The Jimi and the Waghi valleys are separated by the Waghi-Sepik divide, very rough country indeed - uninhabited and virtually uninhabitable.
Public Works had been asked to look for a possible road route from the Jimi to the Waghi and after aerial surveys said, “Forget it”.
There was no shortage of desire for the road to happen. The people knew that, without a road, there was little chance of economic development.
There was huge willingness to get on with the job, all they wanted was some help. We received about $3,000 in government funds that didn’t go very far, with spades from Government Stores costing $1.50 each and crowbars $3 for a workforce varying between 1,000 and 2,000.
It was obvious that the construction was going to take a long time and an unbelievable amount of hard physical work. The amazing thing was that the people knew this and were still happy to do the work.
The keys to getting the road built were ensuring that the people continued to share a vision of what might happen once they had a road, that they all understood how we were collectively going to approach the task, that they equally shared in the labour, and that they all accepted the kiap’s role in carrying out the project.
I have often since wondered whether they realised the kiap was about five minutes ahead of them when it came to road-building knowledge and experience. They knew.
I was given an Abney level (a rudimentary protractor fitted to a spirit level) and told to build a road from Tabibuga to Banz.
It took couple of months to find and survey the route, which for the most part would have no more than a three to five degree gradient. The eventual route proved to be many times the direct line distance because we had to keep the gradient manageable.
I guess only a few people have ever tried to mark out a road route through virgin rainforest with no tracks along very steep mountain sides up to about 8,000 feet – it is a character-building exercise.
There were 25,000 people in the Jimi and the next step was to allocate each clan a length of road that they became responsible for digging. Trying to estimate equal allocations was a nightmare but eventually everybody was happy.
Patrol Officer Rob Kelvin arrived as officer-in-charge at Tabibuga and for the next 18 months we lived, breathed and dreamed the road. The Jimi local government council president, Kolye Suwi, was a hugely influential driving force.
To get to their section, people had to walk from home, in many cases 2-3 hard days walk. That meant carrying enough food to get there, spend three days on the job and for the 2-3 days walk home. A week at home, then do it again.
They had to construct temporary shelters at the worksite. The digging was like nothing Australians could envisage. Clear rainforest using only axes, dig the road using spades, crowbars and dainamit bilong mipela (burning huge fires around immovable rock outcrops, then tipping water onto them to crack the hot rock).
Too often we watched the previous month’s work slide down the mountain after a downpour, but work would start again in good spirits.
And all the time, the people would tolerate the kiap complaining about digging not following the mak, work not proceeding fast enough, the bloody weather and the rest of it.
At the height of activity, there were 2,000 men digging sections of the road that would eventually connect.
No-one was paid a cent for their work.
In 24 months, these amazing people dug 40 km miles of road (in reality, a rough 4-wheel drive track) through impossible country that did its best to destroy construction as quickly as it was completed.
The finished task was considered of such note that the road was officially opened in June 1970 by C E (Ceb) Barnes, Australian Minister for External Territories, and Peter Nixon, Interior Minister (pictured here with Jim Moore).
Nearly 30 years later, in 1998, I returned to the Jimi. Our Cessna couldn’t land at Tabibuga – the strip had been closed and was covered in scrub. We put down at Kol, to where the road had been extended.
I wondered whether the young people of the Jimi knew what their fathers had contributed to build that road.
I remembered the true communal spirit and ethos of the enterprise that had gone into it. If the people did not want to build a road, then all the posturing and yelling by two skinny white kiaps (not much more than kids) would not have helped.
If coercion occurred, the impetus and authority for it came from the people through their ‘big men’. Usually, power is exercised by those who hold it only because others are prepared to accept it. The people accepted kiap power because it was the best system on offer.
“Jackbooted colonialists?” I reject that. Quasi-militarists, as Phil Fitpatrick describes some of us in “Tin gods, tin medals and the ineptitude of Canberra”? I wore khaki because it was cheap, serviceable and available.
How would a project like this be approached today? I suspect we’d still be waiting until somebody found the money to pay for a bulldozer.
Do kiaps deserve a medal? What is on offer is the wrong medal, the people giving it don’t understand what it was supposed to reward and the reason it is being given recognises only part of what we did. People may or may not apply.
I wondered, when the issue first arose, whether Papua New Guinea would strike a medal. But then I thought, I have my memories, that is enough.