Ian Neubauer: Papua New Guinea, highway to hell

Papua New Guinea
Ian Neubauer

Crooked cops, friendly gangsters and a Honda big bore make for grand adventure in PNG for Ian Neubauer

I’d been warned that the Highlands Highway – PNG’s main major road – is one of the most dangerous carriageways on the planet, but not that I risked dying of boredom while riding it. Thirty or 40 kilometres had passed since its last curve and concentrating was a pain in the arse. There was nothing to do but stare into the distance as the tarmac disappeared under the front end of my Honda CRF 450F.

My destination was Madang, a sleepy little resort town overlooking the isle-studded waters of Astrolabe Bay. Steeped in history from WWII, Madang is one of the top destinations for wreck-diving in Asia. It had been on my bucket list forever and now that work had brought me to this country, I was determined to check it out.

The journey had begun a few hours earlier in Lae. This east coast city is named after the Laehy brothers of Toowoomba – gold prospectors who made first contact with the Highland tribes of New Guinea in 1933. It was also where the American aviator Amelia Earhart was last seen before her plane disappeared over the Pacific during an ill-fated attempt to circumnavigate the world. Mind poised on the road – a thin black line stretching from here to eternity – I could only hope my trip wouldn’t end on the same note.

Dream Ride

The first leg of the journey sliced through the Markham Valley – a sparsely populated, hyper-fertile region used to cultivate palm oil, sugarcane and other cash crops. The raskol gangs that ambush motorists with machetes and homemade guns on the upper extremities of the Highlands Highway are rarely here, but there are still plenty of dangers to contend with on the road: giant hawks that swoop down while foraging for road kill; potholes the size of bomb craters filled with vile, stagnant water; regular downpours that reduce visibility to zero; and unlicensed drunks sitting behind the wheels of speeding, out-of-control trucks and PMVs (public motor vehicles).

At the halfway mark I hit a T-section. According to the map I’d bought at Brisbane Airport, the turn-off headed west into Eastern Highlands, scaling the colossal Finisterre Mountain Range. The second arm, which I would take, headed north-west along the coast, into the Ramu Valley on the Ramu Highway.

I stop to refuel at a small township, creating instant pandemonium among the locals. There are next to no motorbikes in PNG, so the site of a white guy on a big bore filling up on unleaded is understandably breaking news in a place like this. Within a minute I’m surrounded by a thousand black faces, some smiling, some not, others bearing expressions that should be reserved for the landing of aliens. They yell and hoot at each other, pushing and shoving like overstimulated kids. It’s intimidating to say the least but I’m pretty sure no one here means to harm me; I’m just too funny to look at with my body armour and all. “Up him!” they yell as I charge out of the servo, and I reward them with a wheelie they’re probably still talking about today.

Papua New Guinea
Ian Neubauer

The road continues north to Usino, where the bitumen ends and the real fun begins. The CRF – which was struggling to sit on 100 on the lowlands – is now happily at work, scampering up muddy inclines and dancing across rocks, ruts and debris. I fly past trucks and buses as though they’re not moving, and even the dreaded SUVs are forced to eat my roost.

Papua New Guinea
Photo: Ian Neubauer

It’s late in the afternoon when the highway spits me onto the coast, back on to boring bitumen for the final leg of the trip. I was hoping to stop off at the Balek Wildlife Sanctuary but the CRF’s headlight isn’t working so I have to skedaddle before it gets dark.

I’m a few hundred meters away from the pearly gates of Madang Lodge and my bed for the night when an army-green Land Rover shoots in front of me and forces me to stop. It pulls to a hault and the doors pop open. Three khaki-clad cops step out.
“Why are your headlight not on?” says one of them. He’s fat, unshaven, with a serious case of beer breath.
“It’s not working,” I reply. “I borrowed this bike from…”
“This vehicle is not safe. We’ll take it to the station.”
“But it’s not even completely dark yet. I could see where I was going. Why don’t we just go into my hotel and…”
I clear my throat. “Why don’t we just go in and I’ll get us some drinks. We’ll get some drinks and…”
“No. You are under arrest,” the copper says, throwing a leg over the back of my bike. “Follow this vehicle back to the station. Lets go. Now!”

Being framed

Down at the police station, I’m told to wheel the CRF into a small room. I remove the key from the ignition and follow the cops into an office, where I’m offered a seat. The head honcho sits himself behind a desk and retrieves a notebook, while his lackeys assume strategic positions by his side.

