NORTHUMBRIA - The often dramatic work undertaken by Australia’s bush administrators in pre-independence Papua New Guinea is comprehensively recorded.
But the collective contribution to the country's development by volunteer workers, some posted by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in London is often overlooked
In the 1960s, freshly recruited kiaps, the best known of PNG’s pre-independence expatriate field staff, were given training in Australia followed by a further month in PNG itself before being assigned to their posts.
However, apart from a couple of brief, perhaps three day, induction courses at central venues in the United Kingdom, some VSO’s were dropped in at the deep end almost as soon as they stepped off their plane in PNG.
Take the example of 18 year old Philip Pennefather from Northern Ireland, who landed in Madang in September 1968.
Almost before he could draw breath, he set off by foot on a tough bush journey to deliver over 100 heifers to stock an embryonic Catholic SVD beef production project almost 130 kilometres away on the other side of the formidable and unbridged Ramu River.
This trail blazing team was led by Max David, who still lives on the now well established cattle station at Brahmin, and was reinforced by the muscle power of five Ramu villagers.
It took almost a week to walk the cattle, through uncut bush, to the banks of the Ramu because they had to be fenced each night within a freshly constructed corral.
The group slept under tarpaulins which they carried with them. It was the first time Philip had worked within PNG’s often hostile and always difficult interior.
The fast flowing Ramu, at that point around 200 metres wide, was a daunting obstacle.
Each animal was haltered and hauled across individually, taking advantage of a mid-channel sand bar. A 30-foot log hollowed into a makeshift canoe helped the men fight against the difficult current that dominated the second section of their swim.
It was exhausting work and it was the best part of another week before the last animal in the herd crossed over and was able to be walked a final day to its destination.
Max David, who may now be the longest serving lay missionary in PNG, was admirably innovative. In 1969 he drove a bulldozer from Lae to Brahmin breaking new bush over the second half of its journey.
When he reached the Ramu he selected the most promising crossing point, fixed bamboo snorkels to the air intake and exhaust, locked the steering, then successfully sent it, like a remote controlled submarine, on its driverless way.
I was a VSO before I became a kiap. At the same time as Philip’s dramatic bush baptism and just six days after leaving the UK, I walked alone into the isolated bush saw mill pictured and introduced myself to its 15 strong labour line. I spoke scarcely a word of Pidgin and my culture shock was profound.
This 18 month period - which included road building, cattle driving, and hours of fireside story making - was valuable preparation for my next job as a kiap which covered work at Minj, Nondugl, Bereina, Tapini and Guari.
Robert Forster is author of ‘The Northumbrian Kiap’. Papua New Guineans, Australians, Europeans, and anyone else, who would like to know more about the book should Google the title. Alternatively they could click on this link https://rforster.com/shop/northumbrian-kiap/