Star Mountains Expedition, Papua New Guinea
Exploration | Interviews

The Australian Star Mountains Expedition in Papua New Guinea

June 19, 2018

In 2015 I attended a talk at a North Vancouver library entitled “The First Crossing of the Star Mountains of Papua New Guinea.” A geologist, David Cook, gave the lecture describing an obscure journey half a century earlier, in 1965, in which himself, five other Australians and 13 local porters made the crossing of the high elevation, mist covered mountain range. The 85 day trip took place when Papua New Guinea was still a colony of Australia – and not long after the neighbouring Dutch colony of Guinea had been annexed by Indonesia.

Cook gave a detailed presentation with loads of images as well as artifacts he had brought back. The expedition, he said, was undertaken largely to explore caves and to conduct plant, wildlife and geological studies (one member of the team was also quietly tasked to report on the movements of the Indonesian military across the border). Cook shared yarns describing perilous river crossings, encounters with giant spiders and rats, and the astonishing sight of women in mountain villages who suckled and raised small pigs.

During the lecture it occurred to me to write something about the trip since it might be entirely forgotten with time (I learned later that an old manuscript chronicling the expedition entitled The Star Mountains, written by Tom Hayllar, one of the team members, was to be published in 2016). I met with Cook, and asked if he’d like to be interviewed. He suggested I speak instead with the expedition leader, Barry Craig (top left in photo), who resides in Australia.

Barry was living in Papua New Guinea, working as a school teacher and anthropologist in the community of Telefomin before the expedition. He’d heard that a journey was in the works and eventually became involved, in part, because of his rich local knowledge and contacts.

He talked to me about the expedition and the lead-up to it.


How and why did you become involved in the Australian Star Mountains expedition?

I was curious about the peoples living west of the town of Telefomin where I was working in the early and mid 1960s as a head teacher. I took considerable interest in the people of that area, especially in their material culture. My then-wife was doing in-depth anthropological research of the Telefolmin (the name of the people living in Telefomin) and I did more extensive survey work at weekends and holidays in a region little-known to anthropology.

At that time I started making inquiries with the authorities in Port Moresby about proposing a joint scientific-administration expedition to the Stars, but was politely rebutted. But word spread of my interest and several months later I was contacted by others telling me about preparations for what was originally to be a caving expedition. Lots of talks ensued and I was eventually invited on. I of course accepted and immediately began planning the logistics and the route in more detail.

The team ended up being comprised of Tom Hayllar (school teacher, adventurer, speleo), David Cook (geology, palaeontology), Paul Symons (immigration psychologist, speleo), Mike Shepherd (geomorphology), John Huon (medical) and myself (school teacher, anthropology).

What were your goals?

Largely to survey and initially explore the cave systems and make a collection of cave fauna for the South Australian Museum. Secondly to climb the major peaks of the Star Mountains. David Cook would do a geological survey, Mike Shepherd would study evidence of glaciation for his university thesis, and John Huon (an Administration medical assistant with us for only the first few weeks) would do a health survey. My job would be to record anthropological and linguistic data, collect frogs and lizards for the South Australian Museum, and make a botanical collection above 9000 feet for the Papua New Guinea Herbarium.

Topographical information and track times would be made available to the military people in Wewak and in Australia, for which help we were provided with special maps (printed in 1963 but kept restricted from public use).

How much knowledge about the area did you have going into this trip?

I was the only person in the team with local knowledge. I’d lived at Telefomin since early 1962 and had done anthropology surveys to nearby valleys, gathering data to complement the local research done by my then-wife. I’d also done some ethnographic work, on my own and with others, for various museums. I’d undertaken an aerial survey of the Star Mountains and participated in an airdrop to an administration patrol just north of the range. I was in almost daily contact with administration patrol officers and the Baptist missionaries in the region.

How did you assemble your local team?

I chose the carriers from among Telefolmin men (and two Tifalmin men – one of whom was our interpreter) who I knew quite well. They proved stalwart and reliable during the whole three months, and persisted with relatively good humor in trekking over sharp limestone karst, dense springy matting of high-altitude shrubs, and cold wet conditions on the peaks. Nobody in the team or among the carriers had a serious accident or illness.

Star Mountains Expedition, Papua New Guinea
Photo by Tom Hayllar

Some of these local porters were fairly big characters with interesting pasts.

By “big” I assume you mean ‘remarkable’ and not big in physical stature – most Telefolmin are shorter than the average European. Once you get to know them, they have just as interesting personalities and past experiences as anyone in any country. They are generally taciturn – men of few words but incisive subtle humour – with a moral ethical outlook not dissimilar to that of the British Victorian era.

Perhaps the most remarkable was a man named Nimisep who had been jailed for ten years along with 31 other Telefolmin found guilty of killing two Administration patrol officers and two policemen in 1953. The men were released from jail in late 1962 and returned to Telefomin. Nimisep was a small, taciturn man, but I got to know him fairly well and he proved exceptionally reliable and thoughtful during the expedition. His signature joined those of Tom, Mike, Paul, David and myself in a plastic bottle we placed on the peak of Scorpion on 20 April 1965.