The captain, as he introduces himself, then launches into a Q-and-A session that turns into a detailed two-hour interrogation, during which I’m required to reveal everything from my mother’s maiden name, to where I sat my driver’s exam, to the make and model of the CRF’s tyres. When the ordeal is over the inquisitor starts copying it down – word for word – into a logbook, breaking every few seconds to wipe the sweat off his brow. While there’s no questioning his thoroughness, I can’t help but feel this is but a rouse to wear me down. Weary of this, I maintain my silence, but eventually I crack and request to be let go.

Papua New Guinea
Photo: Ian Neubauer

The captain tells me I’m free to leave, but that my bike is unroadworthy and will remain in impound. I can come by and pick it up tomorrow, he tells me, after I settle the fine.

I bite my tongue ad try not to laugh. The doors on their Land Rover were held in place with chicken wire and the windscreen was cracked in countless places. I doubt there’s a ‘roadworthy’ police car in the country, but I knew my detention had little do with the law of the land.

“How much is the fine?”
“It is a significant amount,” says the captain. “We will discuss it tomorrow.”

I understood this to mean the captain did not want to talk money in front of his deputies because he wanted to keep the cash for himself. But there was no way I was leaving a $13,000 (£8,475) bike with these conmen, especially since it was on loan. “Why don’t I pay the fine now,” I suggest, fishing my wallet out of my pants. The deputy’s eyes light up.

The captain stands and barks an order at his men in Pidgin. “Time to go,” he says, adding, in English. “These men will take you back to your hotel.”

“No,” I tell him. “I’m not going anywhere without my bike.”
“Okay,” the captain says. “You are welcome to sleep here. Follow me.”

I grab my backpack and follow the captain down a hallway, to what I suddenly realise is the lock-up. Moments later I’m standing in front of a cell, inside of which I see the worst hole-in-the-ground toilet in the world. Not so much because of all the shit inside of it, but because of the crap former prisoners have wiped against the wall. The smell is indomitable; I have to work hard not to puke.

Papua New Guinea
Photo: Ian Neubauer

The captain chuckles malevolently. The git knows he’s won.
“Are you sure you want to sleep here?” he smiles.
“No,” I reply, swallowing hard. “But I can’t leave the bike here. It belongs to a friend in Lae and if anything happens to it, I’m responsible.”
“Listen to me,” says the captain, now in a more conciliatory tone. “Your bike will be okay. No one will take it. But I can’t let you ride it at night without lights. And you need to pay the fine.”
“How much do you want?”
“One thousand dollars,” he says, without blinking.

Knight in a Shining SUV

After a fitful night’s sleep at my hotel, I head down the main street to clear out my bank account of the funds I’d need to effectively buy my bike out of jail. But it was not meant to be. The bank was closed for a public holiday and wouldn’t reopen till the following week.

I was walking back to the hotel when another car pulls in front of me, this time a brand new SUV. A guy with an afro hairdo pops his head out and offers me a lift.

I shake my head and keep on walking, but the driver follows at walking speed. “Were you the guy on the dirt bike yesterday?” he says. “I saw you come into town. I’m a rider, too. I used to have a Harley when I worked in Japan. C’mon, boss, I’m here with my wife and children. Let me give you a lift.” I look into the back of his car. Sure enough, there’s a rather large woman and two little kids there, all of whom smile widely at me.

Papua New Guinea
Photo: Ian Neubauer

Throwing caution the wind, I open the front door and jump in. The driver introduces himself as Sam and tells me he is the bikman of Madang. I later learn this word means ‘bigman’: the richest man in town and in essence, its chief.

Sam drops me back at the lodge and asks what I’m doing for lunch. I tell him I’ll probably just grab a bite at the hotel, and invite him to join me.

Sam puts his wife and kids in a taxi and we retire to the bar. Over the course of a half dozen beers and a couple of seafood pizzas, I tell him about what happened with the cops the night before. He takes it all in, frowning and shaking his head, apologising repeatedly. “That’s why no one comes to this country,” he says. “Bloody police! I won’t let them get away with this!”

Papua New Guinea
Photo: Ian Neubauer

Sam takes out his mobile and makes a few quick calls. A minute later we’re back in his SUV, charging down the main drag. When we get to the station there are four utes parked outside, the trays piled high with big burly men. “My cousins,” Sam says, opening the door. “Wait here. Don’t get out until I tell you.”

I wait a minute, then two, then 10. After what seems like an age, one of Sam’s ‘cousins’ strolls out of the cop shop and calls out to me. I follow him inside.

