Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Bird and Mudmen Bunkum

Asaro Mudmen, Port Moresby Cultural show
How myths are born
The Bird of Paradise is the national bird of Papua New Guinea and it is also the name of the best known hotel in Goroka.

Its closest rival during my time in the Eastern Highlands was the Lantern Lodge.  I used to play for my supper on the electric organ at the Lodge when the mood took me, not that it really mattered as the bar was always full and drinking was on most people's mind.

The Bird of Paradise had a gaggle of tribesmen and meris selling artifacts out the front as this was the main accommodation for the few tourists that passed through.

There were some good pieces to be had and recall a very nicely carved, clay pig whistle that I bought on the doorstep of The Bird.  A good set of a black palm bow and arrows could also be bought although the best were to be found out in the villages, which is where I purchased mine.

The traditional bows are strung with a strip of bamboo and are very powerful.  I tried mine out with a target in the back garden at Sinofi street and its impaled the cardboard target and supporting tree to a depth of ten centimetres.

The arrows are objects of beauty in their own right with various tips for hunting fish, birds and fighting other warriors.  the fish arrows resembled a mini harpoon with their splayed bamboo tip bound with fibre.

Later I purchased a second ceremonial bow from a different part of PNG.  This one was covered with woven orchid vine in red and white hues which made it quite a beautiful object.

I note that these days The Bird has joined the Quality chain which no doubt brings more bookings.  It still gets good reviews from travellers.  When I was there it was managed by an Australian and his Chinese wife who was very strict about maintaining standards.

They commissioned me to produce a portfolio of photographs of local scenes and activities to decorate the hotel's lounge.

Many tourists take in the much vaunted Asaro Mudmen tour while they are in Goroka.  I happen to know that the following is a load of conceived bunkum!

"Tribal folklore records that centuries ago the warriors of Asaro were defeated in a tribal fight with a neighbouring village. Honour compelled the men to retaliate with a “payback” raid, and, to make themselves look fierce in the process, covered their bodies with grey mud. According to legend, the ruse worked, and their enemies fled at the sight of these ghostly apparitions"

The late Tara Monighan, who worked for TransNiugini Tours at the time, was one hand when this "legend" was born and she recounted it to me.

The Asaro people were trying to find a way to look distinctive at a singsing ceremony and it was an expatriate Aussie who suggested that the local clay deposits be used over a cane frame to make the now "famed" Asaro masks.

The result as they say is the "stuff of legends" and has proved a nice little earner for the local tourism industry.

Far more interesting is the Raun Raun Theatre (right) which was being built in Goroka during my tenure.  It is an interesting example of contemporary ferro cement construction and architecture and was completed in 1982.

The project architects were Paul Frame and Rex Addison.

The Raun Raun Theatre came into existence in 1975 at the suggestion of Professor Ulli Beier from the Insititute of PNG Studies.

"In early April, 1975, the Raun Raun Traveling Theatre was formed in Goroka with a grant from the National Cultural Council. A theatre truck was purchased with some help from the Goroka Rotary Club and housing was granted by District Authorities to accommodate drama students on the one hand and director/office on the other. The Theatre’s original function was to travel with ‘maket raun‘, a suggested scheme for taking public services, private sector activities and entertainment to a circuit of large village centres around the area."

Greg Murphy was the Director of Raun Raun Theatre and we had a close working relationship beween the School of Art and Design at Goroka Technical College and his company

The same ferro cement technique was applied to a number of houses elsewhere in the Highlands and I photographed several of these for an Air Niugini magazine article.
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Sunday, December 5, 2010

Madang Memories

There are few prettier places to visit in Papua New Guinea than Madang which is on the Bismark Sea coast.  After months in the Highlands it was welcome respite to take a Talair flight to the northern coast and spend a few days of in the tropical climate under the palms.

Madang Girl
I visited Madang several times although the first was one of the most memorable. I stayed on Siar island which is a small island close to the main town of Madang.

The enterprising headman, Paul Munz, collected me in his dug out canoe and ferried me across to the island for a weekend of island culture, living amongst the local villagers.

Accommodation was in a beach side, thatched roof haus; termed a bure elsewhere in the Pacific.  The sound of garamut drums and string bands filled the air each evening when the heat of the day had dissipated.

This was also my first experience of snorkeling over a coral reef.  The one surrounding Siar teemed with marine life and the colours of the fishes ad corals were simply breathtaking.

