Of bush knives, AK47s and atomic bombs….
Peter O’Neill emerges from 2017: bruised but not beaten

Kiaps: ‘Ol narapela kain man’ who built a nation

Patrol officers course  Port Moresby  1971 (John Hocknull)
Patrol officers course, Port Moresby, 1971


TUMBY BAY - Given the huge nation-building task at hand, there weren’t many kiaps at any one time in Papua New Guinea prior to independence - maybe 650 at peak strength.

They were an odd mix of characters and very difficult to describe even after all these years. On some matters they had conservative views but on others they showed enlightenment and liberal ideals.

One of their important defining characteristics was a willingness to experiment, improvise and innovate. They were not only a strange breed but a rare one.

And that is what was required, given Australia’s stinginess in administering its colonial obligations. The emerging nation required men capable of thinking outside the box.

When I went through the Australian School of Administration (ASOPA), our training officer made this unusual role quite clear. He referred to us as misfits, not in a derogatory way but to explain why we had been selected for the job.

Much later a highlander, shaking his head and smiling, told me that the kiaps were narapela kain man. Another type of man. That is, a misfit.

He did this to express his difficulty in working out what made kiaps tick and to differentiate them from the other expatriates working in the then territory.

These days those old kiaps have moved to that “patrol post in the sky” or are drifting into their twilight years. Many are not going quietly. They are still different and making mischief where the opportunity presents itself.

This is the conclusion I’ve drawn after many years reading and contributing to blogs like PNG Attitude and the Ex-kiap website.

What amazes me is the intellectual rigour still exhibited by many of these men.

A lot went on to gain higher tertiary qualifications and others wrote books. Many worked their way into the senior echelons of the Australian public service. A few achieved commercial success.

If you look at the numbers of ex-kiaps who followed this pattern, it is well out of proportion to the other expatriate groups in Papua New Guinea prior to and just after independence.

There is a rather delightful irony in this.

In the 1970s, as many of these men returned to Australia, kiap was a dirty word, particularly in academia. The word encapsulated, so we were told, the whole sorry history of Australian colonialism.

When I joined the South Australian Museum after leaving Papua New Guinea it was politely suggested that I not mention my previous life as a kiap to other staff.

I recall on one occasion loading a couple of my old patrol boxes into the back of a four wheel drive ready for a field trip when a museum staffer walked by. He noticed the extra-large handles on the boxes and asked why they were so big.

Caught unawares, I explained - a pole through both handles and a bloke on each end.

He was aghast. Oh, the inhumanity he cried.

Thankfully this kind of naïve criticism has abated and some people, including the Australian government, have realised the kiap philosophy had a lot going for it.

A philosophy that many of the old buggers resolutely maintain.


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Anthony Sil

Today's young Australian politicians and civil servants in Canberra should read more on the kiaps before making decisions on PNG-Australia trade and development issues.

During the kiap days we were in harmony. We knew each other. We worked together. We had no idiosyncrasies.

My father was one of the early district court magistrates I was fortunate to travel to many provinces where I observed the kiaps.

Brian Warrillow

If it wasn't for one kiap in particular i wouldn't be where i am today,or be doing what i'm doing...

Cheers dad, see you soon.


Ross Wilkinson

I’d been called a number of things in my time including “kiap” with varying degrees of sneer and unprintable adjectives but never “misfit”. So thanks Phil, I guess that’s an amendment to be made in my manuscript.

Regarding the recruitment process, when sufficient vacancies occurred each year an advertisement appeared in the various Australian newspapers.

The applications were culled and a shortlist of interviewees was created. Depending on its size and geographic spread, two or three senior officers were sent to Australia to conduct the interviews and were usually those holding the role of District Inspector at Deputy District Commissioner rank located at HQ in Konedobu.

In my case it was Royce Webb and the interview was in Melbourne. At its conclusion he looked at me and said, “That’s all fine. All you have to do now is pass the medical.” Phew!

The establishment figures quoted by both Phil and Paul are a bit simplistic and require some clarification and amendment.

In my retirement and with assistance from our former colleagues, I’ve been developing a Kiap Nominal Roll which dates back to the earliest British and Australian Administrations. This task has entailed researching a range of historical publications including histories, Annual Reports and staff lists.

In 1900 with only Papua under British administration and managed through the Queensland government, I have estimated that the total field service was approximately 30.

In 1914 an Australian force captured German New Guinea and established a field service to replace the German civil administration. It was from this that the term “kiap” arose. In 1921 this became an Australian-managed civil administration responsible to the League of Nations with approximately 40 field staff.

When the Japanese invaded in 1942, both civil administrations were suspended and a joint military administrative unit known as ANGAU was created and there were about 120 undertaking the former kiap role. Many of these were kiaps before the war and stayed on to become kiaps in the post-war resumption of civil administration.

In the post-war era, the United Nations agreed with the single administration model and the Territory of Papua New Guinea was created. As the administration was extended into the remote regions new government stations were opened which required an increased staffing establishment.

