The year was 1998, and – originally from Germany – I had just taken part in a one-year master program in international relations and development at UQ in Brizzie, ready to get some work experience under my belt.
One of my fellow students at uni was the head of the trade union congress of Papua New Guinea. He got me in touch with one of the development NGOs in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital. That NGO happened to support his organisation. I applied and got a one-month job as a paid consultant. Over the next few weeks I had spoken with the local head of the NGO a few times over the phone. Nonetheless, I was still quite nervous when I arrived in Port Moresby. I had done my research, but there was not much to be found on the internet about Papua New Guinea back then.
I lost all my pics, so all photos incl. feature photo (c) Adventurebagging, who visited PNG in 2015.
Double or Half
Apparently the population was estimated to be somewhere between 3.5 and 7 million people, no one really knew. Last occurrences of cannibalism had happened only a few years earlier. The country consists of an archipelago of islands in the South Pacific with hardly any infrastructure. The main island is shared in equal parts with Indonesia.
For a good part of each year, none of the other mainland provinces could be reached by land from the capital city, because floods made the roads unsafe. For the remainder of the year, the roads were unsafe because of the notorious road blocks. The idea: you block a road using vehicles or tree trunks and wait until one or ideally several cars get stuck. Then you shoot everyone in the cars and take all their valuables. Afterwards, just leave the cars on the road and run for the hills.
Mountains and Nature
Oh yeah, the hills, also very impressive, going up to 4,500m above sea level. The Indonesian part of the island even hosts one of the Seven Summits. At 4,884m Carstensz Pyramid is the highest mountain in Australia/Oceania. Nature is rough, beautiful, abundant, and absolutely mind-blowing. Well, what would you expect from a country that has a paradise bird in its flag.
It felt thoroughly unreal, when the 40-year old propeller-driven airplane succeeded with a very shaky landing after three failed attempts around lunch time on Sunday, 15 November 1998. Even though the rainy season officially only started in two weeks’ time, the rain was pounding down relentlessly. Thomas, the local head, greeted me very friendly. He turned out to be an all-round pleasant guy who saved me more than once with his advice.
Not a Holiday
We went straight to the office. Having been a leisurely student for most of my previous life, I realised quickly that ‘paid job’ means that you’re supposed to deliver some value quickly.
The ride from the airport to the office offered more surprises. The most obvious one, maybe, being the fact that the road was covered by ferocious streams of muddy water and rocks. I am not exaggerating when I say that there were “pot holes” that could easily have swallowed up a mini-van. Whenever we were approaching a red light or a traffic jam, we slowed down to 25 or 30km/h, as soon as we saw the obstacle. Next, we would either go ahead at this slow speed until the obstacle was gone, or we braked hard and went the opposite way with screeching tyres to find a detour. You don’t want to ever stop on any of these roads.
Arrival at the Office
Soon after we saw the 12-storey office tower appear on the horizon, Thomas started honking the horn in order to alert the security men. They kept their two heavy mounted machine guns aimed at us, while we were approaching the gate they had opened for us. It was closed immediately after we’d entered the compound.
My colleagues all seemed nice. They were nearly all Melanesian local men. Tribal leaders, so-called ‘Big Men’, and yes, they’re big. Not tall by Western standards, but very robust, muscular, sturdy guys. You don’t want to pick a fight with them.
Big Men and their Tribes
I was terribly naïve back then, and it took me a few hours to realise that these Big Men demanded the highest respect. At first I approached them like your usual office buddies, friendly, respectful, but not with the highest level of respect. Society in PNG is made up of tribes, the tribe is the only thing that matters. There are more than 800 tribes and more than 800 different languages. Not dialects, but unique languages that are at least as different as Dutch is from German or Italian from Spanish. Many of those languages are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people.
Besides my boss, there was only one other Caucasian colleague. Another Western colleague had just died from some mysterious infection a few days earlier. Her body was still being examined by U.N. experts in hazmat suits in a tent a few kilometres away. Everyone was a bit concerned, that she might have infected others before passing away.
On the other hand they weren’t too affected by the sudden death of their young, sporty, well-liked colleague of many years’. Over the following weeks I began to accept my local Western friends’ views, which had initially sounded patronizing to me or worse. The approach to life and death is different on these islands. Most of the local people do not share our fear of death. In this society until a few decades ago life was short and defined by constant, very violent, tribal wars. If you weren’t killed by a spear or axe, then the wilderness around you would take your life sooner or later. Being too queasy about the value of individual lives might not have been such a great approach.
Fun Night Out
On my second night in PNG, one of the Big Men took me out for a fun night, which basically involved us taking his car to one of the slums of the capital. In a city where you never leave your car outside of safe compounds and never even stop the car, we went to the most dangerous part of town. It turned out to be the red-light district.
Being Paraded Around
I wasn’t interested in a prostitute, so I waited inside the car in the car park, while the Big Man had a go. A police car stopped and the policemen asked me if I had a strong desire to die tonight, which I politely denied. They waited with me until the Big Man returned and he and I went for some drinks in a slum on the other end of town. It felt safe there, because you could feel that he had everything under control. Everyone looked up to him. No one would have dared to be unfriendly with me, even look at me the wrong way. At times it felt like I was paraded around like some indigenous people were in Victorian England. I got the distinct impression that white folks didn’t frequent this part of town very often.
