I have done a fair amount of travel in my lifetime. Mainly surf trips to both very remote, and not so remote locations. Around 10 years ago I visited Papua New Guinea. That was kind of when things changed, including my perspective on surfing. PNG humbled me like no other surfing destination had. Yes, other places had great culture, great food, great people and of course great waves, but PNG manages to offer all of this in a very raw, untouched and earthy kind of way. Surfing in PNG is diffferent.
My most recent trip to PNG (November 2013) coincided with the completion of a Surfboard Donation Project that I ran in conjunction with Andy Abel, the President of the PNG Surfing Association (SAPNG).
The project began around September of 2012, when I contacted Andy asking whether the SAPNG would be interested in assisting, accepting and distributing the donations. Andy jumped at the chance and the project was born. Over roughly a 15 month period we managed to collect 140 donated surfboards and numerous items of surfing gear including booties, wax, leggies, fins, rashies, boardies, etc.
My trip was planned and coincided with the official handover of surfboards at Tupira Surf Club in Madang Province, one of the 10 surfrider clubs affiliated with the SAPNG.
A whole day was allocated for the ceremony, dignitaries were invited from PNG’s Federal Parliament, the Australian High Commission in PNG, and most importantly, local Land Custodians and Clan Leaders were also invited to attend. I couldn’t believe how big this was going to be, which really drove home the importance that these surfboards had in the eyes of the locals. They didn’t want to simply accept them without first thanking the people involved in getting the gear to them, but they also wanted to perform this thank you in front of their leaders, both at village and federal level.
Speeches were made, boards were blessed, Sing Sings (traditional dances) on arrival, halfway through ceremony and at the completion of the day, followed by a massive feast of traditionally cooked ‘mumu’ (earth oven) of chicken, pork, fish vegetables and rice. It certainly was a day to remember, and remember it I will for a number of reasons. For me, the highlight of the day is what I got to do towards the end of the ceremony, which was sneak off and have a surf with 4 young girls, aged roughly between 16 and 22 years old.
These girls had been handed a surfboard each from the donation stack, and were told that they could go and have the first surf on the newly received boards. These boards (and half the donated boards) were painted bright pink on the nose. This is to indicate that these boards are for the girls, and the girls only. You see in PNG, like in every other nation across the globe, including our very own, there is the occurrence of domestic violence. With limited surfing equipment available, often the boys will physically dominate the girls and take the boards off them, meaning they have no opportunity to either learn to surf, or even progress the surfing skills they may already have.
This surf session was different, four young women, but no young men. It was the girls who went for the surf, not the young boys, and this I can tell you was a moment in time. To see the smiles on the faces of these young women, to call them into the waves that they have watched peel off right in front of their village for their entire lives and not had reasonable opportunity to enjoy, was absolutely overwhelming. I teared up, I’m not going to lie, it was emotional. Here they were surfing the boards that had sat in my garage for over 12 months. I looked at them every morning I got in the car and wondered, will we ever get them into PNG, will this ever come to fruition, and there it was, it was happening right in front of me, in the water, sharing waves with the actual recipients of the donations, absolutely incredible.
The four young women I surfed with had various surfing experience, one had surfed for about three years, another for two. They had been sharing a broken board and only surfed when they boys would let them actually have their board. The other two girls, had never, ever surfed before. So right there, right then, new equipment brought in to the village had allowed two girls to try surfing for the first time, and judging by their reaction, laughter and smiles, I am certain they’ll be back at it again and again.
PNG surfing is growing and this is a good thing. Why is this is a good thing you may ask? Surely this will mean it’s going to get crowded? Surely the locals will start calling the tourists off waves? Well, it ain’t gona happen! In-bound surfer numbers are capped in PNG. The SAPNG has a Surf Management Plan in place which is also written into the Constitution, whereby surfer numbers are capped, and divided up into areas which means you will never look out to a break at 5:30 in the morning and see 80 heads bobbing up and down waiting for the next set wave. This is a well organised, well structured management plan that actually works. You pay a small daily levy of around $12AUD to the SAPNG, who in turn return this money back into the local villages and custodians of the reefs in the area that you surfed. Examples of how this money has been used include paying for local children to attend school (unlike here in Australia, there is no ‘free’ education system available) and providing funding for infrastructure.
As for the locals calling you off waves…I urge you, take the punt, visit PNG for a surf trip, and I can guarantee the locals will be calling you into waves… remember how at the start of this story I said surfing in PNG is different…well it is!