MV KINA entered Hall Sound just after dawn. Fifteen minutes later, the mainland was still on the right, but Kairuku - the government station on Yule Island and its long, dry-stone wharf - had appeared on the left.
That wharf would have been built by hand. A horrendous task in the sun and heat, with bare-footed labourers probably having to haul those large rocks for long distances, before they manoeuvered each one onto the reef, then manhandled and fitted each into an appropriate slot.
The wharf would have slowly emerged from the sea, gaining height and length, eventually extending to the extremity of the reef, but never quiet reaching very deep water.
After the boat trip from Port Moresby, my stomach was a void. The sea was calm, my sea sickness had gone and I was hungry and thirsty, but there was nothing to eat or drink. Kina was anchored in deep water a few hundred metres from the wharf and I could not get ashore.
About two hours later, a double canoe left the shore, poled through the water alongside the wharf by two prisoners, their red loincloths emblazoned with broad black arrows. A native police constable and two expatriates, the latter dressed in white shirts, white shorts and long white socks, stood on the light platform straddling the hulls.
As we approached the landing, beyond the beach I could see a parade ground, replete with flagstaff and Australian Blue Ensign, extending along the foreshore. To the left, manicured grass and long orderly rows of coconut palms stretched into the distance.
The gravel crunched beneath us as we walked along a path lined with white-painted stones to where a small crowd had gathered in the shade of a large mango tree. There were not many people and they stood in two groups, the expatriates and the rest.
As I was introduced, I thought about the fraternisation warning. None of those expatriates was single and all, except the children, were older than me. I realised I might be about to begin a very lonely period.
I spent the first night with the Tuohy family: Austin, the Patrol Officer, his wife Sylvia and their two young children.
It was a wonderful position but the window openings had sloping galvanized-iron eyebrows fixed to the outside walls and were covered with a fly-wire mesh. The fly-wire stopped any breeze, the eyebrows obscured the view and the interior of the house was hot and dark.
At dusk, I had my first experience of what was to become a daily ritual: the lighting of the kerosene pressure-lamps.
The model of the day, the 300-candlepower Tilley, burnt kerosene fuel and had a woven-asbestos mantle that had to be preheated from a spirit-soaked wick. I soon found out that the mantle was fragile and easily broken, that the kerosene tube was frequently blocked and that lamps only broke down at dusk.
I took my first wash under a bucket shower: a galvanized bucket with a shower rose screwed into the base. Filled with warm water, the bucket was hauled towards the ceiling by rope and pulley, the stopcock was released and the warm water flowed slowly as gravity allowed.
Two days later, the outgoing Assistant District Officer, Jock McLeod, and his wife left by the fortnightly Catalina flying boat, and I was able to kove up the hill to join John Gibson in the ADO’s house.
From the distance, it looked a dolls’ house: two-storied and box-like with white fibro walls and a red corrugated iron roof. But it had occupied that lonely site on the knoll since the early 1930s, withstanding both weather and Japanese air raids.
Inside the house, a central stairwell divided the cement-slab ground floor. A dining room and a sitting room occupied each front corner. The kitchen in one of the back corners was replete with a wood-fired fuel stove, a kerosene refrigerator and a wooden table, but there was no kitchen sink or running water, just a hand basin and a bucket of water for washing up.
The bathroom was located downstairs, away from the bedrooms, because it was easier to get the hot water for the shower from the kitchen stove, but its location outside the kitchen door along with the pan toilet did little for privacy.
The bedrooms and the lounge room on the top floor were too hot to be used during the day, but a stand-alone room with a thatch roof and fly-wire walls in front of the house was cool. It was where we ate our lunch and relaxed after work.
The ADO’s jeep was unserviceable, so we plodded up the hill from the office at noon and after work. It took ten minutes to negotiate the road, which was formed of stones and loose sand augmented with some gravel. The uphill climb was a struggle even in the afternoon, but at lunchtime, in the glare of the midday sun, it was torture.
John Gibson was posted to Kairuku as acting Assistant District Officer. He had attended the two-year course at ASOPA as an experiment to assess the value of the so-called Long Course to a young and inexperienced officer. His confrérès at the School, all ex-servicemen and several years older, had nicknamed him “Thrasher” because of his youthful enthusiasm.
