A didiman's diary, part 2: David Montgomery
A continuing story of people, places and patrols in the life of an Agricultural Extension Officer (Didiman) in the Territory of Papua New Guinea from 1956. Continued from part 1.
The nearly 10 years in the Territory had an enormous number of highlights. Great friendships; lengthy patrols into areas of contrast: to those of little or no development or contact and to areas settled by Europeans more than 100 years previously. By foot; on an old BSA 125 cc motorbike (later graduating to 150 cc); government workboats; chartered speedboats; various types of hollowed out river and sea craft logs and one or two other makeshift forms of conveyance!
Aircraft: some very old, some very, very old and some not so old to fly into and out of patrol locations. A book could be written on my aircraft experiences; the airstrips and the pilots—bless them all.
Fieldwork, by patrolling, was the essence of our work. This commenced a few days after arrival. A very steep learning curve for a 19-year-old. Quoting from James Sinclair’s book The Money Tree: Coffee in Papua New Guinea:
The patrol was not without incident. The Upper Dunantina people were smart and sharp. I purchased half a dozen fighting spears: my first native artefacts. These were carefully packaged into bamboo cylinders and bound for transport by the carriers. On arrival back at Henganofi Patrol Post I opened the package to find the spears had been substituted with pit pit: a tall cane-like grass. Noel Fowler dispatched a couple of policemen to recover the goods and apprehend the offenders.
One of the outstanding features of the government Patrol Posts and Sub-District out-stations was the park like lawns and gardens. The Kiaps, the Police and the staff took immense pride in the presentation of their Stations. Ross Johnson, a former Kiap, has an excellent collection of Hengaonofi Patrol Post (1957) photos on Google.
Of particular note on this patrol was the abundance, size and quality of European potatoes possibly grown from peelings obtained from Mick Casey’s kitchen! Strangely, my career pathway on return to Australia was focused for 45 years on potatoes. More to this story later.
Each of the villages had a ‘village book’, akin to a visitors’ book. This was presented, proudly, by the village Luluai to a visiting official on arrival. On the completion of a visit the book was endorsed with the work undertaken, arrangements made for follow up visits and signed. Some 50 years later I paid, by cheque, an earthmoving contractor, Steve Gibson, for work done on our NSW south coast property. Steve looked at the signature and said that it had not changed in the 50 years since I signed the village books in New Guinea. Steve was a Kiap and worked in the Eastern Highlands and a number of other Districts.
My area of responsibility extended west to the Upper Asaro Valley and east to Henganofi. We were equipped with strong steel boxes and basic camping equipment. Trade goods of axes, knives, salt, twist tobacco (cured tobacco leaf mixed with a molasses and what else?) These items were exchanged for food or for carrier services as we moved from village to village. The only acceptable form of cash was the New Guinea shilling with a hole in the centre. One hundred of these were wrapped, as a cylinder, in paper and called a fuse!
Fieldwork was wide ranging, and area visits were often accompanied by native fieldworkers who had received basic agricultural education. A number of trainees would work with the village people during the patrols. Purpose-built village rest houses were reserved and maintained for use by officials and other visitors.
After my first patrol I made the personal decision not to request a police escort, not to carry a fireman and not to take alcohol. This remained so for all my time in PNG.
A lot of the development work in coffee, pine tree planning and establishing small dams for pond fish was in the Bene Bena. On my first visit riding the faithful ‘Beeza Bantam’ I negotiated the infamous Bena Bena hill; the road was gravelled with a suicidal mix of all sizes of crushed stone. At the bottom of the hill Ian Fraser was managing a coffee plantation on a kunai plateau at a location called Sogopego. Ian, like myself, had only been resident in the Territory for a few months and the new development was his first challenge in coffee growing. A ‘house’ needed to be built first, two rooms constructed with native materials and, as always, a detached hauskuk. I called in to introduce myself: ‘Ah, you’re the new lik lik Didiman. Come in, take a seat’ was Ian’s welcome. Ian was the first of the European settlers I had met. After inspecting his coffee project Ian asked me if I would like a feed? I thanked him for the offer whereupon he called out to his hausboi: a local lad ‘suitim kai kai’. Lunch was served—tinned spaghetti topped with icecream! Ian’s reaction best left unsaid. I complimented him on the lunch and his culinary delights. From then on we have been close friends.
The meeting with Ian was important as he introduced me to many of the people who pioneered the commercial development of the coffee industry in the Central Highlands of New Guinea. It did not take long to get to know most of them and respect their determination to succeed.
The inter-Territory town rugby league competition was a ‘ticket to travel’. The competition commenced in 1953. A match roster involved team aircraft charters between the main Territory towns, generally by DC3s and occasionally a Junkers. I joined the team for the 1957 season and played alongside a number of class footballers, notably Brian Johnson and Neil Latimer both of whom played rugby union for Australia. The football team tours were an opportunity to meet and socialise with many people throughout PNG.
Dennis (Junior) Buchanan—later Sir Dennis—was a friend in those early days and at the time he was the traffic clerk for Territory Airlines Ltd (TAL). Having discovered the ready availability of European potatoes in the Dunantina I perceived a ready market for them in Port Moresby. Purchasing them at 2d per pound and retailing in Port Moresby at 2/- a pound. Dennis agreed on a backload rate Goroka to Port Moresby at 6d a pound! The margin looked pretty good with transport from the Dunantina compliments of the Administration. Following the first successful shipment, guilt set in as I knew my side enterprise was contrary to Public Service Regulations.
Very soon after the first shipment, a smartly turned out police constable arrived at our donga and handed me a note: ‘Please come and see me at the Residency this afternoon,’ signed Bill Seale District Commissioner. I immediately concluded my days were numbered. On presenting myself, Bill’s wife, Heather, said: ‘Come in David, Bill and I would like you to join us for dinner next Saturday evening.’ A sense of relief and a mental note to do what I was supposed to be doing. The bonus of that evening was the presence of two lovely girls visiting from Australia.
In the first 12 months I flew out of Goroka many times, on official duties, football or private charters. One particularly memorable trip was a TAL Cessna 170 charter to Mt Hagen with two didimen; Francis Xavier Ryan and Mick Belfield. John Downie was our pilot. What an experience, flying low up the Waghi Valley, seeing the start of the European coffee developments. The occasion was the wedding of Jim Kingston, the District Agricultural Officer, Western Highlands District to Mary Camp, daughter of Noel Camp, a pioneer coffee planter. I stayed at Dan Leahy’s (Snr) ‘Kuta’ home. Meeting Dan and his Papua New Guinean wife and listening to their stories of the early pioneer days was special.
Next day John flew the three of us to the Mission airfield for the wedding service at the Mission church. Two minutes in the air and back again to Mt Hagen for the wedding breakfast. A memorable event. No less memorable the return flight. Skimming the towering white cliffs of Mt Elimbari thousands of feet above us; over pretty Chuave Patrol Post, before descending into Goroka.
I flew a number of times with Peter Manser, Gibbes Sepik Airways (GSA) chief pilot. On one occasion he was flying me to Kundiawa in a Norseman. Kundiawa was to be my next posting. On take-off from Goroka, I urgently drew Peter’s attention to the fuel pressure warning light showing red. He gave a nonchalant wave, commenced a right bank and climbed up and on to a safe landing 20 minutes later at Kundiawa. When all was quiet (conversation in flight in a Norseman was impossible) he explained that the fuel warning light leads had been reversed when the aircraft had been serviced. Had the light gone out we would have been in trouble!
My next story will cover my work in the Chimbu Valley in the Kundiawa Sub-Districts.
Photos by Joe Nitsche