Jim Sinclair writes – The tributes that poured in following Des Clancy’s death in Perth in November inevitably referred not only to Des’s competence but to his warmth, charm and almost constant smile. I first saw that smile in Sydney when Des was at the 1952-53 No 3 Long Course at the Australian School of Pacific Administration. Des was on the course with a companion, the very experienced ADO Syd Smith, then well into his 30s and a mild, unassuming man, despite his outstanding record as a patrol leader. Des was an upstanding, blue-eyed Irishman, with a vibrant voice and that wide smile that all who knew him will never forget. He was the sort of man one instinctively admired and warmed to; he hadn’t a vicious bone in his body. He loved life and was a great man at a party. Smith and Des had already made a number of dangerous exploratory patrols in the frontier Southern Highlands District, a district with which Des’s name will for ever be linked. But in 1954, back in PNG from ASOPA, it was Des who led one of the greatest patrols ever made in PNG, from Lake Kutubu to Tari, down the Strickland to the Fly, and on to the coast. During that famous 130-day walk geologist John Zehnder became the first white man to enter Lavani Valley, christened “Shangri-La” by the world press, and which was to become years later the cradle of PNG’s present oil industry. Nine Huri carriers and a police constable were tragically drowned on that long patrol when their rafts were caught in rapids on the Strickland, and capsized. Such were the risks of patrolling in PNG’s wild places. I was posted to the Southern Highlands in November 1954 and for the first time worked under Des’s direction. We made one particular patrol together that I will never forget – arresting fierce Mendi warriors for tribal fighting. You get to know the worth of a man when arrows are flying. I went on to work in the Koroba-Tari country until January, 1959. It was there I met Jan, the first single white girl to be posted to the Southern Highlands. After our marriage I was posted with Jan to Wau, Morobe District, where Des was at the time ADO Lae. Jan’s friend Margaret McDougall was also in Lae – they had come up to PNG together, as teachers. Margaret was Jan’s bridesmaid at our wedding, and Jan returned the compliment, becoming Margaret’s matron-of-honour when she married Des in Wewak in 1960. (That was a riotous wedding! Marg went off with the sports-loving Des on a DC3 charter filled, as Des well knew, with wild footballers. A honeymoon to remember!) Many young officers of all departments came under Des’s influence. He was ever ready to offer assistance and advice. And not only to Administration officers, for Des was a notable exponent of Police Motu, lingua franca of Papua, and of Pidgin, and could talk with and relate to Papua New Guineans with rare sympathy and understanding. After Des and Margaret’s move to Western Australia just after PNG’s independence they had a wide new circle of friends but the old ties remained. There is something about PNG service that binds people together, forever.

Jim Toner writes – In a few months’ time I would have known Des for fifty years. Margaret, his wife, asked me to write something about him for Una Voce and I contemplated a backwards look at his months-long, grueling exploration patrol with oil-seeking geologists through – to borrow Jim Sinclair’s description – the grimly magnificent country of the Strickland Gorge. When I first read Des’s Patrol Report I felt obliged, in those days before photo-copiers, to laboriously type out certain striking paragraphs in case my Pommy mates ever wanted to know a bit about earning Boot Allowance in PNG the hard way. Alas, my copy is missing and I blame Cyclone Tracy. But I am able to say something about Des as a kiap in an administrative role. He joined District Services & Native Affairs in 1946 and three years later, led by Sid Smith, re-opened the Government station at Lake Kutubu which had been closed by WWII. They then walked northwards and by September 1950 had established a station in the Mendi valley. The first plane was able to land on its primitive airstrip in the following month. Although he served in other districts Des spent years in, and to most wantoks is inseparably linked with, the Southern Highlands. A giant pinnacle of rock near Mendi is named on maps as Clancy’s Knob and it made a useful marker for incoming aircraft. Liquid samples from the mountainous region west of Koroba aroused the interest of the Australasian Petroleum Company and a new oil resource being just as attractive then as it is today the Administration approved a scientific team entering what was officially an ‘uncontrolled area’. It was to be led by ADO Clancy and he selected thirteen experienced policemen, engaged 150 carriers and, together with three APC staff, they set off from Kutubu in April 1954. Concurrently an aerial survey of the target area detected a deep round valley walled by limestone cliffs towering to 11,000 ft. It was not shown on any map and the world media seized on it as discovery of a ‘lost world’ calling it Shangri-La after Hilton’s 1933 novel and subsequent film. Progress by the patrol was slow as geologists investigated here and there in difficult terrain but one did spend a cold night in Shangri-La – actually the Lavani valley – before rejoining the party. Journalists and photographers, ignoring the patrol’s real purpose, surrounded the group on arrival at Moresby but its leader was in no mood to discuss fiction. The patrol had exited the limestone plateau via the Strickland River leading into the Fly and the Papuan Gulf. I can do no better than quote from Sinclair’s ‘Kiap’ in which he says the party ‘picked their way through the Gorge at times covering less than a mile and a half each day, crawling along ledges above the raging river’. The carriers were exhausted and once calmer waters were reached twenty canoes were constructed from forest trees and bound together in pairs to float the party downstream. In late June the voyage commenced. ‘Each canoe was in charge of a man expert in river travel, each under instruction to closely follow Clancy’s route in the lead canoe (he had paddled down these waters once before). But a mile from the start one policeman took his canoe too wide around a bend and into a whirlpool. In seconds the canoe had been sucked under and he and eight Huri carriers drowned’. Clancy had kept his party intact for over two months and this was a sickening blow. His precise words in the Report are lost to me but as any commander would – he asked himself whether he could have done more, or anything differently. It was decided to abandon the canoes and by the time of its conclusion the patrol had walked over 300 miles.

On the domestic front Des was keen to advance conditions on the station he had co-founded at Mendi. In 1957 with exceptions such as the Residency and the hospital all buildings were of native materials. Without a school it was difficult to get experienced officers with children to accept a posting. A Supreme Court Justice rarely visited but when one did he not only slept at the Residency but had to convene his court in its living room! There was no social venue for staff and anyone fortunate enough to have some beer flown in one morning found themselves unexpectedly visited by many observant comrades that evening…. Des had a nine-hole golf course simulated to keep staff occupied at weekends. It ran across the Residency lawn, around the District Office, up and down the airstrip, while the tilapia pond formed a water hazard. The solution to this state of affairs was not unique but, my word, it was effective. The Law Department was cajoled into funding a timber Courthouse and Des ensured that when built it incorporated a Judge’s robing room equipped with a counter concealed by a shutter. It almost resembled a bar and indeed the building readily trans-morphed into the Mendi Valley Club which changed the social scene very much for the better. It provided a neutral venue for after-work relaxation – there was fierce table-tennis competition – and moderated the drinking culture. Just as importantly the Courthouse cum Club, empty during the day, provided suitable space for a classroom and in 1958 the Education Department felt able to post the excellent Miss McGrath, later to become Mrs. Jim Sinclair, to teach the existing children plus those who then arrived at the station. Three birds with one stone – good trick, Des. Eventually the wise men at Konedobu decided that Clancy had spent too long in the bush and he should experience city life. So he was posted to Lae where he met his future wife. Lucky man. I hope Margaret won’t mind if I repeat her comment: ‘I can’t begin to say how happy I have been with him for forty-six years…..’ RIP Des.


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

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