19th April to 29th May 1970
by Sgt. Boyd Robertson, 2PIR MOEM Barracks
The platoon of twenty nine, including one Pacific Islands officer, two sergeants, two assault pioneers, two signalers, one medic and twenty one infantry soldiers departed by Caribou aircraft for HAYFIELD AIRSTRIP on the 19th of April 1970. The purpose of the patrol was to conduct a census of each village encountered. Population, medical facilities, number of transistor radios, shotguns and ammunition were just some of the information on the army census.
That’s the way the patrol began. Sharp, to the point and lacking emotion. Destination from here was PAGWI PATROL POST which is on the mighty SEPIK RIVER. The Sepik is by no means just a river. Being a quarter of a mile wide it also has a strong current, and is dangerously deep. However, the amount of water is so vast that it filters itself making it drinkable. That is for those whose preference is muddy water.
PAGWI is relatively small. What is lacking in size was made up for by the enormous numbers of mosquitoes which found our mosquito nets no real challenge. Early in the morning and during the night the constant attempts to ward off the pests was quite audible. Most of the soldiers were quite irritable and to make matters worse, breakfast was cooked in the same conditions. The Sepik River and its villages have quite a reputation for having prolific mosquito populations. Twenty five bites on one hand is no joke and I can vouch for that. Fortunately these are not the Anopheles variety that spread malaria.
When breakfast was over, first platoon embarked first in a large diesel driven boat, the OPAL. That meant another entertaining evening at Pagwi. Entertained, well the mosquitoes were anyway.
Two days later when the OPAL (diesel driven and 40ft. long) returned, half the platoon, myself included, proceeded along the Sepik for the CHAMBRI LAKES.
As the immediate area along the Sepik River was well known no census was taken until the lakes. After cruising for about two hours down the Sepik the Opal diverted its course into a small tributary. The water was black like coffee and instead of being wide and fast moving it was completely still and only 75 yards wide. Wildlife was abundant here in this ideal setting. Black ducks and large white egrets took to the air as the Opal disturbed their tranquility. The jungle grew from the water’s edge obscuring the view of the SEPIK PLAINS which is 85% swamp. However, further towards the CHAMBRI LAKES the landscape changed to “pit pit” a type of bamboo grass that grows from the water. One and a half hours later would see us to the lakes; but the time was greatly underestimated because we were soon to encounter large grass islands that would impede our progress.
These are very hard to move or navigate around because of the debris that could foul the propellers. Some of the islands would have measured 20ft. by 15ft. The Opal’s bows tried in vain to barge through but the islands were an even match. After an outburst of language which is not recommended for the prudish, the soldiers settled down to the arduous task of roping the islands in an attempt to tow them out of the way by reversing engines in the OPAL. This was slow tedious work and those in the water received rashes from the grass, not to mention bites from the numerous insects that occupy the islands. The plan of attack seemed to be working. After 3 hours the Opal slipped delicately through the gap. There were no other obstructions on the river ahead and looking into the distance the lakes were quite visible. At this stage the time was about three o’clock on a hot, humid afternoon. Rounding the next bend, however, changed everyone’s spirits as more grass islands or barat came into view.
These were much thicker and completely blocked the river. This mass of green extended 300 yards. Fortunately the natives had seen our predicament and attempts were being made at the rear to cut a path through. More hard work; forward and reverse measures and we slipped through. Time seems to move quickly when writing but this clearance took 2 hours. Actually the Opal was polled through in the end. The soldiers dug in with large poles and walked back along the decks. Others pushed smaller islands away from the bows. As we moved gingerly through, the grass closed in behind the Opal’s stern. The only alternative was straight ahead. If we had reversed the propellers would have been fouled by the grass debris. These islands are so unpredictable and appear from nowhere. During the night a seemingly clear river can be totally blocked as we found. Their presence is a headache for the natives who fish and hunt crocodiles in these waters. The dugout canoes are small enough to pass unhindered along the extremities of the grass but even then plenty of places are impassable.
