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How the ‘impossible’ Kassam Pass was opened in 1953

Kassam Pass
Panoramic view of the Markham Valley as seen from the Kassam Pass today (Malum Nalu)


An obituary of former District Commissioner Ian Downs in the PNG Post-Courier, mentioned him as “the principal facilitator of the construction of the Highlands Highway.” Stuart Inder in the Sydney Morning Herald had words of similar import. Both are indisputably true. But Kassam Pass, linking the lowland road from Lae to the rudimentary highland road at Kainantu, had to come first - BC

BRISBANE - To set the scene, in 1952 there were few roads in the Eastern Highlands. An old Army track between Goroka and Kainantu had been resurrected, but mostly there were only short tracks fanning out from Goroka used by just a handful of wartime jeeps.

In October that year, Brigadier Don Cleland, on his first visit to the Highlands as Administrator, was convinced by Ian Downs, new in his posting as Eastern Highlands District Commissioner, that a road could be built from the Markham headwaters to Kainantu.

Downs insisted he could have it finished by 30 June 1953. He was not the first dreamer and planner os such an enterprise, but he was the first doer.

Downs got the 100 shovels and £2,000 he had asked for and 20 year old patrol officer Rupe Haviland became the principal man on the spot to choose a route and build the road.

Haviland had strong backup from his colleagues and relied heavily on his police, bosbois, hundreds of village people and a LandRover with a reliable driver.

Every few weeks, Downs would fly over Kassam in a chartered Tiger Moth to gauge progress.

A month before the Administrator was due to open the road, Downs could see that Haviland needed an offsider to see to the logistic details, allowing him to concentrate on the road building. Just the job for a raw cadet patrol officer – me!

Camping on Kassam was basic and work was hard and relentless during every daylight hour. But every day showed progress.

By the time I got there, the road had reached the 1,372 metres top of the climb out of the Markham valley. From there it needed a 1.6 kilometre additional section to join with the existing road at Arona, north of Kainantu.

The weather for weeks had been ideal for road building - dry and pleasant at this altitude.

The Administrator’s party was to fly to Gusap from Lae and drive up the Kassam Pass to Kainantu on 1 July 1953. On 26 June it rained lightly. No problem. The next day was fine. Ah, the rain’s gone. But on 28 June more rain fell. The few small washouts were easily repaired.

On the 29th Downs drove from Goroka to Kainantu through widespread rain preparatory to taking three LandRovers to Gusap to meet the official party.

On the 30th he drove out to Kassam camp early with the other LandRovers and, after consultation with Haviland about the state of the road, he and I set out to take a first-hand look.

We were not far down the drop to the Markham when the wet and slippery conditions slid us uncontrollably into the bank (thank goodness for an inward-sloping road bench).We were stuck.

I was dismayed and really felt for Downs who was debating with himself (aloud) about the pros and cons of cancelling the opening.

Then came an example of his get-it-done attitude and lateral thinking, so much a mark of the man. He decided it was worth putting small twigs and leaf-stalks no more than a foot long across each of the two wheel tracks to assist traction.

A nearby group of labourers (still working in the rain) was instructed and when about 150 metres was done, we lifted the LandRover out. The twigs worked beautifully.

We returned to camp and, leaving Haviland to mobilise the gangs onto twigging the road, and then left with the three vehicles to get them down the pass. The labourers had completed about 2.4 kilometres of twigs by then. They made all the difference.

That night we camped at Wata Ais near a Markham village, accompanied all night by the drums and singing and dancing of the villagers.

We were up early to drive the few miles to Gusap airstrip only to discover that Ian’s two way radio would not transmit. But the receiver revealed that Lae airport was closed tight with heavy rain and the official party was grounded.

The Highlands weather wasn’t too bad though and soon Ray Harris in the Tiger Moth brought the Administration mechanic from Goroka to accompany the convoy.  

I was due to return to Goroka in the aircraft so, without seeing the official party, I climbed aboard, my disappointment softened by the enjoyment of the leisurely, low level open air trip.

In addition to the Administrator and Mrs Cleland, the official party included Alan Roberts (acting Director of the Department of District Services and Native Affairs), Tom Aitcheson (District Commissioner at Lae) and Gerry Toogood, the immediate past Assistant District Officer at Kainantu.

Rupe Haviland memorial
Patrol Officer Rupe Haviland's memorial on Kassam Pass. He died aged just 26

They were able to fly out of Lae early next morning and made it to Gusap in light rain which continued as they started the climb up Kassam Pass.

By the time they got to the bad part, higher up, the twigging of the road extended no less than 13 kilometres, enabling them to get to the top and on to Kainantu for lunch.

Kassam Pass, the road into the Highlands, rejected by World War II army engineers as an impossibletask but still dreamed of by many, was open for traffic.

It was the ability of Ian Downs to dream and see a way through with his drive, energy and ability to forge a strong, inspired and loyal team achieving the ‘impossible’.

Note: I use the word ‘road’ loosely to describe what was in reality a narrow, single lane, earthen track suitable only for small four-wheel-drive vehicles.


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John Manwaring

I have photographs of this road under construction. My father was a machinery operator on this project.

Ross Baldwin

The original road was rebuilt in 1964/5 on a mostly new alignment. As a you engineer, I lived on the mountain, just below the 18 mile. Walked every bend numerous times and often took a short cut between loops staiaight up yields mountain. 35 Australians and a couple of hundred local employees. Rough times, but the experience!!

Philip Fitzpatrick

As Bob says in his book, "Rupe died unexpectedly of complications following pneumonia while on leave in Australia".

Katayo Sagata

I always wondered how the road was built. Thank you Bob for sharing your story and experience.

I'm wondering if patrol officer Rupe Haviland died while constructing the road?

The common conversation whenever I pass Haviland's memorial at Kassam Pass is that "the guy who constructed the road fell off the cliff in his bulldozer. That is why he is buried here".

Lindsay F Bond

Stunning achievement.
Stupendous views still.

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