TOGETHER with Ingrid, Ben, Becky and Leilani – wonderful to do this together – I spent most of last week in the Papua New Guinea highlands which I had not seen for 50 years.
To try to condense this experience is ambitious, but it will give you a taste.
Flying into and out of the mountains is easy. Back then it was time-consuming and sometimes disquieting.
However, getting around by road, especially in Simbu Province, is punishing. The Highlands Highway – that critical arterial road serving something more than four million people as well as PNG’s rich agricultural heartland – is in appalling condition.
There are stretches of bitumen but the highway so-called is a disgrace and a huge discredit to the successive PNG government that have allowed this to happen.
And worse is yet to come with the highway as there are dozens of spots where landslides, rock falls, subsidence and pond-sized potholes threaten to close the road for long periods of time.
As Jerry Kapka - owner of Kondo Coffee located out of Chuave – told me, he finds it difficult to sleep at night when the latest $US200,000 consignment of beans has been loaded on to the truck and is making its way to Lae.
And, as bad as the highway is, the feeder roads connecting it to the remoter townships and villages of the highlands are even worse.
Once pretty townships like Goroka and Kundiawa have accumulated a kind of urban ugliness and are crowded with people, four-wheel drives, muddy marketplaces and barricaded trade stores.
The people no longer wear as gras and purpurs – fashion is Melanesian modern – but they are the same people: welcoming, friendly, generous and kind beyond belief.
Those mountains and fast-flowing highlands streams don’t change either. They are the constants and every track that bends its way over and around them offers awe at every turning.
At the University of Goroka, the writers under the friendly leadership of lecturer Bomai Witne – he who is also doing so much for his remote Yuri people – had organised to meet us at a marvellous afternoon tea.
We talked of many matters to do with literature but none more important than the establishment of a writers association based in Goroka. I hope our conversation will assist the formation of this group. I know that people like Francis Nii and me are willing to put our shoulder to the wheel to ensure they are successful.
In Goroka, I also met with my mate of half a century ago Terry Shelley.
Now 77, Terry – along with Murray Bladwell in Brisbane – has just ensured that 100 schools in Simbu have been equipped with library books. It was a massive project and – having visited one of those remote schools – I can assure both men that the gratitude knows no bounds. Nor does the continuing need.
Terry – along with his wife, daughter and sons – runs Nowek Ltd, a major local industry concentrating on coffee processing, a thriving winery (strawberries and other local fruits providing the raw materials) and other manufactures.
Daughter Sarah is a candidate for the local seat in June’s national election and she’s the type of strong, forthright and intelligent woman who is likely to make a mark in any new government.
I met a couple of lapuns my age who remembered Bob Cleland and his supervision of that most intricate and tortuous stretch of road. We old men, perhaps finding ourselves a bit surprised to still be alive, take on instant affection for each other.
We travellers purchased fruit and wreaths of flowers from the Daulo people and we laughed together and they sang and danced for us until it was time to go and we processioned through Watabung and Chuave and Mauro and Ku until reaching the Four Square Town (now referred to as K-Town) as the sun was setting.
We checked into our accommodation at Greenland Hotel where I slept a good night’s sleep.
I had returned to the place of so many vivid youthful memories - my first time in Kundiawa since 1967.
There will be more of this story. There is so much more to tell.