Monday, March 2, 2015

Assignment Papua New Guinea - 1968-75



Papua New Guinea Years 1968-1975 . 


                                                              The Expatriate.

Adverting was not my first career choice. I’d wanted to be a traveler and a journalist. But I couldn’t get a job in journalism because I didn’t have a university degree. Advertising was my next choice - it was creative and better paid than journalism but I never got to the “better paid part”.
I spent five years in the ad business learning copywriting and media and printing and design and finally I was an account executive selling the American dream that had become Australia’s.

I felt a dark cloud descending. And as it thickened around me I struggled to find a way to escape. I thought about inland Australia. Mining companies paid well and life was rough in the desert. I considered joining the army, something to initiate and toughen and help me escape the malaise I felt. But the war in Vietnam was in the headlines every day and Australians were dying in a distant land, that made no sense and I quickly dropped the idea. And then, one day an old school friend suggested Papua New Guinea.

We were having lunch at a pub in one of Melbourne’s leafy neighborhoods when he told me about patrol officers, young men employed by the Australian government taming the wilds of Papua New Guinea. Suddenly the cloud lifted. I realized perhaps this was the answer - a way out - overseas travel and adventure all paid for by the Australian government. I loved the bush. I relished the idea of working outside, traveling far away from “Tip Top Bread/ As the baker said/ It is especially fine/ Hurry to the shop/ There you’ll make a stop/ When you see the Tip Top sign.” The banal and insidious nature of advertising was getting to me.

Immediately I began reading as much as I could about Papua New Guinea and applied to become a Cadet Patrol Officer with the Australian Department of External Affairs, the department that oversaw PNG under a United Nations mandate. It would take six months before the invitation for an interview finally arrived.

Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad had nothing on James Sinclair and Jack Hides, Ivan Champion and others who documented their real adventures in Papua New Guinea; who’d disappeared behind the ranges and into the swamps and vast inland valleys deep in unexplored territories on the second largest island on Earth. The accounts vibrated with authenticity and raw excitement and tantalized and fascinated me. The authors were ordinary Australians in an extraordinary country and I prayed that one day I would get a taste of what they wrote.

Their books described journeys into territory never seen by white men, cannibals and crocodiles, exploratory patrols that lasted months and yielded reports of sorcery and magic, unique characters and taim bilng tumbuna filled with totems and animist spirits, the time in the past which still lives in the present in Papua New Guinea today.

It has been called The Land That Time Forgot, The Mysterious Island, The Most Primitive Place on Earth. But these were European appellations and had no significance to a people who had evolved complex kinship systems and survival techniques of great diversity and complexity unmatched in modern western society today.

I felt ready for this new life and my desire was strong. My will to make the cut filled my every day. But I was twenty-three years old, at the older end of the spectrum for applicants, and feared my dream might not materialize.  But then the invitation for an interview arrived. Four hundred young men had applied for forty new positions as cadet patrol officers in what appeared to be the last induction, as the colonial period slowly wound down in Papua New Guinea.

My interviewer was a big, bluff former senior patrol officer who spoke softly belying the image I had of hard-bitten veterans of New Guinea. He told of his love of the island and the people and a life very different to mine and I hung on his every word. Some months later I learned I was accepted and would soon leave my home in Melbourne and drive the six hundred miles to Sydney to attend ASOPA – the Australian School of Pacific Administration - a tertiary institution established by the Australian Government to train administrators, patrol officers and school teachers to work in Papua New Guinea.

In November, 1968 forty excited cadet patrol officers fastened their seat belts and roared down the runway, lifted into the air, and looked down on Sydney’s harbor; the ferries ploughing white furrows in the blue sea, the white lines of breaking surf skirting the serpentine coastline, the endless blue Pacific ocean, flat and limitless and then the Arafura Sea that separated Australia from its nearest northern neighbor.

Ahead lay a new life. A feeling of elation filled me as we droned towards the place I’d read so much about and soon would touch and taste in person. I felt reborn. It was only the second time I’d flown and the exhilaration I felt was palpable. Suddenly my previous life seemed old and distant, as if a great lid was closing on the trunk of my childhood and a new portal opening to real adulthood. I don’t think I’d ever felt such relief and happiness. And then the intercom crackled and a voice told us that Papua was in sight and I looked out a porthole and saw the formidable coastline slowly materializing on the horizon.

21st., century.Port Moresby.
The sea changed color from deepest blue to green as we approached. White horses whipped by the wind raced across its surface as we descended. Now I could see Port Moresby’s scatted bungalows and rusted tin roofs, stilt houses on the edge of the harbor, a yellow dry and desolate landscape caught in a rain shadow created by the Owen Stanley ranges. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The mountains in the distance were steeply rising monoliths – great green giants looming, rising endlessly into the clouds and the dark interior. The Kokoda Trail, the track renowned for viscous World War Two battles between Japanese and Australian forces in 1942, wound its way through some of the most impenetrable country in the world, down to Port Moresby.

The Kokoda Trail was legendary in Australia, its history written in blood and courage, the final holdout where my countrymen fought back against the Japanese invasion of Australia. Relatives of mine had fought and died in the war in Papua New Guinea and I was filled with awe and humility as I looked down as we descended and felt grateful for the opportunity of adventures I’d only dreamed about.

The first thing I felt as I stepped from the belly of the airplane was a solid wall of stifling heat sucking the breath from my lungs. It was a completely new feeling. I felt perspiration squirting out of me as I walked across the tarmac to the low-slung airport complex. Soon we were on a bus, staring out the windows at the shacks and the natives on the roadside as we headed for Kwikila, fifty miles east of the capital where we would spend a final month of on-ground training, sleeping under canvas on cots, attending lectures and demonstrations, as we were inducted into our new life.

Cadet Patrol Officer induction at Kwikila, Papua 1968.  Me at back on far left.
We learned about primitive road and bridge construction, heard stories from our trainers, themselves seasoned patrol officers. We drank dark rum and water with our anti-malaria tablets and handled 38 Smith and Wesson side arms on the firing range. As cadet patrol officers we would spend twenty-one months before graduating to full patrol officer status but already we were officially officers in the Royal Papua New Guinea constabulary. On distant patrol posts we were the law.

We’d learned about the inland highlands where more than a million people had been discovered only thirty years ago. There were people still who’d never seen a white man. The Highlands were cooler than the coast and considered desirable because there were still exploratory patrols and a taste of the old days of New Guinea. And then there were the less attractive humid low lands.

I’d read Ivan Champion’s account of crossing Papua New Guinea from the southern seaboard to the northern coast. The great swamplands in the southwest along what is now the Indonesian border. Six hundred miles upstream the Fly River was still only sixty feet above sea level. On the West Irian border - which used to be Dutch New Guinea - Indonesia invaded sending the Dutch colonialists packing. Now there were border incursions by Indonesian soldiers into PNG and there was fear that Indonesia might make a grab for more territory in Australian administered Papua New Guinea.

It was here, near the Fly River in 1961, that Michael Rockefeller disappeared. Rockefeller and Dutch anthropologist René Wassing’s 40-foot dugout canoe was swamped three miles off shore. Most believed Rockefeller either drowned or was attacked by sharks or crocodiles.  But in 1961, headhunting and cannibalism were still present in some areas of the Asmat region. There was speculation that Rockefeller might have been eaten. There was circumstantial evidence to support the idea.

Several leaders of Otsjanep village, where Rockefeller likely would have landed had he made it to shore, were killed by a Dutch patrol in 1958. Thus the villages had some rationale for revenge against someone from the “white tribe.” Neither cannibalism nor headhunting in Asmat were indiscriminate, but rather a part of a tit-for-tat pay back revenge cycle, and so it is possible that Rockefeller found himself the inadvertent victim of a pay back began by a Dutch patrol years before.

