Papua New Guinea elders teach our place within nature

26 Jun
Tom Wegener

How do we make change in the world?  To answer this question we should look at our relationship with nature and society.  In the modern world, humans create wealth from extracting value from nature. We control the world. In the in indiginous worldview, humans share gifts with nature (gift economy). In Papua New Guinea, humans comunicate and can influence nature. In Tupira I witnessed something amazing.  Sometimes we ask for proof that there is something more out there.  Sometimes we are given this proof on a platter.   

In this course we will have a look at the worldview of the elders in Papua New Guinea. We will see how they want to maintain the culture of their people in the face of globalization.  They teach us how to affect change in their space. The story starts with chapter 13 of my book, "Surfboard Artisans For The Love."  The chapter is entitled My Value as a Surfbaord Artisan; Making Wood Surfbaords in Papua New Guinea. This book is my PhD thesis on the sustainability of small manufacturing in Australia with a focus on surfboards.  A key theme of the book is maintaing culture which supports local manufacturing.  I hope you enjoy these passages. 






Working as a surfboard artisan fills my life with purpose and integrity and brings happiness to other people’s lives. Through my work, I have continually hoped and strived to pass on the culture of the surfboard industry and the value of innovation and high art. One of the highlights of my career has been to go to remote communities in Papua New Guinea and share my skills and surf culture with their indigenous surfers.

If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed;

If you think in terms of ten years, plant trees;

If in terms of one hundred years, teach the people - Confucious

As I am writing these words, the date is the 9th of November 2015 and I am planning a second trip to Papua New Guinea (PNG). PNG is a group of Islands directly north of Queensland and borders West Papua, Indonesia. It has a close-knit history with Australia as it was a territory until 1974 and many locals speak English. I will be returning in a little over three weeks and I am so excited!

Earlier in 2015, I was invited to PNG by the manager of the Tupira Surf Camp Nicki Wynnychuk, the president of the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea, Andy Abel, and a chief judge of PNG who is a respected elder of the Tupira village, Justice Nicholas Kirriwom. They saw that the ancient tradition of riding locally-made wood surfboards was being displaced by the introduction of foam surfboards. Travelling surfers had introduced the locals to foam boards and then surfing organisations had donated My Value as a Surfboard Artisan; Making Wood Surfboards in Papua New Guinea 13 172 numerous foam surfboards to PNG. Although this was done with the best of intentions, once these surfboards arrived, the traditional wood surfboards were being left behind. Foam surfboards are much easier to surf than the traditional wood boards. They are far more buoyant and paddle much faster than the wood, they catch waves more easily and are more manoeuvrable. If a village had foam surfboards, the surfers would take turns riding them and not ride the traditional craft at all. The kids would rather wait their turn to ride one of the foam surfboards, which could take hours, than use the wood.

The foam surfboards donated to PNG were beneficial, as they sparked an increased interest in surfing and enabled the local surfers to widen their surfing experience. Also, in the places where tourists visited with surfboards, the locals were not looking on in envy. Instead they were in the water sharpening their surfing skills alongside the tourists. However, problems arose because the delicate foam surfboards are easily damaged, and the materials for fixing the boards are scarcely available in PNG. The donated boards have a limited lifespan and when they are gone, the sad situation of too few surfboards will often become a problem. The vast majority of surfers in PNG do not earn enough money to purchase surfboards from overseas so they are becoming reliant on donated surfboards. Nicki, especially, saw this as a looming problem, as he manages a surf camp where many of the local kids enjoy surfing. He watched the local kids slowly surf the life out of the few boards the village owned and then a sort of sad waiting game was taking the place of actively surfing.

Traditionally, surfing was an important pastime during the harvest season - December through March - which corresponds with the best surfing season. Food was plentiful and there was ample time for celebration and sport, and surfing was one of the activities taking place.

Nicki suggested to Andy Abel and Justice Kirriwom that the Tupira Surf Camp invite some top surfboard artisans to come and see if they could find a way to make the traditional wood surfboards more appealing to ride. Master surfboard shaper Bryan Bates and I took up the offer. Why did I accept the invitation? Because it is my job. Helping people enjoy surfing is my identity - it is who I am.

