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Stories of roads, bridges & other beasts


STRANGE HOW different people have differing memories of the same place.

In 1970 I made two trips along what is today the Magi Highway. It must have been the dry season because I recall it was the dustiest trip I had ever made.

By the time our Assistant Patrol Officer squad reached the deserted Kwikila Prison, which we would call home for next three or perhaps four weeks, we were well and truly covered in a layer of pale brown dust. It was likewise when we headed back to Konedobu, where we would be reunited with our wives and kids.

The other memory is of riding in the dark blue steel open sided or windowless buses that had little suspension left and so gave us bumpy rides. They looked like the Hollywood prison buses in a Deep South chain gang movie.

Transport in Port Moresby then seemed to be dominated by good old British Landrover but sadly the spare parts backup was said to be a disaster and so Toyota got its wheels on the wharves and so has dominated PNG ever since.

I had only had a short spell in rural Western Australia and was amazed at what the locals called roads. They were merely dirt tracks that had been widened and were occasionally graded; often with a perfectly horizontal blade. The Kiaps took this template with them to PNG despite most of it having 60 to 300 inches or more rain a year.

They should have used the more suitable Roman model of northern Europe: especially incorporating cambers on all of the roads to facilitate run-off. Or perhaps the British way of roads on Fiji which always seemed to look better on documentaries.

District Commissioner Mert Brightwell, District Officer Peter Whitehead and everyone in the command chain were annoyed at a mere Assistant Patrol Officer, and a Pommie at that, criticising their road building skills on Lavongai Island.

But I was vindicated when District Commissioner Ian Holmes came to open the Narimlaua low level ford in 1972. The day before the festivities, the only 4 x 4 on the island had got stuck on the Taskul to Narimlaua road and would not be available for the District Commissioner who accompanied other elites to the event. So Peter Whitehead sent the tractor to help retrieve it, but the Gods were on my side and it too got stuck.

What happened next day was that all the visitors to Narimlaua Bridge opening had to use the dinghies to get there and back. You may ask was that a sly grin on my face when they clambered up the muddy track sorry road to my camping house on the hill overlooking the river.

I was luckier after Independence Day in having an ex-CRA bulldozer driver to work on some roads that Father Miller was building in his Parish. Tambu Tito certainly had been taught how to adjust his blade to get good cambers on the swampy muddy soils.

In the late 1980s I would later irritate a contract driver on the old Narim-Kulingei-Taskul road who was still making roads in the old flat style. He either didn’t know the blade could be adjusted, or maybe it was too much hassle to do so under the tropical sun.

I would love him to have been with me in 2007-08 when several times I walked the Kunai area west of Taskul where we had our chat. The old track has eroded into ruts a metre deep and were obviously avoided by the District Officer’s ute over the ensuing years which had made new ruts on alongside them until they too stretched unused for ten metres or more either side of the original.

For most of its length the South Lavongai road has disappeared yet, some 40 years later the engineer’s bridge remains – just!

The force of the river is tirelessly cutting back and so is undermining the eight concrete pipes because the foundational metal baskets are rusting, losing their stones and soon, in one of those huge floods that the Narim River can produce, it will be ripped apart and once again the people will have to walk up river to find a suitable wet crossing spot.

But why should I even mention tracks and roads cambered or uncambered on Lavongai?  The DO’s vehicle was burnt out in the 1990s along with his house in 2008. There was no other vehicle on Taskul. The Mission’s two tractors at Metekavil have long rusted away.

Perhaps there is no road at all now on the island as the loggers’ vehicles make temporary tracks to get timber, move it out, flog it abroad and leave erosion scars as their legacy before loading on a barge and heading into the sunrise.

At least at Narimlaua, unknowingly at the time, I first saw my wife to be.  She was working for a dollar a day earning school fees by loading small river gravel to finish the last approaches to the bridge as our coronus had been exhausted.

She’s now long departed and perhaps soon the bridge will too.

Ples daun, noken wari tumas!


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Deanne Kilamanu-Naime

Hi Mr Williams - I read your post with great interest as I am from Narimlaua. We have grown up with the bridge as did our parents. It is deteriorating and people's lives will certainly change if it were to be washed away. Do you have any pictures of the construction of the bridge?

I have read a couple of your posts about New Ireland in the early days and find them very interesting. Do you have a book about your days in New Ireland? If you do, I would really like to purchase one.

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