PNG: Our sultry neighbour

By Liz Ginis 18 December 2009
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Papua New Guinea’s volatile volcanoes have rocked its people for centuries – but the resilient spirit of these islanders continues to rise above the cloaking ash.

RABUAL ASSAULTS THE SENSES. She’s hot. She’s dirty. She’s not at all the genteel South Pacific lady of days gone by. Gone are the stately avenues of mango trees, gone the whitewashed buildings of the post-war era, gone the gin-sipping expats gathered on wide verandahs to escape the heat.

Today, Rabaul – on the northern tip of New Britain, Papua New Guinea – is a volcano town. Ash pours from the cone of Mt Tavurvur, 6.5 km to the south-east, and hitches a ride on the sweating air. Metre upon metre of the sticky black stuff stifles the streets, the buildings and the hardy souls who dwell here.

Yet for all this, life persists. You’ll see it in the bloom of a frangipani – purest white, flashes of yellow, and half the size of a man’s hand. You’ll see it in the grin of a boy who’s just reeled in a string of skipjack he’s off to market to sell, or in the banter of a father, mother and son peddling handicrafts a long stone’s throw from the base of the tempestuous beast that stole their land and with it their subsistence living. From cloying jungle to Simpson Harbour – the town’s bookends – people here are committed to surviving.

Susie Alexander can attest to this. She’s Rabaul born and bred, minus five boarding-school years in Australia and a brief affair with the Young Nationals; she worked in its Gold Coast office in the late ’80s. Today she runs the Rabaul Hotel, a welcome respite for visitors from the sapping heat and ash.

“What an idyllic childhood I had,” she says. “Before the volcano erupted in ’94 this town was wonderful. People, parties; we lived in paradise. There was aristocracy, plantation houses, tennis courts. We had three cinemas, clubs, swimming pools. People made millions; the kina [PGK, PNG’s unit of currency] was worth more than the US dollar. Rabaul was called the ‘Pearl of the Pacific’. Now it’s more Pompeii than pearl.”

Mt Tavurvur (meaning ‘the hornet’s nest’ in the local Tolai language, and colloquially known as ‘Tav’) erupted at 6.30 a.m. on 19 September 1994 and wiped out much of Rabaul. its main street, Mango Avenue, is no more, nor is the Rabaul international airport, its runways buried beneath metres of ash. Amazingly, only seven people perished: five in collapsed houses, one struck by lightning (volcanoes generate their own weather patterns) and one child run over by a car during the exodus of 30,000 people.

“We’d been waiting for the eruption for 36 hours or so,” Susie says. “The seismic activity was unbelievable. Word went out at about 6 p.m. the night before and we all left, and 12 hours later Tav blew. About an hour after that Vulcan [another volcano in the Rabaul caldera] went too. Rabaul copped it from both sides.” By 10.30 a.m. that day the ash cloud had reached an altitude of 18 km and covered much of PNG. By the beginning of October, Vulcan had fallen silent. Tav spewed constant ash for another three and a half months. Since then, Tav has blown a number of times, the most significant eruption occurring in October 2006. “If it wasn’t for favourable winds, the damage could have been far worse than in 1994,” Susie says.


Today, the town consists of a collection of corrugated-iron buildings, many owned by Chinese traders who pay little but feed workers (which perhaps is worth more given the land of Rabaul manages to grow very little); there’s also a police station, a yacht club, a historical society (managed by Susie), a shipping terminal and an open-air market.

Albert Koni lives with his wife, three children, sister-in-law and her brother in a traditional 4 x 4 m coconut-palm-tree hut in the tiny village of nearby Matupit. “We’ve tried planting things like bananas but the wind changes [dumping ash] and it’s finished,” he says. Albert’s one of the lucky few to have found employment in Rabaul – as a city ranger for the local government. His modest wage supports the entire family.

For others, income is gleaned from digging up and selling megapode eggs. The New Guinea scrubfowl (Megapodius affinis), also known as a mound builder or incubator bird, relies on the heat produced by volcanic action to incubate its eggs at a constant temperature of 33ºC, burying them up to 1.8 m deep in the warm ash and soil around the volcano’s base. Twice the size of a regular hen’s egg and practically all yolk, each one sells for PGK2 ($0.85) at Rabaul market.

