Reminiscences of Papua New Guinea

Coming face to face with war painted warriors on a tropical island is not within most people’s experience. But this was just one of a series of adventures that Stephen Thair, a retired Old Basing solicitor, imparted to his fellow members of the Probus Club of Basingstoke at their last speaker meeting of their current year.

Stephen and his teacher wife, Margaret, lived and worked in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea from 1975 – 78 while it loosened its traditional ties with Australia and achieved self governing independence in September 1975. Stephen worked in the Government Legal Department, part of the Department of Law, which became the Department of Justice on independence, specialising in conveyancing as plantations were bought back using Australian government funds to compensate the previous ex-pat owners. He also acted as a barrister in court on land title disputes brought by local people.

It was his descriptions, supported by photographs, of their trips away from the coastal capital that illustrated the topography and diverse culture of the generic peoples. Because of the difficult terrain, many isolated communities had their own language and over 600 were recognised. The way to reach the villages on the coast was mainly by boat, where houses were built on stilts in the lagoons; inland villages were reached by trekking into the hinterland where the extensive mountain range reached up to 14,793 feet (4,509 metres). Today aircraft and mountain airstrips make life a little easier but the traditional pathways do not zig zag across the mountain sides but go straight up and down, which can be very exhausting for those who are not used to it!

Even where 4×4 vehicles can make some progress there are rivers to ford and the usual style was to ask the passengers to wade into the river to check on its depth before attempting the crossing.

WW2 relics abound as the Japanese conquered part of Papua New Guinea but were strongly resisted by the Australian forces. Plane wrecks, tanks and artillery pieces could be seen although nature was gradually taking over and even live mortar shells could be seen lying on the ground.