The captain is sitting behind his desk, sweating like a pig. The room is crowded with Sam’s men and the bigman himself is standing behind the desk, resting his hands on the captain’s soldiers.

Sam’s eyes are absolutely burning but when he sees me they relax into a smile. “Looks like we solved your problem,” he says.

The captain looks back at Sam, as if to seek his permission to speak. Sam nods his head ever so slightly.

“Your bike is ready,” the captain tells me. I consider rubbing it and asking about the ‘fine’ but decide not to. It’s no fun kicking a man when he’s down, even one who tried to steal from me. Like any public servant in this country he probably earns next-to-nothing and has to rely on kickbacks just to feed his kids. So instead, I put a big smile on my face, thank him for garaging the Honda and rigorously shake his hand. One of Sam’s men takes a picture of us, then I get my bike and get the hell out of there.

Later that evening, I’m at Sam’s place, sinking beers on his balcony. “Why did you do that for me?” I ask him.
“Since the time of our grandfathers,” he answers, “we were always taught to look after visitors. That’s how it’s always been in Madang. Hey, do you like fishing? I’ve got a 30-ft Boston whaler. Want to go catch some marlin with me in the morning?”

I smile like a lottery winner. Once again, I’m in love with PNG.

Papua New Guinea
Photo: Ian Neubauer

Who’s riding?

Australian reporter, photographer, and novelist Ian Neubauer has travelled extensively while answering the call of journalistic duty. From uncovering controversial internet censorship in Thailand to forced village evictions and sex slavery in Cambodia; even dodging death while on an assignment for dirtbike magazine hasn’t put him off pushing the limits of reporting. With one fictional novel, Getafix, about Israeli ex-military running riot in India already under his belt, Ian’s currently working on his second novel Marquis about a tourist who gets kidnapped by insurgents. See more of Ian’s work at www.ianneubauer.com

Do you Tok Pisin?

Tok Pisin is a ‘pidgin’ language that developed out of locals’ regional PNG dialects and English, brought into the country when English speakers arrived. It’s now the most widely used form of communication in PNG. ‘Tok’ comes from the English ‘talk’ though it can also mean ‘word’, ‘speak’ or ‘language’; ‘Pisin’ derives from the English ‘pidgin’, meaning a language which emerges when two or more dialects are combined by speakers of differing mother tongues.

Useful ABR Tok Pisin words and phrases might include
Motobaik (motorbike)
Olgeta (completely – from ‘all together’)
Bagarap (broken – from ‘buggered up’) – though let’s hope not, eh?

Amelia Earhart

Pioneering female pilot Amelia Earhart achieved numerous world-firsts in her flying career; among them were the women’s altitude, speed and endurance records; being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and then the first person to fly across the Pacific Ocean.

Papua New Guinea

It was during her last record attempt in 1937 that Amelia touched down in Lae, PNG. Having completed all but 7,000 miles of her RTW journey, Amelia’s next destination was a spit of land called Howland Island, 2,556 away in the middle of the Pacific. Measuring just 1.5 miles by 0.5, hitting the target was always going to be tricky. Undeterred, Earhart set a course for Howland on 2 July 1937 and with just 274 miles-worth of extra fuel onboard, there was little room for error.

The US coastguard and two other ships were on hand to guide the plane to safety, but a combination of bad weather and radio failure were to prove fatal. Earhart’s last transmission ‘We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet’ was received at 8.45am and the ships were unable to raise her again.

Despite a $4m rescue attempt, scanning 250,000 square miles of ocean, the US government was unable to find any trace of Earhart or her plane. In 1938, a lighthouse was constructed on Howland Island in her memory.

The bike

Currently there are no bike rental companies in PNG, though things could quickly change if enough interest is shown by overseas riders. The only way to see the country on a bike is to ship one from Oz with a company like Consort Shipping ([email protected]), which sponsored the PMCC’s 2007 entry at Finke. Alternatively, you can buy an ’09 WRF450 for about $10,000 (£6,500) from Ela Motors in PNG (www.elamotors.com.pg).

Ian Neubauer

Is PNG safe?

The simple answer is no. The newspapers are choc-a-block with stories of heinous crimes, with daily headlines like: “Trio Hacked to Pieces”, “Cop Shot Dead” and “Fifteen Convicted Killers Escape from Jail”. Gangs of unemployed youths called raskols run riot around the country, while tribal warfare and payback killings are a regular occurance. But make the slightest effort to befriend a New Guinean and you’ll realise they are warm, intelligent people who’ll go out of the way to make you feel at home in their country. I spent three weeks in the country and never had a problem.