‘Caution! When in Turbulence do not Pick Nose: Ups and Downs of a Kiwi in Papua New Guinea’ by Colin Pain, Independently Published, 2019, 163 pages, ISBN: 9781071185414, AU$15.54 plus postage, from Amazon Australia
TUMBY BAY - This rather disjointed book has some curious spelling errors, inexplicable font changes and a cover that is difficult to immediately link to the content.
The overriding impression is that it was either put together in a hurry or with a fairly blasé attitude about the end result.
My suspicion is that it is a fair reflection of the author.
In his defence, he does say on the back cover of the book that it is a mainly light hearted memoir of his off and on time in Papua New Guinea between 1969 and 1985.
This is well and good but it does grate here and there.
Repeated misspellings of place names like Alotau as Alatau or calling Marston matting Marsden matting don’t create confidence in the veracity of other parts of the book.
However, despite its flippancy, the book does have its moments and I did learn quite a lot and enjoyed the deprecating humour.
It was a bit like meeting a disorganised professor and trying to keep up with his disjointed chatter.
As far as I can work out Colin Pain is a geomorphologist. That’s someone who studies the origin and evolution of topographic features. In particular Colin has an interest in volcanoes.
So it was no surprise to learn that the author is indeed an academic and, apart from work, one of the prime functions of his numerous sojourns and trips to Papua New Guinea was apparently to have fun.
His association began when he landed a job as a geography lecturer at the University of Papua New Guinea in 1969 and went on to include stints as a consultant for some of the provincial governments as well as a researcher for various organisations, including the Australian National University.
Part of his modus operandi in all of these functions included a particular fondness for road cuttings.
This might sound strange but if you are an old road building kiap you will be able to relate to the way local people, particularly in the highlands, lovingly shaped cuttings with their spades and the fascinating stratified profiles that this revealed.
Among the strata there were often signs of volcanic activity, sometimes going back thousands of years. A good cutting with a strip or two of volcanic ash was a dream come true for the author.
Along the way he also dropped into the archaeological excavations that were going on at Kuk in the Wahgi Valley near Mount Hagen.
In this case, digging drainage channels for a tea plantation exposed ancient signs of agricultural activity going back 9,000 odd years. In one spot the archaeologists dug up a 4,000 year old wooden spade.
This was all happening when the rest of the world was mostly still in the hunter-gatherer stage. Or as the author puts it: “at a time when northern Europeans were too busy running away from sabre-toothed tigers to settle anywhere for very long”.
Something else that I found fascinating in the book was the author’s description of the geographical zones in Papua New Guinea and their influence on early migration patterns.
He says, “There is a distinct separation between the highlands and the coastal lowland areas of PNG, with a zone between about 200 and 800 metres above sea level where there are very few people”.
As a kiap I spent a lot of time in that sparsely populated zone in Western Province tracking down remnant bands of uncontacted people.
These days I sometimes wonder whether it might have been better to have left the poor buggers alone.
Another passion that the author had was climbing mountains. Apparently he couldn’t resist them and he appears to have gone up most of them - Mount Wilhelm, Mount Giluwe, Mount Michael, and on its goes.
Having to wade through accounts of the inevitable trek up Mount Wilhelm or some other peak seems to be an occupational hazard when reading these sorts of memoirs. Thankfully, the author’s accounts are short and sweet.
And I have to admit that I did once stroll from Tambul up Mount Giluwe and back one Sunday afternoon when then wasn’t much else to do.
These mountaineering accounts are only matched by the interminable descriptions of tackling the Kokoda Track, the scalp of which the author also has hanging on his belt.
I guess, given the somewhat esoteric reasons the author went to Papua New Guinea, any account would have to be light hearted.
To do otherwise would have left an average reader lacking the author’s enthusiasm for geography somewhat bored.
It’s about the right length, copiously illustrated and easy to read.
I am curious though about why he now lives in a small Andalusian village in Spain. An explanation might have topped the book off nicely.