On reading patrol reports
PNG – we can’t go on like this

The kiaps: After dedication, melancholy

Oates
Paul Oates at Pindiu in 1970 with Papua New Guinea Administration colleaguesa

CHIPS MACKELLAR

Small Steps along the Way, by Paul Oates. Download it free here

WARWICK QLD - With Small Steps along the Way Paul Oates enters the pantheon of kiaps who have recorded their experiences in Papua New Guinea during the years of its prelude to independence in 1975.

Collectively they fill the void eschewed by mainstream historians, and for good reason.

Nobody but the kiaps could tell these stories of rural and regional life in the country and people they loved with such aplomb, sensitivity, intimacy and devotion to detail.

PNG emerged from the mists of time and with a sudden jolt during World War II when it was invaded by the Empire of Japan.

At the time of this invasion, the top part of New Guinea was a quiet colonial backwater, a League of Nations Mandate administered in no hurry by Australia.

The bottom part was the Australian Territory of Papua, also in no hurry.

The war revealed the strategic importance of PNG to Australia, so as soon as hostilities ended the Australian government made strident efforts to bring PNG out of its colonial backwater and into the modern world.

The pre-war Administration had largely ignored the interior of the main New Guinea island, leaving extensive tracts of jungled hinterland undeveloped

So, to open up the country to modern development, the post-war Administration embarked upon an ambitious program of expanding its pre-war colonial staff by recruiting, training and deploying a professional body of rural and regional administrators known collectively in English as patrol officers and to the people of Papua New Guinea as kiaps.

This was a title said to have derived from the honorific Kapitan, used to address colonial officers of the pre-World War I German administration. The native people pronounced this honorific as kiapitan, and this soon developed into its diminutive kiap.

This was then applied to officers of the incoming post-World War I Australian administration, and it has continued with reference to these officers to this day.

The rural and regional administrators were a disciplined body with a professional rank structure, but the titles of the ranks within this structure were changed several times during the course of its history and so also was the name of the Department to which these ranks were assigned.

This bewildering array of nomenclature changes, was promptly ignored by the Papua New Guineans who referred to these officers, irrespective of rank, simply as kiaps and that is how they are referred to here. 

Paul Oates was one such kiap. He came to PNG already well suited to the job.

Educated at Kings School with its tradition of service to the nation, he followed the footsteps of several other Kings men into the patrol service, and with a few years’ experience in the Kings School cadets and the Australian Army Reserve, he was already prepared for the rigours of patrolling in PNG.

His burning desire to meet people of other cultures was soon accommodated, because the first story in his “Small steps along the way” is of a Shakespearian tragedy which occurred when the normal fruits of a love match degenerated into a shame induced infanticide. 

Cultural encounters of this nature are endemic to PNG and they awaited every kiap on first arrival there.  So the significance of Small Steps is that it is not just Paul Oates’ story. It is every kiap’s story. Hundreds of us, scattered across the swamps and jungles and the islands and along the rivers and in the mountains of PNG, all had similar experiences. 

And, added to our exposure to cultural variations, was our exposure to workplace variations.

Oates quotes Sir William Slim’s comments on the kiaps’ duties as “I don’t think there is anything like it in the modern world.”  

And he was right because throughout the hinterland and islands with “small steps along the way” as Paul Oates explains, the kiaps built the roads and the airstrips which still exist today.

They maintained law and order, ran the courts and the banks and the jails and the mails, and did all the other jobs that a government does when there was no one else there to do them.   

Small Steps along the Way is one story of how PNG was brought to independence in 1975 by the dedication, tenacity and endurance of the young Australian men who governed the island and inland reaches of the country during the last throes of its colonial administration.

It was the kiaps and the other young Australians working beside them as teachers, medicos, agriculturalists, engineers, and builders who brought this country to perfection until their services were no longer needed.

In the meantime the kiaps lived at isolated patrol posts in bush houses with grass roofs and pit latrines and oil lamps and bucket showers.

In their own remote worlds they wielded immense power, but they did it so mildly they would walk unarmed amongst the people they trained and mentored and they created with them such a friendly partnership that it survives happily to this day.

Small Steps is the story of life on the remote patrol posts like Pindiu, Kabwum, Asiki, and Sialum, and towns like Wau and Lae. In some ways it was a magical lifestyle so exotic that it no longer exists today, not even in Papua New Guinea.

Small Steps is spiced with amusing anecdotes, of misfits and missionaries, bagpipes and bamboo pipes, exotic scenes and pit latrines, slippery roads and aircraft loads, fruit bats and domestic cats, tropical disease and a plague of fleas, camp cooks and village books, torrid lives and multiple wives, and much, much more.  

It details hair-raising flights in small planes landing on rough too-short bush airstrips, and a tragic awful experience for Paul Oates when he had to recover the damaged and partly decomposed body of his best friend from a horrendous aircraft crash site.

It was a ghastly event which will haunt him for the rest of his life.

And finally, after years of dedicated service to the people of PNG, the Paul Oates story ends with an untimely departure following a life shattering burglary and a threatened attack on his family.

How tragic that such an exotic sojourn in PNG should end in such a melancholy way.

Small steps along the Way is a great story, but with a sad ending.

What a pity that its ending should become for its author the final memory of PNG, because those of us who never had any bad experiences there will always remember PNG for its moonlight and palm trees and blue lagoons and its beautiful island girls.

Enjoy reading Small steps along the Way. It is a ripping good yarn.

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