An Old Man’s Death
Another dramatic week as PNG PM ‘fights to the very last breath’

An expatriate's life at Telefomin in the late 1950s

Bill Brown, Ross Henderson, PamBILL BROWN

IT was July 1959, and just five weeks earlier Pamela and I had been married in Sydney, Australia.

Now we were the only passengers in a three-engined Junkers JU52, an old German-designed aircraft with corrugated duralumin sides, an undercarriage that did not retract, and a cruising speed of 160 kilometres per hour – and we were flying into the mountains of New Guinea.

Twenty-five years earlier, Adolf Hitler had trundled around Germany in the same type of aircraft, but it was unlikely that his aircraft had the passengers sitting just behind a huge stack of sawn timber, and it may have been equipped with a toilet.

We had been flying for almost two hours and would soon reach Telefomin. The north coast, and Wewak, where we had spent a few nights, was now 275 kilometres behind us.

Eighty kilometres to the west in Dutch New Guinea, the snow-covered peak of Mt Juliana thrust 4,750 metres into the sky. Our pilot would soon have to descend to find our destination, a grass airstrip hiding in one of the many cloud-shrouded valleys.

Telefomin was one of the more remote Papua and New Guinea Administration outposts. At 1,500 metres above sea level it was cold, and it rained every day. It was where I would become responsible for the administration of 1,500 square kilometres of mountains and valleys that were inhabited by some unruly people.

I was an Assistant District Officer – a kiap – and a member of the kiap hierarchy. District Commissioners administered the Territory’s 16 districts. ADOs administered sub-districts – such as Telefomin – and took the law to the people, visiting the villages on foot, but sometimes by canoe.

They camped a night or two in each – sowing the seeds of law and order – then moved on. That was basic patrolling. The ADOs were the magistrates, the coroners, the police officers and the gaolers.

They investigated crimes, arrested lawbreakers, tried people in courts, put the guilty ones in gaol, looked after them while they were in there, and sent them home when their terms expired. From their base, the Sub-District Office, they ran the bank, the post office and radio communications.

Patrol Officers reported to ADOs, also patrolled, and some of them ran smaller stations called Patrol Posts, but they were not the all-powerful DCs, or the almost as powerful ADOs.

At Telefomin, the priority was to expand the area of control, and to impose a respect for the law. Less than six years earlier, the officer-in-charge (a Patrol Officer), a Cadet Patrol Officer, and two constables had been murdered – hacked to death – only a half-day’s walk away. In the valleys to the north, the Mianmin people were still periodically culling (slaughtering and eating) their neighbours – saving only the comely females to be additional wives.

The rugged country three days climb to the east, on the other side of the 3,000 metre high Victor Emanuel Range, and stretching 20 kilometres to the Strickland River Gorge, was home to the Oksapmin people, and it was overdue for attention. The Oksapmin and their neighbours had seen the pre-war explorers, but a patrol had visited only once, in 1951.

Telefomin was a dramatic change for my 22-year-old bride, fresh from a small close-knit family and a workplace full of young female companions. Now she was the only woman, of the six expatriates, on the government station.

Two other expatriate women, the wives of Baptist missionaries, lived with their families on the other side of the airstrip a two-kilometre walk away. It was a lonely life without feminine companionship, until Patrol John Tierney and his wife Margaret arrived in March 1960. Four months later, the two ladies would have plenty of time together when Tierney and I left for a 28-day patrol to the Oksapmin.

There would be other surprises and challenges for Pamela. They included my absences on patrol, generally for about two weeks but sometimes longer, and the need to learn to speak pidgin English to communicate – especially during my absences. There was no electricity, only kerosene pressure lamps, a kerosene refrigerator and a wood-fired stove instead of more modern electrical gadgets.

Water came from a small tank on the roof, replenished from the rainwater tanks by a manual pump. The Telefomin men wandering around the station were virtually naked, with bare buttocks, penises sheathed in gourds of varying lengths and curvature, testicles in the breeze, and just a few strips of cane around the waist.

Photo: Bill Brown, Ross Henderson and Pam Brown in more recent times

Australians in PNGAn extract from the recently-published ‘Australians in Papua New Guinea, 1960-1975’.

The book provides a history of the post-war Australian years in Papua New Guinea as seen through the eyes of 13 Australians and four Papua New Guineans.

Australians who went to work in PNG and some of the prominent Papua New Guineans who worked with them write of their experiences.

University of Queensland Press, 352 pp, $38.50. More information here


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Barbara Short

I placed this story on the Sepik Region Development Discussion Forum on Facebook today and had this response from Dr Gilbert Hiawalyer -

Thank you for the wonderful story by Bill Brown. If time allows they could make another similar journey, this time be flying by jet to Wewak or Vanimo, then by small aircraft to Telefomin. Probably Telefomin town could have changed but I doubt other parts of Telefomin have progressed at all since 1959.

Thank you Bill Brown and your good wife Pamela for your effort in bringing civilization, education and health care to the people of Telefomin and overall PNG.

I remember as a child I was about 4 years old, I saw an Australian kiap with his pregnant wife were coming to our village in 1962 to conduct a census with two sons probably age 5 and 6 years. It was raining heavily and people from our village had pushed their Landrover over the muddy road to my village where they camped for the week.

This was my first time to see a white woman and white children. It dawned on me during my final year at St. Xavier's High School in 1975 when we were going to get independence, how many families like the Browns had to make a sacrifice, away from their comfortable life in Australia, to take risks of being killed, infected with malaria and other tropical diseases with no proper medical care around, to bring this country to a self determined democratic country of which many of leaders are currently taking it for granted.

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