Life on a Coral Atoll: Australia’s Cocos (Keeling) Islands by Paul Oates, 2020, ISBN: 9798602004854, 174 pages with heaps of b/w photographs, US$4.90 + postage paperback or US$2.00 eBook, available from Amazon.com
TUMBY BAY - There is now a slim but veritable genre of kiap memoirs available in print. Some of them have been published by mainstream publishers but most are self-published.
The simple fact behind the preponderance of self-published work is that the general public, in Australia at least, is not especially interested in the subject.
One day I’m sure they will come into their own and be widely read. This will be when all the writers have safely passed on and cannot offer their embarrassing interpretations of Australia’s varied and muddled attempts at colonisation.
I’ve been involved in the publication of several of these memoirs and have also collected as many others as I can. One day I might pass them all on to the National Library in Papua New Guinea.
In reading these accounts it is relatively easy to pick up recurring themes. If they were all stitched together it would probably be possible to produce a generic version of a kiap memoir.
One theme that doesn’t often pop up however is the post-kiap story. In many cases the memoirs conclude with short details of ‘going finish’.
This is to be expected I guess but I often wonder what happened when many of those kiaps got back to Australia.
We know through various sources such as PNG Attitude that the transition back into Australian life was difficult for many of these men and their families.
In most cases they were ‘different’ when they first went to Papua New Guinea. They were the sort of people who had a lot of trouble settling into the rut of a normal working life in Australia. Many of them, for instance, seem to have been bored and disillusioned bank clerks and the like.
From what I’ve heard a lot of these returnees tended to go off at all sorts of tangents when they got back to Australia. Very few of them settled into what could be called an ordinary working life.
After serving for many years as a kiap in pre-independent Papua New Guinea Paul Oates returned to Australia and like many of his fellow kiaps he found settling back down in Australia challenging.
Those memories of warm tropical days, swaying palm trees and waves breaking on the reef haunted all of his days spent in what seemed like bland and mundane work in Australia and he started to look out for more interesting work opportunities.
After five years of submitting applications to serve in the Cocos Islands Paul was finally accepted and with his wife began a two year term there.
Those two years in those idiosyncratic and peculiar islands were to prove as memorable as his years in Papua New Guinea.
Paul chronicles those two years in an entertaining manner enlivened by a wry sense of humour and a down-to-earth appreciation of the curious peccadillos of the bureaucratic and other denizens of these remote islands, including the giant crabs.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands are inhabited by the descendants of workers brought to the islands by the Clunies-Ross family to work in their copra empire. These people came largely from what is now Malaysia and are Muslims by faith.
The Islands are the most westerly extremity of Australia and are colloquially known as Australia’s aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean.
The islands have a fascinating history and Paul interweaves this into his own story of life there.
If you know nothing about these fascinating islands Life on a Coral Atoll is a great place to start your learning.
Paul’s other book, Small Steps along the Way, covers his time in Papua New Guinea while this short volume covers his time in the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.
Both periods have been significant in his life and this is the reason why he decided to record them in print. Together they offer a unique sequenced account of the whole kiap experience.
If you’ve ever wondered what kiaps got up to after they left PNG this book will help explain it.