Well, let’s start this post with some good news, shall we? The long-expected first shipment of Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Papua New Guinea occurred this week. This is a major event for the country as it is the culmination of years of work and a $19 Billion investment by Exxon-Mobil and others in this country. It will earn much-needed money for the government, which can be used to make this place a little less shitty.
This is a dangerous and chaotic country for many reasons. The root causes of the difficulties are hard to trace but if I had to name the top contender I would go with tribalism. The fact that the average Papua New Guinean’s loyalty lies first to the tribe (the “Wantoks” as they are called here – loosely the people who have “One Talk” i.e. the same language). The first rule of PNG society is “Look after your Wantoks”. Loyalty to the community and the nation come way down the list. What that means in practice is that people will circumvent rules, ignore the enforcement of laws, and generally allow chaos to take over rather than confronting a wontok. It also means that there is often fierce rivalry between tribes. And that loyalty is not surprising given that for millennia the peoples of this country lived in isolation and contact with other tribes was often violent. If one grows up in a neighbourhood where the neighbours, given the chance, may well eat you for dinner, it tends to result in strong loyalty to one’s own tribe.
A modern day example of this arose recently in some horrendous clashes been tribes arguing over the spoils of a large gas mine. Four people were killed in a huge gun battle, including a pregnant woman.
Relations between the public and the police in PNG are not exactly cordial. At times they are downright frosty, or even violent. In this incident in Chimbu Province back in March, seven police were injured and seven police cars were burned. These fights are often in retaliation for a wrong done by one party towards another. In this case, the fun started when someone was killed in a nightclub confrontation that escalated out of control.
But fear not, the chaos is being brought to heel by 75 Australian police who are here helping out the PNG police in a bilateral programme that was set up last year. Of course, they don’t carry guns. And they don’t seem to be doing much about the violence, corruption or constant carjackings. However, they are definitely getting involved. Here is a picture of one directing traffic on a street in Port Moresby.
There are occasional rays of hope though. Here, PNG police (armed to the teeth) are entering some of the portals to hell known as local markets and trying to stem the tide of violent crime that is undermining them. Some of the incidents that occur in these markets belong in the most disturbing of horror films, but for the people of PNG these places are the equivalent of a local shopping mall. Clearly, there is much to be done.
If the violence doesn’t kill you in this country, there’s a reasonable chance that Malaria will. A recent study showed that 90% of the country is exposed to this disease that still kills about 700,000 people worldwide every year.
In case all of the above weren’t enough of a challenge for PNG, there are continued tensions with neighbouring Indonesia over the rebels fighting to free West Papua. They tend to flee over the porous border to escape the Indonesian troops, which was led to skirmishes between Indonesian and Papua New Guinean soldiers.
I recently took a weekend trip to Tufi on the North Coast of Papua New Guinea. I have been feeling guilty about not having travelled much around the country. However, the primary reason is that travel here is quite expensive. There is no highway that links the major cities to Port Moresby. As a result, if one wants to see any other part of the country one nearly always has to fly there.
Since the number of passengers on these routes is low, the cost is quite high. But a friend negotiated a great deal for a bunch of us to have a weekend away at Tufi Dive Resort. The experience was fascinating from start to finish. I started out at Port Moresby airport and boarded the Airlines PNG Dash 8. I figured that at least we were starting off well – a reliable, Canadian-built aircraft. However, I soon had a sense of the degree of maintenance on these aircraft. We taxied out on to the runway but then immediately returned to the side of the runway.
The pilot came onto the Public Address system and explained that there was an electrical fault so we had to go back. I was in the front row of the aircraft, so I had a perfect view of what happened next. They opened the door and let a ground crew member come aboard. He was literally holding a pair of pliers and a screwdriver. He entered the tiny cockpit, leaving the door open as he worked – and giving me an unobstructed view of his Plumber’s crack as he worked. He rooted around in the cockpit for about five minutes and then exited the aircraft. They closed up and we began taxiing again. So apparently, whatever the electrical fault was, it only required pliers and a screwdriver to fix, and we were on our way again.
