Port Moresby: A Gritty City with Heart

PNG: The World's Pandanus Capital
PNG: The World’s Pandanus Capital

Before leaving for a week’s trip, I read my Lonely Planet guide. It describes Port Moresby as a gritty city and advises tourists not to flaunt their wealth. I survived living in London’s seedy Surrey Docks (1984 – 85) and I work for our national broadcaster, so I consider myself to be (somewhat) street-wise and I’ve plenty of gardening clothes to dull me down.

Plain gardening

Moresby is the same size as Wollongong. Watching last week’s Gardening Australia show from my motel room, Australian gardens and gardeners suddenly look incredibly lavish compared to their Moresby equivalents.

The contrast between gardening cultures was stark, but it’s not total. Last month I filmed the Queensland entry for GA’s ‘Gardener of the Year Award’. That Cairns family garden was lavish (even by Australian standards), yet every plant had been grown from cuttings and divisions donated by gardening friends.

Near to this tropical paradise was a municipal park which was a crisped, browned expanse of thin, dead, mowed, grass. That Cairns park was slightly bleaker than the one near where I stayed in Port Moresby, a stone’s throw from my motel in the popular suburb of Boroko.

At this point, try playing ‘Mambo de la Luna’, by Kirsty MacColl (Tropical Brainstorm album). It should help you tune in.

Situated in the dry tropics (like Townsville, its sister city), Moresby is in a rain shadow created by the Owen Stanley mountain range. It receives slightly over 1,000mm of summer rainfall. Being close to the equator means evaporation is extreme. It’s more often a brown landscape than green. The Pandanus are astounding – some are massive, and create towering, complex – and almost impenetrable – ‘fortresses’.

Commuter rush hour sees many people walking to work, greeting each other across the road as they head purposefully to their destinations. Busy markets attract enough mini-buses and taxis that bottlenecks occur, and it can take extensive negotiations to disentangle them. Moresby is traffic light free – it’s wise to take junctions cautiously.

Unless there’s a sign, there’s no speed limit. It’s best to drive by daylight – drivers have a pleasant habit of waving to friends and colleagues. If you’re headed to Bomana cemetery, ask the driver if they need to buy fuel to get you there. Port Moresby’s taxi drivers are big on character and chatting with them is one of the quickest ways to get the feel of what’s happening in town.

Like Australia, infrastructure doesn’t always solve the supply/ demand issues. Gardeners are used to water restrictions, so Moresby is a landscape of survivors. Tree pruning can be a rough and ready hack job, but PNG has nothing to match the scale of damaging caused by powerline pruning of Australian street trees. Australia practices systematic carnage, whereas in Moresby it’s more case by case hacking.

a branch getting in the  os – just as Australia sisn’t Moresby’s population is rising at the scary rate of 3% a year, so those living at the end of pipelines have inadequate water pressure. Water must be carried from a standpipe, so gardens are (understandably) mostly rain fed. Nature strips are rarely weeded. If they’re fed, it’s where grass and other prunings are allowed to compost.

Turf grows sporadically during the frequent dry spells, but brief, intense showers quickly green things up. In this,  Brisbane and Moresby are very similar. Moresby’s nature strips aren’t as regularly tended as they are in Brisbane. Most are probably only cut back monthly during the wet season, which may not be enough. Petrol for mowing and slashing expensive in Moresby, and few gardeners own a mower or a whipper snipper. Machetes, wood axes and mattocks are in. Machetes can make a good job of a nature strip. At the other extreme, some nature strips get burned, an amazing contrast with the vivid green regrowth after a good soaking storm. Cane knives are used in preference to secateurs, and vines are generally allowed to seek their own support.

In the absence of regular street sweeping, and an absence of litter bins, residents sweep leaves and rubbish into heaps and burn them. This means dawns are greeted with the smell and haze of burned litter. Chirping sparrows blend with native birdsong. Pavements and roads are splattered with the red ochre colour left by spitting betel nut juice.

