Shake Baby Shake

By Paul Dennett

Early in 1963 I applied for a teaching job in PNG.  The first step required me to undertake a six-month course at Malaguna Teachers College in Rabaul to gain teaching qualifications.  So in April I joined a group of around sixty keen students there for the fifth ‘E’ Course.  Not long after we began, we received a visit from a Committee that had been set up by the Administrator of the day, Sir Donald Cleland.  Its brief was to travel about the Territory and collect opinions from educators and other interested citizens on a proposal to set up a university. 

The year before this Canberra had been stung into action on tertiary education, along with other issues, by being roundly criticised in a report tabled by Sir Hugh Foot at the United Nations. The report resulted from a visit he and his Visiting Mission had made to the Trust Territory of New Guinea to survey the achievements of the Australian administration.  Papua, of course, was off limits to Foot’s Mission as it was still an Australian possession.  Hence the creation of the Administrator’s Committee on Tertiary Education.

While the Administrator’s Committee was in the Gazelle Peninsula it devoted some of its time to us – ‘why us?’ we asked ourselves: we didn’t even have the basics of pedagogy yet!  But we all crammed dutifully into one room to hear what they had to say and offer ideas if we could.  Well into the session a short, sharp earthquake struck – a guria they are called in Pidgin – the first in our short experience of the Territory.  The wooden building bucked and shook much like a large bus with poor suspension clumsily negotiating deep potholes. The creaking and thumping was memorable. The stenographer who accompanied the committee and had up to that stage presented a fairly haughty demeanour, let out a loud parrot-like squawk of alarm and flushed a deep crimson when we all had a chuckle at her reaction. Fred Kaad, a member of the Dept of District Administration, who had been appointed a Committee member said, when the excitement subsided, ‘Well, obviously Rabaul’s no place to put up expensive buildings!’  (The year after this, 1964, Fred famously survived a plane crash.  The pilot sadly did not, but from then on Fred was confined to a wheelchair).

We experienced other gurias before we left Rabaul.  One that I remember occurred as I made my way with a couple of college mates through a stand of coconut palms on the way to the beach at Pila Pila.  We instantly became aware of the earth’s motion and looked at each other with astonishment as we heard the agitated swish in the palm fronds above. Several coconuts fell nearby with a heavy plop.  ‘Storying’ with an old German missionary some time later, I was taught by him a maxim of Goethe – Es wandelt niemand ungestraft unter Palmen or No man walks under the palm trees with impunity.  The missionary told me that Goethe had meant it to have a metaphorical application more than anything but for people living in the tropics it had practical implications as well.  For my informant had once flopped down at the foot of a coconut tree to enjoy its shade only to have a giant nut crash down right beside him.  From then on I was careful to check my exact position whenever I was in the vicinity of coconut trees.

It was in 1973 at Angoram when I had already come home from school one afternoon, a journey of only some two hundred or so metres, when the township was subjected to a vigorous shake.  The epicentre we learnt later had been near the Ramu River in the Madang District, and was not all that far below the earth’s surface.  It began as a rapid, bumpy, vertical movement and then changed to a side-to-side one.  John, our mankimasta (cook), grabbed our two-year old daughter Sophy and was first down the stairs out onto the safety of the front lawn.   The fridge door swung open and some jars clattered out; cupboard doors opened and crockery and glasses came crashing onto the floor; books and LPs were thrown from the shelves as Helen and I got the message and quickly followed John down the stairs.  As she passed by the large bookshelf-cum-room divider, Helen grabbed a large blue vase, a present from her 21st birthday, that used to stand on top.  The motion of the quake at this stage gave us the sense that we were being thrown back up the stairs just as if a giant was flicking crumbs from a tablecloth. We stood slightly dazed but safe on the front lawn, listening to the ominous creaking in the house and watching in alarm as it danced about.  The wooden frame up on the roof that held our overhead tank broke, and the tank itself broke away from the plumbing link, releasing water noisily onto the corrugated iron of the roof. Over in the compound people were loudly whooping; more in excitement it seemed than in alarm. We cautiously re-entered the house some time later to clean up the mess and count the cost.   At school next morning I shared my experiences with my class, and one boy in my class of Standard V told us how he was running across a cleared grassy area when, in his own account, a ripple – like the wave from a canoe’s wake he described it – crossed the ground and caused him to stagger. 

Up to this point of living in PNG we had rather enjoyed earthquakes but after this one we came to view them with some apprehension.  Although our AR10 house which stood on 7’ braced posts was not structurally damaged, it had developed a pronounced wobble. My favourite party trick was to disappear to the bedroom end of the house, take hold of a couple of door jambs and give everything a long hard shake.  Our guests would always react as expected to the very noticeable movement I’d caused.

Manam Island’s volcano happened to erupt during our stay in Angoram.  The volcano is located right in the centre and is responsible for the island’s formation.  When I lived in Maprik, a couple of years before this, Manam had had one of its frequent eruptions.  I had gone south to Serangwandu School and stayed there overnight so I could see the ‘firework display’ from Manam as reported by the teacher in charge there.   Visibility was good on the night of my visit, but without binoculars I couldn’t make out anything more than a dull red glow on the horizon. Some firework display!

Although Angoram was much nearer to Manam than Serangwandu was, it was considerably closer to sea level, so there was nothing to be seen at night during this later eruption.  There was other evidence for the eruption, however.  As I was travelling out in the middle of the river during the period in Education’s flat-bottomed ‘river truck’, I noticed that there was gritty dust floating about in the air.  It was as if I was travelling along a dusty road without goggles.  Where could this be coming from? I got rid of a few irritating specks in my eyes before I turned and shouted out a query to my outboard motor operator (‘boat boys’ they were called) who was sitting on the transom beside the noisy Johnson motor. “Em shit bilong mauden,” (ash from the mountain), he shouted back to the unimaginative masta.  

Quite a few Manam islanders have died in eruptions since then.  During a severe eruption in 2004 all of the islanders – more than 9,000 of them – were evacuated to the Madang mainland.  Against the government’s wishes more than half of the population have now returned to their fertile ancestral home, where they will be safe ……. at least till next time. 

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