Eighty Years, Bookended by Kavieng: by John Bell
June 1938 – I first arrived in Kavieng via the hospital, aged 0.
June 2018 – I last arrived in Kavieng via Air Niugini, aged 80.
Where did all those years go?
Early this year several family members decided to celebrate my big 80th birthday in Kavieng. Seventeen were able to attend, a formidable logistical exercise. Transport, accommodation, activities, meals for three generations, only a few of whom had ever been to PNG.
Lissenung Island, www.lissenung.com , 15 minutes by boat from Kavieng, is a dedicated dive resort on a stunningly beautiful island. We took over all its accommodation and booked the island for a week. Then the planning began, ten coming from Queensland (two flying out of Cairns, two out of Townsville, seven from Brisbane), four NSW, one Victoria, one from the USA and one from Tahiti.
Jacquie shouldered the unenviable burden of coordinating all the flights into POM and on to KVG and return, making sure everyone had their travel documents in order. The ladies at Air Niugini were so helpful in their friendly laid-back manner, and assisted with accommodation in Kavieng pre- and post-Lissenung. But this is PNG after all, and the inevitable few hiccups added to the sense of adventure for the younger ones.
The staff at Niugini Niu Motel were excellent, collecting us from and returning us to Kavieng airport without fuss and within time. Arriving on the daily late afternoon flight, we stayed there overnight. Next morning, they delivered us to the wharf to be collected by the Lissenung boats. Despite confirmed tickets, Penny, Matt and Bodie didn’t make that flight, being bumped in POM, unlucky enough due to baggage delays to be at the wrong end of the queue to board the onward flight. They had to overnight Moresby, so arrived at Lissenung in the early dark of the following evening.
Delivered by the boat boys from Kavieng wharf to the island’s beautiful sand beach and crystal water, we were welcomed by Dietmar and Ange, the resort owners, who proceeded to spoil us for the next week. Accommodation was clean, cool and tropical. Elevated and flyscreened, local materials, ensuites, we could not have wished for better. Each hut has two bedrooms and is separated from the others for privacy. Thankfully no television and only limited internet. Sand paths, raked continually, link the huts and the restaurant, office, other buildings.
Everyman’s idea of a tropical island paradise, Lissenung is a jungle covered atoll, surrounded by reef and sandy beaches. You can swim around it, snorkelling over beautiful coral and masses of coloured fish, or walk around it, stepping into the sea here and there to negotiate leaning jungle trees festooned with orchids, ferns and Ant Plants. Every day a large school of Big Eye Trevally patrolled the waters of the main beach and the house reef, maybe a thousand (you ever tried to count fish?) or so. A pet Eclectus parrot flits unrestrained through the trees, drops into the office to say hullo and cadge something to eat.
All those who were suitably qualified went diving, everyone snorkelled every day, and Dietmar organized a fishing trip for those keen, and even a crabbing expedition. All the younger ones had dive tickets, and their excitement after each dive was contagious. Crystal clear water, ship and aircraft wrecks, glorious coral, colourful fish and streamlined sharks, what more could a diver want? I’ve spent a lifetime diving, and watching the next generations enjoying the pastime in such a setting made a special birthday even more so.
The kids decided that “Lissenung” means “Paradise.” Fabulous setting, hosts and staff wonderful, weather perfect – blue skies, calm water, occasional afternoon showers, breezes came and went. Evenings delightfully cool for a group including third, fourth and fifth generations born north of the Tropic of Capricorn. Clear water. And no stingers! No Irukandji, no Chironex Rex. Nor any sandflies, and we struggled to find a mosquito. Paradise indeed.
The sand-floored dining room is a great setting for a party… every night! Our hosts turned on a magnificent birthday dinner, complete with chocolate cake and candles.
All meals surprised us in quality and variety, especially considering the remoteness of the island and the logistics of feeding so many. Lobster, fish, crab, salad, veggies – we have two vegans, yet they were catered for too. Every meal was excellent. The shy kitchen girls must have been on a mission to fatten us up, because second helpings appeared unrequested for the insatiable 20-year olds. There wasn’t one meal of the nearly 400 that deserved any form of complaint. And my chocolate birthday cake disappeared like snow on the beach.
A visit to nearby Enuk Island, the home village for Lissenung staff, enabled us to meet and mingle. Being holiday time, many locals had gone to Kavieng to watch the football, so the school was closed. We didn’t get to meet the kids in their classroom, but touch footy games were running, and we joined the spectators. We’d brought with us some fifty-odd tennis balls, eagerly caught by laughing children. We’d tested our Air Niugini baggage limits with a heap of school supplies – books, pencils, erasers etc – and left these with our hosts for later distribution.
In 2002 Carol and I and son Lincoln went to Kavieng for the PNGAA memorial establishment. While there we took a banana boat with Scott and Margaret (also Kavieng born) Henderson, to Enelaua where my liklik dokta father Lincoln Bell as district GMO in the 1930s established a leper station. I’m indebted to Jim Ridges for his research paper detailing this. Then over to Ranmalek on Lavongai, where Margaret’s father Tom Simpson (“Yours Sincerely, Tom” written by Margaret) ran a mission prior to WW2. We passed Lissenung back then, never imagining we would one day stay there.
