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.