The ‘tru’ meaning of Christmas
The unwanted Christmas present

Christmas at Olsobip

OlsobipPP1969
Olsobip Patrol Post, 1969 (PNGAA)

GARRY LUHRS
| Published in PNG Attitude, 24 December 2016

OLSOBIP - Christmas, and the entire festive season, is always a contentious time at the Gentlemen’s Club.

It is the cause of more disharmony than a federal election or a debate on the return of conscription and compulsory national service, or climate change.

Goodwill and fellowship towards our fellow man, I don’t think so! What a load of humbug!

All of these problems started some years ago when the club’s committee, in its infinite wisdom, decided to invite member’s submissions for the club’s Christmas celebrations to cover such items as suitable dress codes for the festive season, Christmas luncheon menus, after luncheon entertainment and the like.

As well, you can imagine the membership divided into roughly two distinct camps.

On the one hand there were the traditionalists led by Enoch McGraw, ex cattle station owner; whilst on the other hand the reactionary group, led by Archibald Blumfeld-Bingington, ex public servant, favoured the Anglo/European yuletide celebratory practices.

I must own up to being a traditionalist myself and I favoured the national festive wardrobe of black football shorts, blue singlet and thongs as evolved by our ancestors against the imported traditions of collars and ties and the like, which are totally unsuited to the local climate.

However; eventually a compromise was reached and open collars and long slacks and appropriate footwear, including socks, are now the order of the day.

Even the choice of carols for the choristers from the Cathedral was a bone of contention. We traditionalists favoured such Christmassie songs like Slim Dusty’s Christmas at the Station and the Chukka-Wankers singing Christmas in a rusty Holden ute against such rubbish as Hark! Hark! The Lark and Deck the Halls with lumps of holy. Whatever that is!

It sounds like reindeer droppings and; there is no way we would allow the buffalo horns and crocodile heads in the trophy room to be bedecked with reindeer droppings.

When the choristers sang ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ instead of ‘Six White Boomers’; Enoch drove them off with a whiff of birdshot from his double-barrelled Purdy.

I won’t go into the luncheon menu except to say Roast Turkey and Figgy Pudding is definitely off the menu along with banning the barbaric practice of drinking port in the middle of the day. Really!

Now it’s a proper traditional Christmas lunch with prawns and lamb chops and beer drunk from the bottle and the like.

The only thing that the two groups agree on is the dress standards for the five, four ball, overs a side cricket match in the club’s ballroom after lunch. Long cream flannels are compulsory.

The sight of geriatric, septuagenarian and octogenarian knobbly white knees and inflamed and swollen varicose veins is just over the top and quite revolting.

It’s sufficiently off putting to see 22 decrepit bodies wheezing, faces bloated and purple as they try to recapture lost youth and ward off cardiac arrest for a couple of hours.

We always have at least one heart attack or stroke during the game so the twelfth men are assured having the opportunity to show their stuff and put willow to leather, or in our case willow to tennis ball.

Whenever I see these ancient warriors girding up to do battle my mind recalls that incredible cricket match between Australia and the West Indies that took place at the Sydney Cricket Ground in January 1961.

Play was broadcast live on ABC radio and the host commentators were Johnny Moyes, uncle of the kiap of the same name, and Alan McGillvray.

At one stage play had slowed down to a point whereby the spectators on the famous Sydney Hill began to get restless and, as happened in those far off days, after imbibing to excess, insults tended to get bandied about.

On this occasion a pugilistic contest broke out between a gentleman in a brown belt who exchanged blows with another gentleman in grey flannel trousers.

So boring was the test that our two stalwart broadcasters conducted a running commentary of the contest until it was broken up by the strong arm of the law who led the contestants away. But I digress!

As I reminisced my mind meandered back over the roads to the ghosts of many Christmases past and one in particular.

I was the lord and master of the Western District’s most northern outpost nestled in the southern foothills of the central ranges.

Olsobip was a pleasant little station largely ignored and forgotten by the outside world unless the monthly rainfall figures or some other highly important statistical return was not submitted on time.

So as long as I remembered to keep all of my statistics up to date, Kiunga, Daru and the world left me in peace.

Time passed kiapy things were kiaped and I came to know the words of every song on every LP record I owned and I could sing every individual part of the musicals Camelot and Brigadoon.

I could also recite by heart every word on the label of a packet of camel cigarettes and the label of a bottle of Rhum Negrita. Such were the achievements of a solitary existence.

As I sat in my sago and pandanus leaf thatched alpine chateau I mused on the highlights of my childhood and pondered the forthcoming yuletide season.

Then as if a bolt from the blue it struck me. I would host a gathering of my loyal subjects and introduce them to Christmas and the joys of celebrating this most holy of days of the Christian calendar.

After all the station had been established for nearly three years; it was time to introduce the next level of civilisation.

So at the following morning’s parade I announced to the constabulary and the labourers our plans for Christmas. To be honest my announcement was not met with any great enthusiasm.

