Visiting the Upe in Bougainville

It was a day of reckoning for me whether to take that trip to remote Kunua on west coast Bougainville or not.

An email to me from the head of communications within the Bougainville Referendum Commission (BRC) in Buka was that we would take a 45 minutes boat ride, then on a truck and then an hour’s walk.

The walk part of the trip made my heart skip a bit, whether I was physically ready.

I was the first though near the boat stop at Buka’s temporary betel nut market along the Buka passage.

Dawn was breaking and the sunrise across the passage over Kokopau was picturesque, uplifting for me to say the least, urging me to go.

Sunrise over Buka passage

And a quick call to my wife in Port Moresby for her opinion, she was just uncompromising- daring me to go.

I was joined by Ben Bohane a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Wayne Coles-Janess, an award winning Asutralian film producer from Australia who also did some risky video business in the Middle East when Saddam Hussein ruled. We were also in the company of BRC media advisor Jeremy Miller and the assistant returning officer for Teua Constituency John Sisiesi.

The significance of our trip to Kunua (Teua) was to witness and report the first ever participation by the Upe, voting in the Bougainville referendum.

They have never in any political election taken part in voting-though their history is much older than Bougainville’s quest for political determination and Papua New Guinea’s Independence at 44 years.

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The Upe is a traditional headdress worn by men in parts of Bougainville– Selau, Wakunai and Teua areas.

The ‘Upe’led by John Sisiesi lining up to vote

It also symbolises and identifies young men who went through the various rites of passage and initiations.

The term also refers to the process of undergoing the transition from boyhood to men hood.

We had other local aides apart from Sisiesi as we set off around 7.30am (Bougainville standard time) to west coast Bougainville from Buka on two dinghies.

I must say the seas and islands around Buka boast some pristine seashores, turquoise waters, beautiful island after island, spread across the Solomon Sea and I have found there’s some historical war wreckage under the seas.

We past the former administrative capital Sohano island, then the famous picnic location-the White Island, ahead is Saposa and on our right is the huge Taiof Island.

Sohano Island on the right, Bougainville’s mainland on the left and Taiof Island in the background

Right in front on the horizon in the mountains is the sky blue range like a spine on Bougainville starting from the north- that’s our destination.

The sky blue mountains at the background was our destination

It’s the Kunua region range famous for huge betel nuts, crocodiles and it used to host the Kunua Coconut Plantation.

It was a calm sea ride, well at the beginning but I felt the sea was a little choppy as we past the beautiful Saposa Island, passing boat loads of vendors with their bags of betel nut and other food to sell at Buka.

We managed few bays then past what we were introduced to as a crocodile infested river mouth and the croc prints on the sand were very visible to the locals.

They told us the crocs have retreated to their habitats.

It was near the Kunua government post.

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We finally reached our destination, a stream reaching the sea and forming a minor river delta- the sedimentation was volcanic soil. It was more than an hour’s boat ride.

Wayne, Ben and John heading upstream from the small river delta

The stream was quite shallow and we had to paddle- our aides did it, I should be truthful, as we meandered up the stream to a site and waited for our vehicle.

I was counting, well I hope I would be fine to trek wherever we were destined.

Sisiesi took the opportunity during the wait to brief us about the Upe.

Unfortunately he did not go through the ‘Upe’ initiation.

He said when he was growing up, they were exposed to civilization and education and they focused on them rather than undergoing the Upe rituals and learning about various fundamentals of life.

Sisiesi briefing Ben, Jeremy and Wayne

From the little knowledge he has, boys spend up to three years in the jungle with their teacher.

Their college in the forest is sacred and forbidden for women.

He said they also learn the skills of hunting, producing medicine from the flora, they have to be a warrior, or be able to attract females.

 It was intriguing for the Aussie friends and me. I was counting down the time anxiously to see these Upe and what they hold in store.

Our vehicle an open back land cruiser arrived and we hopped on.

Kunua dubbed the forgotten region as far as development was concerned- the trucks windows couldn’t come down it had no air condition but the bold driver had to endure the heat and pressed through our rough track quite quick.

This is the only truck that does a 180 degrees drive to and from a neglected road.

We drove for about 30 minutes that eventually detoured from the main road and into a recently cleared bush track heading inland.

Then we reached the end, we were told to get off and then walk.

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We got off the truck here and trekked

It was a descent climb after crossing streams and passing gardens with a steady inclination.

Ben Bohane assisted across a stream

The locals told us it was not going to be far, but I remained skeptical as in Papua New Guinea, when people tell you it wasn’t far.

It was in fact far.

After a slightly steeper climb I could hear a conch shell and I slowed down, as I was convinced we were near and contemplating what I was in for.

The region appeared sparsely populated and remote, just jungles and a feel of fresh air from the lush forest, carefree and serene.

My Australian journalist friends braved the journey-hats off to them.

Wayne Coles-Janess with his camera was really sweating and getting tan.

But I knew it was part of the trait when they were hungry for content and they inspired me.

Flashed in my mind, the Upe, the rituals, the customs, the Bougainville Civil War scars- we were about 10 kilometres inland and bit higher from the coast.

I could hear chants getting louder as we near, walking through a track in the jungle on a ridge.

The Teua people in this hamlet and the Upe were ready to cast their vote in the historic Bougainville referendum and I was just minutes away from witnessing it.

Hang in there for part 2

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