These memoirs by ex-Patrol Officer Andrew Leslie Phillips, who was posted to Bougainville in 1969, should bring back lots of memories to many. For the full story, go to danielborgstrom.blogspot.com.au/2012/01/papua-new-guinea.html.
"In Australia I sickened of the urban life, the crowded rush to work in the mornings, the tiresome after-work booze-ups at the pub and the predictability of my future. I’d spent five years in advertising. I was now an account executive doing the bidding of my corporate masters, selling the American dream that had become Australia’s. My initial fascination had become a curse and no longer was I interested in the shallow search for unique selling points and catchy phrases, the pretty pictures and the jingles, selling capitalism to the masses.
As I observed the careers of my fellow workers grinding relentlessly toward retirement, I felt a dark cloud descending and as it thickened around me I struggled to find a way to escape. I thought about inland Australia where mining companies paid well and life was rough in the desert. I considered joining the army, something to initiate and toughen me and help me escape the malaise I felt. But the war in Vietnam was in the headlines every day and Australians were dying in a distant struggle that made no sense to me and I quickly dropped the idea. And then, one day, an old school friend suggested Papua New Guinea.
We were having lunch at a pub when he told me about patrol officers, young men employed by the Australian government taming the wilds of Papua New Guinea. Suddenly the cloud lifted as I realized that perhaps this was the answer, a way out; overseas travel and adventure, all paid for by the Australian government.
Immediately I began reading to learn as much as I could about this faraway place and applied to become a Cadet Patrol Officer with the Australian Department of External Affairs. It would take six long months before the invitation for an interview arrived.
Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad had nothing on James Sinclair and Jack Hides, Ivan Champion and the other great explorers who wrote of their adventures in Papua New Guinea; who’d disappeared behind the ranges and into the swamps and vast inland valleys deep in unexplored territories on the second largest island on Earth. These books vibrated with authentic adventure and raw excitement that tantalized and fascinated me. The authors were ordinary Australians in an extraordinary country and I prayed that one day I would join their ranks and see this land and the people about which they wrote.
Their books described journeys into territory never seen by white men, cannibals and crocodiles, exploratory patrols that lasted months and yielded reports of sorcery and magic, unique characters and taim bilng tumbuna, the time in the past which still lived in the present in Papua New Guinea.
It has been called “the land that time forgot”, “the mysterious island”, “the most primitive place on Earth”, but these were European appellations and had no significance to a people who had evolved complex kinship systems and survival techniques of great diversity and complexity unmatched in my white washed culture.
I felt ready for a new life and my desire was strong. My will to make the cut filled my every day. But I was twenty-three years old, at the older end of the spectrum for applicants, and feared my dream might not materialize. But then the invitation for an interview arrived. Four hundred young men had applied for forty new positions as cadet patrol officers in what appeared to be the last induction, as the colonial period slowly wound down in Papua New Guinea.
My interviewer was a big, bluff former senior patrol officer who spoke softly belying the image I had of hard-bitten veterans of New Guinea. He told of his love of the island and the people and a life very different to mine and I hung on his every word.
Some months later I learned I was accepted and would soon leave my home in Melbourne and drive the six hundred miles to Sydney to attend ASOPA – the Australian School of Pacific Administration - a tertiary institution established by the Australian Government to train administrators, patrol officers and school teachers to work in Papua New Guinea.
I had never been to university having left school and gone straight to work in advertising. Now I was absorbed in a very different world, studying anthropology, law, history, pidgin English and geography and I exceled. I competed in athletic competitions and local track meets, something I had not done since leaving school five years earlier. And again I cleared the high jump bar at six feet six inches and my spirits soared as a new world opened to me.
I lived in a guesthouse in Mosman, not far from the Sydney Harbor Bridge near the magnificent harbor and eagerly awaited the time for departure. I enjoyed Sydney. It was warmer and more brash than the gray conservatism of Melbourne. On weekends I crewed on ocean yachts that raced in Sydney harbor and at nights drove my old beaten-up Volkswagen over the bridge into the city to visit restaurants and bars. I knew soon this life would be over.
In November, 1968 forty excited neophyte cadet patrol officers fastened their seat belts and roared down the runway, lifted into the air, and looked down on Sydney’s harbor; the ferries ploughing white furrows in the blue sea, the white lines of breaking surf skirting the serpentine coastline, the endless blue Pacific ocean, flat and limitless, and then the Arafura Sea that separated Australia from its nearest northern neighbor.
