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Good Wood

Plunder and pleasure in Papua New Guinea.

Light / Dark

Perhaps it’s the uniformity—the straightness—that feels most atrocious. Thousands of tree trunks are lined up in front of me in neat horizontal stacks, their twisted and gnarled limbs cut off, reduced to packs of gargantuan toothpicks lying forlorn on the long dining table of industry.

Ben and I are standing on a makeshift shipping dock on the remote north coast of Papua New Guinea’s Madang Province, although it’s more of a rough clearing in the jungle than a structured port. Ben is a PNG local from the Tupira Surf Club, a gregarious, strong, and humble man around the age of 35. Today, we’ve stumbled upon a large-scale logging operation. We climb high upon the towering stacks to get a better view, straining to see the end of the destruction. 

Where are all these logs going, and what will they be made into? Office cubicles for city skyscrapers in Kuala Lumpur? Balinese-style furniture for bougie Byron Bay boutiques? Or will they become toilet paper, destined to dab and daub at the entirety of the civilized world’s asses? And what exactly is so “civilized” about wiping one’s sphincter on the pulped homes of birds-of-paradise?

Before we can make out the end point, a Land Cruiser troop carrier careens across the port’s yard and skids to a drifting stop over the gravel at our feet. The driver’s-side  window is already down, and through it sits an overweight Chinese-Malay man.

“Where’s your permission to come here!” he yells, his eyes bouncing between my own and the $20,000 video camera I’m carrying in my hand. “You got permission to use cameras here? Huh? Are you putting this on Facebook? No, you’re not putting this on Facebook! Fuck you!”

Despite his shaking rage, a lingering strand of two-minute noodle clings to his plump breast. We’ve interrupted his lunch. 

“Yes, that’s right,” I tell myself. “I’ve met your type before, in a palm oil plantation in Sumatra. You are the manager, the henchman, the plunderer. You are the enemy.”

“What’s your name?” he hisses, point-ing at my face with the thick gold rings on his chubby fingers. 

The rear windows of the troop carrier slide open to reveal a truckload of company-hired cops with guns. The oldest one leans forward through the window, bringing his muscled face and assault rifle into view.

“What’s your name, boy?” the Papuan cop booms. 

Now I’m intimidated. These guys aren’t messing around.

“John,” I lie. In the front seat, a blur of gold-laced fingers furiously scribbles my fake name into a book.

“Full name!” demands the Malaysian.

“Give us your full name,” the PNG cop reinforces. “You’re coming with us.” 

“I’m just making a movie about surfing,” I say, stammering. “You know, waves. Just fun.” 

I strain to look convincing with the half-truth. Ben then comes to the rescue.

The illegal logging trade has left Tupira locals like Robin and Sila feeling furious yet powerless, and has prompted activism by community leaders.

“Ah,” he says. “Albert! I thought it was you. You good? We were just looking around here at all this fine wood. It’s great to see you!” 

Ben steps between me and the troopy, shaking hands with the cop and diffusing the tension with his massive smile.

I take my chance and scurry anxiously back to our truck while he has them distracted. He eventually pacifies the company big man, too. I sit back, flustered, and Ben laughs as he gets back into the driver’s seat.

“Luckily, I knew that cop,” he says. “But don’t worry, Matty. If that fat man had gotten out of the troopy, I would have smashed him in the head with a rock.”

*

The righthander in front of Tupira Surf Club peels rhythmically with the delectable easiness of tropical perfection, and a large group of local surfers out the back means barely a wave goes unridden. Their glistening, cacao-colored bodies contrast against their blonde balsa boards of all shapes and sizes. They zoom, spin, and carve dramatically. 

Meanwhile, a group of children bellyboard on balsa in the sharp shallows. Tupira kids have an unspoken agreement with the reef. It lets them tread and slide naked across razor-sharp sections, vowing to never cut them. In return for the reef’s compassion, the children shower the corals with endless laughter, a local surfing song that they sing to summon waves, and megalitres of happiness that fall in fat droplets from their beaming grins every time they ride a wave.  It’s a sacred and time-honored symbiosis, and legend has it that it’s strongest when riding good wood.

The new balsa shapes made at Haus Tumbuna mean the Tupira crew no longer have to rely on fiberglass donations from tourists when the waves turn on.

Nicholas Kirriwom is a big man, both in physical stature and community standing. Not only is he Tupira’s Patron, meaning leader, but he’s also the first person from the region to go to university, where he studied law. He eventually became one of the nation’s top Supreme Court judges. After enjoying the surfing spectacle he’s seen many times before, he begins to speak in a formal but warm tone. 

