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Remote colonial life: Waiting for the K boat & other inconveniences

Baimuru Patrol Post  1962 (John Fowke)
Baimuru Patrol Post, 1962 (John Fowke)


ADELAIDE - My first experience of Papua New Guinea was arriving at Jacksons Airport on a sweltering day in mid 1969.

Having survived the rather desultory attention of Customs, I joined a slightly bewildered group of young men who had gathered around a man carrying a sign indicating that he was there to collect us.

There followed a scramble to board a decrepit blue and white Bedford bus which proceeded to convey us along the dusty road between Moresby and our training camp at Kwikila.

This was where we would undergo the six weeks of training that constituted the introduction to our roles as newly-minted junior kiaps.

A later sojourn at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) in Sydney was promised but never eventuated.

Unless my memory is faulty, it was the late Geoff Littler who had the task of coordinating our training. This was probably not his first choice of assignments but my recollection is that we packed a lot into the six weeks, so I guess he did a pretty good job.

We were introduced to things like the basics of Pidgin, the mysteries of the Police Offences Ordinance and Regulations, how to operate a Crammond radio transceiver and were urged to prepare for outstation life by, amongst other things, opening a bank account into which our pay would be deposited as well as credit accounts with the major trading companies that served the remote areas of the country.

After two or three weeks at Kwikila, we were given a day in Moresby to make these arrangements and shop for any goods we thought we might need immediately.

At that time, none of us knew where we would be posted, so I decided to open accounts with all three large trading companies that served PNG at that time - Burns Philp, Steamships Trading Company and W R Carpenter.

In this way I hoped to ensure that I could buy food and other goods from the company most capable of delivering them to wherever I was located.

In 1969 I was, by any reasonable definition, a callow youth. Being born and raised in rural Australia I was no sophisticate. Nevertheless I was vaguely familiar with modern conveniences including, for example, electrical appliances and even commercial air conditioning.

It was therefore quite a shock to enter Burns Philp's major store to discover that it was filled with the sorts of items that I associated with my grandparents' era. There were kerosene fridges and freezers alongside electric models as well as appliances like two burner stoves, Tilley kerosene pressure lamps and, of course, the ubiquitous Hurricane lamps.

I looked upwards to the store’s high ceiling and saw a gently swaying row of what I recognised as punkahs. These were linked together in a long chain and operated, not by a punkah wallah as I had seen in ‘The Lives of a Bengal Lancer’ (Paramount Pictures, 1935, starring Gary Cooper) but by an electric engine. The sense of having lurched back in time was palpable.

Anyway, a few short weeks later I found myself aboard MV Magila, the Gulf District's largest work boat, which was conveying me to my new posting in Baimuru. I was greeted there by the outgoing station officer-in-charge, patrol officer Gary Scarlett, and shown my new abode, a small, two bedroom, fibro house located 200 metres from the office.

By way of domestic appliances, the house had a slow combustion stove which was used both for cooking and providing hot water for the daily shower. Once or twice a day, the header tank had to be pumped full using a hand pump connected to a small rainwater tank, lest the water supply fail at an inconvenient moment.

The toilet was connected to a septic tank which, mercifully, did not require pumping out during my time in Baimuru.

There was no electricity connected, so lighting at night came by way of pressure lamps or hurricane lamps.

There was a kerosene-powered fridge and I was obliged to learn the subtle alchemy of creating a clear blue flame in its burner to ensure it would work without billowing the black smoke that discoloured the ceiling. My recollection is that the fridge would burn through about 4 or 5 gallons of kerosene a week, so an eight-weekly standing order for a 44 gallon drum of kero was soon an expensive, not to mention heavy, addition to my shopping list.

To minimise the cost of running the fridge, I learned that the discarded aviation kerosene drums at the airstrip usually had about three or four gallons remaining in them. This could be carefully syphoned off and used in the fridge. It was vital to life and limb not to confuse the kero drums with those containing aviation fuel (avgas), so I always performed this task myself.

