Select Page

It is not given to many people to be recognised as the most important figure in the geological history of an entire country, but Hugh Davies, who died on April 26 this year, had that distinction.

The country is Papua New Guinea. He first arrived there in the late nineteen-fifties as a young geologist working for Australia’s Bureau of Mineral Resources, the BMR, in the days when PNG was still an Australian Territory. From there he progressed to leading mapping teams, thence to heading the newly founded Geological Survey of Papua New Guinea (GSPNG) and from there to the headship of a department and a Professorship in Geology in the University of Papua New Guinea. In that position he was a formative influence for, quite literally, hundreds of PNG geologists. Much less importantly, he altered the whole course of my professional life.

That came about as a result of one of the few mistakes Hugh made during his professional life. In 1965 he had returned from Stanford, where he had begun a PhD. He had hoped to study the ophiolitic rocks of California, but had switched field areas, with Stanford’s blessing, having, as he told me, realised very quickly that there were far better ophiolites in PNG. Pursuing that interest, he became part of Jack Thompson’s project for mapping the whole of the then little-known Papuan Peninsula. Hugh, inevitably, focused first on the Papuan Ultramafic Belt, the PUB, and, although never a geophysicist himself, he had a keen appreciation of what geophysics could do for geology. He decided that the PUB needed a gravity survey, and borrowed a Worden gravity meter from the BMR’s geophysicists. Wordens were tricky instruments, and if you were not careful the multiple springs at their hearts could become tangled. If that happened, readings could still be taken, but they would be meaningless. Unfortunately for Hugh, he did tangle the springs, and took quite a number of readings before returning the instrument to the geophysicists, who quickly discovered what had happened. Never again, the Geophysical Branch decreed, would a geologist be allowed to get his hands on a gravity meter.

But the work still had to be done and some economically-minded accountant in the BMR pointed out that there would be a junior geophysicist working on a damsite in Rabaul at about the right time, and that he could do the job before coming home. That Rabaul survey was to be my last as an engineering geophysicist. I don’t know if my life would have been better or worse had Hugh not tangled those springs, but it would certainly have been very different.

What that mishap gave me, in the first instance, was an unrepeatable opportunity to see the variety of ways in which Hugh worked in the field, because the programme for that year had three components. The first involved a trek through the PUB  from the top of a mountain peak to the coast, the second a jet-boat campaign going as far as possible up each of the rivers that drained the ultramafic rocks, the third, a series of landings by helicopter anywhere that the dense forests would allow. To achieve the first, contractors had been employed to cut a track along the proposed route, and then clear a helipad on the mountain top at its end. With that in place, Hugh’s carrier team, consisting entirely of tall, tough and incredibly fit Southern Highlanders, was dispatched to walk up to the pad and wait for our three-man team to drop out of the sky.

We arrived just after dawn, and all seemed to be going perfectly. There was the pad, and there was one of the team at its edge. Confidently we landed, unloaded a great pile of food and equipment (a LaCoste gravity meter included – no more the all-too-delicate Wordens) and waved the pilot goodbye. Only then did we learn from the Highlander at the edge of the pad that he was the only one there. His team-mates, having reached a junction in the track where the contractors had gone astray, were waiting half way down the mountain, uncertain as to what to do next. A lesser man than Hugh might have sent him back down the hill to bring them up, but his decision was that we load ourselves up with the absolute essentials and start walking. Hard enough for me, but for Hugh doubly hard because he kept darting off-track into any bit of the forest where there might possibly be that some rocks. We camped that night and walked from dawn to eleven the next day before we met the team, who were sent back up the path to bring down the rest of the gear.

A Hamilton jet-boat after a too-close encounter with a river bank, in 1966. Hugh Davies on the left.

Jet-boats. Small motor boats powered by big fat petrol engines, that sucked water up through a grid in the bottom and blasted it out as a steerable jet at the back. With no propellor to smash itself to pieces on the rocks, a jet boat could get a decently long way up the fast-flowing rivers of the PUB. The good thing about them was that they went along rivers, where rocks were best exposed; the limitation was that eventually there would be a waterfall, or rapids too steep to climb, and there would be nothing for it but to turn around, head back to the river mouth (where there would always be a village with a haus kiap reserved for visiting government officials) and, probably, spend the evening applying fiberglass to the scarred and dented hull.

