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Randolph Stow’s Trobriand Islands

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Trip to Kitava. Photo: Suzanne Falkiner

We arrived yesterday afternoon. I’m staying at a sort of hostel outside P. M. It is a lot of huts or donggalas, as they call them, climbing up a steep hill, and I have to climb up a gradient of about 70% to get to the bath-house. I have half a donggala to myself, and servant called Esau to wash and sweep for me, so it looks like being fairly comfortable. The view from here is rather impressive. It looks across a wide bay to a line of green hills, a couple of islands, and miles and miles of Coral Sea, and there are native boats sailing backwards and forwards, so it all makes quite a pretty picture.

— Letter, Randolph Stow to his mother, Mary. Sent from the Department of Native Affairs, Konedobu, Port Moresby, 13 March 1959

In early March 1959, Randolph—‘Mick’—Stow, with two dozen other young cadet patrol officers, took off from Sydney’s Mascot airport after midnight to fly up the Queensland coast to Port Moresby. The trip, delayed by an outbreak of flu among the trainees, was a noisy and uncomfortable fourteen-hour grind in a chartered DC-4 with hour-long stops at Townsville and Cairns. Stow, at 23, was four or five years older than most of his fellow recruits, and already a published poet and novelist: a fact of which they were almost certainly unaware. Five weeks later it would be announced that his third novel, To the Islands, had won the second-ever Miles Franklin Award, after Patrick White’s Voss had taken out the inaugural prize the previous year. A post-university stint as a storeman at the Forrest River Mission (later known as Umbulgurri) in the Kimberley in early 1957 had given him a taste for out-of-the-way places and, after a period studying anthropology at Sydney University, he had been encouraged by Minister for Territories Paul Hasluck, a fellow-West Australian, to apply for a job with the Department of Native Affairs in Papua and New Guinea.

In Port Moresby, during the three-week orientation course that supplemented his five weeks’ training at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, or ASOPA, at Mosman in Sydney, Mick was quickly inducted into the heavy drinking culture that took place, in strictly segregated bars, among the town’s white inhabitants. Within a few weeks, however, the novelty had worn off. ‘I am rapidly developing the most strong antagonism towards Civil Servants’, he wrote in his diary. ‘New Guinea should be cleared of Europeans as much as possible as soon as possible. But I haven’t “been thirty years in the Territory” so I wouldn’t know.’

Embarking on a biography of Randolph Stow, an introspective author widely thought to be a recluse in his later years, had not been easy at the best of times, but writing about his time in New Guinea in 1959 was troubling on several levels: not least because during his last months there he had experienced a mental and physical breakdown that brought him close to death. I was probably not the first researcher, too, to discover that Stow’s Department of Territories personnel file—or the portion of it that dealt with precisely this period—had gone missing from the Australian Government Archives. When I tried to get in touch those ex-Department officers who had been in closest contact him, I was met with silence. The events, occurring not long after the death of Mick’s father Cedric Stow, a country town solicitor, had caused great distress to his surviving family members, and still did. Stow himself would not discuss it with his mother and sister at the time, and their fragmented conjectures had led them to believe that, as a barely-trained CPO, he had somehow been left unsupervised in a distant outpost. This combination of circumstances was inclining me towards the conclusion that a cover-up might subsequently have been put in place to protect the reputations of those further up line.

In the moist air this morning the smell of frangipanni was overpowering. Walking to Moresby from here along the dirt road is pretty—the roadside a steep hill on the right, and wild Mexican rose and the sea on the left. In the cloudy morning it looks steely, but [by] lunch time is deep blue & deep sea-green. The sunset is brief and magnificent, picking out the islands in an almost lilac coloured sea, with ragged clouds the colour of Tristesse roses on the horizon, and an old rose glow. There is a fire on Fishermen’s Island tonight, or was; but after tremendous heat it is now raining like Niagara and much more pleasant.

