It’s a hard life in the mountains: Dave Lornie

I’ve been waiting, bored and restless, since 8 am at the remote Simbai airstrip for a plane to take me back to Mt Hagen. It is now late afternoon. There’s not a lot to do—no electricity, no mobile phone service, no beer—so time passes slowly.

I am to repeat this futile daily trip to the airport four days in a row. Same routine: the airline assures me a plane will come so I wait for eight hours and no plane arrives. I then trudge back to the guesthouse with the same promise relayed through the local agent: “We’ll send a plane tomorrow…”

They don’t tell me till later the airstrip has been shut down by the authorities and may remain closed for three weeks. I notice a lady at the airstrip, much taller than the local villagers, more elegantly dressed and with finer features. Now and then her eyes wearily scan the sky. She tells me she is a teacher originally from Manus and is waiting on a package from Mt Hagen to arrive.

Store produce, she says, is too expensive in Simbai. She’s right. A kilogram of rice sells for K8, almost twice the cost in major centres. Other goods are similarly priced.

Simbai is in the Highlands region of Madang Province, the air is mountain fresh, the people small and the lifestyle basic. The area is one of the remotest parts of Papua New Guinea in regards to both geography and access to modern services.

A government station, servicing around 50,000 village-dwelling locals, Simbai is situated many kilometres inland from Madang town and is closer to Jiwaka and Western Highlands provinces. Accordingly, the people have much in common with their Highlands neighbours.

The only way in or out of the area is by air or on foot. If you’re fit, Jiwaka can be reached in a day but the locals are reluctant to take that option: the terrain is steep and vicious gangs of thugs are said to roam the area. The other route is a two-day hike to Usino Bundi and then a 24-hour trip by river.

The airstrip, built in the fifties, is a strip of grass which becomes ruined in heavy rains. In the wet season it rains daily and the cloud cover makes air approach risky.Simbai Station and the outlying villages rely heavily on the airstrip for store goods, health supplies and transport to and from the region.

There is a small health centre that caters for minor cases and routine childbirths. Anyone with a serious medical condition must be airlifted to either Mt Hagen or Madang.

A local man proudly introduces me to his five-year-old daughter who was born at the health centre. She looks shy to meet a white man but is, like all children her age, a sweetheart. Ronald tells me her twin did not survive a difficult birth.

There is no mobile phone service in Simbai and, apart from UHF radio, the only other method of communication is a VSAT telephone system.

The phone only works when the weather is cool and as soon as the sun heats the solar panel the phone switches off. Compounding the problem when I visit is the fact that there are no Telikad phone cards on sale. Locals say they have approached Digicel to install a tower but are unsure of the progress.

There is talk of money having been put aside by the Government for a road into the area though the locals are not confident this will happen.

And now, as happens every few months, the airstrip is closed. It’s hard times for the people when this happens. “Sometimes there is no store food, no salt, rice, tinfish, soap,” says Local Level Government Sub-District Administrator Barnabas Miukmang.

He tells me money has been earmarked by the Provincial Government for the strip’s maintenance but “the funds are not released in time. We are still waiting.” He says machinery such as a tractor and grader is needed to maintain the strip.

Rob Wagner, a Baptist Missionary from Pennsylvania, US, lives with his wife and daughter at the Station. I meet him on my first day waiting for the plane. Rob is driving a small RTV utility cart pulling a trailer of river stones to help patch up the airstrip. It’s not Rob’s job to maintain the strip but, as he says, if he doesn’t do it then no-one will. He is usually helped by one or two of his flock whilst a large audience of locals stands and watches. Over the next few days Rob proves to be extremely helpful to me: a Godsend, you might say.

The American is a smiling forty-six-year-old with much to chat about. I’m guessing he’s just happy to see another white man but admiring locals tell me “he’s talkative”.

The missionary is a genuinely nice man, true Christians usually are, and without his help I might still be in the mountains. He has a UHF radio connected to a modem and, using this, I am able to email the Post-Courier Moresby office to ask them to somehow get me out of this place: Please send a chopper, I beg.

I receive a call from our Mt Hagen office through the VSAT phone which just happens to be working. They say they will hire a helicopter to get me out. I’m lucky, but it comes at a cost of several thousand kina. The people of Simbai are not so fortunate.

With thanks to Dave Lornie and the Post-Courier  (first published Post-Courier 11 October 2012)


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