First Land Rover to Mendi: Chips MacKellar

During 1955 and 1956 I was stationed in the Western Highlands District of Papua New Guinea. It was a wild frontier: tribal fights, freezing nights and development fever, as planters vied for the best coffee land.

The Highlands Highway had not been built, and each highland town was isolated by road from the others. The only effective link with the coastal supply centres of Lae and Madang was by air. However, roads radiated snake-like from each town, and beyond these was an extensive network of walking tracks that could usually accommodate bicycle and motorbike traffic.

In theory, it was possible to ride a motorbike from Mount Hagen to Goroka, and a few heroes did accomplish this journey from time to time, but only by making prior arrangements to have the motorbikes carried up and down steep river gorges and other places where there were gaps in the road and track system. It was a major development priority to link these district systems to form what would become the Highlands Highway.

These days in PNG roads are built using a rich variety of foreign aid grants, but in those days at Mount Hagen there was no one to do the work except us, and there was no funding for road construction. This meant no modern equipment like bulldozers and graders. Everything was done by manual labour. Apart from the Kiaps and police involved, no one was paid for the work they did on the roads nor for the land on which the roads were built. Yet, on any given day, thousands of Highlanders could be seen working like beavers on road construction.

Already adept at summoning large numbers of their clansmen to attend tribal fights or sing sings or moka ceremonies, clan leaders were able to muster huge work gangs for road building. A gang of between 2,000 and 3,000 warriors was common. Endemic rivalry between traditional clan enemies invoked intense competition to muster the biggest road construction gang.

In this context, road construction replaced tribal fighting as a means of establishing the traditional balance of power since lesser clans learned not to mess with the larger clans, which could demonstrate their tribal fighting capability by mustering the biggest road gangs.

Given the huge labour force available, it was a simple enough process to construct a road along the valley floors. Two six-foot deep parallel ditches were dug, twenty feet apart, and the dirt was thrown into the middle between the ditches.  A thousand stamping feet flattened out the surface, which was left to bake hard in the sun and rain. The result was a good, serviceable road. But on the hillsides, or across a mountain range, it was a different story. Roads had to be properly graded, and the going was a lot tougher when hillsides had to be excavated by hand. Most digging was done using pointed saplings, and the overburden removed by hand-carried stretchers.

By the time I arrived, the road network extended so far out of town it was no longer practicable to supervise day to day construction from Mount Hagen, so base camps were set up at the road heads. But, as there were more roads to be built than kiaps available, sometimes police were co-opted into supervising road construction. I am sure that road building was not part of the curriculum at Bomana Police Training College, but it certainly was a major component of police duties in the Highlands.

Some of the police became excellent road construction supervisors. One such was Corporal Sandigai. His road camp was in the Nebilyer valley, where he enhanced road gang recruitment by a traditional Melanesian method. He discovered there were seven exogamous clan groupings in his area of operations, so he ‘arranged’ to marry one girl from each clan. All male members of each clan then became his affines, obliged under the Melanesian sanction of reciprocity to assist him whenever he needed their help. On any given day he had hundreds of affines working happily on his road.

Sandigai spent much time arbitrating demarcation disputes between his ‘wives’ but, as time went on, he became famous for his road-building prowess. Because of his labyrinthine matrimonial arrangements, however, he also became so embroiled in local politics that eventually he was transferred to Madang without his wives, and in later years he and I did several patrols together there.

When Sandigai died, the Police Commander at Madang, Mike Thomas, gave him a magnificent funeral complete with flag draped coffin, police escort at slow march with arms reversed, police honour guard and a police bugler sounding the Last Post. But that is another story.

There was nothing unique about Sandigai’s matrimonial arrangements, because in a land where wealth was measured in pigs and where pigs were reared by wives, more wives meant more pigs, more wealth, more influence and more fealty from more affines. Polygamy was the basis of traditional clan leadership and, in establishing his authority over neighbouring clans, all Sandigai did was to graft the traditional custom of polygamy into his road-building program.

Some of the early white planters made similar arrangements. By ‘marrying’ locally, they acquired a reservoir of affines who became their plantation labourers; the more wives they had, the more labourers they acquired. Some had six, seven, or even eight local ‘wives’. For the white settlers, this process was helped along by the fact that in those days Hagen girls wore nothing other than a G-string and a pearl shell necklace.

By Departmental decree, however, these fruits were forbidden to single kiaps building the road system, although there were rumours that because a kiap’s road camp hovel was unlockable, some nubile Hagen girls seeking shelter from the cold night air were want to stray into the warmth of the kiap’s bed.

My road camp was at Tomba, eight and a half thousand feet above sea level, and it was at the end of the road from Mount Hagen. It was a bleak and desolate place, on the slopes of the actual Mount Hagen, which is not the town. Tomba was an important junction in the road system: from here it was proposed one branch of the Hagen road would run west to Wabag, while another would run south to Mendi. I was building the beginnings of each branch at the same time.

Meanwhile, from Mendi, Des Clancy began building his road, with the intention of linking up with the southern branch of mine somewhere in the Kaugel valley along the slopes of Mount Giluwe, the highest mountain in Papua and often capped with snow. The urgency fuelling Clancy’s road was that the Mendi airstrip could only accommodate small aircraft, whereas the Hagen strip could take DC3’s, which could carry vehicles, tractors, trailers and other equipment.

Whilst there were several Land Rovers at Hagen, government and private, Mendi had no vehicle bigger than a motorbike, and road access to the Hagen airstrip was needed to bring in heavy equipment for Mendi. One day at Tomba, contemplating my mountain vastness, a vehicle arrived from Mount Hagen with a note which said simply: ‘ARRIVING TOMORROW EN ROUTE MENDI. PLEASE ASSEMBLE 1000 CARRIERS. CLANCY’.

