WABAG - John Gordon-Kirkby was probably the last colonial kiap (patrol officer) to regularly visit the central ridge in Wabag made famous by the explorer Jim Taylor who described the landscape as a ‘garden land’ while on the Hagen Sepik patrol of 1938-39.
The route along the ridge starts on the banks of the Lai River at Wakumare near the present day Sir Tei Abal Secondary School.
It climbs past Lakemanda village, winding its way up a gently sloping hill to Lupumanda then on to Tole, Kaiap, Lakuia Primary School and further up to the west.
The ridge is the Wabag-Kompiam divide with the Lai and Ambum rivers flowing on either side.
The sight it presents at nearly 3,000 meters above sea level is truly breathtaking from anywhere along this route.
John Gordon-Kirkby was inspired to paint a watercolour of the Enga landscape. Another painting he did was of the Yao Falls at Teremanda village on the Lai valley floor.
The falls painting has historical significance because John painted it on a Saturday in July 1975, a month before PNG gained independence on 16 September.
Both these paintings will soon adorn the halls of the Enga Taik Anda cultural museum in Wabag town as soon as they arrive from Melbourne.
John decided to donate them because he had assisted Dr Paul Brennan, an American linguist and anthropologist, to establish the facility.
John slept in the hausman (men’s house) at Kaiap village and encouraged youth in the area to collect orchids for renowned botanist, Andre Millar. He also helped at a farm at Kasi village on the other side of the Ambum river.
The former British naval officer turned kiap contributed much and interacted well with the local people in Wabag and other places in Papua New Guinea where he worked during the colonial administration period.
Now 83, John recalls how he loved to eat roast sweet potatoes, the staple food of the Engans, usually cooked in red hot charcoals in earthen fireplaces at the centre of the grass thatched huts scattered on the ridge top. Smoke trickling through the thatch and mingling with the morning or evening cloud cover.
“Delicious roasted kaukau with a bit of ash, charcoal and dirt was frequently offered and accepted by me in many parts of PNG,” John told me. “The PNG Enga servings with earthly condiments were special.”
No wonder John liked to eat sweet potatoes, because it is native not only to PNG but Morocco where he lived as a child. With his mother and sister he migrated to Australia in the early 1960s after his father had died in Tangier in 1959.
Now, Doreen, John’s second wife occasionally buys his favorite kaikai at the local supermarket in Melbourne to roast in an electric oven.
The first foreigners to set foot on the central ridge comprised the ill-fated gold prospecting party led by the Leahy brothers in 1934. Then Taylor and Black passed though in 1938 and increasingly government patrols were seen until Wabag patrol post was established by John Clarke in 1941.
When World War II came to PNG in 1942, the patrol post was taken over by officers of ANGAU – the Australia New Guinea Administrative Unit, operating from a base in Wabag.
To the extent possible civil administration was maintained and contacts with local people made through regular government patrols. One such patrol left Mt Hagen on 11 September 1944 to meet with people in the upper reaches of the Lai River in Wabag.
It was led by John Clarke accompanied by Kibunki his interpreter, an armed police escort, servants and a line of carriers.
The patrol climbed the central ridge and arrived at Kaiap village in the morning. They had walked past Tole village, where the Leahy brothers had been forced back 14 years previously.
Clark does not mention it in his diary but the powerfully built man about seven feet (two meters) tall who received his party at Kaiap village was Joseph Kurai Tapus.
Joseph had married two wives at the same time about 1935 – one being the daughter of Pingita, the village chieftain of Tole who had been shot dead by the Leahy brothers defending themselves from a possible massacre.
Pingita’s daughter’s name was Maria Tukim. She was very short and not so pretty and a physical mismatch with Joseph but he married her anyway because she was a chief’s daughter.
After speaking with the local people, John Clarke and his party retired for the night in the well-kept government rest house. He had noticed that the food supply at Kaiap was scarce and did not buy the usual surplus for his team.
Thadius Kaka Menge of Kopen village recalled recently that there was famine in Wabag for about six years at that time, probably emanating from the major frost of 1940 and immensely affecting food production along the ridge.
The next morning, Clarke and his patrol could see Sopas, their next destination, from the ridge. It appeared before them spread in the foothills of the mountain range opposite and to the south.
It looked close but they had to walk carefully down the steep hillside to the valley floor, cross the Lai River to start climbing again to reach their destination.
Over the next couple of days, the patrol visited the salt ponds at Yokonda, Lake Ivae at Sirunki and the active volcanoes on the nearby plateau before they walked down the Lai River back to Sopas and on to Wabag on 18 September 1944.
John Clark said in his report that one purpose of the patrol had been to “consolidate work of former patrols” who had gone before.
Mathew Kandamaine is 83 now and the eldest son of Joseph Kurai Tapus. He recalls seeing four government patrols come to Kaiap village when he was a little boy. Mathew is the first son of the other, small woman Kurai married.
Sadly, in the years before self-government and after independence, government patrols were never seen again in these villages. The government had effectively lost contact with the rural masses in this part of PNG.
But a special attraction of the central ridge remained. It had the potential for tourism. Every step along the way providing an ideal idle spot for a village-style guest house or a resort with breathtaking all round views.