In 1979, Rockefeller’s mother hired a private investigator to go to New Guinea to try to resolve the mystery of his disappearance. The investigator swapped a boat engine for the skulls of three Caucasians claimed to be the only white men ever killed in the area. When the investigator returned to New York, he handed the skulls to the Rockefeller family, convinced that one of them was the skull of Rockefeller. Rockefeller’s mother is said to have paid a $250,000 reward for final proof proving whether or not Michael Rockefeller was alive or dead. The legacy of his death can be found in the Asmat artifacts Rockefeller collected, on permanent display, in the Michael C. Rockefeller collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. And one day I was to stand in that magnificent gallery and marvel at the tall statues and wonder.

In the northwest of New Guinea, paralleling the Indonesian border is another of the great rivers systems of the world, the mighty Sepik. It snakes sinuously towards the northern coastal town of Wewak, another site of ferocious fighting in the war. Grass-thatched spirit houses called Haus Tambarans, line its banks and contain the bones and messages of the ancestors in primitive carvings, many of them stolen by shady characters and sold to fashionable New York galleries. You can see Sepik carvings hanging behind the glass windows of fashionable art galleries on Madison Avenue in New York and around the world. 

And then there were the islands where the palm trees swayed and the soundtrack from South Pacific played in your head. The Bismarck Archipelago, a crescent of volcanic islands that included tiny Manus Island, part of the Admiralty island chain in the north near the equator; New Ireland, a long spit of sand and surf that curved south to New Britain; the Trobriand Islands that Margaret Mead made famous when she described the promiscuity of the women; and finally the island of Bougainville. These were considered prime postings. And all had  suffered during the Second World War as the Japanese advanced on Australia and the heroic Allied support of most islanders was legendary.

Our initial training ended in late 1969 and one day we lined up in the hot sun and dust at Kwikila and our names were called and matched to our postings. I was sent to Bougainville, Papua New Guinea’s most eastern district near the Solomon Islands, three hours flying time from the country’s capital, a sleepy island of 80,000 people, volcanic, wild and beautiful.



Kieta harbor and Pok Pok Island

Bougainville.

Bougainville was a backwater. It was 150 miles long with volcanoes, black sand beaches and limpid glass green seas. It was named after the French explorer, Louis Antoine de Bougainville who’d fought the British and the Indians in Canada and America in the seventeen hundreds.

The Bougainville District Office was a flimsy two story structure overlooking Kieta’s harbor. The air was infused with the musky smell of dried coconut kernels, copra stacked along the shore in brown hemp sacks ready for canoes and small boats to ferry to tramp steamers anchored in the harbor for delivery to Rabaul and the world market. The dust from the road that serviced the harbor, floated through the louvered windows of the office and most days the sun beat down on this small coastal town.

Kieta was perched on a narrow ribbon of land skirting the harbor. Pok Pok Island loomed off shore protecting us from the squalls that sometimes tore in from the east with great ferocity. Pok Pok means crocodile in Pidgin English and the island had the shape of a huge crocodile laying flat on its belly on top of the sea, its huge head jutting out to the south, its tail tapering to the north and was inhabited by local natives. They paddled their small canoes across the harbor, laden with copra, fish and vegetables to sell in Kieta.

Jimmy Wong’s Chinese trade store was at one end and of the settlement and Kieta’s hospital, a series of grass huts with tin roofs, was at the other. Between were administrative buildings huddled under the ubiquitous coconut trees that curved and swayed against the cloudless sky providing dappled shade from the tropic sun. Houses with screened-in verandahs, crept back from the shoreline and climbed steeply up the mountain side offering a fine view of the harbor. A thick green blanket of jungle and screeching wildlife, a carpet of dense undergrowth and tropical forest trees swathed in creepers and vines, accelerated rapidly into the clouds toward the inland spine of the island.

The Kieta Club, a white’s only club where the local expatriates drank too much, took pride of place at the center of the small community and near the shoreline was the Kieta hotel where I stayed when I first arrived. It was December 1968.

The hotel was run by a small jolly Aussie who wore colorful sarongs and recruited natives from the Mortlock Islands which were just over the horizon, an idyllic group of small islands on a single atoll north east of Bougainville and part of the Solomons. The Mortlock islanders were Polynesians with straight hair and slim bodies. They fitted the stereotype created by the French artist, Paul Gauguin who’d lived in Polynesian Tahiti in the latter part of his life. They were unlike the Negroid, stocky blue-black Bougainville natives.

This was my first posting in Papua New Guinea. I was twenty-four and far from my former life in Australia. It was almost my dream come true - almost because I was acting as district clerk, tied to a desk and a formidable row of file cabinets, answering directly to the District Commissioner. The adventures I sought in the jungle would have to wait for the return of the regular clerk who was on furlough for six months. I was his replacement.

I bunked in a stuffy back room at the Kieta Hotel with three other patrol officers who were new inductees to the Bougainville District administration. There’d been an influx of officers because copper and gold had been discovered in Bougainville’s central highlands. Soon landsmen and surveyors would arrive to negotiate purchase of thousands of acres of virgin jungle high in the mountains and the Arawa beach front for a massive port to export the minerals. It would be patrol officers who’d accompany the land surveyors, magistrates and land wardens, to negotiate with the locals.

One morning at the hotel as we assembled for a breakfast of fresh papaya with a squeeze of lime juice followed by bacon and eggs served by the handsome sarong clad waiters, a stranger approached. He was an Australian but unlike we patrol officers in our khaki shirts, shorts and long white socks, was dressed native style wearing sandals and a sarong - we called a lap lap - wrapped around his waist and worn like a skirt. His name was Barry Middlemiss. He was the plantation manger at Arawa, a 1,000 acre copra plantation not far from Kieta, owned by Kip McKillop. McKillop had been a coast-watcher during the war years. Arawa plantation was renowned for its outstanding orchid collection of more than one-thousand varieties.

The coast watchers were Allied military intelligence operatives stationed on remote Pacific islands during World War Two to observe enemy movements and rescue stranded Allied personnel. There were about 400 coast-watchers – Australian and New Zealand military officers,  Pacific Islanders and escaped Allied prisoners of war.

 In August 1943, Lt. John F. Kennedy of the United States Navy, and twelve fellow crew members, were shipwrecked after their boat, the PT-109 sunk. An Australian coastwatcher, Sub-Lt. Arthur Reginald Evans, observed the explosion of the PT-109 when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Evans dispatched two Solomon Islander scouts in dugout canoes. The scouts found the men and Kennedy scratched a message to Evans on a coconut, describing the plight and position of his crew and the rest is history.

Middlemiss sat. He observed us with a mix of disdain and envy. He’d “gone native”, siding with the locals and was helping organize resistance against the inroads of the copper company and the Administration. He was cut-off from his fellow countrymen and seemed hungry for fellowship but his demeanor was aloof and his conversation laced with  criticism toward the Australian support for the copper company.

It would take me some time to understand Middlemiss’ attitude. I was naive and unfamiliar with the politics, greed and the devastation our work as patrol officers supported. We were handmaidens to the mining industry and though unaware at the time, were sowing the seeds of a revolution the likes of which Australia and her colony had never seen.

In the district office I filed the paper work that greased the wheels of the mining venture. More and more white strangers were fronting the bar at the Kieta club. Blasé Americans and Aussies in new Toyota Landcruisers trickled into town and disappeared into the jungle. There were murmurings of unrest in some inland villages and the police contingent at Kieta district headquarters was increased.

I became friendly with the land warden who was responsible for arbitrating the sale of land to the mining venture. He was much older than I, a fit and friendly fellow who eagerly awaited the arrival of his young girlfriend from Australia. On weekends Hec and I headed for a bay near Aropa airstrip that paralleled the coast, to swim in the surf that beat against the rocks and crashed on the black sand beach.

