An entry in the Crocodile Prize
Cleland Family Award for in the Heritage Writing
BEFORE the white men brought their salt to Simbu, salt baked by the Keri tribe in South Simbu was widely used throughout the central highlands of New Guinea.
Using a crude technique, the salt was baked from a sulphur stream that flowed from within a shale rock formation at Pleme on the banks of the Wahgi River.
Before the 1950s, this salt was a highly valued item and Pleme, where the salt was baked, a renowned economic centre in the central highlands.
The Keri people specialised in baking this salt and traded it with all tribes of the area for di-gaima (stone axes), pigs, shells, bird feathers and garden crops.
Salt was also an important item in bride price transactions. Their ownership of salt made the Keri people a Pharaoh family, highly revered among the tribes of the area.
The salt was traded as far away as Bundi in north Simbu, east beyond Elimbari mountain and west beyond the Kubor Range into the Wahgi Valley. It found its way south to Karimui and further to the Gulf of Papua.
Leigh Vial, a kiap at the Chimbu-Wahgi patrol post, referred to seeing this salt in the northern Simbu area in 1940 in an article, Down the Wagi – a New Guinea Patrol.
The first white men to visit the sulphur spring and baking area at Pleme were Vial and geologist Noakes sometime in May-June 1939.
Vial wrote of a “salty liquid, smelling of rotten eggs soaked out and ran into pools… We dipped our fingers in and cautiously licked them. It was very bitter.”
The men observed that there were many baking houses and hundreds of people around.
Earlier, in October 1934, Danny and Michael Leahy had explored the Yuwi area, crossing the Wahgi from Elimbari further downstream from the salt spring at Pleme.
Four years after Vial and Noakes, in 1943, Angau Capt J A Costelloe and J C McInerney visited the Dom axe quarry upstream and north from the Keri area. Another Angau officer Lt K W Jones also visited the area in February 1945.
In March 1947, Assistant District Officer J C Costelloe, known to the South Simbu people as Holtoru the Bad, with his New Guinea Islands policemen, crossed the vine bridge at Sinasina and walked through Deboma Pass to Deri and across to Sua.
Here they massacred 37 Golen and Keri people who were engaged in inter-tribal warfare. I wrote of this killing in September 2014 in the PNG Attitude and it generated much discussion from among our ex-kiap friends. Dr Robin Hide also wrote a supporting document in his comments on the article in PNG Attitude.
In 1950, the Seventh Day Adventist Missionary, Pastor Lawrence Gilmore, also crossed the vine bridge near the salt spring to settle at Yani. The splendid photos accompanying this article were taken by him during that trip.
More recently, between 1988 and 1991, an English-Canadian anthropologist, Patricia Peach, lived in my village in Deri and studied my Keri tribe basing her work around salt production.
In the mid-1950s, when processed salt became easy to obtain, the salt baking at Pleme was discontinued.
Its expiry was hastened also because many of the able salt makers in the Keri tribe went to work on plantations in other parts of New Guinea through the Highlands Labour Scheme.
My father, Raphael Kin, a young man at the time went to work on a coffee plantation in Bulolo.
My father insists it was only about four generations ago when the salt was first discovered. As far as he can remember, there was a first Kin whose son was Bretine whose son was Hobel and whose son was my father Kin. Beyond the first Kin, he could not remember.
Our people had baked this salt for about four fathers before the white men arrived. This would mean that the salt baking at Pleme was less than 150 years old before it expired in the 1950s.
The Keri people migrated from Yoma beyond the Kubor Range further south where they lived with five brothers. They left there after a fight over the singing of a bird.
The first brother, Hobel, came north first; he was my ancestor. Kene and Aiwa came later and their descendants are the Keneku and Aiwaku tribes. The other two tribes are extinct and any remnants have dispersed into the Yuwi, Sa, Golen and the other Keri tribes of the area.
When our forefathers arrived on the current Keri land, they settled on the western face of Gugama mountain. Soon after, the salt stream was discovered and they conceived a way to bake salt from it. It was this discovery that enabled them to settle permanently at their current locations at Mirima, Omkole, Bosila, Sua and Deri.
As is the case in every primitive society where there are legends attached to everything, our salt baking at Pleme has a beautiful legend.
This first Kin had two daughters Gon and Giame and lived in Deri village. They were so beautiful that young men came from as far as the Golen, Kia, the other Keri tribes, Yuwi and Gunage to court them.
One evening two brothers from the Guna Emere clan of Gunage tribe came and slept with the girls. They left very early before dawn for Wahgi to go back to Gunage.
They crossed the bridge and were at the eastern side when they saw that Gon and Giame had followed them and were on the Keri side of the river. Pau said to Tul; “look, the two girls have followed us, maybe they want to go to Gunage with us, you go across and bring them over”.
“Ok, this is good, you wait here. I’ll go over and bring them across,” said Tul and crossed the bridge back to the Keri side. When he arrived at the spot where the girls were standing, Gon and Giame were not there. So he shouted back to Pau; “where are the girls. I can’t see them”.
Pau shouted back, “They are right there with you and smiling at you, bring them across and we must continue our journey back to the village.” But Tul shouted back; “I cannot see anybody here”.
“They are with you, look, they are smiling at you now” Pau shouted back. Tul looked around him again but could not see the girls. He shouted back; “I can’t see them, you come and look for them, I will come to your side”.
After they had changed places, Tul from Gunage side could see the girls were close to Pau. But Pau did not see them. There ensured another bout of shouting. They exchanged places two more times with no improvements to the situation.
Then finally they both went across to the Keri side to search. When they looked around the girls had truly disappeared. At the very spot where the girls had been standing, two milky streams gushed out from the hard rock. When they tasted it, it was salty. They were greatly surprised and excited about their discovery.
They quickly went back to the village with the news of their discovery. The next day the men of the two tribes brought pigs to the river and killed it as offerings to the gods.
The salt stream can still be seen today at Pleme on the banks of the Wahgi River.
My next article will be on the process used in baking the salt cake.