Never give up: a retrospection
Let's give PNG a reading culture

Hidden gems in dusty old books

Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama
Heinrich Harrer and the Dalai Lama, who Harrer befriended and taught


TUMBY BAY - Heinrich Harrer (1912-2006) was an Austrian mountain climber and adventurer.

At the beginning of World War II he was in India and interned by the British. But he managed to escape to Tibet where he lived out the war in the company of the young Dalai Lama.

His sojourn in Tibet led to the publication of his most famous book, ‘Seven Years in Tibet’. A passable film of the book, starring Brad Pitt, was made in 1997.

In 1962 he undertook an expedition to West Papua to climb the highest peak in the province, the Carstensz Pyramid. At 4,884 metres and a short distance from the equator it had permanent glaciers. It was later named Puncak Jaya by the Indonesians.

Following this ascent he investigated stone axe quarries in the mountains and then journeyed south down the Baliem River to the sea.

The book about these exploits, ‘I Come from the Stone Age’, was published in German in 1963 and in English in 1964.

At the time of the expedition Indonesian paratroopers were attempting to land in the Dutch administered province and Michael Rockefeller had just disappeared off the south coast.

This is interesting, but what I found intriguing about the book were the descriptions of the Dutch administration in what was then Netherlands New Guinea.

In 1962 the capital of the province was at Hollandia, on the north coast, not far west of Vanimo. This  town, now Jayapura, had been a major operational headquarters in the Pacific War.

It was a comfortable and pleasant capital but much of the rest of the province was still unexplored.

7 Years in TibetHarrer started his expedition from Lae and contrasted the safety and advancement in Australian administered Papua New Guinea with development in the west.

His plan to escape the invading Indonesians if it became necessary involved fleeing by boat to the Territory of Papua New Guinea.

The Dutch administered what is now West Papua using a system of district officers roughly equivalent to Australian kiaps but fewer in number and with a different mindset.

Dutch district officers seemed to place their own comfort ahead of their administrative roles. This meant that they concentrated on developing key centres but left a lot of the bush work to missionaries.

Where the Dutch officers were located they did a good job and provided many useful services, particularly in health. But beyond those centres, people were largely left to their own devices.

Perhaps the Dutch were aware of the Indonesian threat and the geo-political situation and decided to make themselves comfortable until they were forced to leave.

I can recall meeting Dutch refugees in Port Moresby after the 1969 act of free choice. Planters and administrators alike, they seemed to enjoy the good life.

Some of them opened restaurants in Port Moresby and introduced delicious Asian cuisine to PNG.

In retrospect, the West Papuans would probably have been better off under the Dutch, who were already developing plans for their independence well before the Australians to the east. Unfortunately that didn’t happen.

I have quite a collection of old books like ‘I Come from the Stone Age’ but have pretty much left them on the shelves to gather dust. A while ago I had a lull in reading the sort of books I find interesting and pulled Harrer’s book off the shelf and re-read it.

It was then that I realised what a gem it is. I’m now thinking of re-reading some of the other books I’ve got languishing under their dust.


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Robin Hide

Phil - Others also have been re-discovering Harrer in recent years ... for instance:

Haslwanter, Katharina W. 2018. "He who travels… Heinrich Harrer as an explorer through western New Guinea 1962".

In: Flitsch, M., Powroznik, M., and Wernsdörfer, M. eds. Encountering – retracing – mapping : the ethnographic legacy of Heinrich Harrer and Peter Aufschnaiter. Stuttgart, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, pages 40-49.

Baka Bina

Thank you Phil. To others of you who want to read this thriller, please help yourself to the site. It is old English but is good for the thought process and the logical sequencing of the story. and its enjoyable.

Philip Fitzpatrick

You can buy a hardcopy here Baka:

There's also a movie, made in 1935.

And another in 1960.

Baka Bina

Thank you Phil, I will surely have a good Christmas night.

I have copied it whitened out the last chapter and will re-read the whole book and read that last page when I have completed the book.

