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A Kiap’s Chronicle: 7 – Urun

Map  - Urun region (Bill Brown)BILL BROWN MBE

URUN Patrol Post, nestling in the Owen Stanley Range, was a long way from anywhere, and you could only get there by walking.

Assistant District Officer Galloway said the walk would take me three days and that, once at Urun, I would be there on my own for 12 months but I could return to Tapini for short breaks.

Nothing had prepared me for that long trek across the towering mountain ranges and the deep valleys that lay between.

Not for the first time in being reposted, I left gear behind. I knew if I reduced my chattels to only those I needed, I could get away from the slow-moving mules and just use carriers.

Everybody had warned me about climbing the Oro Spur track when the morning sun was burning, but a farewell party the night before had taken its toll and the loads and carriers were not organised until just after 9:30. We had barely squelched down the track to the river and started the climb out of the gorge when the sun struck.

The men carrying single loads took the short-cut, straight up the face of the spur, cutting across the arms of the zigzag. I tried to follow but the slope was so steep I made little progress, even when I grasped the grass tussocks and pulled myself up on my knees.

Photo 1So I decided to stay on the graded trail, where I still paused to rest more and more frequently. The carriers, who were sharing the double loads, were leaving me far behind.

It took me three hours to reach the forest line high up on the spur. An hour later, when Koruava Village came into view, the police and carriers were stretched out on the grass in front of the rest house, relaxing in the shade while they waited for me to catch up.

I do not think anybody was surprised when I announced I was going no further that day. So much for the three-day walk to Urun; it was going to take me four. I had lost one day and it would take me another four-and-a-half hours to reach the first day's target, Aporota Patrol Post, on day two.

On the third day, I was still on the trail I had followed from the coast. There was a two-hour uphill slog to Speedie’s gap with the branch track to Kosipe and Urun being reached another two hours later. Then, for the rest of the day, we trekked under the canopy of the rainforest, broken occasionally by stands of immense mountain pandanus, their ghost-like trunks soaring ten to fifteen metres skywards before the first branch.

The map showed Kosipe Rest House to be on the edge of a large swamp. When I arrived after six and a half hours on the track, I could see no sign of the swamp. There were no people and the rest house was dilapidated and swarming with ferocious fleas. But that is where I had to spend the night.

The next day was cool and clear and came with that glorious ‘last day’ feeling. After a couple of hours, I reached the crest of the divide and could see the grassy patches in the Vetapu Valley against the dark green background of the Owen Stanley Range.

Photo 2From the far side of the valley, someone at Urun was flashing a mirror in response to our own signal.

I had been walking for over eight hours when I arrived at Urun late on a Sunday afternoon on the last day of September 1951. I was tired and I was not very interested in anything. Even if I had been, there was nothing to see. The clouds had rolled along the valley and enveloped the house and surrounds.

Gordon Conway probably thought I was insane. We had attended the ASOPA Short Course together, we had flown to the Territory together and we were both only days from the end of our first term.

He was about to leave Urun to start his three months’ vacation in Australia; I was about to take on an additional twelve months at Urun.

On 8 October, Gus Bottrill, now acting Assistant District Officer, walked in from Tapini with Cadet Patrol officer Brian Wilson, stayed for two days and then they all departed.

Bottrill and Wilson set off for Tapini via Ononge and Fane and Conroy set off direct to Tapini and three-months’ leave in Australia. Now I was on my own and I had the remainder of the day to take stock and tidy up a now empty house.

Patrol Officer Jim (JW) Kent had established Urun as a base camp, near the village of the same name, in mid-1950. The house was built with materials from the forest: saplings of various sizes for the ridge pole, rafters, and frame; pandanus frond roofing thatch; and walls of plaited cane. The beams were solid baulks and the floorboards were of pit sawn timber.

Photo 3One half of the front verandah was enclosed with Sisalcraft, a bituminised paper product, and it was purpose built to be the office. But was bare except for a table and a canvas camp chair. There was no radio transceiver, no typewriter and only one file, a manila folder of patrol reports.

The living room contained a wooden dining table, two camp chairs and two deck chairs; the two small bedroom cubicles were each furnished with a bed sleeve stretched between bamboo poles.