After freeing ourselves the rest of the trip seemed uneventful. By 5.30 that evening we stopped at CHAMBRI VILLAGE where the remainder of the platoon had been waiting for 6 hours. Explanation over with, we then proceeded to the outer edge of the lakes system to the village of TIMBANMERI. The actual lake is about 7 miles long, with its width approximating its length at the widest part. Water lilies of various colors and varieties cover the lakes. Some of the water is so shallow that large bamboo poles act as a guide to any large craft. Of course the natives could navigate the waters by night. Still great care was taken by the native skipper not to ground the Opal. It was dusk by the time the Opal stopped its engines for the last time. The villagers arrived from TIMBANMERI in their canoes. Heavy equipment, packs and men were ferried ashore and taken to the House Kiap which was about 300 yards from the village proper. Without wasting time the soldiers filled their water bottles which were quite empty as a result of the day’s activities. Kai (food) was eagerly consumed and the men settled down for the night. It was quite pleasing to note the absence of the mosquitoes and surprising too because of the vast amount of water close by.
Attitudes varied in the village. Some were inquisitive and friendly while other people were indifferent to our presence. They certainly were not over generous with food. The morning’s activities were normal for army life, however the appearance of an army helicopter made many a soldier head for his shaving gear. There was no room for a helicopter to land as we were situated on a small rise jutting up from the water’s edge. To our utter amazement the pilot set the ‘chopper’ down with its tail over the water and the rotor blades narrowly missing the House Kiap: this pilot was either exceptional or bloody mad. I’m sticking to the latter. Suddenly there was a commotion behind us as the entire village had arrived on the scene. Pidgin and ‘Place Talk’ reigned freely as the locals noisily discussed the situation. It was just a social call by the chopper.
Early that afternoon the platoon and the rest of the ‘gaggle’ arrived at our position in the PAGWI Government Canoe (40 ft. long powered by 20hp motor). The canoe was to make three trips that day before the whole platoon was safely across the lakes and at CHANGRIMAN. This village was set high on a grassy hill. From this vantage point I could see nearly the entirety of the lakes.
Ahead of us next morning was my first attempt at walking. The track was easy definable as it twisted and turned around large hills covered with forest. To make matters worse it rained evenly all the way. My pack was heavy enough at first, but now the added weight seemed to weaken my pace. In fact I was out of wind and could not continue without my pack being carried. My legs seemed to ‘jelly’ and my breathing was very labored. That lunch break was certainly appreciated but my mouth was parched and the dry biscuits made it impossible to swallow without water. By the end of lunch I found myself still exhausted. Later, when the coffee and 4 spoons of sugar began taking effect, I regained some energy. Not being accustomed to the walking plus a nose operation the week before could have accounted for my poor condition. The distance from CHANGRIMAN to YAMBI YAMBI was 10 miles and it took just over half a day.
At YAMBI YAMBI rations were readily exchanged for ‘kaukau’ (sweet potato), ‘kulau’ (coconut), cooking bananas and sugar cane. Rice and tinned meat can hit the bowels pretty hard after a week, so the fresh ‘kai’ was a welcome change. The morning of the next day was spent in clearing a small hill for an air drop. An army light plane called a Porter, would drop food and other essentials from a low altitude – on occasions 75ft. from the ground depending on approach and lift off conditions. Usually packing is used to avoid damage when ground contact is made. The air drop was a creditable effort as nothing was really damaged. Immediately the drop was completed the soldiers raced to find the canteen goods tin which had mail, cigarettes and other goodies. Before the patrol the soldiers bought canteen goods and place them in a tin with an air drop number.
Having collected the rations, medical supplies, batteries and hexamine (for cooking) they were taken to the village for distribution. Five days rations were dropped in all. The rest of the day was spent swimming in the SALUMEI RIVER. When the canoes arrived the frivolities soon ended and the task of lashing the canoes together got under way. Large poles were placed into position across the canoes and lashed securely. Two of these rafts were constructed by nightfall.
Breakfast and ablutions finished with, we departed down river with the 3 knot current providing the power. There was not a great deal to see, for once again jungle obscured the view. Occasionally a bird would fly hurriedly overhead, but surprisingly enough there was a complete absence of bird life. Yes, and the other sort too. Plenty of flora but no fauna. Back in the canoe the sun and slow speed was taking its toll. My bush hat was frequently in the river but it was dry in minutes.
The SALUMEI RIVER came to a large river junction with the KOROSAMERI RIVER and a thousand yards away was the WIMAT SCHOOL which was run by the Catholic Mission. Most of the children boarded and the remainder came to classes every morning by canoe. The children catch fish and cultivate small gardens which helps supplement their food ration. The priest was away on business while we stayed but the two indigenous teachers looked after us very well.
