Pagwi (on the Sepik River) to Baiyer River

PATROL INTO THE WESTERN HIGHLANDS OF NEW GUINEA

18 APRIL – 31 MAY 1970
Sgt Greg Smith
‘Didiman’
(ie Agriculture Instructor)
Education Corps
2 PIR, Wewak (1969/70)

We stood on the banks of the mighty Sepik River and gazed at the enormous expanse of water. It was about 400 metres wide. We were at the starting point of our patrol which was going to take us over 300 km through some of the most rugged country of Papua New Guinea to Baiyer River in the Western Highlands. Our starting point was Pagwi, a small Patrol Post on the banks of the Sepik about 160 km from where it flows into the sea.

To reach Pagwi, we had flown by Army Caribou from Wewak to a nearby airstrip and were then transported by truck. The patrol was the responsibility of B Company of the 2nd Pacific Islands Regiment (2 PIR) and I had volunteered to go with one of the three platoons to compile an illustrated report of the patrol to the Company Commander. The mission of the patrol was to gather information in a virtually unknown area. It was anticipated that it would be one of the hardest patrols ever undertaken by 2 PIR. We had 6 weeks to reach our destination.

Our route was commenced in canoes and the Motor Vessel (MV) Opal. The canoes were about 10 m long and powered by outboard motors. We journeyed down-river, then into the extensive Chambri Lakes system. By night on the second day we had reached the extremity of the lakes and camped the night in a large village. The villagers were naturally inquisitive at the invasion by 30 soldiers but they readily answered our survey questions put to them in Pidgin – and filled our water bottles and fetched coconuts to quench our thirst.

From Pagwi, the platoon travelled for 2 days along the Sepik River and into the Chambri Lakes system in the MV Opal

and local, wooden canoes

The following day was our first day’s walking. A guide from the village showed us the track – it was a good track with no really steep climbs which contrasted markedly with the tracks we were to encounter later on in the patrol. Nevertheless, on that first day the heat was stifling and the hourly rests were most welcome. Early in the afternoon we arrived at a village on the banks of a large river – the Salumei, a tributary of the Sepik.

Kuvanmas Lakes – floodwater forced a change of plans

At this village, Yambi Yambi, we were resupplied with rations by helicopter early the next day. Then we made a hazardous crossing of the river in very small unstable canoes. Once on the opposite bank our route gave us our first taste of walking through swamp – a most tiring and soul-destroying experience. On this occasion it lasted less than 2 hours and then we climbed steeply over into the neighbouring valley of the Korosameri River. The next village had word of our coming and had sent canoes up the river to meet us. We stayed the night at that village where they told us that the heavy rain had made the next leg of our route across to Kaningara Mission on the Kuvanmas Lakes almost impassable.

Hats with one or two bands denoted leader or deputy leader of a village

Platoon soldiers completed surveys in each village along the route

So, with a change of plans, we were able to reach our next location by canoes going downstream to a river junction then up the Blackwater River to Kaningara Mission. It took 3 days to get the complete platoon there as it required 2 trips. In the intervening time the advance group completed surveys of the villages around the Kuvanmas Lakes, which incidentally, was the site of Japanese activity and then a large base for US Catalinas during World War II.

Haus Lotu (church) in village in the Kuvanmas Lakes area

Typical village women in the Sepik lowlands

The next leg of our route was overland to the Amboin Patrol Post on the Karawari River. This was probably the most strenuous day of the whole patrol. There was 12 hours walking with 8 hours in swamp which at times was waist-deep. We camped that night at a village called Amongabi. The next day we were taken by canoes downstream to the Amboin Patrol Post.

Patrol Post at Amboin

Work on the new school house at Amboin by the soldiers is well underway

We had 2 weeks to recuperate at Amboin while the platoon soldiers carried out a civic action project by building a new school house. We did some village surveys by canoe whilst there and I also visited some village agricultural projects with the local Patrol Officer during our stay at Amboin.

Amboin school children entertain the soldiers

Framework of the new school building is complete

After this interlude, we were ready for our climb up into the Highlands. Leaving Amboin, the first day was again by canoe – up through a lake system, then on to camp the night at a village called Imboin, on the banks of the Arafundi River. That day the motor powering the canoe of the rear group failed at about 6 pm and the soldiers in that canoe had to push and pull the canoe upstream, finally reaching the village at 9.30 pm.

Next day, on foot again, we had 6 river crossings of the Arafundi River to negotiate. One was shoulder-deep and very fast flowing and so we stretched a rope across it to assist us in crossing. The inhabitants of the Arafundi valley were still very nomadic and their dress was very basic – generally grass lap laps and maybe a few shells and beads for decoration. They had no permanent villages, but built small settlements as token gestures to the constant pleas of the Patrol Officers to settle down and cease inter-tribal conflicts. The ‘village’ that night, Tungum, had only one building although the most recent census showed a population of 79!

Highland people were generally smaller and more muscular than those in the lowlands – and
probably more industrious as they had to work harder to grow their crops and rear their livestock

Two days later found us high up in the Arafundi valley at probably the most ‘bushy’ village we were to see for the whole patrol. While we were there 6 men appeared out of the bush, their bodies completely painted, dressed in small lap laps with shells around their necks and carrying bows and arrows. They had 2 boys with them whom they had just initiated and they had come to show them off to this village, called Pundagum. Initiation procedures are quite severe and no doubt very painful.

