This is a story that spans more than 40 years, crosses international borders, and the barriers of race, colour, and creed. It’s a story of hardship and friendship, tinged with some sadness…but one that could now be heading towards an emotional reunion. This is a story about…
The Mildura dad and his PNG tribal Godson
THEY were the unlikeliest of allies – the novice young Australian soldier, and the teenage native interpreter who helped him and his mates carry out life-saving vaccination work in the remote – and potentially dangerous – Papua New Guinea highlands.
It was 1969 – cases of cannibalism were still being reported in parts of PNG… there were problems accessing remote, isolated and primitive mountain villages, language difficulties with hundreds of different dialects to deal with, not to mention extreme weather conditions, a different culture, and vastly different way of life.
But these two young men, one serving with the Australian Army Medical Corps, and the other with the First Pacific Island Regiment in Papua New Guinea, relied heavily on each other, spent every waking moment together for six weeks…became the best of mates…’blood brothers,’ and almost inseparable.
They were very sad when their medical mission was over, and the time came when they finally had to say their goodbyes and part company in Port Moresby – but not before they made a promise to each other – the Papuan interpreter pledged to name his first-born son after his new Aussie mate, and the young Digger promised to visit his village one day.
They went their separate ways…the years flew by…they lived different lives in different countries and eventually lost contact…although neither forgot the other, and each was hoping that one day, they would meet again.
That was 43 years ago, almost to the day, and now, thanks to the global communication phenomenon that is the world-wide web, and a purely-by-chance sighting of a familiar name on the internet, the unbreakable bond that was forged all those years ago has had a sequel.
The former Aussie soldier is Mildura song-writer, poet and story-teller Ian Felton, 62, who told the Mildura Weekly the amazing story behind his friendship with his Papuan mate in 1969.
“I hadn’t long been in the Army,” Ian said. “I was among an Army medical team of 30 sent to PNG on a humanitarian mission. There had been a severe outbreak of influenza there…it was raging through the highland region, and we were split into teams and given the task of accessing the isolated villages and inoculating the inhabitants.”
As Ian and his mates discovered, it wasn’t a simple exercise. They often had to walk for days through dense jungle, up and down steep and dangerous narrow paths, carrying heavy loads of food, equipment and medical supplies, and putting up with malaria-carrying mosquitoes, high humidity and incessant torrential tropical rain.
But there was an even greater problem in the region – cannibalism…and Ian and his mates in other groups were each assigned Papuan Army guards, and another soldier conversant with the many different PNG dialects, as well as the widely-spoken Pidgin English.
Ian’s interpreter was a young man by the name of Elijah Leklek, the same age as Ian, 19. “I was in an alien culture, a little overwhelmed, but Elijah was amazing,” Ian said. “Over the weeks of our medical mission in the highlands of Menyamya, we became very close, the best of mates…Elijah was very patient in dealing with the people and the dialects in the villages, and taught me basic Pidgin English as we walked from village to village.
“When our time was up and I had to return to Australia, we had one last day together before I had to leave Port Moresby…we tried to get into the Port Moresby RSL Club but they wouldn’t let Elijah in…whites only was the rule…so we gave that club the arse…with much profanity!”
They decided to hire a car, a beat-up old VW, to do some sight-seeing, and spent the day driving along the PNG Peninsula, exploring the markets, getting into as much mischief as they could and generally enjoying life – and each other’s company.
“It was a beautiful and amazing experience, and one that I have cherished all these years,” Ian said. “Elijah and I had developed a friendship and relationship that crossed all barriers.
“When it came time to say goodbye, I said I would return to PNG one day, and Elijah made a promise that when he got married and started a family, he would name his first-born son after me.”
As time slipped by, they lost contact with each other, but earlier this year, Ian was surfing the net, concentrating on developments in PNG, and chanced upon a group of people who were celebrating their graduation in leadership and business management from the Divine Word University in Madang.
One name in particular leapt out at him – Ian Felton Leklek!
Excitedly, Ian got in touch with the university, and they gave him a contact email…he sent off a message, and got the reply; “Yes, I am Ian Felton Leklek…I am Elijah Leklek’s son. I am now 37 years old.
“My Mum and Dad always told me that I got my name from an Australian soldier who was very close to my Dad, but that’s all I knew.”
Maintaining the email contact, Mildura’s Ian Felton had to ask the question that had been on his mind all these years; “How is your father?”
Ian Felton Leklek replied; Unfortunately, my Dad passed away two years ago after a long battle with illness, and was laid to rest in Koko Village in the mountain ranges of Unggai in the eastern highlands…
“My mother Theresa is still alive, and still lives in the village…there are four of us in the family of Elijah Leklek.”
Ian said he was very sad when he heard the news of his mate’s passing, shedding a few tears, but is keeping in touch with ins namesake, who is now employed by the PNG water authority, and is hoping one day in the not-too-distant future to make a visit to PNG to meet Ian Felton Leklek and his family in person.
“I hope this is not the end of my story,” Ian said, “the story will end when I finally meet and embrace my highland native Godson, and pay my respects at the grave of his father.”
(Editor’s note: If anyone knows the whereabouts of Ian Felton Leklek, please contact Alan Erskine, Editor, Mildura Weekly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org)