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A Kiap's Chronicle: 2 - Port Moresby


WE were a mixed group on that flight to Port Moresby just before Christmas in 1949 - education officers, agricultural officers and 16 cadet patrol officers - and we were the only passengers on the aircraft, a Douglas DC4.

It was a charter, mainly loaded with cargo, and we obviously did not rate the best Qantas service.

The evening meal was basic, and as soon as the meal trays were cleared, there was no more service. The window shades were drawn, the cabin lights were turned off and the cabin crew vanished, not to reappear until just before dawn.

The next morning they moved down the aircraft, opening the window shades and shaking the passengers awake. It was time to eat the meagre breakfast and get ready for landing.

I could see waves were breaking onto a chain of coral reefs just below the surface of the clear blue-green sea. The sun was shining, and moments later, we were flying over the dry brown hills around Port Moresby.

My eyes were still glued to the window as we taxied along the steel marsden-mat airstrip - a legacy from the Pacific war that had ended only four years earlier. All I could see were low hills covered with dry brown grass. Where were the tropical jungles?

It was like an outback aerodrome. We disembarked by a set of wheeled stairs that were pushed to the front door of the aircraft. We were directed to a disused hangar that served as a terminal.

The inside was bare; there were no internal divisions or a ceiling, and there was no washroom or toilet. The Customs and Immigration checkpoint was a trestle table and two wooden chairs.

Two or three Departmental officials were there to meet us, and they soon made it clear that they were not very enthusiastic about the task. Maybe, they had more important things to do on a Saturday morning that was Christmas Eve.

Our passage through Customs and Immigration was swift. There was only a perfunctory examination of our entry permits and our luggage was ignored. We were shown to our transport—an old army-style bus with hard bench seats and glassless window openings. Our luggage was loaded onto the back of a truck.

The narrow gravel road skirted around the low hills, lightly timbered with small eucalyptus and clothed in dry grass. There were wallabies and kookaburras. It could have been anywhere in Australia.

After a 12 kilometres drive we reached the seashore and Koki village, and another dream was shattered. It had no tropical allure. It was a collection of thatched huts and corrugated iron shacks, the majority built along the shore with others perched on stilts over the sea.

A small armada of large, double-hulled sea-going canoes, some with claw-shaped matting sails flapping loosely in the breeze, was beached on the foreshore. The smell of the sea, of mud flats and of smoked fish pervaded the air.

We were driven straight past Ela Beach, through the township, and then around the harbour edge to a small settlement on the outskirts. We had arrived at Konedobu, the administrative centre - a ramshackle collection of single story wartime sheds and dormitories. It was where we would live and work for the next few months.

Our new home, a corrugated iron hut, was the only building on a dry, red-earth hillside. At each end, double doors opened to the bare interior; in one corner a stall contained rudimentary toilets and showers. The intense heat of the sun radiated from the unlined corrugated iron walls and roof. The push-out corrugated iron shutters were set too high in the walls to admit any cross-breeze.

Our furniture arrived on the truck with our luggage, and we soon had it unloaded and into the hut. We lined the camp-stretchers in two rows transverse to each side wall, draped them with army-style mosquito nets and arranged the folding chairs, suitcases and cabin trunks between them.

By the time we had finished the task it was lunchtime, and our guardians guided us on the short walk to the Konedobu Mess, introduced us and departed.

The next day, Sunday, was Christmas Day. Monday was Boxing Day and a public holiday. They said that they would call back for us on Tuesday.

We were on our own in a strange town with no money, and no friends, on Christmas Eve. What a way to start Christmas.

Konedobu Mess was a wartime anachronism. We sat down to meals on wooden forms, ten or twelve to a table, and quickly got accustomed to the waiters, fuzzy-haired Papuans, showing their superiority by ignoring us until they were well and truly ready to serve.

The food was terrible - everything came out of tins. There was egg powder in various forms for breakfast, and tinned soups, tinned stewed meats, tinned vegetables and tinned fruit at other meals. Stomach troubles were commonplace, but there was nowhere else to eat.

Tuesday morning came, and we walked across the valley to the Department’s headquarters: two more corrugated iron huts built on cement slab floors with internal dividing-walls of arc-mesh covered with tarred paper.

