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A Kiap’s Chronicle: 14 - Ambunti



WHEN District Officer Fred (FPC) Kaad transferred me from Dreikikir Patrol Post to Ambunti in 1957, it served both our ends.

It solved Fred’s staffing problem and meant I would be in charge of a Sub-District once again, a prospect I was looking forward to.

Taking over from Mert (MW) Brightwell as acting Assistant District Officer, I would be paid a little more but, on the downside, I’d have to defer my leave for at least seven months.

I could have travelled to Ambunti overland - down the road from Maprik to Pagwi and then upriver by boat - but the road sector was a slow drive of 55 kilometres in the middle of the wet season.

The rains and the swollen Sepik River would have flooded the roadhead and we would have to truck my gear through the quagmire to the workboat.

The final leg, pushing upstream against the Sepik River current for 60 kilometres, would take another three hours. Perhaps six hours in all, just to get from Maprik to Ambunti.

I decided to take the quicker option and arranged a charter flight. One of Bobby Gibbes’ Norseman aircraft flew a load of government stores to Maprik then uplifted me and all my gear to Ambunti. Even with some added sightseeing, it was only a 30-minute flight.

I had flown over the Sepik River once before, but I was not prepared for the vista emerging from the early morning mist. A seemingly endless river twisted and turned through swamps and grasslands, its meandering course punctuated by numerous ox-bow lakes and a few straight reaches.

Photo 01From my seat in the cockpit, I could see the Chambri Lakes on the left shimmering in the morning sunlight, while ahead the mountain at Ambunti and the Waskuk Hills rose abruptly from the plain. In the distance, New Guinea’s central ranges jag-toothed across the skyline.

We flew a beeline for 10 minutes, almost directly above the road to Pagwi, before turning to follow the river upstream: a 13 kilometre straight stretch to Avatip then another change of course for an even straighter leg from Malu to Ambunti.

Pilot David Wills gave me a flypast of  Ambunti station before making a wide 270-degree turn to land.

By New Guinea standards, Ambunti was a simple one-way airstrip with a long clear approach. With the throttle cut back after touchdown and a little application of the brakes, the 300-metre grassed surface brought the aircraft to a standstill well before the mountain at the end of the strip. The river bank was the only hazard. If the pilot landed too short, the wheels could clip the top of the bank and flip the aircraft on its back.

Photo 02Mert Brightwell was waiting at the airstrip to meet me. He explained the handover would take about four weeks, beginning with a thorough familiarisation with the station and environs after which we would take the workboat upriver: first to May River Patrol Post (333 kilometres) and then a further 444 kilometres to the border with Dutch New Guinea.

Back at Ambunti, the process would be completed with the formal check of the cash and assets. Then we would each sign the handover certificates and Brightwell would be on his way.

Saturday was Station Inspection Day at Ambunti and Brightwell had postponed the early morning ritual until my arrival.

We began with the inspection of the police detachment, formed outside the barracks in their parade ground best. Then we moved on to the kalabus (gaol), a long, thatch-roofed shed with substantial walls of logs driven vertically in the ground.

The detainees were lined up inside the surrounding barbed-wire fence and, as Brightwell called names from the gaol register, I checked each individual prisoner against the warrants of imprisonment.

We moved to the airstrip and walked its 300 metres end to the end and back again. Brightwell was known to be fastidious, some would say pernickety, and we checked the surface for sogginess and ruts. I was mildly surprised that we did not check each blade of grass.

A footpath, shaded by shrubbery and some small trees, led from the airstrip up a gentle rise to the office where the serious exertion began.

Photo 03First, some 15-odd steps cut ladder-like into the cliff at the back, then a stiff climb up the spine of the hill in the broiling sun.

Three zigzags led to the Medical Assistant’s house, then a few more zigs and zags further up the hill to the Assistant District Officer’s house. Finally, we followed a narrow path through the bush to a clearing a little higher up the mountain – this was kiap McDonald’s last resting place.

Edward McDonald had been killed by a disaffected policeman - shot at dawn with a service rifle while sleeping in his bed.

His grief-stricken family (his father was mayor of Geelong in Victoria) were further distressed when the two-metre long, pink granite tombstone, shipped in a crate from Australia, was found to be cracked and fractured when unpacked at the graveside.

