- By MALUM NALU
THE now rundown Kerema Airport brings back memories of the scariest flight of my life back in 2005.
I spent a couple of days in Kerema, and on a Saturday evening, in very bad weather, we flew back to Port Moresby on a Milne Bay Air Twin-Otter.
Over the Gulf, we encountered heavy rain, dark clouds, thunder and lightning.
The plane shook like a rag doll all the way back to Port Moresby.
I remember saying my last prayers at that time – it was a terrifying experience.
We landed, I went home, hugged my wife and children, and finished a whole bottle of whiskey and a carton of beer to get over it (I no longer touch alcohol these days).
The pilot was none other than PNG veteran Captain Mike Butler, and even to this day, I still wonder what would have happened if it had been a less-experienced pilot.
Last week, I was back in Kerema and the place looks worse for wear.
We’d travelled along the Hiritano Highway on an eight-hour relaxed drive from Port Moresby, the highlight being the Malalaua-to-Kerema stretch, 100 per cent sealed and the best drive – the rest full of potholes and a country mile behind.
It was raining, cold and muddy when we arrived in the neglected Gulf capital on a Monday night.
Looking for accommodation is difficult, as there are many visitors there for the next day’s inaugural provincial assembly session, and we finally find a room in the office of a guesthouse owner.
That’s how the accommodation situation is in Kerema, and given that the Papua LNG Project is in the pipeline, guesthouse and hotel operators should consider setting up shop there.
The next morning, The National veteran photographer Ekar Keapu, himself a Gulf boy from Iokea, takes me for a stroll around town.
The streets are muddy, most of the houses are rundown relics of the colonial era without running water, but the saving grace is that it rains in Kerema every day.
It’s a sad reflection of a once-thriving colonial town neglected by consecutive national and provincial governments since Sept 16, 1975, when we gained Independence from Australia.
We also take a look at the Kerema Airport, now a shadow of its former self, and where in 2005 I would have taken my flight into destiny.
We stop at the market for breakfast of sago, smoked fish and kulau (young coconut).
Until such time that the Papua LNG Project comes along, buai (betel nut) remains “green gold” for the people of Kerema and Gulf, as I see in the market.
The cheapest in the country too.
The biggest customers are Highlands vendors who come and buy truckloads of the stuff every day and take them back to Port Moresby.
It’s a multi-million business without any Government support and drives the economy of Kerema and Gulf.
Sadly, like everything else in Kerema, the market is so rundown, filthy and with pigs wandering through.
At the oval, Reverend John Gray of the Charity Baptist Church, an American missionary who has been in Gulf for more than 30 years, appeals to the political and administrative leadership of the province to put the people ahead of their own person interest.
He says it is no secret that Gulf is lagging behind in many sectors and he knows as he has travelled throughout the province.
Haiveta is blunt in his inaugural address to the provincial assembly.
“Let us not doubt ourselves that we have a huge task ahead,” he says.
Haiveta says Gulf has:
- A fast-growing population;
- An ill-educated and impoverished population and disorderly social structures;
- A languid and inefficient service mechanism which is dysfunctional especially at provincial and district level;
- A deficit national budget with spillover effects into the provincial purse;
- A growing debt level;
- A declining economy at the national front;
- Widespread corruption in all levels of society; and
- Poor state of public service infrastructure.
“Data collection and record is one of the biggest setbacks we have right now,” Haiveta says. “We do not know how many babies have been born and how many people have died.
“It is sad to note that in the last 10 years, the province had deteriorated in everything, especially processes and procedures of governance, total lack of leadership, total lack of transparency at all levels resulting in major failures.
“We must all accept this as fact.
“I am therefore engaging an all-inclusive management approach to do a complete overhaul of the public service delivery system, demand an improved level of performance from our civil servants, thoroughly review all economic policies and benefit agreements in oil and gas industry, forest and GST agreements so as to recover and receive better benefits, strengthen institutions of State and to build and maintain a mature, vibrant and united political front.”
The next day Oil Search managing-director Peter Botten announces his company will pump in more than K1 billion into exploration in Gulf over the next three years and remains committed to the long-term development of the province.
This is in addition to the K3.2 billion invested in Gulf over the last five years which is unmatched by any other oil and gas players.
Botten says this during a meeting with Governor Chris Haiveta and members of the provincial government and administration in Kerema.
Also present are representatives of Kumul Petroleum, Mineral Resources Development Company, Department of Petroleum and Energy and Gas Projects Coordination Office.
“At the end of the day, Oil Search is here with partners in Kumul and MRDC, to help and work with the government of Gulf and the people of Gulf to develop this province,” Botten says.
“We also see Gulf as a major area of exploration and will be spending over K1 billion in this province on exploration, before any development happens, over the next three years.”
Botten says it is necessary for Oil Search, together with its industry partners like Kumul Petroleum and MRDC, and the large players in the country in ExxonMobil and TOTAL, “to listen to the aspirations of the people of Gulf and to actually develop the province and make it an outstanding province in this wonderful country”.
“Gulf has some great opportunities over the next five-plus years to develop a world-class gas business, to develop industries attached to that, and to see both infrastructure and employment grow in Gulf,” he says
“Let me tell you: I think it’s about time it happens.”