Perilous Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea was to be our last destination before turning south for Australia. David, Nick and I arrived on a Saturday afternoon on the 20th August in Kieta, the first port of entry into Papua New Guinea at the western end of the island of Bougainville.

The sheltered harbour at Kieta with Romano in the foreground.

we couldn’t check in until Monday afternoon as the customs/immigration officer was on training up north in Buka. Jeffrey arrived Monday afternoon on the beach near the boat waving his arms to attract our attention so I rowed ashore in the dinghy to pick him up, he turned out to be a real gem.

Jeffrey hard at work clearing us in.

He gave us a history lesson over the recent troubles. Apparently the fighting over independence has now finished and the PNG government has agreed to an independence referendum in 2018 which appears to be a foregone conclusion by the locals. Jeffrey told us they were worried because they had no previous skills in running a country and would need outside help to regain stability.

The next day after check in Jeffrey arrived back in a Police Land Rover as promised to pick us up and take us to the town of Arawa to do our shopping. Kieta where we had arrived to clear in has nothing by way of facilities they are all in the next town Arawa about 30 minutes drive away. We went in company with two uniformed officers and two plain clothes CID. Chris the driver said Jeffrey would guide us round town to do our shopping, which he did superbly and they, the police, would drive us back to the boat. They even stored our shopping for us in the chief’s air conditioned office while we went out for more and offered to drive us to the market. We declined on the basis it was an easy walk and we wanted to see more of the town. Many of the buildings were burned out from the war as had the football pitch and the local church. The food shops had very little to offer and were heavily barred giving a prison like feel with purchases handed through the bars only after payment. We had prepared a shopping list and typically our conversation with the shopkeepers would go like this -“ do you have any eggs, no; milk, no; cheese, no; ham, no; bacon, no; bread, no; butter, no; fruit, no; meat, no and so on. What they did have in every shop was tuna, spam, corned beef, pasta and rice. Technology was no problem though, I wanted a local SIM card for my iPad so Jeffrey stopped a woman in the street and explaining that she was the mobile phone person in Arawa and she sorted out a SIM card for me and registered it while we stood on the pavement. Considering the hoops you have to jump through in other countries it was remarkably easy in this casual transaction. Arawa wasn’t the sort of place to linger around with mobs of young men hanging around street corners, burnt out buildings and filthy streets and we were glad of Jeffrey as our uniformed escort.

We then took the offered ride back to Kieta and the boat with our police escort. Once we arrived back at the beach the officers helped us load the dinghy with our shopping and then we ferried them over several trips out to see the boat.

Back from our “shop with a cop” expedition

We had a chat over a few onboard drinks and took them back ashore. For the chauffeuring they charged us 100 kina, about £40.00 we were learning nothing comes free in PNG. They were a lovely bunch of guys however and happy to relieve us of our money. The people we met in Kieta were warm friendly and helpful, wanting to know where we’re from and why we’re here and how we got here. We learned that there are only 9 white people on the island of Bougainville so we stuck out a bit, especially escorted by police and a uniformed customs officer, we felt like regular VIP’s.

Papua New Guinea fought against the Japanese invasion in World War II and there are some well preserved relics at the head of the bay in Kieta.

A Japanese Zero Fighter

And a well preserve small tank

The other unusual thing was a small island a few yards from where we were anchored made of lumps of piled up coral and on top a tent and an electrical cable running out to the tent pole from the shore and a small boat tied up there. We speculated what this might be and why anyone would want to live on a pile of coral when there was plenty of free land about, we were quite puzzled.

On asking a local it turned out that the family who had built it were going to turn it into a refuelling berth for local fishing boats and passing yachts and had occupied it so no one else could claim it. Under PNG law it would be theirs as long as the island was occupied. Sure enough next day a gang turned up at low water and started digging coral out of the inshore reef and carting it over to enlarge the island.

After leaving Kieta we headed north up the coast of Bougainville to our next port Buka. Customs in PNG require you to check in and out of each port but this doesn’t stop you having overnight stops in nice bays along the way.

Our next en route stop we had planned was Numa Numa a medium sized village behind an extensive reef. We anchored off the village and settled down for a quiet night. At about 5 am I was woken by the sound of voices close to the boat and went up to check it out.

