Kiaps on bikes: Chips MacKellar

(Published in Una Voce, December 1998, page 5)

Malcolm (Chips) MacKellar
1953-1955 CPO Daru and Lake Murray (Western District)
1955-1956 P.O. Mount Hagen (Western Highlands District)
1957 ASOPA Long Course
1958-1964 PO at Madang and Bogia: ADC at Saidor (Madang District)
1964-1968 ADC Esa’ala, Samarai and Trobriand Islands (Milne Bay District)
1969-1970 Queensland University – B.A. (Anthropology)
1971-1972 ADC Kaiapit and Menyamya (Morobe District)
1972-1974 Enga District, District Court Magistrate, Wabag
1974-1980 District Court Magistrate, Ela Beach Court House, Port Moresby

Remember those horrible Government-issue BSA Bantam motor cycles we used to have? They were as cantankerous as lawnmowers and as obstinate as outboard motors, and the only reason the Government gave them to us was because they were cheap.

But they served a useful purpose for our Administration, in the days before the Highlands Highway was open and when there were few roads in the interior of PNG. These little bikes could be ridden along most foot tracks in the Highlands, and when the going got too rough for them, they were light enough to be slung from a pole, and carried easily by two men. So we could take them on patrol, and where the terrain precluded their use, they were simply carried to the next rideable road or track, and remounted there.

But I hated them. In those days no motor bikes of this size had electric starters, so they all had to be kick-started, and they usually required more kicks than starts. I could never start the damn things and, in disliking the stupid put-put noise they made, I was not alone.

When R. I. Skinner was District Commissioner of the Western Highlands District, we used these little bikes a lot around Mount Hagen. Skinner was a benevolent tyrant and, like all other District Commissioners then, he was Lord and Master of all he surveyed. He could control almost everything in the Western Highlands then, but he couldn’t control and nor could he stand the irritating sound of the BSA Bantam.

One day when approaching the District Office at Mount Hagen, Patrol Officer John Howlett who was well aware of Skinner’s dislike of the BSA noise, did the prudent thing by turning off the engine and coasting the last 100 yards. He propped his Bantam up against the wall of the office, and went inside briefly. When he came out again he hopped on his bike and tried to start it.

But of all the times and of all the places this Bantam could have chosen to be cantankerous, it had to choose this one – right outside Skinner’s office. Repeatedly, John tried to kick-start his bike, but without success.

He kicked and kicked and kicked. “Burrrr, burrrr, burrrr,” went the engine in response to each kick, followed by “put put put put,” and then silence. And then again, “burrrr, burrrr, burrrr – put put put put,” and so on, until finally the District Commissioner had heard enough. “Howlett!” Skinner called from inside his office. “Yes, Sir,” John answered from outside the building. “Take that bloody bike a mile away and start it! ” Skinner ordered. “Yes, Sir,” Howlett answered again, and he pushed the motor cycle down the road and away from the District Office, until it was outside the District Store which was about 60 yards away. He obviously thought that this was a safe enough distance because he tried to start the bike there. “Burrrr, burrrr, burrrr,” went the engine again, “put put put put.” “Burrrr, burrrr, burrrr,” and so on.
It was not as loud this time, but I could still hear it inside the District Office, and I knew Skinner could hear it also, so I waited for the next Royal Command. And I didn’t have long to wait.

“Howlett! ” Skinner bellowed again, loud enough to be heard at the District Store, “I said take that bike a mile away and start it. Now take it a bloody mile. Do you hear!” “Yes, Sir,” I heard John call from the District Store, and I was about to burst into laughter at his predicament, when suddenly there was another Royal Command. “Mackellar!” “Yes, Sir,” I answered from my office. “Show him how far a mile is!” Skinner ordered. “Yes, Sir,” I answered.

I went outside and looked down the road, where I saw John pushing the bike, past the store, beside the airstrip, in the direction of Norm Camp’s house. I caught up with him, carefully pacing the distance. “Follow me, John,” I said, and I continued to count the paces while I walked in front of him. And when I had paced out 1,760 yards I stopped. John stopped beside me exhausted, and sat on his bike. I looked back at the District Office, exactly one mile away, and in my best Grand Prix starter’s voice I said, “Gentlemen, start your engines!” And would you believe it, the stupid bike started at the first kick, and I waved as Patrol Officer Howlett rode off into the distance.