Photo 04A replacement slab now covered the grave, with the fractured slab alongside. Both carried the same simple epitaph engraved in gold:

In Remembrance of
Assistant District Officer
Who was Killed on Service
28th February 1935
Aged 29 years.

Brightwell and I talked that evening about McDonald’s murder and other events: the 1952 ‘Creighton Affair’ and the May River massacre of August 1956.

The Creighton Affair of May 1952 had thrown Ambunti Patrol Post into chaos when the expatriate population of three single officers was arrested and charged with rape and other crimes.

The two Patrol Officers, acquitted of rape, were subsequently convicted on lesser charges and deported. The Medical Assistant, convicted, and gaoled for four and a half years, was acquitted after a High Court Appeal.

Those arrests and the ensuing, lengthy court proceedings left an administrative vacuum at Ambunti that Sepik Robbie, the Sub-District Office clerk at Angoram, was sent to fill.

Semi-retired, Eric Douglas Robinson knew the Sepik well. He had been a Patrol Officer on the river in 1928 and District Officer in charge of the river district at Ambunti in 1932.

Born with a speech impediment, Robinson introduced himself as “Wobbinson” and would joke, "The diffewence between Mawilyn Monwoe and me is that I have a bit of twoble wolling my r's."

JK McCarthy in his memoir, Patrol Into Yesterday, relates how, after Robinson nearly died from leech bite, he stated he would raise the question of officers patrolling leech-infested grass country being issued with issued with a certain type of “wubber goods.”

The leech that snuck up Robbie’s penis and latched on inside had gorged and gorged. Robbie reached hospital, his sense of humour intact, imploring the medicos to “wapidly wemove the wascal, but please wetain the size”.

Patrol Officer Peter (PB) Wenke, just returned from leave after completing his first term, took over Ambunti from Robbie and by mid-1953, he was patrolling with gusto and venturing recklessly far afield—travelling up the Sepik by workboat to enter and explore a right bank tributary, the notorious Leonard Schultze, and travelling overland from Ambunti through the swamps to the Yellow River with an escort of only three police.

At Angoram, 170 kilometres downstream, the sub-district headquarters was in caretaker mode with Patrol Officer Jock (JW) MacGregor, barely out of his cadetship, in charge.

Some 750 kilometres upstream at Green River Patrol Post, Allan (AT) Cottle, another young kiap of MacGregor’s vintage, was custodian.

It seemed incredible that three very junior officers could be responsible for the law, order and welfare of the people living along 1,000 kilometres of the Sepik River—from the sea to the international border with what was then Dutch New Guinea.

Further south, at Telefomin, in the headwaters of the Sepik River high in the mountains, two other inexperienced officers were in control. This was where the practice of deploying relatively inexperienced young men came to grief.

Cadet Patrol Officer Geoffrey (GB) Harris had been stationed at Telefomin for eight of his 15 months total service. His superior, Patrol Officer Gerald (GL) Szarka was nearing the completion of his second termbut had been at Telefomin for only three months. (Szarka and Harris were murdered in two separate incidents on 6 November 1953.)

The Telefomin tragedy brought an influx of kiaps to the Sepik; Brightwell was almost the last of them. Just back from the two-year diploma course at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in March 1954, he was ensconced as acting ADO at Abau in the Central District when he was drafted to play a role in the lower court hearings at Wewak.

He was moved to Ambunti when the Supreme Court hearings ended in August and spent six months as Patrol Officer before Ambunti was regraded to sub-district status in April 1956 and he was elevated to acting ADO.

Life should have been easy from then on but in August the May River people invited their neighbours from a little further upstream at the Yellow River junction to a feast where they murdered and cooked 25 of their invitees.

The boofheads in Port Moresby seemingly had not learnt anything from the Telefomin massacre, even ignoring their own edict—in force in 1956 and for many years thereafter—that Telefomin patrols must comprise at least two officers, one “an experienced Patrol Officer, Assistant District Officer, or District Officer.”

Patrol Officer Tony (AL) Redwood, five months back from his first leave and based in Port Moresby 1,200 kilometres from May River, was certainly not “an experienced Patrol Officer” when he “was called to headquarters at Konedobu, and told [he] had been selected to lead the May River patrol” which would traverse through the lower end of the Telefomin Sub-District.