By 1970 this establishment was approximately 756 with “field officer” designations across Headquarters and the 18 districts in the four regions.

This was increased again over the next several years with the increase to 20 districts and the accelerated recruitment of nationals under the Department’s Localisation programme leading to Self-Government and Independence.

However, to use the 1970 figures of 756, 151 were attached to Headquarters and 605 to the 18 districts. If we take an approximate figure of 8 officers at each district HQ in command and specialist roles, this leaves approximately 460 in actual field administration at any one time.

Of the 151 at Headquarters approximately 120 were on training courses of various types from basic to advanced either in PNG or Australia.

Of the remainder, they were senior kiaps promoted to oversee the general or specialist administration of the department including the various training programmes required from time to time.

It’s been said before but it’s worth noting again. Field Marshall Sir William Slim, eminent British military commander when he was Governor General of Australia, made a comment to Paul Hasluck when he was Minister for Territories in the Australia Government, well before Independence:

“Your young chaps in New Guinea have gone out where I would never have gone without a battalion and they have done on their own by sheer force of character what I could only do with troops. I don’t think there’s been anything like it in the modern world...”

Like Chris, after nearly 14 years in PNG as a kiap, I went on to significant things in my professional career that I’m proud of. However, despite reading of all the negative events that have and are occurring in PNG since I left, I consider that time in my life’s work as the most gratifying.

Philip Fitzpatrick

God, glory and gold Harry.

Hope you enjoyed your glory.

Harry Topham

I recall some wise old soul, when asked to describe PNG's expatriate sindaun, quipping, "Oh that would be the 3M company that runs that show."

Asked to explain, he added, "3M - PNG is full of Mercenaries, Missionaries and Misfits."

Having met too numerous a number to quantify of the latter two, I can honestly say that back then I did not meet too many mercenary types..

I think those characters surfaced post independence.

David Bridie | via Twitter

Astonishing that there were only 650 kiaps in PNG at any one time."Narapela kain" indeed.

Phil Fitzpatrick's observations are always fascinating.

And, as Paul Oates has pointed out to me, not all of the 650 were deployed in the field - KJ

Robert Forster | via Twitter

It's interesting to be termed a "misfit"- although the photo shows we were a motley lot.

This reminder of a youth spent in Papua New Guinea surfaced this afternoon. Can be no doubt the job was both different & exciting. I'm the bare chested lad to left. Age has indeed condemned.

Garry Roche

Commenting as an outsider, i.e., one who was not a kiap, I may have been lucky, but the kiaps I met and knew in Hagen and the Jimi, and those I met who had later returned to PNG in different roles, were all very interesting characters,

It was enjoyable to talk with them even if we disagreed on some topics.

Concerning "misfits", we missionaries were sometimes described likewise. A missionary was someone who was a misfit in his/her own country coming to be a misfit in someone else's country!

Arthur Williams

Just read a story, 'North Fly Too Remote for Cops', in today's The National. Are they talking about employees in a disciplined force?

Recall being asked at ASOPA in 1970 where I wanted to be posted. Replied that I was prepared to go wherever Government sent me with my wife and small kids.

Did add I would prefer a coastal situation 'if possible'.
Lucky for me I got New Ireland District.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I first encountered Bob Bell in Mount Hagen a few years before he became DC in Gulf.

At the time he was passing on some sage advice to a kiap mate who was about to get married.

"You realise that if you go ahead with this old son you'll never be able to fart in bed again?" Bob said.

Geoff Hancock

Kiaps did their bit to help build a nation in many different ways.

Several years ago i was asked if i would help a Papua New Guinean man find his father whom he had never known.

The only information i had to go on was his father's name, he was a kiap and his posting.

I located his current address and phone number in Australia and suggested the son write to his father, which I believe he did, but never received a reply.

The kiap is in the photo of the 1971 patrol officers course.

Chips Mackellar

A bunch of misfits Phil? I have heard the same of the Foreign Legion, the SAS, and the Navy Seals. We were in good company then.

Chris Overland

The late Bob Bell interviewed me for a position as APO. In his report of that interview he described me, somewhat enigmatically, as "being the right type".

Now, with the advantage of many years experience as a manager of people, I feel able to offer an opinion on what constituted the "right type" for the work of a kiap.

First, he had to be of somewhat above average intelligence. The demands of the job were such that anything less than a decent amount of intellectual horsepower was going to be a distinct handicap.

Second, he had to be imbued with a natural curiosity about the world and be adaptable. A kiap's job was definitely not ordinary in any way and someone who yearned for stability, order and predictability was definitely not the right type.

Third, it helped to be a pretty self motivated and self contained person. A lot of a kiap's time was spent either on his own or, at best, in company with people who did not have the same cultural background, language, education and general outlook.

This is not a criticism of Papua New Guineans, for whom most kiaps developed a genuine respect, just a plain statement of how it was at that time.

