by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard
15 May 2010
Last night I broke out of the prison of Port Moresby and the bonds the Australian High Commission and Australian Volunteers International have woven around me.
They have been telling me since before I arrived back in Papua New Guinea how important my “personal security” is. They are quite sure I am safest when in the city. Well, certain parts of the city. And at certain hours. I’ve been chafing at these bonds.
The chance to slip them for a night was too much of an opportunity to miss.
So it was that in tropical darkness at half-past-nine last night, my mate Lavui and I and a bunch of fellow Papuan desperadoes (a measure of our desperateness -- one was a girl aged only 12, but she had to escape too), boarded a Toyota Landcruiser ute to slip out of town for what amounted to a cannonball run to Lavui’s home village and back -- in darkness all the way.
We thought we might be in trouble before we had even got started when we were stopped at a police road block at 6 Mile, but they cleared us to go on. Routine license check, it turned out.
A few minutes later we were speeding east along the Magi Highway, the bar tread tyres howling on the bitumen, escaping towards tomorrow’s sunrise.
Free at last!
Free to drive and talk and share food and a tinny and a bottle of water. Free to chew betelnut and laugh and bounce over potholes. Free to joke, share intimacies and save the world.
Most of all, free to take a small risk and to be ready to rely on our own resources, friends and rat cunning if we ran into trouble, which might range from getting bogged on an untrafficked bush track in the middle of the night to encountering modern highway men.
As an Australian Volunteer, I have been warned against taking these clearly horrendous risks. I can only say thank God (or The Force or the rock in the back garden if you prefer) that today’s Papua New Guineans and their and our forefathers, and before them, the English, were a bit more open to a spot of risk than your average Australian abroad is these days.
If Papua New Guineans were as wimpy as today’s Australians this whole country would grind to a halt. If our forefathers, even the generation of Australians of which I am part, had been as wimpy as the current lot, none of us would exist, let alone live in Australia.
Or Papua New Guinea. Quite apart from the fact that there was the occasional hold-up on this very road back in the 1970s when it was a washboard corrugated dirt strip and I drove it in my VW Kombi half-cab, I’ve recently been reading a history of Tamate, the Rev. James Chambers, a London Missionary Society man who was one of the leading lights in bringing Christianity to this lovely land in the late 1800s.
After a life of incredible risk and adventure, even by the standards of the time, he was killed and eaten by the Goaribari people of the Gulf province. His fellows in a mission vessel escaped the Goaribari canoes due to caution on the part of their captain and a chance fair wind.
That happened not much more than 100 years ago today, and a touch over 60 years before I made my first acquaintance with a Goaribari man, who was an announcer at a radio station I was managing at Kerema in the Gulf. There could have been people still alive then who had had a slice of Tamate.
I’m told to avoid large gatherings of Papua New Guineans because something (like the assassination of the Emperor Franz Josef, perhaps?) might result in stuff going pear-shaped.
Yet this is a country where Australians are generally highly regarded and 99 percent of the population offer a smiling greeting on first acquaintance. Sure you might get the occasional troublesome drunk (try Paddy’s Bar any time after 9pm on Fridays) but if a jocular word doesn’t carry the day, the highly efficient bouncers will. Or you might run into someone with a genuine grievance, but concern and sympathy will carry you through.
Or if you get out of town, even in the outer suburbs, you might run into modern highwaymen. As we pounded down the highway last night, I recalled the opening of Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities where the coach is struggling through foggy darkness up the muddy Shooters Hill, the armed guard alert to the danger of highwaymen who might attack at any second.
The story is fiction but the setting was reality. Nevertheless, life went on. Economic and social development took place, and Shooters’ Hill, now a hardly noticeable incline in south London, is infested with boutiques instead of highwaymen (it is probably a moot question which is worse).
Such, one hopes, will be the case with the Magi Highway in the not too distant future (preferably without the boutiques). In the meantime, life goes on, there is the occasional hold up, but car, truck and bus traffic pounds along the highway day (mostly) and night.
“So what do we do if the highway is blockaded by rascals?” I asked (all street criminals are called rascals here because the term has been adopted into Tok Pisin as "raskol").
