The following might be politically incorrect but I don’t really care….
WE WERE IN A BAD WAY when we walked out of the Murray Valley in late 1970. The valley is high up in the rugged Star Mountains in Western Province and we still had to get over the icy pass in the Dap Range before we were home free.
1970 was a strange year in more ways than one. Gurias were knocking houses off their stilts in Tari and Wewak and a savage outbreak of influenza, which killed thousands of people in the Southern Highlands in 1968, was still lingering on in the high valleys. It was the latter which nearly brought our patrol to its knees.
Ours was the second administration patrol to visit the valley and the days were necessarily tense – if anything nasty was going to happen in a newly contacted area it generally happened on the second patrol when the people had got the kiap’s measure.
Then when we got to the end of the valley we ran into the raggedy end of the 1968 flu outbreak. We did all we could for the people but when we ran out of medicines and started to come down with the flu ourselves we decided it was time to leave.
We avoided the villages on the return trip as much as possible so as to lessen the chances of infection and staggered on our way. When we got to the bottom of the Dap Pass we had two people on stretchers and a line of walking wounded.
Constables Womi, Heaoa and even jovial Arau could barely put one foot in front of the other. Imbum, the rotund interpreter had lost his bounce and Simoki the medic was running himself ragged trying to keep both himself and the carriers upright.
It was because of the efforts of two special men that we got safely over the pass and into the welcoming arms of the Catholic Mission at Bolobip. The first was Fiamnok, the pixie-like mamusi (village constable) and sorcerer extraordinaire from Loubip. The other was Kure Whan, my cook and aide de camp.
Fiamnok had the powerful legs of the mountain Min but Kure was a lowland Awin from Kiunga, unused to steep country and gut-busting tracks up almost vertical mountain sides.
Both men ranged up and down the patrol line, taking over from the sick carriers where needed, tending to the men in the stretchers and generally chivvying and cajoling everyone along. At night they set up the tents, cooked for everyone and tucked the sick up in bed in front of warm fires.
When we got to the top of the pass we mixed the last of my whiskey with hot water, guzzled it quickly and then staggered down the slippery track to Bolobip in a flurry of rain and sleet.
When we got there, a month after we had set out, the good sisters took charge of our sick and the rest of us stretched out in the beautiful sunshine. When everyone was well we walked back to the patrol post at Olsobip.
From Olsobip Kure and I went on to Nomad River where we played mind games with the wily Biami and dodged the arrows that they lobbed at us at inopportune moments. From there it was off to soggy Balimo and then on to Port Moresby.
Kure had a wife and a growing family, whereas all I had to support was a grumpy black dog. The pressure to provide for his wife and two little girls must have been a worry because at one stage he organised for all the cooks on the station to go on strike for higher wages. As I recall they wanted $100 per week, which was a lot of money in those days. Suffice to say we settled amicably on a lesser amount.
I’m not sure what Kure thought of Port Moresby. He had to leave his family behind and would have had plenty of opportunities to play up but he left that to me and made his displeasure known by banging saucepans at ungodly hours in the morning.
Eventually I had to go back to Australia to decide what to do with the rest of my life. We both shed a tear when I put him on the plane back to Kiunga. He was loaded up with a new sewing machine for his wife and a lot of other goodies. He also had a job to go to at the Catholic Mission hospital.
That was the last I saw of him. I always intended to go back but I didn’t make it until the late 1990s. It was then that I caught up with some Awin men working on an oil rig in Gulf Province. When I asked after Kure they gave me a curious look and told me that he had died a couple of years ago. They thought that he might have contracted tuberculosis.
There were a lot of domestic servants in Papua New Guinea prior to 1975. They were generally known as haus bois, a tag not quite as derogatory as the other - manki masta - not that we thought much about it in those days.
But there were haus bois and there were people like Kure Whan; dedicated men who worked for the kiaps, didimen and others living rough and sometimes dangerously in the bush.
If you read Papua New Guinean colonial history you will see that they were there with the courageous policemen dodging arrows, scaling massive mountains, wading through crocodile infested swamps and bringing news of the outside world to the people in the bush.
Ask any old kiap about his manki masta and you’ll be sure to see a twinkle in his eye and perhaps even the odd tear.