We floated beyond the break in the warm sea looking back at the beach, the palm trees fringing the rugged coastline and the steeply rising foothills which climbed steeply higher and higher into the cloud forest. To the north we could sometimes see Mount Bagana, a steaming volcano which sat central in the island. We talked about home and a life devoid of female company and I realized I was lonely for my Australian girl friend who I’d left back in Melbourne. Soon I was to write and encourage Libby to leave her nursing job to come marry me in the islands.

Hec’s job as land warden was to wrest land from the natives and settle on a price. The mining company was a British based conglomerate, Conzinc Riotinto (CRA), which amalgamated with an Australian partner and employed American engineering outfits to install the infrastructure of what would soon become the world’s largest open-cut copper mine deep in the mountains at Panguna in the heart of Bougainville Island.

When I’d first arrived on Bougainville the road to Panguna was a treacherous track that climbed precipitously through primeval rain forests. The Moroni lived in clusters in grass huts but soon their ridge-top homes would be torn down and they’d be relocated as excavation of the mine site proceeded.

There were about twenty known language groups on the island all with their own unique customs. The Boungainvillians passed land ownership through the women. It was a matrilineal society and the women held great sway.

In the early land struggles, the women were on the front lines to try stop the mine’s expansion from destroying their home. Near Kip McKillop’s plantation at Arawa, the Rorovana women bare breasted and wearing lap laps and holding their children, stood between the government and their land, fighting to retain their birthright.

The pictures of that initial fight were spread across the front pages of Australian newspapers and alerted the world to the nascent struggle. But I think it was the naked breasts more than the rights of the locals that garnered the publicity for little was seen of the press in those parts during the early development of the copper mine. I was beginning to understand what Barry Middlemiss, the strange outsider I’d met months before, was all about and I admired his courage and lonely struggle to protect the local natives from the onslaught of the mining venture.

When the district clerk finally returned to rescue me from the tedium of office work I learned I would be posted to Boku, a distant inland patrol post in the south of the island. I pined for companionship as I sat on my verandah at nights looking out over Kieta’s harbor, marveling at the unspeakable beauty of those tropic nights, watching canoes leaving to fish, lanterns glimmering like tiny stars on the black sea. I wrote Libby a letter asking her to marry me and after a few excruciating weeks of waiting her letter arrived saying: “I do!”.

On a clear tropical evening in Keita, the District Commissioner did the honors. His black car collected us and drove ceremonially through town to his house located high on a hill with the best view of the area. The District Commissioner had gout that day and hobbled around on a crutch. A long white stocking covered one foot that lay propped on cushions on a stool while he presided over ceremonies from a chair and his wife and daughter prepared the savories. Later we would celebrate with fresh seafood and copious strong drinks at the home of a senior officer. And then retire to our conjugal bed in our standard issue domicile to begin our new life together.

Soon afterwards I was posted to the bush. Libby and I boarded a coastal trading vessel and sailed south to the bottom of the island to Buin. And then drove inland crossing seven rivers with no bridges, fording the waters in four-wheel drive Landrover until finally we reached the inland patrol post at Boku.

The officer in charge was a tall, bird-like, eccentric fellow who favored brief shorts and bare feet. I’d read of his legendary exploits in the Fly River delta in South West Papua. He’d conducted one of the last great exploratory patrols. It lasted nine months and his patrol reports were lengthy and detailed. In the library in Australia at ASOPA I’d poured over his reports with wonder and admiration. Now I stood in front of him at this lonely outpost where my wife was the only woman among three white men. I noticed how he avoided my eyes but seemed unable to take his gaze of my attractive young new wife.

Our new home was a large bamboo thatched house with shutters and a tin roof, no running water, a simple wood cooking stove, kerosene lamps and an outback toilet. Gecko lizards, friendly green creatures, some transparent so you could actually see their innards, made clicking sounds as they crawled up the walls clinging with suction feet pads. It was a beautiful, lonely and desolate green life and our first home together.

Nearby across the Pureata river was a construction camp where engineers and machine operators were installing a road to connect the patrol post to the copper mine at Panguna. Once a week we’d visit to drink beer and sit under the stars and watch a movie. These visits became the highlight of our week. They were a hardy group of Aussies, polite toward us in that outlandish backwater. We became friends and they offered relief from the sultry, introspective senior officer whose eyes devoured my wife and left us both uncomfortable.

The highlight of the month was receiving stores we’d ordered from Rabaul shipped by boat and then trucked to Boku. And the occasional visit from a patrol officer friend who flew his own plane. Already I was beginning to realize the life in Papua New Guinea was not as I'd read - those days had passed and by correspondence I studied film script writing and pined for more social life and stimulation.

The patrol post headquarters was another grass hut overlooking the Puriata River. In the rainy season, ferocious thunderstorms rolled in like clockwork at noon. Usually I made it to my house for lunch, about one hundred meters from the office, before the storm clouds opened and the deluge began.

On one such occasion I was resting, stroking the cat which lay on my chest when there was a massive explosion that rattled the tin roof and propelled the cat high into the air screeching in fear leaving her claw marks etched in my chest. When I returned to the office I saw the tall coconut tree that shaded the office, cleft down its center from the lightening bolt responsible for the ruckus. The electrical charge had raced down the tree’s trunk splitting it asunder and into the soil tracing the outline of the roots as if a machine gun had strafed the ground.

After these storms, the humidity lessened and the air smelt fresh and clean creating a magical atmosphere in the evenings when we sat on the verandah enjoying a beer. On this evening the man who ran the patrol post’s generator providing electricity till 10 pm, sauntered towards us and beckoned. He opened his fist to show me what looked like an axe head the size of a matchbox and asked if I wanted it. “Olsem wanem” I asked – “what is it?”

“Ol i kolim marlio ston” he said. “Olsem wanem dispela marlio ston – i cum long sampela hap we?’ – “ its called a malio stone” he answered. “What is it – where is it from?”, I’d asked. “Dispela ston i pundaun na brukim diwai taim ples bilong klaut i pairap” – “the stone comes down and breaks the tree when lightening strikes” he said.

“Wanem nem bilong dispale samting” – “what is it called”, I asked a second time trying to fathom the origins of the strange looking artifact which by now I was holding, rubbing my fingers on its smooth surface. It was dark gray in color with a sharp edge on one end and curved and swelled towards the back where it was round and smooth. I had seen nothing like it and wondered if perhaps it could be some kind of ancient tool. And yet it did not seem hard or heavy enough to be an axe head and it was certainly not an arrowhead.

“Dispela ston, oli kolem malio ston” – ‘this stone is a marlio ston”, the man answered again and went on: “Olgeta taim klaut I pirap, dispela marlio ston I pundaun na brukim namel dispela diwai na mipela painim em long insait na klostu long diwal. The man was telling me that during a thunderstorm, the stone came from the lightening in the clouds and split the tree in half and that people found them in the tree of nearby. I took the stone and placed it in a safe place and next day asked some of the Bougainvillian police stationed at the patrol post about the stone. They confirmed the story.

Years later in New York City, I told this story to a friend of mine from the small Himalayan country of Bhutan and he turned to me with an excited grin exclaiming: “oh a thunder stone – very special stone – it has special properties – we have them in Bhutan!”. When I brought the stone, which is my oldest possession and which I carried with me for more than thirty years, he took the stone and held it with reverence and asked if he could borrow it. “It’s special”, he said, “It protects and brings good luck”. 

As a government servant in Papua New Guinea, after twenty-one months duty I was allocated three month recreational leave. As I neared the end of my first term I realized that perhaps the adventure I had sought as patrol officer was not going to materialize. Independence for Papua New Guinea was now the prime objective of the Administration and our work was more and more involved with supporting district government and local councils. Patrol officers were now glorified clerks and accountants and I knew I had to move on.

It was 1969 and the Vietnam War was worsening. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had been assassinated and I heard on shortwave radio broadcasts in our grass hut that mankind had landed on the moon.

I felt the end of an era. I did not think of myself as colonial. Like most in the administration I was teaching the locals how to do what we did. In fact we were all here to work ourselves out of a job eventually, to implement development and growth and spread the good news of democracy and capitalism. Under a United Nations mandate, that was the plan.

