Hundreds of villagers from surrounding areas leave with their allocations of rice.
Hundreds of villagers from surrounding areas leave with their allocations of rice. Jonno Colfs

Warwick man's epic aid mission to PNG

MARK Wallis might have a touch of dengue fever but he's also got a lifetime of memories and sense of pride for having chipped in when others needed it most.

Mr Wallis just returned from a two-week trip to Papua New Guinea, where he volunteered and assisted with a massive food distribution project.

Australia's northern neighbour has been in the grips of a devastating drought and Mr Wallis said it's not something you'd expect to find in a tropical country.

"It's still green but once you get on the ground you can see how dry it really is," he said.

"The average rainfall is right down so the gardens and crops are failing.

"These crops are used to a lot of rain and they're just not growing properly, spoiling and rotting before they can be consumed.

"Pests have also been a massive issue; rats, pigs and deer are raiding the gardens due to their own food supplies being diminished.

"The diet of these remote communities is reliant on these crops, so when they fail there is a very serious problem."

Despite reports that the drought has now broken, it will still be six months before gardens and crops become productive.

Mr Wallis said there was one particular village that would run out of drinking water completely if there was no rain for three days.

"The children in most of the villages I went to were severely malnourished and death rates were a lot higher than usual,"he said.

"Most cases involved young men, as they are the ones who do most of the work in the gardens.

"These aren't your average gardens, they are large cleared areas in the forest where all of the food for the village is grown.

"These young men have to get to the gardens, which can be quite some distance from the village, say an hours walk, and then they have to do all of the physical labour required to farm the crops.

"I heard reports that men are dying in the field and on the side of the roads. They simply don't have the energy and the strength due to the lack of food. They are running on empty."

Mr Wallis' connection with Papua New Guinea began in 1968 when his biological grandparents, Tom and Salome Hoey, who originally had a farm near Allora, went there to establish a mission with the previously uncontacted and at that stage, cannibalistic Biami tribe in the Western Province.

Mark's birth mother Sally Lloyd, spent much of her childhood in PNG, and as result has a great love for the country.

Mrs Lloyd has been going back to PNG regularly to provide support and assistance for the remote communities.

Mr Wallis, who was adopted as a young child, said when he reconnected with his birth mother in 2004, he found out all about her work in PNG and it appealed to his humanitarian and environmental interests.

"Sally grew up there; she's fluent in pidgin English and Biami and privately funds her own trips back," he said.

"Tom is still there every year for a few months as well, in his 80s and still helping to build schools and clinics.

"He has helped to build more than 10 airstrips and also a hydro-electric scheme that supplies power to a very remote area."

Mr Wallis first went to PNG with Mrs Lloyd in June 2014.

"We went over and brought a young girl back to Brisbane for a much needed operation," Mr Wallis said.

"It was the first time the family had left the remote village they came from.

"It was quite an experience for them."

While in the region in late 2015, Mrs Lloyd identified serious problems stemming from the prolonged drought and started to raise awareness of the plight of the starving communities.

She began to collect population data and passed it on to the UN's World Food Program, whose function is to provide a logistical plan and gather sponsors to fund the buying of food.

The Ok Tedi Foundation came on board to pay for the rice for the entire program and Digicel Foundation donated a million PNG Kina (about AUS $400,000) to provide all of the air transportation for the rice.

Mr Wallis said Mrs Lloyd asked him to come over as a volunteer and help distribute the rice to the communities.

"I decided to go, with the permission and support from my wonderful wife Brooke and children, Vanessa and Hayden, and planned my trip to coincide with the rice distribution," Mr Wallis said.

"While still in Australia, I also assisted Sally by mapping the region in Google Maps with the GPS points she would send me.

"This information was used to determine where we could fly the supplies into, where supplies were needed and where was accessible.

"I had a 30kg luggage limit so I packed all my stuff into hand luggage and loaded up with more needed supplies such as water bottles and clothes.

"I left Brisbane on March 28 and flew to Port Moresby, and from there to Kiunga where we loaded a plane with a ton a rice and I jumped on for the trip to Fuma, then a 10hr walk to Mougulu, the community where most of the distribution would take place. "All of the surrounding villages sent people to Mougulu to collect their rice allocations and this where I assisted, in the organisation and distribution of those allocations.

In all 1500 bags of rice were handed out in Mougulu, to feed about 6090 villagers. This will allow each person 300g of rice each day for a month.

While he was in Mougulu, Mr Wallis said he saw a young boy, Sabithi, brought in from a neighbouring village by his parents.

"He was unconscious on arrival and close to death, extremely malnourished with the bloated stomach; a scene that I'd really only see on TV before.

"The clinic there is very good but it's hard to get proper supplies in so they organised an incoming film crew to bring more, including drips.

"The clinic immediately got him on the drip and he eventually came to, but was very weak from malaria, anaemia and malnutrition.

"He was placed on a lot of fluids and began to recover over the next couple of days.

"Every night I'd go down to check on him and take his family dinner and formed a nice bond.

"On the day I left he was standing. It was a beautiful feeling to see he'd made it."

Mr Wallis said the difference between this visit and the last was shocking.

"These people are so friendly and welcoming, they generally greet you with smiles and gifts of food.

"This time, despite being sick and weak, the smiles were still there but they had nothing to give.

"It does mean a lot to them to know people care about them and are willing to help.

"I'll be going back. My plan is to fundraise enough to purchase an Argo 8-wheeler ATV that I can take over there to be used as a mobile clinic and ambulance, which might help save lives in such a remote area.

To help Mr Wallis reach his goal, phone Jonno at the Warwick Daily News on

4660 1355.

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