Archive for the 'voyages' Category

Too-rah!

At about twenty past four in the morning I had what is called a “blowout”. As far as I know a blowout is when an item of footwear – usually a thong, but sometimes a shoe or in this case a sandal – suffers fatal damage to a strap or some other bit that is essential if you need the piece of footwear to remain on one’s feet. The timing was almost perfect. The sandals had been loyal and enduring for two years, three months and the woozy small hours of one day. If they had lasted another eight hours they would have got me all the way home.

It was December 15th 2010 and we had just finished loading our neighbour’s car for the final run to Jackson’s. We’d made the dead man’s watch trip to the airport a few times to help out needy mates and fellow volunteers. We’d be back in bed by five thirty or so – just enough time to lie awake and ponder the futility of getting back to sleep before the neighbours starting clanging and bellowing. But this time it was our turn to be deposited for the check-in queue and the discombobulated wait for boarding. We were pretty much gone.

Five minutes before the fateful blowout I fulfilled a small promise I had made to myself. I stepped out onto the balcony and took in the view for a final few moments. I recall that the streets were quiet, the stillness exerting a sense of calm and order that was incongruous with the day-to-day reality of the city we were about to leave. The Mobil service station had its big street light on (the letter ‘o’ still suffering from its own blowout suffered months before), the light on our own street illuminated the big pile of dirt scraped off the hillside where the new neighbours had carved out a driveway to their home, but otherwise the darkness of a city with few street lights dominated. The garish daylight that was a constant factor to be endured, avoided and overcome was not present. Nor were the crowds, the hurtling fish-like schools of PMV buses, the insidious dust, or the haphazard hubbub of a city replete with rules rarely obeyed.

I had expected a swelling of confusion or nostalgia or giddy trepidation. Some kind of emotion worthy of the occasion – my final view of the place that had been home, from the balcony we loved, in the humble home that had kept us insulated from the worst and cocooned us inside with the best, the home where (among other things) we decided to get married for God’s sake!

What I actually felt at the time was my belly feels funny. Not because I was nervous or overwhelmed, but because my belly always feels funny when I get up too early. That’s all. Maybe I should have saved one last SP for the moment. I took it all in for a minute or so, then stepped inside and locked the door to the balcony for what I guess will be the last time.

Minutes later I suffered the blowout. I tossed the sandals into the bin like the newest piece of junk they were and got in the waiting car. The security guard did not take too long to wake up and open the gate. The deluge the previous afternoon had created a wild new mound of soil to traverse halfway up the road. Otherwise nothing was unusual. Goodbye Waigani Heights. Dare I say it? Until next time.

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Tavurvur and the dead town

You go to visit the wasteland because that’s just what you do when in East New Britain. It’s a beautiful part of the world. The bay arcs inward like an undulating blue plate, with sunlight glistening on top as if the sea is crested with flecks of silver or tin. The jungle creeps down and meets the sea, in many places foliage dripping over the spots where the water kisses the sand and rock. Dripping. Of course it’s a hot place. When you step outside the air conditioning you almost immediately find yourself in the clammy grip of sweat. The perspiration mingles with the dust from the gravel roads, and soon you are ragged and gritty.

You drive to the other side of the bay, where your objective waits like a mostly-dead limb just waiting for the final rot and wilt befor utter abandonment, amputation from the world. Rabaul is the place, and it is an unlucky place, having been smashed by eruptions in 1937, then reduced to rubble by the vengeful bombs and strafes of allied war planes in World War 2. Two volcanoes trashed the place in 1994, belching black ash and rubble across the town, pressing the buildings into the ground like a great sooty thumb would slowly, cruelly crush a bug. Vulcan sits languidly across the bay from Rabaul, again covered by tree, vine and grass. It’s gone undercover until people let their guard down once more. Tavurvur meanwhile still snarls with life. Vapours seethe from cracks in the grey flanks. Its exterior looks dead, but inside the roar of the eath’s fires are very much alive. Ancient, vital, ruinous. Its language is sulphurous and its grim dominance of the western side of the bay shows contempt for both the town that once was and the meagre concerns of the people who have scrambled about in its shadows for so long. Vulcan is deceitful, disguised by jungle, preparing for the next assault. Tavurvur meanwhile gloats. One day, says the mountain, I will crush everything here. If you are here, I will destroy you. If not, your descendents. If your town remains, I will consume it. If it has rotted away then so be it, I will have the jungle. This place is mine.