Ahead lay a new life. A feeling of elation filled me as we droned towards the place I’d read so much about and soon would touch and taste in person. I felt reborn. It was only the second time I’d flown and the exhilaration I felt was palpable. Suddenly my previous life seemed old and distant, as if a great lid was closing on the trunk of my childhood and a new portal opening to real adulthood. I don’t think I’d ever felt such relief and happiness. And then the intercom crackled and a voice told us that Papua was in sight and I looked out a porthole and saw the formidable coastline slowly materializing on the horizon.
The sea changed color turning from deepest blue to green as we approached. White horses whipped by the wind raced across its surface as we descended. Now I could see Port Moresby’s scatted bungalows and rusted tin roofs, a yellow, dry and desolate landscape caught in the rain shadow created by the Owen Stanley ranges. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The mountains were steeply rising monoliths, great green giants looming ominously, rising endlessly into the clouds and the dark interior where the Kokoda Trail, the track renowned for viscous World War Two battles between Japanese and Australian forces in 1942, wound its way through some of the most impenetrable country in the world.
The Kokoda Trail was legendary in Australia, its history written in blood and courage, the final holdout where my countrymen had fought back against the Japanese invasion of Australia. Relatives of mine had fought and died in the war in Papua New Guinea and I was filled with awe and humility as I looked down and felt grateful for the opportunity of adventures I’d only dreamed about.
The first thing I felt as I stepped from the belly of the airplane was a solid wall of stifling heat sucking the breath from my lungs. It was a completely new feeling. I felt perspiration squirting out of me as I walked across the tarmac to the low-slung airport complex.
Soon we were on a bus, staring out the windows at the shacks and the natives on the roadside as we headed for Kwikila, fifty miles east of the capital, where we would spend a final month of on-ground training, sleeping under canvas on cots, attending lectures and demonstrations, as we were inducted into our new life.
We learned about primitive road and bridge construction, heard stories from our trainers, themselves seasoned patrol officers. We drank dark rum and water with our anti-malaria tablets and handled 38 Smith and Wesson side arms on the firing range. As cadet patrol officers we would spend twenty-one months before graduating to full patrol officer status but already we were officially officers in the Royal Papua New Guinea constabulary. On distant patrol posts we were the law.
We’d learned about the inland highlands where more than a million people had been discovered only thirty years previously, where there were people who’d never seen a white man. The Highlands were cooler than the coast and considered desirable because there were still exploratory patrols and a taste of the old days of New Guinea. And then there were the less attractive humid low-lands.
I’d read Ivan Champion’s account of crossing Papua New Guinea from the southern seaboard to the northern coast. The great swamp lands in the south-west on what is now the Indonesian border, where six hundred miles upstream, the Fly River was still only sixty feet above sea level. On the West Irian border, which used to be Dutch New Guinea, Indonesia had invaded sending the Dutch colonialists packing. Now there were border incursions by Indonesian soldiers and there was fear that Indonesia might make a grab for more territory in Australian Papua New Guinea.
When Indonesia gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1949, the Dutch government retained control over the territory of West New Guinea. From 1949 until 1961 the Indonesians sought to "recover" West New Guinea arguing that the territory, rightfully belonged with them. In late 1961, Indonesia's President Sukarno declared a military mobilization and threatened to invade West New Guinea and annex it by force. I remember the fear in Australia that Indonesia may be our next enemy.
At school in Australia I’d been in the cadet core with the rank of sergeant major. I’d attended military training at Puckapunyal, the Australian Army's Combined Arms Training Centre. Puckapunyal, or "Valley of the Winds", was named by the area's Aborigines. I remember those hot dry winds and the scrubby vegetation and the bivouacs at night where we’d learned to use a compass and read maps and fire Enfield 303 rifles on the firing range. Our instructors reminded us constantly that “Indos”, the Indonesians, were the enemy.
Now in Papua New Guinea, as I began my new career, there was unease when Indonesia took control of West New Guinea which it promptly renamed West Irian. A U.S. sponsored agreement through the United Nations, obligated Jakarta to conduct elections on self-determination, no later than 1969 soon after I’d arrived. But once in control, Indonesia quickly moved to repress political dissent by groups demanding outright independence.
It was here, near the Fly River, that Michael Rockefeller had disappeared in 1961. Rockefeller and a Dutch anthropologist René Wassing, were in a 40-foot dugout canoe about three miles from shore when they were swamped and over turned. Most believe that Rockefeller either drowned or was attacked by sharks or crocodiles. But because headhunting and cannibalism were still present in some areas of the Asmat region in 1961, there was speculation that Rockefeller was killed and eaten by the locals.
There was circumstantial evidence to support the idea. Several leaders of Otsjanep village, where Rockefeller likely would have landed had he made it to shore, were killed by a Dutch patrol in 1958. Thus the villages had some rationale for revenge against someone from the "white tribe." Neither cannibalism nor headhunting in Asmat were indiscriminate, but rather a part of a tit-for-tat pay back revenge cycle, and so it is possible that Rockefeller found himself the inadvertent victim of a pay back began by a Dutch patrol years before.