The acting Director, Allan Roberts, welcomed us. He did not say it, but it soon became obvious that there was no urgent need for our services and that our arrival was a nuisance. We were a threat to the festivities. “Come back after New Year,” we were told. Nobody seemed to care when.

Our most urgent need was money. It was two weeks since we had been paid and most of us had spent our cash, what little we had, on last minute purchases in Sydney. We had been told we would be paid on arrival in Port Moresby. Now they maintained that we could not be paid until our personal files arrived from Australia.

After some heated argument, we were each given an advance of five pounds against our wages.

One of the group, David Stevens, had a solution to the problem; we should go to the bank and each use the five pounds to open a cheque account. We would then be able to write cheques for whatever we needed. We soon found that cheques could be cashed at stores, clubs and hotels, but we were still a lonely group.

Greetings from Port MoresbyLeft to our own devices, we began to explore. We found the Public Library, the Red Cross Hall, and the Ex-Serviceman’s Club on Ela Beach, all housed in ex-army buildings.

We swam in the tepid water at the beach reserved for “whites”. We tried the clubs and towns two hotels - the Moresby Hotel, known as the “Snake Pit” and, up the street, “The Top Pub” the slightly up-market Hotel Papua.

At night we went to the cinema next to the Hotel Papua, where the seats were deck chairs and the patrons smoked and drank liquor throughout the movie.

Four years after the war, Port Moresby was a still a small drab town of old army huts and a few prewar bungalows.

The Minister for Territories in Canberra had taken four years to decide that Port Moresby would be the capital. His Department had to approve a town plan but would not do so. This prevented the private sector rebuilding homes or anything else, even on land to which they had title.

The Commonwealth Department of Works was responsible for all construction for the Administration, but it was answerable to Brisbane headquarters which reported to Melbourne. Nothing was being built.

Port Moresby was a male town. A few expatriates had managed to obtain married accommodation, but most of the men had been forced to leave their wives behind in Australia, officialdom having decreed that wives were not permitted to enter the Territory until they had “officially approved” married accommodation.

Because houses were not being built, permits were not being issued for wives. The few unattached females, senior officers and secretaries, vanished straight after work, probably to their barracks, the “Stables” and the “Virgin’s Retreat.”

The absence of wives and the lack of female companionship set the social scene. At 4.03 pm when work stopped, most of the men moved to one of the half dozen clubs to pass away the remaining hot hours of daylight.

The Papuan women were in stark contrast to the masculinity of the town. During the day, they visited the town from nearby villages, or from the seagoing canoes, to sell fruit, vegetables and betel nut. Clad only in brightly dyed grass skirts, their swinging hips, jutting bare breasts and friendly smiles never failed to stir my attention.

And it was a “white” town. The hotels, picture show, beach and clubs were restricted to expatriates. The two stores, Burns Philp and Steamships, did not permit local people to enter the main store. Instead, each store had a counter in a side alley where domestic servants could present their employers written orders for the desired purchases.

Locals who had accommodation provided with their employment were allowed to remain in the town after dark, but had to be off the streets at dusk. Those without accommodation had to leave town each evening.

We reported to headquarters after the New Year, and started another training program. We were told this one was going to be practical; it was going to teach us all those things we needed to know before we were posted to an outstation.

Allan Roberts gave the first lecture and something seemed to be on his mind.  He could not understand how we could believe that we could write cheques without adequate funds. The Commonwealth Bank and the Bank of New South Wales had both complained to him about us and about our lack of understanding of our obligations. He hoped we would desist.

That led Mr Roberts to his next subject: the high ethical and moral standards of the Service, which involved relations with “the native people” and in particular relations with “native females”.

He told us that any form of liaison with “native females” was forbidden. He said this unwritten rule would be enforced and that any breach would result in at least a severe reprimand, but more likely in instant dismissal.

He continued his introduction, saying that our Department was called District Services and Native Affairs because, on outstations, we acted for every Department that did not have a representative there.

Because of this, each Department - Agriculture, Civil Aviation, Customs, Education, Health, Lands, Labour, Posts and Telegraphs, Police, Prisons, and Works - would provide a lecturer during the training program.

They did, and they all seemed to have the same objective: to convince us we should see the task of acting as an agent of their Department as our highest priority.