Tufi is known as a dive resort and indeed it is one of the best in the world. But what makes the location so unique is the fjords. It is a wonderful and beautiful landscape that one can explore by boat.
After a short, and thankfully uneventful, flight, we landed on the gravel runway at Tufi. I was staggered at how short the runway is. But they plane seemed to cope ok.
The wheels are only about the size of a car wheel.
It’s a fairly rough surface – just rocks. I guess they manufacture the aircraft to cope with landing on such an uneven surface.
They unloaded our bags with all of the TLC that one expects from airport baggage handlers.
I knew that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore when the baggage handlers arrived in a tractor.
The aeroplane seemed to be carrying a lot of cargo. Given the lack of a national road network in PNG, small villages and towns rely heavily on goods being airlifted to them.
There’s no airport at Tufi. Just the landing strip right next to the village. A four-wheel-drive came and collected most of the guests.
I opted to walk, as is my custom whenever I can.
As I walked to the resort I was greeted with smiles and waves from the villagers.
They were curious to check out the new arrivals.
I would later see some of these same people at the craft market that they set up each day outside the resort for the tourists.
The resort itself is nicely set up, with amazing views of the surrounding area.
Most of the rooms have a balcony.
Like any resort, they have a schedule and a long list of rules. We were given the briefing by one of the Filipino managers. Many businesses rely on Filipino managers in PNG. The reality is that they struggle to find the skills locally so they have to import managers or the businesses would not be able to operate.
The view from the dining area overlooks the magnificent fjords.
The rooms are not especially luxurious but they are quite adequate.
It rained most days while I was there but there was enough good weather to enjoy the outdoors as well.
There are several small villages surrounding the resort and the locals still rely heavily on their traditional boats as a means of transport and for fishing.
There was a lot of military activity in the region in the 1940s and divers bring back relics from their dives and put them on display at the resort.
The resort charges shamelessly for every little add on that they possibly can, including virtually all of the activities.
The one welcome exception was the canoeing. I went canoeing every day while I was there – either individual kayaks or double canoes with friends.
Canoe is the best means by which to explore the fjords. They reminded me of the Norwegian fjords that I visited many years ago.
There are little areas that one can access via canoe and go for a short walk.
The wharf where one goes to borrow the canoes has seen better days.
Being a tourist destination, the resort put on a couple of different cultural shows for the benefit of guests.
One evening just before dinner, there was a demonstration of traditional costumes and dancing involving dozens of dancers.
Some of the warriors showed off their ferocious-looking weapons and pretended to threaten the guests with them. Others beat their “Kundu” drums – a symbol of PNG that is seen frequently on buildings and such. It also features in the coat of arms.
The children were delighted to see photos of themselves taken on people’s cell phones.
He would cheekily approach tourists looking for scraps.
On the rainy days and quiet evenings I played board games and practiced yoga with friends.
The food was included in the resort cost and generally speaking it was very good – featuring plenty of seafood.
After a much-needed relaxing weekend, it was time to return to Port Moresby. The check-in counter was just a hole-in-the-wall storefront for the airline.
The bags were all carefully weighed before being loaded back onto the baggage tractor.
I took advantage of my last opportunity to stroll through the jungle back to the airfield.
I boarded the aircraft once more and then enjoyed some more breath-taking views on the flight home.
Crossing the country from the North coast back to the South coast, one has to traverse some very mountainous and untamed countryside.
The snaking rivers abound in this part of the country. It was wonderful to have the opportunity to escape the everyday life of Port Moresby and see some more of what Papua New Guinea has to offer.
Just after I returned, I spotted this chap in downtown Port Moresby wearing a t-shirt for the band “Blink-182” (my favourite band). Sadly, he had no idea who they were. He just liked the t-shirt.
Until next postcard…