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A daughter’s odyssey

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After spending three nights in the chaotic and lawless Papua New Guinea towns of Port Moresby and Lae,  Inga (age 30) will this morning commence a journey with her Mum which will inevitably change her life and perspective of the world forever.

She will step into a rugged little Britten Norman Islander aircraft at the refurbished wartime airstrip at Nadzab, and with propellor blade tips spinning just inches from her ear through the side window, fly over the spectacular mountains of the Huon Peninsula into another peaceful and intriguing world surrounding the tiny landing ‘strip at Pindiu.

She may even use an occasional expletive during the final landing approach (below) and think her life is about to end before it really got started.   (Internet gremlins are interfering with the youtube link so the only way to see this ‘interesting’ aviation exercise is to copy and paste the following URL)

I admire Inga’s courage in leaving behind a comfortable life in Australia to discover the places of  Mrs GOF’s childhood, and I am enormously proud of her for accepting the challenge.
She will suffer from culture shock.  She will be physically exhausted climbing mountains.  She will have little privacy, and have to use communal pit latrines. She will bathe and do laundry in creeks and carry water and firewood for cooking.

The rewards however will far outweigh the privations.  During the next 18 days of walking though the Dedua and Hube areas she will discover an entire extended family who will love her and care about her. She will walk through some extraordinarily beautiful scenery and meet some of the happiest and most hospitable people on Earth.

It is also coincidentally exactly 40 years since I conducted my first  ten-day walking patrol through Dedua villages on these same bush tracks in the role of a rural development officer.

Inga will return to Australia culturally enriched and understanding why those of us who had the privilege of working with PNG village people a very long time ago retain such an enduring affection for them and their country.

The following photographs of the Pindiu-Dedua area were taken by Mrs GOF in 2011.


Domestic pig Rebafu village

Afong village with Pindiu airstrip in background

Afong village with Pindiu airstrip in background

Masaweng River tributary

Mongi River suspension bridge

Mongi River suspension bridge

Mongi Valley walking track

Mongi Valley walking track

Pindiu village house

Pindiu village house

Please forgive this self-indulgence

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Holy cow!  Some memories just never fade.

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Apart from walking for a full day from the nearest roadhead, there  was only one way to arrive at Pindiu, Papua New Guinea, in 1972.

That was by light aircraft, a 25 minute flight from the old, now abandoned, Lae city airport.
The direct fine-weather track was via the 7000′ Landslide Gap in the Rawlinson Range. In poor weather it was safer to follow the coastline then head inland for the final 15 miles following the Mongi River.
This is the sector when most of the aeronautical fun began.

The interior of the Huon Peninsula is deeply dissected by a maze of valleys heading in all directions, and mountains up to 13,000′ high. Pindiu, at 3000′ elevation, could be extraordinarily difficult to find by visual navigation in deteriorating weather conditions.

Thanks to someone elses recent flying experience and camera work (below) I am now able to relive the final approach to the airstrip which is so indelibly etched into my memory. On more than one occasion the sudden appearance of this tiny strip of dirt through a hole in the clouds was the most beautiful sight I could have wished for.

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When enthusiastic young GOF was delivered by a Macair single-engined Pilatus Porter aircraft exactly 40 years ago onto Pindiu soil he had no idea that he would fall in love with the place and it’s people and spend most of the following 8 years living and working there.

He also had no inkling that three years later he would learn to fly and, according to his Log Book, eventually go on to repeat that landing approach himself more than one thousand times as he came back home after working in nearby villages which had even shorter and more interesting landing strips.

As I watch this clip today I get goosebumps. Serious goosebumps.

I see my old home, the highset house 50 metres off to the left, halfway up the ‘strip. I hear the various sounds of flight and my heart beats faster. My palms begin to feel a little sweaty. I still have an urge to make final-approach landing checks whilst peering through the windscreen trying to get a fix on the exact location of the ‘strip through all the murk. I get butterflies in my stomach knowing that on short-final approach it is too late to abort the landing on this one-way uphill strip.

But most of all, as the aircraft rolls up the hill and turns into the parking bay, I am left with the warm feeling that I have just come back home again.

