Around Kokopo

Posted February 13, 2020 by David McGuinness

The gentle swell and ebb of the sea roused me from a badly needed sleep, and I found myself standing on Kokopo Beach looking across the gentle seas, a soft light dancing on the ripples. Fishermen in canoes zig-zagged along the coastline. Billy (from Bougainville Island) and Joe (from Kimbe in West New Britain) were to be my companions for my morning boat trip, and made me feel welcome in the easy manner I was starting to see was the local way. We tacked out diagonally (to the northeast) towards the rising sun, the gentle breeze feeling delicious on my skin, and after about ten minutes Joe slowed us down and Billy pointed up ahead where I saw a spinner dolphin, doing what is it named for. As it jumped almost vertically from the water, spinning several full turns with the morning sun glinting from its silvery skin before disappearing back below the surface. Then again, and again.

Suddenly there were dolphins everywhere. A head popped up and disappeared just off to the left, then two, three, six. More to the right. Some dashed across the path of the boat, just in front. It was clear that they were playing, enjoying the currents the boat created as it moved and showing their mastery of the water as they dashed only a metre in front - the joy of precision timing. Joe cut the engine and they asked me if I wanted to get in. I did. They gave me a light suit, a mask and a snorkel and extended nets to metal posts from the side of the boat. I was to hold onto the first line of net and lie across it, with face and mask in the water.

We took off again and after 5 minutes I heard the high pitched noises of the dolphins up ahead and felt a tingle of excitement - we had caught up again to the restless pod. Now I had a, um, dolphins-eye view of these majestic creatures in the water, as they spun and dived, bobbed and weaved, just one to two metres in front of me. Absolutely exhilarating. I had swum with dolphins in the Amazon before but the difference in our relative speeds meant that it was a fleeting glance here and there. This was the closest I had ever been to seeing them truly swim.

On our way back to shore we stopped by a submerged WWII Japanese zero bomber (a Mitsubishi A6M "Zero", to be precise) shot down by Allied troops, now resting about 5m under the water. I popped on my mask again to have a look and dove under to look inside. One wing was missing but otherwise it was largely intact, and it’s torso had become a haven for small fish. 

After breakfast I met with Laurence again and we were joined by a South African family with two young girls on a visit to a local village. It was situated just half an hour’s drive outside of Kokopo, initially on a solid road, but then on bumpy, muddy tracks. We arrived at the small village of Gunana Varilam and met the charming Rita and Februar, their daughter and her small children. Rita spoke excellent English, as did Februar I realised once I tuned into his accent. Rita showed us around their botanical gardens, filled with fruit trees, a small plot from which they were largely self-sufficient. Salt and soap were the only two regular purchases they needed to go to a shop for. We sat around and chatted as Rita and her daughter prepared a fire, and when hot enough added in some small rocks. Separately they prepared coconut, squeezing out the milk and some cabbage family leaves, 2-minute bananas (plantains to me, so called for how long they take to cook), three types of sweet potato (purple, orange and white), onion, ginger, tomato, chicken and some salt. When the stones were hot coconut milk was added to the banana leaves and the stones dipped in water to clean them and added in. When about ten stones had been added and the milk started to bubble Rita added in the mix, then a layer of big leaves, more stones, more mix and finally closed over the top and sealed it for the stones to cook everything from the inside. 

This is the Toloi traditional way of cooking called aigir.  Rita and Februar’s grandkids played with the young South African girls and a young Toloi boy showed off his climbing skills by scurrying up a couple of betel nut trees to harvest a couple of nuts. Laurence explained how Toloi women are the decision-makers in the family and the community and so disputes are dealt with by dialogue, rather than violence, as happens in other parts of PNG. Property is also handed down along matrilineal lines. “It just works better” he said with a shrug. 

After about twenty minutes Rita peeled back the banana leaves, poked around inside a little and decided she was satisfied, and started to remove the stones with a set of tongs fashioned from wood. We were served up a most delicious lunch on banana leaves to be eaten with the hands. The sauce was delicious, and indeed the three types of sweet potato were very different from each other. Rita beamed as we tucked in. Apart from the salt, everything was from the local forest, including all the implements for cooking and eating. I thought about the amount of packaging I burn through in the average week at home and felt ashamed. 

We took leave of Rita, Februar and their family and thanked them for their charming hospitality. It was a very natural feeling encounter, and again the natural charm and ease of New Guineans impressed me. We dropped the South Africans off at the lodge and myself and Laurence hit the road again. Our first stop was the war museum, which turned out to be much more besides. As well as a wide range of WWII paraphernalia including Japanese searchlights, tanks, planes, rollers to make air strips there was a custom-painted nose of a US plane with a half-naked lady and a caption “Naughty but nice”, some delicate coral, some exhibits on Queen Emma, Baining Fire masks and even a crocodile pit with a large saltwater croc who moved over to eye us and a smaller freshwater croc that spun and snapped furiously as we got close, making me very thankful he was safely behind a concrete and wire enclosure fence. The Australian curator showed me around a little, pointing to a Japanese WWII machine gun that had come in the week before. “They just keep finding more”, he sighed. 

From the museum we drove to Kokopo’s main market and wandered through the fruit section, the veg section, and the betel nut section. Betel nut is chewed with mustard and lime powder (from coral) to produce a mildly intoxicating mix which stains the teeth of most New Guineans I have encountered so far, both male and female. “Two from the jungle and one from the sea”, Laurence smiled. Betel nuts from this region are famous all over PNG, with fresh ones commanding a particularly high price. The vibe in the market was friendly, with people smiling and happy to pose for photos. 

We drove on past the air strip to an Allied war cemetery. There were about 30 WWI graves, mostly Australians but the majority was made up of WWII. Again Australians made up the largest contingent, but there was also a large Indian section, curiously divided so that the Muslims were buried separately from the Hindus and Sikhs. 

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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