Stephen Codrington


Papua New Guinea Travel Diary 1983

For this, our final day of the study tour, luggage was sent on to the airport while the group drove east of Port Moresby up to the Sogeri plateau, where inspections were made of the Itikinumu rubber plantation and Koitaki brahmin beef farm, followed by Sogeri National High School.

Sogeri is located approximately 27 kilometres east of Port Moresby. It is a district rather than a town as such, and it marks the southern end of the Kokoda Trail.  Although only a short distance from Port Moresby (which is on the coast), Sogeri is located on an uplifted plateau over 1,000 feet (300 metres) in altitude.  Thus, whereas Port Moresby receives about 1,000 mm of rainfall per annum, Sogeri’s altitude creates orographic uplift which results in an annual average of 3,550 mm.  The majority of this rain falls between December and April, and there is a clear dry season between June and October.  Because of its altitude, Sogeri is also cooler, more cloudy and more comfortable to work in than Port Moresby.

Although records indicate that rubber was first grown in Sogeri as early as 1910, it was not until Soldier Settlement schemes were established in the early 1920s that the industry flourished.  By the mid 1930s, there were about a dozen rubber plantations in the district, all of which had had to be cleared by hand from very dense natural vegetation.

The district's industry flourished through World War II and the Korean War booms, but profitability declined after about 1965.  Although competition from synthetic rubber was a factor, the decline in Sogeri (and Papua New Guinea generally) was more severe than in (say) Malaysia or Liberia.  By 1982, only two plantations were left producing rubber; Koitaki and Itikinumu.  Koitaki ceased producing rubber in that year, leaving only Itikinumu plantation – our destination –operating at the time of our visit.

Itikinumu Plantation is located about 10 kilometres east of Sogeri proper, on Eworogo Creek, a tributary of the Laloki River.  At the time of our visit, Itikinumu employed 120 workers in an area of 800 hectares.  A decade earlier, its area was slightly larger and it employed 1,000 workers.  Although all the Sogeri plantations had employed the general pattern of processing the latex on the plantation itself, by the time of our visit (1983) there were no processing facilities left in Sogeri, and Itikinumu transported its congealed latex by road to a new large factory operated by its parent company at Doa, 120 kilometres away.  (In earlier years, the processed rubber had been transported by air transport!).  The latex has a bacterial culture added to it while in the collecting bowls on the trees which results in the congealing of the rubber prior to transport.  Upon arriving at the factory at Doa, the congealed latex is shredded and compressed into blocks for export.

In all other respects, the methods used on Itikinumu are quite traditional, even to the use of boys with shoulder poles to collect latex from the tapped trees.  Trees are tapped twice weekly by cutting away a fine layer of bark.  Trees are tapped up to a height of 5 feet (1.6 metres), and during its life, each tree is stripped of its bark twice up to that height.  Trees are tapped from about the age of 6 years and have a total life of about 30 years.  Trees are grown on flat land, leaving the steeper slopes uncleared.  Little attention is given to weeding and a significant number of diseased trees (e.g. brown bark) were observed.  Unlike the neighbouring Koitaki plantation, which is now owned by Papua New Guinea nationals, Itikinumu Plantation is owned by largely British company.  Both Koitaki and Itikinumu have Australian managers, however.  All other staff are nationals.

Koitaki plantation ceased rubber cultivation in 1982, chopping down its rubber trees and sowing improved pastures for the raising of Brahmin cattle.  This was done for four reasons, and those four reasons are also factors of continuing concern for Itikinumu plantation:

