A Chalkie (Part 1) by Ben Scheelings

A Chalkie (Part 1) by Ben Scheelings

Having read David Montgomery’s recent ‘A Didiman’s Diary’ and noted his observation about the prevalence of kiap stories in Una Voce, I thought it was time that I put pen to paper and say a few words about ‘chalkies’.

You know, the people who at times had to build their own native- material classrooms, while at the same time educating the ones who now run the country:  the politicians, the doctors, the lawyers, the dentists, the architects, the airline pilots, the chemists, the accountants, the raskols, etc. The fact that one, Bernard Mullu Narokobi (yes, the same one), persuaded his fellow students to go on strike in 1962 and had them go on a protest march to Rabaul Head Office because the school had run out of sugar (entitlement syndrome?) forebode he had a future in law, while another character, John Kaputin, who made a name for himself in other ways, suggests we must have done something right along the way.

At the outset, I should advise that I have nothing against kiaps per se, but I did sometimes wonder in those days what these people actually did whilst on their hikes through the bush; although in due course I got a fair idea as will come to light shortly.

Don’t get me wrong, olsem kiap, I was once shanghaied from the Education Department and delegated to go on a five-day census patrol hike into the wilds of north-east Goroka. It followed that after a detailed briefing in the Goroka office about our forthcoming duties and responsibilities, we were sent on our way. Kargo bois were to be recruited along the way and paid the going rate of one shilling per day. Their job was to carry the patrol boxes, which  were loaded with shilling pieces, while my job was to take a census and attend to other matters that cropped up and required attention.

The tour of duty, if it can be called that, involved clambering up and down mountains, through mud and rivers, and up and down further mountains until one reached the first target village, hopefully before sunset as it is no fun groping around in the dark on slippery mountain sides especially when one has no idea where one is going. At the intended village (at last) we camped for the night in the designated haus hap. In the morning, woken up by the murmurs of the throng of gathered villagers all dressed in their finery, we set up the tools of the trade: flag, collapsible table, village book, pens, and wanpela tanimtok.

To the locals, I was viewed as yet another patrol officer doing the usual. Raising the flag in the morning, meeting with the tultul or luluwai, collecting data from the villagers one-by-one, recording births and deaths, guessing the ages (by checking teeth and making educated assumptions) of those youngsters not previously recorded, and dispensing basic medicines.

In an open court, as requested by the village headman with jocular interjections and comments thrown in by one and sundry to the amusement of all, having listened to the arguments from both the plaintiff and defendant, then summarising and deciding, like King Solomon, over the dispute about a ruined garden by a neighbour’s pig, I subsequently passed sentence—guilty pig or equivalent to be slaughtered, mumu-ed and shared by all—and further ordered all villagers to help fix the ruined garden fence.

Furthermore, as an act of goodwill, the plaintiff was to donate one small piglet to the defendant as replacement, thus creating an acceptable outcome for all; at least no one complained, not at the thought of partaking in a mumu anyway. The locals love an excuse for a good bung wantaim (exchanging gossip), having a go at each other and having a mumu at the end. I thus conclude— em nau em tasol wok bilong kiap.

The following day, off to the next village, which was reportedly to be kiostu lildik and on arrival, we followed the same procedures. Our coming had been relayed by kundu drums and thus we were expected. No mumu on this occasion which must have been a bit of a let-down to this lot.

I digress, however, like David, and with great nostalgia, I must admit, I recall catching the flight from Melbourne to Port Moresby and being met at Jackson airport, escorted to Ranuguri Hostel, and allocated a room. I remember taking three showers a day while getting acclimatised to the humidity, and the meals prepared by Alan the Ranuguri chef were great. I recall being most impressed by the magnificent flowering rain-trees lining the streets and, as such, I had fallen in love with the tropics in spite of the heat.

Papuans were indeed a very friendly lot with eh taubada, edisine oi lau?”, which then usually ended up with a little chat about what I was doing and where I was going. Little did I know then that I would be back in Ranuguri ten years later after the demise of my beloved soul mate, the beautiful Marina Kwan (sister of masta botai).

I met Marina whilst attending the ‘orientation course where all  new arrivals were lectured on TPNG customs, diseases (malaria, hookworm, scabies, tropical ulcers, blackwater fever, Japanese encephalitis, etc and prevention of same), language, geography, and the fact that as teachers we would most likely be called upon as part of our duties to administer first aid, resolve disputes between villagers, build classrooms, organise working parties  to cut grass, plant trees, chop trees, build fences, etc. and hassle the DEO (no, not God but the District Education Office) for supplies of books, chalk, blackboards, cement, etc.

This went on for four weeks after which we were allocated our postings—in my case it was Keravat High School just outside Rabaul— while a couple of my mates were sent to Sogeri and elsewhere. Why Marina had to attend the orientation course beats me as she was home-grown and probably knew more about the place than I.

I missed my initial flight from Port Moresby to Rabaul as someone forgot to pick me up from Ranuguri hostel (does this bring back memories?) but caught the next one the following day, which proved uneventful. The view of the countryside, the Owen Stanley mountain range, the azure ocean, coral reefs, and spectacular sight of Tavurvur as we made our descent into Rabaul was unforgettable and fortunately recorded on film.

