Maria grew up in some of the most isolated rugged territory I have been to, Tasmania’s south west. Her dad worked with the Hydro during the days when damn building and servicing attracted migrant workers from Southern Europe in their droves.
She had not returned since she left after year 10 more than 20 years ago. A few years back, we took a week and did a return pilgrimage. Tulla was drizzly, cold and dark. Forlorn and desolate. The mountains surround it, covered in dense bush, the clouds hanging low, obscuring the tops. All the buildings in ‘old Tulla’ are temporary fibros, intended to serve the community for a few years. They are still there as homes and shops decades later. A young kid sits in a bus shelter playing games on his mobile phone in the late afternoon drizzle. What else is there to do. For me it was strange and eerie. For Maria it was familiar and even comforting.
Her old primary school in Strathgordon was the only one in Australia to have a covered playground to allow the kids to escape the rain. One famous time it rained for six weeks non stop.
Tonight I am thousands of kilometres away in Tabubil. The average rainfall here is 8.5 metres per year. As I sit here in a vacant lonely guest house, the sound of the downpour is loud and constant. As I drove around this morning I had this uneasy feeling of being in a strange yet familiar place … then it dawned on me … I could have been in Tulla. Dense forests cover the surrounding mountains and the clouds hang low.
I am working with a group of 35 people, from the newly formed Ok Tedi Fly River Development Program, PNG locals committed to delivering development programs to the people of the Western Province, especially those in the 152 villages along the Fly River who are affected by the mining operations at Ok Tedi. As we drove into the golf club for a workshop this morning, I glanced right up the valley and gasped as I saw what could be described as a massive gravel glacier snaking down the mountain. Ian, then walked me to a point where we could see through the trees to where the mountain has been systematically de-peaked over 30 years. I have not before had a sense of the earth being raped like I had this morning; the mountain range stands there, its dignity stripped away, the river dying at its feet.
Just when I thought it couldn’t rain any harder, the noise increases.