Foreword: I am purposely a little vague in this article with names of people and names of villages. If you have a scholarly interest in these details, feel free to email me; however I wish to maintain a level of anonymity for my host, and discretion for the locations of my contacts.
I assure you, this Game of Stones involves no zombies, winter is not coming, and the only dragons involved seemed to be interested mostly in insects. There was a bit of gratuitous nudity, too.
I happen to be in the jewelry trade as a sideline in addition to my day job. I facet gemstones, buy and sell rough and cut stones, buy and sell estate jewelry and fine timepieces, and I design and custom-make finished jewelry. (Note: See Oke’s earlier articles Off The Beaten Path: Mining Gems for Fun and Profit and here )
My main job currently has me stationed in Papua New Guinea, which is currently under heavy mineral exploration (and active mining) for a variety of minerals – notably gold. While I am not a geologist, my interest in gems means that I do from time to time go to the field and have a bit of a scratch around looking for stones myself. I’ve mined sapphires, zircons, sunstones, opals, blue topaz, fire agates, and various other minor gems all over North and South America, and Australia.
My limited geology skills suggest to me, that if the region is highly mineralized and contains a lot of alluvial gold, then there is a strong chance one may find gems alongside the gold in the rivers. Logic being that almost anywhere alluvial gold is found, it is also possible to find garnet and/or sapphire. So, without any in-depth research, and genuinely throwing caution to the wind, I decided to book a weekend trip to Sepik province, home to some of Papua New Guinea’s most productive alluvial gold mining areas.
I chose Sepik because nearly all the mining activity is informal and artisanal. While there has been some investment in the region for more commercial mining activity, by-and-large the mining industry focuses on individuals and villages who work their claims by hand, or with nothing more sophisticated than a sluice box / dredge. This suggested to me that while the area has probably been surveyed and prospected, the focus was most likely gold/platinum, and very little attention paid to the potential for gemstones. If my hunch was correct, then the biggest barrier would be in educating the miners what to keep in addition to the precious metals they were recovering, and perhaps help them use more efficient techniques to ensure recovery of gems.
Having my idea in place, I then had to find someone who had connections to Sepik province. Fortunately, talking to one of the security guards at my house, I learned he was from a small town in Sepik, close to the mining hub of Maprik. Once he had proved his credentials and story, by showing up at the house with a pill bottle filled with about 150 grams of gold nuggets and dust (nearly 5 ounces), I set the plans in place to travel with him to Sepik and see what we could discover.
The plan was to travel with my guard to the town of Wewak, where we would be greeted by his brother-in-law, a local provincial government official. From there, we would drive approximately three hours to our home base. Once settled, we would begin a road trip to various local villages and clan groups, look at what stones they had collected in their mining activity, and do a bit of a ‘road show’. I happen to have a small quantity of facet rough with me here in PNG (leftover from my last trip through Bangkok), so I thought it would be a good idea to show everyone what a garnet, a tourmaline, a Peridot, a spinel, a sapphire and so on, look like in the rough – just in case they happen across these stones in their mining activity.
On the morning of the first day, when I met my guard at 7 a.m., he was completely blotto. He had decided to help himself to a cooler box of beer I had left on the porch, and was practically legless and smelled like a brewery. This did not bode well, as I had paid good money for this airfare (travel within PNG is extremely expensive) and was relying on him not so much for security, but for his contacts and introductions. It is not advisable to go into remote areas of PNG without having good connections and an introduction. Getting to the airport, very annoyed, and having to babysit a pickled Papua New Guinean, we were actually denied boarding, because my guard couldn’t stand at the check-in counter without weaving back and forth and looking as though he was about to be ill. It isn’t easy for a Papua New Guinean to look green, but he came close. I got a couple of doughnuts into him, a coffee, a bottle of water and an orange juice, and returned 45 minutes later where we were successful in convincing Air Niugini that he posed no threat.
