Saturday, May 12, 2012

Book review: How the Highlands Highway was built


Since I first travelled the Highlands Highway from Goroka to Lae with my father, the late Mathias Nalu just before independence in 1975 as a seven-year-old, I have always been fascinated by this bik rot (big road) that links the port city of Lae to the Highlands.
One of the things that touched me then, and does to this day, was when we stood at the Rupert Havilland Memorial Lookout on top of Kassam Pass, and gazed down into the magnificent panorama spread out from the Markham Valley of Morobe province to the towering Finisterre Range.
Havilland was only 21 when he supervised of the construction of the Kassam Pass Road, but upon return to Australia, died at a very young age and his ashes were returned to New Guinea to be scattered over the Kassam Pass.
Later, as a student at Aiyura National High School from 1984-1985, I frequently travelled by road from my home in Lae to Aiyura Valley.
Much, much later, while working with the Coffee Industry Corporation in Goroka between 1998-2002, I had the chance to drive throughout the Highlands, and even down to the coastal ports of Lae and Madang, and began to appreciate more the value of this economic lifeline.
However, I have never been able to gather much information about how the bik rot was built, apart from the fact that the legendary kiap (patrol officer) Ian Downs was the main force behind construction.
Things changed two weeks ago when I was invited to accompany one of the original builders of the Highlands Highway, Bob Cleland, to Goroka.
Cleland was one of those who helped build roads over both Kassam and Daulo passes.
His widely-acclaimed book, Big Road, first published in 2010, but not widely on sale yet in PNG,   tells the story of the building of the Highlands Highway, particularly the Daulo stretch between Asaro and Watabung in Eastern Highlands in 1953, which he personally supervised as a 22-year-old kiap.
Bob Cleland shows a copy of Big Road during his recent visit to PNG

Talking with Cleland and reading Big Road has answered all the unanswered questions in my mind about the Highlands Highway.
 The 'big road' today is the Highlands Highway running from the port of Lae and through the highlands provinces of PNG.
 Big Road describes the initial construction by hand, in 1953 and 1954, of the Daulo section of the road, which runs over the 2,478m Daulo Pass and which gives access westward to the great Waghi Valley.
Running right throughout Cleland’s book itself is the ‘big road’ itself, the Highlands Highway that was carved out of mountains and mud with shovels, sweat and tenacity.
Big Road is a pioneering tale that paints a vivid picture of the majesty of the mountains and the mingling of two cultures.
Cleland, before the Daulo Pass, helped the late Rupert Haviland built part of the road over the Kassam Pass.
Cleland checks out a section of the Daulo Pass road which he helped build almost 60 years ago as a young kiap

The big road was neither designed nor built by engineers but by kiaps, with local villagers using only picks, shovels and thousands of hours of backbreaking labour.
When Cleland arrived in the New Guinea Highlands in 1953, many tribes had just seen their first white man only 20 years before.
He was one of a team of young Australians charged with introducing a new form of justice to tribes that had previously settled disputes with spears, axes and arrows.
He was 22, fresh from university where he’d been studying engineering.
As a kiap, Cleland had a triple role of magistrate, policeman and administrator.
But he was not only a kiap, he was also the boss’s son.
His father Donald (later Sir Donald) Cleland was administrator of Papua New Guinea for 15 years from 1951, so his trial by fire in New Guinea was particularly intense.
Right from the start, Cleland was charged with building some of the most-challenging sections of the ‘big road’, linking the Highlands with the coast.
In the early 1950s there was no way into or out of the Highlands except by plane or on foot.
Yet the region was densely populated, home to hundreds of thousands of villagers, and alluringly fertile.
A road connection had to be built, and it had to be constructed by hand – no bulldozers or diggers.
The Eastern Highlands district commissioner then was the legendary Ian Downs, from Scotland, who first came to PNG as a 21-year-old kiap.
He’d been posted to the Highlands only five years after Australian explorers Jim Taylor and Mick Leahy discovered that hundreds of thousands of people lived in extensive upland valleys amid what had always been assumed to be impenetrable mountains.
“In 1953 Kassam Pass – the road into the Highlands dreamed of by many, rejected as impossible by others – was now open for traffic,” Cleland writes.
“Narrow and steep, with sharp ends, it was not a road for heavy vehicles – but it was a start.
“The rough track from Lae remained difficult but the reality of Kassam Pass gave the administration good reason to fund upgrading work.
“Access from Goroka to the great Wahgi Valley and beyond was blocked by a 3,000-metre-high spur of the Bismark Range.
“A road through a 2,440-metre (Daulo) pass and over this spur would provide the final link to the Wahgi Valley.”
Towards the end of July 1953, Downs brought Haviland and bridge builder Ludi Schmidt from Kassam to a temporary camp about a third of the way towards the top of the Daulo Pass.
Haviland, however, had to go on leave and Cleland was given charge of the project by Downs.
“Since 1933, the Koreipa Valley track had been one of the routes used by patrols walking from the Benabena station towards the large valleys and extensive populations further west,” Cleland writes.
“The track crossed the Asaro River at an altitude of about 1,500m and after a kilometer-and-a-half of easy gradient, began an increasingly-steep 10km climb to the top.”
To go into detail would fill archives, however, this was the road that Cleland and his team of hundreds of local villagers built.
Boulders were broken up by heating during the fire with fire and then allowing to cool at night, which made it eventually cracked.
Ludi Schmidt was the bridge expert using local timber.
On September 24, 1953, district commissioner Ian Downs drove to the top of Daulo Pass in his Land Rover.
On October 9, 1953, Ian Downs and his family, Jim Leahy, ex WW11 pilot Jerry Pentland and Mick Leahy (with his wife Jeanette and son Richard) drove through from Goroka to Mt Hagen.
“In 1933, it had taken Mick Leahy and Jim Taylor – acknowledged as two of the 20th century’s most acclaimed explorers – two weeks to get to the Mt Hagen area,” Cleland writes.
“Now here they were, 20 years later, making the 240km journey in a single day.
‘Big Road: a journey to the heart of the New Guinea highlands, 1953-56’, by Bob Cleland [Red Hill Publishing, $30.45, 240 pp, 9780980672022]

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