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25 September 2013

Stewie's trip to Bougainville

My September 2013 visit to Bougainville
by Neal Stewart

(Pictures available here.)

Just a few days ago I returned to Melbourne after having had the joy of visiting Bougainville after a twenty-four-year absence.

Alighting from the Air Niugini F100 at Buka Airport I was met with that unmistakable sweet tropical aroma, that clammy humidity and even at 7:30am, a warmth that jerked me out of the torpor of a Melbourne winter!

Buka is all go. Now the centre of government, the only registered commercial airport, the hub of the majority of NGO activity along with a proliferation of commercial outlets-banks, trade stores, wharf, Guest Houses, bakery, hardware, boozers/clubs, pharmacy etc. It has the only hospital in Bougainville (the Arawa General and Private were burnt to the ground).

The market is a ripper - I was amazed at the selection of beautiful vegetables-heaps of tomatoes, beans, capsicums, lettuce, bok choi, chocho, ibeca, cucumber, eggplant, sweet corn, cabbage, ginger, garlic, kaukau, taro, cassava, pitpit, watercress, choco/pumpkin and squash tips and lovely butternut pumpkins and shallots. And the sweet tropical fruits were abundant-pawpaws bigger than footballs, pineapples, bananas, mangoes, water melons, guavas, limes, thirst quenching kulau, delicious banana leaf wrapped packs of galip nuts, bundles of peanuts and bread fruits. It was certainly a little different to the 4:00am scramble under torch light at the at the Arawa market searching for a tomato or two! Di and I still have lovely “From Garden to Table on Bougainville” recipe book that Helen Newell produced. There is little doubt that the return to village/cultural values, the virtual absence of ready cash flow and little shipping had revitalised the wonderful garden subsistence living style that sees an abundance of quality fresh, healthy produce in both the Arawa and Buka markets that I visited.

I brought a big ‘muddie’ at the Buka market for K10 ($6:00) and the cook at the Lodge I was staying at did it up in coconut cream, garlic, ginger and chilli for an absolutely stunning meal - eat ya hearts out!

On Buka there was a selection of eight or ten Lodges/Guest Houses of varying quality where one could stay. There are three right on Buka Passage with breath taking views across the passage towards Bonis Plantation and out across to the spectacular island of Sohano. It was pretty special to sit sipping a ‘green can’ with the gin clear water passing under the Lodge deck looking out on this unsurpassed beauty.

Single self-contained rooms vary from K350 to K650 per night……ouch!!!! Evening meals were between K35/K65, breakfasts K25/K35.

Across the Passage a new town has grown. Kokopau is a busy hub with lots of various stores and is the drop off and pick up point for all travellers moving to and from the island. It is simply unbelievable the number of banana boat taxis that constantly speed back and forth across the Passage with passengers and cargo. It is a K2 ride with all the boats Yamaha powered with 40/65hp motors. It is busier than any taxi rank you’d see in the city and I reckon there would be ten/fifteen on the water at any one time and another 10/15 lined up either side of the Passage loading up or waiting for passengers. It is remarkably different to the last time I was visiting the McNee's at Bonis and sat on the jetty casting into the Passage with not a boat in sight! At that time I seem to recall that Wong Yu’s and a couple of other Chinese stores and not much more was on Buka. Vehicle hire is expensive at K900/K1200 per day with a driver-recommended.

And so to Arawa. The drive down from Kokopau takes a good three hours over some good and some bloody rough roads. The great thing now is that it is practically an all-weather road. The Japanese have erected fifteen cement bridges over previously flood prone rivers and these, together with the Bailey bridges are a great improvement. Along the way down it was somewhat sad to see that none of the plantations were operating-Bonis, Rawa, Teperoi, Numa Numa, Tenekau and Kawina were mostly all burnt down and now overgrown.

In Arawa I stayed at the Bovo Transit Lodge which is located right beside the Bovo River about a hundred metres up past the Mari Mari Haus Lotu. There are a few other Lodges available. Throughout the town evidence of the destruction is raw and uncompromising. Both hospitals, schools, Provincial offices, the supermarket, strip shops, Nafig Club, Country Club, and hundreds of homes all burnt to the ground. Same story for all of the business houses that were out of town along the road to Kieta where Arawa Motors, Robert Matarelli’s hardware, Peter Zillmere’s complex etc were. The town generators are now in this area. Nothing left in Kieta and Toniva other than village style houses and the odd trade store.

There are some lovely new traditional style buildings at Kobuan. The home where Di, Mitch and I lived in Section 7 is now a kaukau garden and banana patch-the only remaining evidence of the home is a charred air conditioner, a rusting cylinder from the Solarhart hot water system some metal stumps where fence posts have been sawn off and pieces of green fencing wire scattered in the garden. Exactly the same scene for the lots where Dr Keiley and the Robsons were across the road from us and just the centre besser block wall standing where the duplex was occupied by the Moran’s.

