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PNG: Beautiful people & the Black Cat tragedy

Emma SteendamEMMA STEENDAM | She Sows Seeds Blog

WE’RE BACK! BACK ON AUSTRALIAN SOIL, warmed by the tropical heat of Papua New Guinea, bags jammed with traveller’s treasures and memory cards full of amazing images.

This was our third trip in four years to PNG – we’re practically part of the furniture now, we no longer blink an eye at things which stunned us four years ago when we first ventured there.

Going through Port Moresby airport is easier knowing the blunt nature of Papua New Guinean people; I’m a lot more confident in speaking Pidgin; I can definitely understand faster conversation.

Highlands manI’m confident to shop in the markets without Ange, to read between the lines as you need to a lot of the time in that country.

What still surprises me is how little the everyday Australian knows about PNG, which is so close to us, yet so different. I get asked loads of questions about life in Papua New Guinea, life for expats, life for the locals.

While we stayed with our friends, Matt went to work every day, helping the local workers in the beef operation with their new electronic tagging system for the feedlot, which he helped implement last year, amongst other jobs.

I spent most days in the kitchen cooking up a storm, going to the local market, regular family life business of school drop-off, play group, pool dates and craft sessions with the three pikininis.

One thing’s for sure – life is busy in the Tarangau compound. Although they live in a remote location in a developing country, social activity is at an all-time high.

Matt went on a hike, up Shaggy Ridge to a height of almost 2,000 metres from 400 metres in about five hours, a total of 40km in a day and a half. A lot of war history up there on Shaggy Ridge, as well as visiting the local villages.

We travelled to Goroka for a day, where we went to a local school’s singsing and shopped in the larger market there and stocked up on fruit and vegetables only available in the Highlands. Back down in the valley, a local village was ‘open’ for a weekend to see how their pottery was made, the watch their singsings.

We followed that up with a picnic in the jungle by a little creek, kids’ nude catching tadpoles, cutting open some coconuts with bush knives for some kulau. These kids are having a magical childhood in Papua New Guinea.

Singsing nabautThe Goroka show was also on the day before we departed, so we traveled the three hours up into the Highlands again to see the most amazing singsings in traditional costume, just the noise and singing was beautifully moving and oh so powerful.

So many people in one place all singing and dancing from their own ‘places’ – I hope my photos do justice for just how extraordinary it was…

While we were in Papua New Guinea a terrible tragedy happened on the Black Cat track, as I’m sure many Australians know about as it has been widely reported in the media here. To not speak about it here in a round-up of our time in Papua New Guinea would be remiss.

We know the trek leader, Christy, and her family, who we stayed with last year in Salamaua and in Lae. It was a shocking reminder of how brutal life can be in Papua New Guinea, how different life is there, how values and ethics and life is so very different in another culture, so very foreign to us.

Since the attack I’ve spent some sleepless nights just thinking about the porters, how they were attacked, the hike back to safety in the night, the bravery of those men and Christy.

She will tell you she is no hero, but I can’t fathom that night in the jungle, walking in the direction that your attackers fled, not knowing if they will come back, being the only woman, and having to leave your good mates behind not knowing if they would be alive when you finally found help.

Two porters died that night on the Black Cat, another porter has since died in the Lae hospital from horrific injuries. Several more porters are still in critical conditions, most are not expected to walk again, losing their ability to work, to garden, to earn a living for their families.

These men are fathers, sons, providers, real people with real families. Long after the media focus leaves Papua New Guinea these men will be left without the ability to work. Please don’t forget them.

A fund has been established by the Australian trekkers to try and help these selfless and strong men, please if you have a spare dollar, donate to this account. An Australian dollar goes a long way in a Papua New Guinea kina…

Account Name: The Black Cat Porters Trust Fund
BSB: 063124
Account Number: 10692436

People ask me if it’s safe in Papua New Guinea. I say yes. In all our time spent in PNG I’ve never once felt unsafe or threatened. Do we stay in a locked compound? Yes. Do I worry about being robbed or a break in at night? Yes. Do I think about being held up on the roads? Yes. Have I had a big ol’ rock thrown at our car? Yes.

Have I been followed by dubious characters at markets? Yes. Have I been shouted out at in the streets for being a white woman? Yes. Are we monitored by a security company? Yes. Is it unusual to hear gunshots at a crowded place like the Goroka show? No.

But the fear and worry can eat you up, it can change you. You need to have a thick skin, a sharp mind and most of all have your wits about you. Be smart. Take precautions.

The second-wave tragedy of the Black Cat attack will be what it will do to the perception of Papua New Guinea. The locals and trekking companies were trying to open up the Black Cat as ‘the next Kokoda’. Our friends have walked the track, with the porters who have died or are in the Lae hospital still.

The war history on Black Cat is equal to, if not more impressive, than Kokoda. Who knows what will happen to this area now in terms of tourism. Probably nothing much, which is such a shame.

The local people we have met in Salamaua are beautiful, friendly, happy people. Please don’t let this tragedy taint your perception of Papua New Guinea and its people. If it were not safe for us to be there, we wouldn’t go. Simple as that. Our friends live there with their young family – they have always said they would stay until they no longer feel safe.

Highlands womanWhen Matt raised his interest in doing a hike while we would be in PNG, Black Cat was high on his list. We knew Christy was doing a Black Cat trek at the same time we would be there.

In the end, Shaggy Ridge was just a far easier option. I feel sick thinking about the what-if’s.

We’re not sure if that was our last journey to PNG. Probably. For lots of different reasons, but our safety is definitely not one of them. We have always felt safe.

If ever you get the chance to travel to this unique land, jump at it, grab it with both hands.

We will always have the fondest memories of our time in Papua New Guinea, the beautiful people we encountered and our adventures in the Ramu valley.


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Gary Essex

A really nice article.

I too feel for the porters and their families that have been directly affected by the attack, as well as more generally for the people of PNG as this will undoubtedly have an impact on the amount of Australian tourists into the future.

That is the reason this trust fund has been established.

So if you can please donate to the trust or visit PNG as you might have planned or better still do both. It will do much good to the people badly affected.

You see I am one of the trekkers.

Lapieh Landu

Thank you Emma, a very insightful account of your unique experiences in our country.

It is unfortunate what happened to those trekkers and porters on the Black Cat Track, nonetheless I hope that other travelers will not be discouraged by this incident as there are many more unseen havens in Papua New Guinea.

Like you mentioned, it is wise to be cautious and at the same time, be aware of your surroundings.

In PNG and any new country or place you visit, I would think it is wise to be not be seen as vulnerable, it's always good to mix around but at the same time portray confidence so that people do not push you around or take advantage of you.

My heart goes out for those who were killed and harmed during this incident and hope that we can find a way to addressing such issues effectively so that they are not repeated.

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