IN May 1966, like Administration officers throughout the country, I took part in the first national Papua New Guinea census.
Unlike a conventional census, and given the difficulties in counting everyone in the country, the objective was to collect data from samples of the population and to extrapolate from that to produce a national demography.
Compared to the more arduous patrols assigned to others, I was given a dream assignment: to collect demographic data about expatriates and Papua New Guineans living at mission stations along the lower and middle reaches of the Sepik River.
My companions and fellow census-takers were two teacher colleagues (Arthur Tavui from Rabaul and Iubu Kema from Tubusereia), two schoolboys (John Dani and Lalam Gabriel – who went on to become, respectively, a policeman and a doctor), my manager of domestic affairs (Petrus) and our brus-smoking helmsman, Stephen.
Early on a Saturday morning, we set off from Angoram in the magnificent 40-foot government canoe and headed downriver to the Catholic mission at Marienberg.
After completing our data collection duties there, we headed back up river, calling in at Taway and overnighting at Timbunke, Kamindibit and Korogo on our way to Pagwi for an hour’s hike to, if I remember correctly, the local AOG mission.
Then it was back down to Korogo for another overnight stop before heading to the Catholic mission at the Chambri Lakes – and the first and only really challenging moments of the patrol.
Access to the lakes back then (and now, presumably) was via one of three barats and, all being well, the journey from Korogo was expected to take around 90 minutes – that is, if the barats were clear and not blocked by the floating grass islands that are a common sight on the river.
Leaving Korogo in mid-afternoon we expected to arrive at the Aibom mission well before sunset, with plenty of time to settle into the haus kiap before dinner.
But fate had other things in mind.
Motoring to each of the barats in turn, soaking up precious time, revealed that all were blocked by floating grass.
Having decided that returning to Korogo was not an option we headed back to the shortest barat and, as the sun began setting, started manoeuvering the canoe across the grass blockages.
This involved unloading our cargo to whatever solid ground or grass we could find, pushing and dragging it across or through each blockage to the next clear water and then reloading – mindful always of any pukpuk that may be lurking nearby.
We repeated this procedure until, around 8pm, we made it through to the lake and, a half hour later, to the haus kiap at Aibom.
While this small adventure features large in my memory, so too does a conversation I had with a group of lapuns late one afternoon while sitting on the river bank at Kamindibit.
In the midst of sharing cigarettes and stories, one of my companions, a particularly elderly man, asked, “When will the Germans return?”
Somewhat nonplussed, I asked him what caused him to ask such a question.
He was old enough, he said, to remember when the Germans ruled the roost, when the Australians took over, when the Japanese kicked the Australians out and when the Australians returned.
It was, I thought, as if he viewed the waxing and waning of colonial regimes as a something akin to the seasons, in keeping with the rhythm to which his life had been attuned.
Needless to say, I asked him and his mates to offer their assessment of the various regimes, presuming, naively, that the Aussies would come out on top.
The Germans, they said, were easy to deal with: stay out of their way at all costs and do what they said, or expect a beating - and beatings were plentiful, apparently.
The Japanese, on the other hand, kept mostly to themselves and demanded little of or from the people of Kamindibit.
This tallied with reports I heard later from Kombogera and other villages and hamlets around Passam – but beggars belief given documented reports of Japanese behaviour to the contrary at Timbunke elsewhere in PNG.
The Australians, according to my informants, were a contrary lot. Some were kindhearted and respectful. Others were harsh, demanding and disrespectful.
The people of Kamindibit were unsure what to expect whenever an Australian paid them a visit: forceful directives or polite intercourse.
My inevitable question followed: which regime did they prefer?
The response was emphatic: the Germans. Unlike their dealings with Australians, there was no ambiguity whenever the Germans came.
The Kamindibit villagers knew exactly where they stood, and what to expect.