Lae sits at the head of the Huon Gulf on the north coast of Papua New Guinea. When we lived there in the late ’70s and early ’80s, the airstrip in town was still in use. Approaching by plane over the gulf, you'd first see the Markham River's plume of fresh brown water discharging into the salty blue of the gulf, and then the runway of the long airstrip which bisected the settlement pattern of the town. In those days, flanking the runway were some hangars (haus balus—houses for planes) and in one, sitting nose to nose like a 3D Rorschach test were a couple of DC3s belonging to the PNG Defence Force. I never saw them move.
In front of the hangars across the strip and the river were the mountains marking the edge of the Markham Valley. Behind the hangers was Markham Road, lined both sides with avenues of large trees encrusted with secondary plant growth. Beside the trees running parallel to the road were barets—big open drainage ditches to deal with the prodigious rainfall. The road served as a main route for traffic, both vehicular and foot... those on foot being women always heavy laden, children straggling along and men customarily carrying next to nothing.
As a general background to this this image, I should say that airstrips had a central place psychically as well as physically in PNG... almost like a town square! I was surprised to see people routinely wandering across airstrips in the smaller centres and terminals were often populated with wailing mourners as a body was transported back to the home village for burial. In a land so mountainous and difficult to get around, 600 odd languages had developed before this method of transport drew the population into closer proximity to one another.
In its recent history, Lae had seen the drop of hundreds of Australian and American paratroops from planes like these, to end the Japanese occupation of the town during World War II. This war is still in evidence everywhere with the inventive recycling of Marsden matting, the interlocking perforated steel plates used to build temporary air strips. I have shown them on the barat crossing in this image. So, at many levels and for many reasons, (without even mentioning the cargo cult) planes loom large in the collective memory and current life of the country.
Hand coloured 500 x 285
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