Another stalwart was Dakamdapnok, the primary and most helpful of my then-wife’s informants/interpreters. His motivation for coming on the expedition was to travel at first hand the trade routes by which certain important artifacts came to Telefomin (stone adze blades all the way from West Papua, and bow staves from the southern lowlands), and to see new country and meet new ethno-linguistic groups.

Tell me about the inhabitants of this region.

There are several ethno-linguistic groups in central New Guinea, mainly located in Papua New Guinea, stretching from the Strickland Gorge in the east into West Papua as far as the Sibil Valley in the west; and from the Fly-Ok Tedi Headwaters in the south to the May-August headwaters in the north. They all speak languages that belong to Alan Healey’s ‘Mountain-Ok’ Sub-family of Ok languages.

Perhaps the most distinguishing feature is the wearing of penis gourds by the men, but this is also a feature of the men of the upper Sepik lowlands and Border Mountains groups to the north of the upper Sepik River.

Mountain-Ok area was supported by a series of graded initiation rituals for young men that ensured skilled gardeners, fearless warriors and enlistment of ancestral spirits for the well-being of families and communities. Men, women and children all participated in gardening and gathering activities and the men specialised in hunting, most particularly in hunting feral pigs, an activity almost as dangerous as attacking humans. Domestic pigs were primarily the responsibility of the women.

Describe your interactions with them? What were some of the more memorable moments?

Relationships with the indigenous inhabitants south of the Stars (the Wopkaimin) were generally friendly and co-operative. We had glass beads and trinkets, salt and tobacco for trade (mainly for garden produce). Money was of no use as there was no access to trade stores where things could be bought for money. At no time was there any cause for concern about an attack by the local people.

For me, the most memorable moment occurred at the first base camp among the Wopkaimin at a place called Kawolabip. On one of my local excursions, I came across a burnt-out men’s house with a burnt shield in it. I asked about it and was told it had been an accident – a fire had broken out from an unattended hearth. However, I was with a couple of our Tifalmin carriers at the time and that night they came to me with the suspicion that a young Tifalmin relative, who had gone to live among the people at Kawolabip and had married a girl there, had been murdered in the hut – and the hut burnt to conceal the evidence. (It turned out later that they had been keen to join the expedition precisely to find out what had happened to their relative who had been reported missing). My response was, “No body. No case.”

So the next day they went and looked around the area of the burnt-out house and located the body, thrown into a nearby stream, with evidence of a mortal axe-blow to the neck, a length of rattan tied to one ankle. Suddenly this was a serious matter. I was on my own (the rest of the team was up on the Plateau and I was due to join them in a few days), and had a couple of relatives of the dead man wanting justice, a nervous local population and a handful of Telefolmin carriers who were sympathetic to the alleged victim’s tribe.

My first action was to go and confirm there was a body, and I photographed it as evidence for future action by the Administration. To ensure that the matter would be taken seriously by the Administration, I then conducted a careful investigation to identify the culprit(s) and motivation. I was known by the Telefolmin and Tifalmin as the Administration school teacher at Telefomin and therefore was identified (inappropriately of course) to some extent with Administration judicial processes. I thought it best to allow this ambiguity under the circumstances as indigenous resolution of the matter would have involved a pay-back killing. It took a few hours but eventually I identified the actual killer and the motivation and wrote down every question and answer for the use of a future investigation by the correct authorities.

A few years later in January 1967, during a short survey through the region, I discovered that nothing had been done about it. I therefore wrote a lengthy letter to the Administrator at Port Moresby explaining the matter, enclosing a transcript of my investigation, and urging that something should be done. In 1981 during my cultural heritage survey, I enquired again if anything had been done and the answer was no. This seemed to sum up the Administration’s disdain for the 1965 Expedition.

What dangers did you encounter on the trip?

The main danger was falling into a crevasse in the limestone karst up on the Mountains, or off a makeshift sapling footbridge across a turbulent creek. I have notes in my diary for the track westwards along the 11,000 foot ridge running between the headwaters of the Kawol flowing south into the Digul River and the headwaters of the Din flowing north into the Sepik:

“Many small holes which were hidden beneath moss – very dangerous. I fell into a couple and had difficulty getting out again . . . some crevasses were 20 to 30 feet deep.”

“Often, too, a step on harmless-looking moss precipitates one downward into large holes – very dangerous. Mike got a bad crack on the knee from one such fall.”

This latter happened to me while I was walking along our track back eastwards from Scorpion towards Capella:

“At one place I slipped off a rock, fell into a crevice full of bushes and a loose piece of rock fell and hit me right on my swollen knee (caused by an aggravated wound that developed into a boil). It was agonizing. I eventually extracted myself and limped on.”

This happened when I was separate from the rest of the line and if I had been knocked unconscious or killed by the fall, I would have, for all intents and purposes, unaccountably disappeared.

Star Mountains Expedition, Papua New Guinea
Photo by Tom Hayllar

There was also an incident that took place at your second base camp – an area now known (because of that incident) as “Dokfuma.”