In 1979, Rockefeller's mother hired a private investigator to go to New Guinea to try to resolve the mystery of his disappearance. The investigator swapped a boat engine for the skulls of three Caucasians claimed to be the only white men ever killed in the area. When the investigator returned to New York, he handed the skulls to the Rockefeller family, convinced that one of them was the skull of Rockefeller. Rockefeller's mother is said to have paid a $250,000 reward for final proof proving whether or not Michael Rockefeller was alive or dead. The legacy of his death can be found in the Asmat artifacts Rockefeller collected, on permanent display, in the Michael C. Rockefeller collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
In the north-west of New Guinea, paralleling the Indonesian border, is the mighty Sepik River, another of the great rivers systems of the world. It snakes sinuously towards the northern coastal town of Wewak, another site of ferocious fighting in the war. Grass-thatched spirit houses called Haus Tambarans, line its banks and contain the bones and messages of the ancestors in primitive carvings, many of them stolen by shady characters and sold to fashionable New York galleries. Years later I would see Sepik carvings hanging behind the glass windows of fashionable art galleries on Madison Avenue in New York.
And then there were the islands where the palm trees swayed and the soundtrack from South Pacific played in your head. The Bismarck Archipelago, a crescent of volcanic islands that included tiny Manus Island, part of the Admiralty island chain in the north near the equator; New Ireland, a long spit of sand and surf that curved south to New Britain; the Trobriand Islands that Margaret Mead made famous when she described the promiscuity of the women. And finally, the island of Bougainville. These were considered prime postings. All these islands had suffered during the Second World War as the Japanese advanced on Australia and the heroic Allied support of most islanders was legendary.
Our initial training ended in late 1969, we lined up in the hot sun and our names were called and matched to our postings. I was sent to Bougainville, Papua New Guinea’s most eastern district near the Solomon Islands, three hours flying time from the country’s capital, a sleepy island of 80,000 people, volcanic, wild and beautiful.
Bougainville was a backwater. It was 150 miles long with volcanoes, black sand beaches and limpid glass green seas. It was named after the French explorer, Louis Antoine de Bougainville, who’d fought against the British and the Indians in Canada and America in the seventeen hundreds.
In 1766 Bougainville had received permission from Louis XV to circumnavigate the globe. He would become the 14th navigator in western history, and the first Frenchman, to sail around the world. On his long voyage, Bougainville sailed to Tahiti and in his book “Voyage Autour du Mond”, wrote of an earthly paradise, describing noble savages who lived in happy innocence, away from the corruption of civilization.
From Tahiti he sailed westward to southern Samoa and the New Hebrides, then on sighting Espiritu Santo, turned west still looking for the rumored great Southern Continent. In 1776; the British explorer Captain James Cook, would discover and call it Australia. Bougainville almost discovered Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the largest such reef in the world, on the eastern seaboard, but sailed north through what is now known as the Solomon Islands chain. He named the most western of the Solomon Islands, Bougainville.
One hundred years later, missionaries, traders and men with guns and beards arrived in Bougainville. Germans, British, Japanese, and finally Australians, overran the island, and when I arrived in the late nineteen sixties I was to witness the most devastating invasion of them all. The world’s most powerful mining companies arrived to extract copper and gold that might make Papua New Guinea a wealthy nation but it precipitated a vicious ten year civil war that saw the deaths of twenty-thousand innocent Bougainvillians.
The Bougainville District Office was close to the sea, a flimsy two story building overlooking Kieta’s harbor. The air was infused with the musky smell of copra, dried coconut kernels from which coconut oil is squeezed, stacked along the shore in brown hemp sacks ready for the small boats that carried them to trading vessels anchored in the harbor for delivery to Rabaul and the world market. The dust from the road that serviced the harbor, floated through the louvered windows of the office and most days the sun beat down on this small coastal town.
Kieta was perched on a narrow ribbon of land skirting the harbor. Pok Pok Island loomed off shore, protecting the harbor from the squalls and storms that sometimes tore in from the east with great ferocity. Pok Pok means crocodile in pidgin English and the island had the shape of a huge crocodile laying flat on its belly on top of the sea, its huge head jutting out to the south, its tail tapering to the north. It was inhabited by local natives who paddled their small canoes loaded with copra, fish and vegetables for sale in Kieta.
