Going back for a look: Graham Egan
Graham Egan served in PNG from 1967-81 at Kerema High School, Maprik High School, Mt Hagen Technical College, Administrative College, Rabaul Secretarial College, Goroka Technical College and High School.
We had been thinking about going back for a look for years. Retirement finally gave us the opportunity and dispensed all our excuses. So, in August 2008, four of us who had first met in Maprik in 1970-71 boarded an Airlines of PNG flight to Port Moresby. We were Vicki Walshe (nee Little), Graham Egan, and Paul and Helen Dennett, and we wanted to see how the country had coped following our departures in 1976, 1981 and 1986. We visited Port Moresby, Goroka, Wewak, Maprik and Madang.
Moresby is dusty (Laurabada time), messy, much bigger and very busy. Orientation took a bit of time, but the old town was still there and the strangeness soon passed. The infrastructure decline, especially roads, is very noticeable. The main roads were fair, but the minor roads were awful, with large potholes and not much bitumen. The tropical climate had been pretty cruel to a lot of the housing. Thirty years demand a lot of maintenance and its absence was clear. Of course, maintenance is costly and not very glamorous, so money goes elsewhere.
Stepping out of the plane into the freshness of a clear, sunny Goroka morning reminded me of why I had enjoyed living there for three and a half years (Principal of Goroka Technical College and High School 1978-81). The market was lively and had fast food, clothing, household goods and pharmaceuticals (Amoxycillin 20 tabs for K2) for sale as well as the usual vegetables. Small buses, in generally good condition, touted for passengers to Lae and Mt Hagen. The business centre was larger than I remember and full of the litter that was everywhere. The schools were in good nick, as was the old teachers’ college, now a campus of UPNG. There were people all over the place, some sitting, some doing business, some just ‘rounding’. The years fell away and I felt I could easily readjust to life there.
We then flew with MAF to Wewak and had superb views of the mountains, even Mt Wilhelm, in the clear, dry season air. Wewak is sleepy and hot, but still a tropical gem. We stayed in a good new boutique hotel, In Wewak, perched on top of Wewak hill. The shopping centre at the base of the hill was thronged and busy and badly potholed. Moem Barracks were not as spruce as I remember; some of the buildings were beyond repair. Boram hospital seemed to have withstood quite well the 36 years that had passed since I last saw it. The site of the 1945 surrender of the Japanese at Cape Wom looked good. I was there when the memorial was set up on the 25th anniversary in September 1970.
A double cabin four wheel drive was our transport along the Sepik Highway to Maprik. This is the one road in the country that was better than when I last drove it in 1972. It is now paved. There were a few washaways and some rough sections, especially near Wewak, but most of the road was very good. There was even a high bridge replacing the causeway across the Nagum river a few kilometres from Wewak. In the past we had spent many hours at that causeway waiting for the flood to pass after driving from Maprik for a weekend in the big smoke of Wewak. No waiting ever now. Some things are much better.
We were treated like minor royalty at Balupwine and Maprik Primary Schools with drum beating reception committees, coconut palm arches, garlands around our necks and speeches of welcome. The friendliness and warmth of the people has not changed one jot.
An offloading at Madang (some things never change) got us an extra day there, at Air Niugini’s expense. This tropical jewel of a town shines as brightly as ever. The mountains of the Rai Coast continue to brood in the distance and the coastal swell still washes languidly against palm fringed shores. It’s a cliché of tropical loveliness and the streets were the cleanest of any of the towns. One of my ex-students from Maprik is the head of Tusbab High School and her husband is the head of the NBC in Madang. It must have something to do with the excellent teaching they received.
We had a final day back in Port Moresby, being feted at one of the up-market hotels by a group of our ex-students.
We had a wonderful time. It was great to see the old place again. There is some decline in infrastructure and the heightened security is very noticeable, but the people are still warm and friendly and it was great to be with them again. Going back was like seeing a friend for the first time in many years. There is that initial shock, as you take in the ravages of time, but the strangeness soon passes and you are with an old friend again.