Transport troubles in Bougainville: Mike Bourke

Continued from Marooned in the Mortlock Islands

My colleague, Tom Betitis, had only limited time left for fieldwork, so to complete the second half of our agricultural survey, it was important that we leave Buka for Bougainville Island as soon as possible. I hurriedly found a vehicle-owner who was willing to take Tom, myself and local didiman (Agricultural Officer) (Gabriel Wayen) to the locations on Bougainville which were accessible by road and not too politically sensitive. These included all of the east coast from Tinputz and Wakunai to Kieta, and South Bougainville (Buin and Siwai areas).

The daily hire rate was very high (K900 per day), with a substantial deposit, but I had no choice. Once the owner was paid, he told me it would be some days before he could get his vehicle across the narrow strait separating Buka from Kokopau on the northern tip of Bougainville. He suggested that, if I wanted to go immediately, he could get the Toyota Hilux onto two canoes for the trip. Given the fast flowing current between the two islands, I immediately dismissed this idea and decided to wait for a barge. I took a mental note that, if ever I needed to hire a vehicle for travel on Bougainville again, I would hire it on that island, not on Buka.

While we waited three days for a barge, we surveyed the local agriculture and land use. Returning on a rough track from the west coast, we came across a group of ladies making sago, which is not a common food in the province. We stopped to talk with them and take a few photos. They were clearly startled to see us. Later, when I commented on this, Gabriel explained that with the crisis, they hadn’t seen many outsiders for years. Then suddenly a black man, a white man and a brown man turn up from nowhere and start asking questions about making sago! Henceforth we referred to our little team as the Black, White and Brown didimen.

Finally, we arrived on Bougainville, with sufficient fuel and supplies for a 12-day trip. We headed down the east coast, then south of Kieta to Buin. The Australian government, through AusAID, had repaired the main East coast road, but had not repaired the bridges. The river crossings in south Bougainville are notoriously treacherous as one didiman can testify. He was stationed at Buin in the early 1970s and is still remembered for losing an entire Landcruiser in the shifting sands. When our vehicle also became bogged, a kind local villager came to our aid to tow our Hilux out with his Landcruiser. However, since the four wheel drive mechanism in his vehicle was not functioning, he soon became bogged too. So here we were, stranded in the middle of a fast-flowing river, with not one but now two vehicles stuck in the river bed. I have visions of my limited research budget being swallowed by compensation demands for two drowned vehicles. Fortunately a lad turned up from nowhere, as constantly happens in PNG, and said that for a consideration of twenty kina, he knew the owner of a grader who would pull us out. I would have paid many times that amount to release the two vehicles from the grip of the river. We were on our way again within the hour.

The rest of the trip to Big Bougainville went well. We worked our way back to Wakunai from Siwai. As we headed north back to Kokopau, we stopped at a small roadside market where our security guard and driver bought some “steam” (homemade very strong distilled alcohol). I immediately read them the riot act. If they so much as drank one drop of the liquor, I would not pay the balance of money owing on the vehicle! They deemed this a very poor attitude, but I was unmoved. There were going to be more transport issues to be faced before our survey was over, and being in a vehicle with a drunken driver was something we could do without. Back on Buka, Gabriel and I were joined by a colleague from UPNG, Jane Mogina, while Tom departed for West New Britain. We were to go to islands west of Buka and Bougainville for the next phase of our survey.

I soon located the owner of a “banana” boat for hire, and asked for an estimate of our fuel requirements. To this I added 20 litres, and told the boat owner that, should it not be needed, he could keep the fuel. He argued that it was not necessary, but I insisted. I had been on too many trips on banana boats in the islands where there was just sufficient fuel to limp home as the owner took the minimum quantity for the trip. Every year in PNG, banana boats run out of fuel, occasionally with tragic consequences.

After completing our work on the islands west of Buka, we were on our way down to the small islands off Northwest Bougainville when—you guessed it!—the operator announced that there was insufficient fuel for the trip back to Buka. I was less than impressed! His defence was that I had not explained that we would be stopping at so many locations! Some hours later, we had sourced fuel from the Bougainville mainland and were on our way back to Buka.

As Jane departed for Moresby, I organized the final survey leg, to Nissan and Pinipel Islands. I was to fly to Nissan, use the Division of Primary Industries vehicle on Nissan and hire a banana boat to get to Pinipel. How simple could that be! But when I turned up in Nissan, the DPI vehicle was not available. A local business man had impounded it following non-payment for repairs. It was only after lengthy negotiations that I eventually hired the confiscated DPI vehicle anyway, filled it with diesel and completed my survey on Nissan. Then to Pinipel by banana boat. The operator asked if he could take a short cut across the reef to save fuel. I was dubious but was assured that we would be fine as long as we got through the reef before low tide. I don’t know whether you have ever dragged a banana boat, complete with outboard motor and fuel, across a reef, but suffice to say that, if ever I return, I’ll opt for the longer route to Pinipel! When my work on Nissan and Pinipel was completed, I went to the airline office to confirm the flight back to Buka. At least air travel is reliable, I thought, but I had not reckoned with Tavurvur, the volcano at Rabaul. Although it has been erupting more-or-less constantly since 19 September 2004, normally the ash does not reach the post-eruption airport at Tokua, east of the new provincial capital at Kokopo. That week in October 2002, it did, and all aircraft movements to Tokua were suspended. The light aircraft that was scheduled to do the Tokua/Nissan/Buka run was moved to Madang for safety. So: No gat balus! (no aeroplane). I had a few spare days on Nissan so I did what I often do in this situation in PNG: I volunteered as a guest teacher at the local high school and gave a talk on the origins of PNG crops and agriculture. With a change in wind direction, Tokua airport was re-opened and I flew back to Buka. After a few days gathering data and reporting to the provincial government, I flew on to Moresby where I ran into a media storm—but that’s another story. A few days later, after checking in for my flight to Brisbane, there was an announcement in the international departure lounge: Air Niugini regrets that due to a technical issue, the Brisbane flight will be delayed. It would have been disappointing if the transport troubles of the last six weeks had ended without one final delay on the way home.


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