The corporal questioned the wisdom of bringing certain groups together in large numbers considering traditional enmities and the like.

There were only seven policemen and he, the corporal, did not consider that sufficient strength to contain a couple of thousand tribesmen if they decided to get cantankerous.

“Nonsense!” said I and without any further ado instructed the interpreters to send word far and wide, throughout the realm, summoning the populace to wait on their Kiap on Boxing day. No sooner said than done.

Whilst waiting for the great day to arrive; we were not idle. A greasy pole was prepared, a stock built for pillow fighting, a pig purchased to be greased and released on the day. All the events of a Territory celebration were organised.

Prizes in the form of trade goods, stick tobacco, bush knives, tomahawks, lengths of laplap, trade mirrors and trinkets courtesy of the Government Store were organised. Rough humpies to accommodate our potential guests were erected. All was looking good.

The days rolled by like a dream as we prepared for the momentous occasion. Then dawned Boxing Day, bright and clear. I arose slightly heavy headed from celebrating Christmas but nevertheless anticipating the arrival of the hordes and quite excited looking forward to the friendly competitions that were to take place.

Star mountains
The Star Mountains

At last, we could hear in the distance, the pulsating throb of a hundred kundus, the warble and shrieks of the primitive tribesmen chanting traditional songs as they approached the station from all eight points of the compass.

Then finally, they hove into view, long lines of warriors bedecked in brilliant plumage, their phallic gourds waving like coconut palms in the breeze. Noses and ears pierced with lengths of bamboo and unwashed bodies glistening with perspiration and pig fat mixed with the ash from camp fires.

The malodorous stench of a heaving poorly drained sewer was enough to churn the civilised hungover gut.

The converging lines of savages assembled before me, where I stood in front of the flagpole gently massaging my inflamed haemorrhoids.

A silence fell over the assemblage; I raised both of my arms and acknowledged their acquiescence as they paid homage to their kiap.

I gazed about me and was quite stricken by the moment and surrendered to the temptation to make a verbose kiapy type speech. An English translation went something like this:

“My people! I acknowledge your attendance and I accept your humble deference and the homage that you extend to me.

“You have been summoned here today to participate in the great annual celebration known as Christmas. This occasion will be repeated every year from now until the end of time and it will provide you all with the opportunity to acknowledge your benevolent kiap who offers you his goodwill, love and protection.

“Shortly we will introduce you to the government’s ideals of competitiveness, sportsmanship and fair play. This in turn will lead to your eventually becoming civilized members of this great emerging nation.

“The afternoon will be devoted to competitions and the evening will be devoted to sing sings where boys can be boys and girls can become mothers.

“So without further ado I invite you to place your effects in the allocated humpies and at belo bek let the games begin.”

A jolly fine introduction; I thought.

The assemblage dispersed and, under the direction of members of the constabulary made their ways to the allocated accommodations to settle in and await the commencement of the games.

Barely 30 minutes had passed when the equanimity of the day was broken with blood curdling screams of “Kill! Kill!” rent the air.

A member of the constabulary came running towards me beckoning my presence to the line of humpies. From the noise and tenor of the raised voices it was obvious, even to me, that something was amiss.

As I hastened towards the cause of the disturbance it was obvious that whatever the problem; it did not involve all of the tribesmen. I arrived at the centre of the disturbance. Two groups were facing off against each other.

The goodwill and bon homme of the morning gone; hearts that were previously full of love and fellowship towards each other now replaced by anger and malice aforethought.

As I approached the two groups I saw an enormous rock python, deceased, stretched on the ground between the two factions.

“What is the problem?” I queried. Two hundred voices screamed as one! “It is ours!” “Nay ‘tis ours.”

It transpired that said python was enjoying a post-Christmas nap in the sunshine between two of the humpies when it was set upon by numerous tribesmen, from two different groups both of whom battered it into the corpse that lay before me.

The two opposing sets of villagers claimed it for lunch and were prepared to shed blood to substantiate their separate claims.

“Aha,” I thought, “tis here I can bring my extensive 21 months’ legal knowledge and experience to bear and solve this problem quickly and amicably to the satisfaction of all parties.”

And so, with all the power and authority vested in me by Her Majesty, the Queen herself, I proceeded to dispense British justice with the wisdom of Solomon.

“Constable! Fetch my measuring tape!” The serpent was measured and it conveniently measured twelve feet four inches.

I placed a charcoal mark at six feet two inches and invited the headman of protagonist side A to cut the creature in half and invited the headman of protagonist side B to select which half his people would stew and consume.

Reluctantly both sides agreed to my adjudication and everybody settled down; keeping their mumbles of discontent to a minimum. Problem solved I quietly preened myself and returned to centre stage.

At this point I decided to bring forward the commencement of the festivities; it seemed apparent to me that without direct supervision, the tribesmen could engage in further mischief.