Jimmy Wong’s Chinese trade store was at one end and of the settlement and Kieta’s hospital, a series of grass huts with tin roofs, was at the other. Between were administrative buildings huddled under the ubiquitous coconut trees that curved and swayed against the cloudless sky providing dappled shade from the tropic sun. Houses with enclosed verandahs protecting the inhabitants from the teeming malarial anopheles mosquitoes, crept back from the shoreline and climbed steeply up the mountains offering a fine view of the picturesque harbor. A thick green blanket of jungle, a carpet of dense undergrowth and a profusion of tropical forest trees swathed in creepers and vines and screeching wildlife, accelerated rapidly into the clouds toward the inland spine of the island.,
The Kieta Club, a white’s only club where the local expatriates drank too much, took pride of place at the center of the small community and near the shoreline was the Kieta hotel where I stayed when I first arrived.
It was run by a small jolly Aussie fellow who wore colorful sarongs and recruited natives from the Mortlock Islands, which were over the horizon, an idyllic group of small islands on a single atoll, north east of Bougainville and part of the Solomons. The Mortlock islanders were Polynesians with straight hair and slim bodies who fitted the stereotype created by the French artist, Paul Gauguin who’d lived in Polynesian Tahiti in the latter part of his life. They were unlike the Negroid, stocky, blue-black Bougainville natives.
This was my first posting in Papua New Guinea. I was twenty-three and far from my former life in Australia. It was almost my dream come true. Almost because I was acting as district clerk, tied to a desk and a formidable row of file cabinets, answering directly to the District Commissioner. The adventures I sought in the jungle would have to wait for the return of the regular clerk who was on furlough for six months and I was his replacement.
I bunked in a back room at the Kieta hotel with three other patrol officers who were new inductees to the Bougainville District administration. There’d been an influx of officers because copper and gold had been discovered in Bougainville’s central highlands. Soon landsmen and surveyors would arrive to negotiate purchase of large tracts of beach front for a massive port to export the minerals. And thousands of acres of virgin jungle high in the mountains to mine the minerals. It would be patrol officers who’d accompany the land surveyors, magistrates and land wardens, to negotiate land exchanges to begin one of the world’s largest mining ventures.
One morning as we assembled for breakfast of fresh papaya with a squeeze of lime juice, followed by bacon and eggs served by the handsome sarong clad waiters, a stranger approached. He was an Australian but unlike we patrol officers in our khaki shirts, shorts and long white socks, was dressed native style wearing sandals and a sarong we called a lap lap, wrapped around his waist and worn like a skirt. His name was Barry Middlemiss and he was the plantation manger at Arawa and worked for Kip McKillop who’d been a coastwatcher during the war years and owned a one-thousand acre copra plantation not far from Kieta. The plantation was renowned for its outstanding orchid collection of more than one-thousand varieties.
The coast watchers were Allied military intelligence operatives stationed on remote Pacific islands during World War Two, to observe enemy movements and rescue stranded Allied personnel. There were about 400 Coastwatchers in all—mostly Australian military officers, New Zealand servicemen, Pacific Islanders and escaped Allied prisoners of war.
In August 1943, Lt. John F. Kennedy of the United States Navy, and twelve fellow crew members, were shipwrecked after their boat, the PT-109 sunk. An Australian coastwatcher, Sub-Lt. Arthur Reginald Evans, observed the explosion of the PT-109 when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Evans dispatched two Solomon Islander scouts in dugout canoes. The scouts found the men and Kennedy scratched a message to Evans on a coconut, describing the plight and position of his crew and the rest is history.
Middlemiss sat. He observed us with a mix of disdain and envy. He’d “gone native”, siding with the locals, and was helping organize resistance against the inroads of the copper company and the administration. He was cut-off from his fellow countrymen and seemed hungry for fellowship but his demeanor was aloof and his conversation laced with disdain toward the Australian support for the copper company.
It would take me some time to understand Middlemiss’ attitude for I was naïve and unfamiliar with the politics, greed and the devastation our work as patrol officers supported. We were handmaidens to the mining industry and, though unaware at the time, were sowing the seeds of a revolution the likes of which Australia and her colony had never seen.
In the district office I filed the paper work that greased the wheels of the mining venture. More and more white strangers were fronting the bar at the Kieta club. Blasé Americans and Aussies in new Toyota Landcruisers trickled into town and disappeared into the jungle. There were murmurings of unrest in some inland villages and the police contingent at district headquarters was increased.
I became friendly with the land warden who was responsible for arbitrating the sale of land to the mining venture. He was much older than I, a fit and friendly fellow who eagerly awaited the arrival of his young girlfriend from Australia. On weekends Hec and I headed for a bay near Aropa airstrip that paralleled the coast, to swim in the surf that beat against the rocks and crashed on the black sand beach.