Further down the street is totally overgrown with some garden plots where Ron and Linda McInnis, the Martins and Theodore Dewe all lived. I tried to locate Nick and Corinne Crawley’s place but there is not a home standing right through the whole of Section 7. Section 5 and 6 are in good shape and the Sections around 10 likewise. The first house we lived in 10/55 is in better shape than ever and is now owned by Dr Imako, the Superintendent at Buka Hospital. All of the homes up that Connecter Road are in good shape as are many in behind where the general hospital was and up around Section 17.

An absolute highlight of my time on the island was the opportunity to catch up with lots and lots and lots of Bougainvilleans whom I had worked with and knew as good friends during the eighteen years Di and I had on the island. It was indeed heart-wrenching and at time pretty emotional to listen to the stories of survival, of torture and of fear many had experienced during the heat of the crisis. However, it was heart-warming to hear the same folk talking hopefully and genuinely of ongoing peace and conciliation talks and meetings that are happening on an almost daily basis.

John Tabinaman, one of my Superintendents, is now the Hon Minister for Education in the ABG and he and his wife Liz speak enthusiastically about programmes trying to bridge the gap for a “lost generation” where schooling was virtually non-existent for ten years. John has Mike Titus and Francis Tanapuma in his team. Agneas Titus is continuing her work with women and is a pivotal part of a UN Team. Theresa Jaintong is doing great work as Chair of the Arawa/Loloho Landowners Association and Deputy Chair of the Umbrella Association. I had a lovely gathering with a group including Stephen Burain- a Mining Engineer graduate who now heads up the Minerals Dept, Joe Pankau-another Mining Engineer and Misac Rangai-a lawyer, all working on Resource Legislation for the ABG. I was able to catch up with that beautiful man Severinus Ampoai who at 80 was as sharp as a tack. Cec Kahuru trekked up from the Siwai to catch up - he had just completed the construction of a three roomed school building in his village that had been funded by World Vision. Patrick and Mary Itaa live in “D” Block Karoona House in Panguna where they have replaced the burnt out walls with sacsac materials. Here Patrick is the Education Officer for the ABG trying to look after nineteen schools right throughout the PMAR, Panguna, Jaba and surrounding areas with scant funding-what a hero! I got a gorgeous pic of my PA Bernadette Sarei with her first grandchild-she has worked as the PA to the Harbourmaster in Buka for seventeen years. Pat Passam showed me his hands where every finger had been snapped in a torture session. I was able to sit and chat for hours with senior ex BRA members who now want to move on and resolve past differences. These are just a handful of the folk I was able to meet and have great time with.

Thanks to the generosity of Lawrence Daveona and his family, I was able to have a day up in Panguna and had the added bonus of a perfectly clear, sunny day. At Morgan Junction it cost K200 to get through the “NO GO ZONE” road block -very restricted on whom they allow through so having the Chairman of the Landowner Association as host was pretty useful!! All that is evident of Morgan Equipment, Goodyear, SHRM and Birempa is twisted metal framework and cement blocks. The PMAR is in remarkably good shape. I was amazed at the profusion of flowers along the verges of the road and as we stopped regularly for pics along the climb to Pakia Gap and the descent into Panguna I couldn’t help but be aware of the abundance of bird life which I had never noticed during the hustle and bustle and noise of production years. Don Hadden, the Bird Man would be wrapped. Also the trees were loaded with a profusion of beautiful orchids and ferns.

As we moved down into the valley Lawrence pointed out where the alluvial miners were working precariously on the upper and lower precipices sluicing for gold-it looked rather hazardous but apparently the rewards are worthwhile. This sort gold sluicing/dredging/washing is prevalent. From what I saw in Panguna, I believe it is fair to say that there is not ONE building or piece of equipment that was not burnt to the ground. Every building has been guttered with only twisted metal frames and cement blocks remaining. I’ll attach some pics. As I mentioned previously, there has been some renovating in a couple of the burnt out Karoona and Kawerong House single blocks and there are some families living there. There seemed to be very few people moving around in Panguna but some traffic passing through from down the Lower Jaba and West Coast areas.

There was a team of Chinese located in the pit area who were contracted to chop up the trucks, shovels, dozers-all the mobile equipment fleet that had been burnt-and was being transported to the Loloho wharf and shipped out as scrap metal. All of this equipment had been lined up along three of the lower batters in the pit and burnt. Down at Loloho it was also evident that almost the entire Power Station had also been chopped up for scrap. Someone commented to me that Panguna was “The biggest hardware store in the world”. I think that there were still twelve ball mills in the Concentrator. In Panguna I caught up with some of the very senior Landowners and Commanders all of whom had interesting observations about the past and future of Bougainville.

I’m sorry if this has been a little long-winded but I really have tried to truncate what was a simply wonderful adventure to return to Bougainville after some twenty-four years. I left with a feeling that amongst everyone I was able to talk that there was a determination to resolve past differences and to evolve a direction where the people of Bougainville could determine a future direction that embraced a global perspective. How long and how bumpy the road may be remains to be seen.

If any of you want to comment or ask questions I’d be more than happy to get back to you. Our email is

Neal and Di Stewart