A home in the clouds: Working to save the tree kangaroo
As our friends & comrades die, a bit of our lives vanishes

History as a fuzzy photograph in a box


TUMBY BAY - Over the last year or so, quite a few old kiaps have been setting out on that final journey to the patrol post in the sky.

And many of them have come from that last generation of contract officers to be recruited prior to independence.

This is quite unnerving for those of us of that generation who are still upright and breathing.

I’m getting a distinct feeling that part of Australia and Papua New Guinea’s joint history is rapidly falling away into the past.

Doug Robbins passed away earlier this month and I’ve just heard that Don Reid has followed him. I didn’t know Doug but Don was someone I encountered early on in my own kiap career.

I don’t know whether it was official policy or just how things worked out but when I was a cadet patrol officer I was teamed up with Don to learn the ropes.

I’m not sure whether he drew the short straw or simply felt sorry for me. In any event we became good friends and he taught me what I needed to know to survive.

Among other things he was great at detecting my bullshit.

My life experience up to that point consisted of 18 dismal months working for the National Bank. To compensate for that dearth, I had become quite inventive at describing things that had never happened to me but I wished had.

Among these inventions was a claimed skill at driving in the outback. In reality I had occasionally hitchhiked through northern South Australia and Victoria but I had never actually driven anywhere.

Don listened to me for a while and then pulled up the LandCruiser we were in and told me I could drive the rest of the way to Mount Hagen. Needless to say we kangaroo-hopped for about a hundred yards before I stalled.

He didn’t say a thing but just quietly started to give me driving lessons.

He liked mucking around with cars and he and another patrol officer, Rob Kelvin, bought an old Falcon sedan and did it up.

They sold it to another cadet who had arrived a few months after me. On one occasion, this cadet asked me to drive him to the airport and bring the car back to the house.

No worries! I jumped in and drove him to Kagamuga and turned back towards town. About halfway the front left wheel fell off. I rather enjoyed telling Don about that hair-raising incident but it turned out  it was the cadet who had tightened up the wheel nuts the wrong way causing the wheel to make its bid for freedom.

Another piece of blarney I had spun for Don was my ability at bushwalking. This one came unstuck when we were assigned to a surveying job for a new tea plantation in the swamps of the Wahgi Valley.

The land on which the plantation was to be established wasn’t actually the good earth at all. It was a dirty lake filled with rusty coloured water and clumps of bamboo and kunai.

We spent two days wading up to our chests dragging a surveyor’s chain and taking bearings with a handheld compass.

I nearly died - and  the last 500 metres of the last day were absolute hell. I was the last one out. Good old Don, sitting smoking his cigarette on a grassy knoll by the road, didn’t say a word when I collapsed beside him.

We had some other adventures together, including taking the Western Highlands exhibit to the Goroka Show with Rob, but eventually I was deemed passable and let loose on my own.

Don went to the Nebilyer Valley to run a local government council and I went off to babysit another council while its advisor was on leave.

That was about the last time I saw Don and his lovely wife Sarah Jane, but I remembered him with affection.

Then I read the Ex-Kiap website this week and discovered that he had passed away.

As far as I know Don never owned a camera or took a photograph while he was in Papua New Guinea.

And when I went rummaging through my collection of photos, I only came across one fuzzy print with him in it. This is the one on this page. It was taken at the shooting range in Mount Hagen and he was teaching me and a couple of other blokes the finer points of pistoling.

I ended up mentoring a few cadets myself in the next few years, including Charlie Brillante who is also in the photograph but is now also gone.

It’s sad to think that people like Don have left us. I hope he had a good life after Papua New Guinea.

Others who I knew from that era in Mount Hagen who have died include Ross Allan, Dick Olive, Keith Winchcombe and Roger Gleeson.

Don and the many others who have now gone represented a unique era in Australia and Papua New Guinea’s history.

That both countries chose to ignore their memory is really very sad.


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Bernie Rowley

The cadet who put the wheel on the Falcon that came off was Bernie Rowley. He regrets not having tightened the nuts up enough.

Took half a century or so but Bernie came clean. Rest easy chaps - KJ

Arthur Williams

Thanks for your favourable comment.

Sadly may be getting too late after two big scans in eight days, I await with some trepidation the consultation due 3 June.

Nevertheless hopes springs eternal.....

All of us who read and write under the banner of PNG Attitude wish you well, Arthur. And as for that book, a collection of your many and greatly admired reflections, comments, stories and anecdotes posted in these columns would make a very good start - KJ

Chips Mackellar

Why have you not been able to write your book, Arthur? Many kiaps have, and just like a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, so also a life story of 20 chapters begins with a single word. So just write one word, then let the other words follow. And here in Attitude, is the best place to start. Just look at "A kiap's Chronicle" by Bill Brown MBE, written here chapter by chapter in Attitude. It is an awesome, splendid record of one kiap's experience in PNG. You could do the same, Arthur, beginning with a single word.

Arthur Williams

I keep an Ex-Kiap obituary file. Since I came back from my last trip to PNG in 2008 I have noted the following recorded 122 deaths of ex-kiaps. Obviously may not be 100% accurate as some are in foreign fields and so unremarked upon:
2009 9
2010 17
2011 9
2012 15
2013 9
2014 13
2015 12
2016 14
2017 10
2018 7
2019 7 to date

Thus we are reminded of the guaranteed certainty that started at our births.

I would love to think that each of the kiaps has left some written record of most of the things they experienced in their time in PNG albeit long or short. I once read that ‘When an old person dies a library closes’. That is true; so please make some sort of record before it’s too late.

It seems my daughters and friends are fed up with my reminiscing about my time there but I get the feeling that the interest in genealogies will not diminish and hope one day one of my current 15 grandchildren will ask their parents, “Why was grampy in PNG?”

Sadly I haven’t been able to write ‘My Book’ but I have told my daughters, if you want to see what I have written, check any file on my memory sticks that has its whole title in capital letters; that will be one of my tales, comments, blogs, posts etc.

Another sadness is that I had to leave behind my collection of photos in favour of my stamp collection when I last left PNG. Can’t imagine they remain safe in the carton I packed them in.

Maski, ples daun.

Garry Roche

Ross Allen was still in Hagen in the early seventies. I do remember him. He was once invited to give a talk to a group of new missionaries and I remember him being very positive about the people and the Highlands.

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