Except for the occasional visitor, Redwood and his police detachment were on their own during the 82 days (29 0ctober 1956 - 18 January 1957) of the May River patrol. They rounded up the culprits and saw them through the court proceedings that culminated in 40 men being convicted in the Supreme Court and sentenced on 11 February 1957. Redwood had contracted hepatitis and was at Dreikikir recuperating when I left there for Ambunti on 27 February 1957.

Photo 05Preparations for our departure upriver to May River Patrol Post and then to the Dutch New Guinea border were made in typical Brightwell style. It took a whole day to assemble and load the rations to resupply the Patrol Post.

March was the wettest month of the normally wet year. Rations were loaded into Mala’s small cabin and laid out carefully on the floor: unopened bags of rice, wheatmeal and dried peas, each weighing 51 kilograms; smaller 32 kilogram bags of slightly damp sugar, and smaller 25 kilogram bags of even damper salt.

When the crates, cartons and caddies of ships biscuits, tea, matches and tobacco had been squeezed into corners and crannies, there was no room to move around. The only free space, a passage around the diesel motor, allowed the crew limited access to ensure it was greased and oiled and powering the boat along.

We slept on board on the night before our departure, crawling from the bulwarks onto canvas bed sleeves stretched above the cargo. We wriggled under mosquito nets before dusk and emerged only after dawn when some of the clouds of mosquitos had dispersed.

The boat’s crew - Manji, Kontrak, Nyaga, and Aipak, all from the middle river - came on board just before first light.

Woken by the rumble of the diesel as the crew fired it up, Brightwell and I crawled out from under our mosquito nets.

Brightwell’s cook, Auriman from Avatip, was next aboard and, after much shouting, latecomers made their way around the deck and stepped into a long canoe strapped to the starboard side. There were three exchange police for May River, some accompanying wives, a medical orderly and two other police who were part of our team.

At 6:10, 20 minutes before sunrise, we were underway and heading upriver in the dawn light. Brightwell and I moved the two canvas chairs to the reinforced roof above the wheelhouse and here we spent the daylight hours. When it rained, we descended to the cabin and perched on bags of rice.

Photo 06Auriman cooked breakfast in the foc’sle on a single burner Primus stove - fried eggs, bacon and coffee - and served it while Mala was passing through the Yambon Gate, where the river, at its fastest and deepest, raced and swirled through the narrow cutting it had gouged through a high ridge.

With breakfast out of the way, it was time for the daily waswas, a ritual involving standing naked in the sunlight on the stern of the boat. The shower, a galvanized bucket tied to a rope, was thrown overboard from the stern and hauled back filled with gritty, colloidal Sepik River.

There were accompanying cautions shouted by the crew in Tok Pisin: “Don’t loop the rope around your wrist – the bucket will pull you under and you might never come back up!”

The toilet was another stern rope, knotted at regular intervals and secured to a cleat. The rope was to be firmly gripped by the crouching user who would hang bare-bottomed over the stern in full view of the river banks.

There was another admonishment for the toilet: “Don’t get chopped up by the propeller, kick away if you fall in.”

Aboard Mala we had a modicum of privacy and comfort, partially shielded from prying eyes by a canvas flap hanging from the cabin roof. It was not so secluded for those travelling in the canoe strapped alongside.

The canoe’s freeboard was one-third that of Mala and her passengers were completely exposed to view. It was too dangerous to move between the two vessels when we were underway and even when we tied up after the day’s travel as there was seldom enough dry land to move around.

Photo 07Brightwell had commissioned men from Kubkain village to fell the tallest canoe tree that they could find. Their finest craftsman had tirelessly adzed and honed the log, transforming it into a canoe that projected more than a metre fore and aft of Mala’s 12-metre length.

With two 44 gallon (200 litre) drums of diesel fuel standing vertically amidships, the passengers could move gingerly from end to end, perch on one side of the canoe or squat on the floor or on their hand luggage.

A young lady gave every one a blast when, while perched on the edge of the canoe, she suffered a wardrobe malfunction and lost control of the laplap at a crucial time. She complained bitterly about the rudeness and callousness of men. When men stood up and turned their backs to pee she said that she averted her eyes but they never did the same.

