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Kerema: Dispela lapun i lukim tu

Shortcut through sago swamp in MV Aveta c1970
A shortcut through the sago swamps in MV Aveta, about 1970


ADELAIDE - Daniel Kumbon’s enjoyable article on his visit to Kerema brought memories flooding back to me.

In August 1969, a little over 50 years ago, as a brand new Assistant Patrol Officer, I was posted to the Gulf District (now Province).

In those days, being posted to the Gulf was regarded by many young kiaps as a fate worse than death.

They much preferred to be posted to the Highlands which enjoyed a congenial climate, spectacular mountain scenery and the chance to work amongst very energetic people still living an essentially traditional Neolithic life style.

The New Guinea islands were also popular, especially Milne Bay, New Ireland and Bougainville.

The least desirable postings were deemed to be the Gulf and Western Districts respectively.

There was always a lively debate about which of these two postings was worse but both were perceived as having horrible climates, insect and crocodile infested sago swamps and sparse and scattered people living in quite depressed circumstances.

In those days, the Hiritano Highway was just a dream. Many people regarded the whole idea of constructing a road from Kerema to Port Moresby as a fantasy that would never happen.

It was widely believed that the country around Kerema was too rugged and too water-logged to make road construction feasible. At best, it was thought that a road could be pushed through to Malalaua Patrol Post, which lay at the eastern end of the District.

Travel to Kerema at that time was restricted to the daily TAA air service or by sea. I suppose it was possible to walk but it would be a journey of many days which would involve much discomfort along the way.

Access by the sea was always made more interesting by the existence of the infamous Kerema bar. This was a mud bank lying at the entrance to Kerema Bay. It was treacherous because it tended to shift around with the changing tides and weather.

Many a captain ran his boat aground on the bar if he missed the high tide or simply was unlucky in choosing his course.

I arrived in Kerema without high hopes of finding my job especially interesting or enjoyable. As it turned out, I was wrong on both counts.

Kerema in 1969 was, it must be admitted, not an inspiring township. The buildings, many of which were very old, had suffered from the severe climate and looked dilapidated and weather-beaten.

There was the ubiquitous Chinese trade store which seemed to stock every product known to humanity. The owner almost always fulfilled even the most improbable request. For example, if you wanted caviar (which I never did) a tin of best Beluga could miraculously appear and be yours for a not so modest fee.

There was a bank, a not very salubrious hospital and a hotel of sorts. The expatriates tended to gather at the Kerema Club which, as was common in those days, rarely saw a visit from a local person except as a staff member.

The road system was rudimentary and, after rain, turned into a quagmire that defeated even the few LandRovers and LandCruisers been shipped in for the Administration.

After a really heavy downpour even walking on the roads was a problem and there were many times I cautiously picked my way along the road to my home, desperate to avoid the humiliation of going arse up in the sticky mud.

There was little real industry. Copra production was the main business, with a bit of fishing and the odd crocodile skin being traded as well. I do not recall betel nut being produced on a grand scale although, from what Daniel has said, it seems to be amongst the main agricultural crops.

As I recollect, the population of Kerema at that time numbered a few dozen expatriates and something over 1,000 local people.

In those days, the financial and physical barriers to travel were such that people living in outlying areas rarely moved far from their home village and, if they did, they tended to bypass Kerema to head for the bright lights of Port Moresby. That was where the opportunities were perceived to be, not Kerema.

The District Office was a two story grey fibro cement building standing on a low ridge line which ran roughly parallel to the grass airstrip. The building had windows with insect screens behind which glass louvres could be opened or closed according to the weather. Electric fans hummed incessantly in a mostly futile attempt to stir the humid air.

There were two types of weather at Kerema: hot and humid or hot, humid and wet. No-one suffered from the cold at Kerema.

One thing I liked about the town was, somewhat perversely, the rain. I had come from a very dry part of Australia and associated rain drumming on a corrugated iron roof with the hope of a good growing season on  surrounding farms. Kerema has rainfall of about 3,500 mms per year, whereas my home town on average experienced only one-tenth of that.

