The last road I built (Wanpela mo bladi rot na pinis olgera), Garry McKellar-James

The last road I built was an appropriate swansong. Road-building was an occupational disease; a recurring health hazard. Kiaps did it because all District Commisioners and Assistant District Commisioners loved comfortable day-drives along new symbols of economic progress.

I built roads through jungles, around mountains and across swamps. There is an awful lot of limestone in Papua New Guinea, and we Kiaps found most of it. There’s a lot of very sloping land there, too, and, mostly with hand-labour, we dug into most of that.

Not we personally: the ship’s Captain doesn’t swab decks. What we did was pore over maps and plough through jungle to find and fix a possible and sometimes almost-impossible route; convince, then coordinate the hundreds, thousands, of villagers who stood to benefit in some way from the road, and account for the picks, shovels and crow-bars. Many of these people were traditional enemies, so we established rules of conduct – road crews and families moved under Police escort and carried no arms. We arranged truces to allow Clan A to work with Clan B while keeping C and D well apart. And so much else, as we tried to anticipate every twist of local politics. We arranged food and if necessary accommodation for everyone – Instant Hiltons just sprang up.

The sights and the sounds are still clear. The hollow mid-evening boom as burned limestone cooled and cracked in the high altitude chill. The clink-clink-clink of hand-drills. The rippling roar of the Roadmaster grader. The growl of an landslide responding to all this activity. And the workers’ shrill victory-whoops: ‘Kiap, em gutpela gutpela rot bilong mipela’.

Even as the road is being built, village people are already planting coffee, learning how to ferment it and planning their new money-economy. The coffee-buyers keep tabs, alliances are made and sundered, arguments and rip-offs abound. Each day we balance the safety valve on that great iron lid we have dropped onto those rambunctious cultures.

Despite all that manual labour on rocks and moraines, men, women and kids moving tonnes of soil, building all those bridges, I can’t recall a single major injury. If the modern Safety Police hadn’t arrested me for the conditions I was forced to live and work in, they’d have hung me for some of the work-practices. The New Guineans seemed accident-proof: no matter how heavy the bridge-beam, how high the flimsily lashed scaffolding, there was no major grief. Considering those roads and the way those PMVs (taxi trucks) were driven, it’s a wonder more cars-full of people didn’t fall off the road: it was a long way to the bottom.

Every tree is owned, every bush debated for value, every one of the multitude of land boundaries asserted and debated – sometimes hotly. If you think you’ve met some ear-bashers, sit through a meeting in the Highlands.  You can hear an orator from a hundred metres, and once given the floor he may not be interrupted. When you have recovered from that flood of rhetoric, do a land purchase.

Some roads were drivable only in the dry, wet red clay often defying wheel-chains. Some roads were cut to fit – when the Administration bought Land Cruisers some Land-Rover-sized undercuts had to be widened.

My swansong road was another of Max Denehey’s all-time ball-tearers, but not in the usual sweaty, PNG way. I wasn’t legally a Kiap at this time but the aura was almost visible: a couple of retired cops saluted me.

I needed to get vehicles from the Popondetta airstrip to the main coast road a couple of miles away. After consulting the Big Man in the village near our destination we surveyed with a Mini-Moke until the kunai lifted her nose. That was just before the drive shaft started to bind up, overwhelmed by the blades of that tough swordgrass.

Nobody loves kunai-country. With enough prisoners on the ‘big-lain’ you could defeat it with continual slashing, allowing productive grass to come through and strangle the new corms. But it is work that only prisoners or machines would attempt, and only if the soil could get moisture; only if the spiv fund could afford it and Queensland Pastoral Products could send a very good slasher, COD. The kunai plains of Popondetta were water-free that season.

We cleaned up, and came back with a Land Rover and a big lump of rope. Standing on the roof we marked out a straightish route, avoiding some scraggly scrub. My guide couldn’t read a map, but recognised tall trees near his village. Then we nosed into that grey-green wall.

With my guide on the roof safe from the slashing, two-metre blades, guyed with three-way reins and setting my course by tapping his toes on the aluminium. I ground along in Low-Low, and apart from a couple of creeks which caused my pilot to need his reins we reached open scrub a hundred metres from the creek.

We walked through, and decided that a few trees and several roots had to go: the seismic crew had gelignite, so that was no trouble. On the way back we took a fresh track, because we’d crashed through some dry scrub and needed to avoid the thousands of ‘panji’ (hidden, nasty, sharp wooden or bamboo remnants) pointing at us. This straightened the line a bit more, and we were back in time for dinner.

The next day we traveled with the driver of a big road-grader. He followed my outward track taking about an inch off that thin, dry, tired, washed-out topsoil with all the root and corm-structure, rolling it to the left. The result was a smooth asphalt-like surface gleaming in the sun, and there was nothing to stop us making an even straighter line. At the other end we enjoyed the shade, and went back the other way still pushing to the left, making a slight camber in the new road. I handed over a cheque, and that was that. It would take a few years to grow over, and that track across the dry, cruel grass expanse was a local asset.

Early the next day I took some of the lads and gave them a short lesson on how to, and how not to, handle gelignite: we standardised on Pidgin for the lesson although I was speaking Motu and Indonesian as the crew required. One electric-detonator demonstration was enough; and the first man to wipe his forehead was extremely grateful that the creek was right there. Why did we start at the creek end? Even the slightest trace of that sticky goo will cause a violent headache or strong and worrisome tachycardia. Quite early in their blasting careers, all neophytes experience an urgent need for lots of water. I learned swear words in a couple more languages that day.

Several non-economic trees decided to lie down and stumps jumped up. We hand-filled the holes until the instrument guys could get close to the creek. “And the rest of the stick, Taubada?” A decent hole just upstream and fish equal to several good-sized bush-baskets of fresh dinner.

The ride home was pleasant, our creek-wet clothes drying quickly as we yodelled at 100 km/h along that perfect new surface; the hard landing on one of the small sharp creek beds didn’t interrupt our fun. Someone spotted some empty oil drums to use as signposts, and we were home in time to cook a luscious dinner.

I’d built my last road in PNG.


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