Madang – Home of the Flying Fox
PLES BILONG BILAK BOKIS
Madang is “ples bilong bilak bokis” or the home of the flying fox. Thousands of Spectacled Flying Foxes adorn the yar trees throughout the town fanning themselves with a slow beating of wings during the heat ofthe day and making a screeching din. At dusk the screeching reaches a crescendoand they blacken the sky as they head off for their nightly fruit foraging.
I recently read that flying foxes began migrating into town in the late 1970’sas a result of logging pressure but this is not quite true. It is true that they are now rare in the native forests and the town population may have increased but there were plenty about in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I used to love listening to their beating wings and screeching as they attacked the pawpaw tree outside my bedroom window. I was also fascinated by the flying fox shoot. Spectacled Flying Foxes are now a fully protected vulnerable species but they used to be considered a pest and were regularly culled. Their favourite roosting trees were the yar trees at the post office in the centre of the town and people would become enraged with their screeching and the soiling of cars parked under the shady trees. The police would finally decide it was time for a cull and as word spread local people would come for miles in the hope of bagging a free meal. But they had to be quick as it was a free for all. Dead and dying flying foxes would rain down to be grabbed by the fleetest as shotgun blast after shotgun blast shook the town. Some wounded animals would spiral into the sea or the lagoon triggering a swimming race with participants egged on by the spectators. And then it was all over with the surviving animals having fled town and the unlucky in the larder. The animals would then slowly return to town until the next cull. These days life is easier for these magnificent giant fruit bats. Their preference for yar trees is incidentally not too hard to work out. The wind blowing through the fine foliage makes them the coolest trees around, which is why you should always choose the shade beneath a Casuarina tree as the place to spread your picnic blanket. In that case choose one without flying foxes!
One of the most noticeable changes for me was the lack of Cane Toads. In the 1960’s and 70’s the place was crawling with them and the roads
were carpeted with squashed toads. Mum used to feed the kitchen scraps to the horrible things which would be sitting in a ring along the arc of the back light at night. I only saw one in the whole week I was there and none squashed on the road. I was, however, pleased to see that the land crabs were still about. I think the drop in toad numbers is worth checking out as it has implications for toad control in Australia. How the toads got to Madang in the first place is another mystery but no doubt they came from Australia and
probably on a cargo ship from Cairns or Townsville.
As a kid I went to Madang Primary A School which is now the Madang International School with the same old buildings. I also irregularly attended mass at the Holy Spirit Church across the road from the school and this was also unchanged although I suspect that the old priest has moved on.
The picture theatre was gone with the site now housing a Ho Kit shop owned by Mark Ho the elder brother of my old time best mate Kevin who once lived in the now long vanished China Town across the road from the old German cemetery.
Most of the Chinese left with the whites in the great independence exodus of 1975. The oval was still there sans grandstand and so was the great Banyan Tree at the southern end where we spent endless hours climbing and making rubber balls from the latex and swinging on the vines pretending to be Tarzan. This is now a fairly crowded spot where visitors arrive and depart on PMV busses to and from the highlands and apparently not the safest place in town although we had no trouble.
The shopping in Madang is a shadow of what it was in the “Time Bilong Masta” but still OK and there is no problem getting hold of the basics. What is surprising is that tourists are few and far between in a town with such natural beauty and there are no souvenir shops outside of the resorts. The banks are also a pain. We bank with the Commonwealth and after unsuccessfully trying to get money out of the Westpac Bank and then the Bank of South Pacific realised why there was a queue for 100 metres down the road outside the remaining bank which was the ANZ. We then spent a leisurely hour or so progressing a place every 10 minutes waiting our turn until the inevitable announcement that the one functioning machine was “bugarup” and to come back later. So it was the same bat channel the next day and speaking of bats I can tell you that the flying foxes still like the centre of town. Anyway, it was fun chatting to people in the queue and amazingly discovering connections everywhere. People who worked at Amron Lutheran Mission where I used to stay with a school friend,
ex PWD people who knew Dad or his mates and people with connections to various plantations we used to visit. Madang is very friendly. At long last it was my turn and I was curious to see what was wrong with the machine to require over ten minutes per person. The answer was nothing. In 30 seconds I had my money and was out of there. Many Papua New Guineans struggle with technology and some of the people in the queue had their pin numbers written on the back of their hands.
I was in Madang for a Sustainability Forum at the Divine Word University which is across the road from the Smugglers Motel which is still going strong and the Modilon Hospital where I had my appendix out in 1968. Madang is fortunate in having a centre of learning of the standard of the Divine Word University and the forum was well organised. The computers in the Business Centre also worked and I was able to access my email which was not something I managed back at the resort. The Forum was well attended by a range of national and
international academics, all levels of government, national and international Non Government Organisations (NGO’s) and PNG Mining Companies. The timber and fisheries industries weren’t present which says much about their attitude. It was wonderful participating in a serious and high calibre review of the problems and opportunities facing Papua New Guinea as it cements its place in the world community.
As luck would have it we were in Madang for the annual Cultural Festival and most Provinces were represented. I particularly enjoyed the contrast in styles between the gentle coastal people and the exuberant highlanders. Gently swaying island girls couldn’t be further from the oiled, painted and feathered highlanders who were jumping out of their skins and yelling.
I immediately recognised the Taris with their yellow face paint and the bewigged Wabagers with their black painted faces from areas close to Porgera where I work.
