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.
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.