Didiman’s Diary #6

By David Montgomery

17th November 1958 I departed on recreation leave and returned on 3rd April 1959 reporting for duty at KONEDOBU head office receiving what I considered disappointing news; instead of returning to FINSCHAFFEN, AITAPE on the North West Coast of the SEPIK District was to be my destination. The new posting took me first via LAE then FINSCHHAFEN to handover responsibilities to the incoming Didiman.  Back to LAE and on to WEWAK via MADANG. Air transport and travel were rarely straight forward and often involved the charter of aircraft of various ages and sizes.

The District Agricultural Officer at WEWAK, Jack White and his wife, Norma welcomed me.  From that day to this they have remained close friends.  After a briefing by Jack and the District Commissioner, Bob Cole, I departed for AITAPE 15th April in a small Catholic Mission Cessna 172. Flying over the 85 miles to AITAPE, the aerial view confirmed my worst fears; nothing much more than sago swamps with a small strip of coastal sand.  On arrival I contemplated a twenty-one month posting as a liklik didiman. The settlement was right on the coast; very hot and sticky 24 hours a day. The compensating factor was the beach and the surf. The Administration staff numbered five, including myself.  There was to be a cadet patrol officer, however, after two weeks at AITAPE and four weeks all told in the Territory he resigned.

The Franciscan Mission, had, had for many years, their headquarters at AITAPE.  Monsignor Ignatius Doggett was the Priest in charge.  There were some 20 or so Brothers with various pastoral and administration duties.  On occasions the Station residents would be invited to share a meal with them which was always appreciated as they were self- sufficient in meat and milk!  I used to wonder (with a degree of sympathy) how the Nuns’ managed when they walked in from their Mission outposts in their full habits – procedure or penance?  It was suggested, windcheaters and shorts would have been more appropriate.

Because of the relative closeness to the border of the capital of Netherlands New Guinea (NNG), HOLLANDIA, a social relationship developed with the residents through the Australian Ambassador for NNG, Pat Mollison.  Exchange visits were arranged to play tennis; one visit as recorded in a letter home.

Social life should tone up for several days.  I am flying to VANIMO (Gibb’s Sepik Airways – Norseman) on Wednesday for a Station inspection returning on Friday to welcome 40 Dutch, Eurasian, and others who are coming to AITPE for a day surfing and tennis travelling in the Dutch Governors’ yacht M.V. ORANJE.  I hope to sail with them 11pm Friday night, after a barbecue dance, to WEWAK.  The Tennis Ball is on Saturday night and tennis all day Sunday.”

There were reciprocal visits and on one occasion a Gibb’s Sepik Airways Junkers was chartered from WEWAK to continue the “international” tennis challenge.

Perhaps those who commenced their career in a country far removed from their own culture and lifestyle found solace in writing to family and friends.   My letters and personal diaries have been kept and are a great source of happy memories.  They tell many stories of the pleasure and satisfaction of working in the land that time forgot or as some would have said;” The land of wait a while.”

My first impressions of flying into AITAPE were not justified.  The geography of the sub-district; the range of developed and developing agricultural enterprises in the areas where I worked was not unlike the FINSCHHAFEN sub district – my previous posting. There were four geographic areas of responsibility:  The Coastal Plain extending from VANIMO through SISSANO, AITAPE to MALOL, the NUKU Sub-District, and the LUMI Patrol Post administration area.

The contrast in the above areas of agricultural development and crops was significant.  The entire coastal population had been exposed for over one hundred years to coastal traders, itinerant travelers, explorers, foreign shipping and a German administration before 1914. Prior to 1945 there was little Australian administrative contact; the Missions, in considerable numbers, were active amongst the coastal people and those of the hinterland.  The whole of the Coast was thrust into the confusion of the Japanese invasion. Australian government attention and support came to the coastal population following cessation of those hostilities.