The streets of Rabaul, and the road leading to the town, are in poor shape. While the basic activities of life and commerce are evident, it does not seem anyone is willing to do more than the bare minimum to keep things in order. Wide streets are half closed, and you often have to avoid mounds of ash and dust that pile onto the cracked bitumen. On either side of the road the evidence of 1994 can be seen – piles of volcano dust, in some places as high as the car, in other places higher. The market has been rebuilt and is active, and green has started to reassert itself in many places. There are some buildings that remain only because their owners were intrepid or foolish enough to stay in town while the fury of Vulcan and Tavurvur was at its strongest. These stubborn folk had realised what those who fled would not discover until afterwards – that only ash and dust fell on the town. All it took to save the buildings was stout-heartedness, a strong broom, a daily climb onto the roof, and a few lungfuls of the earth’s disgorged detritus. Once Rabaul was the Pacific’s jewel. Then under the Japanese it became a bristling steel crown, a hub of conquest frequented by submarines, ships and soldiers en route to meet death at places like Milne Bay, Buna-Gona, Salamaua, Kokoda. Now, Rabaul is barely there at all.

Nonetheless there is a still a hotel, complete with a retaining wall facing the street. “The street is now higher than my carpark” explains the owner with an exuberance that seems very much out of place. The wall is needed to keep the front door and carpark from being consumed by the same dead blanket that took most of the town. Driving in and out of the carpark involved negotiating a ramp of ash and dirt. We eat at the restaurant, enjoy the boisterous and ebullient greetings from the proprietor, and wonder if it’s real. Inside, a restaurant with complete Chinese-Western menu (burgers or chow mein, your choice) has a handful of customers, including the owner and three friends celebrating a birthday. Outside it’s Mordor by the beach.

The proprietor was exceptionally eager to recommend some places, and we followed her directions to a place where volcanic gas reputedly fizzed up in the water. Turn left just before the yacht club (apparently still open for business, we didn’t check), a right soon after, and you arrive at the original objective. Wasteland, desolation, blasted nothing-place ornamented only by stark rows of denuded coconut palms, dead sentinels keeping watch in a bright tropical Tartarus.

Soon enough we have company. Eight girls from the nearby Matupit Island hail us down and correctly guess our destination. The two youngest clamber inside the back of our cabin, uninvited and unabashed. They are all covered in grit but are not bowed or dour. They shriek and giggle and deliver quick directions in pisin. Go an tap likilik. We come to a path marked by a few hundred metres of upright sticks rammed into the dust, eerie markers that looked like they should be topped with skulls and other grisly trophies. The girls in the back blather away some more but I glean the word ‘namel‘, ‘middle’, and I remember the hotel owner mentioning that at one stage we’d have to follow the road marked by the sticks. Aside from the sticks however only bare remnants of tyre marks indicate any kind of beaten route in the grey ash. A few hundred metres later and we are halted before a makeshift gate (preventing access how exactly to anywhere was beyond me). A man slumbered, not bothered by the dust that whipped at his flimsy garment, enjoying the single patch of shade he could scrounge underneath a simple humpy of dried palm leaves. The girls woke him and he opened the gate for the usual visitors’ fee, telling us we were most welcome. His hair was like wire and his eyes were the kind that belong to the perpetually allergic – or the forever grieving. We waved to the man and then, again, onward.

Soon after we disembarked and walked the last few metres to the spring, where the sea water was hot to touch and the air was sulphuric. The girls wanted to sell us necklaces. When we didn’t seem too interested one started talking in quiet tones about the life they all led on Matupit. Insufficient soil for good gardens. A trek to Rabaul town for water. Most trees denuded by the volcanoes in 1994, with any later attempts at growth smothered by more ashfall. She told me this as we approached the bay, and I could see her home across a few hundred metres of water. It looked like one or two hundred small homes still stood, in spite of the dead world around them. Their presence did not seem like act of defiance, just existence. The people who could go had already left years ago. The people remained ate, drank and washed in dust every day. Soon enough they would choke on it. There was no way these girls could live beyond forty or fifty if they stayed there. Nothing but the forlorn. I bought a shell off the girl, dazed by the dead spectacle, and amazed that the young women before me were anything more than zombies.

We drove back and dropped them where we found them with a spare bottle of water. A sad awe filled me as we traversed the desolation again, driving over the empty expanse where the old airstrip was and glimpsing more and more wrecked buildings as we neared town. Some remained in Rabaul because of some kind of stubborn insistence, but others stayed because their lives were this place and could not be any other. Young and slender things destined for gauntness and a final splutter, to be given back prematurely to the mad angry god that owned the place. Sadness and doom, nostalgia and gloom. We endured the road back east, and for all the stark splendour of the volcano’s domain I was glad to be among green once more.