—Randolph Stow, diary entry, 17 March 1959

These days, if you say you are going to Papua New Guinea, people tend to issue anxious warnings. Port Moresby is dangerous, they say, and expensive. One friend was so concerned that he offered to send his eldest son with me as a bodyguard. I must not leave my hotel alone, even in daylight hours, or carry a bag containing any valuables, I was advised. I should not attempt to go anywhere at night, even by car, for fear of marauding gangs, roadblocks and car-jackers. More immediately useful, in the Lamana hotel, where I intended to stay, I should ask for a room that was not above the bar.

In February 2013, on the short taxi ride in from Jackson airport, Port Moresby revealed itself as a sprawling, ramshackle settlement of low buildings scattered over a series of steep hills and bays, with a few high-rise blocks marking its centre. When I retired that night, however, the pertinence of the last piece of advice became apparent: the throbbing beat of dance music in the hotel’s nightclub—a dark dive full of serious drinkers—continued until three in the morning, drowning out the room’s air conditioner, which itself sounded like a windy tropical storm with pattering rain.

At the hotel desk next day (the telephone in my room works only intermittently) I book a taxi to take me around the town, at 150 kina (about AU$75) for three hours. My driver, Mark, is calm and affable. When we have negotiated some necessary purchases—a mosquito net and a sim card—with Mark translating for me, we tour the local landmarks: Parliament House, the ethnographic Museum, the Botanic Gardens, Boroko market, and Paga Hill to see the views of Ela Beach and the harbour. Then, after a detour via the Two Mile and the Four Mile, I try to retrace what might have been Stow’s ambulatory route, through old colonial red-roofed wooden houses resembling Queenlanders on stilts, from where he might have been billeted in 1959.

While we drive, Mark, whose father was a civil servant, tells me a story about a sister of his, university educated, who had died by sorcery at a young age. The subject has come up because, not long ago, in a barbarous act that received publicity worldwide, a young woman at Mount Hagen was burned alive after being accused of witchcraft. After expressing my shock and sympathy, I ask how, in his sister’s case, his family had known it was sorcery. After her death, they had found black marks on her breasts, Mark confides: whoever had done it had somehow got hold of her bra. They had tried without success to find out who was responsible, and his father had retired from his Government position as a result. People were jealous of his family’s success, he thought. Mark himself thought driving a taxi was less stressful now than seeking out some more ambitious job.

For Mick Stow, things had soon begun to look more promising. A few weeks after his arrival he learned that, instead of being posted out on patrol, he was to be attached to Charles Julius, the Department’s anthropologist. In early May he and Julius would go to Kirwina island in the Trobriand group, to investigate the disputed paramount chieftainship of Omarakana. The authority of the Trobriand chiefs appeared to be waning as various factors underpinning their prestige—polygamy, and faith in their power of magic and beneficent sorcery—diminished with the encroachment of European ideas. If the breakdown of order continued, it was believed, lawlessness might result.

On the morning of Saturday 2 May 1959 Mick and Charles Julius left by Canadian Otter seaplane for the tiny island outpost of Samarai in the Milne Bay district, from where they would travel by boat to Kiriwina. At Omarakana, they would study what might happen if Mitakata, the elderly paramount chief of the Trobriands, disinherited his heir, who was thought to have slept with one of his younger wives. The two men would spend some five months together before Julius returned to Moresby to make his report, while Stow reverted to his role as a CPO.

These experiences with Charles Julius in the Trobriand Islands, and later on his tour of duty with his supervising senior Patrol Officer Peter Gall, would eventually result in the novel Visitants. Before that happened, however, in December 1959, after a spell in Taurama hospital in Port Moresby, Mick would resign and be repatriated to Australia. Subsequently Stow was circumspect about these events, publicly as well as privately, and within weeks the larger part of his Public Service file (after being inspected by the ‘the minister’, Paul Hasluck) had been moved to a restricted category. Hints dropped by Mick about his loneliness had led his family to believe his mental crisis had been brought on by malaria. Certainly, in later life, Stow himself also thought so. Neither Peter Gall, who was still living in Port Moresby, nor Gall’s immediate superior, Robert Blaikie, the Assistant District Officer at Losuia on Kiriwina at the time, whom I had traced to Queensland, would respond to my letters or emails. When I tried to ring Peter Gall directly from Australia, the operator in Port Moresby told me his telephone had been disconnected. Finally, from Bob Blaikie, I had received a courteous two-sentence email thanking me for mine, and stating ‘I have nothing to add that would be of any use to you.’ Blaikie, who had correctly guessed that I knew nothing, was evidently prepared to leave it that way, and my research so far amounted to little more than a distillation of gossip, hearsay and speculation.

