11.10.11: As I won’t be leaving Lae until next weekend, Alex offered to take me over to Salamaua, the old capital of German New Guinea. Since its heyday in the 1930s (and its destruction in the 1940s) Salamaua has returned to the isolated village outpost it once was. There are no roads to Salamaua and it’s a good hour journey down the coast from Lae in a banana boat to get there.
Alex took me over in Swire’s Taikoo Chief speedboat, whizzing past the mighty Papuan Chief out in the water along the way. Dropping me off at the holiday home, one of a dozen owned by Lae-based companies as a weekend getaway for their employees, I was put into the care of Jimmy, a local guy who had been looking after the Swire house for the last twenty years. As Alex scooted off back to Lae I found myself the only white guy in the village.
Salamaua is located on a narrow isthmus just 100 metres wide which connects an almost-island to the mainland. At just a metre above sea-level, it is particularly at risk from rising sea levels, along with the entire nation of Tuvalu, most of Bangladesh and, oh yeah, EVERY BEACH IN THE WORLD.
A path runs down the middle of the village and most of the homes (all built from local materials) are located on the leeward side, while the village’s Lutheran church sits to windward alongside the village’s dugout canoes and a rather conspicuous Japanese anti-aircraft gun: residue from someone else’s war.
There are 700 people in the village, grouped into families. There is a garden for the villagers to grow their own food, the fish are plentiful, coconuts drop from the trees and the local swamp teems with tasty mud crabs. A sustainable way of life in a world that seems hell-bent on a misson to be as unsustainable as humanly possible.
I got to meet the village bigman as well as Jimmy’s family. Granny was sitting on the ground quietly weaving a bilum: a traditional string bag worn around the neck and over the chest. His kids were running about causing trouble, climbing trees and playing marbles. There are over 700 living languages in PNG, and in this village they speak one of them: only in this village and nowhere else.
That night, Jimmy and I sat off on the beach drinking SP and putting the world to rights. It seems that everyone I speak to in PNG is realistic about the current dire situation the country finds itself in, but yet are optimistic about the future. A massive gold mine is opening on the outskirts of Lae next year. If only valuable resources went hand in hand with improved infrastructure and social development. But Salamaua doesn’t need an airport, a high speed rail link or even a road: it just needs the government to offer free education and fat westerners not to make the sea levels rise.
At around 10pm Jimmy said goodnight and left me alone on the beach looking out to the great Pacific Ocean: waves lapping the shore, a cool breeze, a magnificent full moon and a cold beer. What more does a ginger travelling monkey need?