Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Wau and Bulolo renaissance

Aerial view of Bulolo. Picture by PNG FOREST PRODUCTS

Golden Pine Plantations, Bulolo. Picture by PNG FOREST PRODUCTS
An aerial view of the Hidden Valley Mine Project area stretching down to Hamata. Picture by SIMON ANAKAPU of MOROBE MINING JOINT VENTURES

The author (centre) with Sampson Bonai (left) and Vii Killar at the start of the Hidden Valley Access Road at the back of Bulolo. Picture by SIMON ANAKAPU of Morobe Mining Joint Ventures

Panorama of the Bulolo and Watut vallers from the Hidden Valley Access Road. Picture by SIMON ANAKAPU of Morobe Mining Joint Ventures

You can feel it in the air as you drive up the scenic Wau-Bulolo Highway from Lae.
We drive over the Markham Bridge crossing the great river of the same name past Niugini Tablebirds, pretty villages with roadside markets, Zenag Chicken, picturesque rolling hills and snaking rivers – which if they could speak – would tell you so much.
In the rivers and creeks, village miners are quietly sifting a fortune in gold dust, using crude wooden sluices made from bush materials and cheap metal pans.
Our driver, Gima Pokana of PNG Forest Products, points out a spot along the Snake River dubbed as “ATM Corner” because, whenever villagers and settlers want quick cash, this is where they come, just like an ATM machine in town.
My colleagues, The National’s Lae sales executive Vii Kiilar and our former reporter and local Wau/Buolo boy Sampson Bonai, join in lighthearted banter with Gima.
Memories of my younger days as a reporter in Lae, when I constantly drove along this road, come rushing to mind.
But those days of the late 1980’s and 1990’s, when Wau and Bulolo were disparaged as ‘cowboy towns’ due to the lawlessness, are fast becoming a thing of the past.
There is now a feeling of excitement and optimism akin to the historical gold mining days of the 1920’s and 1930’s.
The once normally-quite road is busy with big trucks heading to and from Lae headed for the Wafi prospect in Mumeng, Koranga Creek, Edie Creek and Hidden Valley in Wau, and PNG Forest Products in Bulolo.
The historical mining towns of Wau and Bulolo in the Morobe province, you see, are on the verge of a major renaissance with the increase in mining activity.
This has resulted in massive economic activities in these areas reminiscent of the 20’s and 30’s.
Employment opportunities and other spin-off activities abound with the ‘big three’ projects at Hidden Valley, Edie Creek and the famous Koranga Creek on the fringes of Wau town.
The historic Bulolo airport was re-opened this year to serve the increased mining activities.
The discovery of gold at Edie Creek above Wau in 1926 sparked off a gold rush of massive proportions which led to the exploitation of the rich deposits of the Bulolo-Watut river system by large-scale mechanised mining.
History is indeed being rewritten with the current developments at Wau and Bulolo which will benefit the whole of Papua New Guinea.
We drive past the Buang junction, over the notorious Kumalu River which buried the once –thriving Mumeng government station under tonnes of rubble, and then the beautiful and iconic pine trees of Bulolo come into view.
Gima drives us into the PNG Forest Products township, which is like going back in time, given the well-kept colonial-style houses which are more than 50 years old.
PNG Forest Products evolved from Bulolo Gold Dredging Limited that commenced operations in large-scale alluvial mining in the late 1920’s.
The Bulolo region was at the time one of the largest gold fields in the world.
A total of seven dredges scoured the valley floor, dredging thousands of tones of high grade gold-bearing ore.
As the mining operation scaled down, the plywood factory and sawmill were constructed.
In collaboration with the then government, the pine plantations were also established at this time.
In 1954, plywood production and the export of product to overseas destinations commenced.
From the early 1950’s the company has been involved in the conversion of both hardwood and plantation resource to high value end products.
Today, PNG Forest Products is the leading producer of timber and plywood products using only 100% plantation pine.
Its products include prefabricated houses, dressed timber and mouldings, treated power poles, export high grade plywood and veneers.
The company operates a 5.5MW hydro power station at Baiune which was built pre-war to supply power to the gold dredges.
Today, it supplies the total power requirements for the company township of Bulolo and Wau.
PNG Forest Products is truly a self-sufficient organisation with retail stores, freezers, bakeries and a cattle farm.
“The face of Bulolo is changing and becoming a bit like it used to be, which is good for everybody” deputy general manager Rinus Vacks tells me.
“It’s very, very positive.
“Bulolo’s got a very good feel about it.
“We’re certainly riding on the back of the booming economy.
“We’re also moving along with the economy.
“We certainly hope that the current strength of the economy will continue.”
Banks in Bulolo – Nationwide (formerly Wau) Microfinance and Bank South Pacific - are gaining momentum as business picks up as a direct result of the exploration and mining boom in the area.
Nationwide Microfinance, in particular, has picked up dramatically since it was opened in Bulolo last February 26.
“Within this short space of time there has been a lot of cash circulating within within the townships of Bulolo and Wau due to mining activities as well as alluvial mining,” manager Jacob Bigiglen enthuses.
At the Bulolo Golf Club, the oldest in the country, we meet a motley crew of miners, foresters and locals who are all too happy to spin a yarn over a couple of beers about the good ‘ol days of Wau and Bulolo.
The other club in town, Bulolo Bowling Club, is renowned for producing bowlers who have represented PNG in international tournaments.
The next day, we head for Hidden Valley gold mine project with Simon Anakapu, who is public and internal relations manager with Morobe Mining Joint Ventures, a partnership between Harmony Gold and Newcrest.
We take the private access road at the back of Bulolo, which curves its way through the mountains, for over 40km before hitting Hidden Valley.
Here, in the middle of nowhere, a massive change is taking place.
Work at the Hidden Valley gold mine project outside Wau in Morobe province is progressing well and on schedule with production to start next year.
Remote Hidden Valley near the border of Central and Gulf provinces has become a hive of activity as Morobe Mining Joint Ventures work on a project that promises to transform the famous gold mining towns of Wau and Bulolo.
To date, an enormous 26 million tones of waste have been removed from the pre-strip by giant trucks and other equipment, operated exclusively by staff from surrounding landowner villages including women.
Acting mine manager Chuck Hennessey tells me there is a general air of optimism all around as construction work nears competition and commends all staff, many from surrounding landowner villages, for their hard work.
“The feeling is pretty good,” he says.
“This is going back to the root of mining in PNG and we’re pretty excited about that.”
Evening over the Bulolo and Watut valleys as we drive back is a sight to behold as we watch the panorama unfold.
“This is God’s country,” Simon remarks.
And I couldn’t agree more.


  1. Anonymous4:45 PM

    Thanks very much... I love that place.. thats my home...

    1. I lived on the Bulolo River as a child in the early 1950's. My dad had an alluvial gold mine about 7 miles out of Wau towards Bulolo.He built our house there.