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Kiap Days: Astonishing yarns from a remarkable time

A Kiap's StoryKEITH JACKSON | Weekend Australian Review

A Kiap’s Story by Graham Taylor, Pukpuk Publications, 2014, ISBN 1502703459, 404 pages. Amazon Digital Services, hard copy $US14.19, Kindle version $US3.79. Link here to purchase

NOOSA - In late January 1985 no sooner had I rested my feet under my faux oak desk in my faux oak panelled office as the ABC’s controller of corporate relations than managing director Geoffrey Whitehead instructed me to take a plane to Canberra to meet deputy chairman, Dick Boyer who, I was told, was hell bent on writing a ‘philosophy’ for the national broadcaster.

I quickly learned to dread this enforced collaboration with the loquacious and pedantic Boyer and began to search for a willing substitute.

Graham Taylor, the ABC’s boss in South Australia, came highly recommended. “He can get on with anyone,” I was told.

The avuncular Taylor proved true to this appraisal and willingly took on the project. After much iteration the ‘philosophy’ eventually surfaced as a slender document entitled ‘The Role of a National Broadcaster in Contemporary Australia’ which immediately sank without an oil slick.

But Taylor and I had discovered a common history. As young men in colonial times we had both been broadcasting managers in Papua New Guinea, me having gravitated from teaching and Taylor from the more exotic role of Kiap - a patrol officer. And it is of those distant times that A Kiap’s Story is all about.

Depending on who you’re arguing with, the word ‘Kiap’ is either a derivation of the German word ‘Kapitän’ (Captain) or a simple steal of the indigenous Tolai word for Chief.

Whatever the etymology, in Papua New Guinea it spoke of a government official – a district officer or patrol officer – almost always a young Australian and always male - who had been given the most extraordinary powers to spearhead Australia’s pacification, administration and development of the three million people in the joint colonies of Papua and New Guinea.

When recruited in 1948, Taylor was just 19, which put him among the youngest of his cohort at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney.

There he trained in addressing the many practical difficulties he would face in Papua New Guinea as well as matters of cultural variance he would need to adjust to. It was telling that both sides of this deal – the physical task and the intellectual challenge - appealed to the young man.

A Kiap’s Story reflects this duality, and shows that Taylor learned his lessons well. The memoir is a lucid and well told history of Australia’s great experiment in colonialism blended with a rollicking and rousing tale of derring-do as Taylor and his colleagues carved their own, and Australia’s, way to fulfil the formidable command to build a nation.

They didn’t always get it right of course – and many died in the process of getting it wrong.

There were patrol officers Szarka and Harris and their two police who, at opposite ends of the Elptamin Valley of the untamed Sepik region, were butchered by warriors who thought the white men had come to visit pestilence upon their food crops.

And later, in New Britain, district commissioner Jack Emanuel was bayoneted to death by a Tolai war party which, despite the danger of which he was aware, he had decided to negotiate with without his police escort.

Taylor himself experienced a near catastrophe on a December 1951 expedition into an uncontrolled area of the Ramu Valley when, on Christmas Eve, his patrol was ambushed by hostile tribesmen, leaving Taylor and some of his police wounded by arrows, clubs and stone axes.

“With a sense of utter disbelief I saw an arrow, maybe a metre long, sticking out of my right shoulder. It had pierced my khaki work shirt and impaled in soft tissue. Held firmly by its tiny barbs, the arrow was now drooping down at an angle of maybe 45 degrees. Blood was starting to ooze through the torn sweaty fabric of my shirt.”

Taylor ordered shots to be fired and – shocked by a deafening volley from the Lee Enfield .303s - the warriors fled into surrounding bush, bar one who again tried his luck only to have his leg pinned to a fallen tree by a police bayonet. Upon Taylor’s instruction he was let go.

At 22, the young patrol officer had undergone a baptism of fire and won a scar he would carry for life. But, in all, it was a fortunate encounter for Taylor – for nobody had been killed.

This spared him from what would have been an unfriendly inquest by his superiors, whose standing instructions included the imperative to “never shoot first – and don’t shoot at all unless your own life is threatened”, an injunction interpreted by hardened Kiaps as ‘don’t shoot until you’re dead’.

Taylor’s patrol was the first post-war foray into this uncontrolled and dangerous area, and he was highly commended for its conduct.

After further service on the Indonesian border, in the Kokoda area and training as a magistrate, Taylor was appointed to headquarters at Konedobu in Port Moresby as supervisor of patrol officer training.

Then, in 1958, after 10 years as a Kiap, Taylor had a major shift in vocation, joining the ABC in Port Moresby to head up its multi-lingual broadcasting service. Thereafter his career progressed steadily before he retired as the ABC’s general manager for South Australia in 1987.

However, his colonial experience remained the defining part of his life, as it did for many of those young Australians who served in Papua New Guinea during its formative years as a nation.

Taylor has written a splendid book in graceful prose. His narrative skilfully and evocatively blends history, adventure and humour with the story of Papua New Guinea’s coming of age.

And as you might expect, it also provides significant insights into the demanding challenges of the Kiap – ‘ol narapela kain man ia’ as they were referred to in Pidgin. A different breed!


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Stephen Romei | Literary Editor | Weekend Australian Review

A wonderful piece. Lovely personal touch. Unexpectedly timely too, re today’s ABC.

John Lobb

A fascinating insight into a time before independence, a time when an ancient culture had to meet the new world. These patrol officers had a dangerous existence and should be commended.

Keith knows only too well the struggles of these early peacekeepers and I'm sure this is a remarkable read.

Graham Taylor

Hi Keith - You did a masterly job on the review. And I am greatly indebted to you - and indeed to Stephen [Romei] - for the way in which you both have made this happen.

My phone has been running hot with WeekendOz readers who unanimous in their views that it is a great review. I well remember, incidentally, the tormented hours and gallons of sweat I spent with young Dicky Boyer wrestling with him over the ill-fated future of national broadcasting in Australia.

Your review very succinctly and cleverly hits all the right buttons when it comes to creating/.explaining the role of young Aussie Kiaps in PNG and the trials and tribulation some of us suffered. While you are kind enough to praise my wordsmithing I am equally conscious of your own prowess. Without your support and input my book may well have been doomed to obscurity.

It will be interesting now to see whether the book sells. It is clearly not in a favoured genre; the anticipated price might be off-putting for some punters; its readership might well be restricted to the dying generation of lapuns who once lived and worked in the Land of Dehori and to this day comfort themselves by recalling the dashing deeds of the past. There may be a few academics who reach out to it for inspiration in matters of interest to them.

We shall wait and see.

Again my sincere thanks and best wishes for a happy life in good old Noosa. I first went there is the 1940’s when there was no electricity along the Tewantin riverbank- we used hurricane lamps and candles. Emdasol.

Rob Parer

Thanks Keith. Most Australians worked in the towns and did not see the really amazing feats (magic really) that this small band of Aussies were pulling off in far flung, inaccessible places around New Guinea.

In those days just one young kiap with a few loyal policemen and a few bags of salt and bags of seashells could do more than a whole team of public servants and $10 million dollars today.

I’m so pleased that their unique service has been acknowledged.

Max Uechtritz

Enjoyed the review, Keith. I’ll be getting Graham’s book.

Arthur Smedley

Thanks for the review, Keith. After seeing your post, I purchased the paper and read it this evening.

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