I had been a kiap for 16 years, in the Sepik District for more than ten (the last four at Maprik), and back from leave ten days, when, on 2 June 1966, DC Ted Hicks came on the radio to tell me that I had been transferred to the Bougainville District.
The situation was urgent; as soon as we were packed, we would be flown direct to Bougainville by a Caribou aircraft. Director Keith McCarthy’s letter arrived the next day:
….[because] of the possibility of large scale mineral development in … the Bougainville District … [and] various local factors and problems involved in this possible development which require … an additional experienced and capable officer … I have decided to transfer Mr W. T. Brown, District Officer, … for duty in the Kieta Sub-District.
We packed, and waited, and waited. A fortnight later, two single-engined Norseman aircraft began shuttling our household and effects to the Wewak airstrip, Boram, where they were manhandled into the waiting Douglas Dakota, the military version of the Douglas DC-3 aircraft.
We were to have flown direct from Wewak to Bougainville, but mechanical failure caused a diversion to Madang, followed by an overnight stop at Rabaul, so we were a day late when we arrived; the grass airstrip, Aropa, was deserted, and the only shade was under the aircraft’s wing.
Deputy DC Max Denehy drove us to town, but there was nary a mention of mining, or problems, as we bounced around for an hour over the 14 miles of water-filled wheel ruts winding through coconut groves, and the occasional stretches that were almost a road.
The next morning, Thursday 16 June, at the Sub-District Office, I was interested to hear from Patrol Officer Andrew Melville that mining giant Conzinc Riotinto of Australia Limited’s prospecting operation in the Crown Prince Range behind Kieta had been brought to a standstill by native landowners.
Denehy declined to discuss it, and when he told me that my new task would be to update the Common Roll (the Electoral Roll), I rebelled.
I did not think that I had been flown 1,500 kilometres by special charter to undertake a mundane task related to elections that were not due until 1968, and that at Maprik, with three times the population, I had delegated to the cadets. I suggested that he refer my refusal to accept his instructions to the Director.
I do not know how the Administrator, Brigadier Cleland, became involved, but he ended the impasse with an instruction to the Bougainville DC, copied to Denehy and myself:
Mr Brown should spend as much time as possible in the field. This will give him the opportunity of establishing contacts with the people and help in disseminating information on Administration policy on mining matters …
The CRA problem is to be given priority over all other work in your District. Mr Denehy should maintain his good relations with the Kieta Council, and handle the CRA problem generally. Mr Brown was posted to your District to strengthen field contacts in the CRA area and his energies are not to be dissipated on Census and routine matters.
DC Mollison added his comments, but seemed oblivious to the enormity of the problem:
Neither of you are involved in the Census collection and Mr Brown, with advice and any assistance necessary from yourself, owing to his recent arrival in the Sub-District, should commence his field work without delay, and make every effort to achieve results … One disadvantage [the CRA] may have is their Australian employees have come direct to the Guava and would have no understanding of the people or even be able to converse with them …
Perhaps interpreters could travel with such teams … A lot can be gained by a friendly approach and good comradely relations in such outback parts. Care should be taken too, not to disturb any native property of value or significance to them … In my view it is best to keep the immediate task in perspective and to work for the success of the exploratory stage, achieving harmony in relations, and … enable the people to obtain the monetary benefits from the amended legislation.
It would have taken me ten minutes to reach Guava village, near Panguna, by CRA’s helicopter, but I had no intention of being viewed as a Company employee. Accompanied by two police constables, I travelled in an Administration lorry to the roadhead behind Arawa plantation, and then plodded on foot up the Bovo Valley.
The hard climb began near the old mine site at Kupei, up the muddy steps cut into the almost vertical 900-metre-high bluff. We climbed in a forest of moss-covered, dripping trees, crossed the divide at about 1,300 metres, and slithered down the western slope to Guava village, just before nightfall.
Guava village nestled in a hollow, but the rest house, isolated on a 900-metre-high ridge, was exposed to the west coast. The cold, moist wind blew up the valley from Torokina, whistled through the openings that served as doors and through the cracks in the bush timber floor. It rained every afternoon; cloudbursts of more than 100 millimetres an hour, and the nights were freezing.
We were not a welcome intrusion, but the next day the people gathered to hear, and reject, what I had to say about prospecting and the law. Only the luluai Oni, clan leader Mathew Kove, and one or two others were friendly. For days, I walked around the prospect with the people, and talked. I was harangued by Anthony Ampei from Guava, by Damien from Irang, and by Gregory Korpa from Moroni.
CRA certainly had problems. They had acceded to Anthony Ampei’s demand that they cease drilling on his land, and five of the eight drilling rigs now lay idle. Gregory Korpa, as spokesman of the large Moroni-Pakia group, was adamant that people had opposed the geologists’ intrusion from the outset. He said he had told the geologists that they were trespassers. He and his people wanted the Company to leave – now!
An extract from the recently-published ‘Australians in Papua New Guinea, 1960-1975’. University of Queensland Press, 352 pp, $38.50. More information here