“We slam on the brakes and chuck a bonnie,” replied Lavui. (This is a family euphemism for making a U-turn or U-ee, which Lavui adopted with glee after I accidentally came out with it when we were driving together. My daughter’s Year 7 Japanese teacher was named Bonnie Yue, so we adopted her first name to represent the sound of the second name, which in turn sounded like a U-turn).
Then what? Maybe head back to Moresby, maybe just wait a while for the bandits to get bored and go home. Or maybe wait until a big truck came along which would smash though the barricade, then follow it through.
No histrionics were required, and in truth, Lavui has never required them on this run, which he makes often enough if not exactly frequently.
We weren’t really desperadoes, of course, we were on a Mission of Mourning on this night, taking Lavui’s Uncle Male and a big bunch of food to his and Lavui’s home village ready for the feast he would make today to mark the end of a year after his wife’s passing.
The others in the back were a sundry mixture of younger brothers, nieces and nephews and a brother-in-law -- all good friends and all up at any time for a four-and-a-half hour trip to the old home village in the rugged mountains at the back of Rigo, and then back again.
All in a night.
It had to be there and back in a night for two reasons: Lavui needed to be back in Moresby today for his young son’s birthday party, and the ute had to be ready for another trip ... to pretty much the same destination. Why not roll the two trips into one? It would be much more efficient. I have a colleague much given to efficiency. We were having a discussion once, and I asserted that efficiency actually didn’t matter a damn.
And it doesn’t unless it delivers some superior social good.
In this case, Lavui had a family obligation he needed to fulfill. The others wanted a trip down to the old home village even if they would be there only 10 minutes -- just time for a quick chew of betelnut or perhaps, if someone still had a fire going, a cup of coffee or tea, and a catch-up with grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins.
The other trip was another bloke from a nearby village with a different set of relationships and his own imperatives -- including delivering some roofing iron. Socially, it would have been quite bizarre for Lavui to off-load his uncle and the feast food on to the other bloke. Efficient, yes, social good, no.
So there we were, hammering down the highway in the velvety darkness, stopping a couple of times for betelnut refills from tiny, stick and thatch roadside stalls lit by a flickering hurricane lamp, until we were past Kwikila, and then we turned left, north, inland.
It is difficult to depict for you the suddenness of the transformation. At one moment we were on a highway, albeit of only two lanes but nevertheless, black top, and the next we were ploughing through a 50 metre wide ford with the water over the axles.
I’ve been on some pretty rugged “roads” in Papua New Guinea -- the early forms of the road to the Bougainville copper mine site in 1968, the Highlands Highway and the “coffee road” around Elimbari in the Chimbu District in 1970 spring to mind -- but this was as rugged as it gets.
This was genuine 4WD country. Not SUV country, Lavui was at pains to point out, as the ute bucked and bounced over rocks, climbed in and out of washaways and rivers, and slithered through muddy stretches where the wheel ruts were two feet deep. Lavui has a true belief about 4WDs. This place munches up your SUV and spits it out, Lavui averred, that’s why you needed a really serious 4WD. And for him, that meant a Toyota Landcruiser ute. He first drove one on this track when he was 13. That was when he passed his father’s examination -- he could start from a dead stop facing steeply uphill without using the handbrake and without rolling back a centimetre.
That was before power steering, too. This Lavui is no heavily muscled giant of a man, he’s built more on the lines of a cross between a garden rake and a whippet. He’s all bone and tough, stringy muscle; a modern man from Snowy River. And he sure knows how to put the Toyota to the test.
We bucked and slid and and rushed and ground upwards and downwards and across and upwards again for something over three hours. Fortunately, there had been no rain for a few days, so most of the run was pretty dry; we didn’t need to use the shovel Lavui’s mate had thrown in the back against the possibility of being bogged.
As we went, Lavui talked of his childhood in these mountains -- a childhood in which this road played a vital part as the link between the big, wide world and the tiny village where his ancestors were born, lived, loved, died and were buried for millennia. Lavui himself was actually born in New Zealand when his father was studying for his Masters in plant genetics (and suffered heart problems which required open-heart surgery and led, eventually, to his premature and tragic demise) -- but he grew up on this road and every twist and turn was a stepping stone in his life.