Moresby has few rainwater tanks, despite their evident value. Bomana cemetery, located a the southern end of the Kokoda trail, is the largest landscape in Moresby with permanent irrigation, and this creates greenery as verdant as a rice paddy: an emerald rectangle just beyond the outermost suburb of parched Moresby.

Container gardening is in. Every garden has at least one of the following: a potted fern, Cordyline, Dieffenbachia, Aglaonema, Dracaena or palm. Ever-flowering Euphorbia milii abound. Dendrobium orchids cling to trees, hiding spectacularly and unseen in full view. The fragrant potency of night-scented flowers peak on hot, calm, humid nights.

Food gardening here is almost strictly seasonal and vegetable plots, called ‘gardens’, are planted as the summer rains arrive. Moresby is organic by default – few have money to burn on chemical gardening. Nurseries are basic: cuttings and seedlings are grown in plastic bags and potted in soil. When I purchased an armful of plants to dress up a garden of remembrance, I rediscovered how heavy plants growing in soil can be.

Moresby’s soil is a young, fertile, loamy clay. This forms a veneer over the hot, rocky hillsides, but deeply lines valleys and fields. Without sufficient organic matter, it cracks deeply when dry so you can poke your fingers right in. It’s hard to decompact, but I reckon with care it could support brilliant growth. Moresby meanders across a hilly landscape. The place in Australia that I think most closely resembles Moresby’s soil landscape is Monto (in SE Qld) during drought conditions.

Restaurant side salads and potato chips are almost wholly imported by air. Salad greens are a luxury for the elite. If you want to sample local produce, you’ll have to visit a market. At Manu market, refreshing laulau fruit (Syzygium aqueum) and raw peanuts were in season. The stall-holder selling them had covered the table with banana leaves and tree fern fronds, making them look very appealing. Parsley was the only locally grown crop that kept turning up as a garnish everywhere I ate. In Bangladesh, micro-finance has allowed farmers to install irrigation, facilitating the sustainable irrigation of three crops a year instead of the traditional one. I can’t help but think how much better fed people would be, and how much money Moresby residents would save, if more could afford the set up cost of domestic rainwater harvesting.

You’ll discover some of the most beautiful views in Moresby by looking up through trees and shrubs and seeing their flowers against clouds and electric blue skies. A clear Moresby sky turns a wonderful shade of lavender towards sunset. Since most properties are enclosed by high fencing, often topped by barbed wire, it’s hard to judge Moresby’s middle class gardens because all you can see are the trees, palms and vines that rise above the fence line. You have to peep respectfully – just being a white tourist wandering the streets attracts enough attention – so I was accompanied by friends. Ask for permission before you take photos.

Like Australian cities, Moresby has heaps of neglected land suitable for food growing, and their gardens are of comparable size to ours. Semi-cultivated bananas abound on rough land and vacant plots. I suspect a grassroots sub-culture of guerilla gardening. There aren’t many pets kept around town, and consequently even fewer feral dogs and cats. I saw no European honeybees, but stingless bees and Asian honeybees abound. In a city where chicken and chips is the number one dish, I was surprised to discover how few people keep poultry. And that the poultry kept are so scrawny. The Nature Park keeps pet rabbits, but people don’t seem interested in eating them.

Bougainvillea features prominently in both Brisbane and Moresby’s landscapes. This tough, brilliantly coloured, bomb-proof survivor is a sound choice in either location. But in Moresby, Bougainvillea spines add an extra layer of deterrence to the razor wire topped fences that separate properties from street life. Variegated Agave mexicana, often planted in tight rows outside boundaries, also add to home security. I was surprised to see so few pineapples, they make such effective, productive barriers. Many of the plants I grow in my front garden (which are watered six times at planting and then have to rely of rainfall) grow around town. It’s a landscape of tough, reliable, durable plants.