But the days of exploration, some might say exploitation, and true adventure in Papua New Guinea, had passed. After two years in the field I decided to resign my commission and capitalize on my advertising background and try a job in the Department of Information and Extension Services in radio journalism in one of the fifteen radio stations run by the Administration.

I was accepted and departed for three month vacation, excited about the change to journalism, something I’d always wanted. I realized that as a journalist I had the chance for work beyond the boundaries of Papua New Guinea and Australia. It was to be one of many new beginnings in my life. And I jumped.



 Bougainville Copper Mine and Revolution.

I attended a touch-typing course in Melbourne in preparation for my new job in Bougainville as a journalist and assistant radio station manger. I would be back in Keita administrative capital, Bougainville as assistant radio station manager and news journalist. By now the copper mine had completely changed the landscape. The small quiet town I’d known less than two years earlier had become a seething locus of industrial activity. Eventually the mine in the mountains would grow to a gaping red hole nearly a mile and a half across and half a mile deep, one of the largest in the world.

I was the Assistant Manager at Radio Bougainville. The manager had worked in commercial radio in newsrooms in Australia, and he typed one hundred words a minute. I was very impressed.  He was intelligent, knowledgeable, generous and encouraging and it did not take long before I found myself back in the District Office - but this time asking the questions and reporting answers in simple English news broadcasts I wrote for broadcast by local staff.

I was treated with some disdain by the patrol officers I’d previously worked with.  I was seen as a turncoat and outsider. But I reveled in my new role and held no animosity toward my former colleagues. I knew I’d made the right decision and their days were numbered. I was carving a new career, capitalizing on my advertising background and local knowledge of the country which was unique amongst my expatriate radio colleagues.

The shortwave small radio stations were independent from the District Administration and answerable to the District Commissioner only in declared emergencies. The model of broadcasting was similar to that of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which in turn was based on the British, BBC model. We saw ourselves as independent and adversarial to the government. I was proud of this position. We were far more than propagandists though propaganda of a productive kind, broadcasting health and local government messages, was part of our job.

Now there were thousands of workers on Bougainville living in air-conditioned trailers and much of my job involved reporting on the activities of the mine. The track I’d driven from Kieta to the Panguna mine two years earlier, was now a four lane highway wide enough for dump trucks with tires twelve-feet high. It sliced through the landscape climbing up the steep Crown Prince mountain range to Panguna.  The Moroni villagers' grass huts that hugged the ridge tops for centenaries were  corrugated iron roofed straight lines of cement huts. Each time I visited the hole in the landscape was bigger, the open cut deeper. And I felt a great unease.

It was not just the mine itself that obliterated the landscape. Where were curving beaches and coconut trees at Loloho, a wharf now stretched far out into the sea ready to receive ships that would carry ore to market. Rows of prefabricated buildings humming with air conditioning, sprouted along the beach fronts, and the new roads buzzed with activity while the natives watched in sad resignation.

The gardens were gone. No longer did the locals paddle into the bay to fish at night. They worked as laborers for the mining companies. At night the canteens were crowded with “redskins”, imported highlanders - their skin lighter with a red tinge. The Bougainvillians resented these red-skinned interlopers who stole their woman and disrespected local custom. And alcohol lubricated the unrest.  

Things in Bougainville were changing rapidly. Arawa plantation where Barry Middlemiss had worked with the planter, Kip McKillop’s magnificent orchid collection, had been flattened and was now the base of coastal operations for the mining venture. The port would grow to be the third largest in the country. A huge pipe designed to carry a slurry of copper and water from Panguna, now speared through the jungle down from mountains to the wharf.

The tailings from the mine site, a toxic residue of mud and chemicals extracted from the gigantic hole, spilled down into the head water valley of the Kawerong River and thence into the Jaba valley. It spread out across the valley floor destroying large areas of rain forest killing fish in the rivers.

The Jaba discharged about 150,000 tonnes of rock waste and tailings daily. A tonne is more than 2,000 pounds weight and 2,000 pounds is one ton so there was lot of it! At its mouth, the Jaba River depostited a delta of poisonous mud out into Empress Augusta Bay. Sand and gravel spread northwards along the shore. No longer did the rivers and the valleys teem with fish and wildlife. It was a dead zone. And the lives of those who lived there were irrevocably changed.

Before the mine opened I had walked those beaches and valleys and crossed the pristine rivers on patrols. I saw it in its original state, as the native had for centuries. But now everything had changed and it was with heavy heart I watched as gigantic yellow machines lumbered across the landscape ripping huge chunks off the mountainside searching for copper and gold in heart of Bougainville.

The people of Bougainville began voicing their dissatisfaction to these arrangements in the late 1960s. The murmurings had been evident when Barry Middlemiss sat with us that morning at the Kieta Hotel years before. 

The wealth generated by the Rio Tinto Group, a diversified, British-Australian, multinational mining and resources groups with headquarters in London and Melbourne, did little to help the local Bougainville economy. The Papua New Guinea central government received a small percentage of the profits and it comprised almost half the gross national product of the new island nation. Papua New Guinea had become reliant and subservient to new white masters.

Magistrates, protected by police and patrol officers, sat with the locals to negotiate land purchases but offered them only a pittance. The promises of wealth and other benefits never materialized and as the natives saw their gardens and rivers, their forests and hunting domains ruined by the mining venture, they felt helpless and angry. Local leaders demanded more and though the Bougainvilleans gained some independence in 1972, the PNG Parliament denied complete autonomy and a fair share of profits from the mine.

Geographically Bougainville is part of the Solomon Islands. Only by a caprice of history did it become part of the political entity known as Papua New Guinea. There is nothing new about this situation for colonialism has always disregarded the natural world and its bio-regional borders favoring a policy of might is right and national borders, like history, have always been written by the victors.

The entreaty by local leaders to recognize Boungainville’s geographic uniqueness was refused by the central government which was no surprise given the potential wealth of the island and the substantial investment by the mining companies. The limited autonomy granted Bougainville was more symbolic than real.

After two decades of ignored protests, petitions, compensation claims and twenty years after I’d left, Bougainvilleans had enough. In 1988, a handful of islanders stole company explosives from the mine and destroyed electricity pylons, buildings and machinery and, using guerilla tactics, shut down the mine. The Bougainville Revolution became a secessionist revolt and lasted ten years claiming 20,000 lives.

When I’d arrived in the late 1960’s, 80,000 people lived on the island but by 1988 that number had doubled.  Until revolution broke out, the mine accounted for around forty-five percent of Papua New Guinea’s total export earnings. Without these earnings PNG would quickly go broke. Papua New Guinea, with the assistance of Australia, responded to the revolt by sending in the military. As a result, Bougainville declared itself independent and formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) to defend their land and the environment from further exploitation.

Australian intelligence advised Papua New Guinea to enforce a total goods and service blockade on the island, including medical supplies. No one was allowed on or off. Many of those trying to bring in supplies or transport refugees off island, were killed by the PNG army who now maintained a stranglehold around Bougainville.

The Papua New Guinea Defense Force was assisted by Australian patrol boats, speedboats, Iroquois helicopters and Nomad aircraft. When advising PNG to blockade, it was anticipated that Bougainvilleans would succumb to the hardship in three or four weeks. But it took almost a decade before men with bows and arrows, home made weapons manufactured from scavenged materials from the abandoned mine, and pure raw determination, local knowledge and courage, defeated the combined Australian and Papua New Guinean military.

It was a devastating and brutal chapter in Papua New Guinea’s history filled with deceit and subterfuge. The army was angered by the government’s exploitation of the situation and the desire to use brute force to shut down the BRA. The central government found themselves facing their own army in what could easily have become a military coup but for the calm of some in the military. 