I also liked was the rivers. Having been raised on the Murray River I felt perfectly at home in boats and so greatly enjoyed patrol work involving canoes or dinghies or one of the larger work boats. I especially enjoyed travelling along the very small creeks that wind their way through the swamp entirely hidden beneath a canopy of sago palm fronds and other trees.

If you mistimed your run through this hidden network and the tide went out, you could be stuck for hours until it rose again. During that time you could watch the mud skippers racing about or, if the opportunity presented, go hunting for mud crabs to eat later on.

Consequently, the things that most people thought were awful about Kerema came to be a source of enjoyment to me. It was never entirely comfortable there but it was certainly not the hell hole it was thought to be by people who had never been there.

The crowning glory of Kerema, in my eyes at least, was that it was the gateway to the vast mountain ranges that lay not very far north of the town. A short trip up the river took you past the Murua Agricultural Station to a small village that lay at the base of the foothills of what remains extremely rugged mountain terrain.

Kukukuku tribesmen 1966
Kukukuku tribesmen, 1966

I undertook two arduous but rewarding patrols into those mountains where I met up with the infamous Kukukuku warriors who lived there. They were still widely feared by the coastal people at that time, mostly owing to their history of head hunting raids on coastal villages in pre-colonial times.

They certainly were tough little guys, rarely exceeding 160 cm in height. They habitually wore beaten bark capes to keep off the rain or keep warm and carried viciously sharp little half pound axes with long black palm handles which they thrust into their wide bark belts, all the while clutching their bow and arrows. They were never without a weapon of some sort.

They always seemed very alert and observant, even though as they walked along with my patrol they would constantly chatter amongst themselves, apparently cracking jokes or telling stories of past adventures.

They were enthusiastic smokers, carefully rolling very long and thick cigarettes using the stick tobacco and pages from the Post-Courier newspaper which the patrol thoughtfully provided for exactly that purpose. They would puff away contently, passing the enormous cigarette around amongst themselves until only a butt end remained.

Their women were even smaller and generally demure in their attitude and bearing. Some of them wore little necklaces which featured the mummified hands of their infant children who had died before even reaching naming age. This was sad but fascinating.

The people appeared to live in little extended family units and, so I was told, were extremely distrustful of strangers and jealous guardians of their land.

Quite what their attitude was towards a young, very inexperienced patrol officer I can only guess. Probably, I was just another young fool that they chose to humour because knocking me off would have caused too much trouble.

My overwhelming impression of the Kukukuku was that they were startlingly good-humoured and cheerful for people regarded with undisguised fear and loathing by other tribal groups.

I never experienced the slightest problem with them and so tended to regard the stories about their savagery and cruelty as being mostly apocryphal, although I subsequently learnt that some of those stories were true.

Now, as an old man, l realise I live in a time and a place far removed from that which I lived in as a mostly ignorant young Taubada Mereki. It feels to me that I have somehow been displaced in time and space into another world entirely removed from that which existed when I lived in Kerema.

Now, increasingly, I seem to be a sort of living fossil, doomed to blunder on uncomprehendingly in this new and bizarre place called the modern world until I am called upon to undertake my last patrol.

It is therefore gratifying to discover through Daniel’s article that, despite many changes, Kerema remains in some respects, very much the same as it was 50 years ago.

I cherish many good memories of Kerema and the Gulf in general. There is a good deal more to the place than those who have never been there may suppose.

So I am happy to echo Robert Oeka’s challenge: ‘Yu yet kam lukim’. Like Daniel Kumbon, you may find yourself saying ‘Mi lukim Kerema na mi laikim moa’.


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Daniel Kumbon

Martin - I started my career with the National Broadcasting Commission in 1976 immediately after independence.

I trained as a technical officer but transferred to the Programs Division hoping to return to repeat my course at the University of Technology in Lae. I had done poorly in my third year.

I instantly liked the work of a broadcast officer, which I started in 1979. A couple of years later, I studied journalism at UPNG.

The 'Laik Bilong Wanwan' programs were very popular among our Radio Western Highlands listeners in Mt Hagen. We received hundreds of letter requests their favorite songs every week.