Des Clancy was never known to waste words, but he could have spared a few more words for me, because, as he did not state the purpose of his visit, I thought he had made a mistake by adding more zeros than intended. A Kiap travelling light might use 10 carriers, with an extended entourage he might need 100. But 1000? That was not likely. So to be on the safe side, I allocated from my 2,000 strong work force at Tomba, 100 carriers to accompany Clancy to Mendi.

The next day, Clancy drove up in a brand new Land Rover with two policemen and a few patrol boxes aboard. I went to meet him and he said, ‘Have you got my 1,000 carriers?’ I said, ‘Why do you need 1,000?’ and he replied, ‘To carry this Land Rover to the Mendi roadhead.’

‘That’s a tall order, why didn’t you dismantle it and carry it in bits and put it together again at the other end?’ I said,

‘No,’ Clancy responded, ‘it would take months to do it that way, and we can’t wait for that. We need to carry this Land Rover in now, not in parts, but whole, just like it is.’

‘OK,’ I said, ‘I can supply a thousand carriers from the road gang, but how will you ever carry it?’

‘Ah,’ said Clancy, ‘I thought you would know,’ and he flashed his famous Clancy smile. My God, I thought, how will we ever do it? Then, sensing my dismay and looking around at the road gang working nearby Clancy asked ‘Who is the boss of all these workers?’

‘This Luluai,’ I said, indicating a local clan leader who was standing next to me. ‘OK,’ Clancy said, ‘let him work out how to do it,’ and I agreed.

Luluai,’ I said in Pidgin, ‘Masta Clancy wants to take this Land Rover to the Mendi Road. Can you carry it?’

‘Yassir,’ the Luluai said without hesitation. He obviously had a better idea of how to do it than we did.  So I ceased all work on my road so my road gang could concentrate their efforts on the task of preparing the Land Rover for portage to the Mendi Road.

‘We better go into conference,’ Clancy said, ‘while they decide how to do it,’ and he asked his police to carry one of his patrol boxes into my grass hut. After they had deposited it there and departed, Clancy sat down and opened the patrol box. It was full of beer bottles, packed in ice. ‘It’s going to be thirsty work figuring out how they plan to carry it,’ Clancy said, ‘lets have a beer.’

And while we sat inside my hut wondering, Clancy told me why he had to take the Land Rover into Mendi fully assembled. Unlike the Hagen road gangs, which already knew the reason for the roads they built, the Southern Highlands road gangs were becoming disillusioned because they could not see the point of building roads which were 20 feet wide, when the only vehicles in Mendi were bicycles and motor bikes that could obviously use the existing walking tracks.

The Mendi people had never seen a four-wheeled vehicle, and because they had no concept of the vehicular traffic a road would bring, Clancy said a practical demonstration was required. He needed to drive the Land Rover along the Mendi roads so the people would see why they were necessary.

Meanwhile, outside my grass hut there was much hollering and yodelling and crashing of timber, and grunting and groaning and shouted commands. The full cacophony of sounds as my road gang set about its task. One hour dragged by, then two, then three, while Clancy and I sat inside, concentrating on the contents of his patrol box. Finally, one of Clancy’s policemen came to the door and said ‘We’re ready to go, Sir.’ So Clancy and I went outside, and we were amazed at what we saw.

The Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels carried wounded diggers down the Kokoda Track on stretchers made from bush material. My road gang carried the roadwork overburden away in similar stretchers. So, when it came to carrying Clancy’s Land Rover to the Mendi Road, all they needed was a bigger stretcher. And that is exactly how they did it.
They had cut down two tall Casuarina trees, used the trunks for stretcher poles and cross-tied the branches as the stretcher bed. Then they lifted the Land Rover onto the bed and lashed it securely there, and with 1,000 carriers strung out on either side of the tree trunks fore and aft of the Land Rover, they were ready to go. When Clancy gave the command, they all gave one almighty heave ho, lifted the stretcher to shoulder height and away they went.

There was a steep escarpment leading to the valley below, we had not yet found a way around it for vehicular traffic. The native track to the valley floor went down the escarpment in a straight line from top to bottom, as native mountain tracks did. And as there was nowhere else to go, that is the way the Land Rover had to go. That is, straight down.

Once over the lip of the escarpment, pointing down like a toboggan on a slippery slope, the Land Rover developed a momentum of its own, and the carriers had to run to keep up with it. I watched from the top of the escarpment as 1,000 carriers yodelled and yelled in unison as they ran down the slope to the valley below, with Clancy running behind. I lost sight of them as they disappeared into the gathering valley mist, but for hours afterwards I continued to hear yodelling and yelling floating up from the valley floor from miles and miles away until it slowly fading into the mist.

I heard later that, like a conquering Roman Emperor, Clancy made a triumphant entry into Mendi, except, instead of driving a chariot as any conquering Roman Emperor might, Clancy drove his Land Rover but with equal panache and flair.

Word had spread like wildfire. From the roadhead where my carriers had delivered the Land Rover all the way to Mendi, thousands of people lined the route to see their first four-wheeled vehicle, and to learn the reason why they were building roads. Meanwhile, back at Tomba, I discovered that Clancy had left the patrol box full of beer behind, so for several weeks thereafter, I drank his health every day in gratitude. So that is how I acquired a patrol box full of beer, and that is how Clancy took the first Land Rover into Mendi.


The death of Des Clancy, reported in the March 2007 edition of Una Voce, brought back fond memories to many of us who knew him. Des was a legend even during his own lifetime, and his exploits spawned many stories. This Des Clancy story was previously told in Taim Bilong Masta, the ABC radio program and in the subsequent book. In the original broadcast it was somewhat truncated by the limited radio time available. This was the unabridged version – CM

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