Bougainville was completely cut-off from the “civilized world” and reverted to taim bilong tumbuna, relearning old customs and ways of survival on their jungle island. Since there were no medical supplies they reverted to ingenuity and their own folk remedies.  Coconut oil, which had been an export staple, became an elixir to lubricate the revolution. They used it to grease their weapons and run their trucks and machinery.

The oil of forty coconuts provided power to generate electricity to run a clandestine radio station for one hour and I wondered if some of the broadcasters I’d worked with and trained, were part of the revolution.  Radio became a central factor in organizing the local revolt. A supporter of the station who survived an attempted summary execution recounted that the army caught four of his friends harvesting coconuts for the station’s generator and executed them. From its hidden jungle outpost, Radio Free Bougainville’s pro-independence broadcasts became a powerful psychological weapon against the central government.

As sporadic violence continued, Foreign Minister, Sir Julius Chan, attempted to secure a peace between the two parties. During this period, the government attempted to obtain more military assistance from Australia and New Zealand. But when the two countries refused, the government hired mercenaries from Britain and South Africa.

When local PNG military leaders heard this they were outraged and there was a stand off outside the parliament buildings where local police faced down the soldiers. But neither wanted to fight. It was the subservient politicians who had caused the problem and they cowered inside the parliamentary building for days  afraid to face their constituents.

The mercenary invasion was a disaster. When Australian news media got hold of the story there was outrage throughout the region. The Sandline affair, named after the company who recruited the mercenaries, marked the low point in the Bougainville revolution, and there was almost a coup d’état in Papua New Guinea because of it. However, in 1997, a peace accord was signed, and violence on the island subsided.

The head of the PNG Defense Force, who’d been removed from duty, was reinstated. It was perhaps one of the only honorable outcomes of a disastrous affair, which had its genesis so many years before when I had witnessed the first stirrings of the struggle. The Bougainville Copper Mine was closed.

Bougainville Copper Mine - after the revolution.


The Assassination of the District Commissioner. 


Rabual was an elegant town on the edge of the harbor. Much of the architecture was stuck in a time warp before the first war. The streets were shaded with Mango trees and papaya flourished by the roadside. It was a comfortable, sophisticated town compared with the rough and tumble of Kieta.

I received instructions to leave Bougainville and move to the government run radio station in Rabaul where I would become Assistant Station Manager. In the late nineteenth century Rabaul had been the capital of New Guinea when it was occupied by Germany. It was home to the Tolai people who had a long history of contact with Europeans and were considered the most sophisticated of tribal peoples in the entire country.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Germany surrendered the island to Britain who, in turn passed it to Australia under a League of Nations mandate. New Britain, like most of Papua New Guinea, was invaded by Japan in the Second World War as the Japanese pushed south towards
Australia. The planters, Europeans who leased large tracts of land to grow copra made from coconuts and lived a leisurely colonial life on the tropical island, were forced to abandon their plantations but some stayed to hide in the jungle to become coast watchers. The coast watchers were legendry. They lived with the natives and reported on Japanese maritime troop movements, peering through binoculars from their hideouts on the shore.

Like most of the Pacific islands, you could still see the remains of the war littering the beaches, rusty hulks of landing barges and sometimes, the twisted remains of fighter planes still visible in the jungle. I’d seen the landing barges on Torakina Beach on Bougainville before the copper mine arrived. I camped out on patrol with my wife and her twin sister in a grass hut as I surveyed the Torokina Airstrip which had been established by the Americans in the war.

We moved into an apartment and assembled bamboo furniture we’d brought from Bougainville and I joined the local yacht club and sailed a sixteen-foot skiff called a Fireball, in competitions in Rabaul harbor – not very successfully. Many deep-water sailors used Rabaul as their home base and the yacht club was a locus of expatriate life.

The manager of the radio station was another Australian, a garrulous fellow, opinionated and demanding, who soon left his young Australian wife for the prettiest Tolai girl in the office. He was new to Papua New Guinea, did not speak the lingua franca  - Pidgin English - and was reliant on me more than he wanted. I handled local news, writing in simple English and passing it to staff to translate into local languages for broadcast. I had no love for this man and when he became ill, as he often did, and was hospitalized to have half his intestines removed, I was not unhappy. I was in charge and things went more smoothly until a severe earthquake hit Rabaul.

Like many islands in this part of New Guinea, volcanoes abound and Vulcan volcano had suddenly risen in Rabaul’s harbor in the 1930’s, steaming from the sea. Years later, in 1994, it exploded showering the surrounding area for miles with pumice ash devastating the town and causing Rabual’s abandonment.

 Back in 1970 I was waiting at the Rabaul airport for the Australian minister in charge of colonial territories, who was making an official visit. As his plane circled overhead preparing to land I felt the earth begin to move. And then it shook and I grabbed a nearby railing. It kept shaking a long time and finally subsided. There was a deathly quite all around. And then gradually things came back into focus.

I could see Vulcan across the harbor and wondered if it might explode. There was no sign of increased activity. The Minister never landed that day and I quickly returned to the radio station.

As I drove around the harbor I noticed the sea receding, leaving the shore and exposing the muddy bottom of the harbor. The gracious yachts now lay on their sides, and still the sea receded further and further. It was the first time I’d seen such a phenomenon and I realized what goes up must come down. If the sea was receding it was going to come back with equal measure and soon it did.

It was not a tidal wave. It moved more slowly, creeping relentlessly back toward the shore. Soon it was rushing through the main street and people in a panic were rushing to higher ground. We had no idea when the incursion would cease. Soon cars were floating in the streets with all kinds of debris. Then it stopped leaving debris scattered as far as the eye could see.
The next day I drove to view the damage. Roads were cleft wide open and once flat, they now traced the pattern of a sine wave representing the low frequency of the quake, its visual signature now revealed in the bitumen. The local Tolai people, like most in Papua New Guinea, were superstitions. Though missionaries had infiltrated their culture since the time of the Germans in the 1880’s, their old beliefs survived and were practiced often in secret ceremonies few white people had seen.

And so the earthquake was seen as a sign and our job at the radio station was to still the contagious fear that now swept through the island. Of course it was an impossible task but many people listened and loved Radio Rabaul and sat huddled around  shortwave radios throughout the island.

Perhaps it was the earthquake or just the anger and resentment engendered by colonization that encouraged some to fight back against the white man. A homegrown movement had been simmering for some months lead by a handsome intellectual, John Kaputin, leader of the Mataungan Association, a homegrown revolutionary movement. Soon after the quake they occupied Kabira Bay plantation and refused to move.

It was mid morning and I was in my office at the radio station when a local reporter, Dick Pearson who represented the South Pacific Post Courier newspaper, rushed into my office to announce the occupation and invited me drive out to see what was going on.

Kabira Bay Plantation was about fifty miles from Rabaul and we drove along the coastal road lined with coconut tress and the limpid, azure Bismarck Sea lapping on the black sand beaches,  a picture postcard that belied the danger that lay ahead. Dick had a shortwave radio tuned to the police frequency. We could hear the crackled instructions from the frontline of the battle at Kabira Bay. At one point I heard panicked voices saying the District Commissioner had died.

In Pidgin English “die” can mean different things: to sleep, to stop as in “dis pela kar i dai” – or “the car has broken down”, but to “dai pinis” or “die finish” is to be dead. I heard on the radio that the District Commissioner, who was the leading Administrator in the Rabaul District – “DC i dai”– and I turned to Dick to translate the message not knowing if the DC was dead or just unconscious.

Ahead of us, spewing a thick cloud of dust, a truck packed with riot police in full battle gear, shields, helmets, rifles and batons, speeded toward Kabira. We followed as they turned off the main road and took a jungle track deeper into the jungle plantation. When we stopped and the police disembarked, we stopped behind them and accompanied them on the run as they proceeded deeper into the rows of coconut trees.