Giant clams and bright yellow and pink brain corals were in abundance.  Electric blue fish darted amongst them.  For someone reared on a diet of Jacques Cousteau undersea adventures back in New Zealand television, this was the real hting.

It was easy see why PNG is regarded as one of the world's great diving locations. In other coastal regions the diving is over sunken World War Two ships using scuba,

I shared my weekend on Siar with visitors from other parts of Niugini.  One was an anthropologist who was spending several months living on the island, studying the traditional ways of life.  It seemed at the time that most of the world's anthropology PhD students made a bee-line to PNG to complete their theses; the same applied for linguists, they were everywhere!

Potter - Madang
Smugglers Hotel in Madang was a renowned hideaway and I recall coming across the actor Michael York, who was then in his prime, enjoying a relaxing 'getting away from it all' holiday.

I took photographs in Madang which were later turned into postcards and sold commercially by a company in Port Moresby.  One of these images was of Smugglers.

Another postcard was of traditional Madang potters and their pottery.  The style and clay, which is a red earthenware, differs from the Zumin pottery of the Markham Valley.

Pottery is made on a small turning base without a wheel.  It is then handcoiled and beaten.

The detrius of the last war was still clearly visible in the surrounding jungles and some of the toughest fighting aginst the Japanese took place along this coast.  Old pieces of Marsden matting were still in use as make-shift fences and derelict aircraft were left to rot where they had crashed or been destroyed in battle.

War Wreckage - Madang

Japanese Artillery Piece
War Wreckage - Madang
The string bands of Madang and other coastal and island communities have a very haunting and repetitious rhythm.  One of the more distinctive instruments is an assemblage of hollow bamboo tubes, much like a xylophone, which are played by beating the top with a pair of rubber thongs (jandals).  They used guitar and close harmonies.

An example of bamboo percussion, although in this clip it is the Tatok Bamboo Band from the neighbouring Solomon islands (Bougainville)

These bands can also be heard entertaining in the bars of the major hotels such as Smugglers (mentioned above) and the much older Madang Resort hotel, which began as a German colonial guest house prior to World War One - 1914-18.

I stayed in the Madang Resort Hotel for a weekend when I was the Eastern Highlands chairman for the 1980 South Pacific Festival of Arts.  The organising committee met there under the chairmanship of Mali Voi and Helen Dennett.  Mali went on to become a UNESCO cultural expert based in Apia and Helen remained a world authority on traditional Sepik art.
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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rascals And The Lure Of Gold

There's gold in them there hills or at least there certainly is in various parts of Papua New Guinea.

When I was living there investigation for the new mine at Ok Tedi were under way and it was described as a mountain of copper with a gold cap, so rich were the prospects.

Flecks of gold could also be found in many of the Highlands rivers and panning for gold using an old wok was fun but not very lucrative.

On one of these excursions while a party of us were down by the river a group of rascals broke into the back of my locked land-cruiser and stole my large case of camera gear which included my precious Canon F1 camera.

The Last Men: Journey Among the Tribes of New GuineaThe term "rascal" refers to every type of criminal; from a petty thief to a murderer and opportunist theft such as this was very common place.

We all fell victims to rascals at some stage of our tenure in PNG.  In my first case it was awaking on Xmas Day morning to find that my landcruiser (beneath the house) had been jacked up on blocks and the four wheels stolen.

More disturbing was the level of violence one sometimes encountered. These were rare in my days in PNG and usually were carried out by small bands of disaffected youths.

On another occasion coming back in the land-cruiser, we were passing through a cutting when a large rock was thrown from the bank above, smashing a side window and narrowly missing the passengers in the back.

Tribal fights while sensationally reported in the western media were largely ritual affairs that did not impinge on the lives of expatriates.

Honour was satisfied when someone from an opposing tribe was either injured or killed in these skirmishes and in the main the weapons of choice were traditional - bows and arrows and clubs.

The injured were evacuated by PMV to Goroka Base hospital. I did see one unfortunate arrive by helicopter, lying sideways on a stretcher as the spear that had pierced his abdomen meant that he could not lie on his back.

Those members Eastern Highlands constabulary who came from tribal areas on the coast or in the islands, were loath to get too involved for fear of pay back, which could be swift and brutal.

Things have changed in the intervening years as the money from coffee has seen guns replacing traditional weapons and the level of violence has escalated dramatically.
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Monday, November 22, 2010

Markham Moments

The first time I drove down the Markham Valley from the Eastern Highlands to Lae, I did so in a Toyota Corolla station wagon that I had purchased from a departing Expat who was going 'finis'.

