Chapter 2: Flower Power hits the Highlands – Papua New Guinea, 1965 to 1987

Part 3 of 3 

There were also problems up the mountain. Late in February Wapula and Joseph Yalia (a landowner and provincial politician) were causing problems at the Mount Kare camp, run by Ben Probert. Although he was a former District Officer, Probert had little authority and his Pidgin was poor. Perhaps he was wearied by age. When people pushed him he usually caved in, and so they kept pushing harder and harder. Still, he was friendly enough. People brought their gold to him, and he had a marvellous collection of crystalline nuggets.

A lot of the action was in Port Moresby, and it became clear that many of the landowner Directors did not really understand what commercial mining involved. This was entirely understandable – they had no experience of it at all. We decided to take them on a ‘study tour’ to Queensland. At the same time we could revise the shareholders’ agreements, and look at how KDC would be funded. We applied for passports for about 26 of them, and then for Australian visas. On 27 March 1990 we were on a chartered plane to Cairns, about one and a half hours flying from Port Moresby. They were all very excited.

About ten minutes out of Cairns Akoma Peke approached me. ‘Mi holim liklik pistol, em i orait o nogat?’ – ‘I’ve got a small pistol, is that OK or not?’. He showed it to me, packed on top of his cabin baggage. I told him to put it away, and started thinking fast. If Customs found a pistol on one of them, they would go through the others with a fine toothed comb. God knows what they would find. There might even be cavity searches. I nearly gave birth.

As it turned out, our arrival in Cairns generated more than enough diversions. Many of the Directors were clutching whole bunches of betel nut – a hard palm fruit that is chewed with lime powder and a stick of native ‘mustard’ to produce a mildly narcotic effect. It also produces large volumes of bright red saliva, which people spit freely. The quarantine officers told us that there was no way unhusked betel nut was entering Australia, and the Directors responded by husking the nuts on the spot. Several of them tried to chew as much as they could before they went past the quarantine desk, and the floor was soon awash with blood coloured spit. The quarantine officers tried to limit the damage by hustling them through as quickly as possible.

I seized the opportunity to collect all their passports, and hand them to an immigration officer. He looked at me, looked at the milling crowd of Highlanders, and then passed half the pile to his mate. They tried calling out names from the passports, but they were unfamiliar with Papua New Guinea spellings and pronunciation. Then they tried matching passport photos to faces. I suspect that all black people looked the same to them, because there were mistakes made with the first few to pass through. Eventually everyone was on the other side of the barrier, collecting their baggage, while the immigration people still had six unclaimed passports. They rolled their eyes, muttered quietly to themselves, stamped the remaining passports and gave them back to me. Customs had been watching this circus, and knew trouble when they saw it. They pushed everyone out through the green channel and on to the street. Phew.

I had a bus chartered to take us to the Tropical Gardens Motel, a few kilometres out of town. It was much better than the Daru Hotel – en suite bathrooms, air conditioners and television. The Directors may have been unsophisticated in some ways, but they were masters of the remote control. Within minutes they had found the in-house soft porn channel. This harmless diversion would later be blown up into an orgy of Madang proportions, with prostitutes supplied by me and CRA. I left them to it, went into town, and came back late in the afternoon. The place was deserted except for two of the elderly Paielans, who told me the others had gone to buy guns. I drove into town with great speed, and found them in a gun shop. Yaka Pipi was trying to buy a submachine gun, and was piling ounce after ounce of gold on the counter. The salesman was agog at the sight of so much gold, and I could see he might soon close the sale. Instead, I suggested instead that he close the shop as soon as I had hustled them out. As we were leaving, Yaka was telling him in Pidgin, ‘Don’t worry, mate, I’ll see you later.’

On Wednesday we had a tour lined up for them. We flew north to an alluvial mine which was in full production. They saw the whole process, and started to understand what mining might be like at Mount Kare. Then we flew to a smaller mine and toured it. Finally we returned to Cairns by bus. We had a few beers on the way, and there was a fine esprit de corps.

On Thursday we started work, in a conference room at the motel. Phil Moore from CRA took the chair, but the Directors said they did not trust him, and replaced him with Matthew Habe. Phil was quite put out, and we didn’t see much of him after that. We reviewed the Daru meeting, and there were the usual rantings, ravings, repeats and changed minds. It took a long time to settle them down. Then we talked about funding KDC by borrowing money. By this time KDC’s 49 per cent had been confirmed and we needed K2.5 million, plus expenses. On Friday we revisited the shareholder agreement, and it was signed immediately and unconditionally by all MKAM Directors. Later Simon Kambe and Yaka Pipi would claim in court that they were forced to sign. Then a Westpac Brisbane representative talked about loan conditions. At that time it all looked very straightforward. Things had gone so well that I went into town for dinner with Matthew and Habia. When we returned at about 10 the Engans were nowhere to be seen. The troops were out on night manoeuvres.

I tracked them down in the bar at Hides Hotel – I had heard them talking about it. Akoma Peke was busy chatting up the barmaid. I doubt that she would normally have given him a second look, but he was paying for his beers with gold, and throwing in a generous tip each time. He had her full attention. I sat quietly in the corner and watched. Andrias joined him, bought half a dozen beers, and took them over to a table of Aboriginal girls whose men were playing snooker. Others joined him, and it was a lively table. When the snooker players came back they took one look at the KDC contingent and left the girls to their fate. The Paiela men were throwing their money around like drunk miners on a spree, which is just what they were. Come midnight the bar closed. The management thoughtfully called in the cops, and arranged a bus to take the boys home. The police behaved like true gentlemen, chivvied them out and saw them to the motel. The merry men had had a night to remember. For me it had been stressful, but amusing.

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