The prize for entertainment, however, has to go to the erotic dancing of the Trobiand Islanders. The highlanders may be uninhibited but they had nothing on the Trobiands which are known world wide as the islands of love.
My favourite dancers were the weird Asaro Mud-men looking very much like Doctor Who Sontarans as they crept around in slow motion. Gill of course found the whole thing fascinating.
Road to Bogia
On the weekend we hired a car and went exploring. You can now drive to Bogia in a couple of hours on a sealed if pot-holed road and the old picnic spots like the Hole in the Wall and Mogil are still there and still terrificfor snorkelling despite the new beachside villages and hordes of curious people.
We turned off at Sagalau near the Teachers College to search for a waterfall and favourite swimming hole in the mountains but couldn’t find it. What we did find on top of the Miss Kouris range was crisp cool mountain air andbreathtaking views of the Madang Lagoon and Astrolabe Bay.
Our passenger, we had a succession of these, was a schoolteacher called Ben who had hitched home for the weekend from the Rai Coast. He said Madang was still good but he was concerned about the litter and the high number of outsiders. He found the highlanders and the Sepiks who he described as “like their crocodiles” violent and unpredictable. Most of the plantations up the coast are now overgrown with bush and the buildings and wharves are derelict.
It is now almost a continuous village right up the coast to Bogia which ironically has pretty much died. It is a sad abandoned place and the sight of the once thriving Bogia Hotel in a state of disintegration sums it up.
You can’t even buy fuel at Bogia but you can in the villages for 3 kina a litre. On the way back we gave a couple of boys a lift back 10 kms down the road for a soccer match where they walk every Sunday. We stopped at Mulolo Plantation Resort which used to be Huxley’s Hotel for a late lunch on the way back and were the only guests. Papua New Guinea may be beautiful but I wouldn’t be racing in to invest in a resort there.
That evening we decided to explore the night life of Madang and went to the Chinese Restaurant at the Madang Country Club which once the Madang Golf Club. Unfortunately there are no “No Smoking” laws for PNG restaurants and as the room filled with smoke we asked to have our meal changed to take-away and ate it outside gazing across the Bismark Sea and breathing fresh clean air. The food incidentally was terrific.
To Bogajim and Bongu
The next day I decided to visit Bogadjim which was the site of Curt von Hagen’s grave where I had walked with my brothers in 1973. These days you can drive there although it wasn’t easy and we may well have been the first visitors since my last visit. The new sealed highway out of town made orientation difficult but landmarks soon appeared including the sulphur creek (“smell wara”) near the old leprosy hospital and the unmistakable Gogol River.
We stopped at the sulphur creek and I can tell you it still smells of rotten eggs and why a village has been built next to it I cannot guess.
We forded several creeks and blazed along an overgrown track to finally find the marble monument marking the grave of the old German Administrator Curt von Hagen who was accidentally shot while crossing the Gogol in 1899.
One of my earliest memories is of Dad placing the great bronze eagle that once adorned Hagen’s grave on another monument in Mount Hagen in 1962.
The eagle had been removed from the grave in 1942 to protect it from the invading Japanese and had been in storage in a garage in Port Moresby for 20 years before a decision was made to put it in pride of place in the town that bears von Hagen’s name. Whilst at Bogadjim our guide who came from Bongu further down the Rai Coast suggested we go there to visit the memorial to Nicolai Macleay. Macleay was a Russian scientist and first explorer in the area who was dropped off at Bongu in 1871 and picked up three years later. His fascinating diary paved
the way for German colonisation and a few years later the German New Guinea Company established its first plantation at Bogadjim and Lutheran missionaries soon followed. Malaria ridden Bogadjim was not a success and the survivors eventually moved up the coast to Madang.
The drive to Bongu was an adventure and all up we forded 18 creeks and rivers with water often half way up the doors. In the summer wet season it is impassable. The track was overgrown but we finally made it to the main Bongu village where we left the car and walked. This corner of Astrolabe Bay is beautiful with black sand beaches shaded by giant trees and fringing coral reef in crystal clear water.
We finally found the memorial which was established in 1970 by the crew of the Russian ship Vityuz sharing the same name as Macleay’s ship. Macleay’s memorial is in a shady elevated position with a clear view of Astrolabe Bay and it is easy to imagine Macleay gazing out to sea for months wondering when his rescue ship was going to arrive. One thing he wouldn’t have seen was the large red Malaysian ship taking on board logs recently clear-felled from the forest.
The pending development of the Ramu Nickel processing plant a bit further around the coast again at Basimuk is another project that is really going to impact on this area. This project is controversial due to a lack of community consultation by the Chinese owners and their intention to discharge their process tailings into Astrolabe Bay.
And before we knew it was fly out time and to our great surprise the Air Niugini plane left on time. Some unexpected things in the land of the unexpected happen so frequently as to become expected and endless delays are one of these. We had already had one Air Nuigini flight cancelled without explanation on the way across and on the way home missed our domestic connection in Cairns due to another unexplained Air Nuigini delay. Anyway, we arrived in Port Moresby safely and took the courtesy bus to the Crowne Plaza Hotel where we had a prepaid booking and to our surprise they had lost our booking and were fully booked. And that is how we came to be upgraded to the Presidential Suite and luxuriating in a giant marble spa instead of attending the Tim Flannery presentation at the nearby Holiday Inn. As it turns out we caught up with Tim and his entourage the next day in the departure lounge while the Air Niugini flight was delayed yet again.
Written by Jim Tyler