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Sir Paulias Matane reappointed as PNG’s G-G

New book weaves that old Highlands magic



Big Road_Cleland IF I HAD to live my life again, I would still opt to be a kiap.

Next time, though, I would push the years back a bit, say to about 1953 or so, and I’d be posted to Bob Cleland’s version of the Highlands.

Cleland reckons that Australia never intended to develop PNG as a colony. “Very few Australians working there in the 1940s, 1950s and well into the 1960s felt themselves to be colonialists.

“In those days the word ‘colony’ brought to mind the British, German or French model of colonial Africa, where the motives of the occupying power included controlling and exploiting the assets of the colony – be they people, products or materials – for its own purposes”.

Instead, in PNG, “a unique thing was happening ... here the traditional inhabitants and the newcomers were developing concurrently, side by side, with the same aims and aspirations. Government, private enterprise, Christian missions and village people were all pulling together in the same direction”.

This spirit of cooperation was no more evident than in the Highlands in 1953 when the young Bob Cleland arrived in Goroka as a Cadet Patrol Officer.

Most of the expatriates had arrived after the war and were young and enthusiastic and had “no experience of the more paternalistic, racially separatist, pre-war expatriate culture”. Instead there was a “common purpose and a common ethic, which bred tolerance and cooperation”.

In short, PNG and the Highlands in particular, was a great place to work and live.

Or is Cleland kidding himself. Was it really like that? There were no real villains in his Highland world. The expatriates were all loyal and upstanding and the Papua New Guineans, apart from a few minor misdemeanours easily reversed by a good talking to, were jolly and cooperative.

There was plenty of flag waving and you could leave your wife on the station for weeks on end knowing that she was safe. Everyone wore khaki, long socks and polished their shoes. It was the quintessential expatriate view of pre-independence PNG.

I was lucky enough to glimpse the twilight of this idyllic lifestyle in that benighted era in the late 1960s and to all intents and purposes it was just like Cleland describes. That there were ripples and undercurrents at play only became obvious later.

The Highlanders sitting around at the Hagen Hotel with a jug of beer in one hand and another on the ground in front of them was an ominous sign, but we didn’t notice.

Cleland has chosen not to go there in his beguiling account. Whether this is intentional or not is hard to tell, and who am I to disabuse him of his happy memories.

Interwoven into his story is the construction of the Bikrot, the big road that became the Highlands Highway. Cleland spent a great deal of time working on the road, along with people like Rupe Haviland and Ludi Schmidt. In the process he built the government station at Watabung.

Today, of course, the Bigrot is a vital artery: a black-topped gauntlet ruled by brigands, bootleggers and hijackers.

Also woven into the story are the memorable characters of the time, the brusque, no nonsense and visionary District Commissioner, Ian Downes, and able assistants like Assistant District Officer, Fred Kaad.

And, of course, there are his parents: Donald Cleland, the Administrator, and his indefatigable wife, Rachel. The image of (later Lady) Rachel clinging to the back of her son’s BSA Bantam on the way to inspect the muddy Watabung road is precious.

So is the story of the motorbike. Sick of walking up and down the steep road, Cleland asked Downes for transport.

Downes didn’t have any spare money except in his maintenance fund, but with a bit of lateral thinking and a long and detailed parts invoice from the local supplier which miraculously equalled a whole bike, the problem was solved and Treasury was none the wiser.

Cleland shared much of his mother’s optimism and he occasionally quotes from her book, Papua New Guinea: Pathways to Independence. He also shares, as his book makes clear, her and her husband’s innate 1950s style conservatism and gentlemanly manners.

A session of the Supreme Court in Kainantu is convened by Justice Gore to try a man for “a very unpleasant sexual offence”. We learn no more – it is something best not mentioned.

Bob Cleland’s book is a feel-good experience. You know, by omission, that it’s not quite right. But if you forget that and allow his spell to work, the experience is very pleasant.

He worked very hard to make it thus; he took a writing course and listened to the good advice of the people who helped him. The book is definitely one to savour and to keep on the shelf for later dips. Buy it!

‘Big Road: a journey to the heart of the New Guinea highlands, 1953-56’, by Bob Cleland [Red Hill Publishing, $30.45, 240 pp, 9780980672022]


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Reginald Renagi

An interesting book review there, Phil.

I will try to read someday in future of a bygone era that young PNGeans need to travel back in time to as they plan for the future.

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