Fourth, it helped to be inclined to seize the initiative based upon a personal judgement and not be constantly worried about what those in higher positions might think.

Many times you could be confronted with situations where there was no possibility of seeking advice or help from "the powers that be" so you just had to exercise your own judgement and do what seemed right at the time.

Fifth, it was important to be able and willing to accept both physical and emotional challenges. Patrol work could be physically demanding and lonely and surprisingly large numbers of people do not do well in such circumstances. Successful kiaps either thrived on this type of work or had the mental and physical resources to tough it out.

Sixth, kiaps mostly had a sense of adventure and intuitively understood that what they were doing was, in many respect, very much out of its time and place.

There really was a 19th century atmosphere about working in the remote parts of PNG (which I gather persists today), where the modern world seemed so distant that it was not difficult to imagine that you had more in common with a British colonial officer in mid 19th century Africa than someone working in a bank or insurance company.

Of course I am stressing the positive here. There also was a good deal of casual racism and a tendency to dismiss PNG nationals as "bush kanaka tasol".

It has to be acknowledged that at least some kiaps would use bullying and coercion to impose their will at times. There was a degree of arrogance in some of our colleagues. Maybe this behaviour seemed justifiable at the time but these traits reflected poorly on them and, by extension, all of us.

I am also conscious that many Agricultural Officers, Teachers, Surveyors, Medical Assistants and others who did important field work often manifested the qualities I have mentioned. Such qualities were not exclusive to kiaps by any means but perhaps seemed more obvious or pronounced in them.

Like Phil, my experience was that my time in PNG was neither understood nor valued when I returned to Australia. At best, I was a slight curiosity. So, for many years, I found it easiest to not mention or gloss over my time in PNG.

Now, as I slide into my dotage, I have resurrected many memories and attach a value to my time in PNG that greatly exceeds that of almost anything else I ever did or achieved.

In my working life, I have built and commissioned a regional hospital, drafted significant pieces of legislation and managed large organisations at times of crisis. I have met with "the great and the good" many times and have had many interactions with Ministers, Premiers and Governors.

I was able to achieve status, influence and material success that I could hardly have dreamed of as a boy in what seems now to be the distant past.

For all that, it is my time in PNG that I hold most dear. It helped make me who I am and I will be eternally grateful that Bob Bell once decided that I was "the right type".

Paul Oates

Incidentally Phil, of those possible 650, not all of those were in the field at any one time. The average number of Kiaps in the early 1970's was around 25 in each of the then 18 Districts. Smaller Districts like Manus had smaller numbers etc.

Many Kiaps were either on leave or on Course or at DHQ so the actual number of Field Kiaps was around 250 or so who were primarily responsible for 95% of around 3 million PNG people who lived in rural PNG.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Struth! What a scruffy mob in the photograph. Standards had obviously dropped by 1971.

Oops, I just looked at the Kwikila photograph of my course - correct that, standards had obviously lifted by 1971, not a stubby in sight.

Paul Oates

You’ve raised an interesting thread as usual Phil.

The essence of what you are suggesting is along the lines of Henry Thoreau (1817–62) who is quoted as saying: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

From experience, kiaps mostly were those types who, if they lasted longer than the first two years, did march to a different drum.

My experience with the then Department of External Territories recruitment of junior kiaps was that the process seemed to be slanted towards selecting those who would likely be suitable but who were in the end assessed by those who hadn’t actually successfully undertaken the role.

My later experience with Defence Force Recruiting was that the final say should have been made by experienced people who ‘had been there and done the job’.

But how do individual thinkers select other individuals?

What we ended up with in the External Territories selection process was a collection of ‘possibles’ from which our ASOPA training and two years field experience was supposed to equip us for the work or weed us out.

When we met in Moresby three years later at our Magistrates Course we were about half the number that first started. Would it have been any different if we had a final interview with some crusty old ADO, DO or DDC? Husat isave?

I do remember at ASOPA, ex DC Fred Kaad introducing us to the then House of Assembly Speaker John Guise, who told us PNG didn’t want us.

Guise had his own experiences and I later learnt just how he had been treated and why he probably felt that way.

Certainly at the time it was a slap in the face for those of us who thought we could offer something positive to help the PNG people.

No one could say we didn’t make mistakes. However I believe it’s fair to say that we were probably able to learn from the many mistakes of past colonial administrations elsewhere and given the short time we had and the lack of resources, we didn’t do that bad a job.

I suggest that Australia wasn't too bad a colonial power and it depends on what yardstick one uses to measure achievements. Compare us to the Indonesian takeover and stay put in West Papua or the excesses of the Belgian Congo.

Even the British, as possibly a more enlightened colonial force when compared with German and Dutch colonies, had their detractors.

Years ago a couple of PNGians who, due to the initial opening up of a base camp and the primary school that followed obtained their education and qualifications and are now professional people, told me:

‘You planted the seed and now the tree has grown tall and strong.’ Another from the same area said: ‘You lit the fire and we’ve kept it burning’.

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