Supernumerary in the South Pacific – Papua New Guinea

We’d been at sea for 4 months now, give or take. We’d left the European Coast, we’d been through the Panama Canal , I’d jumped ship in Fiji, we’d docked at countless other islands large and small – and now we were heading for Papua New Guinea.

PNG was the whole reason for the trip – the other islands were a sort of by-catch, a might-as-well-drop-in-on-the-way sort of thing.

We were headed for Port Moresby, the capital. Let’s have a few facts! PNG is roughly half of the island of New Guinea – the second largest island in the world. (The other half is part of Indonesia and used to be called Irian Jaya but is now called Western New Guinea.) There are over 850 known languages – and there are still areas that have had no contact with the outside world, ever. According to Widipedia, even today 40% of its inhabitants live ‘a self-sustainable natural lifestyle with no access to global capital’. It’s famous for its Birds of Paradise.

We were carrying ‘general cargo’ – literally anything and everything. On that trip we had tractors, Bibles, and sanitary pads. You name it, we carried it. While we were out there, I bought a mug with the PNG flag on it – it said ‘Made in England’ on the bottom…

We were picking up palm oil, coffee beans, cocoa beans and timber to bring back to Europe.

Have I mentioned shippers’ parties? These were shindigs that were laid on for the benefit of people who were shipping their goods with us – but in smaller places, where not much else was going on, they became something of a highlight in the social calendar. They were pukka do’s. All the guys in uniform, free drinks and tab nabs. People dressed up for it.

In PNG they attracted a strange crowd. The guy who’d failed his pilot exams for British Airways and was now flying for Air NiuGini. The woman who imported Portuguese shoes. The odd missionary, shipping out.

And always, at every shippers’ party I ever went to, there would be a guy who thought that any woman on a ship was fair game… I learnt to stay sober – have a gin and tonic, and quietly keep topping up the tonic.

Port Moresby wasn’t the easiest place to visit – there was an underlying tension between locals (ie black people) and ‘Europeans’ (ie white people), and those tensions often turned violent. The Europeans were inevitably wealthy. The locals were inevitably not. It wasn’t unusual for Europeans to employ locals to work around the house, and they were referred to as houseboys. The local women still wore the so-called meri-dresses that the missionaries had insisted on. We were in Paradise – but the houses were surrounded by high walls and barbed wire.

From Moresby on the south coast we sailed around to Lae on the north coast.

This is where the University of Papua New Guinea had its Agriculture Department. Many years later I would be working in the front garden of my house in Northumberland when a neighbour’s son ran by wearing a T-shirt with the word ‘Lae’ on it – and it turned out that the neighbour had lectured there for a while. It really is a very small world.

It rained in Lae. It rained really quite a lot. In fact, I have never seen so much rain either before or since. We’d been up the road and got totally soaked on the way back to the ship. In the tropics it really doesn’t matter – you dry off within a couple of minutes, because of the heat. Which makes it all kind of fun, and not the miserable experience it would be in the UK.

As we sailed away from Lae, we turned left. We were heading home.

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