Monday, July 6, 2015

Retrospective: My Grandfather Ivan Champion


Firstly, a little background to my story about my Grandfather. I spent the first thirteen years of my life living in Port Moresby in Papua and New Guinea. 
I have spent a considerable amount of time scanning negatives that my Grandfather took during the 1920's. Over the past 95 years these negatives have remained in the bottom of suitcases and storage boxes and not stored in ideal conditions. I have tried over the past eight months to bring them back to their original condition using Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. The most remarkable thing about these negatives is that they were taken using a Kodak Box Brownie and the negatives were produced using river water in the wilds of New Guinea.

My Great Grandfather Herbert William Champion arrived in Port Moresby in 1898 at the age of 18. He arrived aboard Burns Phillip and Company's first steam ship the Moresby, working for them supervising the unloading of the company's vessels. 
His character and ability were soon noticed by Governor George Le Hunte who offered him a position with the Administration at the Government Store. His boss Henry Chester passed away after an accidental fall and my Great Grandfather was given his position. Some years later he married Chester's widow and brought up her children. He subsequently had three sons with her Ivan, Claude and Alan. 
In 1916 he was promoted to the position of Government Secretary and in 1940 he was appointed Acting-Lieutenant Governor of Papua. He was awarded a CBE and his three sons carried the family name with great distinction through the war years and in the new civil administration that followed. 
He planted and cared for most of the trees growing in the city centre including the tamarinds in the parade that bears his name.
My Grandfather was born in Port Moresby in 1904 and  at the age of ten attended the Manly Public School in NSW. He finished his schooling at the Southport School in Queensland before returning to Papua in 1923 as a Patrol Officer. 
In 1926 the Administrator Sir Hubert Murray asked two patrol officers to try to cross New Guinea at its widest point,  from the source of the Fly River in the south to the head of the Sepik in the North and follow this river to its mouth. The patrol officers were,
Charles Karius:
And Ivan Champion:
They took with them twelve Papuan policeman and forty carriers. Each carrier carried a load of forty pounds which included items like bags of rice, axes, knives, tobacco and salt that they may be able to use for trading.
In December 1926 they were transported upstream by the Government ketch Elevala 500 miles from the mouth of the Fly River to the Alice River from where they would set out. 
Two days later twenty seven of the carriers deserted, terrified by the eerie surroundings and the thought of being eaten by cannibals. Several of the police intercepted them and brought them back. The party penetrated the jungle for 100 miles before they were confronted by a limestone barrier rising to over 2000 feet. They built two rafts and drifted back down the river taking them just thirty minutes to return to camp whereas the journey on foot had taken them two days.
At this point Karius decided he would take half the police and head in a north east direction to try and find the Sepik and that my grandfather should take the remaining police and carriers back to Daru at the mouth of the Fly River. 

My Grandfather however decided he would explore the mountains to the north-west before returning. He had taught himself navigation and always carried a sextant with him, he told Karius he was heading in the wrong direction. This decision was the turning point for the expedition. My Grandfather met friendly natives who led him beneath the limestone walls to the Bol River which was a tributary of the Fly, and then to a native village called Bolovip at an altitude of over 6500 feet. In those days altitude was measured by boiling water in a Hypsometer. My Grandfather became very friendly with these natives and picked up on their vocabulary by holding up items, saying their names and having them say their name in return.

The Chief Tamsimara, using sign language described a river that flowed to the north. It was the Takin, one of the headwaters of the Sepik. These natives had never seen steel before so my 
Grandfather presented them with a tomahawk and axe and then showed them how to use them. They were taro eaters and used stone adzes to ring bark the trees so they could plant their crops. This was the first encounter that they had with white men so they were truly amazed when my Grandfather took of his hat because they thought it was part of his body.


My Grandfather returned to their base-camp to gather supplies but none of the carriers were fit to continue, so he built rafts for the 500 mile journey back to Daru at the mouth of the Fly River. The rafts often overturned in the rapids, as they made their way past tribes who were at war with each other. At one point they were confronted by headhunters and cannibals trying to board their rafts but were repelled by the police with their rifles.
Headhunters from the Fly River:
Cannibal:
A second attempt began in September 1927. They made their way back to Bolivip, and the chief led them over ridges of needle -pointed limestone, through moss covered scrub and across bridges made of vines that were over 40 feet above rapids and bottomless chasms. At an altitude of over 9000 feet Tamsimara pointed out a great basin surrounded by mountains. In the valley they could make out a wide, muddy and slow moving river.

