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Solved: Mystery of the Ialibu pioneers

Ialibu 1972


NOOSA – In April 2019, Raymond Sigimet shared his father’s memories of being a policeman in the kiap system in the early years of Papua New Guinea’s independence.

The article, A Policeman Remembers, included two photographs, the first of four members of the disciplined forces (army, police and corrective services) posing in their uniforms for Paul Oates at his Morobe outpost.

The other, reprised here, of a group of expatriate men based in Ialibu, posing in the fashion of 19th century pioneers.

The photograph named the subjects as Phil Birch, Peter Barber, Jack Bullock, Mike Lowe, Phillip Hazleton (back) and Ben Probert and Rob Rawlinson.

At the time we knew neither the motivation for the event nor the identity of the photographer.

But now, nearly three years later, Juliet Barber has been in touch to say she captured the image and to tell us something about it.

The Ialibu boys (Juliet Barber)
The Ialibu boys (Juliet Barber)

“In a leisurely moment of fond reflection,” Juliet wrote, “I googled an erstwhile colleague, Ben Probert, and your blog came up.

“I read the policeman’s story with interest and then was flabbergasted to see my photo of the Ialibu boys.

“My husband, Peter Barber, was a kiap from 1959 to 1976 - mostly in the Southern Highlands.

“We were stationed at Ialibu, where I was the Community Development Officer, and we had loads of fun.

The second photo which appears in the article is a spoof. We’d had a boozy lunch and decided to present the men as outsiders might see them.

“Peter raided his gun cabinet and the boys raided their limited wardrobes and each took on a persona.

“We wives (Carolyn Bullock, Rose Lowe and I) posed the men and I took the photo,” Juliet said.

And she shared with us just how the stage was set.

“Phil Birch, earning his medical degree in the UK and visiting Ialibu, joined in for a breath of comic good cheer.

“My husband Peter, who was the Assistant District Commissioner, wears a jacket of mine (he wasn’t a safari suit kind of guy).

“Jack Bullock poses as the missionary.

“We never did decide what Mike Lowe might be, perhaps a misplaced Canadian Mountie?

“Phil Hazleton leans on a Buka walking stick.

“Ben Probert, for whom I was searching when I came across the article is there alongside didiman Rob Rawlinson.”

Juliet says a large print of the photo was sent to District Commissioner, Des Clancy, presumably so he could be assured his men were well and truly on the job.

“They were good times, safe times and I reflect with nostalgia on our years there,” Juliet wrote.

“I sincerely hope the photo is not considered as a reflection of how we were.”

Not so considered was this clever and beautifully stage-managed parody.

But, 50 years on, it evokes something else – and that is in its capture of the spirit of an outstation.

Young men and women far from home doing important work in a remote locations and, on their time off, compelled to create their own entertainment.

I vividly recall my first posting to Kundiawa, a very small (population 80) and isolated town at the time but which boasted a thriving multiracial club, a nine-hole golf course around the grass airstrip, two cricket teams, gumi (inner tube) races down the Chimbu River, caving, mountain climbing and a fortnightly newspaper.

There were regular Gastronomic Tours featuring exotic dishes at Dick Kelaart’s Kundiawa Hotel, satirical revues played at the Chimbu Club a few times a year and the famed annual Chimbu Ball which brought people from all parts of the Territory in aircraft that crowded the small airstrip (but never drew the much-promised planeload of single women that each year was said to be on its way from Port Moresby).

So thanks for the memories, Juliet, and well done to the Ialibu crowd all those years ago, a Sunday afternoon well spent.

Other frontiersmen from days of yore. The gallant
officers of the TPNG kiapry were much better turned out


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Chris Overland

Those of us now in our autumnal years like to remember how we were, or imagine we were, in our spring time and this photo evokes such memories.

Those of us who lived and worked in colonial PNG had to make our own fun as best we could and, as Keith has noted, this photo reflects that fact.

We sometimes did some very odd things to keep amused.

Keith has mentioned gumi racing. This was a popular pastime at Kokoda. I can remember doing this on the Mambare River with Wallace 'Soc" Kienzle and Jack Banbury.

We would be driven a few miles up river from Mamba Estate where we would embark upon the river, floating on over inflated car inner tubes.

Tinnies in hand we would then float back down river, negotiating several sets of rapids, until we reached the quiet stretch of the river that was adjacent Soc's rather splendid 'round house', where we would have several more beers before enjoying a barbeque in the cool of the evening.

I also remember water skiing on the Kikori River where, if you fell in, a fast retrieval was essential before the crocs took too much interest in you.

These moments were some compensation for the long periods of hard physical work and loneliness that were the lot of kiaps, didimen, tisas and, of course, their spouses too.

Juliet's photo is emblematic of a time and place that is no more.

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