“Our people,” he says, “have been bellyboarding on wooden boards made from the buttress roots of rainforest trees for as long as we can remember, probably thousands of years. I learned on this beach right here. Recently, however, well-meaning foreigners have brought fiberglass boards as gifts to our people, which has meant that many kids are leaving our autonomous and ancient style of surfing in favor of high-performance materials that we can’t procure, let alone afford. That’s why we decided to open Haus Tumbuna.”

Traditional garb—boards included—at the tree felling ceremony.

Haus Tumbuna is a community-owned, thatch-roofed shaping bay where the local surfers of PNG can both relearn the tradition of wooden-board surfing as well as upskill themselves with power tools and woodworking techniques for the purpose of shaping balsa boards for their own enjoyment. Those skills might even bring them some income one day, as they develop their very own micro-industry in a country where finding a job is a rare and privileged event. It also offers locals world-class knowledge and expertise from international shapers, so they can ry to turn balsa woodworking into an independent and sustainable social-enterprise. And it’s what has brought me here, to produce a documentary film showcasing this evolution of surfing and shaping in PNG.

I leave Nicholas on the beach and set off to Haus Tumbuna in search of Bryan Bates, a hand-shaper who splits his time between Oregon and Byron Bay, and Josh Martin, a Southern California board builder, woodworker, and the son of famous shaper Terry Martin. I find the duo in a sea of dust and a wall of noise: sanders, planers, saws, and drills all blazing away in a harmonic cacophony of balsa shaping. Bryan has been managing various other visiting shapers in Tupira for many years, and this year Josh has arrived to share some of his own expertise and knowledge. They both volunteer their time for free. 

I catch Bryan’s eye and he puts down his sander and walks over. 

“It’s so good,” he says. “Robin is almost finished cutting the outline on his board. Ben’s board is looking great, he’s varnishing it now. And Peter—well, actually, Peter totally stuffed his up and made the board a foot too small for him. I told him, like, ten times to measure before cutting. But, oh well. It’s all a part of the learning process, right? It’s taken years to get to this point, but I reckon they’re ready to continue manufacturing in Haus Tumbuna by themselves.”

I stand for a moment and watch them work the balsa blanks, sweaty brows. Numerous shapes line the walls in various stages of completion. The boards are, all at once, beautiful art, functional equipment, and sustainable tradition.

I leave them to keep at it, walking out the back door to find myself among Haus Tumbuna’s balsa plantation that has grown to 12 feet tall in just a few months. The plantation itself is a small area, but it’s enough to keep the kids surfing into the future on locally grown and locally made boards.

*

Robin Minickri is the head shaper for Haus Tumbuna, and we are visiting his house in the village to cut down a tree. Hundreds have turned up to see the one tree fall, most dressed in traditional rainforest attire of sago leaf pullovers, grass skirts, and birds-of-paradise headdresses. The sing-sing ceremony begins with grand fanfare—chanting, drumming, singing, and dancing around a 2-year-old balsa tree that, unbelievably, towers 30 feet tall. 

The clash of value systems is blindingly obvious. A few days before, Ben and I had witnessed the international company’s methodical and unflinching strategy to destroy the land for private gain. Yet here we celebrate the wild, organic, and ritualistic grace of the village economy—cutting down a single tree for communal benefit. It’s black versus white, fast versus slow, nature versus the paperclip maximizer.

A local grom, putting his domestic balsa craft to good use.

Traditionally, the people of PNG chew betel nut—a stimulant similar to strong coffee—to promote discussion, storytelling, and community decision-making. At the tree-cutting ceremony, it is chewed in earnest.

Next to me, a lady with a kind smile offers a nut from her bunch. I bite off the fibrous casing and begin to chew on the round seed inside. The horribly astringent flavor makes me wince until she produces a mustard stick dipped in slaked lime powder that makes the entire concoction in my mouth turn bright red. My heart rate climbs rapidly. A warm and fuzzy feeling pulses through my body. I spit enthusiastically on the ground through my red grin.

Robin runs to the front of the crowd, his left cheek bulging and lips redder than a Coca-Cola billboard in Port Moresby, with eyes resembling freshly laid village chicken eggs—large, white, and ready to burst. Deep in a betel nut-induced trance, he spits an almighty stream of brilliant, red ooze to the ground.

Lineups in this part of PNG tend to be, literally, locals-only affairs.

“We are lucky to live here,” he proclaims. “We are ocean people. In the past, when our farm work was complete during taro season, our ancestors would bellyboard on their palang surfboards. We, as a community, carry that tradition until this day. We are lucky we have balsa trees growing close by, and growing quickly. Today, we want to celebrate the first step in making a modern palang surfboard—the cutting and milling of the balsa tree. Go ahead, cut it now!” 