In the washroom, a galvanized basin sat on a bench made from a recycled packing case; a shower-bucket hung in one corner, waste water dripping through the designed cracks in the floor to the earth below.

In the kitchen a section of curved arc mesh had been stretched over a clay and earth base to serve as the stove. The water in a bucket, carried each day from the creek in the valley below, was used for cooking and dishwashing.

Conway had warned me I needed a plan. The only way I could communicate with the outside world was by sending a runner, a police constable, to Tapini, and that it would take the runner three days to get there and another three days to return.

If I wanted stores from Tapini, I should send enough people to carry them back. Groceries and other supplies had to be ordered from one of the shops in Port Moresby and could take more than six weeks to arrive—if what I wanted was in stock.

Even mail to and from Australia took two to three weeks, as there was only a thrice weekly DC3 service between Australia and Port Moresby and infrequent charter aircraft to Tapini.

Photo 4My daily routine was dictated by an airstrip that needed to be built. I had to encourage the construction effort and to do that I needed to be at the site by 7 am.

Each morning I left the house, walked down to the three police houses and the lock-up on a flat area about 40 metres below and continued further down to the spur that might, one day, become the airstrip.

I had my doubts that anybody would ever land an aircraft on that a slab of uneven clay. It was just 665 metres long, 60 metres wide narrowing to 40 metres. It also featured a slight bend in the middle. But the longitudinal slope, from 1,700 metres to 1,760 metres was a small advantage.

The real construction killer, with only ten labourers in the workforce, was a large bank, almost a metre high, on one side. Six of the labourers cut into the clay with picks, shovels and a crowbar, while four others loaded the spoil onto stretchers made from copra sacks threaded over poles and carried it away.

Bobby Gibbes of Gibbes Sepik Airways and a World War II fighter pilot was supposed to have a look at the strip from the air and, if he thought it safe, he might try a touch-and-go. He might even land.

Photo 5That could happen at any time and I had to be there if it did. Back at the house by 10 am I could use my own wireless to listen to the radio schedule between Port Moresby and Tapini and receive a personal message from the operator, which never seem to change. “No aircraft today, Bill.”

Each afternoon, a group of people from Urun village dropped in on their way home from their gardens. It was almost a social call. They arrived with garden food - sweet potato, sugar cane, corn, and greens - to exchange for trade goods.

When trading was complete, some people would always move to my verandah, peer in the front window and listen to the radio. It was incomprehensible to them but they stood and listened. The women with young children seem to prefer to rest on the front lawn between the house and the flag pole.

When the sun disappeared and the clouds rolled in, the day was over and it was time to light the lamp.

Photo 6I was alone in my house on the top of the spur, my nearest neighbours, the police, an interpreter and some wives, were somewhere in the darkness below. I learnt to go to bed early, turn out the pressure lamp and read by the dim light of a hurricane light.

At the end of the month, I visited Ononge Catholic Mission for the weekend. Père Dubuy had suggested I leave Urun on the Friday, after ‘aircraft time.’

It took me just over three hours to walk there, up past Urun village, then along a high graded track crossing the Vetapu, below Ononge, by the 150-metre long suspension bridge, swinging high above the river - another Dubuy construction.

Friday was a day of abstinence from meat, but the omelettes the Sisters prepared and sent down for a supper were a feast.

On Saturday morning, Père Dubuy gave me the tour.

Photo 7The Church with a single spire of shiny steel flaunting a large clock that tolled the hours and a set of bells that tolled the Angelus three times a day.

His photographic laboratory with its darkroom equipped with sink, running water and red safety-glass windows that allowed him to process film during the day.

The citrus, coffee and cinchona groves—Blue Mountain arabica coffee from Kenya and cinchona from seeds swinging high above the river that he had snuck out of the Dutch East Indies in defiance of the prohibition on their export.

In the evening we played bridge, a card game I had tried to learn at Kairuku with Malcolm and Grace Wright. I was hopeless then and at Ononge I was worse. The priests: Dubuy (from France), Rinn (from Alsace) and Grimaud (from Switzerland) were enthusiastic and fiercely competitive and they played in French.

