Why the Southern Highlands & Hela Provinces are important to me

Hela
Facinating scenery before the Tari Gap

Years ago, my maternal granddad told me fascinating stories about the Southern Highlands and what is now Hela Province.

All the names of places were like pages of his story – Ialibu, Magarima, Koroba, Kopiago, Kutubu and Tari.

I endured countless tales of the adventures and of the tall mountains and the resilience and determination of the people.

As a child who was born in the Highlands, I didn’t really appreciate the stories until much later. The places my granddad, Hubert Murray Omat, named were, to me, places in a neighbouring province.

As an adult, I later realised the enormity of my grandparents’ adventure into the highlands just a few years after outsiders made first contact with people in the interior.

Here was a young man from  an obscure village on the border of the Milne Bay Province and Oro who, one day, decided to take his young family (including my mother) and go into the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea and serve as an aid post orderly under the Australian colonial administration.

My grandmother, Josephine, bearing the prominent Tufi style tattoos on her face followed her husband and became a true highlands girl.

Years later, my mother talked about how indebted she was towards the Engans.

“At the time there were no roads between the Southern Highlands and Enga and we had to walk into the Southern Highlands. We were little and the people who carried us into the Southern Highlands were Engans.”

Another time, during a visit, she heard a language that sounded familiar.

“Hey…em Tari tok ples ya…” (Hey that’s the Tari language), she said as her face lit up. She later found the daughter of an old policeman who served in Tari years ago when she was younger.

Last week when the earthquake struck, it was like going through the pages of my grandfather’s story book, as we travelled past Imbongu, Nipa and Magarima and finally Tari.

For him, it must have been a fascinating journey through the unusually cold high altitude jungles. A ‘nambis’ man leaving the warmth of the coast and travelling into unfamiliar territory.

Many years later, I am honouring the memory of a great man who served the people of the Southern Highlands and Hela by following his footsteps and seeing where he once walked – a simple aid post orderly who went on great adventure and remained in the highlands until his retirement.

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