Sir Joseph Nombri – the crocodile hunter

3 09 2011


SIR JOSEPH NOMBRI was a founding member of the Pangu Pati.  For many years he was the Papua New Guinean ambassador to Japan.  In later years he became a distinguished elder statesman in his beloved Simbu Province.

In the late 1960s, however, he was a mere kiap and, as far as the Administration was concerned, a very dangerous one.

Such was their concern that they banished him to one of the most distant and muddiest outposts of the realm – Kiunga, on the Fly River.

The Assistant District Commissioner was sympathetic to Joe’s plight and tried to make his enforced exile as uncomplicated as possible.  He set him to work keeping open the boggy track to the mission at Rumginae, north on the Ok Mart River.

There was nothing to use for road base within cooee and a lot of the road meandered through swamp.  Joe spent his days cutting timber corduroy and building long and windy bridges through the bogs.

Joe and I shared a house at Kiunga.  We repainted the old kero fridge in Pangu Pati colours to upset the District Commissioner when he visited.  Joe also liked to greet visiting dignitaries at the airport carrying a sign saying “Open season on swans”.

I’m not sure why I was banished there; it could have been for any number of reasons.

The Indonesians had just enacted the pantomime of their Act of Free Choice in Irian Jaya and people were fleeing into Papua New Guinea by the hundreds.  I spent my days in the company of a grumpy Australian Army Warrant Officer judiciously avoiding our assigned task of rounding up the refugees and sending them home.

Another misfit at Kiunga was the son of a very prominent Australian cabinet minister, lately of the New South Wales police force, but hastily despatched out of sight upon the discovery of his homosexuality.  He was there running jet boats up the Ok Tedi River to some sort of mineral prospecting camp.

We entertained ourselves.  Sometimes Joe would stand on a chair and recite pieces of Simbu wisdom.  I particularly remember his fine rendition of Mausgras and Kela Man, which is a clever allusion to the battle of the sexes – think about it and it will become clear.

Another avenue of boredom-beating was crocodile shooting.  Our mining friend had a boat and a spotlight and we had the firepower in the form of a couple of ancient station .303 jungle carbines.

In those days you could get $2 an inch for a skin, which bolstered the social club’s coffers, and the meat was a happy item on the menu of our local kalabus.

On one memorable night we nailed a particularly big specimen.  Joe, who was a good shot, got it right between the eyes.  Unfortunately, as we raced over to collect it, the bugger sank.

We pulled up where it had gone down and poked around for a while with the oars but to no avail.  Loath to lose such a fine specimen we climbed overboard into about three feet of murky water and began to feel around.

Joe, being a methodical man, suggested we work on a grid pattern.  He located a submerged log with his toes and using that as our datum we worked our way out for several yards at regular intervals.

Joe, walking up and down along the log directing operations, suddenly grunted and stuck his hands into the water.  It wasn’t a log after all!

By feeling along its body he found the tail and hauled it towards the boat, where we all attempted to lift it aboard.  Try as we might it was too heavy.

Joe had another idea.  With him on the tail, we hauled it to the nearby sandbar.  From there, with a couple of handy branches, we figured we could lever it into the back of the boat.

Imagine this: it’s about 2 am on a sandbar in the Fly River.  A short but solid Simbu kiap is standing on the bar clutching a large freshwater crocodile by the tail while his friends are rummaging around somewhere cutting tree branches.  The crocodile wakes up!

Joe hung on; he didn’t have much choice.  The groggy crocodile started to thresh in circles.  As it came past we endeavoured to shoot it in the head.  Do you know how hard it is to shoot a croc in the head on a sandbar under the light of a dancing spotlight?

Every miss from the powerful .303 carbine threw up great mounds of sand and left gaping holes behind.  Through sheer luck one of the shots eventually hit home and the croc lay still.

After we’d dragged it on to the boat Joe asked whether we wanted to go a bit further; some people had told him about a really big croc lurking upstream.  The temptation to throw him into the river was overwhelming.

When Joe got old his health deteriorated and he needed treatment in Australia.  A very mean and ungrateful government declined to help.

All we have now are the memories.


