Saturday, July 14, 2012

Magic of the Markham and Watut rivers


Evening along the great Markham River of Morobe province on Friday, July 6, 2012.
I am on a 25-horsepower motor-powered canoe heading up the river towards where the Markham River meets another great Morobe river, the Watut.

The river journey begins at 40-Mile outside Lae.-Pictures by MALUM NALU

We are headed for Maralina village in the Lower Watut area, where USA-based Watut man Aral Nen and his family, will make a presentation of books the next day.
We are in a convoy of four canoes which include the Nen family and a Korean TV crew who have come to make a documentary on the Nens and their Lower Watut motherland.
I relax in the dugout canoe, enjoying the ride and magnificent riverside scenery, which simply takes my breath away.
The Sepik River-style dugout canoes which ply the Markham and Watut rivers at Kapungu village

I might add as an aside here that any enterprising tourism operator could make a good business out of ferrying tourists up and down the Markham and Watut rivers, given that there is so much potential for eco-tourism, similar to what is being done along the Sepik River.
Already, the Watut River rapids are rated as among the best in the world for white water rafting, and are infamous for an incident in 2005 in which a number of Israeli thrill seekers were killed in the fast-flowing waters.
 Watut River grandeur

One of the greatest gold rushes the world has ever known began here along the Markham and Watut rivers.
How the Wau-Bulolo gold rush all began is a classic in itself and to go into every detail would fill many pages.
In the early part of last century, it was almost as if bowmen were guarding the gold that lay on the edge of their country more richly than anywhere else in the whole Pacific.
Fierce fighters lived along the Markham, the big river flowing into the Huon Gulf.
The Markham’s big tributary we call the Watut – and that was the river that led to the new gold, the new El Dorado.
The story is that Watut gold was discovered by an Austrian prospector, Wilhelm Dammkohler, and that he was killed by the Kukukukus on Sept 12, 1909, while prospecting with a companion Rudolph Oldorp.
Going up the Watut River last Saturday morning against a magnificent backdrop of mountains

Canadian prospector Arthur Darling, in 1910, apparently did go up the Watut and into its tributary, the Bulolo.
There he found gold, rich gold
Somewhere right up the Watut was the source of gold that coloured the sands of the lower Markham.
World War One put an end to all that, and it was not until  August 1922, when William ‘Sharkeye’ Park and Jack Nettleton crossed the heavily-jungled rivers of the Kuper Range beyond which lay the Bulolo River, forking off the Watut, and more gold, fantastically more gold, than anywhere else in the world at that time.
They found it where Koranga Creek and Edie Creek come into Bulolo – gold that was to give them each a fortune; and when they had taken all they wanted, there was enough left for the six-million-dollar company, Bulolo Gold Dredging Ltd, to win, in the 30 years following, 56 tonnes of gold, then worth 28 million pounds.
Fast forward to Friday, July 6, 2012, and about an hour up the Markham from where we started at 40-Mile, we arrive at the intersection where the Watut joins and rolls with the flow.
Unlike the braided Markham, the Watut is a meandering river, which can be navigated only by skilled and experienced boatmen, through a myriad of fallen trees.
The picturesque riverside village of Uruf along the banks of the Watut River

At 7pm, we arrive at Kapungu village along the banks of the Watut, where we enjoy village hospitality, accommodation and food for the night.
What really touches me about these simple villagers is that they don’t have much, moneywise, but what little they have they share.
For instance, at the house I stayed, village woman Miriam Bingeding and her babies Binganu, Jessica and Susan shared their food with me – which to me was worth more than a million dollars!
Early next morning, soon after the cocks crow, we hit the river again bound for Maralina, again passing magnificent river scenes.
Loading canoes at Kapungu Village last Saturday morning for the trip to Maralina.

All along the three-hour ride to Maralina, we pass villagers working doing small-scale mining along the riverside, which is their main source of money.
 Local villagers doing small-scale gold mining along the banks of the Watut River last Saturday

At Maralina, we trek for about an hour further inland  through sweltering heat,  to get to  Maralina Primary School, stopping every now and then for some fresh kulau (coconut) juice.
One thing that strikes me about the hamlets all the way to the main village is that they are spotlessly clean, there is no buai (betelnut) spit like Port Moresby, Lae and other towns, and there is a huge amount of community pride.
We walk through cocoa and coconut groves, well-kept gardens, and kunai grass to get to the school.
Cocoa is the second major source of income for the villagers after small-scale gold mining.
There are so many taros, bananas, yams, kaukau and other vegetables growing here in the fertile river valley.
Maralina Primary School is set in magnificent settings, straight out of a picture book, and I would willingly give up everything to come and live here!
At Maralina, the Nens are feted liked royalty, and the red carpet, a ’la Lower Watut, is laid out for them.
After speeches and handover of the books, the Nen family and the Korean TV crew are airlifted by helicopter to Nen’s Zenem village, where they will stay for the next couple of weeks to film the documentary.
I would have made another river trip down the Watut and Markham; however, thanks to Morobe Mining Joint Ventures (MMJV) general manager sustainability and external relations David Wissink, I was able to hitch a ride back to Lae on a helicopter.
We fly over Maralina village, the Watut, and are able to look down on the Markham and the panoramic plains as we fly back to Lae.

Aerial view of the Watut River as seen from a helicopter last Saturday

Along the way, we stop at Wafi, site of one of the next big gold and copper mines in PNG, run by Harmony of South Africa and Newcrest of Australia.
As we fly over rugged terrain back to Lae, surrounded by forests, mountains and rivers, I can’t help but think about the future of the simple Lower Watut villagers.

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