Some of those songs became my favorites too- Abba, Bee Gees, Beatles, Eagles, Carter Family, John Denver, Neil Diamond, The Seekers, Air Supply, Anne Murray, Merle Haggard, and many more....

I still listen to my favorites on YouTube. Just last night, I watched the cowboy song - 'El Paso' by Marty Robins.

These few lines caught my attention. It sounded like the comments and recollections by you Chris, Chips, Ed and Phil on the two stories on Kerema published by Chis Overland and myself.....

The context of the Marty Robins song could be different but here are the few lines...

‘As I fly above the badlands of New Mexico
I can’t explain why I should know
The very trail he rode back to El Paso
Can it be that man disappear
from life and live another time
And does the mystery deepen ‘ cause you think
That you yourself lived in that other time

Somewhere in my deepest thoughts
Familiar scenes and memories unfold
These wild and unexplained emotions
That I have had so long but I have never told
Like every time I fly up through the heavens
And I see you there below..’,

Thanks for sharing all your thoughts about when you lived in PNG in ‘that other time.’

Arthur Williams

Daniel your comments about Kukukuku people in the Gulf is supported by a letter writer from Okapa in The National on 23 April this year, 'EHP’s gas participation in LNG Gulf'.

"If the Government’s own regal (sic) fraternity as well as the of the Minister for Justice and Attorney-General is an indication, the Papua LNG signing needs a review.

"Almost 80 percent of legal documentations are yet to be complied with. In addition to the major oversights, the Eastern Highlands’ exclusion indeed calls for legal clarification and the EHP governor is right in seeking regal (sic) challenge. Who knows? The oil heads might be in the EHP. I applaud the governor for being proactive in this regard.

"I am from Okapa in EHP and have a fair idea about our boundaries and the traditional relationship we have with the Gulf people, which cannot be ignored by the national government.

"The Okapa MP is from the border area and I hope he works with our governor to fight for EHP’s participation in the Papua LNG.

"Peter Akori, Okapa"

Philip Fitzpatrick

Based of my experiences of social mapping in the Gulf and Western Provinces I'd say that the highlanders around Kerema and a lot of other coastal places are from the Southern Highlands Daniel - mostly Hulis.

Many of them work in oil and gas exploration and follow the work down there. They then marry into the local villages and after a while start presenting themselves as traditional landowners through marriage.

Most of the Kukukukus I came across still live up in the hills and keep to themselves.

Martin Hadlow

Kerema was my first posting back in the early 1970s.

I arrived by TAA Twin Otter aircraft from Port Moresby as, at that time, there were no roads into or out of the place. In fact, from the air, the Kerema settlement seemed to be the only piece of high ground in the midst of a massive swamp extending halfway across Papua and I am astonished to learn that a road now links the town with the capital.

Upon arrival, I was shown to my new accommodation, a two-man donga accessible by a small dirt road which became impassable after rain.

As taxis didn't exist and our office had no vehicle, walking to work in the mud became a common event. In passing, did I mention that the long-time incumbent of the donga was pretty annoyed to have company in 'his' house?

Back then, Kerema comprised a small administration building, court house, school, hospital, sports ground, trade store and, of course, a club. Given that my previous job before arriving in the TPNG had been in Hong Kong, the difference between life in Kowloon and Kerema was stark.

However, as a young chap seeking adventure and a chance to be involved with a job which could really make a difference, I felt that Kerema offered just about everything I had imagined. The privations of daily life were worn like a badge of honour.

As Assistant Station Manager of the DIES [Department of Information & Extension Services] shortwave station Radio Kerema (now known as Radio Gulf), I was excited about the challenges facing the country in a time of major political and social change, not to mention the way in which radio broadcasting might be an important and positive agent in the process.

We broadcast the news in six languages every day: English, Police Motu (as it was then known), Toaripi, Orokolo, Kerewo and Koriki.

Later, the Kamea language (of the Kukukuku people) was considered for broadcast but, by then, I had left the station on transfer to a new assignment.

I still have the highest admiration for our Broadcast Officers who would read the news to themselves in simple English format, then sit before a microphone and express it verbally in their own language. What a skill. It was almost an art form.