In those days before the Highlands Highway was opened, there were very few privately owned vehicles at Mount Hagen, other than motor cycles. This was because everything which then came into Mount Hagen had to come by air, and the air freight on a car was astronomical. Also, in those days the Japanese had not yet entered the motor cycle market, and the most popular bikes were British Triumphs. They came in all sizes and models and the one I chose was a Triumph Tiger Cub. It soon became my pride and joy but, before then, it had a very embarrassing arrival at Mount Hagen.

Now in order to offset the otherwise impossible cost of living for public servants in the Highlands in those days, the Administration carried essential items for its staff free on government air charters. On arrival at Mount Hagen, these essential items were unloaded from the aircraft by Government Stores staff, and delivered by government vehicle to our front doors. “Essential items” were decreed by the Public Service Commissioner to include all groceries, but not grog. Air manifests were subject to Treasury audit, and any obvious consignments of grog or any other obvious non-essential items manifested to officers in the Highlands were charged to the officers at normal air freight rates. They were still delivered in the same way, but with an accompanying air freight bill.

With the air freight component added, the real price of grog in the Highlands was so high as to make it almost undrinkable. But not to worry, creative minds soon got to work, and suppliers in Lae and Madang developed the knack of repacking grog into less obvious grocery cartons.

This repacking resulted in some very strange grocery consignments. Some toilet paper cartons for example, emitted strange clinking noises when unloaded from the aircraft, like the sound of bottles bumping against each other inside. And single male officers were often consigned cartons of feminine hygiene items, with an extraordinary specific gravity, all emitting the same clinking noises.

There was no household limit to the amount of “essential items” delivered free on government air charters, and around Christmas time, or just before someone’s birthday party, Treasury auditors were amazed at the increased number of cartons of tomato sauce, IXL jam, or vegemite, manifested on Government air charters into the Highlands, consigned as “groceries” for officers stationed there. But it was all very necessary you see, because some Highland missionaries who were against fornication and strong drink, were quick to report any obvious consignments of grog travelling free on the charters. But they didn’t seem to mind other less evil non-essentials travelling free. And as the auditors only examined the manifests, and not the cargo, suppliers sometimes became a bit slack when it came to disguising non-essentials other than grog as groceries. For example, by no stretches of the imagination could my motor cycle have been construed to be an “essential item” and there is no way it could have been disguised as a consignment of tomato sauce. So I shuddered to think what air freight charges my motor bike would attract. Also, I assumed that as a non-essential item, a motor bike would have had no loading priority, so there was no knowing when it might arrive in Hagen. But as it was the first motor bike I ever owned, I was so excited that on the day I thought it might arrive I was waiting on the airstrip when the DC3 landed. And as soon as the District Stores Officer had the air manifest in hand, I asked him if my motor bike was on board. He scanned the list quickly then said, “No, nothing for you except a carton of groceries.” Disappointed, I went home to wait for my groceries to be delivered.

I was inside my house later that day when the Stores vehicle arrived, and instead of the usual grocery delivery to the doorstep, I heard much grunting and groaning from the cargo boys, with instructions to lift carefully and don’t drop, and all the other accompanying noises of a difficult delivery. Curious, I went outside to see them unloading a magnificent brand spanking new Triumph motor cycle. They put it on the ground in front of me, propped it on its stand, and departed. But they did not hand me the airfreight bill which I had been dreading, puzzled,I looked at the shipping tag attached to the handlebars. On one side it read MACKELLAR, MOUNT HAGEN, and on the other, ONE CARTON OF GROCERIES. And it was the best carton of groceries I ever had. Together with other young Australians, like Barry Blogg, Dick Hagon, and lan Fraser, each of whom had his own bike and was living in Mount Hagen at the time, I roamed the Highlands on that bike, along slippery roads and rough bush tracks, long before the Highlands Highway was ever built.

There wasn’t much traffic along Highlands roads in those days, so the risk of collision was infinitesimal. However, as none of the roads was sealed, their dirt surfaces became very slippery when wet. Thus motor cycle accidents were common but not serious, since all that happened was that the rider skidded on a wet surface and fell into the mud beside the road. The climate in the Highlands was cool enough for us to wear proper protective clothing like boots and leather jackets, so injuries were slight.

But it was a different story in Madang, where I transferred with my Tiger Cub after my posting at Mount Hagen was over. Before the Madang roads were sealed, their surfaces consisted of hard but loose coronus gravel. Of course the hot climate precluded any kind of protective clothing except a helmet, so gravel rash was a constant danger, even for the wary, and a tumble usually meant bare skin against sharp coral – a frightening combination.

