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Sir Joseph Nombri – the crocodile hunter

Joe Nombri BY PHIL FITZPATRICK

SIR JOSEPH NOMBRI was a founding member of the Pangu Pati.  For many years he was the Papua New Guinean ambassador to Japan.  In later years he became a distinguished elder statesman in his beloved Simbu Province.

In the late 1960s, however, he was a mere kiap and, as far as the Administration was concerned, a very dangerous one.

Such was their concern that they banished him to one of the most distant and muddiest outposts of the realm - Kiunga, on the Fly River.

The Assistant District Commissioner was sympathetic to Joe’s plight and tried to make his enforced exile as uncomplicated as possible.  He set him to work keeping open the boggy track to the mission at Rumginae, north on the Ok Mart River.

There was nothing to use for road base within cooee and a lot of the road meandered through swamp.  Joe spent his days cutting timber corduroy and building long and windy bridges through the bogs.

Joe and I shared a house at Kiunga.  We repainted the old kero fridge in Pangu Pati colours to upset the District Commissioner when he visited.  Joe also liked to greet visiting dignitaries at the airport carrying a sign saying “Open season on swans”.

I’m not sure why I was banished there; it could have been for any number of reasons.

The Indonesians had just enacted the pantomime of their Act of Free Choice in Irian Jaya and people were fleeing into Papua New Guinea by the hundreds.  I spent my days in the company of a grumpy Australian Army Warrant Officer judiciously avoiding our assigned task of rounding up the refugees and sending them home.

Another misfit at Kiunga was the son of a very prominent Australian cabinet minister, lately of the New South Wales police force, but hastily despatched out of sight upon the discovery of his homosexuality.  He was there running jet boats up the Ok Tedi River to some sort of mineral prospecting camp.

We entertained ourselves.  Sometimes Joe would stand on a chair and recite pieces of Simbu wisdom.  I particularly remember his fine rendition of Mausgras and Kela Man, which is a clever allusion to the battle of the sexes – think about it and it will become clear.

Another avenue of boredom-beating was crocodile shooting.  Our mining friend had a boat and a spotlight and we had the firepower in the form of a couple of ancient station .303 jungle carbines.

In those days you could get $2 an inch for a skin, which bolstered the social club’s coffers, and the meat was a happy item on the menu of our local kalabus.

On one memorable night we nailed a particularly big specimen.  Joe, who was a good shot, got it right between the eyes.  Unfortunately, as we raced over to collect it, the bugger sank.

We pulled up where it had gone down and poked around for a while with the oars but to no avail.  Loath to lose such a fine specimen we climbed overboard into about three feet of murky water and began to feel around.

Joe, being a methodical man, suggested we work on a grid pattern.  He located a submerged log with his toes and using that as our datum we worked our way out for several yards at regular intervals.

Joe, walking up and down along the log directing operations, suddenly grunted and stuck his hands into the water.  It wasn’t a log after all!

By feeling along its body he found the tail and hauled it towards the boat, where we all attempted to lift it aboard.  Try as we might it was too heavy.

Joe had another idea.  With him on the tail, we hauled it to the nearby sandbar.  From there, with a couple of handy branches, we figured we could lever it into the back of the boat.

Imagine this: it’s about 2 am on a sandbar in the Fly River.  A short but solid Simbu kiap is standing on the bar clutching a large freshwater crocodile by the tail while his friends are rummaging around somewhere cutting tree branches.  The crocodile wakes up!

Joe hung on; he didn’t have much choice.  The groggy crocodile started to thresh in circles.  As it came past we endeavoured to shoot it in the head.  Do you know how hard it is to shoot a croc in the head on a sandbar under the light of a dancing spotlight?

Every miss from the powerful .303 carbine threw up great mounds of sand and left gaping holes behind.  Through sheer luck one of the shots eventually hit home and the croc lay still.

After we’d dragged it on to the boat Joe asked whether we wanted to go a bit further; some people had told him about a really big croc lurking upstream.  The temptation to throw him into the river was overwhelming.

When Joe got old his health deteriorated and he needed treatment in Australia.  A very mean and ungrateful government declined to help.

All we have now are the memories.

Comments

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Ako Lawrence

One of my grandfather's great mates. Lovely story :-)

Bessielah David

Great memories, loved reading all the stories told. Although I never met Joe Nombri personally, reading stories about him and people like him reacquaints us to what could have been and might have been for PNG if only.

Joe and others are truly unsung heroes of the "wild and wiles" territory. May he rest in peace.

Phil Fitzpatrick

That's an interesting idea Michael.

I wonder if there are enough old expatriate kiaps out there with enough yarns to fill a short book?

If there are I'd be happy to nurse a compilation towards publication.

Maybe we could do chalkies next.

Nothing patronising fellas, tell it like it was.

Michael Dom

Phil, that is a very moving memoir.

What about publishing a collection of such kiap anecdotes on some of PNG's unsung heroes of yesteryear, 'lest we forget'.