Sixty-eight years separate me from grandson George. With no one else in our group under twenty, he busied himself creating a video from edited stills of his sand-built race track, and struck up a friendship with Elijah, the young son of Boston and his wife Margaret from Enuk. Both parents work at Lissenung, Boston on the boats. He was in charge of our mud-crabbing expedition. “Women’s work,” he claimed.
Peni, another of the island’s boat/diving crew, ever helpful, kept everything running smoothly during tank dives. Possessed of a wonderful ability to calm the over excited nerves of our newbies – and some not so newbies – for the deeper dives, his natural air of calm confidence turned each experience into something magical.
One late afternoon two boats took us to a spot in “Eickstedt Passage in the middle of a triangle formed by Nago, Edmago and Usien islands” (from The Kavieng Massacre by Raden Dunbar). My grandfather John William Bell was one of the survivors of the Kavieng PoW camps garrotted by the Japanese, their bodies weighted with concrete and dumped in this deep water. Convicted at eventual war crimes trials, the camp commandant who issued the execution order was duly executed, others involved sentenced to varying gaol terms. I wanted our family’s younger ones to be aware of their family history in PNG from 1926 to 1951, encompassing the destruction during WW2. Too few Australians have much awareness of Australia’s close involvement with the country so near to our north. A quarter century of family history, the wartime deaths of three out of five male family members, the dislocation of so many lives by the Japanese invasion, all given impact and immediacy by being where it all happened.
Dietmar and Ange organized two wreaths, one of frangipanis, the other of heliconias weighted down with bits of shell and coral collected by our group. Under a dramatic sunset sky, clouds changing from pink to purple, we lowered the wreaths into the glassed-off darkening sea. I said a few words covering the Japanese invasion, evacuation, my grandfather’s incarceration, and the massacre. I touched on the Montevideo Maru, and the loss of my uncle Don Bell on that ship, as well as my father Lincoln’s role as a Coast Watcher, his work in the evacuation from Rabaul, and his death behind the Rai Coast in 1943. Bruce played ‘The Last Post’ on his bagpipes, the plaintive notes setting a sombre mood, then followed with a bracket of pipe favourites. An emotional time, a poignant history lesson. Wet eyes all round, even the boat boys. A history lesson to be absorbed and remembered.
Kavieng markets saw a visit by the family; a new experience for the younger ones – and some of the older – who checked out the local artifacts and produce, especially buai. And of course that night at dinner everyone inspected the day’s haul of carvings and ornaments.
We’d booked for a week, but when Dietmar and Ange mentioned a gap before the next guests were due to arrive, we didn’t hesitate. Unanimous decision to stay a few extra days. Unfortunately, Stuart and Sharyn with Maggie and George, as well as Lucie and Dan, had work commitments, so couldn’t stay over. They left us in the middle of a blinding rain shower, perfectly timed for a wet trip in an open boat. A trip they will remember.
I’d arranged to catch up with Jim Ridges, and he kindly joined us for a half-day bus trip. The bus was ours, and headed off down Boluminski Highway after Kavieng, with Jim pointing out where Les Bell’s engineering (read New Guinea Engineer by Gillian Heming Shadbolt) had been, where the hospital I was born in had been until the devastation of war, and other landmarks. An oral history, delivered from Jim’s extensive store of knowledge, was the best way for young (and old) people to absorb the information. We visited and paid our respects at the memorial to civilians, which includes the names of my grandfather (Kavieng Massacre) and uncle (Montevideo Maru).
We called in on “Cathy’s Eels”, still run by the same lady as in 2002. Cathy Hiob, once a senior air hostess for Air Niugini, had flown all over the world until she came back to New Ireland to raise children village-style. Sixteen years and the eels don’t seem to have changed!
At a stop for lunch, our bus owner driver John Knox (see Knoxies Place Kavieng – accommodation, bus etc) had a razor-sharp machete fall on his foot, cutting deep into his big toe. Our in-house nursing sister Penny had a supply of bandages and medications, and she operated, while Carol held the skin together, and the uncomplaining Knoxie stoically stood there using his mobile phone to photograph the damage.
On our 2002 visit we’d stayed at the Kavieng Hotel and remembered that the food then had been excellent. So on our overnight stay at Kavieng Niu Lodge for the return trip, we booked into the hotel restaurant. Again, the meal was excellent while there were a lot of changes to the hotel in sixteen years.
We flew out of Kavieng for Rabaul the next day at 0630. Not without drama – again just to remind us that this is, after all, PNG – when Carol and I, Lincoln and Diana presented our confirmed tickets at the counter we were told “you aren’t on the manifest” and so couldn’t board the aircraft. After a lot of talking and telephoning, they waved us through. This was repeated in Port Moresby, where time was an issue due to a 55-minute connecting flight and a busy terminal. Jacquie left us to the luggage and ran to the ticketing counter where she talked us onto the Cairns flight.
We made it onto the aircraft well after boarding was called. Not so lucky were Stuart and Sharyn, Maggie and George, when they left a couple of days earlier. On the return trip their plane was diverted to Lae, causing them to miss their Brisbane flight. They were able to get a later flight to Cairns before continuing.
Published novels .. The Williams Series
Book 1 Payback
Book 2 Puri Puri
Book 3 Melted Wax