We floated beyond the break in the warm sea looking back at the beach, the palm trees fringing the rugged coastline and the steeply rising foothills which quickly climbed higher and higher into the cloud forest. To the north we could sometimes see Mount Bagana, a steaming volcano, which sat central in the island. We talked about home and a life devoid of female company and I realized I was lonely for my Australian girl friend, whom I’d left back in Melbourne. Soon I was to write and encourage her to leave her nursing job to come marry me in the islands.
Hec’s job as land warden, was to wrest land from the natives and settle on a price. The mining company was a British based conglomerate, Conzinc Riotinto (CRA), which amalgamated with an Australian partner and employed American engineering outfits to install the infrastructure of what would soon become the world’s largest open-cut copper mine deep in the mountains at Panguna in the heart of Bougainville Island.
When I’d first arrived on Bougainville, the road to Panguna was a treacherous track that climbed precipitously through primeval rain forests. The Moroni lived in clusters in grass huts in clusters but soon their ridge-top homes would be torn down as excavation of the mine site proceeded. There were about twenty known language groups on the island, all with their own unique customs. The Boungainvillians passed land ownership through the women. It was a matrilineal society and the women held great sway.
In the early land struggles, the women were on the front lines to try stop the mine from destroying their home. Near Kip McKillop’s plantation at Arawa, the Rorovana women, bare breasted, wearing lap laps and holding their children, stood between the government and their land, fighting to retain their birthright.
The pictures of that initial fight were spread across the front pages of Australian newspapers and alerted the world to the nascent struggle. But I think it was the naked breasts more than the rights of the locals that garnered the publicity for little was seen of the press in those parts after that, during the early development of the copper mine. I was beginning to understand what Barry Middlemiss, the strange outsider I”d met months before, was all about and I admired his courage and lonely struggle to protect the local natives from the onslaught of the mining venture.
When the district clerk finally returned to rescue me from the tedium of office work, I learned I would be posted to Boku, a distant inland patrol post in the south of the island. I pined for companionship and my girl friend back in Melbourne as I sat on my verandah at nights looking out over Kieta’s harbor, marveling at the unspeakable beauty of those tropic nights, watching canoes leaving to fish, their lanterns glimmering like tiny stars on the black sea. I wrote Libby a letter asking her to marry me and after a few excruciating weeks of waiting, her letter arrived saying “I do!”.
On a clear tropical evening in Keita, the District Commissioner did the honors. His black car collected us and drove, ceremonially through town to his house, which was mounted high on a hill with the best view of the land. The District Commissioner had gout that day and hobbled around on a crutch; a long white stocking covered one foot that lay propped on cushions on a stool while he presided over ceremonies from a chair while his wife and daughter prepared the savories. Later we would celebrate with fresh sea food and copious strong drinks at the home of a senior officer. And then retire to our conjugal bed in our standard issue domicile to begin our new life together.
Soon afterwards I was posted out of headquarters to a bush posing. Libby and I boarded a coastal trading vessel and sailed south, to the bottom of the island, to Buin. And then drove inland, crossing seven rivers with no bridges, fording the waters in a four-wheel drive Landrover, until finally we reached the inland patrol post at Boku.
The officer in charge was a tall, bird-like, eccentric fellow who favored brief shorts and bare feet. I’d read of Bob Hoad’s legendary exploits in the Fly River delta in south-west Papua. He’d conducted one of the last great exploratory patrols that had lasted nine months and his patrol reports were lengthy and detailed. In the library in Australia at ASOPA, I’d poured over his reports with wonder and admiration. Now I stood in front of him at this lonely outpost where my wife was the only woman among three white men. I noticed how he avoided my eye and seemed unable to take his gaze of my attractive young new wife, creating a great unease in my heart. But there was to be no hanky-panky at Boku in the year we spent though, till the end, I was never able to communicate with my senior officer.
Bob Hoad led Libby and I to our new home, a large thatched grass house with bamboo shutters and a tin roof. No running water and an outback toilet, a simple wood cooking stove, kerosene lamps. Gecko lizards, friendly green creatures that made clicking sounds as they crawled up the walls clinging with suction feet pads, some transparent so you could actually see their innards. It was a lonely and desolate green place and our first home together.
Nearby, across the Pureata river, was a construction camp where engineers and machine operators were installing a road to connect the patrol post to the copper mine at Panguna. Once a week we’d visit to drink beer, sit under the stars and watch a movie. These visits became the highlight of our week. They were a hardy group of Aussies, polite toward me and my wife in that outlandish place. We became friends and they offered relief from the sultry, introspective senior officer whose eyes that devoured my wife and left us both uncomfortable.