Lamana Hotel, Port Moresby – Sunday, 17 February 2013: Hugh Davies, a tall, thin man in his late seventies, once a friend of Mick’s at the University of Western Australia and now a Professor of Geology at the University of Papua New Guinea, arrives to pick me up. His American wife Connie manoeuvres a huge truck into the constricted hotel parking space. Hugh himself had arrived in the Territory as a Departmental geologist a year or two before Stow. I had previously confided in Hugh, during a lengthy email correspondence, that I could not make contact with Peter Gall, and now it seemed that he had found him, seemingly effortlessly, and persuaded him to meet me. It was a more a dislike of letter-writing, and his failing memory, Hugh maintained, that had prevented Gall from responding before. I had suspected that it was more the imprimatur of another PNG insider that might have changed his mind.

Now we drive a few hundred yards to the Holiday Inn and adjourn to its coffee shop, near where a band of local children splash about in the hotel pool, to meet Peter. Still recognisable from photographs over half a century old by his wide, disarming smile, Gall is another tall, thin man in the tropical bureaucratic uniform of shorts and lace-up shoes. Over several weeks in late 1959, he confirms, he and Stow had patrolled the islands together, including Kitava and the remote Marshall Bennett group, on the Government workboat Pearl, accompanied by an interpreter, a small band of local police and a medical orderly. En route back to Losuia in mid November they had called in at the small nearby island of Muwo, where an isolated copra plantation was managed by an Australian.

His last patrol with Mick had gone quite normally, Gall insists. Mick was unlike the other cadets who had come under his supervision; he was quiet, observant, intelligent, interested in everything that was going on, and although they had had long talks together Gall had had no idea that anything was amiss. Blaming his failing memory, he seems unable to do more than confirm the truth or otherwise of what I already know of their movements. Gall is adamant that neither he nor Blaikie had observed any of the unmistakable signs of malaria —the sweating and fever—in Stow. Hearing that I am to leave for the Trobriands the following day, he suggests another meeting on my return: I will understand things better, he says, when I have been there.

Another taxi takes me to the Domestic Terminal to catch a smaller plane for the two-hour flight to Losuia on Kiriwina Island.

After two days in Port Moresby, even though everyone I have met is friendly enough, I am feeling very claustrophobic. It is constricting to be unable to walk about and explore the ramshackle town on my own, and booking a taxi for every outing is expensive and inconvenient. To my suggestion that we meet in the evening, Hugh and Connie demur: living behind high walls with security features, they too do not drive at night. Peter Gall has a different approach: his door is always open. Everyone knows he has nothing in his house worth taking and his neighbours know him and look out for him. So now I am becoming increasingly apprehensive about my excursion to the Trobriands: with no language skills, and unable to leave the island until the arrival of the next plane in a week’s time, I will entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. The Trobriands, because of Malinowski, are a well-worn path for foreigners. Nevertheless, I feel incompetent to handle what might lie ahead.

We take off in a De Havilland Dash 8, flying over hills that look moss-covered from the air and which quickly turn into high mountains with no visible sign of habitation. At Alotau, on the tip of the mainland, where we stop to refuel, we all get off the plane to stretch our legs. The only other European passenger, a bearded Australian in khaki, a nutrition expert, disappears into the terminal shed. I sit outside, where our pilot is gossiping with two pilots from another aircraft, a small twin-engine. It emerges that the tractor that is supposed to pull the re-fuelling tank cannot be started. A bird lands on top of their plane, and the other pilots leave. I sit alone outside the shed, accompanied by a few bush flies, as our pilot disappears to radio Moresby for instructions. Green, green grass and palm trees, blue sky, warm tropical air. Silent, sticky flies. I decide it is probably safest to keep our plane within eyeshot.