I set off back to Urun on Monday morning mounted on a white mare, swaying and staggering as she walked. Father Rinn had fed her a meal of wine-soaked corn to enliven my journey.

A schoolboy followed behind leading a cow and calf. The horse, saddle, and bridle were a long term loan. The cow, also a loan, would provide me with fresh milk if I could ever learn to milk her.

I was also carrying a loaf of newly-baked white bread, a slab of dried, smoked beef, a tin of freshly roasted coffee and a stack of old Catholic Weeklies—all gifts from the nuns.

I did not relish those Catholic Weeklies but I was desperate for reading material and I read every article, even letters to the editor.

At the end of October, I was cleared to leave the station. Gibbes had said he could not do a fly-over until the New Year.

Photo 8Eleven days later, I was at Sigufe village, well down the Vetapu Valley, when I was instructed to return to Urun—an aircraft was coming.

In all, it took me three months to complete that 40 day patrol, including breaks at Tapini for Christmas and recalls for aircraft that never arrived.

Finally, I had to walk into Tapini to type my report; a six-day round trip made longer by having to share the only typewriter with other two-finger typists.

I did not think there was anything unusual in the report, but ADO Bottrill suggested I revise the section which stated that I had the body of the Urun chief dug up. The chief, Aevi Gaveda, been missing for four or five years, having allegedly been murdered by the Kambisi people.

When I elicited that the Urun people had found his bones, buried them and continued to accuse the Kambisi, I had them dug up. The bones were clean and weathered and the soil was loose and friable. Aevi had probably been taken down from a niche in the spirit tree the previous day and interred to satisfy me.

I also reduced my comment on health matter to the bare facts that I had sent 28 people with venereal disease to Urun for treatment but only 25 had made the journey. I omitted the detail that at Urun the diagnosis was likely to have been problematic and the treatment even more so.

During my first days there, the medical orderly had asked me to visit the aid post. I think it was anticipated that I would inspect the patients, maybe comment on their treatment and maybe even give some advice.

For my visit, a handful of women had been arranged on bench in the treatment room. The orderly said that they had ‘VD’. If it was “wet”, it was ‘VD’, and the treatment was an intravenous injection of an arsenical compound. If he missed the vein, the patient developed a subcutaneous ulcer.

In March. I was told to visit the Chirima valley in the Kokoda Sub-district. According to Father Bel at Iongai, the Fuyuges and the Chirimas were about to do battle.

A man had an arrow fired into his thigh and a woman had been threatened with murder. I was instructed to rendezvous with a Cadet Patrol Officer from Kokoda and we were to prevent any fighting. I thought the decision to leave this problem to us two junior officers somewhat incongruous.

Travelling light, I set out from Urun with a party of three police, an interpreter, a cook and four carriers for the two patrol boxes. One box contained kitchen gear, tinned food, trade salt and face paint and rations for the police. Everything else went into the other box: stationery, medical kit, torch, my clothes, blankets and a hammock.

I replaced the heavy, canvas bed-sleeve with a net bag made for me by the Urun women; they had measured me and made a giant version of the ones in which they carried and cradled their babies.

It took the best part of the day to climb from Urun to Murray Pass, which was 3,660 metres above sea level and the crest of the Owen Stanley Range and the watershed between the north and south coasts.

I spent the night in the hut at the Pass and next day moved down to the Chirima village of Iongai. We watched the patrol from Kokoda ascending the track in single file. There were at least 45 carriers and 10 police in the party, which had climbed for three days, from Kokoda. 

John (JW) Frawley and I spent five days at Iongai questioning and examining the men and one or two women who had been involved in the incidents. During that time, we ate at Frawley’s patrol table and I enjoyed a hot shower using his shower bucket.

He slept on a bed-sleeve and I was most uncomfortable in my hammock. Never was it employed again. It was too short, the sides were too high and I did not have a baby’s flexible bones and joints.

Maybe it was the Public Service Commissioner who instigated my next move. Certainly, somebody seemed to have decided that the attrition rate for Cadets and junior Patrol Officers was too high.