The crowd applauds Robin’s buai-inspired speech, and the axeman lets fly his first thock into the trunk of the young tree. Twenty-five minutes and many thocks later, an almighty crack, groan, and crash makes most in the crowd hoot and sing in approval. A portable Lucas Mill is quickly assembled and begins cutting its way back and forth along the tree trunk in strips that will soon become modern palang surfboards to be shared among the villagers.

I spot Robin off in the distance, digging a small hole in a sunny clearing.

“I’m planting a balsa tree,” he says, without looking up. “If we cut one down, we plant one.” 

I remember the 250-plus balsa sapling plantation already established. 

“The solution to the perpetual growth economy is to include perennial indigenous vitality,” says a new voice behind me.

I turn and come face-to-face with an incredibly old Papua New Guinean lady, her hair as white as coconut meat. Her pearly eyes are blinded by cataracts, yet hold a piercing stare. A traditional tattoo, the color of soot, contrasts like a third eye on her forehead. Beside her, a small and decrepit puppy with ribs poking through his skin is balancing in a perfectly stable handstand, inverted on his front legs while his withered and lame hind legs point skyward. The tip of his tail wags with good intention.

Ruthy squares one up over the inside section.

I want to step forward to introduce myself, or to pat the resilient pup who lives in defiance of gravity. But my body is frozen. All I can muster is a searching head-check in Robin’s direction. But he is gone, a small balsa sapling the only evidence of his presence. By the time I turn back, the lady has also vanished. While I stand in disbelief at the bizarre encounter, her words reverberate in my mind. 

Perpetual growth economy? Perennial indigenous vitality? What on earth did she mean? How can an old village lady from the jungle know anything about the globalized economy? And to where did she disappear so quickly?

That’s the thing about PNG—there’s still magic in the forest. There’s still an ancient wildness, beautifully “uncivilized” and alive in the elders, the village architecture, the permaculture gardens, and the behemoth highland mountains. There is no totalitarian safety here—no sense of convenience, digital landscape, or evangelical hygiene. Instead there’s a resonating atmosphere of community and nature, which, like elderly ladies with forehead tattoos, remains preserved for the moment.

The upside-down dog seems unphased and teeters over, giving my leg a puppy-lick before pawstanding his way through the betel palms to the beach.

*

As the largest swell of the season begins its slow wane, so too does my time in Tupira. It has been a feverish month of documenting, learning, and surfing. Exhausted after a morning on my favorite balsa board—a 5-year-old single-fin—I collapse with a cup of coffee next to Nicholas, who is typing away on his laptop. 

Together, we had gone deep into the hills to visit communities affected by illegal logging, where Nicholas had listened to their concerns and offered legal advice and action. We had flown a drone to photograph the more sensitive logging areas where there was risk of getting caught, and tracked online (via marine traffic websites) the ZJ Rainbow bulk-carrier’s dodgy ports-of-call en route to Shanghai through their ship logs. 

One of the saddest realizations was that the Malay-Chinese operation was not only ripping out the most highly prized timbers before shipping the raw logs to China to be milled—meaning that virtually no economy or jobs are generated in PNG—but also that 75 percent of the demand for the Merbau timber comes from my own country, Australia, so that suburban families can enjoy barbecues and beer on their deck. It’s clear that much of the perfectly “legal” timber arriving in Australia leaves PNG illegally and unethically.

On the flipside are all the people who have come together for the small, community-owned social enterprise of Haus Tumbuna. It’s a project that is inadvertently countering the illegal logging. It also values indigenous heritage in a modern context, not by monetizing it, but by nurturing its evolution and empowering its knowledge keepers while offering an exciting path forward for future wave riders and shapers. 

As Nicholas types about such things in an article for the national media, I lean back and see a young woman kick out of a solid wave. 

It’s Ruthy.

Ruthy is an anomaly in a surfing world that would prefer not to admit it. She’s a young, dark-skinned, 19-year-old woman from a far-flung, “developing” country. She sports an Afro, a shy smile, and an enchantingly modest ego. She doesn’t perform for the camera, she doesn’t wear a bikini for the boys, and she will not be selling her image on Instagram anytime soon. She sits the farthest out in a group of men, stroking powerfully into the largest set waves. It’s magic to watch. 

I wrestle with the idea of why it feels so good to watch Ruthy surf. It’s the same feeling I get when riding that balsa single-fin, listening to Nicholas activate communities against the loggers, or watching Peter’s happy and determined (albeit faltering) surfboard shaping.

Is it the community? The passion? The resistance? The upturned idea of “progress”?

Maybe it doesn’t matter that words struggle to define it. Ruthy, and Haus Tumbuna, embody it.