Even the Commonwealth Bank joined the party. They presented us with a dazzling array of meaningless forms and an inadequate explanation of their use.

The Treasury Officer demonstrated some ten books of different accounting forms, each in quintuplicate and of a different colour.

The Commonwealth Bank introduced us to Bank Books, and to the forms to cover every circumstance. They even had a special withdrawal form for people who could not write.

The Post Office people taught us how to handle inward and outward registered mail, COD parcels, and ordinary parcels and how to calculate ad valorem customs duty.

The Department of Civil Aviation Officer tried to teach us about wet and dry bulb thermometers, barometric pressure and coded weather reports.

The Telecommunications Officer explained how to operate a transmitter, receiver and battery charger. We tried to absorb it all and we tried to create a good impression, but all we really we wanted was to be posted away from headquarters to an outstation.

In 1950 Papua and New Guinea was divided into 14 Districts, each controlled by a District Officer. Districts were split into three or four Sub-Districts, each the responsibility of an Assistant District Officer. Patrol Officers and Cadet Patrol Officers reported to an Assistant District Officer.

We were asked if we preferred a posting to a specific District. Chris Normoyle had spent his youth in Rabaul where his father had been a Superintendent, before becoming Commissioner of Police.

Dennis Jones had been in Rabaul when his father was District Officer there. His father was now our Director. They both wanted to be posted to Rabaul; Normoyle went to Rabaul; Jones to Bougainville.

Everybody was raving about the Central Highlands, but I had no strong preference. When I learnt that I was posted to Port Moresby, the headquarters of the Central District, I was neither disappointed nor elated.

It meant that I would be the last to vacate the tin shed, and I was given the task of returning all the furniture. I failed that assignment - my confrérès took anything that was portable with them to their new postings: mosquito nets, stretchers and camp chairs.

The Port Moresby District Office, an H-shaped weatherboard building constructed in 1926, was located right in the middle of the town. District Officer Mick Healy occupied a large office in one of the front corners.

Across the open front verandah, on the other corner was the plain and unimpressive Court of Petty Sessions, where District Officers Bart Faithorn, Ted Sansom and Ernie Britten served as magistrates while waiting for retirement.

Mick Healy was impressive even though he was small framed and not very tall. He dressed in stiffly starched white trousers and a white shirt with long sleeves, and he always wore a tie.

He had sallow skin and cold, piercing, almost translucent, pale-blue eyes. Some time after I reported, he spoke to me briefly, assigned me to the Sub-District Office and from then on appeared to ignore my existence.

In Port Moresby, the Sub-District Office was located in the small room in one of the back corners of the District Office, and that back room was always crowded.

On a normal day, the ADO sat at his desk, with an interpreter standing alongside him. As many as half a dozen Papuan litigants might be standing on the other side of the desk, crowded into the room.

Others, perhaps less deeply involved, peered in through the door that opened to the back verandah. I became just one more body in an already overcrowded room.

A limestone hill had been excavated for the building site, and that excavation formed a three-sided courtyard, with sheer cliff walls, behind the office. The courtyard, shaded by the mango trees growing around its rim, served as the Sub-District Office waiting room, and also housed the outside pan toilets. A visit to the toilet was to be avoided; it was like parading the catwalk.

My job was to observe and learn, and that became less interesting each day, but the evenings were more interesting. I had moved from the corrugated iron shed to a fully‑furnished room in a barracks block.

Some temporary visitors occupied the neighbouring rooms and they would get together in one room, read Kipling’s poetry and talk about their experiences.

Ted Hicks was having a break from Lake Kutubu. Des Clancy had just completed a long patrol, escorting Oil Search in their explorations. Herbert Clarke was sitting out a suspension while a sexual assault charge that had been preferred against him was being investigated.

Another neighbour, a Cadet and slightly my senior, was in town to face the music for allegedly sleeping with a native female.

The Konedobu Mess food caught up with me and I spent three or four days in my room with a severe stomach upset.

The Port Moresby General Hospital was an old, bungalow-like, weatherboard building that had survived since 1905 and it did not inspire confidence. Dr White said my tests proved I had amoebic dysentery, a serious disease that would never be completely cured, and that would continually re-occur.