Peter Evans had disappeared off the end of Port Moresby wharf in September 1950. Ken Bradford, Athol Earl and Ian James had been killed in the Mount Lamington eruption on 21 January 1951. Others, Conway amongst them, had resigned from the service during their first leave.

Whatever the reason, I was instructed to proceed to Port Moresby for a break. Perhaps I needed it. Apart from a few hours in October 1950, I had been on outstations for more than two years and virtually on my own at Urun for the past nine months.

I took the customary three day to walk into Tapini and waited for an aircraft. It was the first time I had flown in a Norseman and it was the first time I had flown from Tapini.

Sitting in the cockpit alongside the pilot, I wanted to close my eyes as the aircraft hurtled down the slope towards the small mountain at the end of the strip, Oro Spur looming in front of the aircraft.

Photo 9In Port Moresby, I reported to the District Office during working hours. Broadcaster Percy Cochrane prevailed upon me to give a live talk in Police Motu on the local radio station and I visited the shops to buy a Panama hat and some badly need clothes.

Back at Tapini, my final patrol, which was supposed to be a routine visit to the Auga valley to revise the census, turned into another of those broken marathons, with diversions to the Dilava Valley and to Urun and to Ononge, adding an extra three weeks to the anticipated two week circuit.

In the Mondo area, I was surprised to find that the priests from the Fane-les-Roses and Bella Vista mission stations were out of favour with the people because the priests had ignored custom in conducting marriages and had married women already wedded by custom to other men.

I thought that my comments, critical of the Mission and of the legal supremacy of Church marriages over native custom marriages, might upset my superiors.

But Marist-educated Bottrill surprised me, writing, “Mr. Brown’s comments on native custom marriages are pertinent and I entirely agree with his description of the position. The author opines that relations between the Fane Mission and the natives are not excellent. I concur.

“Last year Fane Mission twice reported to this station that an epidemic had caused over 200 deaths. A Medical Officer visited the area but found no unusual incidence of sickness. Vital statistics obtained by this patrol show that the report was exaggerated and irresponsible.

“[Brown’s] report is interesting, informative and provocative. The patrol officer shows a clear insight into the problems of the area.”

I visited Ononge Mission to bid farewell to Père Dubuy at the end of July then set off for Tapini. A few days after I arrived, the news came though that on 6 August, Father Dubuy had been killed by a rock fall. He had been excavating a wine cellar in the embankment behind the church at Ononge.

So passed a great man and a remarkable man, respected and admired by the famed and the mighty, by kiaps and commoners. He had been the parish priest at Ononge for almost 40 years, from 1913 to 1952 and during that time he had visited his homeland, France, only once.

He created his own memorials: the Ononge Church; a network of outstations - each with a cabin and its own grove of citrus and coffee; a water-powered sawmill; a network of graded paths; and a five-metre-tall, metal cross firmly set in cement on the summit of Mount Albert Edward, which he had installed on 25 July 1938 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the establishment of Ononge.

On 10 September 1952 I left Port Moresby for Australia. I had been in Papua for just over two years and eight months and had seen some of the country.

I had been involved in an attempt to build an airstrip, I had intervened in a few disputes, and I had made many friends. I had not saved any money, I had not learnt very much, but I was determined to return to the Territory.

There was a sequel to Father Dubuy’s death. While I was on leave in Australia, Port Moresby-based Assistant District officer Mike Tolhurst, tasked with conducting the inquest, was on the track heading towards Ononge on 19 December when shots were fired by his police who were ahead of him and out of sight.

According to the two police involved they had been attacked and a Goilala native had been killed as they defended themselves. ADO Wally (WB) Giles and ADO Arthur (AC) Ewing - neither with any Goilala experience - investigated then handed over to equally inexperienced uniformed police. Constable Suyae was convicted of unlawfully killing and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment by the Supreme Court.


Map of the Urun region by Bill Brown.

[Photo 1] Fuyuge Interpreter, Koga, Bill Brown and Fuyuge carriers ready to leave Tapini.

[Photo 2] A police constable flashes a mirror signal to Urun Patrol Post from the Kosipe/Woitape divide. Mount Albert Edward on the left. Urun Patrol Post on the far side of the valley just below the timberline.