I was still at Kawolabip at the time. The team up on the plateau were getting low on food as an airdrop had not re-supplied them yet. The rifle was used to shoot a dog and although the carriers refused to eat it, the team tucked into it with relish. These dogs are feral from early populations of domestic dogs that probably arrived in New Guinea with the Austronesians c.3500 years ago. They are similar to the Australian dingo, and they don’t bark but ‘sing’ (see Wikipedia: ‘New Guinea singing dog’).

The name of the camp, Dokfuma, is a mix of Pidgin English (Dok = dog) and Telefol (Fuumin = cook); therefore ‘where the dog was cooked’. I understand the pelt was preserved but I don’t know who kept it.

There was a political aspect to the expedition as well. Tell me about that.

Politics equals competition for power and prestige.

There was the perception by the Administration that we were about to do something that they had not been able to do despite two attempts: climb and cross the Star Mountains. There was irritation that I (a mere education officer and anthropologist) had taken in hand the investigation of the murder of Atemeng and failed to keep the matter out of the hands of his aggrieved relatives who were with me. There were rumours of Indonesian patrols immediately across the border from where we were operating and this disturbed the Administration who were concerned we might cross the border and create an international incident.

On the other hand, the Army people (Pacific Islands Regiment) in Wewak wanted to hear as much as possible about Indonesian movements near the border (nothing of significance emerged). They also wanted copies of photographs and to be able to obtain track-times from us to assist future army patrols through the area. During the 1960s, units of the Pacific Islands Regiment based at Wewak were active in Papua New Guinea along the Border, led by officers of the Australian Army.

What were a few of the big takeaways from this trip in terms of discovery?

The first was clarification of the geography of the region which had until 1963 been a ‘blank space’ on the maps. We filled in local names for settlements, geographical features such as mountains and rivers, and noted heights above sea level. A survey of possible sites for cave exploration was done. Unknowingly we walked several kilometres north of a huge cave system in the Hindenburg wall.

Star Mountains Expedition to Papua New Guinea
Expedition member David Cook. Photo by Tom Hayllar

Our collections of flora and fauna extended the range of many previously-known species (including the New Guinea ‘singing’ dog) collected earlier by the Dutch in their section of the Star Mountains and provided specimens of a few new species as well. Anthropological and linguistic data filled the gap between what was known of the Telefolmin of Papua New Guinea and the Sibil valley people of then Dutch New Guinea.

Did you learn anything personally about yourself – or about your own culture by laying it side-by-side with another?

During my teenage years, I attended a more-or-less evangelical church called ‘The People’s Church’, a radical offspring from a local Methodist Church in a western suburb of Sydney. The closest affinities were with the Baptist church but the People’s Church had its own constitution and hired its own pastor.

When I went and lived among the Telefolmin in the early 1960s, and being trained as a social anthropologist, I began to see the irrationality of the Christian belief system and wrote a letter to the church informing them that I was no longer a Christian but thanking them for the friendship and goodwill I had experienced as one of the members of that church. They were good people, not too crazy like some more recent Christian fundamentalists, but I could no longer go along with their commitments.

The Star Mountains Expedition provided me with other lessons – about understanding myself in relation to others and, at the time, my anxiety about being ‘alone’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, 50 years later, I no longer have this anxiety, nor a fear of death although, also unsurprisingly, I would prefer my death to happen later than sooner. I have a quote from Umberto Eco posted at the entrance to my museum office: “It is necessary to meditate early and often on the art of dying, to succeed later in doing it properly just once.”

Like many anthropologists, the experience of living among people with quite different lifestyles and belief systems certainly gave me a greater awareness of the arbitrariness of my own cultures belief systems. My upbringing (working class, pragmatic, somewhat agnostic parents) provided me with a clear commitment to honesty, and respect for other people based on their actions rather than on what they say. Otherwise it seems that there is much to question about our economic, social and political systems.

Back at the time of the expedition you were fairly young men. And Papua New Guinea was still under colonial rule. Some people might see the expedition and its goals as an extension, even indirect, of that rule over another people. How would you respond to that?

The post-modernist and post-colonialist trains of thought have no traction with me. We are what we are and act in the context of our times. We cannot be held individually responsible for the currents of historical circumstances which shape us more than most of us can ever shape them.

As individuals, what matters is the nature and quality of our relationships with the ‘other’, whether in a colonial or post-colonial context. The men who came with us crazy Australians to climb the Star Mountains had their own agendas – adventure, to see the wider world beyond their valley, to do some personal trading, to find out what had happened to their missing relative. They were fed and paid well, their health and welfare were maintained, they participated in and made possible the successes of our venture and were appreciated accordingly. Whether or not the Star Mountains Expedition occurred would have made no difference to the forces of change that had been operating incrementally for several decades, since the first contact with the Telefolmin by a foreigner (Richard Thurnwald) in 1914. And the soon-to-be-developed Ok Tedi gold and copper mine was about to radically accelerate that process of change.

To learn more about the 1965 Star Mountains Expedition check out Tom Hayllar’s book The Star Mountains, published by Balboa Press (2016).