My time volunteering

The dramatic work of Australia’s bush administrators (Kiaps) in pre-Independence Papua New Guinea is comprehensively recorded. But the contribution to the country's development by volunteer workers, some posted by Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in London, is often overlooked

Freshly recruited Kiaps, the best known of PNG’s pre-Independence bush workers, were given four months pre-posting training in Australia followed by a further month in PNG itself, but apart from a couple of brief, perhaps three day, induction courses at central venues in the UK some VSO’s began their bush work almost as soon as they stepped off their plane.

Take the example of eighteen year old Philip Pennefather who landed in Madang in September 1968, and as soon as he could draw breath set off, by foot, on a tough bush journey, which pioneered the delivery of over 100 un-bred heifers, to stock an embryonic beef production project almost 80 miles away on the other side of the formidable, unbridged, Ramu River.

The trail-blazing team was led by Max David, who still lives on the now well established cattle station at Brahmin, and reinforced by the muscle power of five Ramu villagers too.

It took almost a week to walk the cattle, through uncut bush, to the banks of the Ramu because they had to be fenced each night within a freshly constructed corral. The group slept under tarpaulins which were carried with them. It was the first time Philip had worked within PNG’s often hostile, always difficult, interior.

The fast flowing and deep Ramu, at that point around 200 metres wide, was a daunting obstacle. Each animal was haltered and hauled across individually, after taking advantage of a mid-channel sand bar and then a thirty foot log which had been hollowed into a make-shift canoe to help them fight against the almost irresistible current that dominated the second section of their swim.

It was long, exhausting, work and it was the best part of another week before every animal in the herd had crossed over and it was able to be walked over a final day to its end destination.

I too was a VSO and at the same time as Philip’s dramatic bush baptism and just six days after leaving the UK, I walked, completely on my own, into an isolated bush saw mill and introduced myself to its 15 strong labour line.

I spoke scarcely a word of Pidgin, my culture shock was profound, and I describe this difficult moment in my recently published book “The Northumbrian Kiap” which covers my time in PNG, some of it has a Kiap, between 1968 and 1975.

The picture that accompanies this article was taken four months after my arrival.

There is a post-script. Philip and I met again, completely by chance, in the mid-1980s. He and his family live at Alston in Cumbria, just 40 miles from my own home in Northumberland, and when we last spoke on the telephone  we agreed that back in 1968 we had faced up to a series of physical and cultural challenges that neither of us would like to confront now.” 

The impact of my placement

The cut  timber was used to  build a school, and a huge recreation hall, at Bundi's Roman Catholic Mission. Its English speaking pupils were among the first from the PNG Highlands to attend high schools on the coast and then take a place within the country's tertiary education and training system.

The impact my placement has had on me

I decided, while still a volunteer, I would like to be a Kiap. After training in Australia I returned to PNG as an employee of the Department of District Administration and remained there until Independence in September 1975. Other Kiaps have since told me they wished they had had the benefit of my bush training as a VSO before they too undertook bush duties. 

Bundi, Madang Province.

Papua New Guinea

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