Each morning we had an early breakfast and set off down the hill, our departure timed so we arrived at the parade ground just before 7 am when the police detachment, the prisoners and the labourers assembled for roll call.
The police carried the standard army issue .303 Lee Enfield service rifle but their attire depended on the weather and on what they had available on the day.
Most wore a sulu (laplap) of either khaki drill or navy blue serge topped by a red bordered navy blue tunic or a flannel singlet. Almost all wore a red cotton cummerbund under a belt of leather or canvas webbing replete with ammunition pouches. A brass chain hung from the front of the belt to the back.
The prisoners, mainly convicted murderers from the Goilala, the mountain region to the north, had arrived in earlier times having been sent overland to Kairuku for trial before there was an airstrip at Tapini.
They had been at Kairuku for so long, they virtually had freedom of the station. A police guard accompanied them while they were working but it was not unusual to see a prisoner carrying the escort’s rifle.
Those long-term prisoners chopped firewood, tended gardens, cut grass and unloaded cargo from ships. They were also the shepherds; they left the gaol compound at dawn to milk the goats and distribute milk to the four expatriate households. Another two prisoners were tasked to collect the toilet pans from the same houses and empty them into the sea.
At the rear, invisible from the road, the most frequently used public entry gave access to the makeshift Post Office and Bank.
At the western end of the building, a flight of wide wooden steps led to a verandah wrapped around three sides of the ADO’s office; a room sparsely furnished with a desk, office chair, visitor’s chair and a set of glass-doored bookshelves. The scrubbed, unpolished, bare wooden floor complemented its Spartan appearance.
The adjoining hallway, lined with open wooden pigeonholes, was Bera Baupa’s office. Bera was the clerk, interpreter and expert on local custom. He dressed in a white shirt, shorts and sandals and, as a chief’s son, maintained an aloofness befitting his position. Very occasionally, he gave me condescending advice.
Philo Parau sat at a small table in the room that housed the Post Office and Bank and did most of the work. She sorted mail, typed and maintained the filing system, and she teased me continuously.
A single mother with a four-year-old, mixed-race son, she was young and attractive and had a delightful sense of humour. Her high cheekbones, long black tresses, olive-brown skin and deep brown, gazelle-like eyes suggested she might not have been of pure Papuan stock.
Ivan Tuohy sat in the end room where two magneto-type telephones hung on the wall: one connected to the residences and the hospital; the other was the undersea link to the mainland, Delena and plantations to the east.
Both were party lines with no privacy. The number of turns of the magneto handle alerted the household being called, but anybody else who wanted to could listen in on the line.
The equipment in the office was basic. We had no calculators, biros or white-out. We shared an upright manual typewriter and used carbon paper to produce the required number of copies. The large safe was counter locked with a very large single key.
Straightforward letters had to be typed in quadruplicate: two copies to be sent, one to be filed in a subject file, and one filed sequentially on the running file. More complicated letters required more copies and were filed on a number of files, the bottom carbon copies almost unreadable. Requisitions for rations and for hardware were always in typed in quintuplicate.
Austin Tuohy was getting ready to go on patrol and John Gibson may have felt too superior for the menial work, so I became responsible for the Cash Office.
I paid the police, I issued cash advances to the hospital and to Public Works to pay their wages, I operated the Commonwealth Bank agency and I ran the Post Office. I should have written the cashbook up each day, but never managed it - there were more exciting things to do.
So at the end of the month, I was ready to panic. I had to prepare the tear-out originals of the cashbook, pay vouchers, receipts and schedules and send them to Treasury. Withdrawal slips, deposit slips and cash summaries had to be sent to the Bank. The postal forms for COD parcels, Registered Mail and Customs Duty had to be sent to Posts and Telegraphs.
I had to balance the cashbook, the bank records and the stamps with the cash in the safe. If there was a shortage, I would have to make it good; but a surplus would be a bigger worry. This might mean I had recorded the details of the deposit in the customers bank book but failed to record it in the bank transactions.
Bera and Philo both knew more about the Cash Office and the Post Office than either John Gibson or me but it seemed they could not be given responsibility. They probably enjoyed watching me make mistakes but they never let me get into real trouble, even though I must have driven them both mad with my youthful exuberance and inexperience.
