Story by Mandy Glass. Photos Michael Duncalfe (MD), Mathias Glass (MSG), Mandy Glass (MG) and Tony and Lynn Fry (TLF)
Simbai is a village only accessible by air. Our MAF aircraft frequently provide flights for cargo and passengers, serving an estimated population of more than 25,000 people through this one airstrip. Recently, three of our MAF staff spent a couple of nights with the Simbai based British Anglican Missionaries Reverend Lynn and Tony Fry at Simbai to “investigate“ the dependence of the community on its airstrip.
In this 3 part series called “Simbai – Initiatives for a Better Future“, part 1 explores the utilisation of a portable sawmill flown in by MAF earlier this year and takes you to two new facilities on the Anglican church ground at Simbai.
In Part 2 you’ll meet a few locals who through their airstrip dependant initiatives and businesses are keen to improve the cash income of the village and to promote the high quality of Simbai grown organic Arabica coffee and the rich culture of the people living in this mountainous area.
In Part 3, more of Simbai’s infrastructure gets explored and MAF PNG’s IT Officer Michael Gena shares some personal reflections about his encounters with some of Simbai’s people and the observations of Simbai’s infrastructure.
Loads and loads of building materials
In the first six months of 2018, lots of MAF flights departed Mt Hagen for Simbai. For the Twin Otter it is about a good 20-minute flight, for a Cessna Caravan it takes about the same time and for a GA8 Airvan five minutes longer. Besides passengers travelling between Simbai and Mt Hagen on service flights, many of the MAF aircraft departed Mt Hagen with food and household items for local business owners, but also an extraordinary amount of building materials such as cement bags, steel posts, corrugated iron and nails.
At the end of January, the Twin Otter carried a somewhat eclectic mix of wheelbarrows, tarpaulins, containers, chainsaws, sawmill, gas bottles and various other bits and pieces, a total of 1,573 kg.
This charter flight for the Anglican Church, taking materials and supplies to help rural farmers in the area, was piloted by Captain Michael Duncalfe and First Officer Ryan Cole. “The cargo included a Lucas mobile sawmill, which has a 6 metre beam that the saw runs on. Even for the Otter this can only just fit in,“ stated Michael.
Between March and May, right next to the parking bay at Simbai, a new multipurpose building grew out of the ground in just a few weeks. Caravan pilot Mathias Glass, who frequently flew to Simbai during that period, was quite impressed with the fast progress of the new building. Each time he landed, he saw many busy people, either digging the holes for the posts, mixing the cement and planting the posts, building the wooden skeleton of the building. Eventually, the outside walls and roofing iron sheets were put on, the covered entrance taking shape and its concrete stairs. Later, the work progressed on the inside.
The new building contains storage space for coffee bags, an office each for the coffee corporation and the local MAF agent, and a room that can be used and rented for training or other functions.
The return flights from Simbai to Mt Hagen often fill up with coffee bags, each containing about 50 kg of peeled and dried coffee cherries. People carry them as far as four hours just to get them to the airstrip.
Mathias’ wife, Mandy, in her role as Communications Officer, hearing about the new building and seeing some footage of the building progress, wanted to know more about the village development in Simbai and the dependence of the village upon MAF and its airstrip. Therefore, she approached the Anglican missionaries Reverend Lynn and Tony Fry who were happy to welcome the two to stay with them.
Michael Gena, MAF PNG’s IT Officer was welcome to also come along for a weekend in June. The three of us received a warm welcome by the Anglican church community with some flower necklaces, songs and a welcome dinner.
A new Coffee Shop and a new Anglican Church Building
Lynn & Tony work under the Anglican Church and have had a heart for the people of Simbai since they moved there in 2016. Both teach at the local vocational school, which has about 70 part and full-time students. Tony is an agricultural trainer and for example, is introducing composting soil to improve the fertility of the local soil. Lynn teaches basic computer skills, tourism and hospitality.
To put skills into practice Lynn sourced funding to get the first ever Simbai Coffee Shop off the ground. Besides serving freshly brewed Simbai coffee, cake and biscuits, some basic meals like soups and curries made it also on the menu. Despite growing coffee in the hills around Simbai station, everyone so far only knew instant coffee but never got to try their locally grown coffee. This changed with the opening of the Barnabas Coffee Shop. “People really enjoy it,“ said Lynn. “And our girls have really grown in their self-confidence, approaching and serving male customers with a firm and friendly demeanour.“ Unfortunately, the coffee shop is a 10 minutes walk from the airstrip. Otherwise, our pilots could have a decent break every time they fly to Simbai and indulge in a freshly brewed cup of coffee right where the beans are organically grown and processed…
A bit further up the hill from the coffee shop, another construction site was in full swing: the new Anglican church building, for which Tony is the project manager. Earlier in the year, Tony was seen walking around the church district, identifying which trees are to be felled for the roof trusses and main posts. Then, the sawmill with all its components, which MAF delivered at the beginning of the year, had to be carried to the different locations where the trees were. “Eighteen 6 metre hardwood logs had to be dragged down the mountain by a group of about 12-15 men with one running behind trying to guide it. Very dangerous but all pumping testosterone!“ said Lynn.
Then, again with a combination of muscle power and ropes, the individual elements were erected under local construction manager Nicodemas Mas, who is the Ward Councillor and the school’s governor. The inauguration of the new church building is scheduled to be in October.
Simbai being only accessible via air, means the airstrip is essential for the day to day life of Lynn and Tony but also for the new church being built. Tony explains: “When we returned to Simbai in January 2017, the airstrip had been closed. There was no school (no teachers) and nothing in the local stores. It was a hard time for us, looking for enough food and trying to stay healthy. Thanks to some hard work from the community, the airstrip was opened again, the stores are full and we have been able to get all the building materials for the new church flown in. Local businesses are thriving. MAF has been a great friend to us and we are very grateful!“
Simbai – General Informations
Simbai is located in the central highlands of Papua New Guinea, its airstrip lays at 1800 m altitude. Beside some hiking tracks, the airstrip is the major way in and out of Simbai. The community gets served by MAF and other third level airlines either from Mt Hagen or Madang.
As one of four major communities in the Middle Ramu District, Simbai is part of the Madang Province. The people belong to the Kalam tribe, one of the largest language groups of Papua New Guinea.
It is estimated that about 25,000 adults live in the administrative area of Simbai and subsequently the catchment area of the airstrip.
Graduates from 18 primary schools (up to Grade 8) can continue their education in Grades 9 and 10 at its high school. In 2017, 5 out of 56 students from the local primary school made the leap to high school. Of the 200 tenth graders, only 18 students have passed the exam.
Approximately 3000 families are coffee farmers. Coffee is the only economic basis of life, the new coffee factory an investment into the future.