We left Pundagum, and taking 3 guides to show us the way, we climbed steeply to cross over the divide into the adjacent watershed. Late in the morning it poured rain and it continued for most of the day. Eventually we gave up and pitched camp at about 2 pm on a very steep incline. The next 2 days were spent climbing down into the valley of the Maramuni River and then following it upstream. The track at this stage was very poor as it gets very little use. It crosses over razor-sharp ridge lines, traverses sheer cliffs, and plunges into numerous, cavernous creek gullies.

The area is so remote that there is no habitation there at all. By midday on the second day, we arrived at a vine bridge across the Maramuni River. There was no possible way to cross it as it was a surging torrent about 50 metres wide. The bridge was far from safe with several broken sections making it very precarious. It took about 3 hours for the whole platoon to get across it safely – one at a time. Then we had a 1½ hour climb up to a village. The climb did not ease once in that time and some of the sections could only be surmounted with the aid of one’s hands.

Crossing several large swift-flowing rivers often proved difficult

Bridges made from vines were always precarious

The village we reached that night was typical of the Highlands. The houses are built close to the ground and are well built to counter the very cold nights. The Highland people have the custom of sleeping with their pigs in the same house. They work very hard cultivating their food crops which are usually grown on very steep mountain slopes – often long distances from their villages.

Some highland women heading off to work in the village gardens

Up until this time, the platoon was being routinely re-supplied with food (army ration packs) by air about every 5 days. BUT, communications broke down and we spent about 5 days without food until communication was restored and supplies were dropped into us again. During this time we had to keep going. – eating any left-over food from previous ration packs or trading some local vegetables from the occasional village that we encountered. Never has boiled pumpkin tasted so good!

An anxious platoon commander, 2nd Lt Michael Darling, tries desperately to communicate and call in food supplies by air

There were frequent crossings of surging water courses – large and small

Gathering new guides, we continued on for 2 days up a tributary of the Maramuni River and then climbed up to about 1200 metres to cross over into another river valley. We found the nights bitterly cold – so much so that after about midnight it was impossible to sleep continuously. It was another 2 days across spur lines to the head of the next valley. We reached a point overlooking the valley and then descended sharply about 300 metres to the river.

Our guide claimed that we were close to a village so we delayed lunch. We climbed a steep cliff, where we required the use of ropes for one section. Then on we went through some gardens and traversed some very steep slopes and finally reached that village 2 hours later! We stayed the night at that village, called Tabarides.

From Tabarides we could see our next immediate objective less that 2 km away as the crow flies – a village called Rakamunda. It took us 3½hours to get there! We plunged into precipitous creek gullies and clambered out of them. In some places a small slip would have meant certain death. We lunched at Rakamunda which had a glorious view down the valley.

Highland villagers rugging up against the cold – some of them!

From Rakamunda, the track improved. It sidled around the valley wall and we concluded the day by climbing high up a peak to camp the night at a village perched on the sky -line. The next day we dropped down into yet another valley and then laboured up the other side in the hot sun. That night we reached a small mission located in a large village. It was called Keman Mission.

Children are often inquisitive and happy,

but often showing signs of malnutrition

On a good track the following day we walked strongly to reach another mission station (Lialam Mission) by lunchtime. Then it was about 13 km along a rough road to the Kompiam – Wabag road where we were picked up by vehicles and taken to Kompiam.

By vehicle again next day we were ferried to a point about 9 hours walking time from Baiyer River. We were all there by 1 pm and we had to be at Baiyer River by 11 am the next day to be air-lifted back to Wewak by Army Caribou. We set off and after 3 hours effective walking we reached a vine bridge over the raging Lai River. We had descended very steeply from our starting point to reach the bridge. Our last man was across the bridge by 6.30 pm. It was almost dark but we had no option than to keep going. Clambering up the steep wall of that valley in the dark was almost impossible.

We were most relieved when the gradient eased and the track improved after about an hour. Without any moonlight we continued on until we reached a village at about 8.30 pm where we stopped for some food and sleep. Rising again at 3 am; we left at 4 am and with the help of moonlight we found the going a lot better. At 7.15 am we reached a road and stopped for breakfast. Then all we had left was a 16 km road bash to the Baiyer River airstrip which we reached at about 10.30 am. It was with a feeling of relief and a great sense of achievement that we boarded the Caribou at the airstrip for the return flight to Wewak.

Mission completed! 4 Platoon, B Company, 2 PIR arrives back at Wewak airport after the grueling but successful, 6-week patrol into the Western Highlands of PNG.

5 thoughts on “Pagwi (on the Sepik River) to Baiyer River

  1. Good report Greg and Boyd, I am just about to send another account of this epic patrol, this time written by my Dad who you will remember was RSM of 2PIR (67-70), he went on this patrol, as well as his account there are many accompanying photos, that will bring back memories for you both to enjoy.

    And by way of a personal note Greg I remember you as the didiman, my brother and I along with other kids both PI and Aussie often visited the farm area to pester you with question and look at the pigs 🙂

    Cheers Grahame(Jr) Wease or as I was known at Moem liklik RSM

  2. Hi Boyd & Greg,
    Thanks for the feedback. Yes, I did have a free and easy time with the ag instructor role – but no easier than any of the other chalkies, as far as I can recall.
    Greg S

    • Yes, it looks like Greg did some work in 2PIR to make up for all that time he spent slacking around in the Garden. Maybe Greg can explain to all the dedicated, hard-working Chalkies who sweated in the Education Centre at Moem, what was the point of his “work” there?

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