The vehicle in question had been painted by the Goroka Tech. third year art and design students when, in a moment of generosity (or should that be weakness), I "donated" its surfaces to be a canvas for applied design.

The result was a handpainted wagon with brightly applied 'bilas' in a traditional PNG design.  There was nothing like it on the highway and the car attracted a lot of attention from the PMV's (Passenger Motor Vehicles) that plied their trade up and down the highway.

The other vivid recollection I have of this first journey in 1979 was that the Highlands Highway on the Markham Valley section had not yet been sealed, so the sensation of large undulating ruts and large potholes was quite unnerving.

Australian War Memorial 100546. Markham Valley,
New Guinea. 5 September 1943.Screened by dense smoke,
paratroopers of 503 US Paratroop Infantry Regiment
and gunners of 2/4th Australian Field Regiment with their
25 Pounders land unopposed at Nadzab,
during the advance of 7th Australian Division on Lae.
The Markham valley had been the scene of some fierce fighting on 5 September 1943, when US and Australian paratroopers dropped into it.

Their mission was to secure Nadzab airstrip in preparation for the Allies advance on Lae.  One paratrooper described exiting the plane as " like leaving an icebox and stepping into a furnace".

It was also unbearably hot in the valley when I traversed it and the only points of interest enroute were the traditional Zumim potteries found in the valley, with their wood fired and highly decorative cooking vessels.

The potting process is described thus:

Adhering to ancient tradition, the married, childless women of Zumim walk for ten miles to collect clay in secret from a special place, wrap it in banana leaves and walk the ten miles back to the village where, after a rest of a day, they will prepare it for use.

The clay is placed on a wet solid wooden board and beaten with a wet mallet until it spreads into a flat sheet. This is folded into a lump again and re flattened several times to remove impurities. 

When ready the clay is wrapped again in banana leaves and rested for several days before the skilled potters , the men take over forming the moistened clay in two long coils which they spiral around in a circular motion forming the new pot. The interior is then smoothed with a moistened piece of coconut shell. The upper rim is flattened with a paddle and decorations are etched on with fine silvers of bamboo and molded shapes can be applied which indicate the use for which the pot is made. 

Morobe dancers from Lae performing
at the Goroka Show.   Copyright Roger Smith
The pot will then be rested for a couple of weeks before being fired in several stages on open fires built under and over it. Pots are made ready for cooking or selling by firstly having yams or cooking bananas cooked in them in water until soft which seals the pot.

The embossed decorations on Zumim pottery, represent certain characteristics of nature. For example, the signs of a tracks of a mouse, the teeth of a lizard , a feather or seed pods. Pots with elaborate relief work of flying fox heads, birds and snakes are used for cooking meat and sometimes vegetables, whilst the plainer pots are used solely for cooking vegetables.

I bought a small zumim cooking pot which I kept for many years, eventually selling it in a NZ auction some twenty five years later.

Despite the challengs of of the Markham Valley the suspension of the station wagon held and the radiator did not boil on the return journey as we tackled the sharp incline from the valley floor, heading back towards Kainanatu.

I sold the station wagon shortly after this trek and purchased a Toyota short wheel base Landcruiser which was far better suited to the rough and off road conditions of the Highlands.

It was rumoured that less principled car owners wrote older cars off for insurance claim purposes by arranging for them to be 'stolen by rascals', or simply by finding a  convenient cliff face to push them off.  

The cost of repairs was often prohibitive and this sort of scam was I suspect not uncommon.
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Monday, November 8, 2010

Sinofi Street

Creative Commons License: C. Frank Starmer
My first Goroka house was in Sinofi Street.

I remember it well as it was like every other government designed house, raised above the ground with stairwell access from a small lower level. Your vehicle was parked underneath the master bedroom.

There was a large section of grass with a few banana palms at the rear. The grass was cut by sweeping a hand blade in a scything fashion; rhythmic but sapping work in the heat of PNG.

Any banana that grew had to be wrapped either in a plastic bag or with fibre from the plant to stop the fruit being attacked by insects.

Most of the decorative plants that were planted were the tropical, indigenous varieties that commanded a premium in New Zealand garden centres, but which grew with wild abandon in their natural habitat.

It was not only the flora that grew in this fashion, the fauna did as well. We had large spiders that spread their webs.  These were Nephila pilipes (pictured right) and reportedly caught and consumed small birds?

All manner of bugs and beetles were new and foreign; stag beetles that hissed when threatened, cockroaches of enormous dimensions and even the odd snake, although the latter were not that visible most of the time.