After a time we take off again: we have enough fuel to reach Losuia, it seems, but not enough for the plane to land and pick up passengers again at Alotau on the return trip. The green mountains give way to mountainous islands, then to endless flat blue sea, and long flat clouds, and flat coral atolls. Some of these are just a splinter of coral sand above a submerged reef. Now I am the only foreign passenger on board.

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Kitava. Photo: Suzanne Falkiner

Losuia is quite a nice little station. Nothing there but the subdistrict office, with an ADO and wife and a cadet, and the hospital, with a doctor and medical assistant who arrived on the Yelangili with us. There are two trading families, and two missions with about four Europeans each. That’s the whole white population of the main island. At Kitava there is one old planter, and at Muwo a married planter. So it’s not exactly crowded with Europeans.

—Letter, Stow to his mother. Sent from Losuia, Milne Bay District, 22 May 1959.

The government station at Losuia, a small scatter of buildings centred on the seafront and a straight, white crushed-coral road leading inland, was regarded in Stow’s time as an attractive posting, if rather isolated. When I arrive, not much has changed.

Behind the wharf and shed, which doubles as a fish market, a handful of white-painted, breezy timber-frame administration houses remain, raised off the ground and walled with woven palm leaf and roofed with red-painted corrugated iron. At Losuia, Stow and Charles Julius had spent a few days with Bob Blaikie before a local trader ferried them and their equipment and stores in his truck some five miles inland to the village of Omarakana, made famous by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Here they moved into the village rest house, took censuses and made genealogies, had long talks with the chief, Mitikata, and other local people, and Mick set about learning the language and compiling a written vocabulary. He also made notes of local myths and spells, and ‘accidentally’ acquired a cat and a white cockatoo called Napanapa.

I have been given the names of several people to look out for on Kiriwina: Sergio Jarillo de la Torre, a Spanish anthropologist who has been doing field work here for several months; Kenneth Kalubaku, who runs one of the island’s two small guesthouses; and his brother John Kaisapwalova, a prominent local political identity and chieftain, but I had wondered how I would find them. I need not have worried: most of Losuia has come to meet the plane and I have met most of my contacts within ten minutes of landing. Also aboard the plane, unknown to me, is the District Administrator, and a choir of children has gathered at the airport to greet him. When I ask about the guesthouse I am pointed towards a parked mini-bus, where a skinny, dark-bearded individual immediately asks, are you Suzanne? It turns out that Andy Connelly, one of my ANU anthropological sources, has texted him to look out for me. Kenneth Kalubaku is also on board the bus, and it turns out that John Kaisapwalova’s elder wife Mary is currently cooking at the guesthouse.

The Butia lodge outside Losuia is basic but clean and comfortable, with wooden cabins raised off the ground—giant millipedes, about the length and thickness of a large cigar, swarm everywhere in the grass like prehistoric remnants— and a large, open-sided communal dining room and meeting area. An electricity generator runs to provide hot water and turn a ceiling fan for a few hours in the evening as you go to sleep. At the main building, young men arrive at the kitchen every morning with bundles of tightly bound, glowering black mud crabs. Others bring carvings, laying them out silently for you to inspect. Soon after I arrive, Kenneth’s young niece Naomi invites me for a walk to visit her grandparent’s village, a neat collection of pandanus and wooden houses on stilts in a small clearing.

