Opening the Kassam Pass: Bob Cleland

An obituary of Ian Downs in the PNG Post-Courier mentioned him as “the principal facilitator of the construction of the Highlands Highway.” Stuart Inder in the Sydney Morning Herald had words of similar import. Both comments indisputably true, but Kassam Pass – linking the lowland road from Lae to the rudimentary Highland road at Kainantu – had to come first.

To set the scene, in 1952 there were few roads in the Eastern Highlands. An old army track between Goroka and Kainantu had been resurrected, but mostly there were short tracks fanning outward from Goroka with a handful of wartime jeeps to use them. In October that year, Brigadier Donald Cleland, on his first visit to the Highlands as Administrator, was convinced by Ian Downs, new in his posting as Eastern Highlands District Commissioner, that a road could be built from the Markham headwaters to Kainantu and finished by 30 June the following year. Ian was not the first dreamer and planner, but he was the first doer.

Ian got the 100 shovels and £2,000 he had asked for and 20-year-old Patrol Officer Rupe Haviland became the principal man on the spot to choose a route and build the road. People who’ve built bush roads in PNG knows that Rupe had strong backup from his colleagues and relied heavily on his police, bossbois, hundreds of village people and, in Rupe’s case, a Landrover with a reliable driver.

Every few weeks, Ian Downs would fly over Kassam with Ray Harris in the Territory Airlines (TAL) Tiger Moth to gauge progress. A month before the Administrator was due to open the road, Ian could see that Rupe needed an offsider to attend to the logistic details, allowing him to concentrate on the road-building. Just the job for a raw Cadet patrol Officer – me.

The camp on Kassam was basic, work was hard and relentless during every daylight hour, but each day showed progress as the road, by this time at the 4,500-foot top of the climb out of the Markham valley, snaked down into the Arona valley north of Kainantu. For weeks the weather had been dry and pleasant.

The Administrator’s party was to fly to Gusap from Lae and drive up the Kassam Pass to Kainantu on 1 July 1953. On 26 June it rained lightly. No problem. The 27th was fine. Ah! The rain’s gone. The 28th – more rain and we repaired a few washouts.

On the 29th Ian Downs drove from Goroka to Kainantu in widespread rain preparatory to taking three Landrovers to Gusap to meet the official party. On the 30th he drove out to Kassam camp early with the other Landrovers and, after consultation with Rupe about the state of the road, he and I set out to take a firsthand look.
We were not far down the drop to the Markham when the wet and slippery conditions slid us uncontrollably into the bank (thank goodness for the inward-sloping road bench)! We were stuck.

I felt total dismay and felt for Ian who was debating with himself (aloud) about the pros and cons of cancelling the opening. Then came an example of his get-it-done attitude and lateral thinking which was so much a mark of the man. He decided it was worth a try to put small twigs no more than a foot long across each of the two wheel tracks. A group of labourers nearby (still working in the rain) was instructed and when about 100 yards was done, we lifted the Landrover out. The twigs worked beautifully.

We returned to camp and, leaving Rupe to mobilise the gangs onto twigging the road, left again with the three vehicles to get them down the pass. The labourers had completed about a mile and a half of twigs by then, which made all the difference. That night we camped at Wata Ais near a Markham village, accompanied all-night by the drums and singing and dancing of the villagers.

Up early to drive the few miles to Gusap airstrip, we discovered that Ian’s two way radio would not transmit. But the receiver still worked and revealed that Lae airport was closed with heavy rain and the official party was grounded.

Highlands weather wasn’t too bad, though, and soon Ray Harris in the Tiger Moth brought the Administration mechanic from Goroka to accompany the convoy. I’d been due to go back to Goroka in the Moth, so, without seeing the official party, I climbed aboard and the enjoyable, low level, leisurely, open air trip softened my disappointment.

The official party included the Administrator and Mrs Cleland, Alan Roberts (a/Director Department of District Services and Native Affairs), Tom Aitcheson (District Commissioner, Lae) and Gerry Toogood (immediate past Assistant District Officer, Kainantu). It was able to get out of Lae early next morning and make it to Gusap in light rain, which continued as the party started the climb up Kassam Pass. By the time it got to the bad part, higher up, the twigging of the road extended no less than 14 miles, enabling them to get to the top and on to Kainantu for lunch.

Kassam Pass, the road into the Highlands, rejected by army engineers as impossible, dreamed of by many, was open for traffic.

It was the ability of Ian Downs to dream and see a way through, his drive and energy and his ability to forge a strong, inspired and loyal team which achieved the impossible.


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