The wireless room was a small box-like building set on high wooden stumps next to the office. It housed the transmitter, a crystal-locked AWA 3BZ, and the receiver, both powered by a 12-volt, wet cell battery.
The battery charger, a fractious Briggs and Stratton petrol motor, sat on the ground under the floor. The radio didn’t work as well as I thought it should, so I tuned and re-tuned the transmitter. When that didn’t help I made some new aerials and had the prisoners climbing coconut palms for days as I tried the aerials in different configurations and alignments.
The twice-daily radiotelephone schedules were a big attraction. The “sked” (schedule for sending and receiving radiograms) and radio conversations were involvement in the outside world.
The radiotelephone was not a duplex system; you could transmit or receive but you could not do both at the same time. All the stations and plantations west of Port Moresby transmitted on one frequency and received on another. While you were waiting your scheduled turn, you heard all the traffic being transmitted to the stations ahead of you and, by changing frequency, you could hear the responses and the outward traffic.
The wet and dry thermometers, barometer and rain gauge had to be read at 0900, noon and 1500. The data had to be encoded and transmitted to the Department of Civil Aviation in Port Moresby. It took time and it interfered with my freedom, especially on weekends. Fortunately there was a small payment for the task, and Philo was happy to take the cash.
The two huge thatched barn-like stores buildings were another attraction. In the light and airy rations store, containers—drums, sacks, cartons and caddies—stood ready for daily use, providing rice, salt, sugar, wheat meal, dried peas, tins of bully beef, ships’ biscuits, matches, stick tobacco and leaf tea.
Bunches of bananas hung from the roof while root vegetables - cassava, taro, sweet potato and yam - were stored on racks along the walls.
In the bulk store, bags of rice, wheat meal flour, sugar and salt, cases of tinned meat and margarine, caddies of twist tobacco, chests of tea and crates of ship’s biscuits were lined in neat rows.
The twist tobacco leaf cured in molasses and braided into long dark brown almost black rectangular sticks had a fascinating appearance and odour.
And there was an array of tools and equipment: huge augurs, canoe adzes, Treewalla Jacks, camp ovens, mapping equipment, shotguns, revolvers, rifles and ammunition.
Harry Obi, the bulk store controller, had a skull like the Phantom insignia of comic book fame - a head, with very little flesh or hair, wide temples and a narrow jaw.
The mix of Thursday Island, Papuan and Madagascar blood that flowed in his veins entitled him to some privileges. A Special Arms Permit allowed him to own a shotgun and another permit enabled him to purchase and consume alcohol. Harry lived with his Papuan wife and their children in one of the five houses that formed the mixed race enclave on the foreshore.
Two of his neighbours were Australians who had also married local women and had large households. They did not fit into either expatriate or local communities and seemed to be disdained by both.
Joe Bray was about 65 - rosy cheeked, pale, almost fragile. In the 1930s, a rich mining syndicate in the Wau Goldfields had recruited him to ride as a professional jockey but, when a hip injury ended his racing career, he had found a Papuan bride very much his junior and pursued other avenues.
The other neighbour, Tom Baker, born in Sweden more than eighty years earlier, had spent most of his life on sailing ships until he too found a young Papuan wife from Kairuku. Her youth and alleged invasions of the marital couch were Tom’s main concern.
Kairuku was the first port of call for the fortnightly Qantas Catalina flying boat, and it was always a beautiful sight as it soared gracefully over the passage and turned into the wind to land on the water a safe distance from the shore, the wing-tip floats rotating down as the aircraft descended.
As the Catalina taxied, a member of the crew took up station in the open nose-bubble to secure the aircraft to the mooring buoy. By the time the station canoe had been paddled alongside, the plexiglass bubble had been opened and the crew were ready to pass out the cargo: canvas bags of mail, pillowslip-like bags of frozen meat and the occasional passenger.
Writing in the Pacific Islands Monthly of December 1949, Qantas Captain Hugh M Birch DFC described a typical flight. He wrote that he left Port Moresby with 17 passengers, three fowls, 200 chickens, a dog, two cats and 850 lb. (378 kg) of freezer goods. He did not mention the mailbags, but they must have been on board. There would have been at least one for each port of call.
Catalina Day was festive and people dressed for it. Even before the aircraft’s 7am arrival, people congregated near the shore to see if there were any visitors, to collect bags of freezer and to wait while the mail was sorted.