Ladies of the Houses
Big Men usually had several wives, so I met two of this Big Man’s five wives that night in a friendly barbecue atmosphere with lots of other relatives and members of the tribe. The wives seemed to get along with each other just fine. Their husbands build them houses where they live with their children and they only bother them once in a while for a bit of a cuddle. I think this model might work well with some London couples were it not for the housing prices.
A week into my assignment, my boss took me on a business trip to the other three main islands, we flew from Port Moresby to New Britain, New Ireland, and Manus. Besides the outrageous beauty of these South Pacific paradise islands, I was very impressed by how friendly everyone was. How easy-going, outgoing, and apparently genuinely happy, especially on Manus. For a moment there I could see myself tearing up my return ticket and just staying there on this island forever. Do a bit of fishing, maybe write a book? Naaaw… just focus on fishing and watching the sun rise and set again.
Manus, back then, had a population of roughly 30,000 people, virtually no foreigners, the 10 to 30 violent deaths per year were all due to shark and crocodile attacks. Besides of that, life was very peaceful there. At some stage Manus had been a German colony. Because German monks had brought them agriculture, education, and religion, a lot of the locals still give their sons old Latin-German monk names like Ambrosius, Aloisius, or Humbertus.
Manus is one of the areas where the Cargo Cult had survived, even though it was on its way out. During WWII, some of these islands had had food, weapons, and other material dropped on them by Allied Forces. The intention had been that their troops would find the packages and use them. However, these events had had the unexpected side effect of creating this Cult. Locals, who had never been in touch with technology, never seen an airplane, took the giant iron birds to be gods. The packages they dropped were believed to be sacred gifts from the gods. So the locals started to build a cult around them. I did not personally witness anything at the time, but spoke with locals who told me about the practice of the Cult.
My boss and I attended a conference with many Big Men on the island, including the country’s highest-ranking judge and various cabinet members. I saw large wads of greenbacks change hands. They say society is based on a gift-economy there. Not really working in a modern world, but I can see the beauty of a society where big men become big men by giving gifts to their brothers. And by chopping some heads off, of course, but that aside. It is such a shame that Manus is now associated with a refugee detention camp with horrible conditions, even though the camp was closed in 2017.
To Do a Coup or not to Do a Coup
When we were back in Moresby, the situation had escalated. There had been rumours about a coup for some time and there was electricity in the air. Everyone was very nervous, including the guys with the guns.
A nation-wide general strike had been called out, which included the prison workers. In order to keep the prisoners from starving to death, these good folk did the decent thing: they released every last one of the prisoners.
On the Guard(s)
That night I did not sleep particularly well. I was watching the guards of our compound patrol on top of the 5 to 10m high walls that we were surrounded by. They, too, looked very nervous. Back then, the funny thing with guards was that once you had them, you couldn’t let them go. No matter how ineffective or – worse – engaged in criminal activity they were. If you sacked one of them, there was a good chance in those days that they’d shoot you. So you were stuck with whatever group of gentlemen were patrolling your walls. All you could do is pray that the prisoners that were trying to get into your compound wouldn’t happen to be fellow tribesmen of your guards.
A number of shots were fired that night right outside our compound and by our guards, but the next morning everything had calmed down. The general strike had been called off. Police had already made some progress in capturing escapees.
I went to the office and my boss told me that one of the Big Men in our team had to take a few days’ leave to fly back home to his province and attend to urgent tribal war matters. When he came back a few days later, he had an axe-gash in his skull of about 15cm length. He had fixed the wound PNG-style, by putting some duck-tape on it that literally just stretched over the gash from one end to the other. In most countries you’d probably have been pronounced dead at the scene with a wound like that. He actually rocked up at the office, swallowed a couple of aspirins and antibiotics, then got some work done. Tip to the hat. The newspapers reported two dozen killed tribesmen in the region.
I’ve also had my best scuba-diving experience ever in PNG, at Loloata Island Resort, about an hour’s drive from Moresby. Not sure how it is today, but back then there was no tourism there. You were sharing the whole club with a handful of other expats, and everything was dirt cheap. We saw sharks (apparently not the ones that try to have you for dinner), turtles, giant potato cods, sea stars, the reefs were virtually untouched, it was magnificent.
More than twenty years after I’ve been there, I wonder if it’s still the same. If I had the chance to visit again, I wouldn’t think twice. I hold my memories of PNG very dear. It was my first big adventure and I fell in love with the country and its people.
For some fun facts, you could eyeball our post about Papua New Guinea trivia. Looking for more exotic destinations? Why not check out our posts about Bhutan, Nepal, the North Pole (Spitsbergen), Morocco, Norfolk, Kalmykia, Grozny, and Mount Elbrus. We’ve also written about hiking along the Jurassic Coast, intergalactic war at the Tokyo Robot Restaurant, skydiving near London, and a seal safari off Hunstanton.