I met a man in June. His name was Kepsy. He lived and worked on the volcanic island of Karkar, an ominous, cloud-shrouded mountain visible on clear days across the sea from Madang Harbour. He worked for the local administration with a responsibility for preparing for emergencies and disasters. Right up my street. Because Karkar could blow its top with very little notice, we’ve decided we’d like to work with Kepsy and do some work training communities to be ready.
The only problem with this is that Kepsy doesn’t have a phone number. There is (amazingly) cell-phone and even landline telephone access to parts of Karkar, but Kepsy keeps losing his phone. So to arrange a meeting with the guy, I set off yesterday morning by banana boat to head to Karkar Island in person to try and find the man.
For those that are wondering, a banana boat is the local vernacular for the small fibreglass outboard motorboats that are the workhorses of coastal life here. Not those inflatable yellow things they pull behind jetskis at Club Med resorts. The one pictured here was taken on Sunday afternoon, playing water-taxi to the inhabitants of Kranget Island, a few minutes’ ride across the channel from town.
We leave early. It’s two hours across the open sea, and from early afternoon onwards the crossing generally becomes hazardous as the winds and waves pick up. Banana boats have a bad habit of shattering in heavy swells. Also, I want to leave time for the unplanned. PNG’s semi-official motto is “Land of the Unexpected”. It’s persistently true.
The early sky is mottled with a mix of watery clouds and pale blue sky. The sun is bright and silvery. The air is pleasantly warm without being overpowering. The harbour is flat like a glass table-top. Our skipper is a local islander called Daniel. I’m accompanied by a young staff member from Manus named Jerry. We skip out to Little Pig Island, a blob of sand the size of a soccer field barely rearing its crest above the waves. It’s jammed full of fragile huts that look fabricated from plywood, branches and dried leaves. I’m amazed that one of our regular monsoon storms doesn’t wash it straight into the harbour.
At Little Pig we pick up an assistant for Daniel who will help with the boating. The water is clear and as we pull away from the island we glide over banks of coral set in white sand. Daniel pilots us expertly past the outer reef wall and we are out to sea.
The crossing is easy. When I think I could be at my laptop in a poorly-lit back office, where the national staff crank the air-conditioning like they’re selling ice-cubes on the side, it’s a glorious way to spend time. There’s barely a swell, and the boat glides seamlessly over the surface. I’m naughty and haven’t even bothered to put on my life-jacket. My excuse is that it’s been lying on the deck in front of my cottage for far too long and has accumulated a healthy sheen of gecko poo.
Little happens. I perch next to Jerry on a little plank of wood that serves as a seat. The sun slowly rises in the morning sky. The air is clear and visibility is good- we can see all the way to the island, all the way back to the mainland. There’s a lot of calm, empty water around us.
We approach Karkar. A pair of dolphins surface nearby, then roll back under the surface. They have long backs and their fins seem small by contrast. Karkar is wrapped in its customary veil of cloud. We see rain falling ahead, curtains of the stuff casting vertical shadows against the horizon like so many columns. When we pass through the little downpour, water patters around us for a few minutes, making the surface of the sea bubble and wetting our clothes. It’s not unpleasant, and five minutes later we’re dry again.
In the lee of the island, the water is flat calm. It has an oily, glassy appearance. It’s so still it’s almost ghostly. I rarely see lakes this quiet. The surface barely moves. There are no waves, no wind-ruffle, no swell. Just faint blemishes that play games with light and shadow. The hull of the motorboat slices through it like a kitana through fine silk. It feels like a travesty to disturb it.
A young porpoise breaks the sea several hundred yards ahead. It has a short beak and it’s jumping. It leaps into the air, a metre or more clear of the surface so that it’s framed against the horizon. Its body forms a perfect semi-circle, and it glistens before dropping gracefully back into the water. It repeats this half a dozen times before sliding back into the deep.
