By MALUM NALU
MY recent trip to beautiful and historical Salamaua, Morobe, once the capital of New Guinea ahead of Lae and Rabaul before being destroyed by WWII, brings back so many bittersweet memories.
Back in July 2003, I walked the trail from Salamaua to Wau with Morobe tourism officer Heni Dembis and two local boys Lionel Aigilo and Solomon Jawing, an event which put this icon of the Morobe gold rush days and WWII back on the tourism map.
Our dream was to make the Black Cat popular again, to help put Salamaua and Wau back on the map, and to help the local people make money.
The Black Cat makes the Kokoda Trail seem like a Sunday arvo stroll in the park.
This is because it is not an established trail like Kokoda, on which hundreds of trekkers regularly tread, but a forgotten course that passes through some of the toughest and most-hazardous terrain in the world.
Leech and snake -infested jungle, moss-covered rocks and fallen tree stumps, precarious cliff crossings, and potentially-dangerous river crossings make the Black Cat arguably one of the toughest tracks in PNG and the world.
After walking from Salamaua to Wau over five days, from July 22 to 26 in 2003, I can only say know that I do not know how I survived.
To cut a long story short, thanks to our groundbreaking trek, the Black Cat was opened and the trekking industry thrived until the sad incident of Sept 2013 in which a trekking party was attacked near Wau in Sept 2013 and several porters either maimed or killed.
One of those who succumbed to injuries was my good friend, Lionel Aigilo, who walked with me on the track back in 2003. Trekkers from Australia and New Zealand managed to get out unharmed and walked back to Wau. The track has since been closed and a major revenue-earner for the people has gone.
That aside, Salamaua has played a pivotal role in the history of Papua New Guinea, and my research into this place from Australian military archives and other sources, reveals so much.
What many do not know is that the Japanese launched their attack on Port Moresby over the Kokoda Trail from Salamaua, and when the attack failed, turned the port into a major supply base.
It was eventually attacked by Australian troops flown into Wau.
Japanese reinforcements failed to arrive and the town was taken in September 1943 in what has become known as the Battle of Salamaua.
Salamaua – the “town of gold”- has never regained its shine.
The Australians recaptured Salamaua in September 1943 but by then, it was too late, as places like Lae and Port Moresby had usurped its glory.
It was the main port and airstrip for the goldfields of Wau and Bulolo during the gold rush days of the 1920s and 1930s.
Salamaua was headquarters for the all-powerful New Guinea Goldfields Ltd, had its own shops liked the famed Burns Philp, New South Wales and Commonwealth banks, named streets, hospital, bakery, theatre, bars where characters like the legendary Errol Flynn once strutted his stuff before becoming a Hollywood legend, and was a famed port of call for swashbuckling gold miners from all over the world.
It was here that expeditions into the undiscovered hinterland – including the famous exploration into the Highlands of New Guinea by the Leahy brothers and Jim Taylor – were launched.
Rivalry between Salamaua and Lae for the capital of New Guinea following the demise of Rabaul in the 1937 volcanic eruption was legendary.
But for all that Salamaua has contributed to the development of PNG and the world – through the millions in gold that was taken out – it is one of the greatest ironies that it is now a forgotten backwater, left to the mercy of the vast Huon Gulf which threatens to swamp its narrow isthmus any moment, despite repeated calls for a seawall to be built.
Never mind that these days its beautiful bathing beach and coral reefs are havens for people from Lae – mainly the expatriate community – who have built weekend houses on the peninsula to get away from the traffic, phones, and bustle of the city.
The discovery of gold at Eddie Creek above Wau in 1926 sparked off a gold rush of massive proportions, which led to the development of Salamaua as capital of the Morobe District.
The rigorous walk between Salamaua and Wau took up to a week, the flamboyant Errol Flynn writing of how the gold fields had to be approached from Salamaua by 10 days’ march through leech-infested jungle, in constant fear of ambush, and at night wondering “whether that crawly sound you heard a few feet away might be a snake, a cassowary or maybe only a wild boar razorback … I have seen Central Africa, but it was never anything like the jungle of New Guinea”.
Lae was but a “company” town and was very much a satellite of Salamaua.
Salamaua sprang up before Lae and because it was the administrative and commercial center of the District and also the port for the goldfields, it continued to dominate its sister across the Huon Gulf right up till WW11.
Shipping interests refused Lae as a port, probably because they had already established themselves at Salamaua before Lae developed.
The powerful New Guinea Goldfields Ltd – following a dispute with Guinea Airways – purchased its own plane and established its own aerodrome on Salamaua in 1929.
The government also resisted pressure to have Lae built up as the chief town of Morobe District, and at times, even affirmed its preference for Salamaua by stubbornly refusing to use either the aviation or shopping facilities at Lae.
Following the disastrous volcanic eruption in Rabaul in May 1937, a protracted and bitter debate over the merits of Salamaua and Lae ensued, when Australian minister for territories W.M. Hughes – who in his days as prime minister had been responsible for New Guinea coming under Australia’s mandate – chose Salamaua as both port and capital.
Hughes was accused of being bribed by Burns Philp and New Guinea Goldfields, the Australian government was accused of apathy and irresponsibility in its attitude towards New Guinea affairs, and the Pacific Islands Monthly and Rabaul Times led the anti-Hughes and anti-government debate.
It became a matter of great controversy that Canberra press corps, which had been faithfully reporting new developments for six months, in December 1938 produced a satirical newspaper Hangover containing a parody of the controversy under the title “Lae off Salamaua: Capital crisis causes crater cabinet confusion”.
The article reads: “A new crisis has arisen overshadowing the budget, the coal strike, and Hitler.
Alarming tensions were created when the Prime Minister received the following urgent message from Mr Hairbrain, M.H.R: ‘Lae off Salamaua, Joe! Natives hostile!’Mr Hairbrain’s message has created the profoundest sensations in Federal political circles. It is feared that the natives may try to make capital out of it.
The situation is fraught with grave possibilities and impossibilities. Mr Lyons summoned cabinet immediately. ‘Wow!’ said the Prime Minister as he staggered from the cabinet room after the tenth day with the problem apparently nearer no solution.
‘That’s it!’ yelled a chorus of weary ministers. ‘Why the hell didn’t we think of Wau before?’ Mr Hughes collapsed. The crisis had passed.”
Rabaul, however, continued to remain as capital of New Guinea until 1941 when renewed volcanic activity forced the transfer to Lae in October 1941 right up to the Japanese invasion in January 1942.
War, however, had begun in the Pacific with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941.
Rabaul was bombed on January 4, 1942 followed by Lae, Salamaua, and Bulolo on January 21.
This was the beginning of the end of Salamaua’s ephemeral reign as the “town of gold”.
It is my dream that one day Salamaua, like the phoenix, will rise again and take its place in the sun.
By MALUM NALU