Albert’s hopeful a promised PNG Government resettlement program will go ahead for his family sooner rather than later. “About 500 people have already been resettled about one-and-a-half hours’ drive east of Rabaul, but there’s still 2000 people living here,” he says. “We were supposed to move last year but then there was a dispute over the land.”

Throughout PNG, property is owned by clans and it’s tightly held, historically won through warfare and brutally defended, including the beheading and cannibalising of the losers. “We’re supposed to have a 20 x 20 m piece of land on which we’ll build our house, kitchen and toilet, and have room to grow crops,” Albert says. “I need land; it’s what I know.”

Tribal lines of Papua New Guinea

PNG is home to more than 6 million people, 85 per cent of whom still reside in traditional huts and grow their own food. They’re known collectively as Papua New Guineans, although tribal or regional names, such as Tolai, Simbu and Huli are also used. It is one of the most diverse indigenous populations in the world – PNG’s 20 provinces comprise thousands of communities, each with its own customs and traditions, and many with their own language. After five days in Rabaul, I join 96 passengers aboard the 103-m MV Orion for an expedition cruise along PNG’s north coast. Led by Cairns-based program coordinator Justin Friend, the 11-day cruise is designed to bring us into intimate contact with a selection of PNG’s villages and their residents.

After more than 10 years in PNG, including marriage to a highlands woman, two highland wedding feasts and an axe-wielding father-in-law, Justin understands this part of the world very well – which is no mean feat, considering there are an estimated 800 traditional languages in PNG. While the nation’s official language is English, the most commonly used is Melanesian pidgin (or Tok Pisin), a combination of English, German (colonial masters of New Guinea’s north-east from 1884 until 1914) and some local tongue, which consists of 22 letters. “I learned it using the Bible,” Justin says. “That, and trying to make the ‘dim-dim’ [white person] understood by the locals.”

During the first night’s passenger briefing, Justin explains the significance of the wantok (or clan) system, the glue that holds PNG society together. “Wantok literally means ‘one talk’ and refers to a cultural responsibility to look after people,” Justin says. “The wantok system is great. It’s why nobody in PNG should go hungry, or need to ask for help with things like building a house. But it’s also terrible. For instance, if there’s a candidate up for election from your wantok, it’s your obligation to vote for them, whether or not you believe in their politics or their ability to do the job. It’s what keeps the country together, but also what holds it back.” 


The Betel nut, a cultural staple

Similar to the wantok system, buai (pronounced boo-eye), or betel nut, is a cultural staple in PNG – no wedding, funeral, peacemaking ceremony or any daily activity, really, can be observed without the ritual chewing of it. Mixed with a mustard stick, or ‘daka’ (from the pepper plant), and lime (derived from ground shell or coral, rapidly heated and then cooled), it produces an addictive hit similar to the effect of simultaneously smoking a cigarette and drinking a shot of coffee.

It’s blood-red, stains teeth and gums, is said to suppress the appetite and is responsible for many health problems, including diseases such as tuberculosis (spread by the spittle that the user ejects onto the ground) and mouth cancer, which kills at least 2000 Papua New Guineans a year. Yet such is the cultural importance of buai that some 400 million people worldwide chew it.
The 500 residents of Watam are no exception. Betel nut doesn’t grow here, at the north-western end of Broken Water Bay, south of the mouth of the mighty Sepik River on the north coast of the PNG mainland. Instead, during the weekly market day (Thursday) villagers from upstream, up to five-and-a-half hours’ travel in a dugout canoe, trade betel nut for the produce that does thrive here – bananas, pumpkins and yams.

Crocodile, or ‘puk puk’, is also on the menu. “We hunt at night, using a torch to show their eyes,” Watam resident Moses Auka says. “To catch the small ones, we use our hands, and for the big ones, we spear them in their legs [so as not to damage the skin]. We skin them, smoke or boil the meat to eat, and sell the skin in the major centres [Madang or Lae]. It’s one of our main means of income.”

The cassowary is another source of protein for the people of Watam, while the plumes of birds of paradise adorn ceremonial headdresses. “They’re very intelligent,” Moses says. “Difficult too, like the cassowary – you’ve got to watch their strong legs.”

Sago, however, is the dietary staple of Watam and many other villages throughout PNG. Chipped from the sago palm’s fibrous trunk, the woody pulp is forced through a sieve with water, and the glutinous end product is moulded into a loaf-like shape, wrapped in sago bark, and is then cooked for a minute or so in the blazing fire. The children chew the sooty skin of the loaf like bubblegum.