There was a story, which may have been apocryphal, of one kiap's manki masta accidentally filling a fridge's fuel tank with avgas and blowing up himself and the house when he lit the fridge. True or not, I was careful to avoid such a fate.

My home entertainment equipment consisted of a battery powered short wave radio receiver, upon which I could tune into the radio signal from Port Moresby. Atmospheric conditions often distorted this so I tended to rely more upon Radio Australia, the Voice of America (apparently a CIA mouthpiece at that time) and the ever reliable BBC World Service. These international stations had immensely powerful transmitters and were much less affected by adverse weather and atmospheric conditions than the PNG station.

Heating and cooling was provided by opening or closing louvre windows and a few shutters as required.

And, really, that was it by way of domestic facilities.

It was, in short, a house of the type that I had lived in during the early 1950's. While things had moved on in Australia, it was apparent that outstation life in PNG remained firmly planted in a bygone era.

The office was constructed of a mixture of sawn boards from the nearby sawmill and local materials, including a thatched roof. It had no glazed windows, just openings secured with shutters, and no lighting beyond that which came through the windows. Naturally, there was no heating or cooling, in Baimuru the former being superfluous.

The ceiling was made of panels of woven pandanus leaves, which had been rather inexpertly fixed to the unsawn log rafters.

The ceiling space was a favourite haunt of the local chickens. They loved to wander about, clucking happily in pursuit of the abundant and apparently delicious insect life that lived there. As a result, the day was sometimes enlivened by a chicken plummeting out of the ceiling and landing with a surprised squawk on the floor, or sometimes on a desk.

The apex of office technology was an ancient Imperial typewriter upon which I laboriously typed out duplicates of the village census registers using a two fingered ‘hunt and peck’ method. Like almost every male of my vintage, my initial education did not include learning to type, which was then regarded as women’s work. How things have changed.

There was only one small and exceedingly expensive trade store at Baimuru, so it made economic sense to order in food and grocery staples from Moresby and to use the trade store only for emergency purchases.

The major trading companies all produced catalogues of one type or another. This enabled the remote shopper to order his or her preferences in everything from food through to kitchen appliances and some items of clothing.

The latter could even be obtained direct from New York thanks to Sears and Roebuck’s enormous catalogue which from time to time appeared in the mail.

While Baimuru nominally had two or three scheduled airline flights each week, it was both chancy and expensive to use the air service for freight.

Pay Day [National Archives of Australia]
Kiaps providing government allowances to luluais and tultuls (National Archives of Australia)

The mostly commonly seen planes were the Britten Norman Islander and the De Havilland Twin Otter. They were both highly versatile aircraft, with short take off and landing capabilities, but they could still be defeated by the weather.

During the wet season in particular, the frequent torrential rain was a major factor in whether or not pilots could even find Baimuru and, if they could, whether the strip was dry enough for a safe landing.

Thus, all non-urgent and heavy items, including freezer goods, tended to come by sea.

The sea freight service was usually provided by one of a fleet of wooden coastal vessels of about 60-feet in length, colloquially known as K boats. They all had names like Kone, Koki, Kuru, Kila and Kano.

I am uncertain of the history of these vessels but was told that they were constructed prior to or during World War II. I assumed they were given the designation K because they carried K rations for US and other troops fighting in PNG during the war, but this may be wrong.

They were sturdy vessels drawing five feet or so and were well suited to their role. They could withstand the rigours of the sudden violent squalls that are a feature of the coasts of PNG and, inevitably in the Gulf and Western Districts, of periodic groundings on mud banks owing to the huge tidal movements in PNG’s estuarine river systems.

The captains and crew were all local men (mostly Motuan) who were familiar with the vagaries of the waters of the Gulf of Papua.

The K boat service was reliable in the sense that eventually they would arrive and that, mostly, the ordered goods would be aboard and largely undamaged by poor handling or misadventure. That said, their schedules were more honoured in the breach than in the observance and delays of a week or more were not uncommon.

Consequently, the amount of food kept on hand had to be sufficient to tide you over for at least two or three weeks after sending your order. It was always wise to anticipate a long delay before the next shipment of goods would arrive.

