Below me awaits deep, turquoise water. I throw my twinnie in and dive off the edge of a small fishing boat. Jeberdi, the local surf-guide from the fronting village ‘Mereman’ doesn’t waste a heartbeat shredding the three-foot limestone reef lefthander I’m paddling towards.
Like all the locals riding western-style short board ‘thrusters’, Jeberdi proudly surfs atop a second-hand donated board he’s claimed. These donations coming predominately from Australia and Japan have allowed these locals to graduate from their handcrafted wooden ‘splinters’ (chunks of wood) to the modern short board, improving their surfing skills to match the quality of waves on offer that fringe their villages.
I gaze toward the hundreds of slender coconut palms that overlook the break and feel eyes on me…through the palms is an entire village of kids and young mothers who have gathered to cheer us on. Inspired, I throw caution aside (I’m a chicken at hollow reef breaks) and paddle for an incoming wave, high-lining along its smooth green wall. Flicking off on the inside next to dry-reef, I look up to the clan of hooting locals. Clapping and cheering my wobbly performance has made their day; their warm response has made mine.
I soon learn why such a simple display can bring joy to these people. In Papua New Guinea’s coastal villages, locals live day-to-day, fishing by hand just enough to feed each other, gathering greens to steam on the side, or visiting the market for fruit and vegetables grown in the highlands. A hunted wild pig is a rare village treat.
Simple huts are constructed from local bush materials and the common machete, and are lived in until the scars of weathering call for a new home (usually built from scratch, next door). Maintenance is a developing concept.
Kids as young as toddlers play in the abundant ocean, sharing ‘splinters’ in the strong surf. Those who can’t get hold of a slab of wood bodysurf naked with giant smiles, running barefoot across the sharp reef, swimming hard against the sweeping currents, and taking off deep. Their smiles are addictive.
I finish up with a small peeler on the inside, then bellyboard a wave into the main bay, some 50 metres down from the crowd. By the time I scramble up the rocky bank, I’ve got a personal welcoming party of 60+ kids, some naked with machetes, laughing, smiling and offering sincere warmth like you’ll never find at any 5-star hotel.
A young girl in a faded lime green tee and knee-length board shorts bends down to offer me her thongs, taking my board under her arms then ushering me upwards toward the masses. Jeberdi informs me later that her name is Winifred, she is about 12 years old (exact age unknown by even her), and is not married nor with child yet because she “surfs too much”. I like her instantly.
This is a land where mothers are beaten during childbirth by their doctors (to shut up the screams of endurance and pain); are beaten at home by their husbands; and in the world of surfing, are left waiting on the beach until the men are done riding the already-scarce donated boards. It’s not uncommon to birth up to 10 kids, and infant mortality is at one of the world’s highest rates. Surfing is breaking the cycle, and as a result young girls like Winifred might just have the chance to escape the abuse and gender disparity rife throughout PNG.
Jeberdi ushers me back toward his village that literally translates to ‘woman man’. The kids run ahead, diving into the bay, taking turns jumping off a jagged rock into the calm water, giggling with a carefree innocence that is forcibly lost in Papua New Guinean adolescence.
Waiting for us on the beach is Justice Nicholas Kirriwon, a Supreme Court Judge and local clan leader from Tupira Surf Club in Ulingan Bay, where I am a guest for the week. ‘Uncle Nick’, as the locals call him, is one of the key influencers driving community development through surf tourism. He drives us back to the coastal grounds of Tupira where we are met with a head-high evening session at the right out front with the other Aussies in our group, Chris Binns, and surf-board donation drive initiator Marty Brown. The quality of surf at Tupira is something of surfers’ folklore: outgoing tide overnight succumbing to an incoming tide all day, ridiculously consistent sets averaging 3ft with forgiving shoulders, the occasional sucky cover-up during tidal pulses, and crowd limits capped at 10 people at any time.
For most of us fed up with sharing holiday session with the throngs of Aussie punters in the waves off Bali and Fiji, PNG is the proverbial ‘paradise’, attracting out-of-form career mothers like me, and hard working guys like Marty - a fireman from Mornington Peninsula. Marty discovered the northern breaks in early 2000 and has been coming back ever since.
The inspiration for Marty to donate 140-something surfboards to the local surf clubs, the very reason we are all gathered on this trip, came after his first viewing of Adam Pesce’s award-winning documentary ‘Splinters’ at its Australian premiere, where Marty met Andy Abel – President of PNG’sSurfing Association.
Abel has been the driving force behind the development of surf culture and tourism in PNG for over twenty years, and what impresses me most is his commitment within the country’s surfing plan to supporting gender equality both in and out of the water, a seemingly impossible goal in an otherwise male-dominated PNG.
In ‘Splinters’, the vile treatment of women by members of PNG’s Vanimo Surf Club was exposed to the world in scenes of brutal domestic violence followed by Abel’s plea to the male surfers of the camp to treat their women with equality. In the film he is also shown asking that the role of Vanimo Club’s Vice President be given to a female. At the international premiere when the scenes sparked outcry, Abel questioned the critics and raised the overlooked truth that domestic violence and inequality of women was rife globally, not just in the surf camps of Papua New Guinea.
To reinforce his efforts of empowering women through surfing, Andy has personally painted half of the donated surfboards’ noses pink, knowing the males will be too embarrassed to ride a female-embossed board. If the males continue as they have in the past to steal the ladies’ boards, Abel has threatened the discontinuation of donations to those village clubs.
Our final day is met with a lengthy ceremony on Tupira grounds – once used and abused by the logging industry – addressed by important dignatories and attended by more than 800 local villagers. Marty’s collected boards are finally put in the hands of the locals; half are painted pink and passed to a handful of eager women to share.
A young mother is on the beach with her baby and one of the pink-nosed boards as I am about to paddle out for my final sunset surf. She pulls her newborn off her breast and passes the baby to a friend, before paddling out beside me. Her lopsided breasts are held together in a black crop top, the result of feeding her baby on just one side. In the surf she is fearless and we share waves with our female surfing comrades. When she’s had her fill she paddles in, whipping out the now engorged boob and filling her bubba with more milk. The sky is painted with an evening glow and I have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow with new rays of hope for these lady sliders.