Envisaging the future of the Australia-PNG relationship
Catholic bishops pronounce on sport (& Sunday mornings)

The allure of those trusty old Papuan work boats


WHEN I was transferred to the Western District in 1969 I assumed that my previous misdemeanors had simply caught up with me and I accepted my fate with no real misgivings.

Apart from the opportunity to get to some very out of the way places, there was another potential benefit to my banishment not readily available in my previous posting in the Western Highlands. That was the opportunity to patrol in boats.

I had spent many enjoyable days on the River Murray in South Australia as a boy pottering around in old clinker built boats around Swan Reach and Blanchetown. 

These were the days before the carp invaded and muddied the water.  In those days there were many native fish to catch, including giant cod.

As I flew up from dear decrepit Daru to Kiunga and watched the great serpentine Fly River unwind below, I thought of Kenneth Grahame and his wonderful book The Wind in the Willows.  In particular I remembered the words of the River Rat:

Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing... about in boats — or with boats. In or out of 'em, it doesn't matter. Nothing seems really to matter, that's the charm of it.

Dragging the Double-hulled canoe up the Elevala RiverWhether you get away, or whether you don't; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you're always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you've done it there's always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you'd much better not.

At Kiunga, then a tiny sub-district headquarters, I was delighted to conduct my first few patrols in the station workboat, MV Jade

The Jade had a sister vessel MV Emerald down south at Morehead.  They were both wooden and powered by ancient and cantankerous diesel engines.

I have no idea how old they were or where they were built.  The Jade was kitted out in white livery with dark green trim.  The interior was painted a beige-come-brown colour.  She had a cabin of sorts for the Kiwai skipper and his crew of one and a solid overhead canopy that ran back from the wheelhouse to the stern with canvas awnings on the side that could be lowered in inclement weather.

The top of the canopy was a great place to perch with a deck chair and a thick novel as the boat chugged along at just over walking speed.  You could also keep an eye on the fishing lines trailing in the wake from up there.

Later I patrolled in single dugout canoes with outboards and, on one remarkable occasion, in a double-hulled canoe that we manhandled up the Elevala River.  Otherwise we got around in De Havilland River Trucks, a sort of oversized punt. 

All of these were powered by the standard issue black Mercury 35hp outboards, some of which had the lethal habit of popping into gear when being started.

The pleasant river sojourns were curtailed about 18 months later when I was sent into the Star Mountains and later to Nomad River.  No boats in those places, just hard walking.

The Balimo Workboat A6In 1972 I was posted to Balimo and re-acquainted with workboats, albeit considerably smaller than the Jade but built to the same general plan.

I can’t remember the name of the old wooden Balimo workboat but it was pleasant to potter up and down the Aramia River.  I think she may have been called simply A6

Later I took her up the Soari River to build a chopper pad from which to conduct a search for a missing Beechcraft Baron.

I often wonder what happened to those trusty old workboats.  I wish I’d taken a picture of the Jade, she only lives in my memory now.  I guess she’s slowly rotting away in a backwater somewhere. 

Or maybe, just maybe, someone’s got her and she’s still chugging on.


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Luke Godbee

Hey guys - I own an old 40 foot boat named MV Pearl.

I'm trying to find its origin as it has paperwork of working in the Papuan area.

Simon Harney

I got here seven years too late by googling 'MV Koonwarra' (slow day at work).

I have some photos from Salamo, Milne Bay Province, from the mid-1980s of work boats, including Koonwarra.

If anyone's interested, you can email me: sharney at ncf.ca

Ron Kone

Phil, some of the boats that worked in that part of PNG arrived in Milne Bay Province.

Locals modified them to suit the savage seas. Others built in Australia were brought to Milne Bay including MV Koonwarra.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Excellent website Mori.

That certainly looks like the Jade. The only difference is that the Jade didn't have the mast and the canopy at the back and was open and more in line with the cabin. Probably modified by the administration. Otherwise the proportions like right.

Has anyone out there got a photograph?

Mori Flapan

Fascinating story about the government launches in Papua. I have been compiling a register of Australian and New Zealand Ships and Boats. For more information see my website at http://www.boatregister.net

Of particular interest are the launches Jade, Emerald, Ruby and Uranga. These may have been former WW2 40' Army workboats.

A webpage describing the WW2 workboats can be found in my website at http://www.boatregister.net/WW2_ArmyWorkBoats.html There are photos and plans accessible through the webpage.

Can anyone confirm whether these four launches were former 40' Army workboats? One of boats listed in http://www.boatregister.net/WW2_ArmyWorkBoats_files/WW2_40footer_Regster.htm Number AM1833 has the name Urangah. I wonder whether this is the Uranga mentioned by Bob Cleland.

Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

Peter Sandery

Lot's of great memories but why oh why are we not referring to government officers as gavamani instead of kiaps - it really irks me that commentators forget that they are talking after, all of Papua before Papua New Guinea - it is almost as galling to me listening to young Motuans talking to each other in Pidgin.

bob turner

You have revived many memories of river travel around Kikori in the early sixties.I remember landing in the
river on a DeHaviland Otter to be met by yhe local transport-an ex military Bombskow.Iremember taking my standard 6 class to the defunct kutch factory at Aird Hills in the station boat Bareto to show them how rail transport functioned Iremember atrip with John Godson on the Johnmac from Ogamobu he wsa recruiting labourers from places around Goaribari Island I remember many trips with Tom Ingledew in the hospital canoes powered by cantkerous Archimedes outboard motors on one trip we .
passed Middletown Junction where OilSearch had scuttled a few riverboats A sad memory remains of a tearful farewell from the schoolkids as I left finish on the Pipi Gari bound for Moresby.Yes boats were pretty important inthose good old days

Phil Fitzpatrick

I've just finished writing the next Inspector Metau book John. After that I'm writing about being a ten pound Pom growing up in Oz. Time, time, time.

John Kaupa Kamasua

Hi Phil

I was thinking all the tales of your travels in PNG during your time, should fill a book.

Any thoughts on that one yet?

Kevin O'Regan

Thank you Phil. I do not know Western very well and only spent a few days over there on two separate occasions and must have been well down the coastal side as I never saw anything like this.

It looks just the same as the river just before Victory Junction up the Sirebi. Old boats have a special place in my memory. Thanks for posting.

Chris Overland

Once again Phil has conjured up memories from the distant past.

The most common image of the kiap is of a lean, flinty eyed character, dressed in khaki, striding out manfully across the mountains at the head of a long line of Police and carriers.

This image was largely a fiction, especially in the vast estuarine swamps that make up so much of the Western and Gulf Districts.

There, your standard kiap was more likely to be dressed in shorts, a yellow South Pacific Lager T sheet and thongs, perhaps topped with an army surplus "giggle hat" and sun glasses.

Not quite consistent with the official position on patrol attire, but eminently sensible when travelling on one of the boats Phil has mentioned.

The Kikori Sub-District's biggest patrol craft was the MV Ruby, which was, as its name suggests, a Gem Class work boat and sister ship to Phil's MV Jade and MV Emerald.

I was told that these boats started life towing cargo lighters during World War 2 and were bought cheaply as a job lot in its aftermath.

They were certainly tough and reliable craft, but lacked all of the creature comforts.

Patrolling in them required a high tolerance for the continuous rumble and accompanying smell of their large diesel engines, which hammered away at a relentless 1200 revs per minute for hour after hour at a steady 10 knots or thereabouts.

I preferred the MV Aveta, a clinker built, 19' launch which was undoubtedly a sister ship to Phil's A6, being identical in every respect.

The Aveta boasted an asthmatic 2 cylinder Petter's diesel, which had to be hand cranked to start. It gave a maximum speed of about 6 knots in dead calm water, considerably less against any sort of current.

The Aveta had a disconcerting habit of throwing off her propeller shaft from time to time. The diesel engine would suddenly start of roar like an A380 and it was imperative to shut it down before it self destructed.

It was then necessary to paddle to shore where, resigned to their fate, the two rather elderly crewmen assigned to her, would grope around underneath her stern till they could relocate the shaft and tighten the bolts that held it (unreliably) in place.

I always sat in a deck chair of the roof, the Australian flag flapping listlessly behind me, fondly imagining that this conferred a certain presence to the Aveta: a sort of slow, unreliable, harmless, unarmed gunship type presence.

No doubt the local people saw yet another adolescent prat come to annoy them with a census or ask apparently pointless questions about copra production or deliver an unwanted political education harangue.

However, they knew that, having stoically endured a visit from the "gavman", I would sail away with a farewell wave and life could once again resume its normal, slow routine.

Like Phil, I greatly enjoyed my time in one of the world's largest and most fascinating swamps and remember it fondly despite the many discomforts and tedium that patrolling there sometimes entailed.

Francis Nii

Reminds of Mick, Col, Reg and Fishbum travelling up the Purari in Jade on that rescue mission in The Floating Island, Phil.

Bob Cleland

Since I knew the Jade, she's grown a bit up top. I recall (unreliably) she was a half-cabin vessel like her twin, the Urunga.

The latter was supposed to be 'the Balimo workboat' in 1960 but she spent much of that year on the mud at Daru waiting for some part or other.

The Balimo vessel took its name from the northern NSW town of Urunga, where she, the Jade and many others were built for the army in WW II. They called them T-boats.

I'm sending to Keith another story of Western District (Province) patrolling by boat, which he may care to publish.

Love to, Bob. Thanks - KJ

Chips Mackellar

Terrific story, Phil. I remember when patrolling the villages of Lake Murray, the only way to escape the savage mosquitoes, was to take the patrol in the work boat and anchor in the middle of Lake Murray.

No mosquitoes there, and we would spend a pleasant night fishing and lying on the cabin roof under the stars, while the gentle rocking of the work boat put us to sleep. Thank you for these memories. Best wishes.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Soari River Kevin. It is a tributary of the Aramia River, running out of that vast rainforest between Balimo and Nomad River.

Geoff Smith found the Beechcraft Baron and its unfortunate occupants but in the process came across several large longhouses occupied by previously un-contacted people.

Kevin O'Regan

Phil great story. The first picture Western Province or in the Sirebi off the Kikori in Gulf..... query....

`Robin Lillicrapp

Aha! A lovely memory from the Ancient Mariner.

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