The Patrol Officers, or Kiaps (derived from the German ‘kapitan‘) who were responsible for the grass-roots administration of Australia’s colonial presence in Papua New Guinea during the 20th century were outstanding young men.
They were trained at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney in preparation for careers which required physical stamina and total commitment in a country which would initially provide them with unparalleled culture shock.
As an Agricultural Officer, I worked alongside some of these men in remote locations and envied their vast range of administrative and practical skills, most of the latter acquired whilst working on the job.
A young Kiap in his mid-twenties was commonly the road and airstrip surveyor, civil engineer, bridge builder, social worker, policeman, postman, banker, magistrate, jailer, builder, plumber, electrician, radio communication technician, post-mortem assistant, ambulance driver, paramedic, and marriage counsellor.
These men devoted the best years of their lives exploring formidable unexplored territory, dodging hostile arrows, then establishing and maintaining law and order in a tribally fractured country which they brought, along with Christian missionaries, from the stone age into the twentieth century.
No-one realised how important their presence was until after PNG’s premature Independence in 1975 when the Kiaps were, without much appreciation in a political decision, told to go home.
Following their departure, anarchy, violence and lawlessness flourished in PNG, and has continued to do so ever since.
Even though they were adequately compensated financially for this severance of employment, many Kiaps had great difficulty settling back into Australian society after so many years of living with Papua New Guinea culture.
One Kiap returned to Australia and bought a very large acreage of bushland upon which he built some rudimentary thatched huts in various widely spaced locations.
He would regularly pack up his camping gear and leave the main house to hike to one of these distant shelters in an effort to replicate his patrolling days in New Guinea.
His neighbours probably questioned his sanity.
I never did, because I understand precisely how he felt.
The only thing missing from his new life would have been the company of all the rural Melanesian villagers, 95% of whom never wanted him to leave their country in the first place.
P.S. Many of these Patrol Officers, now in their senior years,
reminisce on the forum at www.exkiap.net
Within their ranks are gifted writers and published authors.
They all have interesting stories to tell about the particularly
proud chapter they wrote in Australia’s history.