Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Return to Lae

by Geoffrey Carrascalao Heard

Sunday 9 May, 2010

Hello, Lae, on the north coast of Papua New Guinea, booming port and manufacturing centre (in a small way by Australian standards), after 35 years. I flew there yesterday (8 May) for an event I had helped (in a very small way) to organize from a distance, and flew back to Port Moresby today (9 May).

In the good old days (and they were good, although not old at the time), your plane -- a DC3 if you were coming from Rabaul, the Highlands or Madang, or a DC6B if you were coming from Port Moresby -- landed on the airstrip that began just behind the beach and ended in the middle of town.

To be precise, it began just behind the upthrust, rusting prow of a ship partially sunk during World War II, around 20 years before, just off the beach, which nobody had bothered to clean up. Wars are messy things. A bomb had broken its back, apparently, leaving the upthrust bow in a direct line with the middle of the airstrip.

I know that landing planes cleared this obstacle easily, but as the old kite circled over the harbour to make its approach, you couldn’t help conjuring up the ridiculous picture of your plane impaled on the steel spike while you and the rest of the passengers and crew, including a blushing and embarrassed pilot, dived into the sea off the wings.

“Keep your eye on the strip, don’t look at the ship,” I would silently beg the pilot as he made his approach, whilst also debating whether I should keep my pants on before diving into the water when the worst happened or remove them and to dive in wearing only my shorts. Clearly, there were advantages either way -- freer swimming in shorts, no embarrassment on landing in pants.

Whether my mental energy helped or not, no-one ever hit the ship so the pants/no pants debate was never tested.

Today that interesting approach and the convenience of a terminal in the middle of town are long gone. The old airstrip is littered with shipping containers on their way to “the LNG” -- the liquified natural gas project starting up in the Highlands. Semi-trailers roar and pound up and down the Highlands Highway 24/7.

The old strip couldn’t take the new planes, I am told, and in any case a screaming jet engine is not the best centre-of-city auditory experience, so booming Lae is now served by the revived WWII bomber strip at Nadzab about 40 kilometres out in the mighty Markham Valley (and it is mighty, look it up on Google Earth).

In the old days, even the DC6Bs paid homage to the massive upthrust of the Owen Stanley Ranges which separate Papua in the south from New Guinea in the north. To save time and fuel, your DC6B would fly through a saddle so at one point you could look at mountains passing beside the plane on both sides and rising above you. The Fokker F100 medium twin jet flying north from the capital, Port Moresby, today travels so high above the rugged Owen Stanleys that they look like molehills, before descending to land on Nadzab’s wside and handsome strip.

Having flown from Port Moresby in 45 minutes, you grab your luggage off the luggage trolley (the ground crew were a bit slow so the passengers helped themselves -- I bashfully received my bag from the hands of a delightful young lady who enhanced her considerable allure by kicking off her high heels to scramble out through the luggage port onto the trolley) then make a 50 minute trip to Lae along the Highlands Highway, a road far from perfect.

And there’s the rub.

Okay, so the old planes travelled at half to two-thirds of the speed of today’s jet, but they landed right in town. All the time saved in the air today, and more, is lost on the road trip.

In any case, as comfortable and convenient as today’s planes are, I still have a yen for the old rattle traps of yore. They had character. With their grunting and wheezing, their flapping, patched wings and popped rivets, their noise and the proximity of the ground, they continually reminded you of how intrinsically ridiculous it is to strap yourself into a cigar shaped cylinder made of flimsy aluminium and trust yourself to unnatural forces to avoid diving into the ground like a brick.

I mean, a beer can is a cylinder made of flimsy aluminium. Think about it.

And speaking of beer cans raises another objection. In the good old days, you could down your last drink, hard or soft, in the comfort of your hotel, on your back verandah, or wherever, potter over to the terminal and be boarding minutes later.

Today, the unfortunate traveller must lay in supplies for the trip to Nadzab. When departing Lae, as we were, on a quiet Sunday morning, this might be more difficult than you would at first expect. Without the support of your host with special local knowledge of bush bars, you might well arrive at the airport in a parched condition.

As it was, we drove up to Nadzab with time (and can) in hand and my fellow toiler in the vineyard, Lavui, in relaxed mode, only too happy to enliven the pre-flight wait by pointing out the spot where a Cessna had crashed some years ago shortly after he had made several trips on it.

Our plane for the return flight from Lae was a turboprop Dash-8, a bit more human than the F100. While it still cleared the Owen Stanleys with ease, it flew low enough for long enough for me to see the changes in the villages wrought by 35 years. Iron roofs were universal where thatched roofs had been unchallenged before; houses were bigger; and the roads -- they might be tough to drive over but there are certainly a lot more of them going a lot deeper into the mountains.

Unfortunately, Lavui and I were seated in the emergency exit row. This was great for the leg room but offered Lavui’s enhanced sense of humour freedom to range. It says something for the flight attendant’s attitude that she didn’t offer Lavui the inflight trial of the emergency exit he so clearly craved. Mind you, when Lavui focussed on her instead of the exit, he realized with some embarrassment that he knew her -- she had been a year behind him in high school.


But what of Lae without the airstrip in the middle of it?

I hardly saw it apart from the drive in from the airport, touring around on
Sunday morning looking for breakfast, and driving out again.

A few impressions for what they are worth. Lae is the wet tropics. Anywhere you look, there is green, punctuated by touches of brilliant colour. You feel wrapped in a mighty green envelope. It’s calming, like the blue of the sea. Then there’s the smell. In Lae, there’s a kind of background odour of rotting compost. And the sounds -- insects and birds rampant.

Port Moresby is green at the moment, just easing out of the wet season, but a score of little things and a couple of big ones, like the naked stone in road cuttings, tell you that Moresby’s green is only skin deep. In a few weeks, it will be gone, the grass on the hills will have dried out to a thin, yellow and brown straw, there will be the usual fires burning it off, and the traditional hungry time will have begun.

As a town, lots of Lae is old and run down, the roads in are awful, but I would prefer it to Port Moresby.

On a sad note, I missed the avenue of stately and massive rain trees that used to mark the entrance of the highway into Lae, providing much-needed shade in this tropical clime.

However, with the increase in travel on the highway and to and from Nadzab, the trees became the preferred habitat of “rascols” -- the universal Papua New Guinea word for street criminals. In this case, the rascols were modern highwaymen armed with shotguns and military carbines who would would pop out from behind their tree to hold up the travelling gentry.

The quick and sad solution of a provincial governor a few years ago was to chop down the grand old trees.

We stayed at the Lae International Hotel, an imposing place in a tropical sort of way, even if you do need a compass and a cut lunch to get from the lobby to your room. But in a town where it rains every second or third day, there was no water for a shower. The town water supply is overtaxed. The hotel has a reserve supply ... but the pump was broken. The room charges remained at full rate. Not good enough.

The hotel was enhanced, however, by pretty amazing pizzas in its Italian restaurant. The ingredients were of excellent quality and distributed with a most generous hand although the cheese was overdone to my taste (and I love cheese). An American couple on the next table was transfixed when our Supreme arrived -- I thought they were going to leap at us and gnaw off our arms to get at it.

Wanting a change of scenery, we went around to the International’s main rival, the Melanesian, for Sunday breakfast. The old Melanesian is a bit more relaxed in style, but don’t order special eggs for breakfast unless you are willing to wait.

And that’s it for Lae. I’ll visit it again another day.


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.

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