I believe my job is to help people enjoy surfing, and the way I do this is to make surfboards that will help people do just that. The people of PNG seemed to need a jumpstart on their traditional surfing to keep up their surf stoke, and I was only too happy to help. Bryan and I discussed all sorts of ways to approach the problem while we were still in Australia. For example, we could get inexpensive EPS foam and glue wood to the outside, or we could make my style of hollow wood boards, which are made like airplane wings. However, once we landed at Madang Airport and started the long, bumpy road out to the Tupira Surf Camp, any technical and resource-intensive construction methods for making surfboards were abandoned. The road seemed to stretch back in time as the villages along the side of the road became fewer with continually less modern attributes, like electricity and automobiles.

I had always wondered what it was like for the early European adventurers to step onto a Pacific Island and I was about to find out. Through the next two weeks I visited several villages where the only visible elements of modern life were the metal pots on the fire and the very few foam surfboards. One thing that I have to mention was the clean-cut grass lawns. In the original prints of ancient Hawai’i and other places, the lawns always looked well maintained. I was baffled, as I spend a lot of money keeping my own lawn in Australia mowed and these lawns looked the same, but they do not have modern tools. I finally learned that one of the jobs early in the morning is to take the machete and cut the lawns by hand. This has been going on for centuries. With the clean-cut lawns and the beautifully constructed bamboo houses on stilts, the villages were very neat and appealing, just as they are in the very old prints made by the early European explorers. Another thing I noticed was that there were significantly more kids than surfboards.


Clean-cut lawns and beautifully constructed bamboo houses on stilts, the villages were very neat and appealing, just as they are in the very old prints made by the early European explorers.

At the Tupira Surf Camp Nicki, Andy Abel and Justice Kirriwom had organised a hugely impressive quantity of large thick slabs of local timber. The timber was stored in an old shed, which also housed the camp generator, and had been a timber mill decades earlier. It took a few days for Bryan and me to settle in and get a plan together on how to approach the situation. We had slabs of mostly green wood and some basic power tools; a table saw, a circular saw, Bryan’s skill planer and sander and the villages collectively owned a chainsaw rigged to cut slabs. Also, there was an impressive array of woodworking hand tools which had been donated by the surfers who had visited over the previous months. World Surfaris, the Australian travel agents for Tupira, put the word out about the shaping classes and the tourists generously donated. I suggested that we start with alaias as they are quick to shape, we do not have to do any gluing as they can be cut from the slabs in front of us, and they are similar to the boards the locals had been making for eons. We decided that we should not use power tools in the shaping classes because most of the communities do not have electricity. However, the boards we shaped were more technically advanced than the traditional boards because they were symmetrical from our surfboard templates, and highly finished from the hand tools and sandpaper donated by Tupira tourists. The traditional boards had been cut and finished with one tool only, a machete without the use of templates.

I suspected that we were not really there to teach the locals how to make surfboards, rather to show that some accomplished surfboard makers would come to their village to respect their art of making wood surfboards. It felt as if we were offering our appreciation and value for their culture, showing that we, too, wanted to be a part of it and, from our experiences of our lifetime of making surfboards, suggest ways in which they might improve on their crafts to make them faster, more appealing to the kids, and maybe sold to tourists.