It was tough being a policeman on the Sepik if you didn’t come from there, and tougher still being a policeman’s wife. Life was hard at Ambunti but much worse travelling on the river, in the swamps and at that hellhole at May River.

Mosquitos attacked throughout the day. They were different at every stop: a wasp-like sting at one place, painless at another; while elsewhere they seemed to have chewing teeth.

I used a pressure pack of insecticide to liberally spray any mosquitos that joined me under the net and later I spent 10 days in hospital recovering from a reaction to the spray, the skin on my arms and legs erupting into fluid-filled blisters.

Arriving back at Ambunti on Wednesday 3 April 1957, we had a week before Brightwell needed to depart on leave - time to finalise the slowest handover in history - before we both headed to town, me for medical treatment.

The station was left for the time being in the care of newly-appointed Cadet Patrol Officer John (JF) Tierney and his mentors: Medical Assistant Allan Kelly, Clerk Lasi from the Papuan Gulf, and, most experienced of all, Sergeant Lingut of the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary.

Photo 08Tierney stepped off the aircraft that I caught to Wewak. There, Hungarian-born District Medical Officer Lajos Roth said he did not know how to treat my problem, but would admit me and try an ‘old wives’ remedy.

The expat hospital, just along the road from the Wewak Point Hotel, was a small remnant of a much larger wartime edifice. It normally catered for maternity events but there were no births in the offing and I was the only patient.

Each morning for a fortnight, after completing his rounds at the main hospital on the road around the point from Chinatown, Roth appeared with a huge syringe and extracted blood from a vein in my arm and promptly re-injected it into my rump.

I was never sure what triggered the cure – Roth’s blood transfer treatment, the elapse of time, Matron Bodellia Mulcahy’s nightly libations or the ministrations and the banter of her young cohorts, Sisters Patricia Bondason and Gloria Dag.

Cured anyway, I flew back to Ambunti to find the station running smoothly but there was much to do. John Tierney had accomplished more than I expected. He had learnt the office procedures; how to handle the radio transceiver and worked on many chores.

But there were some things beyond his purview, like the string of people—men and women—seeking a court hearing, and there was official correspondence demanding a reply.

As part of what to Tierney may have been a boring learning curve, he sat alongside me in the office as I worked through the complaints and disputes: some frivolous, others settled by mediation, others like adulteries addressed through more formal court processes. (At the time, adultery was a crime applying only to the indigenous people.)

Among the letters, there was a formal invitation, addressed to Bill Brown BHP, to an ordination of the first Franciscan Bishop. It was almost a command. An attached handwritten, unsigned note explained it was Monsignor Doggett’s personal request that I attend his ordination.

It was arranged that an SVD Cessna would pick me up at Ambunti early in the morning of 3 June and return me from Aitape to Ambunti the following day.

The note concluded with the comment that my contention that I was not a Black Hearted Presbyterian was accepted but the BHP post-nominal was correct for a Black Hearted Protestant.

There was always something happening on the river.

Famed American TV raconteur Lowell Thomas together with Australian filmmaker Lee Robinson and his associate Joy Cavill arrived with a flotilla of small ships laden with movie equipment to record the first episode of High Adventure, a colour series for the CBS Television Network.

They and our bosses in Port Moresby expected us to ensure there was plenty of local cooperation and colour. Later, in return, the Ambunti community from near and far was invited to a night-time premiere of the full-length colour movie Walk Into Paradise filmed on the Sepik and around Goroka in 1955. (For American release it was later retitled Walk Into Hell.)

Downstream at Pagwi, Education Officer Tasman (TR) Hammersley had been in trouble for some time, accused of romancing District Commissioner Elliott-Smith’s daughter, and was barred from visiting town.

The brash young lady, nose in air and not perturbed, proclaimed to anyone who would listen, “If Daddy does it, so can I!”

The townsfolk had been speculating about Daddy Elliott-Smith for some time. The speculation ended when the storeman’s young wife collided with the District Commissioner and the love bug bit them both, ending his marriage of 26 years.

Thirty years his junior, and married just two years, his lover fled to Australia, perhaps to establish a nest. Elliott-Smith followed soon after, abandoning forever his prestigious DC’s position, never to return.

Elliott-Smith’s sudden departure was followed by another unexpected twist. On 30 April 1957, acting District Officer Fred Kaad was slotted in as acting District Commissioner ahead of the irreverent and unruly District Officer Dick White—a pre-war officer, ten years Kaad’s senior.