Despite hanging on grimly to the grips on the roof and dash, I was thrown around the cab like a pea in a pod. Heaven knows how the passengers survived in the back (actually, I’ve been there and done that 40 years ago, I just can’t remember how I survived and laughed and loved it) but I could hear them singing and joking and enjoying the ride. Enjoying it! Yes, and so was I! We were surviving every challenge!
Finally, a few minutes short of 2am, after four and a half hours on the road, we arrived. The track smoothed out and in the headlights I saw we were on a ridge, with the land falling away steeply on both sides. Small houses with round pole frames, thatched roofs and woven split bamboo walls crowded up to the road on both sides.
“Oooooo!” whooped Lavui, the local greeting, acknowledgement, alarm call.
He pulled up outside a family home. We climbed out, stiff, sore, but triumphant. The youngsters in the back bounced out. Damn! I envied them that resilience.
I sucked in the fresh, clean air, redolent of bush smells with a touch of village, just on the cool side of balmy. Real air - the air all other air should be like. The sky rose in a black vault that went on forever; there was no moon so the stars shone out sharply and the milky way was a mess of bright gossamer strewn across the arch.
I was welcomed with quiet words and transparent friendliness into this little Shangri La, Karai Komana, Cockatoo Mountain, a hamlet of perhaps 200 today, with a remarkable record of producing people of outstanding ability and talent who have served their emerging nation in a dozen fields.
It was too late for anyone to have a fire going, so after unloading Uncle Male and his feast ingredients, we had a quiet chat, a swig of water, and a chew of betelnut, and Lavui took a few steps into the night to commune at his father’s last resting place for a moment -- the father he loved so dearly who had tragically died at only 49.
Then Lavui started the engine, turned the car, the youngsters came bouncing out of the darkness and swarmed into the back, and we were off again.
“We’ll be in Moresby by six,” said Lavui confidently, “it’s faster on the return trip because we’re going downhill a lot of the time.”
Faster down those hills? OMG!
The horrendous climbs now turned into horrendous descents, and the horrendous descents turned into horrendous climbs. We bounced and swung and crashed through the night, the headlights leading us along the track whether it was shale or rock or gravel or mud or water. But Lavui was right, we waded through the last ford and hit the highway again in something under three hours. I saw the highway bridge 100 metres from the turn-off, then the thrum of the tyres rolled into my head and I went out like a light. Lavui woke me as we entered the city in the gray dawn a few minutes before six.
It had been a beautiful night. I made it to the shower, then fell into bed and slept like a babe until noon. I awoke feeling wonderfully refreshed, and got up and washed the clothes by hand (the washing machine has broken down) with a song in my heart.
While I was writing this, sitting in what I am assured is the safety of Port Moresby on Saturday night, I heard three quick reports. Bang, bang, bang. 9mm automatic, I would say. Later, there was another, heavier, shot.
I hear such things every couple of weeks or so. Mind you, most of the time it is just the police letting the rascals know that they're around and mean business. There really isn't that much shooting at people.
I went to bed hoping my friends the security guards were all okay. They are unarmed; they have radios, and at night, dogs. A couple of days ago, four men with guns held them up at the precinct gate and stole their vehicle. Sensibly, the security guys offered no resistance.
I’ve told them I don’t want them taking any risks on my behalf. Anyone burgling my house can have everything I own; I’ll help them carry it out if necessary. Life is too short to worry about possessions (although I would hate to lose my MacBook and old Kodak P880 camera).
But this is the situation in the town where my Australian guardians say I am safer than on the Magi Highway and the backwoods track to Lavui’s home village.
You be the judge. I know what I think. No, not think, know!
This material is copyright © Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard 2010.
Geoffrey Heard worked in media in Papua New Guinea in the 1960s and 1970s and has just returned to that country as an Australian Volunteer supported by AusAID working with the Media Council of Papua New Guinea. The opinions and comments in this article are his own and do not represent the views of the Media Council of PNG, Australian Volunteers International, or AusAID.