Touchdown Zone: Walagu
Region: Papua New Guinea
Elevation: 2,020 feet
Length: 632 meters/2,073 feet
Width: 33 meters/108 feet
Language group served: Onobasulu
More than 1,500 Onobasulu live in seven villages and various hamlets in a remote part of Hela Province of PNG. About half the population lives in Walagu, the main village. From Walagu, walking distances to the other villages vary from forty minutes to five hours. As subsistence farmers, the villagers have a largely nonmonetary economy, but they can earn cash at nearby oil and timber companies. Some even use cell phones via a limited signal that covers some of the area! Although the people don’t suffer from hunger, thirst, or lack of shelter, they lack good medical care and education.
Time saved: The Walagu airstrip is a lifeline—for the translation project, as well as for medical evacuations, flying in school teachers and materials, trade store goods and many other things.
For the Onobasulu translation team, aviation is a far safer, more reliable, and more efficient way to travel to and from Walagu. From Ukarumpa, SIL-PNG’s translation center, the flight time to Walagu is 1 hour 20 minutes.
Since Walagu has no road access, the alternatives to air service require many days of difficult, dangerous hiking. One option is to fly from Ukarumpa to the nearest major town, Tari (capital of Hela Province), and then hike to Walagu—a three-day hike across multiple rivers and a large mountain range and through the territory of a hostile people group, Sometimes threats or fights can make it too dangerous to travel through this area. A second option is a two-day road trip from Ukarumpa to Tari over roads in poor shape, then the arduous three-day hike from Tari to Walagu.
Interesting fact: Walagu airstrip is situated in a small swampy valley, surrounded by creeks. Over time the runway, deteriorated by water, became so soft that it had to be shut down. With no heavy equipment available, the whole community joined in a huge effort to repair the airstrip. They redirected a creek and strengthened the river banks. They dug out the middle 40-foot width of the runway by hand to a depth of about three feet. They filled the trench with stones, hand-carried from nearby rivers, then covered it with a thin layer of firm ground. The whole effort took months but has made the airstrip usable again. Since their lawn mower broke down over a year ago, the community hand-cuts the airstrip area regularly. The experience of not having a functioning airstrip made them very aware of the need to maintain it.
Walagu Photo credit: Jonathan Federwitz