Skip to main content

Brutal blaze sparks heartfelt Hanuabada homecoming

Rarua Morea Gau, dressed in a Melbourne Storm shirt, stands in the muddy wreckage of a fire holding a bulging garbage bag.
Rarua Morea Gau cleans up the site where his home once stood, proudly sporting his Melbourne Storm shirt.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

The Papua New Guinean village Hanuabada is best known for two things — the iconic homes on stilts that cling to its shoreline, and for being the home of cricket in the Pacific nation. These two sides of Hanuabada have been united in the face of tragedy.

Rarua Morea Gau was enjoying his favourite moment of every week — relaxing at his sister's house watching Australia's National Rugby League premiership, specifically his beloved Melbourne Storm cruising to victory over the Newcastle Knights.

Skip Twitter Tweet

FireFox NVDA users - To access the following content, press 'M' to enter the iFrame.

"Suddenly I heard people shouting," he recalls.

"When we ran out, I saw smoke coming from where my house was and our house was on fire. We came running down but sorry, too late."

The water supply to Hanuabada was cut off that day, making firefighting almost impossible. Charred stilts now stand where once there were 15 family homes.

"Luckily, no life was lost, but we lost everything," Rarua says, standing on the shoreline where his house used to be.

Hundreds of garbage bags have been piled neatly around the waterfront village. Tonnes of plastic and remnants of family homes painstakingly dragged from mud and water, making the area more pleasant, less confronting and a step closer to repair.

Eight people sort through the wreckage of a fire using shovels. Houses on stilts stand above water in the background.
Hundreds of bags of garbage were collected in a single morning.

Supplied: PNG Cricket

For Rarua and the other victims, this Saturday has been one of the best since that Saturday.

Much of the dirty work has been done by some of PNG's most elite sportspeople, who just happen to be neighbours as well.

The PNG national women's cricket team, the Lewas, and the national under-19 men's side, the Garamuts, have swapped the batting gloves for gardening gloves and are helping to clean up the mess left in the wake of the fire.

A young person swings a wooden plank they are using as a cricket bat. Houses on stilts stand above the water in the background.
Hanuabada is the spiritual home of cricket in PNG.

Supplied: ICC

In a world where international sportspeople live exclusive, privileged lives, many of these stars were plucked from the streets of Hanuabada with the help of Australian Aid and developed through the Pacific Sports Partnerships.

"They need to pay back to the community," says PNG Cricket Game Development Manager Vaianna Gabba.

"They have to come. It was a must for them — being among the crowd, cleaning up with the crowd. It shows how they respect those who lost their homes in the fire."

But this is no public relations stunt. The Lewas and Garamuts aren't looking after just any community — they are looking after their home village.

Even with the aggressive expansion of cricket across provincial PNG in recent times, Hanuabada is the heartland of the game in this nation and the vast majority of national representatives live here, or are originally from here. This tragedy, and the response to it, is deeply personal.

Vaianna Gabba sits on the edge of a wooden walkway looking at the camera. Wreckage from a fire can be seen behind her.
PNG Cricket Game Development Manager Vaianna Gabba at the site of the fire.

ABC: Aaron Kearney

"This is our home and it is where we belong," says Garamuts Captain Vagi Karoho.

"It was heart-breaking, seeing the devastating fire take them down, leaving families homeless. We need to come down from our busy training schedule to mourn with these people, to cry with these people and be part of this clean-up.

"They need to know they are not alone. My heart goes out to the families and victims of the fire."

Even amid the grime and the grimness, Lewas Captain Pauke Siaka's devotion is unwavering.

"We need to let the community and the families or victims know that we are not only stepping in for the clean-up program today but we are more than happy to join hands for the clean-up programs in the future as well," she says.

"It is a worthy cause."

Two women load wreckage into a garbage bag at the site of a fire. Others sort through wreckage with shovels in the background.
The Lewas take on the mammoth clean-up task.

Supplied: PNG Cricket

Meanwhile, the Gau family are preparing for another night in a nearby tent — their makeshift home.

And yet there is joy amid the devastation. Fundraising efforts are in full swing and hopes remain high that new homes will soon replace those destroyed, Rarua's Melbourne Storm have gone on to win the NRL premiership in style, and while he hasn't picked up a cricket bat since high school, this proud Hanuabada man has been touched by the generosity of those who excel at the game.

These national stars will forever have a special place in his heart, right alongside the Melbourne Storm.

This story was produced by ABC International Development as part of the Pacific Sports Partnerships funded by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

For more stories like this 'like' Australia Plus Pacific on Facebook.