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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