Guria!

It was a bad night for sleep.

It’s good to get out of Port Moronsby to refresh your memory of the PNG outside of the gritty shitty mini-metropolis. Goroka is a great place for revitalising whatever one loves about PNG. Cool, green, whiskey-drinking weather rather than gin-soaked baking heat. Bananas grow alongside conifers and eucalypts, it is like some melange of Australian high country and European lower alps with a generous dose of the tropics. The sun still burns but the shade is cool and even cold – bring your hoodie. Also, pigs frolic in the park and snuffle around in the grass looking for worms. The last time I was here I got a photo of one specimen heaving its way though a mound of garbage (sadly Goroka does not escape this ubiquitous PNG landscape feature), but I didn’t take many as I was getting looks from people that seemed a tad displeased – like what the HELL are you doing taking pictures of OUR RUBBISH HEAP?

Anyway, Goroka. The big disadvantage I have with travelling is sleep. I usually take one or two nights to learn how to sleep properly in a new place. Last night’s efforts were not assisted by the two security men who kept their conversations going all night, and the other guest who somewhere had the TV going until well past 2 am. And of course there was a bloody dog, the kind who routinely starts up some outraged carry-on at the hint of anyone walking around during suspicious hours. Wuff wuff wuff, good dog – but did anyone tell this canine crusader that this in PNG and that there’s ALWAYS going to be people strolling around without purpose at any god forsaken hour? Save your noise for when there’s some serious mauling to be done, please, like when a raskol tries to steal the pig or something.

Sleep came eventually in dribbles, and you take what you can get because its still better than nothing. The intermittent disturbances kept me fitful and edgy, but there was nothing to be done about it outside of a ludicrous bosman hissy fit, which is never a good look at 3 am, especially as this is a good time to forget one sleeps with nothing on.

At one stage I had managed to coax a nice stint of sleep from the reluctant night, only to be shaken awake. Strangely there was nobody in the room to shake me. The room itself was shaking – short rapid one-two-one-twos, as if the building was sitting on a big sieve and some godly hand was trying to shake the smaller particles down – particles like me. A generator, I thought. Some useless goon is starting the biggest generator in the world under my room, the bastard. We had been witness to a blackout in town earlier, which had been amusing – the tinny music from the shops had stopped, the noise of power tools was abruptly stilled, the lights had just died. I figured the same had happened in the middle of the night and the generator was bucking and kicking into life. Pretty quiet for a generator though. Indeed the only noise was the room itself, rattling like a wooden box full of bones. It only went on for ten seconds or so and then it was over. Mercifully sleep came again, swiftly and without argument.

So that was how I lost my seismic virginity, and didn’t even know it at the time. First time for everything, and now thanks to PNG I have enjoyed my first volcanic belching and been wobbled through my first earthquake. I know there’s plenty of disastrous stories involving these strange events but I’m happy enough keeping mine in the dumb and harmless category. Not so hard core but hey, its GOOD to have a guest house to go back to this evening. Can’t imagine my sleep this evening would be too great curled up on top of a pile of splinters and rubble after all.

Tavurvur

The Sunday night viewing at the bar was some new (to me) Channel 7 program, by all appearances another version of the travestial Today Tonight with an attempted veneer of Sunday evening respectability complete with Mike Munro’s fat head offering as much solemn reassurance as one can handle before vomiting (and when pray tell did Mr Munro get boned by Channel 9?). The content of one segment was particularly alarmist and stupid. It was a story of a Volcano that threatened all life as we know it on the Australian continent, potentially with the powers to black out the sun, choke crops with ash, cast a devil’s rain on our big cities, kill the Wiggles and the Bananas in Pyjamas and Peter Garrett etc etc… A solemn expert provided a series of evil portents while the intrepid reporter, a poxy Englishman with a penchant for annoying outdoor adventure gear, made a big deal about smoke and brimstone.

The audience around me at the bar was scornful. Claims of apocalypse were met with snorts and derision. A picture of a hotel pool filled with ash promted the response: “I know the owner of that place, the bugger filled it with mud himself for the publicity.” Footage of a bedgraggled man shovelling grey sludge was hooted at: “Great! They’re cleaning up the yacht club!” In other circumstances it would be pigheaded expatriate bravado, but here it was amusing. We were less than forty kilometres from the same volcano showing on the TV after all. I was happy to forgive the expats’ tone for another reason – I had flown into Kokopo that afternoon and was bemused to be viewing a TV show beamed over from Australia on my very first night, detailing the direst forecasts regarding the volcano that was across the large bay from where I was staying. At the table where I sat you could run your hand over the surface and feel the grit of the volcanic dust. You could do the same on any outdoor surface, balcony railing, or set of stairs. It felt like fine sawdust, as if hard work with a circular saw and a few dozen metres of lumber had just been completed. This is what I had absent-mindedly thought as I stared out at the ocean from the balcony outside my hotel room door. There was indeed construction going on that possibly reinforced the idea. Then as I idly wondered at what a volcano actually looked like the fact clicked. Of course. Volcanic ash.