Daniel picks a convoluted approach to Kinim, the administrative headquarters. The water is so clear I want to drink it. Sitting in the boat I can look down six, seven, eight metres to the bottom below. As we approach the shallows, I can identify fish species four and five metres beneath us. We slow, and beneath the glassy surface I watch the exquisitely-colour coral and its piscine inhabitants while the skipper picks us a route between outcrops. I am finding myself hungering for a tank of air and my diving rig. After the murk that’s settling in Madang Harbour at the moment, this is crying out to be explored.
We beach the boat and Jerry and I walk the short distance inland to the district headquarters. It’s a long concrete schoolhouse-like building sitting on the edge of a field. There’s a knot of other ramshackle structures and a cell-phone tower nearby. A few people are meandering casually along the pathways nearby, some of them barefoot. At the headquarters itself, there’s no bustle or sense of urgency. In fact it looks deserted. There are some people sitting on the front step chewing buai. We walk up and say hi. We’re informed that all the staff, Kepsy included, are at Kubugam, on the mainland, for a quarterly review.
I get Kepsy’s alleged latest cell-phone number and we head back to the boat. Daniel and his assistant give me an amused look when I tell them we need to head back to the coast. They good-naturedly push the boat back into the water and we’re off again, the only craft moving with any sense of purpose over the flat ocean. We navigate the handful of fishermen in their tiny wooden outriggers.
Little time has passed, but as the morning advances, the wind picks up a little. We’re heading into it, and the surface of the water is more ruffled than it was when we came through forty minutes ago. As we leave the island, dark creatures breach not far from the boat. I see broad backs and hefty dorsal-fins, at least two or three feet tall. The fin of one animal is curled over at the top. They are feeding but sink back under the water as we approach. I’m still not sure what I saw. Pilot whales maybe. We leave the island behind us and begin the journey across to Kubugam.
This part of the trip is less relaxing. The surface chop is slight, but the boat skips from wave-top to wave-top, slamming down on the water with teeth-rattling, knee-jarring, intestine-pounding bangs. I have lost weight during my time in PNG, and my arse no longer has the padding it once did. I feel the impact running through my hips and up my spine. A day later, and I still feel as though I’ve been through a rigorous chiropracty session.
Kubugam is a sleepy harbour village with a grubby roadside market which serves as a trading point between islanders and the highlanders who come down in their tinted-window’d minivans. Half a dozen banana-boats are pulled up on the shore. It’s the main departure-point for travel to Karkar, about an hour and a half along the road from Madang town. The harbour itself is very pretty, with a sandy overgrown islet in the middle and a good view of Karkar about twenty miles away.
Jerry and I walk again. It’s late morning. The sun is pounding down, wrapping us in a cocoon of our own perspiration. We follow the North Coast road a short ways, then up a track that leads to the top of a nearby hill. People are moving lethargically around the district headquarters without any sense of clear purpose. We ask for Kepsy and get some blank stares. Finally we’re ushered into an office. Kepsy’s not here, we’re told. He’s gone to a training in Sek.
I roll my eyes. Sek is 20 minutes’ drive from Madang Town.
We try his number. No answer. Back to the boat. We push away, and the day is at its best. The sky is blue and the sunlight is strong. The mainland is bathed in lush green foliage. The clouds are an outrageous white colour, small and fluffy where they build over the hills. The sea is gentle and sparkles. Turquoise waves break against the rocky shoreline with rushing foamy heads. Another dolphin pops out of the water not ten metres off to the left, startling me. A few minutes later, I hear a cry from one of the boatmen and they are pointing. I see something large and dark diving from the surface, with a crest running along the middle of its back and broad flippers at the back. I ask Jerry if it was a small whale. I don’t hear what he replies and have to ask him to repeat it because I’m not expecting the response.
“Leatherback turtle,” he yells over the sound of the engine. I gape. I had seen the shell and back legs diving back underwater. It was gargantuan, two metres long. Although there’s a place in my mind where I understand that turtles got that big, I don’t think I’d ever equated that with reality. I learn later that there are just 2,500 adult female Leatherbacks in the entire Pacific, with PNG’s North Coast one of the last sanctuaries. Seeing this one was a rare treat.
