GOLD COAST - How do write about someone who died a long time ago and yet who is still so alive in one’s memory? Start at the beginning I suppose.
In 1969, as a liklik kiap (Cadet Patrol Officer) at Pindiu Patrol Post on the Huon Peninsula, I distinctly recall the arrival on the airstrip of a bright pink Cessna 185. “Who the hell is that,” I asked the OIC?
“That’s Rowlesy,” I was told. “They call his plane the Pink Panther.
Ii was easy to see why. The aircraft had been painted a cheerful candy pink. It stood out like the proverbial country pink-painted dunny.
During my first term in the Hube region covered by Pindiu Patrol Post, the local people constantly talked to me by about their dealings with Ian Rowles.
He’d been trained at Gatton Agricultural College in Queensland and had been a didiman (Agriculture Officer) in the area prior to branching out into trade stores and other businesses. His energy and enthusiasm left an indelible impression on everyone.
You could tell when you came to an area where Ian had been. The village coffee sheds were well maintained and often built in line. Everything was organised in a businesslike manner. “Masa Ian istap pastaim” (‘Mr Ian was here) I was informed with pride.
Rowlesy was well known and known as someone who didn’t discriminate. He treated the local people with respect.
My first experience at purchasing land on behalf of the government for leasing to a private company was to obtain agreement from the local people at Ogeranang airstrip. I had to administer the purchase of a plot for Ian’s business, the Kabwum Trading Company, to allow him to build a trade store.
There were no objections. Everyone knew and respected Masa Ian.
Bearing my government issue portable typewriter, I set out on patrol with instructions to hold a meeting at Ogeranang and obtain the signatures of at least two-thirds of the traditional landowners to a document enabling the government to buy land at the top of the airstrip.
Having assembled members of the clan which owned the ground, I explained why the government wanted to purchase the land and that it would be used for Masa Ian’s trade store. After discussion and much oratory, the decision to go ahead (probably already agreed) was announced.
But it was the signing the agreement by two-thirds of the owners that proved to be a logistical nightmare.
I sat on a patrol box up at the collapsible patrol table and asked for the owners’ names. I typed each one and asked the owner to come forward and sign. Most were ‘marksmen’. That is to say, they could not write and were required to sign in a cross between the words ‘His’ and ‘Mark’. The instruction was: “Yu kamap nau na holim pen na mekim mark bilong yu” (‘Come here, hold the pen and make your mark’).
If they couldn’t hold the pen properly, they would hold the top of the pen while I made the cross. Fully 80% of those signatures were crosses.
When I got back to Pindiu, I duly presented this weighty collection of signatures to the OIC.
“That’s great,” he said, “but where are the copies?
“You should know by now that everything for the government has to have paperwork in triplicate.”
When Ian Rowles opened a new store at Konge airstrip, about 15 minutes flying time east of Kabwum, he invited the station officers to the opening. As usual the strip was set on top of a ridge stretching into a valley.
We piled into the faithful pink Cessna 185 and flew to the strip where the local people had prepared a big celebration and a feast.
We only expected to be at Konge for a few hours so wore casual clothes and footwear. The celebration was typical of the area with kundus (drums), singing and much colourful bilas (costume and headdresses).
Rowlesy had contributed trade goods and the tinned fish and rice inevitably featured heavily in the fare. A banana tree was planted as a traditional mark of the long life of the business. Someone unkindly suggested Rowlesy may urinate on the tree each time he visited to ensure it would grow well.
The day began to get overcast and it was suggested we depart for Kabwum. Women and children went first and we were left to wait for the next flight. The aircraft droned away and the clouds continued to gather. Soon the airstrip was covered in thick, white cloud and we were left contemplating spending a night in our shorts and tee-shirts at 5,500 ft.
Then we heard the whine of Ian’s plane somewhere in the mist and it miraculously appeared through the pea soup at the end of the airstrip and taxied towards us.
“How the hell did you do that?” we asked.
“Oh, it’s clear about 200 feet below the level of the strip,” Ian replied.
“Hop in and I’ll fly you home. It’s clear all the way along the valleys to Kabwum and we should get there before it descends to 4,200 feet and closes Kabwum strip.”
Needless to say, we held our breath as we took off straight into 10/10ths cloud and dropped blind to beneath cloud level. The plane levelled off and flew us through the valleys until we landed at Kabwum ahead of the descending cloud mass.
Rowlesy’s flying skills seemed nothing short of incredible. Once he told me he was shuttling cargo and coffee between Kabwum and Yalumet when the aircraft engine stopped. Most people would have sent out a mayday call and crash landed however Ian worked out that the small air intake on the wing had iced up and created an airlock. He glided the plane down to almost tree top level and started the engine once the ice around the intake melted.
His resupply operations to his trade stores were something to behold. He would often arrive with the aircraft door off, the plane loaded to the brim with trade store items. As soon as the aircraft halted, Ian could be seen kicking out the cargo boxes with his bare feet and yelling for the coffee bags to be ready to be loaded onto the plane.
The engine would not usually be turned off and after a fast turnaround, the aircraft would take off with a full load of coffee beans. Ian later confessed that this practice got him into trouble a number of times when he had tried to take off as another aircraft was on its final approach at the same strip, Ian not having checked in with air traffic control prior to take off.
One day at Yalumet airstrip, where I had by then set up a base camp, Ian had turned off the engine while loading the plane. As he restarted it, a long stream of flame swept back from the exhaust and along the side of the plane.
Everyone at the edge of the strip, including me, gesticulated wildly at Ian that something was wrong and he taxied back to the loading area and switched off the engine. I ran over and told him his aircraft was on fire.
“Oh, that’s just an exhaust fire,” he said, “Nothing to worry about,” and started the engine, turned around, revved up and took off.