Mick Vesper was the self-appointed meeter and greeter of the Catalina and of any ships that arrived.
Mick had come to Papua with the Army during World War II, after which his wife Barbara and their two sons had joined him. Probably in his late forties, Mick was with Public Works and he was a jack-of-all-trades.
He supervised road works, building maintenance and repairs. He oversaw the construction of the water supply, the powerhouse and a large timber barge to replace the double canoe used to unload cargo.
Mick was a “fixer” and Kairuku was close enough to Port Moresby for senior Public Works’ officials to take weekend breaks as his guests. It paid off.
My house to-be was a small item on Mick’s list. I wanted it to be built at the end of a high wooded point projecting into the sound, but that site would require new power lines and a water connection so it was not to be.
There was an old house site behind the office, just high enough up the hill to give a view over the tops of the coconut palms to the waters of Hall Sound, the mainland and the mountains beyond. It also caught the southeast breeze.
In addition, the old house piers, three metres tall at the front of the block and level at the rear, could be re-used.
Procuring materials to build the house gave me the excuse to accompany a gang of police and prisoners to the mainland.
We travelled on the Nancye-Lee, a 40-foot workboat, across to the mainland and, on the rising tide, up Mou Creek to the headwaters. While the tide ebbed and flowed, we chopped and stacked tall mangrove saplings for the frame, ceiling, and rafters of my new house.
Then we fed on mangrove oysters while awaited the return of the Nancye-Lee. The workers laughed at me when I suggested floating the saplings downstream to the boat, and laughed, even more when I insisted on trying my idea. The saplings sank to the bottom like stones.
Village people made my roof thatch, collecting green fronds from nipa palms growing in the creeks and folding them along the spine to give a double thickness. They also supplied, for cash, the floor boards: long convex lathes split from the skin of black palm trunks which, I was to find, shrank as they seasoned leaving gaps wide enough for cutlery and papers to fall through to the ground below. The floor was springy and the nails continually lifted to threaten bare feet.
The kitchen had a skillion roof of old corrugated iron which isolated the flue of the fuel stove from the thatch roof—a necessary precaution against fire. There was no sink, only a bucket positioned under a tap projecting knee-height from the wall. A wooden table served as the kitchen bench. My few cups, saucers and plates fitted comfortably into the narrow, fly-wired kitchen cabinet.
The dining space, open to the verandah and fresh air, held a wooden table, four chairs and an antiquated Hallstrom kerosene refrigerator. The refrigerator with a few shelves and a tiny freezer block with slots just enough for two ice trays was a challenge. If the wick was not perfectly level and precisely at the required height, the flame would burn yellow not blue, the chimney would smoke and the refrigerator would get warm.
The two bedrooms and the narrow front verandah were totally enclosed in a fly-wire cage. The bedrooms were small and dark and offered little privacy as there were no doors on the openings to the front verandah and no shutters on the window openings.
Each bedroom had an iron-framed single bed with a coir mattress. It was not a big house but the spare bedroom soon became the boarding house for unimportant single visitors. Dignitaries and married couples went elsewhere.
My expenses were still a major problem. I was not paid the adult wage but had the same expenses as an adult. I just did not earn enough to live the way I wanted, and my overnight visitors seldom made any contribution.
I found that three credit accounts - one with Burns Philp, one with Steamships and one with the local trade store - allowed me to stretch my credit to the limit. I would run up debts with Burns Philp one month, Steamships the next month and the local store the third month. And I paid them off the same way.
I soon learnt to budget. I cancelled my expensive frozen meat order and I began to relish the occasional leg of young goat. I learnt to eat pumpkin tips for greens. I grew some vegetables and I accepted every invitation to dine out.
Life at Kairuku became quite acceptable.
Bill Brown on the hills above Kairuku, 1950. The ADO's house knoll is centre frame. The water is Galley Reach with the Papuan mainland in the background.
The Kairuku shore line, the stone wharf barely visible with the stores on the left.
Bill in the Kairuku Sub District Office, magneto phones on the wall.
Catalina flying boat begins its take-off.
Three long-term prisoners from the Goilala unloading heavy oil drums from the newly built Mick Vesper barge. A police constable assists them.
Karuama, a well fed long-term Goilala prisoner.