LIVING IN IRIAN JAYA by SueAnne Davidson

I was surprised to be handed two copies of Network News by a friend as I was boarding an aeroplane, with the suggestion that I “read these and maybe write something”. Although I grew up on a farm, I didn’t feel like a rural woman anymore. I spent the best part of the next hour reading the copies and realised that, while I may not be rural, where I was living was definitely remote.

I live with my husband and two young children at Tembagapura, Irian Jaya, Indonesia. Until August 1996 I had not heard of the place, but my husband had accepted a job there then our steep learning curve began.

To reach Tembagapura you fly half a day east from Jakarta to land on an airstrip carved from thick jungle growth in the lowlands of Irian Jaya. All travel from here is by four wheel drive, climbing to 1850 metres in the next 110 kilometres a journey which takes one and a half hours. With an annual rainfall of 7600 millimetres, visibility is usually poor due to thick cloud and heavy rain; however, on a rare clear day the views are spectacular as you climb into the highlands. It is better to concentrate on the views than the fact that you are travelling along an often onelanewide dirt track clinging to the side of the mountain.

Only one small section of the road is sealed to prevent it sliding into the valley below. This is the only road up the mountain and is shared by four wheel drives, heavy mine equipment and graders which are constantly at work. Everything needed to supply one of the world’s largest copper/gold mines plus 10,00-plus staff comes up this road – from packets of biscuits to 250 tonne trucks (in pieces!). Flat tyres are common (Nine in two days is my husband’s record to date.) as are overheated brakes and engines. Home is usually a welcome site after this trip.

Due to the mountainous terrain, space is at a premium in Tembagapura; so the most common form of accommodation is in apartments. Ours is on the first floor and this can make life with young children very trying at times. Backyards can be such sanity savers for mothers as well as children!

Amenities in town are quite good with an American as well as an Indonesian school, supermarket, coffee shop, library, restaurant, bar and sports facilities. Outdoor activities happen before the daily rain sets in at noon.

The supermarket is stocked with a mixture of Australian and Indonesian groceries. Supply can be erratic, while fruit and vegetables are often expensive and old. It has not been possible to buy wine in town since Christmas and Fosters beer is currently on special at half price a bargain at $25 a carton. Morning tea at the coffee shop is often interrupted by squeals from the supermarket such as – There’s yoghurt in the dairy fridge! Edible beans in the vegie section!Plain flour is back on the shelves!

Generally, women are not allowed to drive or work and many wives find this a hard adjustment to make. Husbands leave before dawn to go to the mine, another half hour drive by four wheel drive to reach 4000 metre altitude. The last section of the trip is usually done by cable car which only occasionally malfunctions to leave people suspended in mid air!

The postal service tends to be unreliable. Initially communication was difficult, but after eight months we have finally received a telephone access code so can now phone home and enjoy receiving E-mail from friends.

Living in a remote mining town (a first for me) in Indonesia is certainly challenging but is also a great way to get glimpses of a country which has been described as one of the world’s last wildernesses. I am learning the Indonesian language and my children are mixing with a wide variety of children from all over the world. I don’t see us being here forever but feel lucky (most days) to be here now and look forward to regular holidays home.

SueAnne Davidson, Irian Jaya.

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Jason Scarabin

I'm a parent, an extreme Libertarian and an atheist.

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5 Responses

  1. JerryNic says:

    SueAnne, I happened upon your comments today. I enjoyed the read so very much. I lived at the base camp for about 10 weeks in about 1979. I was part of a consulting team working with the mining process. Seeing your words reminded me of my days there. The environment WAS a challenge, but it was an experience I shall never forget. Thanks.
    Jerry Nicholas
    Indialantic, Florida

  2. carl giaudrone says:

    i worked in the mine dept for 9 years, const. supt., i met a lovely lady from jakarta, in 1990 we were married. i retired in 1993, lived in carlsbad,nm for 10 years, then moved to northwestern arkansas. it’s beautiful in the azark mountains. hunting & fishing is superb. we recently bought a cattle ranch in southeastern oklahoma,we will be doing a lot of runnig back & forth. say hi to the “old friends” if there’s any left

    carl giaudrone

    • freddie dela cruz says:

      Carl, how is life goin? so long time when we moved out from tembagapura, how fast years goes by, my facebook was blocked where you sent your friend request so i cant send you message

  3. Buzz Cook says:

    From 1971 to 1973 I was a Bechtel Constr Supt, 1st in charge of crews bldg most of the concrete fdn’s sequencially in the various areas. ie: portsite, original townsite for 1500 people including housing & comm. bldg’s, original millsite bldg’s & struct’s, lower & upper tram fdn’s. Final few months was townsite Supt in chg of completing all townsite facilities & turning them over to Freeport Indonesia, then seconded to client for constr of various projects.
    Had family onsite during this period, & children addended very 1st school session. Am interested in hearing from anyone that was there thend or subsequently thre the years

    • Frankie Seller says:

      Hello – my family was there in the early days too. Bill and Mary Seller are my parents. I was in 8th grade for a few months there when the school first opened. 7th and 8th grade were one class and 5th and 6th were another and all 4 grades shared the same classroom. I remember the school was late opening and most of the parents decided to send us 8th graders off to school in Australia at the beginning of January of the following year since it was the start of their school year. Amazing place – excellent memories 🙂

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