Arriving in Wewak, with a slightly more sober, slightly less odoriferous, and rather chastened guard, we met our host and driver without issue. After a brief shop in town to stock up on supplies, we began the trip to the Maprik region. Wewak has not much to offer, other than being picturesque and quaint. I learned on the drive that apart from mining, most of the economic activity revolves around agriculture and fishing. There is a major tuna fishery, and there is a ‘loining’ plant, where the fish are skinned, boned and packed for export. Additionally, there is much farming of cacao and vanilla. Small scale farmers produce coffee and vanilla (often grown in the same patch/orchard) and then sell to local buyers, who process and prepare for export. For indicative purposes, the next time you go to buy some vanilla beans in the spice section (probably $5 – $6 for a single whole bean) keep in mind that the ‘fair trade’ price in PNG for a KILO of dried vanilla beans (about a thousand beans) is currently 100 Kina, or about $40 USD.
Leaving Wewak, the villages become progressively smaller, and services scarcer. While power lines are strung, apparently there has been no power outside of the city of Wewak for many years. A generator (to say nothing of the fuel) is well outside the means of most Papua New Guineans living in the area. Because of how remote the entire region is, with only connection by air or by ocean, fuel is prohibitively expensive. Four liters of diesel is approximately 15-18 Kina, or in the neighborhood of $1.50 – $1.70/liter. We saw very few vehicles on the road, and the roads themselves were in a sorry state of repair.
Another sad development was that the food available for purchase in the local stores was of terrible quality and usurious prices. The butcher section offered lamb tongues, lamb hearts, lamb ‘flaps’ (fatty strips of lamb fat with a bit of red meat attached), chicken feet and some poxy looking pork hocks. While fruit and vegetables are reasonably priced at local roadside markets, hardly any protein is on offer. The local prices advertised at farms raising chickens or pigs, were 50 kina for a chicken ($20) or 800 Kina for a pig ($300) – huge amounts of money for local residents. I was very surprised that few houses were raising pigs or chickens, and that no one was using the extensive savannas to raise cattle, goats, or other meat / dairy animals. It was also surprising that I didn’t see any overtly malnourished local people, however certainly people were of small stature. Besides locally raised fruits and vegetables, the local diet seems to be supplemented with imported rice, ‘hard tack’ – style crackers, and as a treat some tinned fish or Ox & Palm corned beef (which looks and smells like ‘Alpo’).
Our host, being involved in the local state government, has a pleasant house, built-in the traditional PNG style, raised off the ground. He happens to have a generator, but it was out-of-order – so we relied on a solar panel to recharge mobile phones, and power one overhead light in the evening. His water source is simply rain-collection tanks, which because of the frequent rainfall, apparently is sufficient for his needs. Indeed, his entire plot of land suffered from being rather waterlogged, and the mosquitoes were out in full force. I was assured that the Sepik mosquitoes are not malarial – I’ll let you know in 8-22 days. For all this simplicity, my host and his wife and kids ran a very comfortable and pleasant house, and I didn’t really miss the material comforts of home. I’m sure that toting water up stairs to use for my shower or to refill the toilet would wear thin over time, but for a weekend visit, it just felt a bit like ‘glamping’.
Village life in Sepik province as I observed it, had some differences to Western life. Since there is no electricity, there is no internet, no TV – the only entertainment is visiting, conversation and telling stories. As such, the house is regularly visited by local residents who would just drop in to chat. My host had 4 children, but at any point in time the house had anywhere from zero to 10 present, as they would rove as a small giggling pack around the various houses in the area. The household was largely patrimonial, with my host’s lovely wife taking care of domestic duties and gardening, the kids being well-behaved and obedient to perform chores. Two dogs and a small cat kept an eye on the house, and while they were allegedly there to keep away animals and vermin, I just saw them all catching and eating bugs. They were quite tame and friendly, and were clearly part of the family, although apparently hitting the dog is acceptable in local culture.
(Come back for Part the Second)