WHILE with the Pacific Islands Regiment in Papua New Guinea, I’d been denied a long-held desire to visit Wewak because of the tragic crash of an RAAF Caribou on 28 August 1972.
The transport aircraft crashed into a hillside, killing its Australian crew and most of its passengers, high school students coming home from a cadet camp. It was the RAAF's worst peacetime air crash, claiming the lives of 25 of the 29 people on board.
I did not have another opportunity to get to the Sepik until last year, when I learned of a P&O cruise to PNG which included Wewak as a port of call - a rare occurrence.
So my wife and I joined former members of the Pacific Islands Regiment and their partners on the cruise which departed Brisbane on 10 February.
Most of the 900 passengers came from southern Queensland and northern NSW and appeared to have some connection with PNG as residents or workers. In Rabaul, I overheard a man in his late thirties tell a local employee that he had been born in Rabaul and had returned with his young family so they could get a taste of life in the tropics.
The ship, ‘Pacific Aria’ was not the ‘Queen Mary’ but it was a friendly, happy vessel with a hard working crew and excellent entertainers. That there was no bad weather or rough seas (despite it being the cyclone season) was a bonus for us all.
Alotau was the first port of call which for some passengers was their first encounter with PNG culture.
Organised tours took us to various places of interest. A relay of mini buses ferried us to and from the ship and I went to a cultural festival featuring dance groups and local souvenir sellers. It was very well done.
There were some taxis and hire cars on hand to conduct private tours at half the cruise ship prices. But you had to be quick as less than four cars were available at our time of disembarkation.
Instead of fronting for a buffet meal on our return to the ship, we decided to walk back to town, speaking with locals on the way. It was fortunate we were in a trade store when the daily one o’clock rain arrived.
I was very pleased to see Alotau as I had previously visited Samarai, the old administrative centre. I had flown out of nearby Gurney airstrip at the end of my 1968 civic action patrol through the Northern and Milne Bay districts.
Madang was the next port. I had visited the town in 1968 aboard the Burns Philp passenger-cargo vessel, ‘Bulolo’, on its final voyage before being sold.
Entering Madang that year revealed to me the prettiest harbour and town I had ever seen. It was magnificent. In 2017, it was still a pretty harbour but industry and commerce had taken over the town which was very uninspiring. In fact, it was ugly.
Our bus tour progressed through town starting at the newly completed town markets financed by Japan, a worthy gift, as well as to cultural centres, museums and vantage points.
But my lasting memory is of the pot holes in the sealed road adjacent to the district’s administration centre. Heavy continuous traffic and lack of funding for maintenance the main problems, I suspect.
The ship docked for eight hours in Madang. Even though it’s a deep water harbour, considerable mud was stirred up from the sea floor upon arrival suggesting that the mid-sized ‘Pacific Aria’ would be the largest vessel to be able to dock there.
Then on to Wewak for a visit of eight hours. As there was no wharf suitable to dock an ocean-going vessel of our size, passengers queued for transport on the ship’s lifeboats. We secured one of the first boats to leave for shore.
Once on land, one of our team secured the help of a local woman who directed her haus meri to find us transport to our destination, Moem Barracks.
With efficiency and good humour, she engaged the second mini bus driver she spoke to who transported us the 14 km along Boram Road to the campsite. The negotiated fare was very reasonable. Later the driver supplied us with his mobile phone number for the return journey. A tip on each occasion expedited the transport in both directions.
Our Moem hosts welcomed us warmly, viewed our photos of times past and graciously received a copy of Darryl Dymock’s book, “The Chalkies; Educating the Army for Independence”. In return, a 4-wheel drive vehicle was summoned to transport us around the camp and visit the nearby beach.
We saw few soldiers that morning as exercises were probably being held elsewhere. A soldier lamented the very hot conditions of the day. After we returned to Wewak harbour, a quick walk down the main street followed by a trade store visit ended the morning’s peregrinations.
Thence on to Rabaul where we docked at 8am on Saturday 18 February. Passengers disembarked to the sounds of the United Church Men’s Choir on the wharf. At least 40 mini-vans awaited to ferry passengers to various tourist destinations. Ordinary taxis arranged by the local travel agent were a much cheaper option for sightseeing.
I was impressed by the organisation of the mini-buses as they took our group to see an almost buried Japanese war plane, the hot springs and a close view of the volcanoes. On the shoreline, near Tavurvur volcano, locals had erected makeshift stalls selling produce and souvenirs. The local tour guide leader (a Chimbu) instructed all guests using a megaphone.
Matupit United Church School was the next stop for singing and souvenir sales followed by a visit to the Rabaul Virgin Coconut Oil factory with demonstrations and tastings. Finally, our tour group drove past the Japanese tunnels to observe the scenic views of the harbour from Malmaluan, high on the ancient caldera.
I had visited this exact spot in 1968 when it was a Methodist Training College (now the United Church’s Timal Centre) with its own World War II anti-aircraft gun strategically covering the harbour below. Alas, a well-meaning service club had removed this icon to another site far from the visitors’ view.
Nearby the vulcanologists’ headquarters charts the daily rumblings of the nearby volcanoes. Visitors toured the premises while another ship’s tour visited the Japanese war relics and other sites.
Upon our return to the wharf, we again omitted lunch and walked back to town passing locals selling souvenirs and food as we headed for the market.
Evidence of the 1994 eruption was not hard to find. Three metre walls of volcanic soil hidden under green foliage soon became obvious. Locals have returned to the area but many of the buildings have not yet been restored.
The market was vibrant, locals were keen to strike up conversations. Rabaul is on the comeback trail.
Due to a technical problem with a lifeboat, the ship did not leave port as scheduled at 6pm. In fact, it was closer to 10 before it set sail. This was of no concern to the passengers who dined and partied on regardless.
However, as I returned to my cabin, a mosquito followed me. I managed to kill it. Was it a danger? I don’t know but, after seeking medical advice before leaving home, I had decided not to carry anti-malarial tablets as we would normally have been at sea by sundown each day.
The following day, ‘Pacific Aria’ arrived at Kiriwina Island in the Trobriands. Again, the lifeboats were put to good use. The locals lined the main street offering souvenirs for sale. School children sang on the school oval and I spoke to a local who was once in the PIR.
He enjoyed my photos, recognising several people. Children clamoured for a look. Being Sunday, the whole island participated in the welcome events.
Kitava offered a similar experience but on a smaller scale. Scenic views abound. Scuba diving was popular with the tourists.
Our final visit was to the Conflict Islands. This island is privately owned, small and has an airfield for light aircraft and helicopters. A Caribou plane would be at home here. The island appears to be an exclusive hotel resort. Paths and walkways are clean and well-marked by white paint and signage. Deck chairs dot the main swimming areas with a price tag attached for sitting down.
Several rustic bungalows appeared to be for rent. Island staff arrive a day or two prior to a ship’s arrival, probably travelling from Alotau. Staff fence off turtle nests to protect the eggs from accidental damage. Coconut trees everywhere. The island is picture perfect. Swimming is a pleasure.
The final two days were at sea and passengers enjoyed the entertainment, food and the companionship that make a cruise so enjoyable. It was a great success.
Before you all race off to book a similar adventure, and while our cruise was almost without incident, on board was a family who failed to visit Wewak in 2016 due to bad weather preventing the tenders operating.
Overall sailing conditions are very good within PNG. From Brisbane through the Coral Sea can be affected by swells from the mid Pacific.
However, this could well be the adventure of a lifetime. It is a trip to seriously consider. Book now!