Now we could hear commotion and the crack of rocks from the native sling shots propelling stones that ricocheted off the coconut trees  like shrapnel. We bent low as we ran covering our heads and followed the police to the scene of what was now a battle. Police were everywhere holding their shields for protections from the rock missiles. We could not see the attackers. They were hidden in the heavy brush but we could hear their shouts and woops.

And now ahead of us about fifty feet we saw a group of police protecting a prostrate body that lay bleeding, face up, on the ground. The police formed a kind of roof with their shields and I realized it was District Commissioner, Jack Emanuel who lay on the ground.

Dick and I looked at each other and knew we had to get the hell out of there as quickly as possible to break the story. There was no police spokesman – the police were heavily engaged and we headed back to Rabaul. “Jack Emanuel, DC bilong yumi I dai pinis”.

Earlier that day a group of ten village leaders wearing traditional face and hair decoration confronted Emanuel and the police.  One of them, appeared angry and excitable and approached Emanuel and they spoke briefly. Emanuel took the man by the arm and they moved away from the main police party. Emanuel was taken into the bush and out of sight.  The police waited.

Twenty minutes later, Emanuel had not returned. A small party of police constables set off down the bush path to look for him. They found his body laying on the ground.  He had been stabbed to death. The stone-throwing started. Police attempted to disperse the villagers using tear gas.  This was when Dick and I arrived at the scene.

Emanuel’s body was found on the track, lying face up with blood on his clothes and the undergrowth.  His glasses were located nearby. Two pieces of a broken rusty Japanese wartime bayonet were found close to his body.  Emanuel had apparently been stabbed and had walked several paces back down the track before collapsing to the ground.

Interviews revealed that a plan to kill Emanuel was discussed at late night meetings of Kabaira area leaders in the two weeks leading to his murder.  They argued that the government was ignoring their land grievances and it was necessary to highlight them by killing a “big man” and they chose Emanuel as the victim.

The plan, known only to a group of village elders, called for a trespass by large numbers of villagers on to Kabaira Plantation land to induce intervention. They were confident that Emanuel could be separated from the main police party and persuaded to venture to a spot where the killer hid behind a tree.  He would be invited to sit to talk through the grievances. The killer would come from behind and stab Emanuel.  And so it unfolded, exactly as planned.

Back at the station I wrote the story and called in Puek Tonata, an elderly and respected Tolai senior member of our station staff. I handed him the copy for translation into Kuanua, the local Tolai language, for broadcast. As I did I could heard the teletype ticking and ringing, spewing out an urgent message and I went to check the messages. It was from headquarters in Port Moresby, By now they’d had heard about the murder of the District Commissioner. They ordered me to hold the story until further notice. I did not. I felt it important to report it as soon as possible and so did Puek. So we did.

In a situation like this I knew news would spread throughout the island very quickly on the coconut telegraph. If we did not report, it would defiantly damage our credibility. Already the administration’s respect was dwindling as more people joined the burgeoning revolutionaries. It was more than certain that one of the twenty staff people at the station would report to village and I preferred to be on the right side of the story.

Minutes later another teletype message arrived telling me I was suspended for subordination. I was shocked and called Peuk to my office to inform him that he was now in charge. Then my phone rang and I heard the familiar English accented voice was Jim Leigh calling form Port Moresby.

Jim worked with the BBC in London. He’d emigrated to Australia and then to Papua New Guinea. He was the officer in charge of all government radio stations in the country. He was passionate and aggressive and held the independence of radio sacred. He had opened Radio Rabaul and it was his favorite station. He had great regard for the Tolai people. He praised my actions in broadcasting the news and told me to hold tight and disregard any instructions but his own. It felt good to have his confidence. My actions that day were to garner a promotion a few months later, to Radio Goroka in the Eastern Highlands on the mainland.




Goroka, Eastern Highlands and the Laughing Death

In the early 1970’s Libby and I moved to Goroka, the administrative headquarters in Papua New Guinea’s Eastern Highland. It was considered one of the best postings in Papua New Guinea. At five-thousand feet altitude, the climate is perpetual spring. The mountains surrounding Goroka are green with tall Casuarinas trees concealing the villages of the Guhukas and the mountains rise  eight-thousand feet in the west at Daulo Pass on the road to Kundiawa capital of the Simbu District.

The highest peak on the island in the Highlands at almost 15,000 feet, is Mount Wilhelm. It’s  part of the Bismarck Range. The peak is the point where three provinces intersect, Simbu, (called Chimbu when I was there), the Western Highlands and Madang. I climbed Mount Wilhelm with friends and found snow and ice near the summit, a strange sight just five degrees south of the equator. 

To get to Mt. Wilhelm, we chartered a small, single engine Cessna to Keglsugl airstrip, the highest in Papua New Guinea. Cut into the side of a mountain, there is only one way in and one way out.  There is no room for error. At one end of the strip is a sheer cliff face rising towards the sky; t the other, a sheer drop to a valley far below.

As we landed we felt the shudder as the wheels made contact with the bumpy grass strip and the pilot applied the brakes hard. We were still traveling at considerable speed headed towards the cliff face when at the last moment, in a maneuver that took my breath away, the pilot spun the plane around like a racecar driver. We did a one-eighty to point back the way we’d come and we stopped.

We clambered out of the Cessna and jumped to the ground and assembled our equipment. We could feel the rarified air. We bade farewell to our pilot and stood watching as he strapped in behind the controls, gave a jaunty wave, and prepared for take off.

He gunned the engine with the brakes on hard. The plane shuddered like an angry beast and the engine roared. He released the brake and the Cessna leapt forward accelerating, tearing across the grass and still land-bound sunk out of sight below the sight line. I held my breath. Then it reappeared in the distance, banking and climbing gradually, fragile and tiny against the gigantic green backdrop of the Bismarck mountain ranges, circling to gain sufficient altitude to clear the top of the ridgeline.

That afternoon we climbed to a base camp about four hours walk below the summit. We’d attempt the ascent before dawn next day.

We began our climb in predawn and as the sun rose I could see both the southern and northern coasts of Papua New Guinea and an endless spine of mountains running down the island’s center. As we approached closer to the summit, breathing became more difficult and spots danced before my eyes.

We traversed a stone path marked with small cairns, piled stones laid by previous climbers. Soon we’d learn how important they were. They led to the final climb to the top. We were within eight hundred feet of the summit.

The weather was changing quickly as we approached. Heavy clouds were rolling in and suddenly the summit disappeared in a gray mist and then snow; freezing sleet and high winds closed in around us. Our world turned white and I lost sight of my companions. I could hardly see my hand in front of my face. We shouted instructions to each other through the cacophonous wind that now lashed the peak, with urgings to “let’s get the hell outa here now!” We quickly descended following the cairns that had now become indispensable. A few weeks earlier a climber had fallen to his death on Mt. Whilhelm and we were more than leery about continuing.

The Highlands of New Guinea is a land of sing-sings, great feasts and constant traditional
ceremonies; of birds of paradise and their luminous feathers decorate the painted-faced highlanders, bedecked in kina shells and cowries, currency that traveled from hand to hand, village to village from the coast in the olden days. Like pigs, such shells were of great value. Despite the inroads of Christian missionaries, traditional life and animism were still practiced throughout much of Papua New Guinea. The men’s muscular bodies and the women’s breasts shone with pig grease as they walked single file along the narrow dirt roads and tracks to these traditional gatherings that lasted many days and nights.

It is common knowledge that if you run over a local native you don’t stop. Drive to the nearest police station and seek help because this is the land of pay back, an eye for an eye, and it is likely you will be hacked to death with machetes, if this instruction is not obeyed.