They started their descent and the countryside echoed with the peculiar frog-croaking warning of the Telefomin people. Armed natives confronted them with drawn bows and arrows, with both men speaking all the peace words they knew and raising their arms in a token of good-will.
The last part of their journey was a nightmare. Their only way forward was to wade through swamps infested by scorpions, lizards and biting insects. To pitch camp they had to build platforms several feet above the stinking swamps bubbling with gases from rotting vegetation infested by scorpions and snakes. Eventually they found trees suitable for making rafts, and drifted towards the mouth of the river. Early one morning they were startled by a rifle shot and as the rafts drifted around a bend in the river here was the Elevala which had navigated 500 miles upriver to rescue them. After many months of incredible hardships, New Guinea had now been crossed at its widest point.

My Grandfather had from an early age wanted to join the navy but his poor eyesight put an end to that career. When war broke out he was inducted into the army and became a private in February 1942. Days later he was summoned to the Naval Base and told that he would become a Lieutenant in the Navy. He knew he would fail the medical exam, but Commander Hunt had arranged for the Air Force doctor to pass him, no matter what. It was his navigating and surveying skills that enabled him to achieve his boyhood ambition.

He was given command of the Laurabada, which had been the Governors yacht. It was fitted with Lewis machine guns and became HMAS Laurabada. He would go in under cover of darkness deep in Japanese held territory and rescue troops. One such operation he rescued 150 troops, and set sail into a violent storm which made excellent cover from Japanese warplanes. He was ordered to search for survivors after the Coral Sea battle and found two navy pilots from the lost aircraft carrier, USS Lexington. He also made many voyages taking army units and coast watchers to island posts. He was tasked with piloting Allied ships into Miline Bay and was lucky to escape the Japanese battle fleet as it made its way to a Miline Bay landing.

His most important task once the Japanese were repulsed, was to survey a route from Miline Bay to Oro Bay. After completing this survey he was tasked with piloting Allied ships between these two points before being flown back by the Americans to pilot the next vessel. He piloted the first US Liberty ship into Buna, before coming under command of the Royal Navy towards the end of 1944. He was sent in command of HMS Challenger to survey through Torres Strait so that the British Pacific Fleet could go through at full speed. 

He was discharged in October 1945 and returned to Port Moresby before taking over as the District Officer at Daru. His only injury during all his explorations, and during the war was being gored by a wild pig while he was looking through a theodolite on the Admiralty Islands.

In 1951 he was in charge of the relief operations that followed the eruption of Mount Lamington volcano, where over 3000 Orokaiva people perished and 35 whites.
He left the Public Service in 1964, as Chief Commissioner of the Land Titles Commission before again commanding the Laurabada for private owners in Papua and New Guinea waters.
Before he finally retired and moved to Australia, he worked as a surveyor for oil companies along the Great Barrier Reef and was involved in contract work in South East Asia surveying for new harbour developments.

In 1967 my Grandfather was told a story by a Bishop from a Canadian Mission who had visited Bolovip. The steel axe that my Grandfather had given Tamsimara in 1926, was hanging on a wall in pride of place in the men's house. They told the Bishop that it had been given to them by the first white man they had ever seen, being my Grandfather.

In April 1961 TAA Douglas DC3 named in his honour:

Ivan Champion aged 22 years:
My Grandfather:

Strickland River natives:
Distributing carriers rations:
Our Aivara village camp:
Kambisi Warrior:
Untitled:
Orakaiva warrior:
My Grandfather: 
Our Ivivi village camp:
River crossing:
Untitled:
Goilala women:
Untitled:
Untitled:

My Grandfather published a book in 1932 entitled "Across New Guinea From The Fly To The Sepik."

In 1988, James Sinclair published a book entitled "Last Frontiers" The Explorations Of Ivan Champion of Papua. 

Ivan Francis Champion O.B.E. passed away 12 August 1989 in Canberra.



23 comments:

  1. Great article Ross. I'm sure I've read about Ivan Champion while we were in PNG. Superb photos.

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  2. Thanks Stephen. It would be unusual to pick up a book on PNG without his name appearing somewhere.

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    1. It´s great to see this fantastic quality pics of your Grandfathers heroic journey. I´m doing New Guinea research since nearly 40 years specially about the Central New Guinea area near and across the border to West Papua. I would be greatly interested to see some more pictures of the people living in the region to compare material culture. Would be great to hear from you.

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    2. Forgot to add my Mail address:

      westpapua@gmx.at

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  3. Great read Ross. I always remember Boo very fondly. He was such a 'gentle man' which we don't find these days. He reminded me of my grandfather. Boy those guys were tough in those days. We're soft in comparison. Fantastic pics and especially the one of the wrecked vehicle in the tree after the volcanic explosion. I reckon the Australian Museum would love to get copies..so clear. Well done mate, you've done him proud.