It was also wise to assume that not everything you ordered would turn up. You were relying on some harassed employee working far away and without a hope of contacting you to fulfil the order as best they could. If they did not happen to have, say, Heinz baked beans, they would substitute the nearest equivalent. This meant that you sometimes received a surprise of a well meant but not necessarily satisfactory substitute.

I soon learned to be very specific about what I ordered and to stick to goods I knew were nearly always in stock.

Living on an outstation could be a lonely experience at times. There were only two kiaps stationed at Baimuru and both of us did a lot of patrol work on our own. In my case, I was off the station for over 200 days in 1970, twice for periods exceeding 30 days.

My superior, the assistant district officer, was hardly less active. Consequently, there was often no-one to talk to about the day to day travails of running the station or, if I was on patrol, dealing with issues that arose.

There were other expatriates on the station but mostly they were married couples and had their own lives to lead. As a single man, I was cautious about unduly intruding upon them. Also, to some extent at least, I think that a kiap’s roles as police officer and magistrate necessitated putting a degree of formality into such relationships.

One of the consequences of this was a tendency towards consuming more alcohol than was really advisable. Drinking was a prominent feature of expatriate life in PNG, stimulated partly by the climate and partly by a combination of social isolation and the absence of alternative forms of entertainment.

Kiaps as a group were no more or less susceptible to alcohol than others, but it was a major issue for some colleagues. I fell into a pattern of drinking excessively for a while but a severe dose of infectious hepatitis put paid to that.

There were local police, interpreters and other station staff around but, as kiaps, we were separated from them by a combination of role, culture and interests.

A colonial regime does not encourage social fraternisation with the local population for fear of compromising the capacity of its officials to direct and control that population when necessary. So, while our interactions with local people were typically amiable, there was usually no significant personal intimacy involved.

That said, the same as most kiaps, I came to like, respect and trust the local officers with whom I worked. Mostly, they were good and reliable people and many times I had cause to be grateful to them.

Overall, outstation life at Baimuru was not uncomfortable but nor was it some sort of Arcadian idyll. There was a noticeable lack of the amenities and opportunities for socialising that my peer group in Australia had. This was the experience of many if not most young kiaps or couples who lived on sometimes very remote outstations.

I do not regret living at Baimuru and other remote locations because my experiences in PNG helped make me self sufficient and self reliant in a way which was denied to most of my peers in Australia.

It also helped me develop the resilience, and what has been described as "a certain doggedness", to survive and thrive in sometimes very difficult and demanding situations, in both my personal and professional life.

So, while I reflect upon my time in PNG with a degree of nostalgia, I think that I remain fairly clear eyed about some of the inconveniences associated with being a kiap.

Someone apparently wrote about a kiap's life as one of loneliness and glory. While I am certain there was loneliness at times, I think that to claim there was glory is a gross exaggeration. There were moments of intense satisfaction to be sure, but personal glory was not a feature of the job.

Mostly, it was a question of plugging away doing what needed to be done, relieved by occasional moments of wonder or excitement or bewilderment or, very rarely, fear and trepidation.

The true glory of Papua New Guinea was and remains its people and its rugged beauty. There is no place on earth quite like it and I remain profoundly grateful to have experienced it.


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Simon Davidson

Inspirational.Thanks for sharing.

Allan Kidston

Chris, loved your piece. This in particular resonated with me....

"I looked upwards to the store’s high ceiling and saw a gently swaying row of what I recognised as punkahs. These were linked together in a long chain and operated, not by a punkah wallah as I had seen in ‘The Lives of a Bengal Lancer’ (Paramount Pictures, 1935, starring Gary Cooper) but by an electric engine. The sense of having lurched back in time was palpable."

When I arrived in PNG in 1967 and was working for Burns Philp as a technician, I was taken to that same store by a BP employee who told this gullible 27 year old that it was powered by a constantly changing group of (I won't repeat the word he used to describe the people supposedly operating it). Welcome to the language used by Europeans in PNG!

I soon found out how stupid I was but vowed to myself, even at this early stage, never to use that word. I always look forward to all your pieces.

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