The first official shaping class turned out to be an enormous celebration at a neighbouring village. Bryan and I were mentally unprepared for the customs of entering a village and the traditional “Sing Sing.” We were met by the village guards in black paint screaming at us and swinging spears around and I stepped behind Justice Kirrawom. As we walked through the garden of the village I again felt I had gone way back in time. Many people were wearing traditional costume, with vibrant colours and tall, intricate head dresses with shells and flowers. The town was immaculate, with freshly-cut lawns and meticulous, bamboo houses on stilts. The dugout canoes were set on the beach in an orderly fashion and a path lined with palm fronds and flowers led to a newly-constructed roofed area where we were to sit and enjoy the festivities. We were entertained with beautiful dances with the performers in full tribal dress, and a collection of speeches. Even the famous Papua New Guinea mud man made an appearance, a truly unsettling sight. I was glad he was preoccupied scaring the kids and not me. The Tupira Surf Camp has a portable PA system and generator, which seemed out of place but definitely nice to have to address the hundreds of people gathered, and to play music, keeping the vibe 175 upbeat. The speeches were given in pidgin so I could only make out few words, however I was very honoured to be referred to by Justice Kirriwom as a “big, big name man.” Finally, Bryan and I set out three thin slabs of wood on makeshift racks, drew templates on the boards and let the locals quickly cut the outlines with their machetes. On the beach, with the afternoon sun filtering through the coconut palms, I witnessed the lightning flashes reflected from the shiny, swinging machetes and a thunder of chopping wood. It was shoulder-to-shoulder around the boards and the fact that nobody was hurt is a real testament to their knife skills. We then instructed them on the use of the hand plane, and then chisels to carve in a concave, and finally the sandpaper. The day turned into late afternoon and then evening and all seemed to go well.



First shaping class in PNG. It was essentially a celebration of their very old tradition of making wood surfboards. We were just throwing some new shapes into the mix. Photo: Old Plantation 2015.


As the days rolled on, Bryan and I realised that, although the wood looked like balsa, it was heavy and difficult to work, but as it rapidly dried out, we discovered that it was actually some of the highest quality balsa we had ever seen. Bryan had started carving a modern single-fin shape out of one of the thick slabs but was having trouble, as his power planer, with a barrel-style cutting blade, was futile against the wet wood. However, as the wood dried over the first nine days, Bryan found it progressively easier to work. I started cutting some of the balsa slabs down to two-inch square strips with the circular saw and then the table saw, and letting them dry for a couple of days before gluing them into a thick, alaia-style blank. The joins were not great, as they were not perfect cuts, and one board split soon after hitting the water, which embarrassed me to no end (the Gorilla glue I had brought with me does not work unless the joins are perfect). Soon, 176 Bryan and I were largely focussing on the balsa because it was the easiest to work and seemed to be the best for making boards that may be as attractive to ride as the foam boards. The next two classes were at different villages and were well-attended, although without so much ceremony. A big highlight of mine was paddling out in a dugout canoe and watching the kids ride the wood boards we had just made. For me, it seemed like an exercise in pushing back modern times and trying to restart surfing all over again. But why was going to PNG so important to me?

I did not go to PNG for financial gain, nor for any sort of ‘hero status’. I honestly feel the motivation for my going there was to help them enjoy surfing. My primary job in life is to help people enjoy surfing and my medium for this is the surfboard. This is how I see myself as having value and integrity. Perhaps this is the Stoic way of acting in harmony with the world’s divinity. This is my contribution to society. This is my worldview.

Reflecting on Papua New Guinea leads to the next and final worldview: Ancient Hawai’i. The PNG elders are trying to hold on to their surfing culture, while the ancient Hawaiians lost theirs. The elders are creating sustainable surf clubs, whereas, while ancient Hawai’i had sustainable surf clubs which lasted many hundreds of years, theirs have fallen back into the earth and been forgotten. Western culture aggressively swept across Hawai’i, erasing large parts of the ancient culture, leading to a hole which has not been filled or repaired. It is a scar which has not healed, and I believe all surfers still feel this in a way. I hope the Papua New Guineans do not suffer the same fate. 


This next section is, again, from my book.  It is chapter 26 is entitled, "How to Maintain a Surf Culture: the Papua New Guinea Experience."




What are the implications for the surfboard artisan? We have found the world-view of the contemporary surfboard artisan and found that the key threats are a loss of culture and changing the low barrier to entry into the surfboard industry. Looking through the world-view lens of the surfboard artisan, what can be done to overcome the threats?