  • 1. Conservative management. Until the last half decade, management on all the district plantations had some backward (or dogmatic and prejudiced) ideas.  For example, despite studies to the contrary, they believed that high yielding varieties (HYVs) were unsuited to Papua New Guinea because they were thought to be more prone to diseases.  This resulted in Sogeri plantations yielding only about 1,200 tonnes of latex per annum per hectare compared with the yield of 2,500 tonnes in Malaysia.  No new planting has been carried out for several years, although Itikinumu continues to experiment with new varieties of rubber tree.  This conservatism has meant that the district has not kept up with other rubber producing nations in what is essentially an international commodity where competitiveness is of vital importance.  At the level of our observations, it could easily be seen in the abnormally high level (by world standards) of weeds which are found between the rows of rubber trees.
  • 2. High Wage Rates. Workers on Itikinumu plantation are paid what is called the minimum rural wage.  At the time of our visit (May 1983), this was K30.90 per fortnight tax free (K = kina, and K30.90 is approximately $Aust.42.33).  Although low by Papua New Guinean standards, this was very high by the standards of other rubber producing nations, further reducing the international competitiveness of the industry.
  • 3. High Altitude. At 1,500 feet (approx. 450 metres), Itikinumu is the world’s highest rubber plantation.  Rubber does not grow effectively above 1,000 feet (300 metres).  Consequently, the altitude of Itikinumu further reduces productivity.
  • 4. Proximity to Port Moresby. The Sogeri district is linked to Port Moresby by a road which is now sealed for almost its entire length.  Light buses and PMVs operate between Sogeri and Port Moresby at intervals of 15 minutes or so for a low fare of 70 toea (there are 100 toea in one kina, so 70 toea represents about $Aust.1.00).  Wage levels for unskilled jobs in Port Moresby are as much as three times higher than the minimum rural wage, and so it has been increasingly difficult to retain workers on rubber plantations.

In addition to these factors, two other factors can be identified which are continuing to adversely affect rubber growing at Itikinumu.

  • 1. Law and Order. Papua New Guinea has gained a reputation in recent years as an unsafe place around which to walk around at night.  It is generally recognized that there is a decline in law and order which is making it more difficult for companies to achieve their goals.  However, it must be said that Papua New Guinea is still much better off in this respect than (say) many of the the emerging nations of Africa. 
  • 2. Traditional Land Rights. All land in Papua New Guinea, whether used or not, is regarded by one clan or another as its own.  Thus, there is great potential for conflict when supposedly freehold or leasehold land is allocated by the government.  Itikinumu plantation is held on a 99-year lease, but this is disputed by traditional groupings in the district (many of whose members actually work on Itikinumu).  The Papua New Guinean tradition of “payback” makes the implications of traditional land claims potentially quite serious.

We left Itikinumu Plantation and took the short drive to Sogeri National High School.  Sogeri National High School was the first of what are four national high schools in Papua New Guinea, the national high schools being selective-enrolment institutions that are designed to produce future leaders through providing excellent education.  Several of Papua New Guinea’s political leaders are graduates of Sogeri National High School, including Michael Somare and Ebia Olewale.

Unfortunately, being unannounced, we were not able to see any lessons or even the interior of the school.  However, we were able to inspect the impressive display of reconstructed traditional architecture from various parts of Papua New Guinea that had been assembled in the school grounds. 

Following our school visit, we returned to Port Moresby and then boarded our Air Niugini flight PX001 for the return trip to Sydney, flying on the same Boeing 707 (P2-ANA) that we had used to fly into Papua New Guinea just a week ago.

On such a pioneering trip, I was delighted that the students drew favourable comments from many quarters, and their efforts to communicate with locals through Tok Pisin were appreciated by everyone they encountered.  A few participants suffered from some vomiting and diarrhoea, but because these isolated cases occurred at various stages the trip rather than at one point, this was felt to be an infection rather than a form of allergy or poisoning from tainted food or contaminated water.  

In order to assess the students’ reactions to various aspects of the tour, I asked them to rate the educational value of some of the key studies using a five-point rating scale:

1 = very poor, well below expectations

2 = poor, below expectations

3 = good, average, as expected

4 = very good, above expectations

5 = excellent, much above expectations

Using this scale, the ratings they gave were as follows:

•Tour of Mount Hagen, 3.0

•Gomaunch village, 3.7

•Sing Sing near Minj, 4.8

•Drive through Chimbu Gorge, 4.8

•Vegetation changes, Kegasugl to Base Camp, 3.5

•Climb of mountain (Mt Wilhelm or smaller peak), 4.1

•Visit to Gembogl High school at Kegasugl, 3.9

•Asaro mudmen, 2.4

•Coffee factory, 2.9

•Viewing of “First Contact”, 4.5

•Raun Raun Theatre, 4.9

•JK McCarthy Museum, 3.5

•Rothmans Tobacco Factory, Goroka, 3.0

•Goroka Lookout, 3.0

•Goroka Markets, 3.1

•Drive to Sogeri, 3.3

•Itikinumu Rubber plantation, 3.4

•Sogeri High School, 4.1

On the homeward bound flight, I invited the students to write a page or so on their overall impressions of the field trip.  Some excerpts from these responses are produced below:

“Papua New Guinea is one of the few countries where the most common society is very different from our own.  I think that the field trip was very useful because it enabled us to visit areas that were very different.” (Year 10 student)

“Firstly, I have enjoyed most of the trip and think it was well worth experiencing this rare opportunity to have come into such close contact with the New Guineans.  The highlight of the expedition has been the “stroll” up to the summit of Mount Wilhelm (pride and achievement).  I learned a valuable lesson about my amazing willpower which I will now be able to exercise more on my studies.  My relationship with fellow travellers has improved and I have learned to use more consideration.” ( Year 10 student)

“Meeting so many new people, seeing the ways they live, gave me a broader insight into our closest neighbour. It is something I will be able to share with my grandchildren.”  (Year 10 student)

“New Guinea, in my opinion, was fascinating.  It was very much more than I expected.  New Guinea offered a rare opportunity to experience the culture and possibilities of a developing nation. From the embryo micro-western culture of Port Moresby to the primitive tribal setting of the Highlands, there was nothing short of a cultural gamut for the students.  The Mount Wilhelm climb, although meant to be exhilarating, had some definite drawbacks, not the least of which was altitude sickness.  However, the Highlands did provide some magnificent scenery and the greatest contribution to a get fit campaign anyone could dream up.  The Highlanders were great.  I could not get over their friendliness.  I only wish this was the case in Australia.  The fact that the tribes looked after their elders was commendable.  The trip overall was excellent and far more than I expected.  I only wish we could have had more time at Kegasugl Base Camp.” (Year 9 student)

“New Guinea is an extremely interesting place to visit.  It is a nation in great change from a unique primitive culture to a “bugarupim” western society.  Nowhere is the culture safe from the white man and this is probably the saddest and greatest problem faced by this country – the loss of its culture.  My experiences with the people have made me see how the people respect and envy westerners; eventually yearning to be like them.  Otherwise, New Guinea was. a unique and tremendous place to visit.  My experiences included jumpy pidgin conversations, street-side bargaining, being amazed at topographic beauty and enjoying the country as a whole.  I acquired many pen-friends and this will keep my memories and enjoyment of Papua New Guinea very alive.  Papua New Guinea was easily the most exciting and amazing place that I have ever been to.  Niugini em i orait.”  (Year 10 student) 

“When I went to New Guinea, I didn't know what I was going to get out of it.  I suppose you get back what you put in.  I really learned a lot about a country I had never studied before.  The country’s people were very happy and I am even considering living there after I leave school.  The feelings I got were sadness.  The thing that opened my eyes to it was the film we saw.  I felt that the people had been tricked or frightened by the white man, and I really felt bad when they found out that the white men weren’t their ancestors coming back.  I saw a few different types of scenery while we were there, but we only had restricted time  The trip made me realise that all those stories you hear about Papua New Guinea are not true.  Although there might be a bit of cannibalism about, all around the people were great.”  (Year 11 student)

“Having never been overseas before, this trip to New Guinea has been a very rewarding experience.  It has been my first taste of another culture, and indeed many contrasts exist between our culture and that of the New Guineans.  Travelling around New Guinea in such a short time was at times quite exhausting but never, never in my whole life have I been exhausted by more pleasurable things.  Never before have I absorbed so much in so little time, but fortunately I kept a diary, so I was able to record everything that happened.  The highlight of the trip was hard to define, purely because there were so many!  But the most meaningful part in the whole trip was at approximately 12,000 feet above sea level.  I had started out on the shorter walk from the Base Camp and after half an hour I decided that I wanted to sit down, regain my breath and just sit.  For half an hour I sat and looked – and absorbed – and looked.  I took in everything, the clouds below me, the forbidding terrain up to Mount Wilhelm, Kegasugl, the lakes and the absolutely beautiful scenery (breathtaking!!).  For the first time in the whole trip, I was by myself – alone and over awed by everything –there are no words to describe how I felt.  But that was just one instant of many.  The whole atmosphere of New Guinea was wonderful; the people, the culture and the country.  I have found this trip well worthwhile, a fascinating experience, and I hope that I might be able to revisit New Guinea and spend more time going all around so I could leave without feeling I have to come back.”  (Year 11 student)