We went through months of loneliness at Boku. The highlight of the month was receiving stores we’d ordered and were shipped by boat and then truck to Boku. And the occasional visit from a patrol officer friend who flew his own plane and once visited. I studied film script writing by correspondence and pined for more social life and stimulation.
The patrol post office was another grass hut overlooking the Puriata River. In the rainy season, ferocious thunderstorms rolled in at noon like clockwork. Usually I made it to my house for lunch, about one hundred meters from the office, before the storm clouds opened and the deluge began.
On one such occasion I was resting, stroking the cat which lay on my chest when there was a massive explosion that rattled the tin roof and propelled the cat high into the air screeching in fear, leaving her claw marks etched in my chest. When I returned to the office I saw the tall coconut tree that shaded the office, cleft down its center from the lightening bolt responsible for the ruckus. The electrical charge had raced down the tree’s trunk splitting it asunder and into the soil tracing the outline of the roots as if a machine gun had strafed the ground.
After these storms, the humidity lessened and the air smelt fresh and clean creating a magical atmosphere in the evenings when we sat on the verandah enjoying a beer. On one such evening the man who ran the patrol post’s generator providing electricity in the evening till 10 pm, sauntered towards us and beckoned. He opened his fist to show me what looked like an axe head the size of a matchbox and asked if I wanted it. “Olsem wanem” I asked – “what is it?”
“Ol i kolim marlio ston” he said. “Olsem wanem dispela marlio ston – i cum long sampela hap we?’ – “ its called a malio stone” he answered. “What is it – where is it from?”, I’d asked. “Dispela ston i pundaun na brukin diwai taim ples bilong klaut i pairap” – “the stone comes down and breaks the tree when lightening strikes” he said.
“Wanem nem bilong dispale samting” – “what is it called”, I asked a second time trying to fathom the origins of the strange looking artifact which by now I was holding, rubbing my fingers on its smooth surface. It was dark gray in color with a sharp edge on one end and curved and swelled towards the back where it was round and smooth. I had seen nothing like it and wondered if perhaps it could be some kind of ancient tool. And yet it did not seem hard or heavy enough to be an axe head and it was certainly not an arrowhead.
“Dispela ston, oli kolem malio ston” – ‘this stone is a marlio ston”, the man answered again and went on: “Olgeta taim klaut I pirap, dispela marlio ston I pundaun na brukim namel dispela diwai na mipela painim em long insait na klostu long diwal. The man was telling me that during a thunderstorm, the stone came from the lightening in the clouds and split the tree in half and that people found them in the tree of nearby. I took the stone and placed it in a safe place and next day asked some of the Bougainvillian police stationed at the patrol post about the stone. They confirmed the story.
Years later in New York City, I told this story to a friend of mine from the small Himalayan country of Bhutan and he turned to me with an excited grin exclaiming: “oh a thunder stone – very special stone – it has special properties – we have them in Bhutan!”. When I brought the stone, which is my oldest possession and which I had carried with me for more than thirty years, to show it, he took the stone and held it with reverence and asked if he could borrow it. “It is special”, he said and would protect and bring good luck.
It was soon after this that I realized that perhaps the adventure I had sought as a patrol officer was not going to materialize. Independence for Papua New Guinea was now the prime objective of the administration and our work was more and more involved with supporting district government and local councils. Patrol officers were now glorified clerks and accountants and I knew I had to move on.
It was 1969 and the Vietnam war was slowly worsening, taking more lives. Mankind had landed on the moon. A president and his brother had been shot and a black sage called Martin Luther King, murdered and the uncompromising outrage of Malcolm X had been stamped out.
All this I heard on short-wave radio broadcasts I monitored in our grass hut. I felt remote and cut-off from the world. I could feel the end of an era. I did not think of myself as colonial. Like most in the administration I was teaching the locals how to do what we did. In fact we were all here to work ourselves out of a job eventually, to implement development and growth and spread the good news of democracy and capitalism.
But the days of exploration, some might say exploitation, and true adventure in Papua New Guinea, had passed. After two years in the field I decided to resign my commission and capitalize on my advertising background and try garner a job in the Department of Information and Extension Services as a radio journalist in one of the fifteen radio stations run by the administration.
Journalism and Radio in Papua New Guinea
Krai Bilong Kumul
We returned to Australia for our final month of leave and I attended a touch-typing course in Melbourne in preparation for my new job in Papua New Guinea as an assistant radio station manger. I had always wanted to be a journalist and after leaving school, had applied to Melbourne’s leading newspaper, “The Age”, but with no success. I had no university degree. My second choice was advertising.
At the time, my stepmother was in a relationship with an ad man, a burly spontaneous fellow with a pronounced limp, the result of a serious accident when he drove his Bristol sports car off the road. He had his own ad agency. He was a wild man, and he and Eleanor partied extravagantly.