In December, 2015, I went back to Papua New Guinea to continue to help the local artisans maintain their wood surfboard culture and grow their local surfboard industry. This time I was accompanied by my good friend and great surf filmmaker, Nathan Oldfield. Nathan came to document the locals’ journey with the new wood surfboards for his upcoming movie, The Church of the Open Sky. When I arrived in Tupira I found five cubic metres of rough-sawn balsa waiting for me. I brought a surfacer, used to mill the timber, weighing 30 kilos, which was my entire allowance for baggage. Soon we were making flat edges on the lengths of wood and gluing blanks together. The enthusiasm of the locals had not diminished in the slightest in my absence. I started making a 10- foot balsa gun, just like the one the Bear made in the movie Big Wednesday, but I was essentially pushed out of the work area by the buzzing locals. It was exciting! However, after the boards were finished, they did not spend much time in the water. The kids were still riding the foam. I saw disconnect between the men making the boards and the kids wanting to ride the boards. It seemed that everyone wanted the project to work, including the kids, yet the allure of the easy-riding foam boards was too much.



Three elders are getting ready to watch Alfanso, (second from the left) try some new surfboards. The reef in the background has the perfect surf for experimenting with surfboard design. The elders are; Peter, Thomas and John. 

One day, one of the elders finished a new surfboard design and asked me how it will surf. I said, “Well let’s find out. Everyone put down your tools, we are going to the beach. Round up the surfers.” The surfboard makers, which numbered around 13, quickly found a group of surfers and made the 100-yard walk to the beach. The surf was breaking across the coral reef in perfect form and was waist-to-head-height. I asked that each of the kids grab a wood board in front of the elders, thank the elders for making the board, and then paddle out. The elders watched intently as their boards were put to the test. This appeared to be the first time the elders had ever sat down to specifically watch the kids surf the boards that they had made. It was a new experience for all involved. I guess the boards the elders formerly made were pretty much the same for a very long time and cut out of old canoes. Now we were gluing lengths of balsa 291 together and creating new opportunities. It was a moment of enlightenment for the board makers. One elder stated that the local kids should no longer ride foam boards, that this was the way to go. From the shore, it looked like all was going great, but in the water I could see the kids getting frustrated with the difficulty of the wood. The boards we were making had problems. Wood is more difficult to ride overall, but to add to this, the wood was not sealed and ‘furred up’ - it became rough as the tiny end grains of the wood swelled making the wood feel like sandpaper. Also, the boards took on water making them heavier as the time went on. Most of the kids would not be happy with the prospect of only riding these wood boards.

We faced the very old problem of sealing light, buoyant wood so water would not leak in. The ancient Hawaiians had developed an elabourate method of sealing their wili wili wood boards by burying them in mud so that tiny grains of sand would enter the porous wood and fill the pores. Then they would let the surfboard dry and then rub the board with river stones to smooth the furred ends of the wood. Finally they would rub oils from kukui nut, banana and pandanus into the board. This would make a watertight layer over the surfboard. The Hawaiian process was time- and labour-intensive and is a testament to how much they loved surfing!

Later, in the 1930s to the mid-1950s, the Californian surfers dealt with the same problem with balsa wood and sealed it with marine varnish. However, when the slightest crack appeared in the seal, water would quickly saturate the wood. If the board was left in the sun the saturated wood would expand, exacerbating the problem. The Californians later evolved to sealing the boards with resin and fibreglass, which still had the lingering problem of dings. When foam blanks became available, which were easy to fibreglass and did not soak up water like the balsa, wood was quickly forgotten.

I was faced with a very old problem in Tupira and the local people had no traditional solutions. It appeared that they did not seal any of their local wood products. For example, their canoes were unsealed. I suggested we try paraffin or candle wax. We could melt the wax in oil and polish it onto the surfboards. After a few coats, the wax may create a waterproof surface. It took several days to procure a box of candles from Madang (two hours away) and the new process seemed promising. However, we also found that some balsa trees were not nearly as absorbent as others. There is a lot of room for experimentation and evolution.

The kids’ frustration with the wood did not outweigh their enthusiasm for the project. The next day we were back in the shaping shack making new boards and reshaping the boards that did not seem to work so well. The passion for making new styles of wood surfboards had caught on.

On the last day, Nicki and I sat down with the elders and surfers to discuss how the project will carry on in the future – after I leave and then when Nicki moves on. It seemed that a formal link with the new boards and the old culture should be recognised and maintained. One of the surfers recommended that one day a week should be dedicated to wood surfboards. The group voted that Sunday should be this day and that 292 the day will be called Nomokwa day, which means wood in the local language. As I left, signs were being painted explaining the new tradition and there seemed to be an air of relief. A way had been established which will maintain and perhaps even grow the wood surfboard making culture.

