Mannerly men of the Upper Sepik: Adrian Geyle

(Published in Una Voce, December 1999, page 16)

Adrian Geyle was CPO for two years at Lake Murray, Kiunga, Gaima and Daru, Western District; PO OIC Green River, Sepik District; PO H/Q, Madang District. (1951-1955). Field and liaison work on two 7-month field expeditions to the Upper Sepik. Oil search operations. Gravity meter work. Supervising labour (1956 – 1957). Field work with Australian Petroleum Company, Gulf District. Oil search operations (1958). Recruitment Officer in Dept of Public Service Commissioner, Konedobu; Regional Taxation Officer, Lae. Assisting New Guineans grapple with the introduction of personal and business taxation into their lives, with the approach of independence (1966-1970).

Our oil search company established a base camp at the confluence of the August and Sepik rivers, in the Green River sub-district of the Sepik District (now the West Sepik Province). We were a field party of about fifty lower Sepik labourers, six boatscrew from the coast near Madang, and seven whites. We were there for seven months, taking advantage of the dry season. The time was the mid-50s, soon after I had left the TPNG administration and service as OIC Green River Patrol Post.

Apart from it being gazetted “restricted” territory, the area we were in was very remote and neglected, primarily because the population was sparse and the terrain difficult to traverse. The rivers were dangerous for their currents and submerged snags, and the bush was “dirty” with the various vectors of diseases such as dengue, malaria, hookworm and scrub typhus. The local people mostly were afflicted in some way—yaws and tropical ulcers being the most common of the visible complaints—and we treated those cases we could relieve and maybe even cure. Elephantiasis and leprosy sufferers we referred to the Green River Post hospital, a half-day away by canoe and overland.

Small groups of men would often come into the base camp with bunches of bananas, tubers and the occasional bush fowl and eggs, for trade. One of these men (women only occasionally accompanied their men) was a tall, lean, well-built man with a tidy, grey beard and handsome face. He stood out, as, apart from his appearance, he had a certain aura of wisdom and authority about him. A quiet man, he was in his mid-forties I would guess, and he always seemed to be well in control of his emotions when others were sounding excited. He mostly brought in food in exchange for twist tobacco and newspaper to roll his fags in, and became a familiar sight as he casually wandered about watching our day-to-day activities.

One day he couldn’t be paid in his preferred “tabak”: for some reason we didn’t have any at hand to give him. There were razor blades, mirrors, beads and matches, and for big purchases such as wild pig and cassowary there were knives and axes, both big and small. I asked our dignified visitor, “What about matches?”, and he asked me what could he do with matches since they had fire burning in his long-house home, “all the time”. “What about razor blades?” I asked, and then he wanted to know what he could do with razor blades. I pointed to his thick, grey beard and jokingly suggested he might like to shave it off! Beards were widely worn by the older men there, perhaps to avoid pulling out whiskers one by one, or shaving them off with a cutting edge of bevelled bamboo, or even glass.

He accepted the blades and some matches without objection, and not much enthusiasm either, grinning as though to show us he could see the humour behind my suggestion and in the ribbing his mates were giving him from the side. We didn’t see him then for the weeks leading up to the day of our departure. Pulling out of there with the arrival of the wet season rains and rising streams, we were visited by all our “regulars” but not our distinguished one. I asked where he was: “What’s happened to my old friend, is he dead or gone away?” I had to repeat the question, as though I wasn’t understood. “There he is, there,” said our interpreter, pointing to a tall, lean, undistinguished bloke in the background. He had been coming in nearly every day and we hadn’t recognised him! He was pretty miffed, according to those with him, because he had shaved off his beard as I had suggested and then none of us wanted to know him!

He had shaved off not only his beard but all his hair and both eyebrows too. His appearance was amazingly transformed! In his society which has survived down through the ages without mirrors I suppose a man can’t imagine how “looks” can matter much, in any social setting, anywhere. A man is more than a face to a greater degree on the Upper Sepik than in our vanity-plagued West, without doubt. Mirrors were not unknown there, I suspect, since the German colonisers sent an oil search party up the Sepik before WWI, and Champion and Karius passed through the area in January 1928. And wherever water can be found with a still surface one can find one’s own reflection of course, but the images that mirrors and water reflect on the Upper Sepik could hardly have the vanity-loaded ramifications that “image” has in sophisticated societies. Physical attributes other than visages, as well as ornamental appendages such as trophies of war and mementoes of deceased relations (often just a finger), hold more sway than looks, where the August River flows into the Upper Sepik!

Gunio was another local identity we had a lot to do with. He too was of fine physique, and full of confidence. He was a “headman” in his late thirties probably, and was so muscular he too stood out from the rest. Beardless, his face usually wore a bemused grin. He came from a long-house community further up the Sepik, less than thirty minutes’ paddle away. Visiting our camp nearly every day he became very popular with us whites, if not with the men from Madang and the labourers from other tribes down the river. They saw no value in his presence at all. On reflection I see how ethnocentrically we whites acted when we failed to consider the stresses and strains that must have developed between the likes of Gunio (“bush kanaka” to some, behind his back) and the more sophisticated ones in our field party from tribes down river, and along the coast. Stresses must have existed, of course, but because they never surfaced in front of us and didn’t hinder our work, we never gave them a thought.

Every evening we whites exercised as we waited in turn to take a shower under a horizontal 44-gallon drum rig-out, on the bank of the August River. We casually “chinned the bar”, a horizontal bar in the form of a drill rod erected (to Olympic standards of course) between two uprights, close to the shower set-up. It was a kind of “club” activity, every evening between the huts and the river bank, with some locals hanging around still, including Gunio. He was always one of the last to get into his canoe and head for home. Our “chinning the bar” was a great joke to him, as we kidded him, ribbed him and cajoled him to “have a go”. We all did our variable six, ten, twelve or more chin-ups, getting a sweat up before flopping down on the grass, exhausted, and in line for a shower.

The last day arrived. We were pulling out and even the horizontal bar had to come down. In fun we offered the bar to Gunio, even to the extent of erecting it outside his long-house home for him. He suddenly sprang up and grabbed that bar as though he was claiming it there and then. He must have thought it was his last chance to meet our challenges or remain forever, in our minds, and maybe his too, a wimp! He sure accommodated us: 20, 30, 50, 70, 80, 90, 100 chin-ups and more until we all fell about, hysterical with laughter. Gunio too cracked up laughing as we tried to hold him down from having another go: his adrenalin was pumping and all he wanted to do was get on that bar again and stick it to us, give us “heaps”.

We got a lot of mileage out of that hilarious humiliation, as we later theorised about Gunio’s muscular development: he was awesome! We wondered, could it be that he had secretly practised at home on a “borrowed” drill rod? That couldn’t be, we figured, as there would have been someone ready to “dob him in” if he did. He was just physically so superior, we concluded, and hadn’t wanted to embarrass us during our stay in his domain, in case it ruined friendships!

Another one of Nature’s Gentlemen, Gunio. He was great.


Leave a Reply