They carried wooden spears, bows and arrows, kundu drums and bilums, which are hand woven bags. The fibers are crafted from the inner bark of wild tulip trees, soaked in a stream or the sea for up to eight months until the material that binds the bark twine rots. It is dried and the strands separated. Women rub the bark with their hands on their thighs to produce strands of twine. Bilums were ubiquitous throughout the island, colorfully patterned and strong and usually filled with sweet potatoes and yams and brown babies too. The bilum is usually slung around the woman’s forehead and drapes down over their
back.
I had been promoted to radio station manager at the administration’s radio station Radio Goroka, “Krai Bilong Kumul” – the voice of the Bird of Paradise – where I lead a staff of twenty. My job was part journalist, teacher and administrator, sometimes explorer and documenter of culture. We took our tape recorders into remote villages deep in the mountains to record stori bilong tambuna,  local legends and stories and songs and sounds of the cloud forest. Back at the station
the tapes were catalogued and the recordings played over shortwave.

Because of the rugged terrain, shortwave is necessary to send the radio signal into the ionosphere where it bounces back down to hundreds of villages separated by razor back ridges and raging rivers. Papua New Guinea had a population of three million people when I was there and seven hundred documented distinct languages and customs. One million Highlanders had been discovered just thirty years earlier. There were still Highlanders who had never seen a white man. But now the days of discovery were almost finished. It was why I resigned my commission as patrol officer.

In radio I was able to replicate part of a patrol officer’s life in the bush. We had a Swiss made Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder for high quality documentation we took of recording patrols. The tapes became a unique archive of village life.

Sometimes around the bar at night at the Goroka Hotel the locals talked about the Laughing Death. There was talk of a doctor who’s patrolled deep in the back country and discovered some kind of ghoulish practice involving zombies who could not stop laughing and cannibalism. What began as rumor became more plausible when I talked to patrol officers who’d patrolled the region. One invited me to Marawaka where the phenomena had been reported and come see for myself. I planned to walk into Lufa, and Marawaka, the small patrol post deep in the Okapa tribal region accessible only by foot or light aircraft to take up his offer.

Early one morning my assistant, Boski Toni, and I mounted Radio Goroka’s four-wheel drive Toyota and with our driver, proceeded south on the Highlands Highway towards Kainantu.  Kainantu is the gateway to the highlands where the road descends steeply to the hot, humid flatlands and then to the settlement of Lae on the northern coast. The highway is an artery that connects the vast inland with the sea.  It is notorious for numerous armed hold-ups and robberies committed by rascals, the quaint Pidgin English word for thieves.

We left the highway and followed a dirt road east that became narrower and slippery as we drove deeper into the mountains. Heavy rain enveloped us, so thick it fell in a curtain around us, hissing and exploding, forcing us to revert to four wheel drive and our lowest gear and we crawled forward through the slush and viscous mud.

In the late afternoon we arrived at a small village where the road gradually petered to a walking track making it impossible to drive any further. By now the deluge had ceased. We disembarked and unloaded our equipment. The sun glinted on the dripping vegetation and the forest was an orchestra of birds and crickets, a cacophony of high pitched squawks and squeals and a drumming rhythm that sounded like an army of maracas.

The narrow walking track ahead, wound through savannah grasslands, an endless moving carpet of light green grasses, as high as a man on either side of the path. Earlier we had driven through dense forest, hissing with rain, dark and foreboding. But now the sky cleared and we entered another realm.

The jungle suddenly opened up. The track disappeared around a smooth round hill. Behind it were the mountains of Okapa, range after purple range as far as we could see. It was lonely and magnificent in the twilight. Somewhere out there was Marakawaka and perhaps the story of The Laughing Death.  We unloaded the Toyota and bid our driver farewell and watched as he urged the jeep down the
 treacherous narrow track back to Goroka. Then it fell quite and still.

We walked for two days deep into the mountains stopping in villages to collect songs and stories on our expensive Swiss Nagra tape recorder, the kind used by professional sound engineers to record Hollywood movies. We slept in grass huts built for patrol officers on their occasional visits to the area. We ate tinned rations carried in large galvanized metal boxes by our carriers, two men per box, with a stout stick thrust between the handles and hoisted on their muscular shoulders.

The mountains were steep and the paths often narrow slippery and treacherous; sometimes the drop to the steaming valleys below was thousands of feet. We clambered up into the cloud forest and cut bamboo to find delicious water stored in the stems. Occasionally we passed men and women with their children, people not far removed from the Stone Age, as they walked the track. 

We rested, perched on the mountainside. An old man suddenly appeared out of the jungle. He was from the Kukuku tribe evidenced by the grass-like sporran that covered his genitals in a curved penis gourd. The Kukuku were notorious, fierce and still very much in the Stone Age. They were very small, many less than five feet tall.

Our visitor was friendly and forthcoming and he used a stick to support himself for one foot was missing at the ankle. In my best pidgin English I greeted him and pointing to his missing foot inquired “Olsam wonam long dispela lek bilong u?” – “what happened to your foot” – and he answered – “long taim bipo, wunpela kiap i wokabaut long ples bilong me na me pait long em na I sutim mipela long lek bilong me”. He explained that some years earlier he had attacked a patrol officer patrolling the region. The “kiap” had shot his foot off in the fracas. With a benign smile, he turned and limped into the forest.

I”d heard about tukubu and Kuru, known as the laughing death, and wanted to visit the area it was said to occur. Rumors of a mysterious disease that turned people into a zombie-like state, and sorcery seemed like a story and I wanted to find local natives who might talk about it on tape. Few Europeans, other than patrol officers, missionaries and anthropologists, had ventured into the territory where it was said to be common.

I was directed to a local leader said to be willing to discuss it and late one cold highland night as we sat huddled around a fire deep in the Eastern Highlands, a local politician and community big man named John Pokia, squatted in the shadows and began speaking in a hushed voice about the strange local customs. I moved the mic closer and rolled tape.

It was a brutal tale of mystery and murder found only amongst the Fore people in the Okapa region of the Eastern Highlands. It was a medical mystery story and the equivalent of a mafia hit. It involved brain eating cannibalism, sorcery, modern medicine and treachery; a strange American scientist seeking the world’s most lethal viruses to use in biological warfare and a Lithuanian doctor, Vincent Zagas, determined to find the cause of the laughing death.


 It was common to find doctors trained in Europe in Papua New Guinea. After the Second World War many immigrated to Australia but were not accepted into the medical profession. They were foreigners and Australia had a racist tinge in those days. Many found work in less desirable locations like inland Australia and Papua New Guinea.

In the 1950's kuru was a new syndrome, not only for Western observers but for the Fore as well. It took its name from a Fore word meaning trembling or fear. It was marked primarily by symptoms of tremor and loss of balance and coordination. An initial ''shiver'' usually progressed to complete motor incapacity and death within a year. Emotional instability resulting in outbursts of pathological laughter was a feature seized upon by the popular press and they referred to it as the ''laughing death''.

As the medical officer charged with the supervision of nearly 4,000 square miles of mountainous terrain and an indigenous population of over 100,000 people, Vincent Zigas wrote how Western medicine and colonialism were brought to the area in a single encounter. While Government patrols ventured into new terrain to introduce new notions of power and authority, kuru investigators who accompanied the patrols, charted the geographic boundaries of the disease collecting blood, urine and cerebrospinal fluid to send to research laboratories in Melbourne and Washington for study. One of the features of the sickness was its isolation to the Fore. It was not found elsewhere so it was unlikely it was a vector borne disease. It was a mystery.

After his arrival in Kainantu, Zigas discovered he was the only medically trained doctor in that part of New Guinea. In 1955, Kainantu was a small settlement. The town was a central crossing point for people moving up and down through the Highlands and to the coast and was a natural place for Zigas to set up his base.

In September 1955, accompanied by a guide, Zigas, set out to investigate the increasingly persistent rumors of this strange malady. After two days' hiking in high terrain, the guide led him into a small hamlet with a few scattered mud huts. Zigas witnessed a woman with the symptoms. By the end of the year, he had seen dozens of similar cases, mostly in women and children. He first thought it was a brain disorder, maybe a virus or bacterial infection. With almost no medical facilities and no clean water or electricity, Zigas took what medical supplies he could carry on his hikes into the highlands. As the numbers of kuru cases multiplied, he was quickly overwhelmed.