This story first appeared in Keith Jackson’s PNG Attitude on 2nd September 2011. I love the nostalgia in this story and so had to re-post this article here with permission.

Come Away (a poem)

11 12 2010

There is no promise of fast cars, bikes and blings;
but of buses, Dynas and dugouts.
There is no promise of hotels, motels and cocktails,
but regales of tales and gales of laughter.

Amidst the chit-chat chatter,
of chirrups and chirps,
over gurgles and babbles
of eddies down dales and vales.

Buai stains, Blavk earth and blue skies.
To cool nights of endless stars;
Chandelier of celestial stares
witness the passion of this fire.
Even in the dying embers,
your eyes will hold their flame,
as I catch the glint in ‘em.

Heart beats in staccato to head rush,
like the distant roar
of the Baiyer wild in perpetual rush,
beneath ancient shadows of stoic Mul,
who thru tufts soft of shifting shapes,
in silent whispers of hallowed zephyrs,
breath your name in the quite cool.

Hey baybay,
Hey baybay!
Come away,
Come away!


Mutulap Crk, Enga, © N.I. Piakal, 2009

Some Facts
*Buai is Tok Pisin (pidgin) for Betelnut. Chewing it in PNG is a cultural pastime, albeit detrimental as it is to teeth and gums. 🙂
* The Baiyer River is a tributary to the Yuat River (as does Mutulap Creek above) which eventually meets the mighty Sepik.
*Mul is the ORIGINAL name of Mt Hagen (the mountain) which stands at 3800 metres above sea level.

Nostalgic Mt Hagen Bliss

6 11 2010

I don’t know why but my mind takes me back to another lifetime.
Back in the day when Mt Hagen was like THE BEST place you could ever live in.
Back when Tribes Theatre premiered movies round about the same time it hit the cinemas of Oz – thats right Village Roadshow, baby.
Sony Walkmans were the IT thing then and teenage boys from the neighborhood would go to the movies not only for its entertainment value but to learn dance moves so they can try to beat each other on break dance (yes we caught the vibe before you even had the nerve to leave the comfort of your dad’s balls). But alas, they were doomed the minute Joe Markham moon-walked into the ring, because try as they could, he’d still whop their ass with his trademark spin-the-top finale. I don’t know what it’s called these days though.

Back then we would count our money  in factors of 80 toea because that was how much it cost you to be on roller skates for an hour at YMCA.
We wagged school to go fishing,
Or even go on some very noisy hikes up to Kum Cave, only to be chased and sometimes beaten up by the Solo Aks home bodies,
TV was not in our vocab then but we watched taped recordings of “Young Talent Time” at the tradestore/video-haus down the road and perhaps some of us, had a crush on young Dannii Minogue a bit.

Back then, we had our very own version of the State of Origins in the form of the Zone Trials. Just living next door to Bobby Ako gave me enough credibility amongst my dirt-magnet squad who swallowed everything I said hook, line and sinker, no matter how tall the tale. Except when Koivi (Ako) was there to refute some facts and we’d end up in a biff. The Kumuls line-up then was usually  read aloud first on the radio.That was when men like Henry Bagme would smash his brand new 2-speaker stereo to bloody smithereens upon hearing his name as the man who’d be donning the No.1  jumper for the red, black and gold.

Ahhh those were the days. My golden era.

Yes, but there is this tale told of a time even before that bygone era when a small kid round about 4/5 strayed onto the road after crawling under the gate. Just then a moustachioed man with a fro rolled up in his Range and got out of his car and knelt down beside the kid and with a gentle voice and  a tinge of a smile asked him where his house was and the kid mutely  pointed to the gate  in front. He picked him up, brushed him and led him by his hand to the gate and asked if anyone was inside.  The distraught mother upon seeing this man at the gate came rushing out more flustered this time then alarmed that this man would even bother to stop for a child. He handed the hand of the kid over to his mother with two K20 notes in his dirty little paws. After exchanging a few pleasantries, this gentleman left soon after.

Come to think of it, he carried the people  rather than the other way around. Such was the mettle of a man who was a leader in every sense of the word.


Of course the mastachioed man was Paul Pora!

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