It felt fine but gritty, and it was dark. Although it was periodically effaced from the hotel with mop, cloth and broom you couldn’t elude the raspiness on the fingers and palms. I wanted to rinse my hands every forty seconds. Although the floors and tabletops were clean thanks to the tireless cleaning regime the roadside gutters were caked thick. It was heavy grey sludge. A few feet of the stuff and you’d have a collapsed roof. This is incidentally what befell Rabaul, former jewel of the Pacific and possibly one of the most unfortunate towns ever built (volcano in 1937, then bombing by the allies in WW2, then the volcano again in 1994). No lava hit the town in 1994, just ashfall. The residents fled, and the town was not swept away so much as apparently crushed. I say ‘apparently’ because I didn’t see it for myself, yet. I’m told it’s like a piece of the moon landed in paradise. Huge tracts of Rabaul town have been abandoned, yet the residents who moved nearby still eat dust.

I saw Tavurvur a few times as I went about my work in Kokopo over the next couple of days. My colleague and I sat on the gold course on our final morning and munched hot cross buns and rambutans. He got on his mobile phone and chatted to half the residents of East New Britain, while I interrupted his conversations every forty to eighty seconds with ‘look out! it’s doing it again!’ or ‘shit! that’s a big one!’ or, in my wildest fantasies, ‘THARRR SHE BLOWS!’. A big white cloud hovered over Tavurvur, fed by the pillars of steam, the only blemish on an otherwise cloudless morning sky. Up, up geysered the steam and ash and dust, the wind sweeping the heavier particles around the province while always above lurked the bulging white cloud, proclaiming to all: “In case you weren’t told, this is a dead-set fucking volcano”. Most gouts were white bursts of steam and gas that billowed lazily up and out, but every four or five bursts was dense, grey stuff that surged up and out at a startling rate – my own (not so rigorous, admittedly) reckoning put the grey plumes about 150 to 200 metres in the air in less than fifteen seconds. The silence of the spectacle viewed from the comfort of a shady patch of fairway was mesmerising and surreal. I could have watched it for hours. I thought of stories of islanders worshipping active volcanos in the past: from what I’ve seen they’re still worthy of respect these days. That’s coming from someone who hasn’t felt the ground shake beneath them yet, let alone witness molten rock sweep in their direction. But that’s OK. I trust your reputation Tavurvur. If you say you’re badass, then by all means – you’re one baaaaaaaadddaaaaaasssssss mofo.

When the wind blows in the right (wrong?) direction no flights get in and out of Kokopo airport. This isn’t the kind of tragedy you’d think, seeing as East New Britain is yet another nice slice of paradise to be found in PNG. They seem to have nice roads in ENB, which seems a strange thing to appreciate – but anyone who has driven around Moresby will understand. You can catch a motorboat from the beach in Kokopo to New Ireland, or just sit there and watch as they hurtle in from their morning run from Kavieng in small fleets of three or four boats. They have rambutans in ENB as well, but you can’t take them back to the mainland  – as I discovered at the airport as we prepared to leave. Something to do with a malevolent borer beetle. I broke open the wild, primitive-looking fruit and tried to eat as many of the lychee-like fleshy bits found in each one. I couldn’t eat them all so I offered them to the security guards who told me I couldn’t take them with me. They wanted none.

“Bigpla pik blong Kwin i bai kam!”

Pigs are fantastic beasts. I was smacked by this revelation as we stood under the twilight stars and lazy palms negotiating a price for a boat ride the following day. While our companion discussed the details with the boat owner I looked around and saw two mottled swine rummaging through foliage. One was seized by an urge and backed itself against the trunk of a palm, vigorously scratching its backside by rubbing it against the tree. For some the purest image of uninhibited freedom is a hawk in flight or perhaps a motorcyclist at top speed. For me it is a pig shamelessly scratching its arse on a coconut palm in the tropical twilight. This may be linked with my outlook on life. For some, the ultimate itch to scratch is that of itchy feet, relieved only by travails across the globe and residences in exotic cities. For others, sex or addictions. My equivalent is much baser, and much more easy to satisfy – provided one has a similar attitude to a pig in paradise.