I put the ants to good use by burying some decorative shells I had brought back from a trip to Rabaul. A month later when I dug then up they were completely clean of any internal organs and organic matter.

Shells picked clean
The house I was allocated by the Technical College had been previously occupied by a German engineer and his family called Helmut Helling. He moved from the Tech to work for Rothmans which had a large tobacco factory just out of Goroka.

It was not an uncommon occurrence for people to finish their government contracts and be lured by more lucrative deals in the private sector.

My neighbours on one side was a house full of Filipinos with a huge array of dogs that kept the neighbourhood awake whenever someone walked past at night.

Directly across from my house were Dave and Nancy Chard with their children Gamu and Emma. Dave was an Australian who worked for civil aviation and Nancy was a PNG national.It was from Nancy that I first learnt some of the secrets of Chinese cooking which became a passion of mine in later life.

Dave was a keen radio ham and I used to pop across from time to time to hear him converse with other amateur radio enthusiasts in countries thousands of miles away.

It was a must to purchase a receiver that could pick up the ABC on short wave. In the days before the internet this was the only way to learn what was happening in the big wide world as the PNG media mainly focused on domestic fare.
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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Coffee Time

The art school staff survived on coffee and it was fortuitous that the Goroka Coffee factory was just up the road.

We left it to brew on the drip filter system throughout the day until its consitency resembled a weak mud.
Twelve cups a day was the normal ration, little wonder that I had at one stage to resort to sleeping tablets at night as the arabica coursed through my veins.

Spraying Coffee
When the wind was in the right direction the air was filled with the aroma of roasting coffee; one of the great sensory delights.

PNG is well known for its coffee and tea production.  The latter can be found in large plantations further up the Highway towards Mount Hagen, but the Eastern Highlands with a stable year-round temperature of 26 degrees and a height of 1,600 meters above sea level is ideal for coffee growing.

Picking Coffee At The Red Cherry tage
Not all coffee is grown on large plantations. Small holdings are found in most villages and a common sight were the coffee beans laid out on blue tarpaulins to dry in the hot sun. The coffee is washed and fermented in vats. The beans on the tarpaulins is riffled through by human toes, turning them during the drying process.

Kopi Meri
Once the beans has been dried they were tranported to the factory.  There they were graded according to quality and roasted.  Large consignments were sent abroad before roasting and this is probably still the case.
Factory Worker

The conditions inside the factory were dickensian with a lot of dust, poor visibility and poorly shielded industrial equipment.
But at the very least there was employment and a source of income for the villagers who came to work there.
Several of these photographs were used in a corporate calendar for Goroka Coffee.  I had been commissioned by the company to produce a small portfolio for this purpose.
Grading belt

Bagging  Ready For Transport
Life on the coffee plantations was quite removed from the local environment. Many of the estate owners fratenised little with the indigenous locals; theirs was a world tied up with the estate and broken only by trips 'South'.

While many plantations had been "nationalised" at independence there remained a significant number still being run by expatriates who had become citizens of Paupua New Guinea, or their offspring.

The one that I visited most was owned by George Brough. George bought one of my tribal fight paintings at a Goroka Bowling cLub auction that the Art School held each year to raise funds.  If I recall correctly his wife hated the work as she found it too violent!

As was a common security measure, George owned several cross breed dogs which were allowed to roam the plantations to deter would-be coffee thieves.

One particular dog was called Fugly (because was F...Ugly, according to his owner).  A blue heeler / bulldog cross breed, once Fugly bit something he never let go.  His jaws had to be prized apart with a large piece of timber.

On a few estates they had a cruel method of imprinting hatred of of pretty thieves on young dogs.

Puppies were put in a large coffee sack held by a National employee.  The sack was then beaten severely with a stick and when the puppies emerged the first person they saw (and acquainted with the attack) was the unfortunate holder of the sack.

The growing of marijuana for local consumption was also a common practise amongst the coffee rows.  While it wasn't a hobby of mine, those who puffed it claimed it to be some of the strongest weed in the world, especially the "seed heads".

Ken, the art school potter, reportedly had on one occasion made some cookies for a staff which he laced with the hallucinogenic herb.

The Sister of the order of nuns who ran the Technical College's Secretarial College evidently sampled these;  with what dire effects I do not know, as this happened shortly before my arrival in Goroka.
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Friday, October 29, 2010

The School Of Art And Design

Third Year Art and Design Students - 1980
The art school was part of Goroka Technical College in the Eastern Highlands. The Tech. also housed mechanical engineering and woodworking workshops for training Nationals to become tradesmen and a Secretarial College.

