Friday, May 25, 2012

Building the Kassam Pass road in 1953

Whenever I drive along Kassam Pass, Eastern Highland province, I always make it a point to stop at the Rupert Haviland Memorial Lookout on the top.
Gazing down on the magnificent panorama of the great Markham Valley below, is a sight that always fills me with awe, and the words of one of my favorite poems, Requiem, by Robert Louis Stevenson, come to mind immediately.

More so, because I’m standing at the memorial of young Haviland, who built this road linking the port of Lae with the Highlands as a 21-year-old kiap (patrol officer) in 1953.

Rubert Haviland Memorial on Kassam Pass.-Pictures by AKEMI MIKATA

Magnificent panorama of the Markham Valley as seen from Kassam Pass

“Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie:

Glad did I live and gladly I die,

And I laid me down with a will.


This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he long'd to be;

Home is the sailor; home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill."

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).
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.
In 1952, legendary Eastern Highlands District Commissioner (DC) Ian Downs had promised Brigadier Donald Cleland, the new administrator, that he would finish the Kassam Pass road by July 1953.
“Give me 300 shovels and six months and I’ll finish it by the first of July (1953),” Downs told Cleland.
Former kiap Bob Cleland, a son of Administrator Cleland, who worked with Haviland on part of the Kassam Pass and later supervised building of the Daulo Pass, writes in his book Big Road that his friend died unexpectedly of complications following pneumonia while on leave in Australia.
“At his request, Rupe’s ahes were scattered over Kassam Pass,” he writes.
“A stumpy concrete obelisk with an engraved brass plate has been placed there ‘by his friends’.”
Cleland writes that Haviland was known as ‘Young Rupe’ to distinguish him from his kiap father, also known as Rupe.
“Rupe’s father had started his services in 1929 and continued through the war until his retirement in the late 1940s,” Cleland writes.
“Rupe was therefore born and brought up in New Guinea, and his father’s experience as a police officer, army officer and kiap throughout the 1930s and 1940s was a significant influence.
“In fact, Rupe seemed very much a 1930s-style kiap rather than a 1950s one – his attitude towards the village people was paternalistic and tough; he felt that he needed to maintain strong discipline and demonstrate clearly that he was the boss; and he could harangue and cajole an assembly of villagers with a command of colloquial Pidgin and an understanding of his audience that would take me years to master.
“His rapport with people was strong, and the local people liked and respected him.
“Rupe Havilland was highly active, putting a lot of emotional energy into everything he did.
“He was tough on himself and happy to live rough.
“When I first met him, his health was temporarily fragile because of frequent attacks of debilitating malaria but on the whole, he was very fit.
“I was a little alarmed when I discovered that he treated any ailments himself.
“As soon as a cut or leech bite looked like becoming infected – a frequent occurrence – he would self-inject the penicillin he’d persuaded an air post orderly to give him.”
In those days, PNG’s immense mountain barriers inhibited road building but the need to develop the Highlands meant that a road down to the headwaters of the Markham River and then on to the north coast port of Lae was vital.
“The existing Markham Valley track from Lae was passable for about 40 kilometres,” Cleland writes.
“The next 100 kilometres of track to the wartime strip of Gusap near the Markham headwaters was virtually non-existent.
“And there was no link to the Highlands towns of Goroka and Mount Hagen.”
This was the Kassam Pass road that Havilland supervised building of using local labour, prisoners from Kainantu gaol, ace bridge and culvert builder Ludi Schmidt, and paramount luluai Anarai, a local village elder of the people between Kassam and Kainantu
On July 1, 1953, Administrator Cleland, his wife Rachael, Acting Director of the Department of District Services Alan Roberts, and two men with historical connections to Kassam, Tom Aitcheson (now District Commissioner in Lae), and Gerry Toogood (immediate past Assistant District Officer at Kainantu), flew from Lae to Gusap.
From there, three Land Rovers began the climb up Kassam Pass.
Kassam Pass – the road into the Higlands dreamed of by many, rejected as impossible by others – was now open for traffic.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for that story, today I was reading my own notes of stopping to look at the memorial at the Kassam Pass the first time I was there in 1978 when I decided to look further about Rupert.