GOLD COAST - In 1971, as a newly promoted Patrol Officer, I took a break from supervising the construction of a road between Yalumet and Derim airstrips in the Morobe District to spend a few days at the sub-district headquarters at Kabwum.
To my surprise the small town was buzzing with hundreds of prisoners – unmistakeable in their bright red laplaps featuring roughly printed broad black arrows.
“What the heck’s going on?” I asked one of the station staff.
Well, it turned out it all began over a dog. Or at least that’s what triggered the immediate problem of who was the true owner a section of land near Indagen airstrip, south east of Kabwum where Ian Rowles’ Kabwum Trading Company had a trade store and a Summer Institute of Linguistics family were translating the Bible into the local language.
Two local clans had a long-standing dispute over who owned the land, a common enough situation in Papua New Guinea and one that was usually extraordinarily difficult to determine.
It seems that on one cold Indagen morning (the airstrip is at 5,400 feet), an old man spotted a dog belonging to another old man from a rival clan going about its business on ground contested by both clans.
The old man lost his temper and kicked the dog, telling the other old man to get the animal off his land.
This reignited the long-standing argument about whose land it really was. The two had been squabbling about this for years but always took satisfaction in beginning it anew.
The ‘coconut wireless’ went into action and the story about the dispute and the dog kicking found its way to Lae where the son of the dog’s owner worked. You can be sure the incident had grown in detail and drama by the time it reached him.
The young man stopped work to make his way on foot back to Kabwum; no small feat as the track crosses the Sarawaget Range north west of Lae. The Sarawagets rise to a height of 13,500 feet and travellers have been reported frozen to death trying to cross them.
Anyway, after three days the young man negotiated the range and safely reached Indagen on a Saturday morning, which was market day at the airstrip.
Thousands of people from outlying areas crowded around the strip, selling and buying or just yarning.
On arrival, the young man ran up to the old dog kicker and knocked him to the ground which caused general mayhem as the clans clustered and began to attack their rivals.
The airstrip and its surrounds degenerated into a scene of full scale warfare, the reason for the original dispute quickly forgotten as old rivalries bubbled to the surface and pent up anger gave way to physical violence.
Flying in that morning with an aircraft full of trade store goods, Ian Rowles found he could not land as the strip was covered with fighters. Rowles flew back to Kabwum and let Assistant District Commissioner John Absalom know about the fighting at Indagen.
‘Absolvo’, as he was known around the district, marshalled his small force, unloaded Rowles’ Cessna 185, filled it with police and took off for Indagen. The rest of the detachment was sent on foot to Indagen with orders to ‘hariap igo kwiktaim’ (‘go as fast as you can’).
Rowles flew the fully loaded aircraft back to Indagen and managed to clear the airstrip of fighting warriors by buzzing it at low level a number of times.
After they had landed ‘Absolvo’ and his police rounded up the fighters, separated the clans and soon long lines of ‘wet kot’ (waiting for the court) were being shepherded to Kabwum station for their court appearance before ‘Absolvo’, now in his magisterial role.
Given the limited number of prisoners Kabwum gaol could accommodate, after sentencing many of had to be flown to other gaols. While they waited for their enforced travel they were put to work and the station soon had the best tended airstrip, lawns and stormwater drains you could imagine.
Those were the days....