To make the journey up river, canoes powered by outboard motors were imperative because of the strong current now against us. A pole canoe was sent to the village MUMERI to bring motor powered canoes back. A day of leisure was spent in swimming and sun baking. (don’t get the idea it was all fun and games). Petrol does not grow on trees in New Guinea so, during a situation report to Headquarters at AMBOIN, Toni Huai (Platoon Commander) requested petrol for the canoes. Earlier on that day the Commanding Officer arrived at Wimat in the helicopter. Our resupply, however, was by Porter. Quantity requested was 10 gallons. Amount to be received was 5 gallons which would be just adequate. The Porter approached the Wimat school which was situated on a gently sloping hill. The petrol was dropped from a height of 100ft. After the impact the cap blew off and petrol sprayed through the air as the jerry can somersaulted down the hill. The effect was similar to a ‘Catherine wheel’ in a fireworks display. The now half empty can rested beside one of the school buildings. This hurried procedure could have damaged any one of the buildings. No consideration for property was given. I fail to comprehend the Porter’s use when the helicopter was available. ‘Ours is not to reason why, ours is to do and die.’ As the patrol progressed this well known saying could have been repeated many times.
Later that night the sounds of a motor were clearly audible in the stillness. Naturally the soldiers heard it before I did. Their hearing is quite acute. Fifteen minutes later a torch was visible and the noise had increased. The petrol situation was quickly explained but the driver assured us it was enough.
The palaver concluded, the order ‘hookim, hookim’ was given. This sent men scurrying back to their huts to pack their equipment in the dark. Soon the canoe was filled but it still left 11 men on the bank. The rivers are hard enough to navigate during the daylight hours let alone at night. If anything happened to the soldiers Toni would be in the ‘soup’ so to speak. It was quite a courageous decision.
That night a violent electrical storm hit. This didn’t help my thoughts of those who had just left. Following the explosions of thunder there was a small earthquake or ‘gauria’ which tilted the uprights of the building. A few degrees may not seem a great deal to the reader but I assure you it was enough to send me outside in the pouring rain. Quite a frightening experience when you consider our position was half way up the hill.
Next day we waited impatiently for the canoe to return, not knowing what had happened to the previous group the night before. Just after lunch the canoe arrived. Again the same scenery along the banks but somehow the river seemed different. It was muddy and swift yes, but the many sharp bends caused small whirlpools that were difficult to navigate. Large logs and floating debris also increased our chances of being capsized. Peter, the driver, was a veteran of these waters at 22 years of age. His skill at handling the canoe was uncanny and I felt secure even though water came over the top of the canoe at times. However, my behind was extremely numb and would not have agreed with me at this stage.
MUMERI seemed different somehow. It extended for about 400 yards which is quite a distance because dry land is hard to find at high water. Houses were built on stilts 5 – 7 ft from the ground. The people themselves seemed happy with their lot. They heard we were coming and ample food had been prepared. The women or ‘meris’ had made sago and cooked fish. The type of fish was not some rare tropical variety. Just a plain old cat-fish, whiskers and all. The fish were very tasty even though they had been cooked over a smoky fire. Sago or ‘sak sak’ is the staple diet in the Sepik District because often, there is not enough dry land for gardens. In the swamp the sago palm grows in abundance supplying the carbohydrate needed. Unfortunately when there is a deficiency in protein and sago only is eaten the children have large stomachs and malnutrition sets in. The other main produce of the village was coconuts which grew along the banks of the Korosameri River. Fortunately MUMERI is sited near some dry land which enables some cultivation even in high water. For those who drive to work and do their shopping by car, it may interest you to know that every morning the women paddle against a 2 knot current for anything up to 3 miles before they reach their gardens And returning at 5 o’clock to cook the evening meal.
While we occupied the village their work doubled. In gratitude the soldiers gave away their rations. The children accepted lollies and chocolate with great delight. Tin openers were a prized possessions not for their opening value, but for putting round necks and wrists. The natives delight in putting on style just as Europeans like dressing up in their best clothes for a social function.
As crocodiles were becoming scarce in this region people had captured some and were breeding them for skins. A large pool enclosed by a wood fence was the crocodiles’ environment. I couldn’t see how they would survive in such cramped conditions. A large skin would nett $50 – $70 depending on quality. This income helps to buy outboard motors and pay individual tax which is about $5-$10 depending on the area. Another aspect of life that impressed me was the village carvings. The large head masks were especially colorful even though local paints were used. Their owners were proud of their work and could not be tempted to sell. After passing this fine display we moved into the village ‘Trade Store’. To our disappointment there were no cigarettes on sale. Only tinned meat, batteries, bolts of material and bush knives lined the shelves. The old store keeper was most apologetic about the affair. That was not our first disappointment as we found out later. Only Peter’s canoe was available. We were in luck however, as a craft powered by 2 outboards pulled into MUMERI on its way to Wimat. Delicately the platoon commander persuaded the native driver to turn about and take us to KOMEI.
