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No beer today in Papua New Guinea

The bar at Vanimo's Sandaun Motel
The bar at Vanimo’s Sandaun Motel
VANIMO (TR) – South Pacific Brewery, the largest brewery in Papua New Guinea (PNG), ships its slightly bitter SP Lager Beer to all corners of this South Pacific nation. Yet, amid a rainbow of fruit-flavored vodka drinks on the large hardwood table inside the smoky bar at Vanimo’s Sandaun Motel, one of two lodges in this coastal town, SP is obvious by its absence.

“There’s no beer in the entire town,” says Frank Moi-He. On this humid afternoon, he is one of a small group of middle-aged locals sitting in the darkened lounge, whose walls and ceiling are lined with planks sourced from local timber.

A trip to the Vanimo Beach Hotel, just down the road, the day before revealed other shortages. The mushroom soup listed on the restaurant menu? “We’re out,” said the waitress matter-of-factly, as if the situation was routine. The pepper steak? Afraid not, and when the supposedly available chicken soup arrived, it contained no chicken.

Seated near Moi-He is Gabriel Tom Kawa, a former attorney general in the town. He says that for travelers coming from some of the bigger cities, such as Wewak, Mount Hagen or the capital Port Moresby, Vanimo is just a stopover to the Indonesian province of Papua — which makes up the neighboring half of the New Guinea island — that can be reached in less than an hour by car. “The result is that our shops are empty.”

At first glance, the small town of Vanimo, located at the edge of a lush rainforest on the north shore of PNG, is a bucolic paradise. But it is just this pristine environment, and its proximity to its neighbor, that leaves this town of 10,000 residents perpetually short of supplies.

Vanimo’s problem is exacerbated by its remoteness. Land routes do not extend to the rest of PNG and carrier Air Niugini only serves the town with three weekly flights from the capital. Cargo ships carrying rice and chicken arrive at the port roughly twice a month to supplement locally caught fish, such as tuna and trevally, and vegetables grown in private gardens. But, following holiday periods, the stock of goods can shrink quickly, with matters easily getting out of hand on the 19m wharf once the freight lands.

“Immediately after Christmas,” says Moi-He, “people were already waiting on the wharf for the offloading. Some were grabbing at things even before the containers hit the deck. It shows the desperation that exists here.”

Moi-He points the finger at Indonesians crossing the border and returning home with armloads of local products, which are reputed to be of superior quality and are considerably cheaper in PNG. Tins of Ox & Palm corned beef go for 6 kina ($2.20) in Vanimo, but double that in Indonesia. Indonesia-bought SP Lager has a similar markup.

“It is not ‘I think,’ it is ‘I know,'” says Moi-He, emphasizing the reason for the beer shortage.

The coast-hugging drive to the border at the village of Wutung is a weaving journey over paved and dirt roads. Along the way, rocky shores abut towering trees rising overhead as waves roll over the reefs below. The border checkpoint is staffed by armed soldiers, whose presence is to enforce Indonesia’s rule over the Papua province — a controversial administration that has led to bloody clashes since its inception in 1962.

Beyond this point is a series of open markets. A tour through the stalls shows that goods flow into PNG as well. Vendors play cards and recline in chairs next to their overflowing tables as T-shirts, backpacks, speaker systems, pirated DVDs and mobile phones are scooped up by visitors seeking alternatives to the high prices found in Port Moresby. Sex enhancement drugs are sold out of suitcases, but more basic items, such as rice, oil and cigarettes, are also in demand.

Indonesian goods are not the only items arriving into PNG; the national Post-Courier newspaper says around 20 Papuan refugees cross the border illegally each day. Many of those who are successful head to Vanimo, where there are refugee camps. With the land border heavily guarded, attempts are often made by sea where the police are hampered by a lack of personnel. any of the villages linking Vanimo and the border contain rows of thatched huts, most of which are elevated slightly to accommodate high tides. Since the area is a legitimate surfing destination, wood boards, which have been carved from timber dragged from the nearby forest, can be seen propped outside many doors.

October to April is considered the prime surfing season. Storms occurring to the north send large swells down to Vanimo. Unlike areas to the south-east, such as Wewak and Madang, which have island chains just offshore, the path to Vanimo is uninterrupted and results in breakers of up to three meters.

In 1998 the region’s vulnerability to the elements, however, was exposed when an earthquake off the coast triggered an underwater landslide, resulting in a tsunami of 15-meter waves that smashed into the nearby town of Aitape, 130 kilometers south of Vanimo. The disaster killed 2,183 and left nearly 10,000 homeless.

From atop the peninsula that overlooks Vanimo’s bay, the cargo ships hauling logs out to sea make it clear that area’s bread and butter is the timber industry. Vanimo Forest Products, a Malaysian-owned company, is the town’s largest employer. But the timber — the local hardwood kwila, which has to grow for 80 years before it is suitable for harvest — is in danger of extinction, says Greenpeace, citing illegal logging and lax enforcement of regulations as the causes.

Of PNG timber, 80 per cent goes to China, whose mills fabricate home flooring and furniture for the buoyant markets of the US, Europe and Asia. With kwila being nearly the gold standard, selling for $600 per cubic meter, the demand for this endangered wood is showing no sign of running out soon.

That is not the only challenge Vanimo faces. Since a reticulation system is not in place, drinking water comes from ground-water wells or tanks, which are filled by rainwater trickling from rooftops. Sewage is collected primarily in septic systems.

With the population expected to rise to over 16,000 by 2010, according to a PNG water board report, studies are being undertaken to determine the feasibility of tapping the Daunda Creek, which weaves its way down from the hills above the town, as a source to feed a pressurized system. So far, funding has not been secured.

In addition to forcing the rationing of water during droughts, lack of such a system makes fire-fighting nearly impossible. Peter Namongo, an advisor within the West Sepik Provincial Administration, remembers the helplessness he felt when the administration’s treasury building went up in flames in 2002. ‘Everybody stood by and watched,’ he recalls. In subsequent years, storage and workshop structures belonging to Vanimo Forest Products experienced similar fates.

The pace of Vanimo, however, remains unruffled. Even back in the beer-free lounge the relaxed sentiment is evident.

“By tonight we should have SP Lager here,” says Tom Kawa. “At least, that’s what we’ve been told…”

Getting There

Air Niugini serves Vanimo with three weekly flights (it takes about three hours and there is a stop in Wewak) from Port Moresby. Tel: (+675) 327-3780

Regular air and boat services do not exist between Vanimo and Jayapura, the capital of Papua, but small aircraft and small boats can be chartered on site.

Sea and surf

In front of the Vanimo Beach Hotel and the Sandaun Motel is the pleasant Dali Beach, a good choice for snorkeling. Narimo Island, visible from shore, is reachable by boat.

At Yako village, bungalow accommodations are provided to surfers by the Vanimo Surf Club, the pioneering club in PNG, and the Sunset Surf Club. The Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea provides a guide to the county’s best surf spots.

Border crossing

The trip between Vanimo and the Indonesian border at Wutung offers glimpses of beautiful lagoons, dense forests and incredible geology. Once there, access to the markets does not require any documentation but to continue on to Jayapura necessitates a visa, which can be obtained at the Indonesian consulate in Vanimo. Turn around time for processing can be less than one day.

Note: This report originally appeared in CNN Traveller in the May/June 2008 issue.