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  4. Thanks for the kind words Sozjack. He was a very unassuming man considering what he achieved during his lifetime............

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  5. Thanks Ross. Your Grandfather would have experienced some amazing things, which people now would find hard to believe or imagine. We spent a few years on Bougainville @ Panguna but had to leave due to the civil war there and have fond memories. My work there meant spending many hours in choppers and even today a lot of it is difficult to access.
    John

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    1. Once you see the terrain from the air then you can really appreciate what he went through all those years ago.

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  6. Hello Ross, I'm so delighted to find your blog! My name is Michele Westmorland and I've been working on a project for several years about an American woman artist who actually traveled with your grandfather up the Fly River for the Brandes Expedition. Would love to contact you through email. michele@westmorlandimages.com

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  7. Thanks Michele, will email you early next week. Loved all your photos especially the New Guinea and underwater ones.....

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  8. Hi Ross, Been trying to track you down and stumbled on this site - amazing photos! With Mike Bird and some other friends I rewalked the Fly-Sepik expedition in 1996, trying to re-take photos that Ivan took from the same locations. Mike had visited your mother, who let him take copies of many of his North West Patrol photos, and we managed to get names for many of the people he met and took pictures of. Could you contact me on chris.ballard@anu.edu.au to talk some more about this? Cheers, Chris Ballard

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  9. Dear Ross - are you a relative of Andrea? Asking because: I worked with her at a mine in Arnhem Land in 1980; Talked about having worked as a nurse in Kiunga WP PNG and described patrolling in Bolivip and area in late '70s and mentioned Ivans book I'd read about the area. Was amazed when she then spoke about her grandfather being Ivan and being there/expedition. She told him and he gave her 2 negatives to develop for me which she did - of a stilt house and man from Nth Fly.Still have them. my email frances97534@yahoo.com.au as can scan/send if you wish. I live in Darwin. Frances

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    1. Yes Frances Andrea is my sister. We will be in Darwin in about three weeks. Will send my mobile number to your email address

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  10. Hi Ross, thank you for your article. Great photos! My grandfather Jim Ritchie captained the Elavala and served with Ivan Champion on the Laurabada. Happy to keep discussing if you'd like to.
    Cheers,
    Jonathan Ritchie

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  11. I have just seen and read the story about your grandfather, what a man he must have been, the photos are a glimpse into the life that was, thank you for sharing them.

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    1. Thanks Mick he certainly was. Taught me how to swim, sail,fish and enjoy the outdoors...

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  12. Hi, My friend has a picture of the jeep that was in the tree taken 15 year after the eruption of Mount Lamington. Are you interested in a copy?

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    1. Mel I would love a copy.
      sawtybt@gmail.com

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  13. Really enjoyed your article and pictures of your Grandfather Ivan. My mother’s eldest brother was William Lambden, who was Assistant Resident Magistrate at Daru in 1926. He was asked to assist in the North West Patrol and between 21-11-26 and 1-12-1926 recruited 32 carriers in the MINNETONKA on the Lower Fly. His wife Lil and 12mth old daughter Alison accompanied him.
    On 8th December 1926 the North West Patrol left Daru with the Elevala and William Lambden on board the Minnetonka. The Elevala reached 524 miles up the Fly and the Minnetonka managed to take the patrol another 12 mile to No 1 base camp 536 miles from the mouth of the Fly River.
    I found this information in a 34 page biographical sketch on William John Lambden compiled by his son the late Graham Lambden, where he recounts W.J.L’s story of the early stages of the patrol in 4 pages. It appears Ivan and William knew each other reasonably well.
    If you are interested in a copy of this ‘sketch’ I would be happy to post a copy to you.

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  14. Thanks Wayne that would be great..... email to sawtybt@gmail.com

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  15. I worked in Port Moresby in the mid to late 1960s. Peter Lalor, Public Solicitor was a friend of Ivan Champion and I got to know Ivan through Peter. Ivan was a most unassuming and humble hero; a lovely sense of humour and a delight to be with. I was privileged on one occasion to have him sail my small yacht over to Fisherman's Island; On the way back< I commented about Ivan's delight when helming the vessell around the coral outcrops; Peter thought it might have been because by htat stage Ivan's sight was so affected he could not have seen a thing. Ivan Champion's piece on the "Taim Bilong Masta" CD issued by the ABC is a precious record, not only of his voice and manner, but of a remarkable explorer and heroic soldier. Much more should be being done in Australia to foster better understanding of the contribution made by Ivan Champion and others like him to Australia and PNG nationhood. A very good story and loved the pics.

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  16. Thankyou Paul for the kind words.

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