by Dr Anthony Cooper – an Australian visitor’s perspective of the Oro Bridges project in PNG.
There’s nothing like a visit to a developing country to force us to think about the difficulties faced by people living there. In this context, Canstruct’s bridges are about as important to the locals of Oro Province as electricity, water and sewerage are to us.
The Canstruct bridges look bigger ‘in the flesh’ than they do in the photos – up close you can see them for the ambitious structures they are, their streamlined pylons built to stand against the powerful torrents of Oro Province’s rivers in the wet season, and with massive steel I-section girders spanning the considerable distances between the abutments and the piers. These bridges are long – you might pass by Eroro thinking the project was unremarkable, but by the time you get to Ambogo, you’re getting the dawning realisation that these are big bridges, with surprisingly-long sections, and by the time you get to the Kumusi you can be in no doubt! The bridges get bigger as you head inland, from 70m at Eroro to 285m at Kumusi.
These bridges are a vital contribution to keeping the lifeblood of Oro Province’s economy and society circulating. This is because communications difficulties are the most severe handicap faced by the locals. Despite lying only a half hour’s plane ride away from the bustling big city of Port Moresby, Oro is a remote location, separated as it is from the capital by the intervening mountainous mass of the Owen Stanleys. Port Moresby may as well be hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away.
The highway running from Oro to Popondetta and Kokoda is the backbone of the province, providing a more or less east-to-west communications axis for everything and everyone: commuting workers, freight shipments, market goods, school buses, construction teams, and of course the ubiquitous palm oil trucks. In Oro, like elsewhere in PNG, subsistence agriculture at village level is the basic building block of the whole economy. Without the highway, that’s all there would be in Oro.
Given this, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of this highway, which is why the bridge project is such a vital job for the whole community. The topography of Oro can basically be described as a strip of low lying flat land running east-west between the beaches to the north and the foothills of the Owen Stanley ranges to the south; out of those tall, rain-shrouded mountains run a succession of rivers which flow across the coastal lowlands to drain into the sea. The highway therefore crosses river after river as it threads its way across the province to bring its lifeblood of people, workers, families, school children, goods, business, and trade.
When you visit, you see that Canstruct’s four bridges are only a small selection of what seem to be dozens of such crossings – although they are clearly the highest priority of them all. PNG’s tropical rainfall has progressively wrecked so many of those river crossings, and a journey along the highway from end to end reveals the variety of improvised solutions to the problem of permitting traffic to continue crossing the rivers – you pass over fords, causeways, Bailey bridges, and half-wrecked old bridges propped on stacked-up, earth-filled shipping containers. Canstruct’s bridge sites would look good by any First World standard, with their smooth concrete, their gleaming newly-galvanised steel, and their pristine earthworks; but by the standards of all these other half-ruined and half-serviceable crossings, they are a revelation of progress and professionalism.
This is helped by the fact that, judging by what I saw, Canstruct has a team of artists on the job. It’s easy to forget the artistic finesse of the best type of construction workers, but judging by the bridge sites in Oro, Canstruct has a team of men committed to producing work which is not only technically correct, but beautiful. You can see there’s nothing slapdash about guys like Chris or James as they operate their excavators – I watched them piling up their stash of road base, smoothing out the sides and levelling off the top with the care, pride and finesse, as though their reputation depended upon it. It turned out that it did! – at least judging by the men’s conversation up at ‘The Ridge’ after work. It’s lucky that there is no Canstruct rule against ‘shop talk’ at dinner, because the men seemed to think, talk and sleep little else while in Oro. Everyone was so focused on the job, and in their humour-filled chat over a couple of ‘cold ones’ they debriefed that day’s work, seeking to define and solve problems in order to resume work next day with a clear focus upon priorities, and a toolkit of strategies to avoid and overcome foreseen problems. It must have helped that the enthusiastic young guys had some wise older heads alongside: for example, one gets the impression that there isn’t much that ‘Brownie’ hasn’t ‘seen or done’ (either on construction jobs or on the deck of a fishing boat!).
Another element of Canstruct’s way of working is maintaining positive attitudes to the locals and developing positive relationships with all relevant communities. All the men seemed to exhibit this kind of tolerant, good-natured style, with Des and Winston leading the push. I drove the length of the highway with them, and it seemed that they know every single person by name! The state of the roads often prevents rapid travel, but our rate of progress was slowed down even further by the need to the wave back at the locals, plus all those stops to chat through the window of the car with yet another old buddy! In summary, I conclude that not only does Des know everyone in Oro, but Winston is related to everyone! Watching these men operating was like watching the best kind of politician doing his rounds, meeting and greeting, pressing the flesh, remembering not only everyone’s names but all sorts of local details, exuding inclusive positivity, presenting gifts, and cementing goodwill. Winston switched impressively from English to Pidgin to Moto to local dialects seemingly at the flick of a switch, mid-sentence. As for Des, if they locals had presented him with a baby to kiss, or a piglet to fondle, he’d have done it – for the company.
I only visited the job as a ‘blow in’, but I came away from my contact with Canstruct with a great sense of humility, knowing that the workers upon whom Canstruct depended were first class men dedicated to building good bridges for the people of Oro. It made me proud to be associated, however peripherally, with the company, and also made me proud to be Australian.
Baptism of Des (Junior) Charlie Haiva with Des Gwilliams, Canstruct’s Community Liasion Officer- 1st June 2015 – Kumusi