Hugs and Handshakes in PNG

What does one do when the reality of retirement fills the mind? Paint houses, play golf, potter in the garden, join a men’s shed, trip around Australia. Norelle, my wife, said “Why not volunteer?”

I admit that volunteering was the furthest thought from my mind.

Until recent years, volunteers, to me, were those who come and go after a short time in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and leave to talk about their experiences for the rest of their lives. Then…my life changed. I was working in New Ireland living in an old Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) apartment surrounded by SIL volunteers coming and going from their designated mission stations. Like my family and me, many had been in PNG for decades. We shared stories, our lifestyles as far removed as one could get except for one common denominator…a love of PNG. I saw volunteering in another light. Maybe there is something in volunteering in my…dare I say…senior years.

Norelle searched the internet for volunteer work. She liked what she read about Palms. At home in Newcastle, alone, and with a last minute ‘you’ll never know unless you go,’ decision, Norelle went to listen to Executive Director, Roger Halloran, and returned volunteers speaking about Palms. With my PNG employment nearing an end we decided to do the orientation course.

The course went beyond our expectations. On the serious side we learned step by step the principles of Palms. On the social side our group was such fun. One went to bed on a high reflecting on the day’s events and looking forward to the next day. By now Norelle had mentioned to me a Fleet Manager position she had seen in the newsletter at the Catholic Archdiocese of Mt Hagen. My reply was “No, why would I want to go there?” as most of our old plantation workers came from the Highlands. “But…” said Norelle, reminding me she had wanted to go to Mt Hagen over 40 years ago.

 A Palms Encounter trip to East Timor shortly after our orientation course gave us yet another insight into Palms volunteering. We enjoyed meeting Palms volunteers and seeing the sights and sounds of East Timor, but PNG called…I accepted the position as Fleet Manager.

My task is to improve Moses’ management skills. Being a National from Madang he is destined to become the Fleet Manager of the archdiocese. As the Workshop Manager for many years, he has endured the complexity of organising the servicing of over 80 vehicles. Parish isolation, rapidly deteriorating road conditions and poor communication have resulted in increasing operating costs to the archdiocese.

Updating the Fleet Maintenance records, education of our fleet users in complying with service schedules, together with promoting “help us to help you”, is slowly making headway.

I encourage Moses to lead the way in managing the entire workshop. Step by step I hope to share my knowledge and support him through the transition.

I’ve travelled with him to many outlying mission stations taking the Fathers as close as possible back to their parish. Often the roads are non-existent or not trafficable, so some still have several days walking from the drop-off point. All too commonly we are told roads that once took only a few hours to traverse now take up to seven hours one way due to lack of maintenance for up to 25 years. The endless view of the majestic mountains lined periodically with the scar of a mudslide or cascading waterfalls far away, more than compensates the body jerking for hours inside our Land Rover.

Sometimes a parish vehicle will break down in these remote places and Moses and I will head out, either to fix it on the spot or, after temporary repair, drive it back for workshop repair.

When cars cannot be self-propelled, a converted land cruiser and solid towbar is the only means of transport back to mechanical repair. Once a vehicle skidding off into a ditch at night required heavy duty towing assistance. Making arrangement by mobile was impossible, so leaving and returning to the site, we found it empty. The Fathers’ helpers had arrived in our absence and lifted it bodily back on the road again.

Help from others always appears in unexpected ways!

No matter where we go, the locals wave from the roadside as we pass by. Modern technology has arrived in the remotest of remote regions. One can sometimes see a mobile phone in one hand and a small hand-held solar panel for charging in the other. On reaching any destination, people gather and one becomes overwhelmed by the hugs and handshakes, for no reason other than our simply being there. Many of the old folk feel deserted and are saddened by the fact that their once thriving country is slip-sliding away. Tears glisten. A bigger hug, a stronger handshake when I tell them that I am now volunteering.

One of our highlights has been visiting my Palms counterpart Pauline at Kiripia mission.

Father Joe’s and Pauline’s accomplishments in bringing health and education to this area are beyond words.

Finally, Norelle has enjoyed venturing to all these places with me.

“Why not volunteer?” Norelle had said. I am so glad I did.

The smiles, the waves, the hugs and handshakes are everywhere.

Mt Hagen! I love the place.

Palms Volunteer, Les Hartwig responded to Mount Hagen’s request for a Fleet Manager to develop management programs and implement maintenance procedures for the archdiocese’s vehicles. Local staff will be mentored in these policies and best practices, allowing the smooth running of the vehicle fleet into the future and enabling the work of diocesan staff.

Like Les, your skills can make a difference around the world. If you are interested in volunteering with Palms Australia, please enquire now! You can also P our Sydney office on 02 9560 5333 or E


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Les Hartwig Image
Les Hartwig

Les Hartwig is a PALMS volunteer from Newcastle.

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