Older street trees here are rugged, they’re real survivors. I bet the gnarled yellow poincianas (Peltophorum pterocarpum) have stories to tell. Some of the mature street trees have been identified for conservation, bearing ‘protected tree’ signs. Right across town there are signs of ambitious new street tree plantings, often in raised beds with stone walls.  The walls provide protection, seating for weary pedestrians, plus they capture rainfall. These recent additions look as if they have been installed within the last ten years.

Frangipani, palms and various useful shade trees are, very gradually, improving the appearance of Moresby. This city has more yellow-flowered cultivars of frangipani than I have seen anywhere else, rather like Brisbane has more pink-flowered frangipani than anywhere else I have visited.

If there’s one standout tree, it’s the South American rain tree, Albizia saman. These tough, fast growing trees develop upright trunks with huge umbrageous (umbrella-like) crowns. Their jacaranda-like foliage allows shafts of sunlight through such that they are perfect for growing turf or groundcovers underneath them. Their rough bark provide anchorage, encouraging epiphytic basket ferns (Drynaria rigidula) and Dendrobium orchids to clothe them. These rain trees create the delightfully airy, sheltered shade gardens in Moresby’s newly re-branded Nature Park (formerly the National Botanical garden), adding scale to the broad landscape of Bomana cemetery, Moresby’s most frequently visited tourist attraction. More widely planted than any other shade tree, Albizia saman does great service, making Moresby more livable.

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People make a City

Lonely Planet says some visitors might feel anxious about the crowds of people, mostly men, that hang in the streets.  Many live outdoor lives – it’s an outdoor climate. Without air conditioning or ceiling fans in your home (many live with this reality)  would you stay indoors on a hot, steamy, calm day or go outdoors? Unemployment is high, but many workers commute by foot, so pavements are heavily used. Shade trees are critical here, they are Moresby’s air conditioners, their cool shade draws people together under their sheltering canopies. The streets are busiest after sunset, the time when people recover their bounce after a hot day. If you take time to observe, you’ll notice that this is the most social time of day. Kids play games, people play cards, tell stories, make music, listen to sport on the radio, while families sell drinks, fruit and the ubiquitous betel nut under trees at street corners. I have periodically experienced similar to this living in Brisbane – in summer during power cuts. Moresby folk are, by and large, inquisitive, friendly and welcoming. Insular Europeans who love their personal space and anonymity should be prepared for strangers to suddenly beam broad smiles and to say g’day. Practise some small talk, in this small city people have had the time and opportunity to recognise each other.

An Ounce of Prevention is worth a Pound of Cure

In some ways Moresby is reconciling aspects of modern life with conservative traditional values. The Poro Sapot project is one example of reconciliation I visited. This community health initiative, run by Save the Children and part funded by AusAid, raises awareness about disease prevention. It’s dispensary provides free medicine, essential in a country where western medication is largely unaffordable.

The Poro Sapot project closely resembles Queensland’s Association for Healthy Communities (QAHC). The only difference being that this year Queensland Health has ceased funding QAHC. Queenslanders and Queensland Health are now paying dearly for this betrayal.

Preventative health care is far more affordable than treatment, so apart from delivering education and better community health, Poro Sapot offers the PNG government reductions to human suffering, health care costs and improved economic productivity. What a pity Queensland has abandoned this simple good sense...

In PNG personal health records are not confidential, a shocking revelation, as there are many circumstances where seeing a family general practitioner is inappropriate. Some people are vulnerable, or poorly educated. Sadly this former colony of Queensland also retains some colonial era laws that work against good health and social justice. Even the best of us occasionally make mistakes and errors in judgement.

Poro Sapot maintains patient confidentiality and provides free treatment. It’s no overstatement that Poro Sapot has become critical for life saving medical treatment and disease prevention well beyond the National Capital District.

