NORTHUMBRIA - This photograph is the most puzzling in my Papua New Guinean collection.
I tramped through the bush for almost six years and it is the only example I bumped into that had any resemblance to the totem pole so often presented as typical of Native American culture in the nineteenth century or the mumbo-jumbo, voodoo style, pagan doll depictions so readily associated with early British exploration of Sub-Saharan Africa.
Did kiaps and anthropologists who broke PNG bush much earlier than the late 1960s come across anything that was similar?
It was housed in a traditional sentry box-like structure standing at the end of a line of village houses in the Pilitu section of the Goilala Sub-District that I came upon in January 1974.
The dominant mission in the area was Roman Catholic but it was not a wayside shrine. Nor was it a place where an individual might sit alone and enjoy solitude or perhaps meditate.
It would have been impossible for a human body to squeeze in.
The answers to questions posed by the curious Europeans passing through in 1974 were not obviously evasive – but nor did they offer any clue as to its function.
My dominant thought was that it was an altar of some kind and the middle shelf may at times have carried objects of more significance than the withered flowers on the left and right.
I have since wondered if it was linked to a cargo cult. There was no obvious evidence of any activity when the census patrol moved through but I think back to a casual weekend helicopter flight I enjoyed over the Karuama region to the Pilitu’s immediate north at roughly the same time.
A French commercial pilot was keen to impress my wife’s unmarried sister so Paula and I, along with Rosemary who had place of honour in the front seat, piled in and enjoyed a surprisingly long demonstration of his flying skills.
First off was a landing on the Aibala River immediately below Tapini then a steep climb just feet away (that is how it felt) from the face of one of the unusually steep mountains immediately west of the Loloipa River - now named Angabunga on maps.
The highlight was the exhilarating swoop, deliberately engineered by the hopeful Frenchman, as we reached the summit and accelerated into the next valley.
Below us were a series of traditional Goilala villages strung street fashion along narrow ridges which offered the only chance of flat land.
However everyone we could see in these villages - and memory says they were young men - was wearing an identical scarlet laplap.
Moreover they were extraordinarily excited by our appearance. Many times more enthusiastic than an appearance by a stray (but not exceptionally rare) helicopter might have justified.
Cargo cults were especially active in the Kunimeipa region to the Karuama’s north at that time and the strange bright red laplaps, which could have been removed in seconds if a nosey visitor appeared, may have signalled they were active in those villages too.
Did the strange totem pole signal that cults were bubbling up in Pilitu at the same time?
And did the French pilot succeed in persuading Rosemary to swoon gratefully in his arms?
No chance. He was thanked profusely then ignored as she instead pursued her determination to marry a didiman stationed in Lae.
Robert Forster is author of The Northumbrian Kiap, an account of bush administration in self-governing PNG. If you want to know more click on to this Amazon link