a pair of stilettos.

I’m actually writing this entry two days after the event and my legs are still aching like I’ve been climbing pyramids. Jimmy showed me up the local mangrove-lined river which leads to the swamp, but after being told it would take an hour to get there in the canoe of uncomfortable doom, I suggested we turned around and pressed on to the school instead.

Jimmy and I drew up to the far shore of the bay. A group of little kids were playing rugby on the school field. As we walked over to one of the school buildings, Jimmy shouted out to his friend Mr. Phillips, who is a teacher at the school. Mr. Phillips shook my hand and offered to show me around the little school which teaches 800 children from the local region, some of whom have to walk for a couple of hours to get there.

Mr. Phillips and I had a good chat about the challenges of teaching in PNG: the literacy rate here is abysmal, as are the numbers of children finishing secondary education. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to suss out exactly why Papua New Guinea (a country that should, by rights, be swimming with money) is dirt poor. This is what you get when tax-dodging cretins like Bono get their own way: no free education. And from that unhappy situation spawns that fact that 90% of PNGers are unemployed and a crime rate that makes Johannesburg seem like Trumpton.

The good news is that the new Prime Minister of PNG has pledged to bring in free education from next year. From that one long-overdue act, good things will flow.

After a quick paddle back across the bay to Salamaua, Jimmy and I headed back to the house just in time to meet up with Alex who had come over in the speedboat to collect me and the seafood delights that the villagers were more than keen to sell him. I said my fond farewells to Jimmy and his family as well as the tranquil little village of Salamaua. I just hope it’s still here when I return to PNG.

That night, Alex and I cooked up a seafood feast (yum!) before he took me over to the Golf Club to meet with Stan, my original CouchSurf host who was away last week, but has now returned to Lae to take me under his wing. Stan and his mates were tucking into a meal at the Chinese restaurant next door to the clubhouse. Alex left me to it (I owe that man a bottle of scotch!) and within a couple of hours I was hanging out in Stan’s swanky new apartment overlooking the local football stadium and the deep blue sea.

Day M16: The Land That Time Forgot

13.10.11: Stan usually works out of his office in Lae, but today he needed to go up to his family’s poultry farm and asked if I’d like to come along. Knowing that it would be a lot more fun than sitting inside and waiting for internet pages to load up, I said yes please.

Bumping along the road on the way to the farm, Stan told me something that was as unexpected (but in hindsight so bloody obvious) as it was interesting: Stan’s surname is Leahy. The first white guy to make first contact with the tribes of Papua New Guinea’s Highlands (previously assumed to be uninhabited) in the 1930s was called Mick Leahy. Are they somehow related? You better believe it – Stan is Mick’s grandson. Anthropologists everywhere will hate me, but in Stan’s family home overlooking the farm are some historic artefacts that would make Indiana Jones gnaw his fist off with envy.

Mick Leahy set off from Salamaua in 1930 in search of gold. He travelled up the Markham river into PNG’s rugged interior, but there was no gold to be found. He did, however, discover a handful of tribes who had not met a traveller from another land in over 60,000 years. The following year Mick and his brother Dan were given a grant by a gold mining company to search deeper into the Highlands. Again, they didn’t find any gold, but what they did find was a bustling stone-aged civilisation of over one million people living in the Central Highlands.

You can watch clips from this very expedition here: http://aso.gov.au/titles/documentaries/first-contact/clip1/

These people had never seen aeroplanes before, they had never seen guns, they had never seen a book, a watch, a gramophone player, a pen… they had never seen a wheel. Moreover, they had never learned to use metal: this was the closest anybody has ever come to building a time machine, going back 10,000 years and chatting with the natives. Within 15 years of that first meeting, events a million miles away would conspire to produce the A-Bomb… welcome to the 20th century kids.

But just think about the stones on these guys: marching into unfamiliar territory is pretty ballsy as it is, but mountainous jungle terrain? Weeks from any possible rescue? No mobile phones, no helicopter search parties, nothing but some bandages and Savlon in case of illness: and did I mention that most of the natives were incredibly hostile and, more often than not, cannibals?

This incredible journey was captured on film at the time and forms the basis of the movie ‘First Contact’ (no relation to the Star Trek film) which I heartily implore you to watch – a moment in human history that will never and can never be repeated: the moment a stone age civilisation was catapulted into the present. It’s been 80 years since that first meeting and PNG is still finding its feet.

