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It was 1979 and thanks to the organizers of the annual Dragon Boat Race in Hong Kong, Gabagaba Village had been accepted as an entrant in that year’s event. The event was one of the most popular in the then British governed State. An event that remembered a legendary Chinese poet and patriot by the name of Chu Yuan.
Legend has it that Yuan had many poems expressing his love of the country and its people but quite often protested, against the corruption of the Government. In his final protest, he cast himself into the Mi Lo river.
The local fishermen were moved by this and all raced to rescue Chu Yuan’s body. And the annual event of the Dragon Boat Race reflects or re-enacts that moment although in a more fun and competitive way.
Some hundred or so years later and thousands of miles across the Ocean in a village about an hours drive from Papua New Guinea’s capital city, Port Moresby, a group of Motuan men and women went into a state of craze after finding out that their village men were fortunate enough to be accepted in the 1979 event.
It was, at that time, the first of its kind for a village and as you can imagine the village went into a state of excitement and possibly anxiety. Anxiety because many of those who made the final “cut” had never been inside an aircraft, let alone, travelled many miles across the ocean. They may have paddled the seas countless times, but this was a paddle of a different kind.
How their name popped up on the organizers list is a story of its own, but the most immediate question posed was how they would get there. The question was quickly answered at the time of the announcement as both Air Niugini and the Hong Kong Tourist Association had agreed to foot the bill for the entire travel.
And so the preparation and excitement of the trip began in Gabagaba Village.
Even those that did not make the team, Gabagaba came as one to give all their support to their paddlers.
23 paddlers and two women dancers (namely Naomi Bagelo and Gevena Bala) made the team to travel to Hong Kong to take part in the Dragon Boat race. The team departed on May 26 led by Promotion Manager Biga Lebasi and Team Manager Galeva Bagelo.
This was a trip of a life time for many and as Lebasi recalls in an article on the trip, the members “craned their necks to get a better view of the glittering neon lit British Territory” as the Air Niugini Boeing 707/338C descended on Kai Tak International Airport.
The team stayed at the YMCA in Waterloo Road during their time in Hong Kong while Lebasi as the organizer and key contact stayed at the Grand Hotel.
Lebasi in his article recalls the many appointments and the busy schedule for the team a highlight being the team’s appearance in traditional gear on Hong Kong’s popular television program “Enjoy Yourself Tonight” a program with a large audience and a viewership at that time of about 2 million weekly.
In recounting a funny incident when he was alerted about an “urgent” message, Lebasi recalls:
“So much has happened since we arrived in Hong Kong. It was the umpteenth urgent message regarding our team and it read:
We have no betelnut please send us some, Gabi Tau (YMCA Waterloo Road)”
“Suffer, I thought. I told you to bring enough to last 10 days”.
Gabi argued that 12 betelnut for 24 people wasn’t enough. But Lebasi stood his ground.
“Sorry that’s all you’re having mate and I’m rationing the supply from my two-kilo bag of betelnut. Now you go and share these with the others at the Y.
From the taxi cab Gabi shouted back to Lebasi in Motu “What about betelnut for tomorrow?”
The Promotions Manager shouted back:
“Wait until tomorrow!”
So how did the team go, one may ask?
Well, the team came fourth and team manager Bagelo said after the race:
“We came fourth which wasn’t bad for PNG’s first team to participate in the famous race.
This trip appears to be the first ever trip for a team from Papua New Guinea to participate in a team water activity. We have not found any information regarding the team returning the following year to participate.
Pictures: Post Courier File Pics