The ABC’s new correspondent in PNG got a taste of the vibrant colour and – at times – chaos of life on the road in the Land of the Unexpected. Liam Cochrane followed the PNG prime minister on an historic trip to Bougainville, an autonomous island to the east of Papua New Guinea that has been plagued by war and neglect. From baking heat to pouring rain, from being right in the thick of it to being completely left out, it was quite an initiation.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: The ABC’s new correspondent in PNG (Papua New Guinea) got a taste of the vibrant colour and, at times, chaos of life on the road in the Land of the Unexpected.
Liam Cochrane followed the PNG prime minister on a historic trip to Bougainville, an autonomous island to the east of Papua New Guinea that has been plagued by war and neglect.
From baking heat to pouring rain, from being right in the thick of it to being completely left out, it was quite an initiation.
From PNG, here’s Liam Cochrane.
LIAM COCHRANE: I’ve spent some hot days under the Cambodian sun, but standing around filming the reconciliation ceremony at Buka, in northern Bougainville, was just about as sweltering as I’ve ever experienced.
Sure it was hot, but the humidity was intense. A few steps away a Papua New Guinean cameraman was feeling it too, beads of sweat dripping down his face, his shirt plastered to his back. Meanwhile the local Bougainvillian reporters, with their deep black skin, didn’t to seem to notice the heat at all.
Someone handed me a bottle of water and probably saved me from heat stroke, as the speeches and ceremonies went on for about four hours.
I was one of 10 reporters and cameramen from the PNG mainland who had flown over to Bougainville to witness an historic visit by prime minister Peter O’Neill.
He was the first sitting PM to tour the autonomous island since the end of the civil war in 1997, and this trip was part of a long overdue reconciliation effort.
The logistics of such a trip were daunting but the basic idea was that once on Bougainville, the prime minister and other VIPs would take helicopters from place to place and the media would scramble across the island in two four wheel drives.
In Buka, the two leaders – Peter O’Neill representing PNG and John Momis, the president of Bougainville – broke a bow and arrow over their knees to symbolize the end of hostilities. Special peacemaker chiefs known as maimais stripped down to red sarongs and made loud proclamations of reconciliation, overseeing exchanges of gifts like traditional shell money, real cash, pigs and vegetables.
Bamboo bands played – slapping thongs on the end of bamboo pipes – while women in grass skirts danced. It was all very colourful. And so was I by the end of the day, a not-so traditional or attractive shade of pink.
After dark, a boat took us across to the main part of Bougainville. We met up with our police escort and off we drove to the central town of Arawa.
The next day, an early start to get to the southern town of Buin. There, the cultural groups were even more elaborately decorated. Men in pointy hats painted like skeletons were quite spooky-looking. Another group of men played bamboo pan pipes while they followed warriors dancing ahead with long spears, their heads wrapped in light brown bark, with holes for eyes and mouth.
Peter O’Neill and John Momis arrived and were ushered onto a huge sedan chair, hoisted onto the shoulders of dozens of men and paraded through the main street of Buin to the stage.
The speeches and cultural events that followed were met with a steady rain, but hundreds of locals stayed to listen to Peter O’Neill apologise for the conflict in the past, and to hear his offers of millions of dollars for new roads and other development projects.
I took shelter in the car with my camera gear, which soon became a little sauna, surrounded by the spooky skeleton men in their spiky hats. It was surreal – sort of like that scene in Titanic, but without Kate Winslet and directed by David Lynch.
The rain was even heavier further north and the rivers swelled. Our drive back to the central town of Arawa came to a halt as we forded a river, the water going over the bonnet and into the engine, which died.
Rolling up our trousers, we pushed the four-wheel drive to the other side of the river and our media team became bush mechanics. Before long they had the car going but it was pouring out white smoke and sounding a bit sick.
On the third and final day of the trip, it was the big one – the visit to the controversial Panguna mine. When it started in the 1970s this Australian-run gold and copper mine was the biggest in the world, but disputes over environmental damage and compensation led to conflict, which soon morphed into a struggle for independence and a civil war between Bougainville and Papua New Guinea.
The visit to the mine was scheduled for the afternoon but I was woken at 6:45am and told I had 10 minutes to pack and jump in the car – we’re off to Panguna, the PM’s chopper is leaving, we have to go NOW! A mad scramble: get in the car, tear off to the police station. There’s nobody there. We tear off to the market. There’s still no sign of our police escort.
Two hours later, we were off.
We pass the rusty ‘No-Go Zone’ sign at the roadblock, maintained by the hardline faction the Me’ekamui. The ceremony is held in the shadow of what was once a three story building, the living quarters for single women when the mine was operating but now a burnt out ruin.
Ex-combatants stood side by side with police to manage security, while 20 members of the Me’ekamui march and stand to attention in faded brown fatigues.
I’d been told that as soon as the speeches were over, we had to rush to the cars and drive ahead to set up for the PM’s tour of the mine pit. This was it, the shots I had come for. I’d been told it was 20 years since the ABC had gained access to the Panguna mine. As the car climbed, the mine came into view and we stopped for a wide shot – I set up the tripod, got three shots and was back in the car two minutes later.
As we drove I went over what I was going to say in my piece to camera and made a mental note of the sort of shots I wanted to get inside the mine pit. And then, the road looked sort of familiar. ‘Guys, where are we going? We’re not going back to Arawa are we?’
We were going back to Arawa. At some point the plan had changed and the visit to the mine pit had been called off. But nobody mentioned that until it was too late and we were speeding back past the road block, away from the shots that were central to the story I’d constructed in my head.
Those three wide shots were all I had of the mine itself.
But that’s how it goes. If Papua New Guinea is The Land of the Unexpected, I was 930 kilometres east of there and this, my first trip off-base as the new PNG correspondent, was a lesson in going with the flow. Plans change, time is fluid. That’s how it is. This is Bougainville. This is Papua New Guinea. This is my new reality.
ELIZABETH JACKSON: And that was the ABC’s new PNG correspondent Liam Cochrane.