Students came from all over PNG to train at Goroka Technical College. In the case of the School of Art and Design we took secondary school graduates and prepared them for careers in media, advertsing and (in a few cases)careers as fulltime artists.

As Head of School I was supported by colleagues who came from the far flung corners of the earth. These even included a former lighthouse keeper from Canada.

Ken Kazanjian was young Philadelphia potter of Armenian descent who had been appointed by my Australian predecessor. While very much a free spirit, he did some marvelous work with students, building a free standing pottery using a combination of a traditonal Kunai grass thatched roof, timber frames and concrete foundations.

Inside the Pottery

Ken also constructed a large updraft kiln in which we fired the student's work. Having produced some ceramics myself I was aware of the Japanese anagama kilms and the one he built in Goroka was similar.

Some of the pottery graduates went to work in the Kainantu Pottery which was further down the Highlands Highway in the Eastern Highlands, travelling towards Lae.

Joseph Bin
Georg Schmidt was an equally passionate German sculptor who took 3D classes with students and Len Tindall, a British silversmith from Blackpool trained students in basic jewllery making. Len made a fine black coral and silver 'mask' pendant based on one of my sketched designs. I recall he was married to a Mauritian wife and when they "went finis" they resettled in Brighton or Bognor Regis.

The sole national tutor was Willie Stevens. Willi's main claim to fame was that he had designed the national currency. He was a charming man from Lalaua in  Milne Bay and highly regarded by the students who sort to emulate his success.

And I must not forget our trusty storeman Joesph Bin, an Eastern Highlander with a pierced septum (pictured right) and the ability to keep the students firmly under control.

As most of our art supplies had to be ordered months before from overseas and trucked up the Highlands Highway from the port of Lae it was a constant battle to stay within budget and keep programmes going, but manage we did.
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Monday, October 25, 2010


Click on the flipbook to view

This is a small selection of images from PNG days.  

A Life Changing Experience

Eastern Highlands Flag
In 1979 I left New Zealand to head Papua New Guinea's only regional art school in Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province.

Being younger and still idealistic I felt the need to experience truly living in an indigenous culture as one of a minority; the reverse of my then circumstances in Rotorua where I was teaching art at Lakes High School.

It was also the first time I had travelled out of New Zealand and spending a stop over night at the YMCA in Sydney was a revelation with some of the largest cockroaches I had ever seen.

It was in hindsight a good introduction to the fauna I would alter experience in PNG but no where near as exotic.

QANTAS was the carrier and in later years I flew back and forth on Air New Guinea, an airline that I undertook professional photographic assignments for as time allowed.

Landing at Jackson Airport, Port Moresby was also my first introduction to the oppressive humidity of a tropical climate. I can still recall the sensation of the humidity greeting me as a stepped down the gangway and on to the tarmac. There were no air bridges in those days and customs formalities took place in a large covered concourse with eating fans in the ceiling.

The domestic airline flights where carried out by both Air Nuigini and a private company, Talair. The latter were often referred to as "Crash Air" which was rather unfair as their safety record was as good as could be expected flying smaller fixed wing planes in and out of highland airstrips.

Landing would often take place in steeply inclined strips and if I remember correctly, Wabag was one of these. Take off was a sudden acceleration down the strip and over what appear to be a precipice.

Later I got to know several of the Nuigini Helicopter and Talair pilots and flew in the co pilots jump seat in the twin otter aircraft from Goroka to Madang and return, over the Ramu valley.

Approaching the Dalau Pass one could discern the glint of metal in the undergrowth, evidence of a previous air disaster where a plane had navigated incorrectly through the narrow entrance and into the low cloud and mist of the Highlands.

It was fun and seat-of-the-pants flying and many of the Talair pilots were Jumbo jet crew who came to PNG to fly in their holidays and get in some "real flying".

The pilots told tales of tribesmen who had never flown attempting to eat the hand wipe towelettes in the mistaken belief that these were the in-flight meal.

View Larger Map

I was determined not to lead an isolated expat existence and to get as much from my time in PNG as I could, mixing with the locals and learning their life and customs.  There had been people living in the Eastern Highlands for the past 18,000 years and the first Europeans only made contact in the late 1920's, so there was plenty of local culture to assimilate.

Papua New Guinea was a life changing experience in more ways than one. In the intervening thirty years I have come to realise how this first contract in the tropics changed my life forever.
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