Next morning the platoon was split and our group moved off. Peter’s canoe would follow later. One and a half hours later the junction of the KOROSAMERI and KARARWARI RIVERS was reached. Another 4 hours later and we pulled into MANJAMI as the driver refused to go any further. I couldn’t see his reasoning because KONEMEI was only 2 miles away.
The only life to stir were some fruit bats but as the soldiers whistled and shouted the bats soon awoke filling the air. As the craft moved on more and more of these rat like creatures filled the sky. Without exaggeration there were well over a thousand by now. It was a wonder the camera wasn’t damaged in my excitement to photograph the spectacular scene. All the filming that day was to no avail as I was to lose most of it during a swamp crossing. Back at MANJAMI the water was rising. In some parts it was waist deep.
Mode of transport from house to house was by pull canoe. Soon Peter’s canoe joined us but insufficient room meant a trip to KONMEI our original destination. Next morning Peter would return. That night it poured. At once we raced to erect a “rain – catcher“ for want of a better word. Six poles were placed in the ground and the tent attached. Soon the tent bellied with the water and those who ventured from the tent collected the water and also a shower at the same time.
Clean water is a problem. There is water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink. By 10 o’clock the next morning there was no sign of Peter so the natives offered to poll us to KONMEI. Men and equipment were loaded into the flimsy dugouts. Each canoe held 6 men. Stability was not one of the canoes best assets but the balance by the paddlers, who were standing, was remarkable. In midstream the current was swift but where the green foliage met the water, it was negligible. Luckily we met Peter and in another hour we came to KONMEI. The night was spent in the combined Catholic church and school. This village was also under water. Later that afternoon Greg Smith and the Amboin Kiap arrived at our location after completing an agricultural tour. The Kiap was in a hurry so Greg and I could only relate our experiences briefly. Toni asked the Kiap if it would be possible to arrange transport to KANSAMI. The canoe arrived at nine. By 10 o’clock other canoes had been lashed in place.
From KONMEI to KANSAMI took 4 hours. Nothing much happened until one of the guides yelled frantically, ‘guria, guria’. This majestic bird sat high in the shade of a large tree. It was blue except for the crown feathers which were delicately covered with white, as though snow had just fallen. This variety of pigeon was much larger than the ones that make a mess of the Melbourne Town Hall. The harsh report of the shotgun sent the guria to its death. On arriving at our destination the guria was quickly ‘kaied’ (pronounced kyed). While the guria was stewing, the medic attended to the soldiers. Some of the natives became inquisitive and asked for medical treatment. One man had a large lump on his neck for which the medic administered penicillin. To show their gratitude ‘kaukau’ was brought. This cooked with the fresh meat was a delicious combination.
ASANGAMUT was the next village to be surveyed. The natives assured us we’d make it by nightfall. It took 2 days. The first day we spent walking through a combination of swamp and muddy tracks. Just below our first camp was a small swamp which provided our only water supply. This coffee colored water has a fragrance all of its own. Full concentration was needed if you expected to stay a little dry. Pieces of wood and sago palm form the only path.
Deviate, or slip and you could expect to be waist deep in water. To cross a 200 yard stretch could take anything up to half an hour. Our guides would do the same journey in 5-10 minutes. During the afternoon of the second day, the villagers saw the platoon struggle into ASANGAMUT. Rations by this time were finished and a resupply by ‘chopper’ would follow. As we walked through the village I knew the resupply had been effected because of the familiar gold tins that were stacked near the empty house kiap. I sat on an empty ration tin and removed my wet shirt in an endeavor to soak up the last remaining rays of the sun. My feelings were low at this stage as I felt completely exhausted and could hardly lift a kaulau to my lips. Tomorrow would require more effort as the terrain was identical. After a quick wash in the YUAT RIVER I felt a little refreshed and looked forward to rice, corned beef and coffee.
