By MALUM NALU
Daru, the once-thriving former capital of Western province, has sadly become a forgotten backwater despite all the riches from the Ok Tedi mine.
It is a dismal-looking town covered by bush, potholes and very basic services such as health are wanting, as exemplified by the town’s hospital.
Fishing canoes at Daru
The sad story of Daru, perhaps, epitomises what has happened to all of Papua New Guinea since independence in 1975.
People from Daru and the South Fly area – long neglected by the PNG government - are known to cross the Torres Strait regularly to
seek treatment in such places as Saibai and Thursday islands. Australia
Lying in the Torres Strait, off the tip of Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, the mangrove-rimmed mudflat is only 4km from PNG - a mere 20 minutes in an outboard dinghy, but a journey from poverty to plenty in terms of health care for residents of the palm-thatched villages of South Fly, PNG, north of Saibai.
I know this only too well because my late wife, Hula, was from Irupi, one of the southern-most villages of PNG in the Torres Strait and I have heard so many stories from her as well as from my in-laws.
Mothers bring their sick children to the primary health care centre in Saibai, and who can blame them?
The PNG government gives them next to nothing!
But before the rot set in, in the pre-independence days, Daru was an exotic melting pot of expatriate traders, planters, crocodile hunters and even missionaries.
Former kiap (patrol officer) and Member of the first House of Assembly Graham Pople, whose first posting was Daru in 1956 as a 21-year-old, tells me that Daru is still the love of his life and his all-time favourite place in PNG as a kiap.
This is despite it being disparaged in the past as “Siberia” – a place where kiaps who did the wrong thing were exiled there and forgotten.
From Daru, Pople served the whole of the massive Western district (now province), including crossing the border to the then Dutch New Guinea.
These included Kiunga (now the capital of Western province), Lake Murray, Balimo, the Star Mountains and many more.
In his yet-to-be-published autobiography, The Popleography, Pople writes about arriving in Daru on a Qantas Catalina flying boat in 1956 and how he fell in love with the place.
“At the time of my arrival in Daru,” he recalls, “the expatriate population consisted of the DC (district commissioner) and his wife, an assistant district officer, a patrol officer with wife, medical officer and wife, European medical assistant, and agricultural officer and family, and a clerk also married.
“There were we three cadet patrol officers – all single.
“There was Lenny Luff who owned a store, who was married with grown children and their families; the Maidments who were both in their 80s but hale and hearty, and running another store; and Peter Day, who ran the BNG Trading Emporium.
“Off the island, there was a floating expatriate population of traders, planters, crocodile shooters and even missionaries.
“In addition, Australian Petroleum Company (APC) was working in the area and their boats and personnel often dropped into Daru.”
Pople remembers that the indigenous population living on the island consisted of about 250 people classified as mixed race (and thereby entitled to drink) and about 200 villagers who were not entitled to partake of intoxicating beverages.
However, this did not stop them from making their own local beverages, which are known as gamada and tuba.
“The people living at Daru are a most-polyglot group,” Pople adds.
“Daru is only 14 hours sailing from Thursday Island and has been a port of call for pearling luggers and like, since the pearling industry began in the Torres Strait.
“The Kiwai were always hospitable and therefore a population has grown that traces its ancestry back to Portugese, Australians (original), and Australians (recent), Japanese, Malays and many others.
“Also, when Lieutenant Governor McGregor arrived from Fiji, he brought his senior NCO policemen from there, and some of them settled at hospitable Daru.
“The Tabua clan are the descendants of one such family.
“These people, being the first I had anything much to do with in PNG, have a special place in my memory and affections.
“One such was Badia Travertz, who was an old man in those days.
“He was a shipwright and was in charge of the slipway and the basic workshop associated with it.
“He was a most-interesting person and I used to enjoy sitting down in his workshop and listening to his stories.”
Pople talks fondly about his old mates such as George Tabua and Arthur Wyborn, originally from the British Islands and who later become a Member of Parliament, and whose family still live in Daru.
There is also Ebia Olewale, who “later became a very-eminent politician and was one of the founders of the Bully Beef Club along with Michael Somare, and a leader of the nation into self-government and independence”.
“He was rightly knighted for his efforts.
“I remember Anzac Day in 1956 and the school children marching and saluting the Australian flag.
“I have photos of this ceremony.
“Ebia appears in some of them as a very-young and fresh-faced young man.”
Daru, being an island, had a jetty, but because of the shallowness of the water it extended for some 200 metres or so into the channel.
“To make unloading easier, there was a railway line laid out between the end of the jetty and the government store building,” Pople says.
“Several carts were used to transport goods backwards and forwards, being man-powered (usually prisoners).
“This jetty was a favourite night fishing spot where the police and other government workers made their assignations with the local maidens.
“Daru was a prison island where the worst of the prisoners from throughout Papua New Guinea were sent to serve their terms, it being reasoned that no one could escape from there and remain at large.
“There was a very well-attended church on the island, the London Missionary Society (LMS), headed by a very-dedicated but sensible Gordon Price.
“He had a very good following from among the residents and each Sunday, the church was packed”
Apart from the hard foot slogging, Pople also spent a lot of leisure time fishing and shooting crocodiles – two things for which Daru is famous for – after which there was always a plentiful supply of beer.
The barramundi, probably the finest eating fish anywhere in PNG, abounds in Daru and Western province.
Fish being sold at Daru, including the prized barramundi
But the area’s real wealth lies in crocodile hides; Daru may be the only place in PNG which lives ‘on the crocodile’s back’.
In 1959, while on leave in Australia, Pople was advised that his request to return to Daru and the Western district had been refused and he was to be posted to Western Highlands.
Despite his pleas to go back to a place he had grown to love, he was advised to go to the Highlands and broaden his experience.
Daru, to this day, has a special place in the heart of the now 75-year-old Pople.