Carry on up Mount Wilhelm: Jim Toner

(Published Una Voce, September 2000, Page 18)

Jim Toner: Chief Clerk, District Office, Mendi 1957-59; District Office, Rabaul 1960-64; Field Manager, New Guinea Research Unit (ANU), Port Moresby 1965-73

I wanted to be Administrative Officer of the Department of Native Affairs. When Max Ford, kuskus at the Goroka District Office, won the chair vacated by the great Jim Sullivan at Konedobu, I moved onwards. And, very soon, upwards.

Mt Wilhelm, New Guinea’s highest peak, rises to 4,750 metres but on a shoulder at the 3,500 metres level is a lake. In 1965 the Australian National University set out to build a scientific station at the lakeside comprising a laboratory and living quarters. A well-insulated structure was ordered from the Melbourne manufacturer of prefabricated buildings designed for use in the Antarctic and Dr David Bettison, founding head of the New Guinea Research Unit (NGRU), volunteered to erect the station using Chimbu labour only. Having rattled around Egypt in a tank with the South African Armoured Brigade, he was somewhat more “hands on” than the average sociologist. My job as the new Admin Officer, NGRU, was to get the materials up the mountain to him.

The building had to be sea-freighted from Melbourne to Madang, air-freighted to Keglsugl, a tiny airstrip on the flank of Mt Wilhelm 2,600 metres a.s.l., and then portered up a rough track to the lakeside. At the factory the structure had to be broken down in the light of two determinants: firstly, the door size and interior dimensions of a single engine Otter aircraft and, secondly, the weight which the carriers could reasonably bear.

I met the ship at Madang, hired a truck and, attempting to do the right thing, went to the Native Labour Office to obtain four men for a day. A clerk produced a detailed form, licked his pencil, and enquired my name. When he asked for my father’s name, I walked out into the street and shouted “Wusat i laik wok?” In no time I was driving three sturdy lads to the wharf. I took a puny fourth because they pleaded for him as a “liklik barata” (little brother). Good move, as it turned out.

The building and its fittings arrived in 61 packages. Carefully I ticked these off the manifest as we located them scattered around the cargo shed and loaded them onto the truck. I recorded only 60 and assuming I had merely overlooked the final item was about to depart when the little fellow touched my sleeve. “Mathta”, he lisped and led me behind stacks of cargo, finally pointing out a half-hidden crate stencilled “ANU”. I was grateful for this unexpected assistance, else I should have moved off without the stove, a vital item.

The Otter carried no more than a tonne making several return trips from the coast to the highlands necessary. I flew up on one of them and found that Dr Bettison, having parked the ANU Landrover at the strip, had led the first group of carriers up from Keglsugl. I was anxious to talk with the Patrol Officer at Gembogl, the nearest Admin. Post, and had two hours to get there and back before the Otter returned with another load. Here I made a mistake.

New Guinea or wherever, one must drive according to the state of the road, not to the dictate of the clock. I slid the Landrover into a “barat” (ditch) on the higher side of the Gembogl track: bad, but always preferable to the nasty drop on the lower side. Loss of this logistical support for the operation could have significantly blotted my first year of service with the University (which eventually stretched to 29 years). However, to my astonishment, from a seemingly deserted landscape heads began to appear. Chimbus found a sturdy tree trunk and with negligible direction from me levered the Landrover back on to the road. Once again I was appreciative. Admittedly that was the state of play 35 years ago and the outcome might be different today. Still, a reminder that what “we” achieved for “them” was generally only made possible by “them”.

Dr Bettison was paying the carriers with shillings on delivery of bits of the house but exhausted his supply when they suddenly doubled the agreed rate. He sent a “pas” down the mountain asking for more coins urgently but on return to Madang I found the Commonwealth Bank closed. Hammering on the door I got in to see the manager and persuaded him to accept my personal cheque for £200 in exchange for a bag containing 4,000 “marks” as they were still called in the former German colony. Bank johnnies in New Guinea were a bit different to the kind you encounter in the CBD today. That bag spent a comfortable night in my bed at the hotel but was despatched safely via the Otter on the following day.

I returned to Moresby to man the office, whilst on the mountain David Bettison assembled the walls of the new station. However, he struck difficulty with the roofing and asked for help from the manufacturer. Enter Albert. He was plucked from his Melbourne workplace one afternoon and put on a plane to Sydney. In those days there was a midnight flight to PNG landing first at Moresby but terminating at Lae. I had packed a patrol box with food and useful items and intended to load it on to Albert’s aircraft at Jacksons at 6 am. He would then take it with him, first on the DC3 from Lae to Goroka, then on a Cessna, which I had chartered, to fly him into Keglsugl.

There were two problems. Albert was wearing a suit and footwear known in England as “winkle pickers”. The second was that for reasons unknown, and to my annoyance, his plane overflew Moresby and proceeded direct to Lae. The result was that Albert found himself virtually straight from downtown Melbourne amongst the spectators at the Keglsugl airstrip (” ‘undreds of ’em and not a bluddy white face in sight” he explained) and confronted with a two-hour climb in what he referred to as “me pointy toe shoes”. Dr Bettison said that he arrived at the lakeside being pushed from behind by two Chimbus with a third hugging the carton of VB he had acquired at Goroka.

After 48 hours Albert had to descend as the high-altitude air invaded his under-exercised lungs but he had diagnosed the roof problem and the ANU got its unique research facility.

Being a man with a high regard for procedures, I did not claim reimbursement of my £200 until I could produce tangible evidence of its usage. By the time that Dr Bettison could give me his record of payments to carriers, duly receipted with their crosses in lieu of signatures, a couple of months had passed. The Accountant took a dim view of my claim. “You are never to lend money to the University again,” he instructed. So I never did. And I never regretted that I had spent a large slice of my working life in PNG rather than in Canberra either…


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