SPRINGBROOK - What was being a patrol officer in Papua New Guinea all about?
I was one for a short time from 1969 to 1973, probably having been influenced in 1957 by our scholarship (Year 8) prescribed book ‘Danger Patrol’ by Leslie Rees.
A good account is also found in James Sinclair’s ‘Kiap’ (1981) and the Ex-Kiap website on the internet is also enlightening.
But my own PNG adventure generally matched Eric Feldt’s description in ‘The Coast Watchers’, written in 1946:
“The district officer (likewise, the patrol officer) was responsible for all forms of governmental activity in his district. He was thus, with all local authority in his hands, a power in his district.
“Of course, he was subject to the law, and there was machinery for appeal from a district officer’s decision, but appeals are interminable and costly affairs in which the average man does not indulge.
“So the district officer exercised his functions of magistrate, chief of police, head gaoler, coroner, licensing authority, collector of customs, inspector of labour, land purchaser, local treasurer, even to the authority to order, summarily, the destruction of a diseased dog.
“The duties brought him in contact with all phases of life; as one said, ‘I have to be, like Caesar’s wife, all things to all men.’
“In particular, the district officer was arbiter of the relationship between Europeans and natives – to him the native came with any complaint of ill-treatment. He was the ‘kiap’, who had power to settle the matter.
“An able and tactful district officer kept the wheels of the machinery of everyday life running smoothly, but an incompetent one invariably set section against section so that he had a constant turmoil on his hands.
“On the district officer’s staff were cadets, patrol officers and assistant district officers, rising in rank in that order. Young men were selected as cadets, sent to a district for training and experience under the tutelage of an experienced officer, and then promoted to patrol officer after a term of about two years.
“As a patrol officer, the young man travelled around from village to village, maintaining law and order amongst the natives, accompanied by native police. As there were natives in all degrees of control, from those near the settlements who led an ordered existence, to those in recently explored country who lived in primitive savagery, the patrol officer got experience of native life in all its facets.
“In constant company with native police, he grew to know them, to know under what circumstances they would be courageous and the other occasions when, as the native puts it, his belly is water. With this experience came the habit of command.
“A patrol officer was called on to settle disputes, today in a village where the issue was the value of taro (a lily-like plant whose bulb is food), damaged by an intruding pig in a garden; next week, the peace terms between two villages which had been at war with each other for so long that the mind of man ran not to the contrary.
“Constant use gave him a good command of Pidgin English, the ‘lingua franca’ of New Guinea. Pidgin is a language in which a number of words are used in the order and manner in which a native thinks.
“So the patrol officer got experience, and with it, exercise. There are few roads in the area, and his work led him from village to village, sometimes on a passable walking track, sometimes ‘breaking bush’ through jungle, but always up one steep slope and down another, or through humid swamp or over hot kunai plain, or on the soft sand of the beaches.
“On patrol he lived hard, eating food carried with him, supplemented by game he could shoot or field fruits from native gardens. But he could not live too hard, or health would suffer - his body wracked and sweating under a palm thatch roof, far from help or comfort.
“Promoted to assistant district officer, he led much the same life but with greater responsibility. He still walked from village to village, and could not look to any end, even after promotion to district officer; for any district officer who did not himself go on patrol was soon branded a ‘verandah kiap’ who did not know what went on in his own district.”
I was promoted to assistant district officer two weeks before ‘going finish’ just prior to self-government being granted in 1973. Papua New Guinea’s independence followed in 1975.
Before going to Papua New Guinea I, with another 38 recruits, attended the four month assistant patrol officer’s orientation course at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) at Middle Head in Sydney. It was mid 1969 – the year man first landed on the moon and the era of the Vietnam war, feminists and hippies.
Former district commissioner Fred Kaad was our mentor and the subjects included: history, geography, public administration, local government, law, anthropology, Pidgin English, first aid and physical education. I gained top marks overall for this course.
On arrival in Port Moresby, I stepped off the plane to be hit by a blast of hot air which I thought was from the jet engines. But, the engines were not running; this was the country’s normal air temperature with a light breeze coming across the bitumen tarmac.
After that initial shock, we spent five hot weeks at Kwikila near Port Moresby with Bruce Dunn running our induction course, learning the practical aspects of the job: surveying, maps, roads, bridges, airstrips, explosives, police, firearms, courts, jails, radio, reports and health.
In December we were posted to various districts – Drew Pingo and I were to go to the Northern District: its coastal plains, rivers and swamps rising sharply to high mountains.
In the early 1900s resident magistrate Monckton, commenting on the reputation of the district, wrote that “many officers preferred to resign rather than be sent there”.
On our fifth day there, we set off on our first trial patrol and over the next four years I spent one-third of my time on patrol, being confronted with most matters: census, elections, area studies, economic development, land investigations, cash crops, timber rights, labour, road construction, mechanics, relief work, carriers, hunting, rations, wells, latrines, disputes and political education. Also, we were commissioned police officers of the Royal PNG Constabulary.
One hot and beautifully clear day, I accompanied district local government officer Peter Thomas and a public works official on an aerial inspection of outstations and airstrips from Tufi to Wanigela then on to Safia via Wowo Gap.
We flew fairly close to a spectacular waterfall in the Goropu Mountains, where the peak of Mt Suckling rises to over 12,000 feet. This waterfall can be seen from Tufi Harbour, 80km away. We returned to Tufi over the Didana Range section of the Pongani-Safia Road that I had been clearing.
Landing at Wanigela, the heat was such that pilot Alan Woodcock couldn’t get the plane to stay down. It kept bouncing back up with the rising hot air until we almost ran out of strip before finally coming to rest safely.
Another experience was even more frightening. Pilots new to PNG had to do a familiarisation flight with someone experienced in the particular area. This new pilot had been checked the day before and apparently had learnt of the effect of hot air rising.
We departed early morning from Girua, a bitumen strip built by the Americans during the war, which was then the airstrip for Popondetta. A short time later we banked over Ioma station, crossed Tamata Creek quite low over the trees and lined up for the distant strip. Too far in the distance, I thought.
Then the stall buzzer frantically started. We just managed to make it to the emergency touch-down section of the strip – a bit rough and overgrown but at least we weren’t in the trees. Ioma is a grass strip which doesn’t get as hot as bitumen and, besides, it was still in the cool of day. The pilot had compensated for a non-existent uplift and almost ran out of air space.
Magisterial powers were granted to me on 8 November 1971. Prior to that, an expected role on patrol was to hold court in the villages. Punishment was equally unofficial:
Nine days into a lengthy patrol to the Lower Musa, a commotion broke out in front of us while taking census at Kinjaki. It was one time I really did fear for our safety. My police calmed everyone down and, after hearing the complaint, I ordered the ringleader to accompany the patrol so he could be dealt with back at the station. Having spent the next 22 days with us as an unpaid carrier, it was decided he had duly served his time.
A two month advanced patrol officer’s course in Port Moresby was normally a prerequisite to becoming a magistrate and, although my appointment had already been gazetted, I attended in September 1972, staying in a flat at the government Ranaguri Hostel, with my wife Annette and our few months old son.