Return to Milne Bay


Seven days in Papua New Guinea (PNG), seven days home in Australia. A short enough time you would think, but somehow our world has shifted ever so slightly on its axis. It seems that we have been reinfected with the PNG virus. Our normal life seems vaguely strange as we try to reacclimatise to all our normal activities. Thank heavens for family and grandchildren to ground us back here.

We landed at Jacksons Airport in Port Moresby on 31 October, 34 years and 2 months after we last flew out in a Boeing 747 Jumbo “going finish” (left permanently) to Australia. For me it was the end of 8½ years of a challenging discovery of another world vastly different from my pre-marriage life in suburban Brisbane. For Mr Cassmob he was leaving his home, probably forever. He was an emigrant as surely as our ancestors were when they left their home countries for the new world.

Mr Cassmob returns to PNG 34 years after going finish.

A book I’ve been re-reading called Territory Kids (author Genevieve Rogers) highlights that for children who grew up in the then-Territory of Papua New Guinea, their exotic life was the norm. They had not previously been acculturated to Australian life as their parents (or spouses!) had. For ten years Mr Cassmob had lived the life of a dual citizen, much of the year spent having a “civilised” Australian experience in school or university, then returning to his life on a frontier once or twice a year. He had built up some emotional calluses to protect the constant transitions. It was me who burst into tears one day in Mass in 1978 when the organ sounded briefly like the sound of kundus (drums).

When we planned this return-to-PNG trip we had considered that so much might have changed we’d be disappointed or disillusioned. Returning to a much-loved place can be an emotional hazard. What we hadn’t bargained on was that we might settle back so quickly into our relationship with it, and be in thrall to its charms.

Overlooking Jacksons Airport from our hotel: the plane is a feature.

Jacksons Airport had changed yet much remained familiar, not least the overlooking outline of Hombrum’s Bluff, part of the Owen Stanley Range. There were new terminals and new aircraft on the apron including far more helicopters than we used to see –presumably used in part by the mining companies. We had chosen to only overnight in Moresby –its reputation has never been good but it is now violently unsafe. It seemed easier not to navigate that issue –we’d lived there for four years so we knew it well and didn’t feel the immediate need to return.

It was while lolling in the pool at the very flash, very expensive, but critically, very safe, hotel that we made our first friends of the trip, Keith and Jan from England. This was their second trip to PNG and they’ve had some amazing adventures which you can read about on their blog, Claremont Globetrotters.

Milne Bay Province is on the south-eastern corner of Papua New Guinea. Image from Google Earth.

The main focus of our trip was to revisit Alotau in Milne Bay on the south-eastern corner of Papua New Guinea. Mr Cassmob regards this area as his “place”: that defining environment in which we grow up. For me it was to be a trip of rediscovery, 41 years after leaving the Bay, despatched by the government to live and work in the Highlands.

Not the bush material hut that we once knew.

I thought I’d been so overwhelmed by the vast differences between Brisbane and Alotau in my 18 months there (not to mention being uprooted from friends and family) that I hadn’t remembered Milne Bay well.

To my surprise I found I was quite wrong. There were things I hadn’t remembered, such as the mountains visible at the back of my parents-in-law’s house, but then that was easily explained by the fact that it had been the Wet Season when we lived there and the cloud descended so you couldn’t always see the clothes line, let alone the mountains! And yet, so much looked and felt familiar: the essence of the place was still there, in situ and in my memory.

Napatana Lodge, Alotau.

Milne Bay people have a tradition of friendliness and courtesy and we were delighted to find that hadn’t changed at all: everywhere we went we were greeted by those we passed, taxi drivers chatted and told us of their families and their own stories and happily we met people with connections to our past.

We had scheduled our trip to coincide with the National Kenu and Kundu (canoe and drum) Festival and perhaps that helped make for a more welcoming atmosphere but I think what we saw was the people’s traditional courtesy.

Of course we had to have a souvenir of the Festival.

When we lived in Alotau, in those pre-self-government, colonial days, there were about 100 expatriates and 1000 local people. It was a newly formed town built for the administration of the district when Samarai became too small.

Alotau and the surrounding area has grown a great deal and there’s now 10,000 people living there. We remained a very small minority of white faces amidst the brown and one of the things I especially liked about the festival was that the Papua New Guineans enjoyed the dancing, canoe racing and other festivities as much, if not more, than the visitors.  It felt like a festival for them, to which we’d had the privilege of being invited.

From a commercial point of view, more expatriate visitors would no doubt be welcome, but hopefully that will not change the engagement of the local people. In 2013 they will celebrate the 10th festival and a cruise ship is scheduled to arrive to coincide with it, I only hope that the voyagers recognise what a privilege it is to share in these traditional activities.

Coming up: Sights, sounds, memories and more.

I’ll probably post more of my photos on Flickr than I will here but I’ll let you know when that happens –some sorting and prioritising to be done.

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5 thoughts on “Return to Milne Bay

  1. I am so glad your trip was all that you hoped for and more. For me, it was an opportunity to have a guided tour. And the writing was wonderfully evocative. Thanks.

  2. Pingback: My thoughts on The Mountain by Drusilla Modjeska: Book Two | Bewitched by Books

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