Namaste Belly Boarders. For the past decade I've been travelling on and off to Papua New Guinea for surfing safaris and I've been fascinated by the traditional belly boards used by the kids up there. Before the arrival of conventional modern fibre glass surfboards, the local piccininis were crafting their own unique belly boards from local timbers. These belly boards are called "Palangs" which is the Tok Pisin word for plank. Palangs were traditionally made from the bottoms of old dugout canoes but in recent years the locals began fashioning these boards from native bush timbers such as Malo. Malo is a large rain forest tree with a buttress root system. The roots are cut from the tree with a bush knife and shaped into crude surf craft. Palangs were traditionally only ever ridden in the Taro harvesting season when food was plentiful and precious energy could be expended on leisurely pursuits such as surfing. These days food is abundant and the kids surf whenever the swells are around.
Ever since I'd seen these boards being surfed I wanted to acquire one for my wooden board collection.
So with the help of one of the local Tupira surf guides I headed to Sarar beach, a small bay just south of the surf camp to see if the local kids would be keen to trade a palang. I was quite happy to pay for one but the surf camp manager Nicki suggested that I trade my paulownia belly board instead of giving money. Trading would produce a more positive outcome as the kids could use the belly board as a prototype to make more new belly boards in the surf camp's wooden board workshop.
We got to the bay, and my guide whistled the boys over to the shore from where they were surfing. He proceeded with the pitch in the local dialect. The translation went something like this:
"One of you boys is going to be very lucky today. This white fella has a really cool belly board that he wants to trade for one of your palangs".
At this point the kids looked over at me in complete disbelief. They replied (in their local dialect) "Has he had a head knock on the reef or something? Who would want to trade that really cool belly board for a piece of shit palang"?
My guide reassured them that I was of sound mind and that the offer was genuine.
So off they bolted (literally) into the scrub looking for old belly boards that they had ditched. After a couple of minutes they returned with two very weathered and well surfed boards and we made the trade. I took the smaller of the two boards out for a test drive in the bay and it surfed surprisingly well.
My paulownia belly board is 1200 mm long, 400 mm wide and about 10 mm thick. The kid who scored it was screaming past me riding it upright like an alaia. Their surf skill absolutely blows me away.
With the introduction of modern surfboards to PNG, I've noticed that the shape of the Palangs has been evolving to look more like a thruster. The noses are now more pointed and the tails more tucked in. The boards that I managed to score are still the traditional Palang shape.
A local boy with his Palang at Tavulte
My belly board that I traded. 1200 mm x 400 mm x 10 mm