Helicopters, The Bell 47 G3-B1  Immortalised in the TV series MASH, the Bell 47, in its supercharged G3-B1 variant, was the only chopper of its time that could cope with the altitudes reached in the mountains of eastern Papua. Places where they could land were few and far between, and almost all that were beyond the reach of jet boats were in the beds of those same rivers, but further upstream. There were  few such places in the PUB that we did not visit, for geology and geophysics and, as a special treat, we had his wife Connie with us, to make the essential barometer readings back a base.

Hugh, of course, was already planning his programme for 1967, and in it would pioneer a new way of working, To cover the rest of the peninsula, beyond the eastern limits of the PUB, we would say a sad farewell to the traditional carrier team. Instead, small parties, of one or two geologists and one or two helpers, would be dropped in the morning, as high up a river as was possible, and make their ways down, mapping and sampling as they went, to a rendezvous at another landing spot, that evening or one, and at the most two, days later. During the day, in what was an almost unparalleled collaboration between BMR geologists and geophysicists, the aircraft would be available for gravity work. With that technique, the whole of the remainder of the peninsula and its major offshore islands were covered, at reconnaissance 1:250,000 scale, in just two field seasons. Not by Hugh alone but by a team he led and inspired, For many weeks in 1967 he and I shared a helicopter.

What then? Hugh was half-way through his PhD, and needed to go back to Stanford to complete, and I, seizing the opportunity he had opened up for me, followed his example and began my own PhD, but in London. It was there we met again, a few months later, in rather different circumstances. I had a house in London, Hugh and Connie were refugees. They had decided to go the long route westabout to Stanford, taking in the International Geological Congress in Prague on the way, and were just settling in to their hotel when the Russian tanks rolled in. A few days later, they were on our doorstep. According to one account they were ‘shaken but unharmed’. Unharmed, certainly, but unshaken also, I would have said.

Never one to miss an opportunity to do some ultramafic geology, and with a few days in hand before the flight to the US, Hugh decided to visit the Lizard Ophiolite. He hired a car, and off we went. I vividly remember sitting with him on the contact with the country rocks near Mousehole, while he held forth to me about just how badly previous workers, who had identified the igneous mass as an intrusion, had got the interpretation all wrong. He was right, of course, but in those days the origins and emplacement of ophiolites were still very poorly understood. That they are better understood today is partly due to him.

Six years later, a contract ended and the next some time away, I was at a loose end in Sydney and Hugh was Chief Government Geologist in an organisation that was about to become the Geological Survey of Papua New Guinea. I asked him if he could use a geophysicist for a few months, and was invited to join his team. It was a group of young enthusiastic geologists, many of whom were seconded from the BMR abd woukd  became important figures in their own right (I met many of them later in Bandung, where they were mapping the Indonesian half of New Guinea in an Australian aid project) but. most importantly, it included the first few PNG nationals. The first of all to be employed was a geophysicist!

Whatever their speciality, for these new graduates in a very new country one thing was certain. It was their great good fortune to have been recruited when it was Hugh (among other things a fluent speaker of both Hiri Motu and Tok Pisin) who was to be their leader and their mentor. I did, however, sense during my three months there, that perhaps his heart was not entirely in other aspects of his position. Battling paperwork and bureaucrats was not really his thing, and it was no surprise that when I next saw him, some ten years later, he was doing what he really loved, geology proper, and teaching geology in the up and coming University of Papua New Guinea. Intermittently over the next twenty years I caught up with him whenever I visited PNG as part of London University research programmes, and it was an education in its own right to see the university department developing under his care.

Retirement comes to us all, and with it other interests, but we kept in touch, and every so often our random discussions expanded into something more substantial. Looking back into the emails around one such period, focussed on the Dayman Dome, I found these words, at the end of a mail he sent me at the end of November, 2021.

Lets keep on living for a long time. There’s so much to do.



There was, there still is, but sadly, Hugh is no longer with us, to inspire us, and share the fun.