In Stow’s time the Omarakana rest house—or ‘old story barrack’, as the local people christened it—was an elevated structure with banana-leaf walls and a pandanus roof, with a room for sleeping, another for washing, and a verandah on which Mick set up his camp bed. At ground level a cookhouse was attached. Omarakana itself, set in a grove of tall trees, was arranged in a roughly circular pattern, with an inner ring of yam houses surrounded by an outer circle of one-room dwellings, all enclosing the baku, or central place, occupied by the Paramount Chief’s intricately-painted yam house. The newcomers’ quarters were about 400 yards from the village—or about the furthest the now elderly Mitakata, Guyau (chief, or father) of Omarakana since 1919, could walk. Beyond the village and the grove were the yam gardens.

Mitakata’s approach would be signalled by the rattle of his many necklaces and the clinking of the decorative shells on his lime pot, carried by one of his many attendants, Charles Julius recorded. On arrival the chief would be offered a chair, while all other visitors were careful to sit in the floor. Mitakata’s own ceremonial seating platform, in the centre of the village, was sufficiently raised on stilts to allow his subjects to walk about freely below.

From here Mitakata, a tall, thin but imposing man, presided over his yam house, filled by custom by his wives’ brothers. Surrounded by high-ranking clansmen, he also oversaw the island’s oral traditions and magic, supervising the yam harvest festivals, or milamala, and the important ceremonial exchange circuit, or Kula, conducted by canoe among the islands of the region. Like Julius, Mick was impressed by Mitakata:

May 16th: He came forward wearing a blue laplap, a beret, the boar-tusk necklace with insignia, and the Queen’s medal. He is a very intelligent and rather distinguished old man—much more so than could be expected from the photographs of the young Mitakata in Malinowski. His mouth is most sensitive, his eyes were thoughtful and bright, his voice is dignified.

When invited, Stow and Julius could join him on his platform, in company with Vanoi, his current favoured nephew and heir, and Vanoi’s sister, Botabalu, and some of her small sons. On the ground below, several of his twelve wives and seventeen children—all of a less exalted clan, or dala—would sit. Gifts were exchanged with the guests: several coconuts and some bananas in return for sticks of tobacco. This presented something of a dilemma for Mitakata, Julius observed, as, if the gift were detected by the villagers, he would be obliged to distribute it around. This was a problem he sometimes surreptitiously solved by sitting on it.

After some discussion it is arranged that I will hire Kenneth’s vehicle, and he and John Kaisapwalova will accompany me to visit the current Paramount chief at Omarakana. In Stow’s time Mitakata’s heirs, Waibadi and Vanoi, had been favoured in turn for the succession, until Waibadi was rumoured to have impregnated one of Mitkata’s younger wives, and favour passed again to Vanoi. Vanoi was succeeded by Waibadi, who was succeeded in turn in 1982 by Pulayasi Daniel, the present incumbent, now in his late fifties.

First, I am advised, I should go to Losuia market with one of the guesthouse staff to buy betel nuts and mustard pods as a token gift for the chief. But when I return with the stem of betel, Kenneth’s brow knits, and he explains that I have inadvertently bought nuts that were picked yesterday, and not today, and so I must tell Pulayasi Daniel that it is for his wives and relatives. To him I should give instead twenty kina for fresh betel for himself; this will be more respectful.

Next morning we drive to Omarakana. Pulayasi Daniel, a man with a benign and good-humoured air, and some of his retinue are gathered beneath his wooden house, the Paramount Chief cross-legged on a chair, the others seated around him on a concrete platform. Kenneth and John introduce me, and a woven mat is placed on the concrete slab for me. I approach in a sort of half-crouch, not sure whether he will regard this with amusement or merely as his right, and present the gifts of betel, the kina, and also two colourful baseball caps, about which he looks quite pleased, although he throws them down beside him with a suitably disdainful air. I explain my purpose, with one of his relatives translating, and show him the old photographs I have brought. Through his interpreter, Pulayasi Daniel tells me that he remembers Julius coming, with another person that must have been Stow, and that as a boy of five or seven years old he had been delegated to take a gift of bananas from the Paramount Chief to the resthouse for them. No one else is left alive, he tells me, who will remember more.

