Sogeri, like every place you’ve never left

Normal, Weekender

The National, Friday, April 29, 2011

A trip down memory lane for Irish woman Tanja Meijer is cut short by an impassable road, writes MALUM NALU

TANJA Meijer travelled halfway around the world from Ireland to revisit her beloved childhood home at Itikinumu rubber plantation at Sogeri, Central province, only to find her dream shattered.
It’s heartbreaking and paradoxical, to say the least, to be so near to Itikinumu at Sogeri, and yet so far away, as a heavy downpour on Good Friday turns the Sogeri-Itikinumu stretch into an impassable quagmire.
“It’s emotional and disappointing, as I came so close to Itiki (Itikinumu) and didn’t get there,” she laments.
“It’s very disappointing to be 15, 20 minutes away, but these things happen.”
Meijer, you see, spent the dream years of her childhood from 1962-1968 at Itikinumu, and has always wanted to follow the yellow brick road back to a place she calls home.
Itikinumu, in those far-off days, was part of the Burns Philps’ plantation empire, which spread all over the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea, including Sogeri.
Rubber, for those who came in late, was king in those days, especially in the Papuan provinces, particularly places like Sogeri, which had plantations like Koitaki, Javere and Itikinumu.
With Meijer on the 4WD Toyota Landcruiser belonging to Theodist owner, Kevin Pini, was Australian Alan Cullen, another child of the colonial era, who grew up in Port Moresby from 1950-1970 and has always wanted to come back to a place he calls home.
Pini and Cullen grew up together in Port Moresby, and while Cullen went finish to Australia, Pini stayed back and built a successful business which has become a household name in PNG, just like the late Sir Brian Bell.
 Meijer and Cullen had been planning this trip for some time and to be turned away so close to Itikinumu, blame it on the rain, was most-disheartening not only for themselves but also those of us who accompanied them, Pini’s driver Hubert Begada, my son Malum Jr and me.
They had been in touch with me about their trip, through social networking site Facebook, so when we met each other for the first time over dinner at Ela Beach Hotel last Thursday evening, it was like we’d known each other for ages.
There was a heavy downpour in the city that morning; however, as we drove out of town, the sun appeared in a rainbow of hope, only to disappear again as we neared Sogeri.
All the way from Port Moresby to Sogeri, Cullen, 60, and Meijer, 51, point out their old stomping grounds like excited children.
One of the most-touching moments is when Meijer sees her former primary “A” school classroom at Sogeri – which catered for children of expatriate planters – still pretty in pink after more than 40 years, and she cannot help but tell the driver to stop as she rushes out for a picture.
“All the classes were done in one room, because of four or five students in each class,” she remembers.
“That was the school.”
As we reluctantly turn back from the stretch to Itikinumu, the swollen Laloki River pours over the bridge leading to Sogeri, as we stand and wonder what might have been.
Over coffee and a sumptuous Good Friday lunch at Kokoda Trail Motel, Meijer pours her heart out to me, of a perennially-happy and romantic childhood beneath the rubber trees of Itikinumu and the Koiari mountains.
Cullen also chips in with his anecdotes of daring from then-sleepy, colonial Moresby, to a boys’ own adventure in the mountains of Sogeri.
Meijer’s father Bill Meijer was a section manager at Itikinumu from 1962-1928, starting from when she was a tiny tot at age two to a lively young girl of eight.
Her two sisters after her were born here.
“I lived up at the rubber plantation,” she tells me.
“That’s what I grew up with at Itiki.
“There was a complete factory at Itiki that did all the processing.
“We only came to Port Moresby to do our shopping, as well as go to the drive-in (theatre).
“Going to the drive-in was very much part of our lives then, as well as the Koitaki Country Club (at Sogeri), which is no longer there, and at which there was a swimming pool.
“I remember the rubber trees, getting up early in the morning and tapping rubber, how cool it was under the trees.
“There was polo cross and things like that, colonialist stuff.
“At that time, it seemed very normal.
“It’s only when you get back to Europe that you realise how different your life was!
“It’s (Itikinumu) a brilliant place to grow up.”
The young Meijer family left Sogeri, a place they had come to love and call home, in 1968 for Rabaul, where they spent a year, before returning to Europe.
“I always said I would be back,” Meijer says.
“After New Guinea, we went to Holland.
“In 1970, we went to Ireland.
“I went to school there, got married, and had three boys.”
The years rolled past, she found herself growing older, but the yearning for Itikinumu never quite left her.
“I can’t let go,” Meijer admits.
“It’s too good.
“That was the reason for coming here.
“Those were really good memories.
“It was a very different way of life.
“It was a very easy, laid-back lifestyle.”
For Moresby boy, Cullen, Sogeri was a frontier of adventure.
“We often came up here,” he recalls.
“It was always a good drive to get out of Port Moresby, and just muck around for the day.
“A lot of times, you’d come up to Crystal Rapids, Sirinumu Dam, along the dirt road from Moresby.
“This is very surreal.
“It’s like you’ve never left.”
All is not lost, however, and the Itikinumu dream may still come true for Meiyer.
She flew with Cullen to idyllic Alotau, Milne Bay province, last Saturday where they celebrated Anzac Day as well as visited the historic Samarai Island.
They were to have returned to Port Moresby yesterday, and either yesterday or today, they were hoping for second time lucky at Itikinumu.
They have invited me to accompany them again, and so, I hope to be a bearer of good news from Itikinumu.
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