TUMBY BAY - Given the huge nation-building task at hand, there weren’t many kiaps at any one time in Papua New Guinea prior to independence - maybe 650 at peak strength.
They were an odd mix of characters and very difficult to describe even after all these years. On some matters they had conservative views but on others they showed enlightenment and liberal ideals.
One of their important defining characteristics was a willingness to experiment, improvise and innovate. They were not only a strange breed but a rare one.
And that is what was required, given Australia’s stinginess in administering its colonial obligations. The emerging nation required men capable of thinking outside the box.
When I went through the Australian School of Administration (ASOPA), our training officer made this unusual role quite clear. He referred to us as misfits, not in a derogatory way but to explain why we had been selected for the job.
Much later a highlander, shaking his head and smiling, told me that the kiaps were narapela kain man. Another type of man. That is, a misfit.
He did this to express his difficulty in working out what made kiaps tick and to differentiate them from the other expatriates working in the then territory.
These days those old kiaps have moved to that “patrol post in the sky” or are drifting into their twilight years. Many are not going quietly. They are still different and making mischief where the opportunity presents itself.
This is the conclusion I’ve drawn after many years reading and contributing to blogs like PNG Attitude and the Ex-kiap website.
What amazes me is the intellectual rigour still exhibited by many of these men.
A lot went on to gain higher tertiary qualifications and others wrote books. Many worked their way into the senior echelons of the Australian public service. A few achieved commercial success.
If you look at the numbers of ex-kiaps who followed this pattern, it is well out of proportion to the other expatriate groups in Papua New Guinea prior to and just after independence.
There is a rather delightful irony in this.
In the 1970s, as many of these men returned to Australia, kiap was a dirty word, particularly in academia. The word encapsulated, so we were told, the whole sorry history of Australian colonialism.
When I joined the South Australian Museum after leaving Papua New Guinea it was politely suggested that I not mention my previous life as a kiap to other staff.
I recall on one occasion loading a couple of my old patrol boxes into the back of a four wheel drive ready for a field trip when a museum staffer walked by. He noticed the extra-large handles on the boxes and asked why they were so big.
Caught unawares, I explained - a pole through both handles and a bloke on each end.
He was aghast. Oh, the inhumanity he cried.
Thankfully this kind of naïve criticism has abated and some people, including the Australian government, have realised the kiap philosophy had a lot going for it.
A philosophy that many of the old buggers resolutely maintain.