The Leahy family now operates a poultry farm which produces 85% of PNG’s eggs and a large proportion of its chickens. Stan gave me a bit of a guided tour around the facility which employs 900 locals. The scale of the operation is impressive, as is the fact that new born chicks are big enough for the chop when they’re just 32 days old – that’s not through steroids, by the way, but through selective breeding. As stressed birds don’t lay eggs (or simply die) it’s in the farmers interest to keep their livestock happy, and the conditions weren’t bad at all – the broiler chucks had plenty of room to move about and I’d wager the set up was 100 times better than the vast majority of other poultry farms in the third world. Complaining that the chucks aren’t allowed to go outside is a bit like complaining that a premature baby can’t leave the incubator or that a coma patient can’t go for a picnic.

That’s not to say that animals should suffer unnecessarily. Anybody who has seen the documentary Food Inc. or the recent episode of Australia’s current affairs show Four Corners concerning Indonesian live cattle imports will (quite rightly) be disgusted at what goes on when the government allows the industry to regulate itself. But as for imagining that a one month old chuck wants to go sunbathing…

After lunch (roast chicken, of course) I got to have a tour of the family home and visit granddad Mick’s grave out the back. He passed away in 1979 – just seven days after I was born. The housemaid, Mara, took me up the hill to the source of the natural spring that feeds the farm with its water. As we followed the water up the hill, I got to meet the kids of the workers. They had finished school for the day and were busy collecting firewood. One thing I really love about PNG is that everybody is so happy to have their picture taken: something that concerned me in Africa as the belief that cameras could steal your soul is still alive and well.

That evening Stan and I returned to Lae for din-dins. At around 8pm the news started filtering through that there had been a plane crash: an Airlines PNG prop plane en route from Lae to Madang… the EXACT same route and plane I took just a couple of weeks ago. The latest news is that the Aussie Pilot and New Zealander Co-Pilot survived the crash, as did the stewardess and a Chinese national – the only passenger to survive. 28 people burnt to death. Most were on their way to attend their children’s graduation ceremonies at Divine Word University in Madang.

I stayed in the Airlines PNG compound in Port Moresby and there’s a more than fair chance that I met the pilots when I was there. I’ve never been this close, both physically and emotionally, to a real plane crash. It’s a weird feeling. I’ve texted my friends at Airlines PNG, but so far I’ve heard nothing back. It’s the 20th plane crash here in PNG since 2000 – make no mistake, this country is unforgiving place.

Day M17: The Earth Moved

14.10.11: Friday passed slowly but comfortably, given the odd earthquake. Stan had left in the morning to go to an island off the coast with his family, I stayed behind in his swanky apartment cursing myself for resetting Stan’s modem the night before: Stan didn’t have his welcome letter from the internet provider in the flat, his username and password had been wiped.

Oops.

Which meant no internets and no blog updates for another week. I hope you can forgive all of these blogs coming at you thick and fast from here in The Solomon Islands Australia (spoiler!), but these things happen, especially if you allow a barely competent ginger monkey prat around with your gear.

The earthquake – which measured 6.8 on the Richter scale – struck around midday, and I was as useless as only a none-veteran of earthquakes could be. Cursing the fact that I wasn’t wearing shoes, I stood up and looked around. What should I do? Here I was on the fifth floor of an apartment overlooking the coast, on my own and the whole building was shaking. Images of South Park’s “Duck and Cover” episode flashed into my head.

Somewhere in the back of my brain came the learned notion that I should find a doorway to sit in. I don’t know if this is because doorways are somehow magical or if it’s because if a wall tips on top of you at least you won’t get squished against something, you can always move out of the room a bit. Or maybe it’s bollocks: I don’t think sitting in a doorway helped people trapped the World Trade Centre. But then that was a fire: it was different. But the building still collapsed… what if this building collapses? What if it falls down like the television building in Christchurch? Damn I wish I had shoes on. I always feel more in control of the situation when I have shoes on.

It was at this point that the earthquake stopped. I came back to reality and realised that my awesome plan for surviving a major disaster situation amounted to standing up and deciding not to hide under a doorway. I don’t know if I even deserve my awesome moustache anymore: I’m one of those who believes you have to be pretty damn awesome to deserve an awesome moustache, and as this scenario quite adroitly pointed out to me: I’m no Magnum PI.

I walked over to the balcony and looked down at the waterfront, just beyond the small footy stadium below. I started fretting about whether I would now have to survive a tsunami as well. Well, I thought, if I’m going to be swept away by a force of water the likes of which can scupper a nuclear power station, I might as well get a good shot of it coming across the pitch. I set my camera up on the balcony, just in case.

Happily, the tsunami never came and I was left alive for another day, free to pursue a life of religious fulfilment. Hurrah!

That night I met up with a guy called Ben who was the connection between Stan, my original CouchSurf host (the only CouchSurf host for Lae) and Alex, the guy I had been staying with all week. Ben also worked for Swire Shipping, but for the subsidiary called Consort which runs domestic cargo around the coasts of PNG. Ben picked me up and took me to the Yacht Club where I met a couple of his friends, had something to eat and muttered under my breath about the injustice of the ‘no hat’ rule. Heathens!

