Chapter 2: Flower Power hits the Highlands – Papua New Guinea, 1965 to 1987

Part 1 of 3
In November of 1987 three CRAE geologists were commissioned to set up a camp in the area. They selected a site in the Pinuni Valley, under the mountain and on the edge of what the people called ‘Kare Puga’, an area of coarse tussocky grass. In the Enga language kare signifies a brownish-green colour, and puga (or pugwa) is a boggy alpine swamp. The camp was built with blue tarpaulins and rolls of bright yellow builders’ plastic, stretched over frames cut from the stunted bush further up the valley. The only flooring was yellow plastic laid directly over the soggy ground. Torrential rain was a daily event, and despite the drains that were dug, the damp rose from the ground and permeated everything. Nights were bitterly cold, and oil drums were converted to primitive stoves to try to warm the mess hut. Board-walks made from bush timber laid over logs embedded in the mud connected the different buildings. There was no fence around the camp, because when it was built there was no need; there were no neighbours.

A methodical exploration program identified an area of particular interest, and plans were made for a drilling program to explore the extent and depth of the goldbearing area. For all the standard field geology carried out, the most significant find came when the geologists were digging their toilet hole. There was gold in it - not just the interesting traces panned from the creeks, but visible nuggets. When it came time to go home for Christmas, the geologists decided to keep the lid on their discovery. They closed the camp, and left it standing empty and alone among the tussocks and the mud.

By the time they came back in February 1988 they had neighbours. Some say that CRA labourers spread the word, while one senior CRA manager believes that a curious geologist from Placer’s Porgera mine visited the site illicitly, and that his labourers spotted the gold and told their friends. Either way, by January several hundred people had set up camp along the banks of the nearby Gewa river. More people arrived every day to swell the gold rush, panning in the creeks and digging in the sticky black soil. By the middle of 1988 there were as many as 10,000 miners, living and working in appalling conditions, and finding millions of dollars worth of gold along the Gewa River and Pinuni Creek. Some panned the creeks, while many sunk shafts a metre or more wide and up to four metres deep. The ground they dug was mixed with water to form a slurry, then broken up by hand to release any nuggets it contained. One conservative estimate is that at least 20,000 holes were dug. There were stories about nuggets found by uprooting tussocks of grass and shaking the roots, or found on the surface under rotting humus, stones or boulders. There is no reason to doubt them. People chartered helicopters to fly them and their gold out, rather than risk the long and dangerous walk home. Pilots were paid in nuggets. Entrepreneurs set up stores, and chartered helicopters to fly in food, drink and other supplies to sell at exorbitant prices.

There was no official presence on the goldfields. There were tribal fights, murder, rape, prostitution, stealing and extortion. No one knows the numbers because no reports were made. There was no one to report to. In the cold and the rain people became sick. Creeks which provided the only drinking water were turbid with mud and polluted by human waste. There were no toilets. Ten thousand diggers produce a lot of shit, and they do it every day. People were reported to be dying of typhoid. Until CRA built a small clinic near their camp there was no one to treat the sick, and no official to record their deaths. Still, there was a kind of self-imposed order. It was not primal anarchy.

Andi’s impression was that life was rough on the goldfields, but if people knew and trusted you they looked after you. He never felt threatened. In late 1988 he organised a trip there for his son Ben and Ben’s cousin Nick. It was an opportunity that could never be repeated. How many schoolkids get to visit a gold rush on the school holidays? They stayed with Hondale, a clan leader Andi knew well and trusted, and saw life as it was, cold, damp, dangerous and hard, softened only by prostitutes and the demon drink. Ben and Nick indulged in neither. As Nick wrote later, they had ‘a raw exposure to a different and arguably primitive culture – we were a part of something unique, a PNG gold rush, something that the kids of today will never be able to experience.’ No harm came to them, and they returned with memories that will last all their lives.

In parts of the goldfield it was standing room only. Although for some life was nasty, brutal and short, for others it was extremely rich. One estimate was that Mount Kare’s diggers found a million ounces of gold, and much of that in the early stages when nuggets could be picked off the ground. But there was certainly no Kare Philharmonic Orchestra, and the debating society found voice in home-and-away tribal fights – at Mount Kare one week and Porgera the next. Company employees in the CRA camp felt they were living on the edge. Until it was fenced late in 1988, people wandered through the camp at will. And because alcohol was freely available on the goldfields, the visitors were often drunk. And aggressive. The day-to-day atmosphere was tense, with the threat of violence as a constant undercurrent. Angry alluvial miners regularly invaded camp living areas to forcefully express real or imagined grievances, or just generally object to the company’s presence. Usually they came through the door. One memorable occasion they came through the wall.

This event calls for a brief digression into Dave Henton’s story.

While Andi was at Huli Traders, I had been contracted by CRA to investigate the land ownership patterns around Mount Kare. This required talking at length with various competing groups of claimants, carefully noting how individuals claimed membership of customary groups, and mapping the lands those groups claimed to own. One afternoon I was collating notes and sketch maps in my plastic cubicle, when without warning the wall behind me was slashed open with a bushknife and three very angry, very drunk men came bursting in. One pulled me to my feet and held a bushknife to my throat, while the others rampaged through the cubicle destroying notes and maps and chopping up the rough work table and bench. They were unhappy that I had been talking with rival groups. Two of the men took all the paper-work they could and went to look for the senior geologist, with whom they also wanted a chat. The man with the bushknife stayed, saying ‘Mi bai katim nek bilong yu ya’ – ‘I’m going to cut your throat’. I had a packet of cigarettes in my pocket, so I pulled it out and offered one to the man with the knife. He put down the knife and I lit a cigarette for him. I was trying hard to speak calmly. ‘If you’re short of smokes, mate, keep the packet’. He thanked me politely and left. A packet of Cambridge Blue was a small price to pay for my life, but I did lose the notes I had painstakingly compiled over weeks; and as I discovered later, my cassette player and camera. The incident was alarming but not isolated. Violence was never far below the surface, both on the goldfields and in the camp.

When the visitors finally left, I was having a whinge to one of the contract surveyors. ‘This is impossible – there’s no way I can work under these conditions.’ He just smiled, and poured me a small, illicit rum. ‘Nothing’s impossible. Remember - where there’s a day rate, there’s a way mate.’ I drank the rum, wrote out my invoice for that day, and planned what to do tomorrow.

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