CSIRO in the Southern Highlands, 1961 – Ken Granger

CSIRO in the Southern Highlands, 1961 – Ken Granger

Part 1: Learning the Ropes

Breaking Camp at Mt Giluwe

In late 1960 I was appointed as a technical assistant in the CSIRO Division of Land Research and Regional Survey, New Guinea Survey Section. My job was to assist the Section’s transport officer John McAlpine (Mac) and, where appropriate, assist the scientific staff of the section.

The Section had been involved in ‘integrated surveys’ of the Territories of Papua and New Guinea since 1953 at the request of the Territory Administration.

These surveys followed the approach pioneered by the Division in northern Australia since 1946 in which the knowledge of a range of specialists such as soil scientists, botanists, agronomists and geomorphologists gained in the field were integrated to identify ‘land systems’ that were assessed as to their suitability, or otherwise, for agricultural or pastoral development.

The survey to be undertaken in 1961 was to cover the Southern Highlands District of Papua and was to complement the survey done in 1960 in the adjoining western part of the Western Highlands District of New Guinea. In 1961 the area was still regarded as ‘uncontrolled’ so anyone moving more than a mile from a government outpost was supposed to be escorted by members of the Royal Papua and New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC). The survey was to commence in Mendi and move through the more populated areas around Ialibu and Kagua before heading west though the lightly populated Erave–Lake Kutubu area, before moving north to Tari, and then back to Mendi.

Mac and I flew to Port Moresby on 6 June 1961 then on to Mt Hagen and Madang where we took delivery of the heavy survey gear such as tents and tinned rations that had come up by sea from Australia. We also made contact with people from Amele village, near Madang, who Mac had recruited for previous surveys to act as camp and field assistants. On 8 June we flew by DC-3 charter from Madang to Mt Hagen with the survey assistants and the heavy gear.

From Mt Hagen we began pre-positioning food and other necessities to patrol posts such as Ialibu and Kagua, which were along the survey route, as well as establishing our first base camp at the Kiburu rest house to the south of Mendi.

Purchasing food at Kombemi

As part of this preparation I flew down to the mission at Orokaiva to set up some self-recording instruments.

All was ready when the scientific party arrived in Mt Hagen on 24 June. The team was led by Herman Haantjens (soil scientist), together with Martin Bik (geomorphologist), Roy Pullen (plant ecologist) and John Saunders (forest botanist). After a few days of work around the Kiburu area the survey started east supported by a line of 70 local carriers. We had the use of a tractor and trailer from Mendi to take our gear the first 10 km as far as the Angga River and from there it was all manpower.

The road up the eastern side of the Angga Gorge was being built by several hundred local people. This road, which was to be the Mendi end of the Highlands Highway, had reached the upper level of the gorge and the scene that met us was like something out of antiquity.

We established our first bush camp that evening and the following morning Mac told me to pack up the camp and take the carriers, as well as our three police, up through the montane forest, and establish a camp in the grassland of Mt Giluwe. The scientists were to link up with me in the grassland that afternoon. So there I was, a few months after my 20th birthday, a couple of weeks in the Territory and virtually no tok pisin so off we went.

All went well following a fairly well-defined track with many ridges and streams to cross until about 1.00 pm when it started to rain. The carriers wanted to stop but the very experienced police corporal convinced them otherwise and we continued on for another hour and a half when they stopped again as the track had petered out.

It was clear to me and the corporal that they were not going to budge so we set up camp in the moss forest at around 9,000 feet. I sent the police off to try and find the scientists but they returned after an hour of searching with no sign of them. I had a very restless, but comfortable, night as I had all of the scientists’ personal gear as well as all the tents and food.

John McAlpine gathering information

Next morning we made it through to the grasslands and I set our camp on a prominent ridge so that the scientists would see it. Again I sent out the police to see if they could locate the scientists while I headed further up the ridge to around 12,000 feet but with no other soul within cooee. Fortunately, Mac had a pre-publication edition of Fr Mihalic’s Dictionary of Neo-Melanesian Pidgin he had lent me so I could start to communicate with the Madang assistants and the police reasonably well. There was no sign of the scientists.

After a very cold night I decided to head back to Mendi and Kiburu following a well-established track known to the locals.

I made it back to Kiburu just on 6.00 pm to find the scientists sitting down to the last beers in the camp! They had stopped work around 11.00 on the first morning because of rain and had returned to the road camp where they stayed that night. I was no longer the new chum and my tok pisin had started to flourish and had picked up the ins-and-outs of managing a carrier line.

After a rest day we then headed back east following the surveyed route of the putative Highlands Highway along the southern flank of Mt Giluwe. The next major river after the Angga we had to cross was the Anggura. This was achieved by a suspension bridge made entirely of local material—bamboo, rattan and bush rope. Incredible bush engineering.

Anggura River bridge

One of our camps on the way to Ialibu was in the haus kiap in the village of Kombemi. John Saunders, who had been off on his own examining the forests of Mt Giluwe, re-joined us here and paid off his own line of carriers led by the very impressive village constable. Mac, with the help of a local interpreter (tanim tok) gathered information on the location of villages and tracks to help flesh out the rather basic mapping that we had available. In larger villages such as Kombemi we were able to supplement the rations of our Madang assistants and our carriers by purchasing local foods. That became one of my jobs.

From Kombemi we moved on to the Government station of Ialibu. It was here that I was first made aware of the competition between the various missions for souls. I was talking to Ron Hiatt, one of the kiaps at Ialibu, when he spotted a teenaged boy walking past carrying a new blanket and a few tins of fish. Ron recognised the youngster and asked him where he got the blanket. He replied that the Methodist missionary had given it to him. Ron observed that the boy normally went to the lotu Popi (the Catholic mission) and the kid replied, ‘Methodist I mobeta, em I givim blanket na tin pis’ (the Methodists are better, they gave me the blanket and tinned fish).

In addition to learning the ropes of organising and managing the carriers and the camp I was also beginning to tune into the conversations of the scientists and began to understand the way in which ancient volcanoes had formed the land, the impact of altitude on the form of the natural vegetation, and the way the locals had settled the area.

From Ialibu we moved south towards Kagua and the Pangia area. My adventures on that part of the survey will be in Part 2. 


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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