Neither event made ripples at Ambunti where we were playing catch-up. May River Patrol Post had been without an expatriate officer since Redwood’s departure on 11 January. Police Sergeant Sauweni and a small detachment were left to hold the fort.

Sauweni had probably saved the Telefomin station from completion annihilation in November 1953, but I did not think that leaving him in charge of the May River was reward or recognition for that extraordinary achievement. I needed to have somebody posted to administer May River and Patrol Officer Peter O’Sullivan drew the short straw.

In 1956, O’Sullivan had been acting Assistant District Officer at idyllic Misima in Milne Bay and after leave was posted to the Sepik District, first to Wewak, then to Lumi and finally to May River.

In Wewak, O’Sullivan had formed an attachment with a sinuous, long-legged young lady - described inelegantly by Dave Wills as “all muscle and no tits.” Maybe he was correct as she later became famous on Australian television as a fitness guru and, later still, host of a successful BBC television show.

O’Sullivan’s romance survived his transfer to Lumi but not to May River. He had not been there very long when I was asked to get an urgent “Dear John” letter delivered to him.

May River lapsed into relative unimportance when the Anderson Affair, as it became known, hit the headlines.

The Administrator had forwarded the report of an inquiry into the affair to Canberra on 16 July 1957 and three days later Territories Minister Paul Hasluck launched his blistering response:

“After reading the report it seems to me that you may not be viewing this matter as gravely and with the same sense of anxiety that the Government is bound to view it…

“The report reveals a state of affairs, as well as a most grievous abuse of authority, and its conclusions are damaging not merely to the reputations of the officers concerned but to the reputation of the whole Administration, and must deeply effect the confidence of the Government and (should the occasion unfortunately arise) of the Commonwealth Parliament in your own ability to control the matters entrusted to you.”

At the same time Hasluck wrote to the PNG Public Service Commissioner, N Thomson, directing him to hold an immediate inquiry under Section 10 of the Public Service Ordinance into aspects of the Departments of Law and of Public Health, and a full blown, nine-pronged investigation of the Department of Native Affairs.

The cause of all this had transpired at Tapini, headquarters of the Goilala Sub-District, and 125 kilometres north of Port Moresby in the Owen Stanley Ranges. It was a long way from the Sepik District but the events there in late 1956 triggered reviews, adjustments and changes to our department that would continue for years.

We knew nothing of this in the Sepik, but guessed something was afoot when all the outstation ADOs—real and acting—Geoff (GR) Burfoot at Aitape, Bunny (SH) Yeoman at Angoram, Frank (FD) Jones at Lumi, Arthur (AT) Carey at Maprik, Ron (RTD) Neville at Telefomin and me at Ambunti were peremptorily ordered into town, with instructions to proceed direct to accommodation at the Wewak Point Hotel and remain there until we were contacted. Wewak-based acting District Officer Dick White and acting Assistant District Officer Tom Ellis would join us there.

We were a motley group - married, single and separated, one Lothario; young and old; mostly ex-servicemen but for two of us—Ron Neville and me, schoolboys during the war.

We learnt a little more that afternoon when acting District Commissioner Fred Kaad appeared. The Public Service Commissioner and a three-man team were flying to all centres in the Territory to conduct an enquiry, and the Wewak segment would kick off the next day.

We would be individually grilled, under oath and in camera, as to our own behaviour and as to what we knew about the behaviour of others.

Assistant Secretary for Territories, Dudley McCarthy—a pre-war, New Guinea kiap—would assist the Public Service Commissioner with the inquisition while two other members of the team, John Legge from Canberra and Gerry (GJ) McLaughlin, a former Goroka District Clerk turned Public Service Inspector, would make flying visits to our stations while we were absent to see what they could unearth.

The inquisitors were not interested in an earlier altercation that I had with the police sergeant at Aitape. That was already on the record, but I was thoroughly grilled about my time in the Goilala and at Ambunti about the number and frequency of ADO and DC inspections and what I knew and felt about the Edwards and Creighton affairs.

I knew a lot about the Edwards affair. Patrol Officer Edwards MM had been convicted and gaoled in 1950 a year prior to my time in the Goilala. I knew all the details and also knew that Edwards had been awarded the Military Medal for acts of bravery during the landing at Balikpapan on 1 July 1945.