Culinary delicacies of PNG

“We’re a multipurpose people,” Lance Noel says. “We fish, get gardens ready, grow crops, build houses, make canoes, raise chickens, cook…”

We are standing beside ‘pali’, a steaming puddle in a series of hot springs, bubbling mud pools and spouting geysers on Fergusson Island, 60 km off the south-eastern tip of the PNG mainland. Lance lives on the island’s east coast with about 400 residents of Dei Dei village and says pali is used for cooking.

“Food [bananas and yams] is put in woven pandanus-leaf baskets; then our people put rocks on top of the baskets to stop them from moving into the centre of the water. We use a stick with rope tied to it to pull them out.” It takes only minutes for the fruit and vegies to cook. “A river over there,” Lance says, pointing towards a tangle of jungle, “is where our people do laundry. It’s warm water, but not too hot.”

As we wander the island Lance points out pandanus, pitcher-plants, palm, breadfruit and coconut, as well as a tree with red berries, which, although he can’t remember its name, he says is a property marker. “If you’re anywhere out in the bush and you come across this plant, you know the land belongs to another clan,” Lance says.

Native animals, too, are a vital component of village life, mostly for food but sometimes companionship. Lance has a knack for finding cuscus. “You find them in hollow trees and dead sago during the day,” he says. “We keep them as pets. They’re very clever. It’s like playing with a small child.”

But he’s most keen on the island’s endemic Goldie’s bird of paradise. “You have to go way up into the hills behind the springs to find them,” he says. There are, in fact, 43 bird of paradise species in PNG. Which comes as no surprise when you learn it’s one of the Earth’s 17 megadiverse regions, according to the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, due largely to its isolated mountain ranges and lowland grasslands, jungle and rainforest.

PNG has about 240 mammal and 700 bird species, many of which are also found in northern Australia – which makes sense, given that the two land masses are geological siblings. During periods of low sea level, a land bridge between the two enabled easy exchange of species – today exemplified in the shared distribution of animals such as the southern cassowary, short-beaked echidna and green tree python. New Guinea is also home to the world’s largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra’s birdwing (females have a wingspan of 30 cm), and 2000 recorded varieties of orchid. A biological frontier largely unexplored, the island nation is yet to give up many of its secrets and the best bet in uncovering them is spending time with people such as Lance.
“We’ve lived here forever,” he says. “We don’t think something’s unusual until visitors come and tell us they’ve never seen anything like it before.”

Thousands of years of PNG tradition

A few days before, back in Watam, I’d watched men prepare for a ‘subuaric’ or canoe singsing – a traditional welcome for visitors. The ceremony was enacted in a sacred cultural house – an open-ended A-frame hut – behind a 2 m high fence bound with coconut-palm twine.

The larger-than-life Jimmy Kakos secured his headpiece – row upon row of dogs’ yellowing canines – around his forehead, which, like his face, was painted blood-red. Others attached cowrie-shell straps to calves and biceps before tying off their headdresses – kaleidoscopic collections of feathers from cockatoos, cassowaries and birds of paradise.

But it was the ceremonial centrepiece, ‘ngomer’ – the dragon, or water serpent – waiting in the cultural house, which held my attention. Measuring 10 m in length and requiring 15 men to carry, it’s a bold work of art comprising flowers, shells, leaves, feathers and fruit assembled over a sturdy wooden frame. Throughout PNG, belief in custom is universal, as are men’s cultural houses and the depiction of different spirits during ceremonial events. Justin explained that the water serpent was carefully chosen for this welcoming ceremony as we, the visitors, had come from the sea.

Another matter for men is the rhythm of the family garamut, a hardwood drum (a length of tree trunk, laying on its side) up to 5 m long used for communication over long distances. Each family’s beat is different and is passed down from father to son. How far the sound travels depends on the drum’s size. “You don’t actually send a specific message, like, ‘Come home and chip sago,'” villager Henry Kakos Aipap said, standing beside his elaborately carved garamut. “It tells you there’s a message waiting for you at your village and you better get home.”
The beating of another drum, the smaller hand-held kundu, signalled that singsing was about to begin.

The serpent swayed wildly from side to side; feet stamped in unison while male voices filled the thick, sticky morning air. It was mesmerising. It’s the beat of a million hearts over tens of thousands of years. It is the enduring rhythm of PNG.

Source: Australian Geographic Issue 97 (Jan – Mar, 2010).