Without further ado the policemen rounded up our guests and directed them to the two greasy poles that had been placed about fifty yards apart. There they stood, two stout posts, the tops of which were adorned with dozens of goodies compliments of the taxpayer.

I realised almost instantly that the concept good manners and gentlemanly behaviour in the form of taking turns was quite alien to the tribesmen.

Jostling, fighting, shouting discontent, the masses charged the poles only to find that they had been liberally lubricated with margarine from the government store.

As a result part of the mass dissatisfaction became directed towards their beloved kiap and his loyal retainers. We the latter withdrew to a safe distance to consider our situation.

My corporal was not cooperating in the true spirit of Christmas and was actually muttering mutinous statements under his breath questioning my sanity in organising the festivities.

Whilst we were pondering a solution; the savages provided their own solution. A few whacks with a tomahawk and both greasy poles thumped to the ground. Joyous cries from those claiming a trophy from the felled poles filled the air.

“Right,” I said, “time for the tug of war.”

Six teams were organised. All items that could possibly be used as weapons or projectiles were confiscated and the teams were lined up preparatory the commencement of the competition.

The sign was given and the competitors took to pulling with a vengeance. All was progressing well as a couple of hundred grunting and sweating bodies heaved to and fro.

Then disaster struck; one of the teams began to give ground and appeared about to be pulled across the centre line.

A loud cry went up from the spectators and before you could say ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’, a group ran to give assistance to their wantoks.

The ripple effect was instantaneous; the tug of war was forgotten and it was on for young and old. All of the competitors and spectators joined into the fray as one.

Kicking, biting, gouging, punching, slapping and in some cases getting quite physical. It was obvious to me that the situation ran the risk of getting out of hand.

“Corporal!” I ordered in my most authoritative voice, “we are going to have to put a stop to these shenanigans.”

I can’t be completely sure but his undisciplined reply sounded something like, ‘You started it. You sort it out.’

“Beat the clanger!” I ordered.

The clanger was a length of railway line that was hammered to call the faithful to and from work. When struck with a sledge hammer it resounded across the valley with a resonance to awaken the dead.

The brawling mob paused; temporarily distracted from their activities by the sound of the clanger.

I raised my arms and walked amongst the seething throng emboldened by the lines from Shakespeare’s Macbeth - “Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn the power of man, for none of woman born shall harm a kiap.”

The hordes fell silent. I looked about me, my disappointment obvious. I addressed them thus:

“My friends! My people! I am deeply distressed. I ordered you here in order that I, and my policemen, could impart civilised values to you in order that you can take your place in the councils of your emerging nation.

“You have adopted the Westminster system of government which requires acceptance and obedience to the laws that have made our Empire great.

“When I advise the number one government in Kiunga about your undisciplined behaviour he will be very disappointed.

“When the number one government in Kiunga advises the number one government in Daru of your riot he the number one government on Daru will feel compelled to tell the number one government in Moresby and there will be sorrow about the land.

“Then when the number one government in Moresby advises the Queen there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth!

“So what do you have to say for yourselves?”

My speech was met with total silence. The people seemed perplexed they looked questioning at each other obviously overcome with the enormity of their impropriety and unacceptable behaviour.

Savouring the moment I continued:

“In all likelihood, those important people will stop sending us stick tobacco and one shilling to pay you for your labours when you come to the station to work.

“Now return to your humpies, prepare your evening meals; and conduct sedate and cultured sing sings to entertain me as I sleep tonight. I absolutely forbid any further fighting.

“Tomorrow morning you will all return to your villages and remember how civilised people celebrate Christmas.”

The horde dispersed but in doing so they commandeered all of the unallocated prizes and took them along with them. In short the rest of the time was uneventful.

The different groups settled around their fire and as I passed amongst them during the evening they dutifully performed their traditional singsings.

When I awoke the following morning; the sun was shining and I was greeted by the sight of all of the natives assembled on the airstrip obviously awaiting my appearance.

I made my way towards them and six or seven of the headmen came forward to salute me and acknowledge my presence.

Through the interpreters they expressed their gratitude at attending the government’s festivities and, after apologising profusely for the behaviour of their clansmen, trusted I would not misinterpret their high spirits and make trouble with the Queen.

We were all so overcome with the emotion of the moment I couldn’t control myself. I reached out and shook each of the headmen by his hand and sent them on their way.

OlsobipResidence_EndAirstrip1968
Kiap's residence overlooking the airstrip at Olsobip, 1968 (Bob Hoad)

Now all these years later as I listen to my old friends in the Gentlemen’s Club waffle on about trivialities I like to think that inside little sago thatched huts nestling in the shadows of the mighty Star Mountains; toothless shrivelled old men huddle around smoking fires and relate the legend of the time that their kiap shook their hands and my heart fills with pride.

And so dear reader it is time for us to part once more. I shall be taking a sabbatical to polish the great Australian novel but in the meantime I wish you and your family a very happy and loving Christmas and a safe and prosperous New Year.

As Little Tim says in a Christmas Carol: “God bless us each and every one.”

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