“The Enga landscape was mostly fresh and luxuriously green with red scares of human activity. The distant blue mountain ranges capped with ever changing moody skies,” John Gordon-Kirkby recalls many years later.
Captivated by the magical splendour of the Enga landscape, he encouraged an energetic young man, Peter Piaoen, to build a lodge in his village.
John Gordon-Kirkby saw that the Goroka and Mt Hagen shows were a huge tourist drawcard and that Enga Province had the potential to benefit from tourism. And the Laiagam Orchid Centre had received international exposure from the writings and activities of André Millar and others.
The Wabag Hotel back then was very limited and expensive and visitors had to be accommodated in Mt Hagen and flown in to Wabag.
“A no frills rest-house with basic facilities for orchid enthusiasts seemed a good idea,” John Gordon-Kirkby says from Melbourne.
Indeed the idea was good and profitable. Tourists poured in from all over the world to Kaiap Orchid Lodge to see the orchid garden, enjoy the fresh air and experience a typical Engan village setting.
“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways! Beautiful setting, excellent accommodation, lovely people and what a shower,” were the words entered in the visitor’s book by one Peter Crossett of Geelong, Australia.
In the same year, an American couple, Jim and Kathy of Tucson, Arizona, wrote: “A little bit of Heaven! Spectacular views, wonderful people and great food.”
Tourists made these comments in the guest book after they travelled on a gravel road to get to Kaiap Orchid Lodge on the ridge.
Unfortunately the lodge later closed but Peter Piaoen, the Catholic mission-trained carpenter who established it, is still alive. He remembers how John Gordon Kirkby encouraged him to build it in 1977.
And he remembers how John would come to Kaiap, sleep in the hausman, eat sweet potatoes and mingle with the local people. And John was his best man when Peter got married to a Milne Bay girl whom he met teaching at Tsikiro Catholic mission Primary School in the Ambum Valley.
When the Kaiap Orchid Lodge was finally completed, minister Roy Evara officially opened it on 11 March 1979.
Apart from encouraging Peter Piaon to build the lodge, John encouraged youths from the village to collect orchids and plant them.
Peter recalls how John noticed a rare orchid and how he informed Andre Millar at the National Botanical Gardens in Port Moresby who immediately flew up the next day.
She met Peter and John, and the flowers, at the airport. “Where did you find these?” she asked.
“At Kaiap,” Peter replied. “Drive me straight up there,” Millar ordered.
“That’s how she talked. We laughed when she wanted to take them to Thailand for the World Orchid Show,” Peter recalled.
As it turned out one of the species, Dendrobium Engae, was a rare find – native only to Enga and possibly some other parts of the highlands with the same climatic conditions.
Dendrobium Enga won gold at the world Orchid Show in Thailand. Everybody in Wabag was proud and happy when they received the good news and the orchid was later adopted as the provincial flower.
Then Peter Piaon helped John Gordon-Kirkby design the provincial flag by suggesting what colours to use. The flag now features the Dendrobium Engae in full bloom.
All this time Peter Piaoen was the ward councillor for Kaiap and Sopas for 10 years after the old system of appointing bosbois was done away with. The people had elected him as their councillor in 1979 replacing fellow tribesman Joseph Nala. The people felt it was time somebody literate took over.
Joseph Nala had been appointed by Cr Kurai Tapus, the Kamanewan chief, as a komitiman in his council ward when the new local level government system was introduced. He was no longer referred to as a bosboi.
But when Kurai Tapus retired for health reasons, Joseph Nala automatically took over as the Kamanewan-Sakarwan councillor which Peter Piaoen then took over.
When the council ward elections came around in 1979, Peter did not campaign vigorously. He wanted a way out so he could run Kaiap Orchid Lodge full time. But he nominated anyway.
By this time the Sakarwan tribe of Sopas was separated from Kaiap so now they could elect their own council representative.
Peter said not many eligible voters turned up at Kaiap to vote. Of the 1,000 registered voters only about 60 cast their votes.
The winner was Paul Kiap Kurai, the third son of the union between Joseph Kurai Tapus and Maria Tukim Pingeta.
Peter Piaoen felt relieved and happy that Paul Kurai had taken over because he had admired his father, Joseph Kurai Tapus, who was their great chief.
He remembers that Kurai, even though illiterate, was a great advocate of education. Every time he gave a public speech, he encouraged the young children to go to school.
“Because of his influence, many of our Kamainwan children went to school. Peter Piandao, Danny Yopo, Mark Yapao, Mathew Kurai, Leo Pundari, Timothy Tari and many others went to school,” Piaoen recalled.
“Joseph Kurai Tapus was wise, tough and kind. The people respected him. It is OK his son took over from me as our councilor.”
Peter is thankful Paul Kiap Kurai built the Kurai Tapus Memorial Primary School at Kaiap which will continue to benefit all the children there.
“That great man deserves to be recognised. He had great vision that education is the key for the success of all our children,” Peter said.
Now, the children of Kaiap, and others on the ridge, do not have to walk long distances to receive primary education. It’s right there on their doorstep.
And Cr Paul Kiap Kurai has remained their councillor for the last 40 years ensuring that the primary school he built in memory of his father functions properly with all the resources it needs.