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Can be darn cold up in those mountains

Traditional upland gardens near Wapenamanda
Traditional upland gardens near Wapenamanda


TUMBY BAY - Like many liklik kiaps (cadet patrol officers), my first couple of patrols in the Papua New Guinea Highlands involved the construction and maintenance of roads.

The idea was to get the young men out amongst the local people so they could quickly learn Tok Pisin and also find out if they could cope with roughing it in the bush.

Throughout my short career as a kiap all my patrols were solo, including the first one.

Instead of the guiding hand of a senior officer, as was supposed to be the rule, I had to rely on the gentle advice of grizzled old police non-commissioned officers.

My second patrol began from Tambul and involved keeping open the road connecting Mount Hagen and Wapenamanda.

That section of road wound its way along the high altitude ridges of the Mount Hagen foothills. Tambul sits at 2,240 metres above sea level and Mount Hagen is 3,777 metres.

I based myself either at the small settlements of Tomba or Paiagona. They were bloody cold places and it was necessary to keep a fire burning all night in the haus kiap to survive.

After my first day, I sent an urgent message to Andy Flower in Mount Hagen to buy me a jacket and drop it off on his way to Wapenamanda.

During a terrific thunderstorm at Paiagona, I was sure a bolt of lightning came through the window and exited out of the front door the flash was so bright and the immediate thunderclap so loud.

There were very few people in that high country because it was so very cold and also because kaukau didn’t grow there easily.

It was with surprise, therefore, that I recently learned that many people now live and garden in those alpine places.

“Due to global warming, the climate is getting warmer and you see many people beginning to live along the highway from Tomba village to the [Enga] border check-point,” Johannes Kundal points out in his new book, Legend of the Miok Egg.

Another very cold place I visited on patrol was the pass over the Dap Range between Bolibip and the Murray Valley in what is now Western Province.

The pass is at 3,648 metres and it’s a very hard and long walk up to it following a watercourse that is frequently a cross between a creek and a waterfall.

No one lived up there but there used to be a rough haus kiap to stay in overnight before dropping into the valley the next day. I’m not sure who built it; it might have been John MacGregor.

When our exhausted little party reached it there were snow flurries blowing off the surrounding ridges and it was bitterly cold. Thank goodness for blazing fires and Johnny Walker, the whisky that is.

About 10 years ago I flew there by helicopter while engaged in a social mapping project.

The old haus kiap was long gone but there was a chopper pad close to where it once stood and there was a small settlement on the Murray Valley side.

I spent a couple of days there. The weather was warm and pleasant, which surprised me, particularly after I checked my old patrol report and discovered that both visits had been at the same time of the year.

In many parts of the highlands, particularly where there are now serious shortages of land, climate change seems to be allowing people to push into higher altitude areas to live.

I don’t know whether any of the boffins have yet observed this phenomenon but it must be happening in other parts of the world.

I guess it’s just another of the unanticipated outcomes of climate change.


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Joe Herman

I am familiar with the Tomba/Tambul section of the highway, and thank you, Phil and Chris, for your role in the construction.

Before the road was redirected to the west side of the ridge, the Paiakona slope was one of the most difficult roads I have driven on. The last time I drove through there was in December 2019.

The Mt Hagen to Wabag section of the highway is the best in the county compared to other roads in PNG. It is sealed all the way to the Porgera gold mine.

The areas like Tambul, Sirunki, upper Lagaip and Kandep in the Enga are some of the coldest places in the highlands.

Chris was right about kids running around in the cold environment with nothing on their bodies. I was one of them.

While growing up, we were often discouraged by our elders from displaying 'pisiru payala naege' (feminine attributes), less desirable behaviours of a boy.

We were encouraged to demonstrate courage, bravery and male attributes like walking through pouring rain, crossing rivers, handling leeches or participating in many daring activities.

Crying was not allowed, and pain had to be tolerated. That was the only life we knew. We didn’t know that there could be another option.

As Phil rightly points out, climate change is having an impact in that area. More people now live in the Tambul area at one time considered desolate but where they now grow crops.

I believe the National Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) has a research station at Tambul and they are helping the villagers with frost resistance crops.

I remember Andy Flower. He often stopped by at Mr and Mrs Scoullar's place, a didiman family at Laiagam, while he was on his way to Kandep where he operated a trade store, Flower Power Trading.

I was then a 'liklik haus boi' (junior domestic servant) for the Scoullars in the afternoons and on weekends while attending Laiagam Primary T School.

Chips Mackellar

I remember Tomba. I lived there in the haus kiap for six months in 1956, building the road from Mount Hagen.

Tomba then was a miserable place, bleak and cold and windswept. It was warm enough during the daytime but it was freezing cold at night with frost on the ground every morning.

Some mornings I could look up and see snow on the peaks of Mount Hagen (the mountain that is, not the town). I don't remember seeing hail but certainly sometimes the rain turned to sleet.

Fortunately, in those days in the Highlands, kiaps could request from Gov Stores a pot-bellied stove for use on patrol.

These came if four parts, consisting of a short chimney about one metre tall, a flat top in the shape of a beehive, and a big ash catcher underneath. A grate fitted between the top and bottom parts.

Dismembered, the whole lot could be slung on a pole and carried by two porters. They could not be used in a tent (it would catch fire) but they could be used in a haus kiap, where the smoke went up through the chimney and dissipated through the thatch of the roof.

I had one of these stoves at Tomba and that kept me warm at night. But I could never understand how the people there could survive without any clothing.

It was cold enough for me walking around with jacket and scarf and gloves, but they had nothing. Yet they seemed to be quite healthy in that climate.

True, at night, they used to hunker down in their huts to keep warm, but in the morning they would be walking across the frost covered ground without any visible sign that they were suffering from the cold. It always amazed me how they could live in such a place.

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