The boat was surrounded by about six canoes and three swimmers intent on boarding despite our protestations. Two of the guys who were clearly high on either booze and/or drugs boarded us and wouldn’t leave when asked increasingly forcibly. My son David tried pushing one off unsuccessfully, I succeeded in getting the other guy off over the bow. I then resorted to our big pole and gave the last remaining guy a few wraps on the knuckles to get him to let go the stays, there was no reaction from him at all so I hit him in the chest with the pointy end quite hard, still nothing, he clearly didn’t feel the pain. I called to a chap in one of the canoes who seemed more normal than the rest to call him off but he said he wouldn’t understand, they were too far gone on booze and or betel nut/marijuana. The beach was lined with villagers all shouting and waving their arms presumably in support of the boarding party. Nick appeared at this stage so I started the engine while David and he raised the anchor, and our last remaining boarder dived off as we brought the anchor on board and I swung the boat out of the bay. However, I didn’t see the outrigger canoe under the bow and we capsized it tipping it’s occupant into the water.

As we left at least two canoes had overturned and several swimmers were left shouting at us from the water. It was all a bit traumatic being woken at first light with a fight on our hands but no one got hurt and we escaped unscathed.

This is the first time I had experienced any thing of this sort in my sailing travels around the world and hopefully the last. We decided after this experience to miss out the islands of New Ireland and New Britain as we would have to go to the ports of Kavieng, Rabaul and Madang to satisfy custom’s conditions, all of which are known trouble spots.

Around mid afternoon we arrived in Buka which is situated on the north bank of a narrow fast running tidal cut between the main island and the north island. We needed provisions, water and fuel so we came alongside the wharf in the main town and tied up to a much larger ship, helped by the crew.

In the morning we went ashore to complete our provisioning in the rather meagre stores and returned to be met by the port manager.

Nick doing his washing in a bucket

Then came the big surprise, the ship we had tied up to was on the government wharf and the port manager told me we would have to pay berthing fees for the privilege and finally produced a bill for $550 US equivalent for 22 hours of stay. He had charged us the going commercial rate and despite much complaining , wheedling and angry reproach neither he nor his superiors would budge. I then went to the bank to get the cash and neither of my cards would work, fortunately Nick had some Australian dollars and I had some US dollars on the boat, enough to settle up but then the port manager refused to give me a receipt, I was livid and refused to leave from his office until he gave me an official receipt. He could tell I meant it and relented and eventually stamped and signed a receipt for me, leaving a very bad taste. I told him I would file reports about his behaviour and treatment in the cruising web sites so cruisers would avoid Buka. He couldn’t have cared less he had his money but when I we reached Australia I posted warnings about both Numa Numa and Buka on Noonsite the official cruisers website which will hopefully avoid others having a similar problem.

Then the Customs Officer asked me for 50 kina for petrol money and the Quarantine Officer wouldn’t provide our clearance certificate until I gave him 50 kina as well. He promised to email a receipt but unsurprisingly never did.

Eventually we got it all sorted and sailed out, glad to be rid of the place. On the plus side, we had topped up the water and fuel tanks by jerry can, bought provisions, did our laundry, bought beer, and refreshed our sim cards. We were all bushed after a hard day’s work but happy to be heading for the Louisiades a group of islands about 350 miles south where the people have a much better reputation.

We had a slow up wind sail beating against an awkward sea to get there which was very uncomfortable and made sleeping difficult. The 20 or so islands spread over hundreds of square miles are surrounded by a fringing reef which makes a relatively calm lagoon for some great inter island sails.

We arrived through the Hubudi Passage which was about half a mile wide but quite shallow and headed for Abaga Gahaie island and a good anchorage for trade wind protection. In the next few days we headed down through the islands stopping each night in a secure anchorage and meeting up with villagers as they came out so see us in their dugout canoes to trade with whatever they had.