Sadly, the Poro Sapot project commenced too late to help everyone. There’s a small Memory Garden under a poinciana tree (Delonix regia) dedicated to those who have died. In this vital area of disease prevention PNG is giving ‘South PNG’ – aka Queensland – an example that it would do well to follow.

Much of Poro Sapot’s outreach work, field research and statistical analysis relies on its volunteer base. And many of these volunteers were once patients whose lives have been saved or improved thanks to Poro Sapot. In the Poro Sapot ‘family’ everyone is a ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘auntie’, ‘uncle’, ‘father’ or ‘mother’. As one volunteers’ badge proudly states: “Treat me with dignity and respect”. Good health – and good news – travels fast in PNG.

One final comment. Just like Australia, most people are kind and welcoming to strangers. Chocolate is a luxury. So if you want to make friends, take a nice big box with you.

Jerry Coleby-Williams
5th October 2012


6 Comments Add yours

  1. Tomás Dietz says:

    Hi Jerry, I hope you can help – I’m trying to track down a plant that grows in the Port Moresby area. I only know it by its Motu language name, ‘ebala’, so I can’t even Google it. It’s used traditionally by the Motu people for ceremonies and drum dancing and has elongated, green, highly aromatic leaves, about the proportions of a banana fruit. It’s traditionally used together with leaves of Polyscias fruticosa for perfuming coconut oil.

    I don’t expect you to know this plant by my vague description, but perhaps you could suggest how I might find the botanical name? I’ve asked some Motu people but they only know it by their own Motu name.

    Thanks for your help.


    1. Dear Tomas,

      It’s hard to know for certain.

      I just tried searching the ‘Plants of Papua New Guinea on line database’, but got no results.

      Writing to Lae Botanic Garden might work if they have re-employed a curator and that person is knowledgeable. The last one, sacked a year or so ago, was a gardener who didn’t speak much English.

      Queensland has a long association with the colonial administration of PNG, so you might have luck asking staff at the Queensland Herbarium, or alternatively the National Herbarium of NSW.



      1. Hi Jerry,

        Thanks for those leads – very helpful indeed. If I find out what its botanical name is I’ll let you know – it and the Polyscias fruticosa are great plants.

        The Polyscias fruticosa makes a beautiful hedge and an exquisite feature potted plant with its lacy foliage and artistic, self-shaping habit. It’s so easy to grow in Brisbane; I’m surprised it’s not better known with tropical gardeners in Australia. When I was in Brisbane recently I stumbled on a specimen and took some cuttings which are growing very well in my insulated winter tent here in icy Canberra.

        Actually when I was in Brisbane I sat next to you in a cafe in West End, but was too shy to say hello! At least, I think it was you. 🙂

        Thanks again for your advice.

        Warm regards,


      2. Dear Tomas,

        You should have said hello, everyone else does, and an interest in plants is the common connection.

        Polyscias fruticosa is grown all around coastal Qld but rarely in large numbers. It is still used by landscapers, so it is still sold by garden centres in summer. Palms for Brisbane – http://www.palmsforbrisbane.com.au – is a local tropical plant specialist, they’re on the web, and are a useful resource.

        Good luck with the hunt


      3. Thanks Jerry; and more good leads too – I might have to move to Brisbane! 🙂

  2. Hi Jerry,

    Thanks for those leads – very helpful indeed. If I find out what its botanical name is I’ll let you know – it and the Polyscias fruticosa are great plants.

    The Polyscias fruticosa makes a beautiful hedge and an exquisite feature potted plant with its lacy foliage and artistic, self-shaping habit. It’s so easy to grow in Brisbane; I’m surprised it’s not better known with tropical gardeners in Australia. When I was in Brisbane recently I stumbled on a specimen and took some cuttings which are growing very well in my insulated winter tent here in icy Canberra.

    Actually when I was in Brisbane I sat next to you in a cafe in West End, but was too shy to say hello! At least, I think it was you. 🙂

    Thanks again for your advice.

    Warm regards,


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