The iconic patrol box
17 January 2020
NORTHUMBRIA, UK - Patrol boxes are embedded within the memory of every kiap and, indeed, anyone who went “on patrol” in pre-independence Papua New Guinea.
In difficult country they could be awkward, even brutish, burdens but nevertheless were toted, uphill and down dale for mile after endless mile by village carriers without whose help patrolling, a keystone kiap activity, could not have taken place.
They were a contradictory item of equipment. Their regular shape made them easy to stack or store. They instantly became convenient seats or tables.
And, because they were sealed against leaks, their contents, which could include official papers, were protected against accidents fording rivers or exposure to a succession of tropical downpours.
But the poles on which they were slung must have skinned tens of thousands of shoulders and there were occasions when tough kiaps themselves winced as they watched an exhausted line of carriers stagger into camp.
That said, however, carriers were not difficult to recruit and most of them enjoyed the chance to earn welcome cash and also visit places they might otherwise have never been able to see.
Their endurance was awesome. Since the moment they could walk they had been trained to overcome every discomfort as they contributed to the lifting and carrying that was an essential element of everyday village life.
The group of carriers in the photograph above was moving through the Pilitu section of the Goilala area in November 1974. In this case the line was burdened neither by excessive distance nor unusual weight.
But you can see that some had begun to protect their shoulders with cloth pads and, as the patrol progressed through a chain of village venues, other carriers would have begun to take care not to lose their skin too.
Patrolling and its many benefits is discussed throughout The Northumbrian Kiap, my account of bush administration in self-governing Papua New Guinea.
I've still got my patrol boxes. Not pinched from the government store but purchased at Steamies for the exorbitant price of $12 each in 1969.
After coming back from PNG I used them to cart my gear all over the outback when I was working for the South Australian Museum.
I remember one occasion when I was loading them into a Land Rover at the back of the museum and an anthropologist asked why they had such long handles.
"Slip a pole through them and put a bloke on either end and Bob's your uncle," I replied.
He was appalled. He already had a low opinion of kiaps and it dropped even lower that day.
I didn't mention to him that on several occasions when necessity dictated I had manned one end of the pole.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 17 January 2020 at 01:25 PM
I don't know of too many instances where this is reported to have happened however at one village, there was not enough carriers volunteering to carry one box and so I and my policeman carried it up the hill towards where we we going. We were besieged by a large number of people who then felt ashamed that we had to carry the box and finally I agreed to hand it over as I was personally stuffed.
The lesson learned was that physically, those in the village were far better able to do the work than I was even though I was in my early 20's.
Today's carriers on the Kokoda track are I have heard, apparently equipped with all the latest mod cons including back packs but still, human portage is never easy.
If we had to do the same work again, I suspect there would be plastic patrol boxes with padded straps and portable scales available to ensure no burden was overweight. The exigencies at the time were just another hurdle that had to be coped with. I always tried to ensure the weighty items were fairly distributed between all the boxes. Census books could also be weighty. After a while, heavy items like tinned food were often dispensed with in favour of local fresh food. A few tins of tinpis and skwea mit were usually all I ended up taking with me.
I do admit however a preference for kaukau over taro and taro tru over taro kongkong. You can also have your saksak unless its mixed with coconut milk and a bit of salt added.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 17 January 2020 at 09:29 AM