In April, 2016 Bryan Bates went back to Tupira and found the Nomokwa Day had been respected and boards were still being made. The camp had found an inexpensive varnish in Madang and it was adequately sealing the wood. The kids were coming to Bryan with new ideas for surfboard shapes and he would work with the kids and the elders to make the boards. Andy Abel, the president of the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea, visited and was so impressed with the development of the Tupira wood surfboard program that he is now working towards implementing it throughout PNG.

What Can We Learn from the Papua New Guinea Experience?

The culture of making wood surfboards has been maintained in Tupira, although it has morphed from cutting up old canoes to milling locally-grown balsa. The new foam surfboards could easily have displaced the wood surfboards but did not because the elders understood the value of maintaining their own culture, industry and integrity.


The implication from thes experiences are how bringing the elements of the Australian surfboard culture to PNG may have saved, or at least spurred the local surfboard industry in Tupira. The program is set to spread throughout the rest of the PNG surfing communities. There is a low barrier of entry into the PNG surfboard industry as light woods are abundant and the tools are simple. The experiences helped the locals see the value in their own locally-made surfboards as well as set in motion a culture of innovation and learning about surfboard design. The ‘Nomokwa’ wood surfboard day helped reinforce the ancient culture of making wood surfboards, and finally, the elders and kids identify themselves as surfboard artisans. They believe that they can do it.

Bringing the modern surfboard culture to PNG was a way to rebuff the influences of globalisation via imported surfboards. The elders found a way to maintain their own culture and their own sense of integrity. It was a way to maintain the surfboard industry.

Can we learn from the PNG experience? It seems as if conserving an industry begins with recognising and appreciating the culture that supports the industry. In Australia’s case, the way to rebuff the threat of surfboards like super Aviso boards and the loss of the low barrier of entry, is to value our own surfboard culture, just as the PNG elders did. Our culture is who we are. It is our identity, both personal and societal, and it may pass away if we do not act. We may become a little more robotic, a little more mindless and a little more poisoned by the vogue of the hour if we let our surfboard culture slip away.

There is a second way to view the PNG experience. Through the worldview lens of the surfboard artisan, meeting people and developing surfboards is an incredibly valuable and fulfilling experience. For a total of four weeks I met with the same locals and made surfboards. We did not know where we were going with the development, but it was the shared journey that was valuable. I socialised with them in their villages and got to know their families, and I walked in their sprawling gardens in the jungle. They live in a place with few modern luxuries, such as running water, electricity, refrigeration, banks, credit cards and superannuation. I felt like I was fulfilling my purpose in life as I passed on the surf culture which has nurtured me and generations of surfers before me. I am a surfboard artisan and my job is to make surfboards, help people enjoy the surf, create culture and enhance individual identity.

The implication of research is that valuing and passing on our surf culture is the way for surfboard artisans to maintain the sustainability of their industry. The secondary implication, as we learned from Horatio Greenough, is that the reward for the artisan is to enjoy the social community of like-minded people. Similarly, Warren states, “…a satisfying and enriching social life in surfing.” This is the true reward for being a surfboard artisan.


Nathan Oldfield's video on the Tupira Experience


Reflection on these chapters

In the chapters of my book, I focus on the wood surfboard culture and how to maintain this in the face of globalization.  The interesting thing for what we are looking at is the recognition by the local elders of their culture of wood working.  It seems that making surfboards is a way to continue this ancient culture.  Next we take a step back and look at the sense of how the elders and the culture fit into nature, how they fit into the world they precieve. 

In March, 2017, I went back to Tupira for a third time.  This time the issues were two fold.  First, finding how the locally made wood surfboards fit into the surfing world.  Second, how the ancient culture of Tupira and PNG fits into the modern world. Please see this article I wrote for Pacific Longboard Magazine about the World Surfing League surfing contest. 

Below is an article which I hope to link here, but I do not know how.  Work in procress...



Please see this video.




