By Kev Horton (1970-71)
As I walked through the oppressive heat on the tarmac at Port Moresby Airport, M16 slung over my shoulder, I had no idea that I was about to experience a month that still ranks as one of the highlights of my life.
I also didn’t realize that my bride of four months, left in a two room flat in Boroko, would have her most difficult time in PNG – but I’ll let Lindy tell you that story.
It was February, 1971 and loaded with soldiers from C Company, 1 PIR Taurama Barracks, the Caribou began the slow and at times daunting ascent over the rugged mountain backbone of PNG and headed ever downwards towards Kavieng, capital of New Ireland. I remember flying in to Kavieng and marvelling at the colours. A sprinkling of small, verdant green islands ringed in pale green by the fringe reefs and the many hues of blue in the water. Then the shock of the blinding white crushed coral surface of the airstrip looking like a proud scar on the landscape. As we landed we were greeted by the ever-present blast of hot air that seemed to welcome every exit from a plane in PNG. Some headquarters’ tents were already set up near the strip and our platoons quickly established a neatly aligned tent town nearby.
Within a couple of days we were ready to leave ‘on Patrol’. What that meant and my role ‘on Patrol’ had so far never been discussed with me.
The only other Australians were the Major in charge of ‘C Company’ and the Bell helicopter pilot, Flight Lt Johnson, who was to resupply our patrols every three days. An address by the Major gave a general indication of the aim of the exercise. One platoon was to remain at HQ while the other two were to split, heading along either side of the island travelling from Kavieng to Namatanai, a distance of about 300 km, in a time span of approximately three and a half weeks. By good fortune, I was attached to the Northern patrol where the terrain was easier, with most walking being along established two wheel drive tracks, some formed crushed coral road and narrow walking tracks joining the irregularly spaced coastal native villages.
The broad aim of the patrol was to do a census of the village buildings as well as being a quasi “wave the flag” and recruiting drive and PR exercise for the pre-independent PN G army. With my newly acquired Sergeant’s stripes, I was given little formal responsibility. My main role was to maintain and help develop the speaking of English among the soldiers and assist the two PNG Lieutenants in charge of our patrol where necessary. My assistance was seldom required as the Lieutenants and PNG NCO’s ran a well organised but relaxed operation and the soldiers were very happy to enlighten me with some tricks of the trade in ‘Machete 101’ and alternative uses for army equipment. I never ceased to be amazed by the soldiers’ bush craft. I mixed easily with all the men but quickly learned that if I was to have any idea of what was going on, my Pidgin would have to develop very quickly. Each soldier carried a full pack including a weapon, mostly SLRs, one magazine of live ammunition, a three day ration pack, hutchies, hexamine stove, dixies and two changes of clothes.
The soldiers were always greeted enthusiastically by the village people who often presented us with fruit, coconuts and refreshing slightly effervescent coconut milk (lemonade) straight from the green coconut. Villagers were keen to swap any items from our three day ration packs for their local food (kaikai). After a few days of army rations I took little convincing to bargain and tried quite a few new culinary delights and some not so delightful. Two of the soldiers were Tolais from the New Ireland area and when we reached Private Meta’s home village, word had gone ahead and we were treated to a large feast including Mu Mu pig and vegetables steamed in banana leaves. Meta introduced me to his grandparents, (Tumbuna man and Tumbuna meri). Tumbuna Man’s lava-lava barely covered the ugly raised rope like spear wound in his stomach which I was told was a souvenir of an old battle. There were a number of speeches of which I understood almost nothing but the smiles and body language got the message across that the army was highly regarded. (‘Armi, e mi namba wan!) You can rest assured that with these sorts of welcomes, no live ammunition was expended in anger during the month.
As the only European out on patrol, I was often the centre of attention for the young children. One enduring memory is of a group of about a dozen kids with bright eyes, dark brown bodies with yellowish-white bleached curly hair, closely crowded around me watching intently and silently as I boiled my pannikin on the hexamine stove. The silence was shattered when I handed out some army ration pack chocolate with an excited squabbling and babbling erupting which only stopped when an angry head man arrived and sent them all scurrying into the bushes and down the beach. From his tone of voice and stare in my direction I’m still not sure whether I was in trouble or the likliks.