They live a subsistence life style which hasn’t changed in centuries. They see the few yachts that arrive each year as Santas sleighs, well meaning Australian boats bring lots of goodies to organise schools, water supplies, solar panels, food, seeds, building materials but the people of these islands have now become beggars expecting every boat that comes by to provide them with freebies. It’s not unusual to have 20 canoes come out to the boat each day asking for medicines, food basics, nails, fish hooks and it’s impossible to satisfy everyone. We carry the usual trade goods and those who do get something take it for granted, it’s seldom you’re thanked and those that don’t get anything are surly and resentful. Give a football to one child and 5 parents will turn up at the boat demanding one for their child. I tell them I’m willing to trade for fruit and vegetables but that I won’t respond to begging to try and maintain some degree of dignity. The gulf between first world civilisations and theirs is huge and they can have no concept of our modern society and certainly no interest or resources to develop their own standard of living beyond a subsistence economy. They get fish from the sea, fruit from the trees and grow their own vegetables and that’s it. When it’s dark they go to bed when it’s light they get up and with 12 hours of darkness it’s not surprising there are so many children with no light there’s nothing else to do.

The trees provide their building materials and utensils. Men build houses and boats and fish from dugout canoes, women do everything else, look after children, cook, grow food, collect shellfish, maintain the house, weave mats, make jewellery, wash clothes in the streams, collect water and so on. Most never leave their island and have little knowledge of the outside world.

Gastronomically Papua New Guinea was a disaster, the shops when you could find one sold even less than the shops in the Solomons. The only meat we could buy was frozen chicken wings and of course in tins the shops sold tuna and spam. Our menus below from PNG from a situation of no fresh meat and dwindling supplies of tinned food shows how we coped.

Breakfast

Omelette plain

Boat cooked Bread and jam or marmalade

Dry cereal after the milk ran out

Fruit – pawpaw, oranges, bananas, available from the markets and some villages

Lunches

Beans on toast

Fried spam sandwiches

Tuna or corned beef and tomato or fried spam or banana sandwiches

Vegetable or lentil or 3 bean soup with bread and cheesy butter (slightly rancid)

Omelette, plain

Dinner

Curried vegetables

Tuna pasta

Spaghetti Carbonara with spam

Sweet and sour deep fried spam with rice

Spam egg and chips

Vegetable fried rice

Corned beef hash with sweet potato

Spam with couscous

Fried rice and tinned mussels

Tinned seafood on pasta

Tinned chicken curry.

We became ever more imaginative in our menu selection to see us through our three weeks in PNG. We had planned a much longer stay but we’re glad to be on our way to Australia given the circumstances.

We cleared out of the country in Samarai where they have one customs/immigration officer, Felix. He only has to deal with 6 yachts a year so hardly rushed off his feet. He was a real gentleman though and the only government officer we met who didn’t ask for a kick back for doing his job. I met an Australian who had been living on the island for 41 years, married to a local girl. He took me to show me the house they were building and we talked about the country he had adopted. He despaired of the future with rampant corruption, little law and order, mass poverty and no obvious possibility of a way out. The potential breakaway of Bougainville and its mineral resources is another blow to the already beleaguered economy.

Before we left PNG we had to notify the Australian border control of our impending arrival and organise visas which fortunately we could apply for and get online. We set off in fair winds narrowly missing an unmarked rock on the way out of Samarai and made really good time to Cairns covering the 500 miles in less than 3 days, recording our highest ever daily mileage of 188 miles, an average speed of just under 8 knots. As we approached the Australian coast we were buzzed by the Australian Coast Guard who roared overhead at 200 feet to let us know we had been spotted.

Arrival at Cairns was overwhelming after several months in the third world, its full on consumerism and massive infrastructure which assails the senses. It would be difficult to find a greater contrast between life on the Louisiades and life in Cairns, only 3 sailing days apart!

On the Navionics app on my iPad it’s possible to add data to the charts so I added this nasty little pointy rock in Samarai to the database so others would be aware.

I intend to spend 10 months in Australia cruising the Queensland coast, doing the inevitable yearly maintenance, seeing the country and visiting friends.

The Indonesian Rally leaves Cairns in July 18 when I’ll move on again with another new set of crew members. This years crew Nick and my son David leave the boat in Port Clinton for Nick and David in Brisbane, I’ll miss them both.