As you can see, this was a big production in a place on the very edge of the map of the modern world.  It was the most extravagant and well celebrated surf contest I have ever experienced by a long shot.  But, there is one detail which completely blew me a way.  It was the enormous effort put into making a wall of sand bags to keep the waves from rushing through the camp and soaking all watching the contest.  This was surprising to me because this was not high surf season for Tupira and I had never seen a wave that could overtake the little cliff (?).  More work went into this wall than all of the rest of the contest combined.  The reason for the wall was the elders had spoken to nature and called in big surf.  

While the contest was in full swing and the local surfers were competing, I notices one of the elders watching.  I asked him if he would tell me how he called in this swell.  Much to my surprise and excitment, he agreed.  I grabbed my gopro, snuck away from my role as one of the organizers and Compair and found a hiding place for the interview.  This is a clue into something amazing.  He gives us the recipe for communicating with nature and having nature respond.  And, everyone new nature was going to respond, so they built the wall.  

Place in the world

The wall.



Here is a trascript of the conversation:  I am not sure of his name.  I am looking now.

Ok, This is just a tiny little camera and I am going to put it right between us. Right here and

I'm so intrigued and excited that, that, that you can call in the waves, that you can have a festival coming and say OK let's call in the waves as a part of the festival and I guess the first question or the big question is, "How do you do it?"

Him: During our, our ancestor time our tabulas (?) time – they sit down they talking in round table discussion they come in union in mind, in thinking, emotionally, spiritually, you come together and they promise something to happen, to take place the next day or following. So that is exactly what I did.

Tom: Who were you with?

Him: I was with my group the group of tupad____ in the opening ceremony. I sat down with them. I gave my heart to them and they gave their's to me. And we get together and shake hands, shook hands and then we promise to do our best. So the world can see here is Tupira and this is Papua New Guinea. So When I came to this state I called to my points, to my beach, their names – I call their names, and have to throw some sand, throw some sand to them like this and say, "You Wake up, wake up we need you (you or go in there?)" So that is exactly what I did. just say something and nature listens.

Tom: It is as simple as you meet up with your friends and your family basically and you become one in spirits, in mind, in thinking and you ask nature, the points

Him: The points like Uligan Bay? Uligan Bay especially, I base my point, my bay my point, and the reefs and the sea.

Tom: You ask them to wake up wake up and you throw some sand and the surf comes up

The surf just comes up. Nature just listens. What our traditions -It is our tradition. Our Tabulas will do the same. We still do it.

Tom: Do you ask for other things than surf, big surf?

Him: Some of the things yes, like sun, like wind, sometimes rain, They do the same, sit down and put their minds together, we have ....________ they ask for a little bit of clouds coming in to give some shade or maybe a little shower and then they take a little soil and throw it in the (ocean) like this. Please. (their/your support you'll have)

Tom: Well I think I need to think like that because I never sit down with my family and friends and sit down and become one spirit and mind and think please nature to my bases which would be my yard and Noosa Heads and the surf and ask. I never ask. Do you think that may be a problem with western people?

Him: Um, I am not quite sure. I can get in there where you are. I believe you can. I believe you can do that. Call your family you can sit down with your family have a nice little food, you eat and then We are one spirit we are one thinking one vision please listen to us, We are in this place. Can you come in and see our need

Tom: You are talking to nature, the bay the points the nature, the ocean

Him: In this case the reefs, the ocean the bays, and the points

Tom: because I was very excited when you called in the surf and then Iwas excited when the surf came in and this is a fantastic swell like it is one of the best swells I have ever seen in my life. It is a great swell. I am always pleased to know there are people like you looking after all the rest of us... maybe there would not have been surf had you not. You know how important that is.

Him: Well Tom, there is not much more

Tom: But that is something I have never done. I will have to think about it and try.

Him: Yes, you try

Tom: Well thank you, than you. That was very important; I feel so happy, so emotionally happy to learn from you.



How do the PNG see their relationship with nature?

What is their commitment to tradition - looking at surfboards?

You can see they made an enormous effort to put on the best contest ans show the world Tupira and PNG.  What does this say about their societal values?

Next Discussion:

From your responses and from our class, we will look for more answers.