I have found that the best justice I can give our two weeks away can really be best rendered in momentary glimpses, the snippets of memory that persist vividly despite the jumbled competition of everything else that preoccupies me. The best of these images of our two weeks away, especially during our two nights in the Eastern Highlands, are all swine-related – as evidenced by the example above, or the too-cute piglet tied by the leg to a Goroka pikinini as they both sat and waited for ‘mum’. Other pig related moments also stick solidly in the mind – like the nun we heard on ABC radio who was explaining the source of tribal conflict in the Highlands – invariably land, women and (of course) pigs.

What beast can stand atop a heaped mound of organic market refuse, snout its way through the debris until it finds something edible, and still look magnificent? Only the mighty Highlands swine! These fantastic animals have no fear or hindrance, and seemed to roam parts of Goroka as one would expect a stray dog to – except there would never, ever be a ‘stray’ pig in PNG. The animals seemingly face only two grave dangers in life. The first danger is that of the speeeding PMV. These vehicles – typically fifteen-seater minibuses – career recklessly around the sharp corners and over poorly-maintained bitumen up and down the length of the Highlands Highway, from Wabag or Mendi to Mount Hagen, Hagen to Goroka via Kundiawa, from Goroka to Lae or Madang on the coast (the Madang-Goroka route was incidentally the trip we took, up into the Eastern Highlands and back – what a ride!). Villages line the highway, inhabited by people who are not accustomed to the general rules of road safety that are drilled into the typical suburban Aussie kids’ head (Get off the road! Get here! I said get off the bloody road! etc etc). Mind you there are many suburban Aussie roads that are trafficked more heavily than the Highlands Highway, by vehicles that often travel faster – except the PMVs. With a roadside population unfettered by road safety worries, it can be understood why concern for animals straying onto the road is also minimal. Thus the three (maybe more) situations on our rides to and from Goroka where the PMV we were in had to brake suddenly, veer wildly, or simply rely on the self-preservation instincts of the unsuspecting pig who moments before had been snorting away, merrily and unmolested, on a nice sunny patch of road. Our PMV drivers were both skilled and lucky, and no pigs were killed or injured during our travels, however there is no way every pig on the highway could be so fortunate.

The unfortunate event of a pig’s injury or death is not a cheap one. I have been told of a Chinese saying, that if you run over a chicken then it’s the chicken’s fault, but if you run over a duck it’s definitely YOUR fault. Substitute the chicken for a skinny dog and a duck for a mighty Highlands hog and you have a pretty solid PNG aphorism too. You accidentally kill a pig, then you’d better have some handy cash – maybe half a grand, maybe two grand, depending on how angry the villagers are, how big the pig is, and whether or not you managed to speed away without anyone taking note of the vehicle you were in. Pigs are items of huge value, especially in the Highlands, they are not killed and eaten willy-nilly. They have ceremonial functions, and are ‘outlaid’ to settle tribal disputes, bride prices, or to honour guests of high esteem. It is simply not cool to smash one up with your car.

This brings us to the other certain danger of the Highlands pig – the mumu. A mumu is a feast, involving the cooking of pigs and other (less important and delicious) items underground using the hot-rocks technique. A mumu takes hours and is accompanied by an event of great significance – as aforementioned, a wedding, or the brokering of peace between feuding parties, and honoured guest, or maybe an aspiring leader trying to impress his ‘constituents’ with his magnanimity and generosity (and thus consolidate his constituents’ obligation to support him in elections). Many, many pigs have died over the ages thanks to the threat of the mumu, often en masse. They often don’t die well from what I have read – accounts include pigs only just stunned being thrown onto fires to burn off their coats of hair, or bludgeoned brutally by hands wielding sticks, the same hands that until moments before had nurtured the animal, fed it and comforted it with as much pride and dedication as would be given a human child – perhaps more. A dire end to a previously unfettered life of luxury. This was probably the fate of the pig who we saw trussed and hanging from a long pole carried between two men as we sped on our way back to Madang.

Another great pig memory is indeed not even my memory, and it actually had little to do with any pig whatsoever. Martin is a friend who we met in Madang, a film-maker who is from Rabaul but who lives in Germany (prospects in the movie industry are better in Europe). He recounted a tale from his youth, when the Queen sent an elephant on tour of Papua New Guinea as a gesture to celebrate the territory’s imminent independence. The arrival of the great beast was in the offing and many villagers of all ages clamoured exitedly by the roads, giddy with anticipation. A large motor was heard in the distance and the word spread rapidly – “bigpla pik blong Kwin i bai kam!” The Queen’s big pig is coming!