After a few too many, I was back at Stan’s flat – Stan was still away on the island, but had given me a key. It seems that despite the fact that I’m a Scouser and I broke his internets, Stan was willing to give me the benefit of the doubt. I was very careful not to break anything else.

Day M18: The Morobe Show

15.10.11: This weekend is the Morobe Show, an annual event (now in its 50th year) which started as an agricultural expo, but has now morphed into the premier cultural event of the season. If you want to get your photo taken with a Papuan tribe in all their awesome regalia, this is the place to do it.

The Papuan Chief had finally come into port at 1800 last night and there was an outside chance that it might sail today: I kept my mobile phone on extra loud ring just in case and had all of my stuff packed and ready to go. But the good news was that I would at least get to see a bit of the Morobe Show.

Ben kindly picked me up from Stan’s flat in the morning and we drove over to the showgrounds with his mates: Duncan, Tom and Chris. The crowds beyond the fence were incredible: it seemed that everyone and their dog had descended on Lae for the weekend. Once inside it was a little less hectic.

The showgrounds were mapped out around a central oval which was used throughout the day for various events: the horseracing being the most hilarious and the stunt bikes being the most fun. Tomorrow they’d have a huge ‘singsing’ in which delegates from dozens of different tribes would congregate in the oval in their outrageous costumes for the kind of dance-off that precedes a rugby match between New Zealand and Samoa.

Today was all about the Morobe Show Queen competition. Twenty contestants adorned in their village’s finest traditional costumes (which skilfully covered only the unimportant bits) competed against each other by explaining to the judges in the most monotone voices imaginable where every last feather, bead and shell of their costumes came from. The chick with the snake got my vote, just for having a snake, although some of the head-dresses were several shades of awesome… I wanna organise a tribal-themed house party as soon as I got back to the UK.

In other parts of the festival site, you’d find fruit, flowers, grain, coffee beans, tea, horses, pigs, chickens: this was, after all, an agricultural show. But for me it was all about the tribal dress. I mean, where else can you go to take a photo like this:

Serious, DUDE.
DUDE.

These guys black themselves up with oil and melted tyres. Later on in the day, one of the fellas attempted a bit of tightrope walking in the central arena. Well, I say ‘tight’ rope, but I actually mean ‘not very tight at all’ rope: he fell off a good 17 times. But you know what they say: 18th time’s a charm. He was given a rapturous round of applause.

That evening I was invited to a barbecue at Ben’s place. Ben lives in the same compound as Alex, who was leaving just as we were arriving. He wound down his car window. ‘Graham: I’ve been trying to call you all day… the Pap Chief sailed early.’

Alex looked at his watch. ‘Well, it will have sailed in about five minutes.’

My stomach punched its way into my mouth. ‘You’re kidding?’

‘We’ll have to see if we can get you on the next one.’

‘Bu-bu-bu-’, my mind raced: I had been checking my phone all day. Maybe with all the people at the show, the mobile network was too busy for me to get the message. This was a disaster: my visa would probably expire, the ships I was hoping to join in the Pacific would be all knocked out of whack, whatsmore: Mandy would kill me.

Alex couldn’t hold his serious face any longer. ‘Naaaaah… only joking – it leaves tomorrow!’ and he drove off, no doubt chuckling to himself like a James Bond villain.

Grr…

Before we cranked up the barbeque, we all decided to head over to the Golf Club and watch Wales beat France at the Rugby World Cup Semi Finals. History will show that’s what should have happened, but for some reason (must have been a dodgy satellite transmitter or something) it looked like France won by a single point.

So my last night in Lae was spent eating yummy barbecue with a merry gang of ex-pats, drinking Scotch (Alex came back) and commiserating (in spirit) with the Welsh.

Day M19: Exodus

16.10.11: Alex had told me to keep an eye on my phone for the message to head to the port. At this point, The Papuan Chief shouldn’t be leaving until 10pm, but you can never be too careful. Stan returned in the morning with his mum and her friend who was excited about going to the Morobe Show today. I had kept hold of the VIP pass I had borrowed from Duncan yesterday (no photo, all too easy) and was pretty chuffed that I was going to be able to see today’s big singsing.

We arrived sometime after 10am and headed into the showground. Hundreds of people in traditional dress – all the tribes the organisers could find – filled the track which led to the main arena. It was a National Geographic photographers’ wet dream. Even with my little two-bit Sony camera (held in my left hand, camcorder in my right) I got shots like this:

Papua New Guinea
Dude.