On arrival in Rabaul I was met by a very cheerful and helpful mixed-race chap (perhaps Harry Cohen) who told me the truck to Keravat had left because I had turned up a day late so he had me booked into the Ascot Hotel (now the Rabaul Hotel) on Mango Avenue for three days. This venue was very capably owned/managed by the legendary Ma Stewart (of Errol Flynn fame) and I thoroughly enjoyed my stay in a ceiling-fanned room with typical tropical breakfasts of fresh fruit served by smiling staff dressed in their impeccably white laplaps. It also gave me time to explore the town and introduce myself to the very many contacts Marina had given me prior to my departure from Port Moresby.

The Rabaul bung was an eye-opener where one could buy palm-leaf woven baskets full of mangoes, avocados, laichees (lychees), betelnuts and various other mysterious fruits for a shilling, a stick of brus (twist tobacco) or a stick of girigiri (local shell money threaded on a thin piece of bamboo). You could also buy large eggs which were raided from the nests of the megapode birds that laid them in the warm sands at the foot of the volcano Tavurvur. These were delicious as were the turtle eggs, although the latter tasted a bit gritty. In the meantime, Marina had been allocated a pre-school in Moresby where she ended up teaching Albert Maori Kiki’s children, amongst others.

Keravat was a fine school head-mastered by John Bowden and which catered for the brighter students from the various TPNG schools. These selected students were exposed to the Queensland education curriculum of education to prepare them for senior clerical or government positions in the future. Independence did not appear on the horizon at that time but someone must have had some foresight. Anyway, teaching these young lads was a joy; great sense of humour, all eager to learn, and best of all, no disciplinarian problems. Compared to my teaching experience in Australia, this was heaven.

I was allocated a two-man ‘donga’ with the backyard facing the Keravat River (full of tin ore by the way) and complete with a vegetable patch. Unfortunately, the demdems (giant snails introduced by the Japanese soldiers as food) made the growing of vegetables a real challenge. What was of interest was the printed notice stuck on the donga door instructing the occupant to keep ample amounts of rice, sugar, and tinned food in stock to feed those fleeing Rabaul in case of a volcanic eruption. What eruption? You live and learn as a few weeks later I was woken up in the middle of the night by a hell of a noise of pots, plates and saucers falling out of cupboards, while I had difficulty getting out of bed due to a moving floor. “Emi orait masta, emi guria tasol“, my hausboi shouted, “samting nating“. I soon learned that these so called gurias (earthquakes) are regular events. Get used to it, samtin nating tasol.

It was during this time that I met young Chris Borough, a Vudal College forestry chap who was an amateur speleologist. His research told him that there were some very interesting but unexplored limestone caves in the Baining area, a four-five day walk into virtually unexplored jungle. The only other person known to have gone there on a few occasions and survived was the good Father Frankie of the Catholic Mission. Was I interested? I agreed and, having received the OK from higher up and instructed to take one armed policeman with us as the Baining people had only recently murdered a couple of plantation labourers straying on their terrain and up to no good no doubt. We and about twelve Kerevat Keravat High School students set off.

Away on another rise you could actually smell their cooking fires. It then takes you at least five hours of hard slog to get there going down your slippery mountain, across a fast -flowing river and then up the next mountain, you start to comprehend that kiostu actually means klostu liklik (not really close) as opposed to longwei liklik. The Kokoda Track would probably be considered a longwei tru.

It was during one of those uphill climbs that I mentioned that I could do with a drink having emptied my water bottle some miles back. On hearing this, one of the students dropped his pack and disappeared in the surrounding jungle returning a few seconds later with a twenty-foot long piece of vine held horizontally which he then placed vertically (kapsaitim) in a billycan filling it up with water from the cut vine. “Here is your water, sir”. Now that is bushcraft for you.  Harry Butler would have approved. However, trying to catch even one of the many fish swimming in the Toriu river at the bottom of our mountain was not as successful and thus bully beef and rice that night.

Along the way, we stumbled across small groups of locals becoming more primitive-looking in appearance as we got further from civilisation. These people were indeed of a different ethnicity than the Tolais, with many of them never having seen a white face. Were we the ghosts of deceased ancestors coming back to haunt them? The next day we finally arrived at our destination village of Galavit.

However, unlike the villagers of the previous villages, this particular mob was not at all helpful in our search for the limestone caves. As a matter of fact, we sensed a certain amount of suspicion and hostility when we questioned them with the aid of one of the students whose own dialect appeared of some use. Were the caves sacred, would we be disturbing the evil spirits living therein, were the caves used to dispose of undesirables, e.g. the murdered plantation workers? We never found out and eventually after one day of futile discussions and deciding not to push the envelope by doing our own search, we discretely made our way back home to.Keravat Although unsuccessful in one way, it was a great experience. I understand the caves are still waiting to be explored.

Some months later, this same Chris Borough came up with the bright plan that we should visit Tavurvur volcano from close up. Great idea and thus a Tolai guide, Chris and I made the canoe trip to Tavurvur island, ascended the volcano, and descended down same using the volcanologist’s rope already in place. Inside the caldera, we noted fumes and steam escaping from various fissures and an abundance of yellow sulphur extrusions. Having achieved our objective and not wishing to push our luck, we returned the same way we had come. Another great experience.

Some weeks later Chris came knocking at my door and suggested that I join him to see a fire-dance performed by some Baining group near Kokopo. I did not know what to expect as dancing around a camp fire is no big deal. However, what I did not expect was to see dancers all decked in their finery, not only dancing around the roaring fire but actually walking over the hot coals in bare feet with their arsegras catching fire. On later inspection of their feet, no evidence of harm was done. The bilas preparation prior to the fire dance included cutting one’s tongue with a sharp piece of bamboo and then spitting (spraying) the blood on the bilas that was in need of a red colour.


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