I said I thought Edwards had been left alone and unsupported for too long. The Creighton affair, initially disbelieved, had caused revulsion among us all as the facts were revealed.

As to visits and inspections, I explained that acting ADO Gus Bottrill had twice made the trek from Tapini to Urun—three-days there and three days back—while I was based there but that I could not imagine how a Port Moresby-based District Commissioner would handle the physical exertion, or be able to afford the time it would take.

I was more worried by what Legge and McLaughlin might unearth during their visit to Ambunti than I was about the inquisition by Thomson and McCarthy.

McLaughlin and I had known and disliked each other for three years in the Eastern Highlands, and a recent subterfuge at Ambunti had left me exposed.

I had been instructed to arrange a public meeting so an Australian cabinet minister, visiting the Territory from Canberra during the parliamentary winter recess, could meet with the village leaders.

I had seen it all before. The politician puffed and preened and spoke of his political wisdom and achievements. The luluais, tultuls and other notables, who had trekked from near and far, listened in disbelief, then returned home disillusioned and disheartened by the complete and needless waste of their effort and time.

On that recent occasion, I had organised a ‘rent-a-crowd’ to listen to the minister. The station work force - labourers and their wives; visitors and hospital outpatients; even the calaboose, re-garbed in lap laps borrowed from the government store - were assembled for the occasion, schooled and groomed to be enthusiastic and to applaud.

They performed well and the minister departed, happy and content. It would be curtains for me if my ruse became public or if the investigators discovered it. Fortunately Tierney and the others at Ambunti held their whist.

At the beginning of August another event was in train. Dick White decided I was going troppo and insisted I apply for leave. Approval was delayed because of the inquiry but on 3 October I departed on 122 days recreation leave plus four months long service leave.

I hoped that I would be reposted back to the Sepik, after an absence of almost eight months, when my leave expired at the end of May 1958. 

Images & notes

Map of the Ambunti region (Bill Brown)

Photo 01 - Ambunti from the air (Department of Information modified):
1 Assistant District Officer’s house (Mert Brightwell then Bill Brown), domestic servant’s house at rear
2 European Medical Assistant’s house (Allen Kelly), domestic servant’s house at rear
3. Patrol Officer’s house (John Tierney)
4. Sub-District Office
5. Haus Sik (hospital)
6. Floating wharf (left-right) Wewak-based MV Thetis, Ambunti workboats MV Mala and MV Onyx
7. Airstrip
8. Police Barracks, gaol and married quarters

Photo 02 - Landing at Ambunti (ER & JH Roach). The Sepik River is under and immediately in front of the aircraft. The river bank, airstrip and mountain are directly ahead. ADO’s house is on top of the hill at right

Photo 03 - Gibbes Sepik Airway’s Norseman parked alongside the footpath leading from the airstrip to the Ambunti Sub-District Office (Internet)

Photo 04 - Ambunti Hill from the river. The office is on the right and the zigzag track leads up the spine of the hill to the Medical Assistant’s house. On the top of the hill is the ADO’s house and the forest behind (Bill Brown)

Photo 05 - MV Mala moored alongside the floating wharf, Ambunti 1957 (Bill Brown)

Photo 06 - The canvas chairs on the roof above Mala’s wheelhouse where we spent our days on the river (Bill Brown)

Photo 07 - No dry ground at the first night’s stop; the river breaks its banks near Swagup (Bill Brown)

Photo 08 - Police Sergeant Lingut, Bill Brown and John Tierney at Ambunti,1957, standing in front of the Sub-District Office; Medical Assistant’s house at rear (Lee Robinson)


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Norah Omen

I was searching for information to tell the the children of Ambunti the history of Ambunti which interested me. Thanks very much.

Alan McLay

Bill that is another great read. I didn't want to come to the end!

Tony Wright

Thanks Bill for another detailed and interesting chapter.

I was particularly interested as my brother, Peter, spent a few years as a P.O. at Ambunti under Des Martin.

Arthur Williams

Bill, an excellent tale of Sepik life 'bipo'. This latest story is almost like a lifetime of experience.

Thanks for your efforts in letting us read your Kiap's Chronicle.

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