Many years ago, in 1973 to be exact, I arrived in Papua New Guinea for the first time. Stepping down the rickety stairs trundled across to the Focker Friendship I was assailed by smells I knew and loved. The tropics. A rich scent of lush vegetation and hot sun mixed in with fumes shimmering up from the tarmac. My father was away on a business trip, probably on one of the other islands, but Mum met me. Tall and resplendent in a wide-brimmed hat and shirt-waister, her eyes hidden behind huge sunglasses, she stood waving from behind the white picket fence of the small two-storey terminal at the Lae Drome.
The airport, bordering the Huon Gulf, was distinguished for three reasons: as the jump off point in the early 1920’s for equipment and men heading to the Bulolo goldfields; for being the last departure place in 1937 for Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan on their fated flight to Howland Island; and as the scene for the initial landing of Japanese forces in 1942, and the subsequent bombardment of the airstrip by Allied forces under the command of Lt Commander Lyndon B Johnson in September 1943.
My parents had recently moved to PNG and into what was to be our home, but packing boxes still filled most rooms so Mum and I had dinner at the Huon Hotel. I have always remembered that evening because it was the first time I sat at a bar with my mother. We were both excited to be in the country, and I was eager to hear all about the place that was to be my home, on and off, for the next five years. For Mum there was the pathos of returning to a country she had known in wartime when she was with the Australian Army Nursing Service.
I was a fickle fifteen but felt instantly at home. The friendliness of the people, both local and expatriate, made the days fun. Having been brought up in Africa and Asia the people of PNG were at times startlingly different, sometimes a little intimidating to look at with bones and feathers adorning their bodies, but rarely frightening to be with. Technically most of the white faces seen in 1973 were Australian and therefore not expatriate as the country had been mandated an Australian territory, first in 1920 by the League of Nations and then reconfirmed in 1947 by the United Nations. Some Australian families had been resident in the country since the gold rush days, and were instrumental in opening up the country. There were of course a fair sprinkling of other nationalities, often in the proselytizing business.
After boarding school followed by a year in London I returned in December 1976 to a now independent PNG for a final six week holiday paid for by my father. Instead I was offered a job with Harrison & Crossfield, a British trading company, and stayed fifteen months.
It was then I truly fell in love. Both with the country and a man.
The country is probably the most beautiful I have ever lived in. The mountains covered in a dense jungle of varying shades of green often brooding in dense fog but offset by the flamboyant orange of New Guinea creeper or if lucky, a flash of the magnificent plumage of one of the birds of paradise. North of Lae the Bismarck Sea, and south the Solomon Sea, lapped the coastline with clear aquamarine waters filled with brilliant corals and fish. Lae itself was a small bustling town, the commercial capital of the country, rich with colour from unruly bougainvillea, cannas and the floral equivalent of the bird of paradise.
Sensible precautions were taken, especially by young women driving at night. A firm house rule demanded our dog travelled with me after dark, a deterrent to ‘rascals’ falling out the bars at closing time. Like anywhere in the world some areas of town were best left alone, but safety was a matter of common sense, not a matter of life or death.
The man I fell in love with was working for the Morobe Provincial Government, as a VSO (Volunteer Services Overseas and the organisation on which President Kennedy modeled the Peace Corps). He spent most of his life in the jungle, the only white man for many miles, surveying and building roads, bridges, hospitals and schools. He opened up areas of the country to me as we picnicked in the jungle, by rivers, on the edge of remote villages and airstrips. We travelled in an open jeep with canvas doors which we removed when crossing flooded waterways, safe in the knowledge the sealed Suzuki engine would not let us down. Safe also in the knowledge ballast could always be found in a man, woman or child wandering along a road, sometimes clothed only in a penis sheaf or an arse-grass skirt. A lift across the flowing water and a cigarette would be accompanied by rapid-fire Pidgin English between my boyfriend and our travelling companions, and smiles all around.
And this is why a report that crossed my desk this morning so upset me. An attack by 30 armed men at Nadzab airport, opened when I lived there and situated 25 miles out of Lae, highlighting the fact the town now has the highest homicide rate in the country, and one of the highest in the world. Corruption, encouraged by the one-talk (friend) system is complex and systemic with, according to the World Bank, 67% of companies seeing crime as a major constraint to business. With 81% admitting their decisions not to expand, or further invest, is a direct result of crime, and the lack of political will to address the situation. There appears to be little safety for anyone, black or white.
And so this is a love letter to the Papua New Guinea I knew – a land of rugged beauty, interesting customs, colourful people, fascinating history and where many happy memories were made. The country I loved has seemingly gone, however I am lucky as the man I loved and who showed me much of that country is still here.