The next morning we made our way to FWDUGWA via the village of SIPISIPI. Towards the late afternoon I was 10 minutes behind. Soon I came upon 8 soldiers lying on their packs. In front was a huge grass swamp. It seemed that the gentleman concerned did not wish to cross the swamp. After being made well and truly ashamed of themselves they reluctantly followed. This swamp was a real stinker in more ways than one. Underneath the water the natives had built a log bridge. Either side was tall grass extending 5ft. from the water. The trick was to balance on the logs and edge your way forward. The actual depth of the water was 6ft. as I was to find out. Sixteen soldiers plus equipment were too much for the bridge. The next man went down. Fortunately the grass gave him some assistance. Crawling over the grass he managed to pick up the next stage of the bridges My turn came and I was too tired to care about getting wet. I went down and as the result my unexposed film was ruined, even though in a supposedly water tight container. I managed to save some colored slide film and a few rolls of black and white. Wet film was the least of our worries because the radio set was damaged which meant no communications. Still it could not be helped. At the village a fire was burning and most of the boys were drying their wet equipment.
The terrain to ANDEFUGAN was monotonously the same – swamps, small creeks and muddy tracks. Another boring day finished and we arrived at ANDEFUGAN. It was well spread out and neatly maintained. The main produce of the village was copra (dry coconut) which went to BIWAT. The Luluai and Tultul system of local government was superseded by the local Committee form. Most of the villages before ANDEFUGAN had the Luluai as the sole power in the village but the Committee form has elected members. It was a friendly place and the people couldn’t do enough for us.
After crossing the YUAT RIVER, BIWAT was reached. The platoon was given soup, kaukau and bananas as it came ashore.
BIWAT has a large Catholic Mission which provides the children’s education. The Father, 3 European women and 3 Pacific Islanders comprised the staff. The large house kiap provided excellent accommodation but it was at least a mile from the Mission. BIWAT was Pte Ikumbasd’s village and his relatives had stocked the cook house adjacent to the house kiap with food.
As our normal rations would run out in 3 days time a small party set off down river to retrieve the rations that H.Q. dropped at ASANGAMUT. There was nothing to do but wait for a new radio from H.Q.
Three days later it arrived by ‘chopper’. The only problem remaining was canoes and petrol. The canoes were supplied, plus three outboard motors. An Army 44 gallon drum of aviation fuel mixed with oil provided the fuel. Despite the rest and fresh food my condition was much the same as before. The air strip at the mission was dry so I asked to be evacuated but the reply was in the negative. I wasn’t particularly perturbed at this stage because I felt it would disappear.
After a slight delay the canoes were in place and this time each had an outboard motor. Only MANINGI was reached the first day. Progress was slow because of the strong current running against us. To make up for lost time we were on board the next morning at 5.30 am. Breakfast was eaten on the canoe. It wasn’t a particularly good start to the day. With this early start it was hoped we would be at ASANGAMUT by lunch. This was not accomplished, as we arrived there late in the afternoon. The canoes had to be pushed over shallow water and that was the reason for us being late. Proceeding further up the YUAT, camp was made in the bush that night.
Two days later the junction of the YUAT and MARUMUNI RIVERS came into view. That’s not all we could see. In the not too distant future we would strike the foreboding mountains of the WESTERN HIGHLANDS. Soon the walking would begin in earnest. I held some doubts as to my capabilities because the frequent attacks of diarrhoea had taken what little energy I had. There was no turning back and no chance for evacuation for at least 3 or 4 days.
THE WESTERN HIGHLANDS
We said goodbye to the drivers and the canoes for the last time. Ahead was some of the most rugged country in New Guinea. It was essential to pick up some guides capable of showing us the way as there were no tracks at the start – only criss-crossing streams and thick bush. Departing from the MARAMUNI’S tributary we soon encountered a clear mountain stream which we followed for 2 miles. Suddenly from the opposite bank came a blood curdling yell which made some of the soldiers instinctively think of going for cover. From the shadows of the opposite bank the creators of this little disturbance appeared. This was the welcome we received from our guides.
“Bush kanaka strait,” said Pte. Melia. Automatically my camera hit the ground and I moved in to take a shot. A few fallen logs made their bridge. Four in all arrived on our side; one small boy, 2 youths and a man about 30. They had been hunting and a wallaby was the result of their efforts. Wallabies are timid and prove a hard target for even the best marksman. This one was downed by a bow and arrow. Their dress was simply a piece of cloth in the front hanging about 2ft. from a vine belt. Covering the back was 10-12 strands of grass aptly named ‘as grass’. For those who think the spelling is poor; ‘as grass’ in English would be spelt ‘arse grass’. The Pidgin word ‘as’ simply means the bottom of something and is used frequently. The word ‘bugger up’ is used to mean out of order or broken. It is very hard for young missionary women to understand but after the language is mastered the use of such vulgarities becomes second nature because there is always something ‘buggered up’ in New Guinea.