Vanimo Patrol Post was one hundred miles south of the Netherlands New Guinea border and significantly the Pacific Islands Regiment maintained a detachment adjacent to the Patrol Post. Trade routes between the people of the Torrecilli mountain range and the coast were well established.  Salt, seafood, sago, cowrie shell (girigiri) and mother of pearl (kina) were some of the important items.  Extension work involved the management and marketing of a large range of crops.  Peanuts, coffee, copra and cacao were produced with rice trials an important introduction.  Coffee robusta had been well established in German times although not as a plantation crop.  The Hansenide (leprosy) Colony patients, close to Aitape produced marketable quantities of peanuts.  I developed an excellent relationship with the growers.

A Rural Progress Society, “WAIPO”, was well established with Directors nominated by the village shareholders along the AITAPE sub-district coast.  The Rural Progress Society owned and operated outboard motors: who can remember the “Archimedes A4” or wants to remember them?  During later postings they caused a degree of grief! The motors were attached to the rear of the hollowed out log canoes. A canoe which I chartered for coastal travel was called “Kranki”; I don’t recall if the name was anglicised pisin English or local dialect.

Moving from the coast to patrol in the LUMI and NUKU areas was an amazing transition from the “sophisticated” and entrepreneurial coastal dwellers, to the primitive people of the Torrecilli Range – west and south west.

13 June 1959.  From my field officer’s journal. “Departed WEWAK per Mission Cessna for LUMI – discussions ADO (Assistant District Officer) Tim Terrell”.

 And from a letter home: “I am sitting in a native material house one days walk from the nearest civilization, five days walk from WEWAK and three days from AITAPE with Patrol Officer Harry Redmond.  We have been out for nearly two weeks in a heavily populated area north of a place called LUMI.  The locals, by any measure, are fairly primitive.  Over the past eleven days we have walked about 80 miles and climbed to 3000 feet above sea level.  The village we are at tonight is about 2000 feet.  The climate is cool with plenty of fresh vegetables; a welcome change from the coast.  At the conclusion of this patrol, I flew from LUMI to ANGUGUNAK to visit the Protestant Mission where they were building a large native hospital and a Douglas DC3 airstrip!  They have a staff of four missionaries and a doctor.  A nice break, with lovely people helping them to plan a coffee plantation of 30 acres and to plant the remaining area to native subsistence foods.  From there I fly to a place called NUKU which is a really “bushy” area and the locals are a bit wild – a lot of the men still wear a large shell or a hollowed out marrow as their only form of dress”

In the Una Voce, December 2015 an article, “NUKU PNG, Close to 15000 people gathered to celebrate Independence Day”.  See story by George Oates PNGAA Library – what progress!!

From my Journal. 

“27 June 1959. Packed stores and departed AITAPE 1100 for NUKU arrived 1120.  Discussions with Patrol Officer Faithfull on the area and in the afternoon addressed all Village officials in the NUKU Administrative Area.

28 June.  Visited various sections of the Station to determine a suitable location for coffee garden and nursery.  Soil profiles examined.

29 June. Departed NUKU 0900 for SEBETELA.  Arrived 1100.  In afternoon addressed approximately 300 villagers and Village Officials on the objectives of the Division of Agricultural Extension.  Discussions on peanuts, coffee, and rice. O/N

1 July departed SEBETELA 0645 arrived NUKU 0830.  Typed out notes and departed per Norseman for WEWAK via MAPRIK.”

What a transition!  Having the opportunity to move between areas of such developmental contrast was a rewarding experience. If one had an aversion to flying back in those days one would have remained “grounded” The excitement of flying in the Norsemans, De Haviland Dragons and any manner of other aircraft; landing on airstrips new and not so old has stayed with me ever since along with my love of flying. Several visits by aircraft were made to NUKU and LUMI in the ensuing months to follow up developmental work in coffee and rice in between supervising the coastal projects.

On the 1st December I was advised (by telegram) of immediate transfer, after only eight months, to the BAINYIK Agricultural Station – MAPRIK Sub District – as the officer in charge.

Another change another challenge!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.