Bill was in an unfulfilled marriage and the affair with Eleanor seemed risqué and adventurous but I approved of their unconventional style which included copious amounts of claret they collected on visits to outback vineyards where wine matured in oaken casks in tin sheds quite unlike in Europe where the immigrant victualers were from.
Bill suggested I try advertising since there was more money in it than journalism and probably more fun too. I did. He was right. But I tired of it. And now I had my chance to explore journalism.
I would be posted back to Keita in Bougainville as an assistant radio station manager and journalist where by now the copper mine had completely changed the landscape. The small quiet town I’d known less than two years earlier, had become a seething locus of industrial activity. Eventually the mine in the mountains would grow to a gaping red hole nearly a mile and a half across and half a mile deep, one of the largest in the world.
I was the assistant manager at Radio Bougainville. The manager had worked in commercial radio in newsrooms in Australia, and he typed one-hundred words a minute. I was very impressed. He was intelligent, knowledgeable, generous and encouraging and it did not take long before I found myself back in the District Office - but this time asking the questions and reporting answers in simple English news broadcasts I wrote for broadcast.
I was treated with some disdain by the patrol officers, with whom I’d worked. I was seen as a turncoat and an outsider. But I reveled in my new role and held no animosity toward my former colleagues. I knew I’d made the right decision and that their days were numbered. I was carving a new career, capitalizing on my local knowledge, which was unique amongst my expatriate radio colleagues.
Our small radio stations were independent from the District Administration and answerable to the District Commissioner only in declared emergencies. The model of broadcasting was similar to that of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which in turn was based on the British, BBC model. We saw ourselves as independent and adversarial to the government. I was proud of this position. We were far more than propagandists though propaganda of a productive kind, broadcasting health and local government messages, was part of our modus operandi.
Now there were thousands of workers on Bougainville, living in air-conditioned trailers and much of my job involved reporting on the activities of the mine. The track I’d driven from Kieta to the Panguna mine site when I’d arrived on the island two years earlier, was now a four lane highway wide enough for dump trucks with tires twelve-feet high and it sliced through the landscape climbing up the steep Crown Prince mountain range to Panguna. Each time I visited, the site was bigger and the open cut deeper.
And it was not just the mine itself that had obliterated the landscape I’d come to know and love. Where once had been a curving beach and coconut trees at Loloho, was now a wharf stretching far out to sea ready to receive the ships that would carry the ore to market. Rows of prefabricated boxes, housing offices and personnel, sprouted along the beachfront and the roads buzzed with activity while the natives watched with sad resignation.
Their gardens were gone. No longer did they paddle into the bay to fish. Some now worked as laborers for the mining companies. The canteens were crowded with redskins, highlanders whose skin was lighter with a red tinge, unlike the inky black Bougainvillians who resented these interlopers who stole their woman and were known as “rascals”, the pidgin English term for trouble- makers.
Things in Bougainville were changing rapidly. Arawa plantation where Barry Middlemiss had worked tending the copra plantation and Kip McKillop’s magnificent orchid collection, had been flattened and it was now the base of coastal operations for the mining venture and the port would grow to be the third largest in the country. A huge pipe designed to carry a slurry of copper and water from Panguna now speared through the jungle down from mountains to the wharf.
The tailings, from the mine site, the toxic residue of mud and chemicals extracted from the gigantic hole, spilled down into the headwater valley of the Kawerong River and thence into the Jaba valley, where they spread out across the valley floor, destroying large areas of rain forest and killing fish in the rivers.
The Jaba discharged about 150,000 tonnes of rock waste and tailings daily. A tonne is more than 2,000 pounds weight and 2,000 pounds is one ton so there was lot of it! At its mouth the Jaba River built a delta of poisonous mud out into Empress Augusta Bay, and sand and gravel spread northwards along the shore. No longer did the rivers and the valleys teem with fish and wildlife. It was a dead zone. And the lives of those who lived there were irrevocably changed.
Before the mine opened I had walked those valleys and crossed the pristine rivers on patrols. I saw it in its original state, as the native had for centuries. But now everything had changed and it was with heavy heart I watched as gigantic yellow machines lumbered across the landscape ripping huge chunks off the mountainside searching for copper and gold.
The Bougainville Revolution
The wealth generated by the Rio Tinto Group, a diversified, British-Australian, multinational mining and resources group with headquarters in London and Melbourne, did little to help the local Bougainville economy. The Papua New Guinea central government received a small percentages of the profits yet it still comprised almost half the gross national product of the new island nation. Papua New Guinea had become reliant and subservient to new white masters.