Dola, who is our driver and speaks good English, shows me around the village—the current raised rest house, brightly painted, is hung with strings of white cowries and filled inside with spider webs; the tall, decorated yam houses; the carved stone memorial to Malinowski—while the men talk of more important affairs. Then it is made known that the chief has things to do, and we drive on to visit Kaibola beach, a popular and picturesque swimming spot for Europeans in Stow’s time. Here, I remember from his diary, Mick filled most of an afternoon looking for a new home for a hermit crab. The beach is still lined with outrigger canoes and sea-worn shells of various types, but suitable housing for hermit crabs, it appears, remain in short supply.

Also remembering Cam—King of Kitava, his home. Made largely of packing case boards, it seemed, and with a musty smell inside. All grey unpainted unvarnished wood, I remember, with odd bits of machinery, old wirelesses, a wall-plaque (painted wood) from H.M.A.S. Perth, a map of the world, both Kinsey Reports and a fat book called Sexual Deviants. Between the lockable living quarters and the kitchen a roofed-in open verandah where Cam ate and sat most of the day. …[He claimed] descent from Cameron of Lochill, and from Johan van der Oldenbarneveldt —in fact we did drink out of old fashioned white china mugs with the Dutch royal coat of arms on them. On the other side of the verandah was a very large and beautiful pink frangipani, and the huts of Cam’s servants. He had a butcher bird called Popu which flitted about everywhere. In the mornings the wild butcherbirds called all about & the tame one made [illegible] attempts at answering.

—Randolph Stow, diary entry, Leeds, April 1962

For a short while I have had the Butia guesthouse entirely to myself, until a small party of young men, representatives of a large Australian cruise ship company, arrives with a guide and interpreter. They are here to negotiate with the local chieftains about bringing groups of cruise passengers, one thousand strong, ashore for a daytrip to the island. My immediate sense of dismay is ameliorated somewhat when I learn later that the villages, still working on a largely a cashless economy, are in urgent need of a monetary income to buy imported food. The population has increased so greatly in recent times that the cycle of rotating the yam gardens, which are traditionally moved to a newly-cleared patch of ground every few years, has become unsustainably short, and the available arable land is in danger of becoming exhausted. The tourists, it is proposed, will pay a landing fee to the villagers, buy their carvings, watch dances and exhibitions of traditional cooking, and then leave again after eight hours, taking their portable toilets with them, the cruise men explain to me. Surely, I reflect, this is a better solution than some more ecologically destructive and permanent tourist venture such as a hotel? But what sort of changes will this extra money bring? I am glad to have come here now, before all this comes into being.

More immediately useful, the group is hiring a small, fast powerboat to take them to the outlying island of Kitava, where they will put the same proposition. I had given up on plans of visiting Kitava, about thirty kilometres away, because the cost of fuel, transported from the mainland, meant that hiring a boat for myself would have been exorbitantly expensive. I throw myself on their mercy and, with some hesitation, the party agrees to take me with them, along with Sergio, who will translate for them.

Early next morning we set off from Losuia, where the long finger of coral rock pier stretches into a shallow lagoon lined with seagrass: this is dugong and turtle territory. Rounding the southern end of Kiriwina we pass the small, round island of Muwo, where, in a solitary planter’s house, Stow had suffered the breakdown that ended his Trobriand sojourn. Speeding across the smooth open sea, in a glorious blue world empty of everything but towering white clouds, we reach Kitava in about an hour and a half, a trip that in Stow’s wooden workboat took nearer to a day.

We are welcomed with garlands by bare-breasted young women in traditional woven skirts, and grass mats are laid out on the white beach, along with a row of plastic chairs for the visitors, and an interested crowd of spectators, mostly children, gather to watch the proceedings. The cruise men present their case. A forceful woman represents the landowners. Sergio translates masterfully. Refreshments—substantial—are served at eleven: yams and dried fish, sweet and delicious. Then the village chiefs have their say, also at length. All around, people sit under the trees, small brown toddlers swam in the fizzy shallows, a ramshackle boat sits offshore in the translucent, pale aquamarine sea, seemingly the plaything of the older children.