Patrols to places such as the villages of the Baimuru River provided visual experiences like something out of the film 'The African Queen'.

Radio Kerema had no car, but we had a dinghy with outboard motor and our expert boatman would guide us into swamps where expats, apart from a few kiaps and explorers, rarely visited.

The tidal nature of the rivers and estuaries caused huge drops in water levels which usually meant that by the time we had returned to the boat after making audio recordings, it was stranded high and dry.

This caused us to have to struggle through almost thigh deep mud to push the boat back into the river before we could head for home.

Our visits to remote areas and villages enabled us to record traditional music, strings bands, stories 'blong ol tumbuna' [traditional legends] and local news items for broadcast. We carried Tandberg tape recorders, microphones, batteries and plenty of audiotape.

Such great days. Thanks for the memories. One can only wish for the people of the Gulf District all the very best as more so-called modern 'development' comes into their lives.

Daniel Kumbon

Glad I have made Chris, Chips, Phil and Ed talk with my Kerema story. Three of these gentlemen were kiaps 'almost Kings', the sole authority among the people.

Thanks Chris, I hope Patrick at the Post Courier and Alphonse at The National will publish your enduring tale as a sequence to my article. You explain so eloquently how it was in those bygone days.

I expected to see only tall people at Kerema like one or two carpenters I saw in Enga, and Kerry and his wife Rose who taught us in the early 1960s at Kandep Primary ‘T’ School.

And others like, of course, Big Pat Levo at the Post Courier

However, most of the people along the road some kilometers before reaching K-town were short and smaller in stature.

A man from the highlands said these people had come over the mountains and fought the coastal people, taken over the land and drove the inhabitants to live along the coastline.

This needs checking, but the short people perhaps are Kukukukus?

If they are, then the Kukukukus not only live in Eastern Highlands and Morobe but spread to the coast as well.

Ed Brumby

Give me the Sepik, any time.....

Chips Mackellar

Superb memories, Chris. Mine are similar, except that my first posting was to the Western District, which, as you mentioned, was said to be even worse than the Gulf.

In fact in those days it was so bad that no one ever believed the stories I later told about it. For example, do you suppose that the average Aussie would believe that there existed a swamp so extensive that as night fell the swarms of mosquitoes were so dense as to blot out the last rays of the sunset, so that just by clapping your hands you could kill 20 mosquitoes.

Or that the crocodiles were so bad as to enter a village and seize a baby and run with it into the river, in a land where people ate crocodiles and the crocodiles ate people.

Or that a river could flow backwards, like the Herbert River which joined Lake Murray to the Strickland. So if the rain was heavier around Lake Murray then the Herbert flowed south into the Strickland. But if the rain was heavier in the headwaters of the Strickland, then the water level was higher in the Strickland than in the lake, so the Herbert then flowed north instead of south. The countryside was as flat as a tack.

Even 350 miles (560 km) upriver, Lake Murray was only 37 feet 11 metres) above sea level.

And no one ever believed the good stories. For example, the land was so flat that when the water level dropped, mud banks would wriggle with an abundance of prawns.

The way to catch them was to scoop up the mud in a bucket with holes in the bottom. Then dunk the bucket in water, which would then wash out the mud, leaving half a bucket of fresh prawns waiting to be eaten.

Or that when the water level rose, small islands would be created on which pigs and cassowaries would be isolated, unable to escape, and thus easily hunted.

And no one ever believed my duck stories. When the water levels were high the duck weed clumped and the clumps attracted so many wild ducks all gobbling the weed so intensely as to be oblivious to a passing canoe.

From this canoe a single shotgun cartridge could harvest 20 ducks.

You and I can share these memories, and it doesn't matter that nobody else believes them.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I went voluntarily from the highlands to Western Chris and never regretted it. Even in the 1960s the highlands were a bit too civilised and I yearned for wilder places and the opportunities to explore where Europeans had seldom ventured.

I also spent quite a bit of time in Western and Gulf from the 1990s onwards doing social mapping and seismic camp management and got to see many more remote places and peoples.

Backwaters have a great appeal for some of us I guess.

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