The people of Bougainville began voicing their dissatisfaction to these arrangements in the late 1960s. The murmurings were evident when Barry Middlemiss sat with us that morning at the Kieta Hotel.
Magistrates, protected by police and patrol officers, sat with the locals to negotiate land purchases but offered them only a pittance. The promises of wealth and other benefits never materialized and as the natives saw their gardens and rivers, their forests and hunting domains ruined by the mining venture, they felt helpless and angry. Local leaders demanded more and though the Bougainvilleans gained some independence in 1972, the PNG Parliament denied complete autonomy and a fair share of profits from the mine.
Geographically Bougainville is part of the Solomon Islands. Only by a caprice of history did it become part of the political entity known as Papua New Guinea. There is nothing new about this situation for colonialism has always disregarded the natural world and its bio-regional borders favoring a policy of might is right and national borders, like history, have always been written by the victors.
The entreaty by local leaders to recognize Boungainville’s geographic uniqueness was refused by the central government which was no surprise given the potential wealth of the island and the substantial investment by the mining companies. The limited autonomy granted Bougainville was more symbolic than real.
After two decades of ignored protests, petitions, compensation claims and twenty years after I’d left, Bougainvilleans had had enough. In 1988, a handful of islanders stole company explosives from the mine and destroyed electricity pylons, buildings and machinery and, using guerilla tactics, shut down the mine. The Bougainville Revolution became secessionist revolt and lasted ten years claiming some 20,000 lives.
When I’d arrived in the late 1960’s, 80,000 people lived on the island but by 1988 that number had doubled. Until revolution broke out, the mine accounted for around forty-five percent of Papua New Guinea’s total export earnings. Without these earnings PNG would quickly go broke. Papua New Guinea, with the assistance of Australia, responded to the revolt by sending in the military. As a result, Bougainville declared itself independent and formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) to defend their land and the environment from further exploitation.
Australian intelligence advised Papua New Guinea to enforce a total goods and service blockade of the island, including medical supplies. No one was allowed on or off the island. Many of those trying to bring in supplies or transport refugees off island, were killed by the PNG army who now maintained a stranglehold around Bougainville.
The Papua New Guinea Defence Force was assisted by Australian-provided patrol boats, speedboats, Iroquois helicopters and Nomad aircraft. When advising PNG to blockade, it was anticipated that Bougainvilleans would succumb to the hardship in three or four weeks. But it took almost a decade before men with bows and arrows, home-made weapons manufactured from scavenged materials from the abandoned mine, and pure raw determination, local knowledge and courage, defeated the combined Australian and Papua New Guinean military.
It was a devastating and brutal chapter in Papua New Guinea’s history filled with deceit and subterfuge. The army was angered by the government’s exploitation of the situation and the desire to use brute force to shut down the BRA. The central government found themselves facing their own army in what could easily have become a military coup but for the calm of some in the military.
Bougainville was completely cut-off from the “civilized world” and reverted to taim bilong tumbuna, relearning old customs and ways of survival on their jungle island. Since there were no medical supplies they reverted to ingenuity and their own folk remedies. Coconut oil, which had been an export staple, became an elixir to lubricate the revolution. They used it to grease their weapons and run their trucks and machinery.
The oil of forty coconuts provided power to generate electricity to run a clandestine radio station for one hour and I wondered if some of the broadcasters I’d worked with and trained, were part of the revolution. Radio became a central factor in organizing the local revolt. A supporter of the station who survived an attempted summary execution recounted that the army caught four of his friends harvesting coconuts for the station’s generator and executed them. From its hidden jungle outpost, Radio Free Bougainville’s pro-independence broadcasts became a powerful psychological weapon against the central government.
As sporadic violence continued, Foreign Minister, Sir Julius Chan, attempted to secure a peace between the two parties. During this period, the government attempted to obtain more military assistance from Australia and New Zealand. But when the two countries refused, the government hired mercenaries from Britain and South Africa.
When local PNG military leaders heard this they were outraged and there was a stand-off outside the parliament buildings where local police faced down the soldiers. But neither wanted to fight. It was the subservient politicians who had caused the problem and they cowered inside the parliamentary building afraid to face their constituents for days.
The mercenary invasion was a disaster. When Australian news media got hold of the story there was outrage throughout the region. The Sandline affair, named after the company who recruited the mercenaries, marked the low point in the Bougainville revolution, and there was almost a coup d'etat in Papua New Guinea because of it. However, in 1997, a peace accord was signed, and violence on the island subsided.
The head of the PNG Defence Force, who’d been removed from duty, was reinstated. It was perhaps one of the only honorable outcomes of a disastrous affair which had its genesis so many years before when I had witnessed the first stirrings of the struggle.
The mine was closed."