Dr Zigas described performing autopsies on kuru victim's brains by lamplight, dust and chaff showering from a thatched roofed hut. For close to an hour his two native assistants work at opening the cranium of a victim, with a hacksaw blade found in the carpentry workshop. In an extended account of the disease's victims, he describes two women seated together, one suckling a pig at her breast, the other delousing the head of her companion and eating the parasites. A third kuru victim sits with a another group of women preparing a meal of green vegetables, larvae and beetles.

 Then, in March,1957, a surprise visitor showed up at Zigas's facility in Kainantu. His now famous description of the caller appears in his posthumously published book: “Laughing Death: The Untold Story of Kuru”. He describes meeting a tall stranger who appeared out of nowhere at his camp.

"At first glance he looked like a hippy, though shorn of beard and long hair, who had rebelled and run off to the Stone Age world. He wore much-worn shorts, and tattered sneakers, an unbuttoned brownish plain shirt revealing a dirty T-shirt,. He was tall and lean and one of those whose age was difficult to guess, looking boyish with a soot black crew cut unevenly trimmed as if he had done it himself. He was just plain shabby. He was a well-built man with a remarkably shaped head, curiously piercing eyes and ears that stood out from his head. It gave him the surprised, alert air of taking in all aspects of new subjects with a great thirst. I guessed him to be from America."

In his book: “Brain Trust:The Hidden Connection Between Mad Cow and Misdiagnosed Alzheimer's Disease”, author and scientist, Colm A. Kelleher, writes extensively about Kuru and the search for its cause. He draws from Vincent Zigas’ work and describes the stranger, thirty-seven-year-old D. Carleton Gajdusek, who worked with Dr. Zigas and ultimately discovered the answer to the Kuru mystery.

By any standards this tall, thin stranger who machine gunned people with a constant flow of questions, was a remarkable individual. Gajdusek came to the wilds of New Guinea with some very powerful connections. These connections would have a huge impact on defining the mysterious disease that ailed the Fore.

Kelleher describes Gajdusek as a James Bond-like figure capable of slipping into foreign countries, without permission if necessary. Combining a razor-sharp physician's intellect with fluency in nearly a dozen languages, Gajdusek moved as easily through remote tribes in obscure countries as he did in conversing with the world's best and the brightest researchers in medical science. When he arrived in New Guinea, Gajdusek was used to spending months sleeping in flea-infested huts under primitive conditions in any number of countries around the world. But it was his very powerful backing in Washington, D.C., that Gajdusek brought to Kainantu that was to change Vincent Zigas' life.

Gajdusek had traveled extensively in South America, the Middle East, and Central and Southeast Asia funded by the U.S. Army under the auspices of Dr. Joseph Smadel. Kellher writes that Smadel played "M" to Gajdusek's "Bond”.

Gajdusek was co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1976 for his work on kuru. Gajdusek described the formation of his relationship with Smadel in his Nobel Foundation autobiography. In 1951, as a young research virologist, Gajdusek was drafted to complete his military service from John Enders' laboratory at Harvard, to Walter Reed Army Medical Service Graduate School, when he was summoned by Dr.Joseph Smadel.

Kelleher goes on to explain how during the 1950s, Dr. Smadel was one of the most influential and powerful men in the United States medical establishment. Not only was he director and chairman of the U.S. Armed Forces Commission on Viral and Rickettsial Diseases at Walter Reed Hospital, Smadel was also a central figure in establishing the United States military's embryonic biological warfare program. A glance at Gajdusek's research activities for Smadel in the year prior to his arrival in New Guinea gives an idea of his ruthless global pursuit of infectious organisms.

Kelleher’s research outlined in some detail, this fascinating link between biological elements that might be used both to cure and to harm, coalescing in a lonely outpost in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.

In a status report dated January 4, 1956, Gajdusek reported on blood samples with antibodies containing poliovirus, herpes virus, mumps, panleukopenia virus, and rickettsia from children from the Río Guapay in Bolivia and the Peruvian Amazon. He had conducted seroepidemiology studies of mumps, panleukopenia virus, toxoplasmosis, leptospirosis, and syphilis throughout Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey, and had surveyed poliomyelitis and Q fever in the Middle East. He had also collected and dispatched live biological samples of tularemia, Omsk and Crimean hemorrhagic fevers from the wilds of Central Asia to Smadel's headquarters at Walter Reed Hospital. By overcoming a series of insurmountable obstacles with unorthodox strategies, Gajdusek succeeded in grabbing whatever infectious disease sample he was assigned to capture.

Throughout the 1950s Gajdusek mailed a steady stream of live biological samples back to Smadel. Smadel was casually trading on a global scale, in a large number of infectious organisms of biological warfare importance, including Crimean and Omsk hemorrhagic fever, equine encephalitis virus, Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, and many others. Thus, by the time Gajdusek's travels took him to remote Papua New Guinea, a successful multiyear relationship between two remarkable men had been established.

During the mid-1950s Smadel shifted his operations to the National Institutes of Health and maintained a rapidly expanding medical research empire based both in Bethesda and in Camp Detrick and it quickly became the center of the U.S. biological warfare research program. Until his death in 1963, Joseph Smadel would have his finger directly on the pulse of all important infectious disease research conducted by the United States government after World War II.  By 1957 the Smadel-Gajdusek team was a well-oiled machine for obtaining live infectious disease organisms from anywhere in the world.

Gajdusek's first letter to Smadel, dated March 15, 1957, described the excitement he felt after he first saw the mysterious kuru: "I am in one of the most remote, recently opened regions of New Guinea (in the Eastern Highlands) in the center of tribal groups of cannibals, only contacted in the last ten years -- still spearing each other as of a few days ago and cooking and feeding the children with the body of a kuru case only a few weeks ago.”

What Gajdusek deducted was that kuru came from ritualistic cannibalism. The reason it was found almost always in women and children was because they sometimes ate the brains of the dead and since this custom was limited to the Fore, it was not found beyond its borders.

The Fore had their own explanations for the origin of the disease. They believed that kuru was caused by malicious sorcerers who stole something intimately associated with the victim, such as a scrap of food, hair clippings or excrement, to which they added their own secret items. Binding the ingredients in a package, the sorcerer then uttered a spell and placed the bundle in muddy ground, where its disintegration triggered the parallel collapse of the victim's body.

The families of kuru victims sought divination to identify the guilty sorcerer and persuade him to remove the bundle.  And they consulted with a shaman, who might name the aggressor and provide therapeutic bloodletting and medicines.

Because a death had to be repaid by a death, the laughing death multiplied the killing cycle. If one died of kuru it meant somebody had cast a spell and retribution must be paid. The practice of ritual killing called Tukabu grew out of Kuru and as we sat around the embers of the fire in this remote village, the chill night air biting-cold in a cloudless night, I learned the secret. It was not magic or sorcery at all – it was murder.

As the sun rises and heavy dew still lies on the ground, an old woman walks the path to her garden. Suddenly killers spring from the tall grass, grab her and push her to the ground. One has a heavy stone wrapped in a leaf or some kind of cloth, and while another holds the woman, the first slams the rock, on both sides of the jaw and dislocates it so the mouth hangs slack and open – then on the sides of both kneecaps so she can longer walk. There are no marks, no abrasions because the rock is covered. Then the leaf or cloth is wrapped around the poor woman’s neck and using his mouth, the killer bites hard on the Adams apple crushing the larynx. Now her screams become a horrible distorted gurgle. There are no marks.

Finally the killer takes a long sliver of thin bamboo like a long needle – in the armpit or another obscured part of the body, and pushes in deeply into the body leaving no sign of the insult. The woman, unable to walk or cry for help is left laying on the path for her neighbors to find, her jaw hanging slack, her legs useless; unable to report the attack. Soon she will die of septicemia and once again tukabu will have taken a life. Kuru, the laughing death, will have been reciprocated.









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