A ‘Chalkie’ Adventure in the Western Highlands

MEETING WITH THE HEWA PEOPLE

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The Hewa people are an ethno-linguist group living in the remote north-western corner of the Southern Highlands near the junction of the Strickland and Laigaip rivers.

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Strickland River Valley and the valley of the Hewa People

The Hewa are traditionally hunter-gatherers and supplement their catch with slash-and-burn gardening growing mostly sweet potato. The Hewa people were one of the last groups to come into contact with the outside world.
Typical family groups of up to eight people live in a single hut with neighbouring Hewa families located up to a kilometre away. In late August 1971, Bravo Company from 2PIR was on patrol in the upper Strickland River Valley.

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Caribou landing at Lake Kopiago airstrip

The logistical support for the patrol was based at Lake Kopiago airstrip. Two Huey helicopters and a Caribou aircraft provided the daily link with the patrol as they made their way into the upper Highland Valley. John Humphrey, in a letter to his mother, describes the involvement of four “Chalkies” as they tried to link up with the patrol.
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LAKE KOPIAGO PATROL, 31 AUGUST – 7 SEPTEMBER, 1971

“Our patrol into Lake Kopiago, just 5 degrees south of the Equator, in the Southern Highlands of PNG didn’t turn out to be what we had planned for, but I still feel it was definitely worth the effort.
John Humphrey, Rod Cassidy, Ian Taylor and one other (but we are not sure of his name) were to have left Wewak by Caribou aircraft on Tuesday, 31 August, to fly into Lake Kopiago (the base camp from where the 120 PIR men started their patrol a week earlier) and then to be flown in to meet the patrol by helicopter. We were to walk with them for 6 days, be flown out by helicopter to Lake Kopiago and return to Wewak by Caribou the next Tuesday, 7 September.

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Huey helicopter and Lake Kopiago

We arrived in Lake Kopiago, no worries. But the patrol was going through such rough country. There was no way for us going in by chopper. At this stage, the B Company patrol were struggling up very steep country through moss forest about a metre deep and impenetrable from the sky above because of overhead foliage. For us to get in, they would have to find a suitable LZ (landing zone) which they didn’t anticipate for at least 3 days!

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Flying up the Strickland Valley – boot view of the river by Rod Cassidy

The chopper pilots (there were 2 Huey helicopters, each capable of carrying 7 men, plus 2 pilots, and 1 crew, who were attached to the company for the duration of the patrol) did not want to hover and winch us down by rope as the air was too thin up on the Central Range (12,500 feet or 3800 metres) for them to be in complete control while hovering. So we thought we were going to laze about the base camp until at least Friday. This would not have been too hard to take – we had a cook-tent, an Officers/Sergeants Mess, and we didn’t have to do any of the dirty work we would have faced out on patrol.

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Kopiago mess tent and B Company Radio link at Kopiago

However, the 2IC, Captain McNamara, decided we should go for a 2 day walk out to a Kiap’s house and return- to keep fit in case we were able to get out on the patrol. All this ended up doing was finding out how UNFIT we were!
One of the highlights occurred on the Tuesday afternoon of our arrival. We were taken on a 90 minute chopper ride up the Strickland River Valley (fabulous views) and up over the Central Range where the patrol was. In a way, after seeing the country they were struggling through, I was relieved that we didn’t join B Company. They were walking along a ridgeline, with one foot either side of the ridge, with a steep drop on either side. It was freezing cold up there – in fact it looked like it could snow! Much of the country was smothered in cloud. As we flew over the patrol, about 12 metres above the trees, they put up a smoke flare but we didn’t see any one of the 120 men below us. No sign of life at all.

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Off on our two day hike John crossing the river via a native Vine Bridge

Wednesday morning we packed our food and gear and set off about 8.30am. We climbed up a narrow track for hours in the hot sun – I felt as though I’d melt!  We had, as a guide, a local boy who was paid 30 cents, and a ration pack a day, to come with us. About 11.30am, we met another guide who took us up through a narrow jungle path and then down to a fast flowing river, about 30 metres wide. We had to get across by means of an ancient, rotting and shaky-looking vine bridge. It consisted of 3 vines about the thickness of a man’s wrist, tied together and stretched across. It was suspended from trees above. The whole thing swayed as you moved across, one at a time. After a ration pack lunch (ugh!), we then started another climb which about did me in! Both Ian Taylor and I got further behind the others (6 PIR soldiers and 2 Chalkies-Rod Cassidy and one other). We had to have a rest about every 20 metres – you need to realise that we were about 2000 metres above sea level, and the thin air was making it hard to breathe. My legs were like jelly and I could feel blisters on my feet.

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Ian Taylor and Rod Cassidy coffee break, Kiap Hut north of Kopiago

We finally arrived at the Kiap’s house about 2.30pm. An old native who was caretaker of the rest-house (built of local materials) began calling up and down the valley below. About 30 minutes later six meris (women) appeared with kau-kau (sweet potato) and sugarcane. They were happy to accept a small mirror and a kilo of salt for about 20 kilo of kau-kau and 6 metres of sugarcane! The soldiers cooked the sweet potato “muu-muu” style over hot stones. We also had a lot of onlookers, who came up to stand around and watch us. They don’t live in villages up here in the mountains – they live in small groups of 2 or 3 houses, as it is hard to find a flat area on which to build any more. It rained that afternoon, as it did every afternoon we were in the Highlands, and got very chilly at night.

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A well earned rest at the peak Sugar cane sweet-kai

Thursday we set off on our return journey which was nowhere near as bad, as it was mostly downhill all the way. We arrived back in Lake Kopiago about 2.30pm, ready for a “shower” in the freezing cold stream up behind the Kiap’s residence. It was good to put on clean socks and jocks, even if we did have the same muddy clothes and boots on the outside.
The local natives were friendly –it was not unusual to have a few standing watching us eat. We tried to communicate with them – most didn’t know pidgin, only their “ples tok” (place talk or local language).  There were four natives who had a different headdress than the others, with a 30cm long piece of 5cm diameter bamboo hanging through a hole in their ear lobe.

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Hewa People – just as curious of us as we were of them.

We found out from the PIR soldiers that these were Hewa tribesmen, the last known cannibals in PNG. They had been known to eat human flesh 3 years previously! There is estimated to be about 1000 Hewa people up in the patrol area where we had hoped to go.
Through the locals, I bought a few arrows for 10 cents each and a killing axe for $1. This axe has a muruk (cassowary) beak point and in battle it is used by swinging the pointed end into the enemy’s ear and out the other side.

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Medi-vac practice at the air strip (Rod Cassidy in the stretcher) and onlookers.

The remainder of our time was spent waiting, but to no avail. The CO from 2PIR came up for a visit on Saturday. They got them in and then got them out quickly just before the cloud cover came over, which would have stopped their departure.
As there was no more we could do, we accepted a ride back to Wewak on Monday, a day earlier than planned. So ends our unforgettable patrol into the Hinterlands of PNG.”

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(Sgt. John Humphrey’s letter to his mother, 1971)

Photographs from John Humphrey and Rod Cassidy’s collection

Compilation by Rod Cassidy

(and … if you were the 4th Chalkie on this patrol we would love to hear from you – we can’t remember who it was and we are all getting old.)

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