Later in the afternoon Sergio and I walk up an overgrown path up the hill to where the old planter Cyril Cameron’s house and grave are located. Of the house, nothing is left but the iron remnants of an old generator, a concrete water tank, and a flight of concrete steps leading nowhere. Through a gap in the heavy vegetation near his gravesite, one has the same view of the landing place on the beach that ‘King’ Cameron would have had from his elevated verandah. Further up the ridge is the overgrown remains of his coconut grove.

Cyril Barnevelt Cameron had arrived in Port Moresby in 1909, in his early twenties, and tried goldmining before setting up a coconut plantation on Kitava. A lean six foot three inches tall, blue-eyed, beak-nosed and moustached, in 1915 the planter, wearing his customary puttees and with pipe in mouth, was photographed on Kiriwina with Malinowski, marginally shorter in a sola topi. Behind his wooden house lay a compound where a coterie of women—elderly widows and abandoned wives with children—made copra in return for his support. After Malinowski’s works appeared in the 1920s and ‘30s, and a journalist witnessed the crowd of young women who habitually gathered on his verandah in the evenings, florid newspaper stories described his tropical island ‘harem’. Cameron’s Australian relatives nevertheless maintain that he had three wives only, and these in succession, and fathered only three children.

By the time Mick Stow and Peter Gall arrived in mid October 1959, however, King Cam was approaching 73, and his timber castle, filled with mildewed antique cedar furniture, was rotting away. They had stayed with him for several days while trekking back and forth with their carriers from the island’s three major villages. Stow would encapsulate the encounter in his character ‘Mak’—or ‘the Macdonnnell’—in Visitants. Cameron died in 1966, after over fifty years—punctuated only by a short evacuation when the island was bombed during WWII—as the island’s sole European occupant.

Back in Port Moresby, Peter Gall will tell me he remembers the butcherbird—or was it a magpie?—arriving on the verandah at the same time every day, and the girls moving quietly through the house, and Mick gathering much information from Cameron— ‘a talkative bloke’—about things that interested him. A young girl who worked in the house, Oi-ei-ou-a —‘great fun, about sixteen or so, and very boisterous’, according to Mick—would become ‘Saliba’ in the same novel.

Remember the green fireflies like eyes in the dripping trees—the owl—the smell of palm leaves drying.

At Toboada in August the flowers were out—vinca, convolvulus, hibiscus, painted lady, and some kind of pea like a violet, very sweet smell.

Bwita too, a fragrant cream coloured flowering ficus. Very windy. Stayed there three weeks. Then Sinaketa, on the sea. When tide is out pigs went to waterline foraging among the mussels etc. Reef beyond at waterline. Awake all one night and saw before dawn Katamapula Guyan take out his canoe fishing. Extraordinary blue world.

Vakuta three weeks. Remember the terrible broken and desert coral forest. Surf smashing on the forsaken cliffs. Kitava, and the strange hospitality and character of Kam the King. Iwa—island left alone by Europeans—high coral cliffs, grey with just a little vegetation, rising out of a sea that was clear as the air itself, or clearer, and showed the fish and coral as if through a magnifying glass. A long moonlight trip back to Kitava, not a disturbance on the sea but our own wake. Then the sickness—cold, all day and night—and finished or tried to at Muwo.

Remember Dokonikan cave[,] the one at Kitava—old woman at census whose husband and son had died—evening when the lamps were lit—changing colours of palm fronds at different times of the day—much else. Was happy, often.

—Randolph Stow, undated diary entry, 1960

Back at the Butia guesthouse, alone again after the cruise company reps have gone, I have all the mud crabs I can eat.

