The upgrading of the Highlands Highway from Lae to Madang through Goroka and Hagen in 1968 was a watershed in the history of the Highland Provinces and of Eastern Highlands in particular.
Before that, the Eastern Highlands had witnessed barely three decades of European contact, from the first missionaries and gold prospectors, through the era of the Kiaps to the post-second World War influx of Australian settlers. All had their agendas and their achievements and their galleries of heroes and villains.
After the road, however, a new dynamic was put in place and the economic reality of the province was exposed to sight. Coinciding with the end of the colonial period and the departure of many of the settlers, the movement of human beings and produce along the road showed just who the people were, who lived in these previously isolated, separate valleys, and what crops they produced. The variety of the different Highland tribal groups was matched by the range of agricultural produce, with cash crops like coffee and potatoes journeying up and down alongside local vegetables like fern, kau kau (sweet potato) and pit pit, together with livestock which included cattle and sheep as well as the traditional pigs and chickens.
The Eastern Highlands today is a fascinating patchwork of different patterns of land use. Agriculture remains the main activity of the 300,000 Highlanders who occupy the 11,200 square kilometre province. They grow coffee, citrus and potatoes on a commercial scale, together with many other vegetables for the local market. Honey is exported to Germany. Trout are raised in fish farms. Cattle, goats and sheep graze on the grasslands that cover many of the broad valleys between the high mountain ranges.
As in many rural societies where traditional methods are the main means of cultivation, it is the women who do most of the day-to-day agricultural work. They are the true farmers, maintaining the gardens, weeding, hoeing and watering the crops, then harvesting them and selling them at market. They are also responsible for some of the most vivid craft work, making bilums (knotted string fibre bags) for both their own use and to sell. Highland women carry huge loads in these bilums, which are suspended from headbands. Anything from firewood to babies may be found within.
The cultural transformation of Highland society in the post-contact period is a result not only of roads and the introduction of a limited cash economy, but of other major forces such as missionisation, the education of children in the state school system and, increasingly, exposure to urban life-styles. The latter has had two marked effects: the adoption of Western dress, often purchased from dealers in second-hand stores, and the consumption of alcohol. For most of the colonial period the sale of alcohol was banned to all but foreign nationals. Since Independence, provinces have decided for themselves about prohibition. Eastern Highlands Province permits the sale and consumption of alcohol.
Goroka, the capital of Eastern Highlands Province, is an attractive small town set on a plain at the head of one of the broad sweeping valleys which are typical of the Eastern Highlands. It is the location of a number of offices and institutions, including the Goroka Teachers College (a faculty of the University of PNG), the Medical Research Institute, the Melanesian Institute and the headquarters of the Raun Raun Theatre, a theatre company that specialises in community plays. The environs of Goroka are made beautiful by the presence of many trees, mostly introduced by the first European residents, and there is a famous hotel, ‘The Bird of Paradise’, which is a true social centre.