One day I was carrying Patrol Officer Frank Howard as pillion passenger on our way home from the District Office. The road was free of traffic, except for a pack of mangy dogs, on our side of the road, fighting over a bitch on heat. “Look out for the dogs,” Frank warned in my ear. And I did. I swung over to the opposite side of the road to avoid the dogs, but in a last minute attempt to evade pack rape, the terrified female ran across the road in front of me, with the whole pack following. I braked, but not in time. Sliding on the loose gravel, my front wheel hit the pack of dogs and we came to an abrupt stop. The force of the impact catapulted Frank over my head in the best Olympic-style double somersault Madang had ever seen. Miraculously he landed flat on his feet in front of me, entirely unhurt. But my knee skidded across the coronus to give me a scar which I carry to this day.

But the worst incidence of gravel rash I ever saw happened to a PWD electrician. He had a big powerful bike, and although he was always welcome to ride with us, he shunned our company because he always said we drove too slowly. He was a speed hog, and he had already had several accidents even before I knew him. He survived these accidents by jumping off his bike. “Better to hit the road and roll,” he used to say, “than hit the tree and die.”

On this particular day I was riding home alone from the Madang District Office, when this speed hog roared past me in a cloud of coronus dust. There was a rarely used cross road ahead from which the PHD sanitation truck suddenly appeared. Both rider and driver slammed on the brakes, but all too late. With all wheels locked, both vehicles slid along the gravel towards each other, each propelled by its own momentum. They collided at the mid point of the intersection, the motor cycle slamming into the side of the truck with a sickening thud. But moments before the impact occurred, the electrician jumped off his bike. He hit the coronus surface of the road at high speed, and flung by the velocity of his fall, his body spun horizontally across the intersection in front of the truck, bouncing like a ball into the ditch on the other side.

There appeared to be no damage to the truck, but the motor bike lay in the road in a crumpled heap. I stopped my bike beside the ditch and went to the aid of the other rider. The sharp coral surface of the road had ripped most of his clothing off, and his bare skin from head to foot was covered in cuts, scratches, abrasions and lacerations. He was bleeding from everywhere, and he looked as if he had been skinned alive. As I looked at his skin shredded body, I assumed that he was dead, But to my surprise, he was still alive, and like a cat with nine lives, he had survived another of his miraculous bail outs. And grimacing with pain, he scrambled unaided to his feet. “Why did you jump off it” I asked in amazement. “So I wouldn’t look like that,” he said, pointing to the mangled remnants of his motor cycle. I looked at the wreck, and then at him. “You don’t look much different, yourself,” I said. “Maybe,” he said painfully, “but I can still move and it can’t. Take me to the hospital.” And I did.

But Madang had other, better memories for my Tiger Cub. All the single kiaps there had motor bikes, and when we finished for the day we would head for the Madang Hotel. In the days before the drinking laws changed, the public bar was long and spacious, and conveniently at ground level. The bar was then never filled to capacity except during Christmas or when Madang was host to various sporting events. Generally it was only patronised by a few after work Government officials and a few out of town planters. But its wide doors and street level concrete floors were an open invitation to the kiaps on bikes, and the barman knew when we were coming. So, as soon as he heard the roar of motor cycles revving up outside the District Office some distance away, he would start to pour the beers, and place them on the bar, one motor cycle length apart. Meanwhile we would race up the road towards the pub, and ride our bikes through the doors and beside the bar, each rider stopping his bike next to the appropriate beer. We would then sit on our bikes at the bar, and drink our beers. And when it was time to go, we would start our bikes at the bar, with a roar loud enough to wake the dead. At another time and in another place, this behaviour would have annoyed the other patrons. But to the out of town planters, resident drunks and local bar flies of the Madang Hotel who had been drinking there for hours with nothing to talk about except the prices of cocoa, coffee and coconuts, this was the greatest excitement they were likely to have all day. So, to the loud cheers and farewell calls from the other patrons, we would thunder out onto the road, and head for home ………

But we weren’t petrol heads, revheads, bikies, or hoons. We were ordinary young Australians living ordinary lives, having fun and annoying no one, in some of the most exotic places on earth. And today, we are ordinary old Australians, with fond memories of PNG and how it was then, when we were kiaps, riding together on bikes.


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