We slip into the northern end of Madang Harbour and pull into the murky green waters around Alexishafen. The Philippines-owned Dolly tuna factory has nine ships anchored in the harbour. They are huge hulking industrial vessels, their black bows looming over our little fibreglass outboard, and it makes me sad to think of them are raping the sea for all its worth. The tuna-nets do immeasurable damage to marine ecosystems. In my newly-acquired diver’s insight, I muse how lovely that fleet would look scuttled at the bottom of the harbour as diving wrecks.
We pull into the Sek lagoon. In contrast to Karkar’s crystal waters, here we can see all of a metre and a half before green gloop obscures murky coral bulges. Courtesy of recent rainstorms. I run up to the Alexishafen conference centre, a place I know well, and there is Kepsy, oblivious to the efforts we’ve undertaken to track him down. We talk for five minutes. He is in the middle of an HIV/AIDS training workshop, but he is keen to meet on Thursday. We set a time and climb back into the boat. Four hours’ travel has brought us almost back to Madang. All for a five minute conversation. Such is the cost of doing business out here sometimes.
We slice back across Madang Harbour, the water gradually clearing the further south we go. By the time we drop the assistant at Little Pig Island, the water is mostly clean again. I’m keen to check out a site for a planned night-dive the next day, so ask Daniel to swing us a few hundred yards up to the Eel Garden, off Tab Island. Sure enough the water looks clear and fresh, with just a little surface sediment. I pull on my snorkel mask, strip down to my shorts, and dive straight in. After the heat of the sun, the water is deliciously refreshing. I paddle several metres down and the copious fish-life pays me no real notice. I can see ten or fifteen metres down there and it’s wonderful. I want to stay. But it’s one-thirty in the afternoon. I climb back onboard, and we cover the last ten minutes back to town, and from there, the office.
I spend the rest of my afternoon trying to download emails and respond to administrative bottlenecks. It occurs to me that I really need another excuse to go looking for Kepsy again.
“He’s gone to Madang Town,” they tell me. “He said to meet him at the Provincial Headquarters.”
I drive back to Madang. There’s no surprise here. I had almost expected as much.
I track down the office in the Provincial Headquarters. Some of the other Karkar guys are in there. Kepsy patently isn’t.
“He’s gone to the Administrative Headquarters now,” they tell me. “You can find him in Accounts.”
I drive the short distance to the Administrative Headquarters. It’s a sprawling complex of run-down longhouses, listless unfulfilled public servants, and lost, frustrated citizens. I find an information window and ask where Accounts is. I’m given shaky directions to a building on the other side of the complex. I see another information window marked Finance. I join a line to ask a simple question- “Where’s Kepsy”- already knowing what answer I get. There are three people ahead of me, the first being served by an ample Papua New Guinean lady with an unhurried demeanour. After about five minutes, the woman behind the window meanders back into the innards of the finance building, out of our sight. I never see her again. By the time I give up on the queue, the others in line are growing rambunctious for their lack of attention.
In the distance I spy what looks like Kepsy’s signature blue tropical shirt on its way to the exit. I duck between buildings and see him ahead of me, moving towards the road. I pick up my pace to try and intercept him. Follow him up Modillon Road several hundred yards. I’m gaining. I see him cross the street.
“Kepsy,” I call after him.
If he hears me, he does a fantastic job of ignoring me. I try to cross, pausing for traffic. A minibus pulls up on the far side of the street, hiding Kepsy from view. My heart sinks. Sure enough, when the minibus pulls away, Kepsy is on board.
Lost him. There goes my dream of being a spy extraordinaire.
I pick up my cell-phone and dial one of the other Karkar guys.
“When Kepsy gets back, have him call me using your phone,” I say, barely masking my impatience. I receive an enthusiastic reply to the affirmative.
The day passes. Kepsy never calls. This eventuality completely fails to surprise me.
But on the upside, I guess I now have my excuse to get back on the water…