And this:

Papua New Guinea Mudmen Tribe
The Mudmen Tribe

And this:

Papua New Guinea Warrior Lady
Warriors... come out and play-ay...

Just think what I could have done with my right hand. And a Canon 7D.

Around midday we headed over to the main arena. The Governor General of PNG was in attendance, as were the police, army, the tribes and the winner and two runners up from yesterday’s Miss Morobe contest. As Stan and I ate sausage rolls and lamented the lack of beer (the show came with a strict liquor ban for the weekend) my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was a text message from Alex. ‘Call me urgently’.

The Papuan Chief was actually going to be leaving early. I’ve have to miss the big singsing. Well, it just gives me a good excuse to return to Lae in the near future and it’s not like I didn’t get enough great footage. Stan kindly offered to run me to the shipping office. It was time to go.

But not before I ran over to the warrior women of the Central Highlands and got this shot of me, spear in hand, leading them into battle:

Graham Hughes in Papua New Guinea
If you even DREAM of appearing in a cooler photo, you better wake up and apologise.

Stan dropped me off at the Steamships Shipping office and we said our goodbyes. The shipping agent took me onboard the mighty Papuan Chief. I was introduced to Captain Bernie Santos, Chief Mate Jerry Divinagracia, Second Mate Bert Ramos, Third Mate Jonell Salas, and Dave Varley, the Chief Engineer from Burnley. Finally! A Brit on board a cargo ship – and a Northerner an’ all. Awesome.

That evening we departed Lae. It’s taken me the best part of ten months, but I’m finally on my way. Nation 185 awaits…!

Days M20-M24: The Papuan Chief

17.10.11-21.10.11: Monday was spent at sea familiarising myself with the ship. Swire take their safety seriously: I’m not allowed out on deck unless I’m wearing a boiler suit and steel toe-capped boots. After a tour of the vessel (a 1991 Miho-Type freighter, 4 storage bays, 3 cranes, 9000HP, top speed 15.5 knots) I familiarised myself with the onboard bar “Ye Pracktickle Navigatore” and got up to speed with some of the editing and writing I’ve been putting off for months as the south coast of New Britain floated past the window.

On the Tuesday we skirted around the coast of New Ireland and arrived on the island of Lihir – home of the biggest goldmine in PNG. It’s a privately-owned port and I’d need a two-day induction to even step foot on dry land. A volcanic island located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, the mining operation had stripped one side of a mountain and vents of steam gushed out from the boiling interior of the island like some vision of hell in what would otherwise be paradise.

But, you know, gold! Who doesn’t like gold eh? Just look at all the amazing things you can do with gold! You can call your mum, take photos, film your friends falling over, surf the web, read a book, find out the way to the nearest chippy using the latest GPS technology… oh, hang on: I’m thinking of an iPhone, aren’t I?

One good thing about the goldmine is that the native inhabitants of Lihir now have a nice new geothermic powerplant. One of the bad things is that the stevedores (the guys what work the docks) only work until 5.30pm… after that the swell gets too much and craning stuff off a ship turns into a massive game of conkers. Consequently, I and all the other crewmembers denied shore-leave were couped up on the ship for not one but two nights: we didn’t leave until the Thursday.

Although in another crowning moment of awesome, Captain Santos allowed me to steer the ship as we made our departure. Turbines were being cleaned down in the Engine Rooms, so we were only going at about 5 knots, but for a few minutes I was personally helming a vessel that weighs more than the Statue of Liberty. Captain Santos laughed; ‘now you know what to do if pirates kill everybody and you have to drive the ship.’

Graham Hughes Papuan Chief
Mind that massive reef!!! Oooooops...

Indeed.

On Friday we crossed the invisible border from Papua New Guinea into The Solomon Islands and headed towards Iron Bottom Sound: the graveyard of hundreds of WWII ships and planes lost in the battle for Guadalcanal. We’re heading to Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Chief Engineer Dave has sprayed some WD40 on the pistons so we’re going to get there in record time – the last I heard we should be arriving at around 2pm local time tomorrow.

For a few moments we were close enough to an island to get a mobile phone signal. A text from Mandy arrived. ‘Gaddafi might be dead. Died from wounds.’ Captain Santos got on the Shipnet wires and confirmed the news. The Colonel is Fried Chicken. Another tyrant bites the dust. It never seems to end well for these guys, maybe they should have had better career guidance counsellors. I bet Syrian despot al-Assad will be sleeping with one eye open from now on.

25,000 Libyans died in the war to topple the Gaddafi regime. I dearly hope that tomorrow’s Libya is worthy of their sacrifice, but for now I say congratulations to the people of world’s newest democracy. Welcome back Libya.