Pindiu got into my heart in 1972 ………..and never left.

Dammit!  Do you have a box of tissues handy? If I watch this one more time I might just need one.

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Edit December 2012…..due to internet gremlins please copy and paste the following URL…….landing approach to Pindiu airstrip.


Signals from God

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Pindiu, P.N.G. 1977

This story is dedicated to my loyal little band of village Rural Development Assistants at Pindiu, Papua New Guinea, during the 1970’s, who did most of the foot-slogging and achieved so much yet were rewarded with so little.  
For Tala, Kosoaleng, Kati, Gindi, Sanake, Goroseng, Timbangu, Pau, Kwajau, and my friend and partner in crime, Risieve Mumengte.

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In the twenty-first century much of Papua New Guinea is covered by the mobile phone network, but 40 years ago the lack of communication facilities seriously hampered rural development.

Each Government outstation was allocated a daily 15 minute slot  (“the sked”) on a designated HF radio frequency to send messages, food and supply orders, or have the operator in town connect us with the telephone landline network to the rest of the world.

Village people continued to live in relative isolation.

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Rural development projects fail for many reasons, some of which can be avoided by more rigorous planning and execution, but occasionally however you encounter an insurmountable obstruction.

Like God.

With the best of intentions I tried to improve communications between our small but scattered band of didimen working on village projects in the Mongi, Kua and Burum valleys.

Tala, a good extension worker with no formal education, was our main man in the Burum Valley.  He operated out of a tiny bush-material shack adjacent to Ogeranang airstrip.
My base was at Pindiu, only 12 miles away in a straight line,
yet the two of us had no direct means of communication.
At least once a month one or other of us (mainly Tala) had to walk the narrow “mountain goat”  track between the two places so we could plan work projects.
Seven exhausting hours each way.

In an attempt to reduce the number of walking trips,
I ambitiously bought an $80 set of walkie-talkie radios which had
“a range of up to 1000 metres”.

Walkie-talkie radios operate best when in “line of sight” of each other.
As the following diagram illustrates, “line of sight” is something that was in fairly short supply for Tala and GOF.

Cross-section Huon Peninsula

In pursuit of the impossible dream I contacted a bookseller in Australia who sent me in return a wonderful publication called
“How to Build a Quad Antenna”.

Unlike the illustration above, our antennas were constructed entirely from whatever materials we could scrounge locally. Bamboo poles were tied together with bush rope to form the 4 metre-long cross arms, and discarded 7/064 building wire from the station dump served as the aerial.

My quad at Pindiu could be rotated around it’s vertical axis (for directional tuning) and was mounted on top of a long post cut from the bush, while Tala’s was permanently fixed right on top of the roof of his “office”.

In an occurrence which managed to totally astound both myself and my critics, we hooked up the radios and quite magically the “up to 1000 metre” radio reception range suddenly became 12 miles, and Tala and I were thereafter able to communicate on a daily basis.

He was extremely proud of this marvellous technology which was admired by all the people who trekked into Ogeranang from surrounding villages for Saturday market days.

A marvellous example of appropriate technology?  

A year later Tala’s transmissions unexpectedly ceased, so I flew into Ogeranang taking with me a fresh supply of AA batteries for his radio.

He had seemingly aged by about 20 years as he nervously pointed towards what little remained of his antenna.  Taking me inside the “office” he handed over the molten remains of his walkie-talkie radio through a very large hole that had been blasted in the wall by the lightning bolt before, as he put it;  “the big blue and yellow light exploded out through the door then skipped along the ground all the way down the airstrip GOF”.

Tala had been sitting just 6 feet away from the radio when this happened.
He thereafter refused to have anything more to do with my smart-arse technology suggestions, and I was left soberly considering the reality that I had come very close to contributing towards the death of a fellow worker and honorable human being.

After that, my home-base antenna at Pindiu remained unused, except as an object of intrigue for a couple more years.

A respectful monument to God’s wrath and inappropriate technology, before it too collapsed and went to the eternal scrapheap of bad ideas.