Goodness knows PNG needs heroes to look up to, and not necessarily 'living legends', but people like Sir Joseph Nombri, who lived and died in the service of their country and really deserve the title 'honourable'.

Oliver, Sir Joseph was a truly great man and I am proud to know his son.

Oliver Nombri

Thank you Phil Fitzpatrick. This is one story I never had the chance to hear from my late father.

Well told indeed.

Jeff van Oosterwijck

Like Phil I was at Kiunga. When I first arrived in the Western District, I spent a month or so on Daru with my then new wife.

Joe arrived during that time and we were both doing odds and ends jobs for the ADC's office. Being new I was a bit mystified by Joe's treatment [by the authorities] and simply took him as I found him.

I found him delightful and, when I asked him what he was doing for lunch, he said he'd probably go to the Daru Club.
I suggested that he might like to come over to lunch with me and my lovely wife.

He accepted and, true to form he was great company and, I would love to have spent more time with him, but, as Phil points out, he was sent out of the way and, yes I discovered from comments made to this liklik kiap, fresh to the wilds, and wiles, of "The Territory", that Joe was in the bad books. He was dangerous!

I have good reason to believe that I was from then on considered politically a bit sus myself. Yet all I was doing was extending the same courtesy to Joe that I believe both of us would have given anyone.

Ostracising Joe said more about others than it said of him.

What a sad ending for one who had seen, and been challenged by, so much change in his life.

Joe will certainly live on in my memory. He was a lovely bloke. Deepest sympathies to his kin.

Paul Oates

Harry - When I left the Morobe District in early 1975, Joe Nombri was District Commissioner.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Those old time Papua New Guinean kiaps like Joe were a special breed but, like Joe, their esteem seems to have diminished with the years.

I worked and knew quite a few; people like Jack Karakaru, Roland Kekedo etc etc. Their sons and daughters, like Oliver Nombri, are now helping to make a difference.

One old web footed bugger from the Western District who has promised to be at the Crocfest is Leo Bera.

Harry Topham

Phil - Your article puts the past into true perspective. I see old Joe still has that cheeky grin of rebellion and that everlasting twinkle in the eyes.

Despite his earlier fall-outs with the conservative authorities, I think Joe did finally make it to District Commissioner.

Never worked out the vagaries of the transfer system in DDA [Department of District Administration] but got an inkling of how things were done back then when one day I picked up the phone in the SDO [Sub-District Office] which was below the DO {District Officer] and, through crossed wires, overheard the DC and his compatriot in another district discussing swapping officers.

My name was mentioned along with several others and it appears in essence that one's fate depended upon the personal likes and dislikes of the incumbent DC as it would be played out in his personal ambitions.

In essence it also depended upon how much top spin one had.

Subsequent to overhearing that conversation, I never got any official transfer papers but an informal meeting with the DC who advised that after leave I was going to the Gulf.

I recall one fellow Kiap who, through some minor indiscretions, had fallen from grace, remarking. "I will need to pull the irons out of the fire and pull off a big one to regain the graces of the emperor".

Basil Peutalo

A Papua New Guinean and a Highlander who truly had fullness of life! Great story.

Terry Shelley

Great story, Phil, on my old long term drinking partner/brother and tambu from the Kamnegu clan in Simbu.

I can add a couple of extra performances on Joe.

One Xmas at the Simbu Sports & Social Club, Joe volunteered to be Father Xmas and appeared in full costume red jump suit with white piping Santas cap and his lush Simbu beard flowing out over his white triming.

As the kids gathered round to collect presents Joe let fly with huge and frightening Simbu war cry which sent the kids in all directions Joe quickly replied, 'Sorry, sorry, wrong tokples.' So the revelling carried on.

On another occasion I approached Joe, who was still with Foreign Affairs, to help a mutual friend return to PNG whose wife (a Papuan lady) had barred him from re-entering PNG.

Joe said, no worries, my close friend Gabriel Dasavu is Secretary. Joe took me to the top floor to the Secretary's Office and after formal greetings Joe explained that we had a problem which was a little like the PNG consuls problem in Cairns who was being accused of sexual harrsment.

Joe said we had a friend in Brisbane who was being harrassed by his PNG wife and wished to flee to the safety of the Highlands of PNG to escape. This bought a hilarious reaction and he was granted re-entry within a week.

Joe was a man of great warmth and trust and it was truly sad to see his demise.

My last words from Joe, after I asked how he was faring, were: "All right, Terry, I am living on Panadol & Coke."

Vale Joeseph Nombri

Mathias Kin

A truly great story. I enjoyed that very much.

Nichson Piakal

"...it’s about 2 am on a sandbar in the Fly River. A short but solid Simbu kiap is standing on the bar clutching a large freshwater crocodile by the tail while his friends are rummaging around somewhere cutting tree branches. The crocodile wakes up!"

Awesome read. :)) A somewhat sad ending but it made good breakfast read nonetheless.

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