You know, one thing though, reading an electronic copy does not feel like you are reading a book.

You read a book when you can hold a book and flip over the pages and when you can put down a book and sigh a bit or hold the book longer so that you can get to that suspense.

Yes that is a book and an e-copy, you cannot flip the pages but - $^&@&^%@^, the battery is gone. it is deflating.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Here you go Baka:

Baka Bina

I once read an old book that I found among some trash thrown out on a road side near Kainantu. The title of the book is 'Freckles'.

It was the precursor to all things environmental as it was written in 1904, a century before anyone was thinking of saving the environment.

In it was a bludgeoning love story connected to saving a huge tree from illegal loggers, I think it was around swamp lands near Chicago USA.

It was quite an enjoyable book as the main protagonists were a young helper who was employed in something to do with the forest and the daughter of the forest owner who meet up and are on a crusade to stop the logging thieves.

The boy had one hand and was an orphan.

Then I found out that the book had the last page missing. Darn.

I still am not sure of the outcome as I still am looking for a copy of that book to see that last page and the outcome. I will appreciate anyone who can pass me their old copy.

Yes, old books can be a gem and there are many out there. I find a lot of good old books at the second hand shops that sell all manner of things including a good supply of books and that is where I find my collection of Alistair MacLean and Dan Brown books.

I now scour the second hand shops for John Grisham and Steven Martini's books.

I'd however would gladly trade them for Papua New Guinean thrillers.

Arthur Williams

Liked your post Phil. One of the positives of living in rural PNG in the last quarter of the last century was we had no access to TV or mobile phones.

Modernity then was shortwave radio which provided information about the world beyond PNG's shores. My two favoured stations were BBC World and the ABC (the Oz service not USA).

I often thought that the expats in PNG were perhaps the most well read people on the planet as books were one of our major sources of entertainment in the normal equatorial 6-6 hours of darkness.

I too recall reading Harrer’s ‘7 Years in Tibet’ and it was one of many on my shelves at Taskul until 2007 when the termites digested it.

Just a few kilometres from Puncak Jaya, or Mt Carstensz, is one of the world’s richest gold mines and like Mt Carstensz was set among glaciers.

I read how climate change has led to an especially retreat of many of these areas ice flows with some estimating 60% have disappeared since Harrer climbed it.

He had a Dutch kiap, Albertus (Bert) Huizenga, with him on that first ever climb as well as Sydney born Russell Kippax. Worth reading the other climber Phillip Temple’s account of that climb at ‘Ascent of Carstensz Pyramid’.

They placed five flags at the summit: Austrian, Oz, Dutch, NZ and the West Papuan which may have been the ‘Morning Star’ variety.

Wikipedia has a thought provoking animated map showing the extent of the retreating and even disappearing glaciers from 1850-2003; while Plymouth University had access to satellite images confirming the trend has accelerated and over one million square metres has disappeared this century.

Some years ago I saw pictures of early Dutch expats skiing on slopes now miles from any ice.

Old Gulf Province hands will recall the Dutchman Adrian, nicknamed ‘Papa', telling how when he was national serviceman he abandoned his aircraft by parachute when the Dutch were still fighting in their old colony.

"I didn’t steal the plane. It’s out there somewhere!” he exclaimed one day to me as he sat with his stubbies in my home in Baimuru where we were exchanging books, which was our usual Sunday morning event.

After lights outs if you glanced towards his nearby home you’d see him, shirtless as ever, sitting on the verandah reading a novel by the light of a hurricane lamp.

I have recently downsized from a four bed maisonette to a 1½ bedroom flat. In the corridor are ten still unopened small cartons of my ‘best’ books that I couldn’t bear to part with.

I am still waiting to put up some shelves in my so-called office that will allow me to see again my personal little library of old friends.

As you said, Phil, it is quite a thrill to open one after perhaps many years and once again enjoy its contents. Sadly I think only one of my seven daughters shares my love of books.

Neil Gaiman wrote: "Google can bring you 100,000 answers. A librarian can bring you the right one!"

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