Two friends were visiting me from the UK so I decided to take them to Lake Kutubu, well up into the Highlands of PNG. Our first transit stop was Mt Hagen airport into which we flew on a small MAF (Mission Aviation Fellowship) single engine plane (picture below). I personally didn’t like flying on single engine planes and would only do it where there was no other options.
As was common in PNG, given that airstrips were not fenced in, the pilot would ‘come in’ first time with no intention of landing but rather on a reconnoitre, intending to frighten pigs, chickens and anything else that might be on the runway of it. On the second approach he would land.
Things differed a bit on the day we arrived. On our reconnoitre there didn’t appear to be any cows, pigs or chickens on the runway both rather there were fifty or more tribal members, many dressed in traditional costume and bearing spears, clubs or bows and arrows. They seemed to be dancing and we assumed singing though of course we couldn’t hear the latter from the plane. What was going on? Was it safe to land?
We circled the strip a couple of times while our pilot radioed down to see what was going on. By this time the people had moved down towards one end of the strip, by the terminal, and the pilot decided to land – my friends, second or third day in PNG, were getting afraid. Being a small plane we landed and came to a stop about half way down the runway and on doing so the pilot pointed to a shed along side and suggested we wait there until we could make our way down to the terminal building where the assembled crowd currently were, for our next flight. Our pilot tried to assure us that it was a minor skirmish and all would be well in a few minutes. My friend’s partner (who had not been enamoured about visiting PNG in the first place given its rather bad press even then) wasn’t convinced and on disembarking the plane ran straight for the shed and demanded her husband and I do likewise. While I was more interested in making my way down the runway to get some good photographs I thought it better to comply!
About 20 minutes later we were given the all clear as the crowd had left accompanying the contents of a helicopter, incidentally called a bigpela mixmasta bilong Jisas Krais in Tok Pisin, which had landed in the interim.
We might not have worried (not that I really had). This had been a friendly example of PNG election activity.
As we were circling the airstrip the crowd had indeed been singing and dancing in anticipation of the arrival of a helicopter carrying the ballot boxes from a few outlying stations which were pro the group’s candidate. The tribal group was here to ensure the safe passage of the ballot boxes to the counting room in Mt Hagen, the provincial capital. Thankfully this was a friendly mob but it was not unknown for opposition groups to intercept ballot boxes from areas known to be anti their candidates and ensure their disappearance before the votes therein could be counted.
I am not suggesting you go out of your way to encounter an incident like this but should you do so, don’t panic. We were never under any danger and typically tribal fights and the like did not (do not) involve visitors. While I never tested the theory, it was always said that if a visitor needed to pass though a tribal fight, both sides would stop fighting, stand aside and allow the visitor safe passage and then resume their hostility.
This is the last blog entry in a group (loop) of entries on Papua New Guinea (many more to come when I have time to write them!). I trust you have enjoyed these entries and invite you to partake of another of the loops on my “Travel Loops” page, by clicking HERE.