[Photo 3] Urun Patrol Post house. The office is in the enclosed section of the verandah on the left. The daily afternoon visitors are on the right, peering through the front window space.

[Photo 4] Looking from the office towards the police houses and, further down, the airstrip earthworks.

[Photo 5] My daily visitors pose in front of the office after exchanging their garden produce for trade goods.

[Photo 6] Some of the visitors resting on the front lawn; flagpole at rear on the end of the spur.

[Photo 7] Ononge. Church (clock visible in spire), MSC Sisters’ house on right, Père Dubuy walking right to left mid-frame.

[Photo 8] On Patrol, February 1952. Fuyuge Interpreter Koga, Bill Brown and Corporal Jojoga of the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC).

[Photo 9] My Port Moresby shopping, a new shirt and the Panama hat.


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Diane Bohlen

Gosh you deserved that leave.

Peter Turner

I hope that there are another 30 chapters of this stuff.

Fascinating to us 'insiders', especially to those that 'walked the walk and trudged the track' - leeches, rain, mud, saksak swamps, spiny vines, mosquito's, 'tin mit na rais', tropical ulcers, malaria, mountains and rivers that claimed quite a few lives and terrifyingly dangerous aeroplane rides - and were not just 'Petrol Officers'. The attrition rate was always high, and no wonder.

The Kiaps Honour Roll records reveal an extraordinary high number of casualties, including a number of families, lost in plane crashes. An inordinate number of early Kiaps died on their stations from disease or soon after evacuation.

An unknowable lost world to anyone else, that Bill brings back to life through personalities and events described not only with clarity but with insight.

I visit places I lived 45 (or even 25) years ago and nothing is the same. Nearly everyone I knew is dead. My tireless, patient 'tanim tok' at Koroba in 1971 is still kicking, but, only a few years older than me, Hetawi is ancient. (And how come my grandfather is looking back at me in the shaving mirror every morning?)

Everything changes.

The younger generation in PNG know nothing about pre Independence PNG and it is only well crafted, historically accurate and with plenty of human interest stories like these that they will ever get a 'taste' of how this Nation was built.

Cities and towns have grown exponentially and unremarked.

Both sides of the road from Mt Hagen town to Kagamuga are built up industrial, commercial and residential and soon to have a four-lane highway the same as from Moresby to Bomana (though the Okuk Highway between Hagen and Kundiawa is a goat track).

Much of the road out to Nadzab is the same (built up), but a lot of the old outstations are nearly all gone.

Road networks have proliferated, most rural airstrips are closed for many years. When the reason for them being there disappeared, so did they.

All those untreated timber, fibro and 'kapa' houses and buildings are gone to rust and dust, (or have burnt down) or been 're-occupied' by 'landowners' or anyone brazen enough to exert themselves. It is hard to recognize most outstations, either from development or through the jungle overgrowth.

And yet many other places are the picture of modernity, hustle and bustle, construction and development. The outstations may be disappearing but the 'development' along the main arteries in every province is very evident.

As I keep pointing out to 'disappointed with progress' and 'poor social indicators' mob, we don't have any fighter bombers parked out at Jackson's Airport, not one tank in the whole country, no armoured cars, no secret police or 'special forces' no political disappearances, and if it isn't exactly 'Westminster' it's not an awful long way behind Queensland (you trust that mob with safeguarding the Barrier Reef? They voted for 'Joh', Clive Palmer!)

I am always struck by how far the country has come and how little many people do not understand just how far it has advanced.

Bill Brown's chronicles are masterful in their ability to recreate and reveal 'the lost world' of where PNG came from, and establishes to the PNG audience the reality of those 'earlier times'.

Magnificent Bill. You should post these chronicles on the Ex Kiap website, but I am afraid that Gary Luhrs episodes of the 'Adventures of Patrol Officer 'Thrustbuttock' will still be accepted as the 'way it really was'.

Diane Bohlen

An amazing story and I guess there are many more like this that are still untold.

Arthur Williams

Bill, Thanks for another interesting yarn about those earlier days.

Really hope that future generations in Papua New Guinea can read about their places long before they were born. Fraternally.

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