Ten days later, and much thinner, I was discharged. I have never had dysentery again. Maybe I never had it at all.

Back at the District Office someone must have recognised my frustration. I was told to get ready to move to the Kairuku Sub-district. Kairuku, located on Yule Island about 100 kilometres northwest of Port Moresby, had a fortnightly Catalina flying-boat service, and I was looking forward to my first flight in a seaplane, but that was not to be. Mick Healy did not see air travel as appropriate; he decided that I travel by a small coastal vessel.

I had no savings from my salary, but I needed provisions and some household utensils as I was going to be living on my own. I had opened credit accounts with Steamships Trading Company and Burns Philp, so before sailing I stocked up with supplies for three months.

I purchased tinned meats, tinned vegetables, tinned butter, tinned milk, a 70 pound bag of sugar, a bag of flour, rations for a cook, a kerosene pressure lamp, a kerosene iron and a five gallon drum of kerosene.

My final purchase, a STC radio receiver, was a portable. It had short wave and broadcast bands and was powered by dry batteries. I now owed so much money to Steamships and Burns Philp they virtually owned me.

I also employed my first cook. He wages were one pound (two dollars) a month and I had to supply rations worth more than 25 shillings ($2.50) a week. That was more than a third of my salary, but there was no alternative. I had to have a cook to prepare the meals while I was at work and when I was on patrol in the bush. He would also wash and iron my clothes.

The standard daytime wear was a white shirt with short sleeves, white shorts and long white socks. On more formal occasions a long-sleeved white shirt and long white trousers generally replaced the short-sleeved shirt and shorts, and they had to be lightly starched and ironed.

Sadi, the cook, was from the Buang area near Finschhafen, and he said he could cook, wash clothes and iron them. It was probably as much of a gamble for him as it was for me. He did not know anything about me or about Papua. He could not speak Motu, the Papuan lingua franca, but he spoke Pidgin English.

I borrowed the office utility to take my gear, the groceries and the cook to the wharf where they were loaded onto the MV Kina, a small coastal vessel loosely described as a 56- foot scow, and we sailed just before sunset on a Sunday afternoon.

I shared the passenger accommodation, a small cabin at the stern, with the only other passenger, John Gibson. He was going to Kairuku to take over as Assistant District Officer and he would be my boss. He slept peacefully all night, while I spent the night hanging over the stern. I was very seasick.


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Diane Bohlen

Another great page. So interesting knowing this is what my brother went through but maybe not so primitive as it was seven years later. Enjoying your story.

Munro Kennedy

What a great story. And told in a style that matches the scene perfectly. No connection with PNG, an interested observer only.

Barbara Short

Great story. Keep writing!

Arthur Williams

I enjoyed it too Bill.

The thing about the bus which I recall, is the amount of dust which covered us by the end of our trip to Kwikila's old kalabus where we were housed for the few months orientation.

We married guys had left our wives behind in Sydney to join us after the course. We got a room at Mapang until flying out via a stopover in Rabaul ('due to weather in New Ireland') to Kavieng.

I arrived at my posting in New Hanover on Christmas Eve.

Those 45 years have flown.

Philip G Kaupa

I need to read this book. I can get a glimpse of a beautiful past.

Not a book yet, Philip, but Bill Brown is preparing more articles for PNG Attitude taken from his unpublished memoir, which I hope won't stay unpublished for long - KJ

Gordon Barry Shirley

Excellent please carry on. Many of us chalkies had similar experiences.

Paul Oates

It sure brings back the memories. Thanks Bill.

Our arrival was also through that corrugated iron shed in 40+ degrees and that comment about the 'bus' that took us to our field training at Kwikila in '69....

You've said it Phil. Dark blue with white top admin colours and 60 miles of potholes and no padded seats and Nonsa from Buang driving.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Looking forward to the next episode Bill.

Your frank and detailed style is most engrossing.

I hope there's a book on the way.

PS They were still using the same bus to pick up new cadets in 1967 when I arrived - except maybe they'd painted it dark blue.

Chips Mackellar

Terrific story Bill, just as I remember my arrival in PNG four years later.

But where can we buy your book?

Noel Pascoe | Facebook

Down to earth writing, the poor guy.

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