Tolai girl in the ring

Engan tourists outside the tidy Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort. From left: Jim Tapako, Andrew Andop, Paul Kurai, Sharin Kurai, Jacob Luke and Michael Kambao.

A YOUNG girl sold me a ‘tabu’ ring in front of an old World War 2 tunnel on the road to Rabaul town, the former provincial headquarters of East New Britain last weekend.
I held the tabu memento in front of me and took a photograph placing the small girl from whom I bought it inside the ring. She was active and displayed her handcrafts on a blue laplap on the grey sand faster than her friends.
The girl looked exactly like Maglina, my last-born child whom I had named after my late mother who died a couple of years ago.
When I fly up to Wabag, I plan to give the tabu shell ring and a necklace to my daughter. In fact, Maglina rang me that same day to bring her a souvenir from Rabaul.
We had been so busy watching the elimination rugby match between the Enga Mioks and Rabaul Gurias at Kalabond Oval that I couldn’t buy her a better souvenir. There was no time to visit the colourful markets both in Kokopo and the Rabaul.
We had gone straight to the rugby oval from Takubar International airport as soon as arriving from Port Moresby last Saturday morning, Aug 14, 2021. Not so disappointing, but we arrived late for the game immediately after the Rabual Gurias had posted their first converted points.
The chances of the hapless Enga Mioks appeared grim from the start, when they failed to convert their only try and a penalty to finally bow out of the lucrative Digicel Cup finals with a sound 26-4 dumping.
But despite the score line, the Mioks fought hard in a tough battle in front of a well-behaved crowd which mostly remained silent.
Governor Sir Peter Ipatas who always makes sure to attend an Enga Mioks game declared that the match was tough for his young men who had just been freshly recruited after many regular players had withdrawn due to Covid-19 issues.
Ipatas was in the company of some of Enga’s top business leaders Jim Tapako, Andrew Andop, Paul Kurai, Jacob Luke and provincial lawyer Michael Kambao who had all flown in from Lae and Port Moresby to provide moral support for the Mioks.

Visitors from Enga who went to East New Britain last weekend to see their team take on Rabaul Gurias at Kalabond Oval were impressed with the place and people.
I will frame this picture of the young girl in the tabu ring

After the game, Paul Kurai, his wife Sharin, Michael Kambao and I booked into the very tidy Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort. The hotel staff made arrangements for us to use a company vehicle for a most memorable but short-lived sightseeing tour.
That late afternoon, the sky quickly turned dark as we drove along a dusty road which had once been properly sealed. Like most major roads in many parts of the country, this important road link was in dire need of maintenance.
Our first stop was at an old WW2 tunnel where I bought the ‘tabu’ ring from the small girl.
At first, there was nobody at the entrance to the tunnel which had an old barge sticking out of the tunnel like a tongue in an open mouth.
As soon as we stepped out of the vehicle women and girls came towards us in all directions from the nearby village.
The young girl in the tabu ring was the first to display her handcrafts at the entrance. I bought my ‘tabu’ ring from her and a leg band made of colourful beads from another girl.
As darkness approached, we had no time to explore the tunnel and inspect several other barges abandoned further inside the dark tunnel in the mountain.
The Japanese had built 500 miles of tunnel in the area after they had over-run the town in 1942. They had used local labour and Indian slaves to build the tunnels and to pull the barges to the edge of the water to load cargo
This tunnel was one of many historical wartime sites which includes General Yamamoto’s underground bunker and an underground hospital which had kept supplies and troops safe from waves of allied arial bombing runs.
In the last remaining daylight hour, we quickly got in the vehicle and headed for Rabaul town. Along the way to our right, we passed Mt Vulcan which erupted together with Mt Tavurvur in 1994 but now quickly covered in lush green tropical vegetation.

The victorious Rabaul Gurias team after defeating the Enga Mioks.

The eruption destroyed 80 percent of the once beautiful and lively town of Rabaul. Collapsed buildings, mangled aeroplanes, vehicles were seen lying around on national television. Over 50,000 people had been evacuated.
The last major eruption was in 1937, five years before the Japanese took over Rabaul during the war in 1942.
We climbed the small hill to the Rabaul Volcanological Observatory overlooking the majestic Simpson harbour. From the top, we could see Mt Vulcan and to our left was Mt Tavurvur with its ugly bare opening on the top.
But the fast-approaching night took away the beautiful sights from us like the pages of a colour picture book closing.
We would not see Rabaul town again, Simpson harbour, the floating crane or the young girl’s village with the Japanese wartime tunnel with the old barge sticking out.
All we saw was the road in the headlights of the car as we safely drove along the main street of Kokopo town. We went straight to the elaborate dining hall for dinner where we feasted on a meal of mouth-watering side dishes and giant Kimbe lobsters with red wine.
As we ate, Governor Ipatas rang Paul Kurai to send somebody to his room to pick up a heavy parcel of steaming hot aigir. It is a traditional local dish prepared in a mumu. There was a lot of food to have that night.
Early next morning as the hotel bus transported us to the airport to board Air Niugini’s early bird flight to Port Moresby we; Sir Peter Ipatas, Cr Paul Kurai, Sharin Kurai, Michael Kambao and I agreed that Kokopo was without a doubt one of the cleanest towns in PNG.
We agreed, the people are so humble, law-abiding, peaceful and hardworking. There was evidence, they respect authority. There was not a single buai strain or skin seen anywhere in the fast-growing provincial capital.
We had all noticed that the Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort had been full of tourists that night. Business thrives and a province grows in a peaceful situation. Visitors like to go to peaceful locations for meetings and relaxation.
I will frame my photo of the young girl in the ‘Tabu’ ring to hang in the living room of my home in Wabag as a reminder of my first visit to Kokopo.
I will certainly make my way back to visit more of East New Britain – the old wartime sites and view the shameless faces of the two destructive volcanic mountains once again in broad daylight.
The best time is of course next year when the Enga Mioks take on the mighty Rabaul Gurias once again at Kalabond Oval.

  • Daniel Kumbon is a freelance writer.