Jimi River: Robert Blakie

In 1956 and 1957, I was posted to Minj in the Wahgi Valley of the Western Highhlands as a Patrol Officer.

It was during this time that Barry Griffin was sent to establish a new Patrol Post in what was then uncontrolled territory in the Jimi River area. I can recall when at Minj hearing Barry set up his first radio contact with Mt Hagen and experiencing some difficulty with the Mt Hagen operator. There was discussion as to the naming of this new station with Barry telling her that it was Tabibugara or something like this. This seemed to be rather a mouthful for the Hagen operator so they compromised and it became Tabibuga.

With the only access to Tabibuga from Banz in the Wahgi Valley being a walking track the supplying of the new post became a problem. The District Commissioner at Mt Hagen, Ian Skinner, in 1956 or 1957 sent me to visit Tabibuga with the express purpose of investigating the possibility of establishing a road into the new station from Banz suitable for donkeys. At that stage there was no likelihood of building an airstrip in the immediate future so Skinner thought that the best way to supply the station was by donkey. I set off from Banz in the Wahgi Valley but it soon became clear that a donkey track was impractical.

The walk in from Banz took two or three days over the divide between those rivers flowing south to the Purari and the Gulf of Papua and those flowing north to the Sepik and the Bismarck Sea. I walked with great difficulty along the top of this ridge for hours seeing if I could find a suitable crossing for a donkey track but no such crossing was found.

I was expected and found Barry all set up. He had built his station not on the flat lands of the Lower Jimi but on a ridge in the mountains in the upper valley. The station buildings were all constructed of local materials with his own house on the very edge of a precipitous crest. I felt that if there were to be a severe earth tremor the house might have slipped to the earth below.

I was Barry’s first visitor and he celebrated by having afternoon tea served on a sparkling silver tray with doillies and his best crockery. Barry was a taciturn man but was clearly pleased to have a visit from the outside. He had a passion for tidiness and orderliness with both his house and office so very organised.

After a few days at Tabibuga I retraced my steps back to Banz and then on to Minj.

Some time after my visit, Barry had a visit from the noted British broadcaster, natural historian and ornithologist David Attenborough together with Charles Lagus. Attenborough and Lagus had flown into Nondugl and then (after obtaining permission from the District Commissioner, Ian Skinner, to enter uncontrolled territory) walked into Tabibuga from Banz following my footsteps. The objects of Attenborough’s visit were to make a film about birds of paradise and also the manufacture of stone axes for which the Jimi is renowned.

After six days at Tabibuga together with Barry Griffin they walked from Tabibuga to Aiome in the Madang District. Attenborough tells the story of this adventure in his book Quest in Paradise, Lutterworth Press, London, 1960, which contains a number of very good photographs of Tabibuga and the people of the Jimi.

Attenborough’s visit to the Jimi had one unintended consequence. The Lutheran missionary at Banz had long wanted to enter the Jimi River area but been denied the necessary permit to enter uncontrolled territory. His complaint to the District Commissioner alleging some form of discrimination was easily dismissed by Skinner as Attenborough and his party had been accompanied by Patrol Officer Griffin and his police.

 

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