Not long before my departure I go to stay a night at John Kaisapwalova’s house at Bweka, a sprawling wooden structure hidden within a canopy of trees. A somewhat rickety building with doors that won’t quite close and white-anted floor boards that move under the bare padding feet of women and children, lit by kerosene lamps and with wooden louvres closed against the rain, it helps me to imagine Cyril Cameron’s house on Kitava. In the evening I bathe in the dark subterranean cavern that supplies the community with fresh water, where small fish hang in the clear depths. After a generous meal of smoked fish, while John smokes endless cigarettes made with newspaper and rough-chopped tobacco and the rain pours down outside, we talk of many subjects: John’s schemes for his clan, of his plans for permaculture gardens, of local legends he has recorded, of our mutual friend the writer Drusilla Modjeska, whom John knew from his student days in the late 1960s. He knows, too, the Papuan writer Russell Soaba, who was admiring of Visitants, noting in a review that he liked Osana, the Iago-like interpreter who constantly undermined the novel’s white characters, for his independent-mindedness. Soaba had appreciated Stow’s mastery of Biga-Kiriwina, ‘bringing home to the reader…its sense of humour, its richness of imagery and its insistent use of symbolic expressions’, and enabling, for the first time, the colonial gaze to be turned back on itself by the Trobriand characters.

That night I fall asleep on a mattress on the floor in darkness lit by fireflies, serenaded by frogs and crickets and the scuttle of a bush rat moving around the room. At some point I wake to find that one of the giant millipedes has managed to negotiate my mosquito net—they are attracted to human warmth, I learn—and is now traversing my pillow. Next morning I find my left arm stained from wrist to elbow by vivid wine-coloured marks: before throwing the pillow out from under the net I must have disturbed the creature, which when alarmed releases a type of painless acid.

A ship at night,
every joint of timber creaking.
I am alone,
five miles above the moon.
—Randolph Stow, ‘Clichés’, circa 2001

Mick’s last surviving letter to his mother was dated 22 May 1959, from Omarakana, and on 30 June he gave up making entries in his diary. Soon after, he and Julius moved to nearby Toboada, and then to Sinaketa, and finally to Vakuta, the southern-most village on Kiriwina. Both men were now suffering health problems, including ‘flu, local infections and dysentery. On 4 August, at Losuia, Stow learned by radio telegram that his father, Cedric Stow, had died in Geraldton. The following month Charles Julius left for Port Moresby, and on 26 September Mick replaced 18-year-old Barry Fox, a fellow CPO who was transferred to Misima Island. When he and Peter Gall stopped overnight at Muwo on Friday 13 November while returning to Losuia from their patrol on the workboat Pearl, Mick would also learn from the planter’s radio of the recent drowning of a friend from University.

Imaginative rumours circulated in the bars of Port Moresby in the years after Stow’s departure for Australia in December 1959, none of which was true. They had ‘had to get rid of him’ because he was ‘chasing after young boys’, one old New Guinea hand told the novelist Trevor Shearston many years later. Possibly it was the Losuia doctor Horst Juptner’s careful bandaging and splinting of Mick’s damaged arms and wrists that informed the story that he had been shipped back from Kiriwina in a strait jacket. It was also authoritatively reported to me that Mick had ‘cracked up’ after an encounter with some Trobriand girls, who had forcibly had their way with him when they found him walking late at night in the gardens during the yam festival. None of these stories, when more closely examined, has its origins with people who were in Port Moresby or the Trobriands with Mick in the period. My own imaginative conjectures, when another insider finally persuades Bob Blaikie to correspond with me, and I learn the truth about the events on Kitava and Muwo, will turn out to be nearly as erroneous.

At the airport shed on the day of my departure, I discover that the District Administrator is leaving on the same plane, and again there is an air of festivity. All the Butia staff have dressed up in their best to come to the airport, and a huge crowd of children and vegetable and mud crab sellers have gathered, along with several elderly nuns. Kenneth’s niece Naomi presents me with a wreath of pungent Butia flowers that scents the van, and then the plane. I do not really want to leave. I want to say that I will come back, but know that this probably will not happen, although I like to think it might. I think of Stow, leaving by plane from this same airstrip over fifty years ago, and I am glad that he, too, ‘was happy, often.’

Suzanne Falkiner’s Mick: A Life of Randolph Stow is published this month by UWAP.