The resilience of Rabaraba

Normal, Weekender

RENALDO KETSIN ROBERT recounts a gruelling trek through the hinterlands of Rabaraba district in Milne Bay province

I WAS unprepared for a week of grueling trekking when I recently accompanied Tourism, Arts and Culture minister Charles Abel to Rabaraba district on the far northern reaches of his Alotau Open electorate.
I flew to Alotau where a courtesy shuttle took me from Gurney Airport to Masurina Lodge. I spent the afternoon in the lodge’s rosewood paneled bar wondering what the next few days might bring.
These would pass in searing sun on exposed kunai and limestone-strewn slopes; cold jungle streams; villages tucked away in impossible mountain reaches; the agony of dragging aching feet up seemingly infinite heights; and the satisfaction of seeing people receiving an elected parliament member into their midst.
The last two days would see Mr Abel spend a night on the banks of an unmapped river, huddled from a chilly drizzle under a hastily erected shelter of shrubbery, and bedded down on giant ferns and cold, river pebbles. A smoldering log fire keeping the cold and our superstitious fears at bay.  
We landed at Jivari on Mon 11, Jan, a village with an historical connection to Mr Abel’s great grand father, Reverend Charles Abel of the London Missionary Society’s breakaway Kwato Mission.
Almost a century later, the only visible sign of development in this windswept village is a partially completed church. It stands on the shores of a desolate and parched savannah plain; a forlorn reminder of how independence and the years after mean very little to our rural countrymen. The people spoke about their water woes come the annual dry season.
We feasted on fresh fish and taro. Dispatching a whole, coconut creamed red emperor to the last morsel, I’d soon realise that too much fish before an almost vertical climb isn’t so smart.
Kwabunaki awaited some hundred metres above. Between it and us: clumps of parched grass, limestone outcrops, and the midday sun.
My group of stragglers, coaxed by veteran soldier and coordinator Jackson Badirega eventually reached the tree line on Girumia Point’s southwestern flank far behind the fitter minister. No sooner had our bodies cooled, then the skies opened up. Over the last rise, the dull throbbing of kundus in sync with our pounding chests greeted us, and we crested the last rise to be garlanded with dripping leis.
A soaking wet Mr Abel officially opened Kwabunaki elementary school’s double classroom, built with contributions from Melbourne Grammar School and K4000 from the member’s district support grant and presented a chainsaw. The villagers’ thanked the minister by giving him a live pig.
We left late in the afternoon, trudging through gelatinous black mud through Wamira and on to Wedau and a hot meal. Afterwards, we endured our cold, damp clothing while Mr Abel in his equally cold, damp clothing sat with district officials well into the night. From this point on, the fortitude behind the dimdim Abel facade became evident. The coming days would see a man determined to literally walk the hard road that his people had resigned themselves to face daily.
We woke to light pattering rain on Jan 12. Storm clouds pregnant with rain hung over the mountains where we were headed. The minister inspected Wedau’s wharf, Dogura health centre’s rather outdated communications facilities and visited Holy Name secondary school to follow up on projects. Then we struck inland to Pova village despite warnings of flash floods that the mountain-fed rivers are notorious for.
At Pova drum pounding dancers escorted us into the village square where Mr Abel presented a chainsaw and K1000 to village groups.
It was late afternoon when a beat up Toyota Hilux minus radiator grille and lights held together with tie-wire and duct tape undertook the daunting task of carrying the minister, our cargo and part of our group over rutted tracks and boulder-strewn crossings. I opted to spend the night at Pova and follow at first light.
The next day waking to the sound of rain pounding on the corrugated iron roof, we watched the feeble light of dawn break through low lying clouds. A cup of tea and we set off through the rain.
Before the day’s end, we would have crossed the same river so many times I lost count out of sheer exhaustion.
We eventually separated into bands of sweating, plodding stragglers. I found myself far ahead with Mr Badirega, and was soon in a frustrating game of chase: arriving at a village to find out that Mr Abel had “just passed through”. I learnt that to people accustomed to traversing countless peaks and rivers daily, “just there” is actually kilometres away.
After Gadovisu is a precipice-hugging road hewn out of steep, kunai covered slopes. When a rock face presented an impassable obstacle, young men on ropes carved out a ledge with crowbars. Wreathed in the low-hanging wisps of a sudden mountain shower, that wall of crumbling rock stood in silent testament to this people’s sheer determination in the face of overwhelming odds. 
We made Boyaboya well after the presentation of another chainsaw and K1000 to women’s and youth groups, tired but happy to be reunited with the main body of our group. Along the way we passed rows of neglected, overgrown coffee trees. One farmer showed me bags of coffee that would be shouldered down to the coast.
By now, rain had turned the tracks into a quagmire. A section of road we had passed earlier was not there anymore. In its place: a dirty brown torrent of mountain runoff, a sobering reminder of the challenges that the constant rains and steep mountains pose to road builders.
Didia village threw a traditional welcome complete with spear wielding warriors, a litter borne by the village soccer team and a chief serving his guests as a sign of goodwill. By the dim light of a flashlight, the member presented a chainsaw and cheque for K1000. 
On Thursday Jan 14, we reached Mainawa, the last village before the final push through uninhabited, leech infested jungle to Kapurika a few minutes out of Alotau. Here I found traces of my father’s native Suau, and figured that if languages could cross these mountains, so could I. The next two days would show that I could, but barely.
We continued up the day’s umpteenth river. Then amidst virgin forest and thundering whitewater, yelling warriors leaped out at us. A party of litter bearers hoisted Mr Abel onto their shoulders and we broke into the village clearing, and a stage. While huge chunks of pineapple and watermelon were served, the last chainsaw, coffee pulper and cheques were presented by Mr Abel. The rest of the day passed in hazy recollection, and I only recall drumbeats as I slept away the day’s aches.
Our departure from Mainawa in the chilly highland dawn brought out the human aspect of our trip. Seeing old men and women openly shedding tears as we plunged into the last and most punishing leg of our trek left us with a very sobering feeling that even the elation of completing the walk two days later wouldn’t entirely erase. 
This was an experience too intense to properly express in print. On this walk Mr Abel, local officials and staff experienced first-hand what these people had been forced to bear for far too long. What we learnt on that walk cannot be easily ripped off like bloated leeches on mud-caked legs or peeled away like sweaty, two-day  T-shirts. We’d come out on to a logging access road above Kapurika wanting to make a difference for those resilient mountain people.