Each day followed the pattern of early breakfast, break camp, walk for 3 to 4 hours, sweat like hell, rest during the midday heat (usually near the beach), sweat, walk for 1 or 2 hours in the afternoon, sweat, keep walking through the regular afternoon rain storms, set up camp with beds up off the ground on sapling structures newly cut each night with machetes, do an occasional village census (accuracy didn’t seem a high priority), sweat, swim, talk around the campfire, early bed with resupply each three days by the tiny Bell Helicopter and repeat. If we had specific daily objectives, I was certainly not aware of them but averaging 15 to 20 km a day with an occasional rest day thrown in was relatively easy walking. Blisters came and went!
Many thoughts and images still fill my mind – beautifully clean villages with the ground swept clean by the meri’s hand sweepers – a village church with intricately woven patterned walls – smiling, happy, shy children – serious head men – large coconut plantations – Chimbus from the highlands living in compounds to separate them from the local Tolais and working for European plantation owners – villagers hand spearing crayfish (kindam) at night on the fringe reefs using lit palm fronds to attract them – feasting on the crayfish – Sgt Malwasi painstakingly fashioning fishing sinkers in hollow green reeds using melted lead from some of his live ammunition – red beetle juice smiles – WW 2 relics scattered in many places close to the tracks – two young bare chested native boys playing ‘golf’ with knotted sticks along the golf course beside Namatanai airstrip – tramping an extra three kilometres to see a two headed coconut palm which was the pride of one village – thinking of the untapped tourist potential of the area and at the same time hoping that tourism would never happen.
Two experiences stand out in my mind’s eye – one on the Patrol and the other on returning to Kavieng. The first was when our patrol was met by a Roman Catholic Missionary Priest who happened to come from Toowoomba, not too far from my home of Kingaroy. The soldiers decided he was from my local area (‘wantok bilong yu’) and insisted that I stay for a while and that they would walk on and set up camp further down the road. The priest took delight in having a fellow Queenslander’s ear to chew and showed me around the small self sufficient village he was responsible for and then proceeded to get me absolutely pie eyed on Scotch. It became dark and when I expressed concerns about getting to our camp he proceeded to drive us along the two wheeled track in his old jeep (neither of us was capable of walking). The Lieutenants had set up two sentries who met us and, among much laughter from everyone, including the priest, they helped me stumble to my hutchie which had already been erected by the soldiers. I approached the next morning with trepidation expecting a dressing down but it was as if my behaviour was almost expected and it was no big deal. (‘samting natin, wantok bilong yu’), literally translated as (‘something nothing, he was from your local language area’), as if that excused everything. In light of this I also said nothing about the occasional empty soldier’s bed I noticed at times when we camped near a village, even though the native soldiers had been told by the Major that there was to be no visiting the local meris at night. None of this appeared on the Lieutenants’ patrol report and I’m rather thankful for that.
Our patrol returned to Kavieng about three days ahead of schedule due to making up time by walking non-stop during prolonged wet days. Corporal Bello obtained permission to visit his father who was Luluai of a village on nearby New Hanover Island. He invited Private Meta, Sgt Malwasi and myself to join him. We were given the use of a small outboard powered flat bottomed landing type barge to get there. The trip over to New Hanover, with only Bello’s local knowledge and no specific navigational equipment, had many hairy moments. Bello stood on the prow and directed us through many shallow reefs and shoals with numerous large fish and small sharks outlined on the bottom in crystal clear water. We collected a beautifully decorated and painted catamaran, which was a homecoming gift to Bello, from a very small island village and towed it to his father’s village on New Hanover. After meeting Bello’s father (who spoke passable English), I was entertained by a plantation owner of German extraction while the others remained at the village for a couple of hours.
I arrived for the return journey to find a large live pig, with legs and muzzle bound securely, lying in the middle of the barge. It was a gift to ‘C Company’ from Bello’s father. We headed back through the rainstorm using ‘dead reckoning’ and a lot of luck only to find that the pig had suffocated sometime during the trip. (‘Pik, em i dai pinis’ – the pig is dead.) This in no way affected the way the pig was welcomed on arrival or the way in which Meta, Bello and friends butchered the carcass using nothing but sharp machetes. I felt like an escapee from ‘Lord of the Flies’ as I posed with Pte Meta holding the boar’s head. The pig was cut into small chunks and each piece was wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a ground oven. Everyone, including the Major and helicopter pilot dug in to the cooked pork, which in spite of everything tasted delicious. It provided a fitting end to a terrific month.
I’m not sure whether the amoebic cysts I picked up came from the pigs or some of the village kaikai I’d swapped for army rations., but it took a couple of visits to the army hospital at Taurama to clear the system. Not the souvenir I intended bringing home but given the chance again, I wouldn’t change a thing!