After that necessary explanation we’ll move back to a little more walking. The path we followed went up and down a lot. Ask my legs! At the bottom of Little ravine there was a small creek to wade through. Finally after a three and a half hour walk the platoon commander called a halt and camp was set up.
Pte. Lakarki was from Wabag and fortunately the ‘place talk’ was similar. This made communication easier for these highlanders knew little Pidgin. There is not a great deal of similarity between the Highlanders and the man from the Sepik Plains. Generally the Highlander seems smaller, has a better physique, especially the leg muscles. This is understandable when you see the terrain they live in. The Sepik physique is thinner and a little taller. His coloring is darker too. Usually the Highlanders have large crops of hair and beards or ‘musgras’. Naturally dress is also different.
The Sepik men have shirts and shorts while the woman wear a lap-lap and blouse if they’re lucky. In the more primitive areas the lap lap is replaced by coloured grass which extends around the waist. Of course those descriptions do not typify all the areas mentioned but it was the pattern I observed while on patrol. Where there is a means of transport either by water or road clothes are made from materials bought at the mission stores. I seemed to have left the story again so I must retrace my steps.
That night the order came through to hold present position. It was a blessing in disguise for me. In those 4 days I continually took sulphadamide tablets in a desperate attempt to relieve the diarrhoea which had turned into dysentery. The tablets did help but they were not powerful enough. Maybe some would come in the next air drop. After the Porter had located our position it made two dummy runs. The pilot seemed a little high – about 150 ft. When the rations hit the ground it was obvious that our food would be damaged. Some tins of meat were twisted and in this condition were impossible to open. Hexamine tablets are fragile at the best of times, but when dropped from this height you could only expect powder, and powder we got. The medical supplies were packed and fortunately undamaged. The drop couldn’t have been well organized because essential things like Paludrine tablets (daily malarial tablets), radio batteries and smoke flares were missing.
The medical supplies were most adequate: 1 pound of cotton wool, 1 large bottle of Benadryl cough mixture and acne cream. These were most suitable for those of us who were reaching puberty and had nagging coughs, but surely not for men with ulcerated feet and swollen limbs. No Paludrine meant the taking of Chloroquin. This depleted the medical kit as far as malarial drugs was concerned. One soldier had scrub typhus and was not evacuated. Scrub typhus is a re-occurring disease that has symptoms similar to that of malaria. Our situation was explained to H.Q. and next day the ‘chopper’ brought the requested supplies. I was feeling a little better so I decided to have a ‘bash’ as they say. Again the reader will note the chopper was available and if it had have been used in the first place damage and upsets would have been avoided. From our present position the next village was quickly reached. The next lot of people we encountered had broken away from their Highland tribe and had established a village on a flat piece of land overlooking the raging waters of the YUAT RIVER.
From this village we were led a merry little climb. The platoon was half way up the mountain when the rain hit. Refreshing yes, but the added weight of the equipment made the going even harder. That night was spent trying to dry wet equipment and clothes. The weather the next day was in complete contrast. The sun was bright but the bush canopy overhead made the heat bearable. We climbed higher and higher then the land flattened out briefly only to descend into a steep valley.
At the bottom was a raging torrent of water. One soldier attempted the crossing and was nearly swept away. With equipment it would have been suicide. It was hoped that higher up, the water would be shallower. After wading through the water at chest height and carrying packs overhead the platoon managed the crossing without mishap. The remainder of the day was spent, as usual, in walking. At this stage I was half an hour behind the platoon. Sgt. Kripakia had stayed with me so I wasn’t worried about losing the track. Eventually we caught up as the platoon had rested at a small river. As we moved up the river there was a commotion ahead. Pte Yandoua had something in his eye. That something turned out to be a leech. It was attached to his eye ball. Only when the eye lid was turned fully back and then tilted down could the leech be seen. After drops had failed to remove its grip I tried delicately to probe it free with a match. Yandoua never flinched once. I managed to free one end of the creature and took it between my finger nails. It would not come out voluntary so I started to pull it from the eyeball. With one sudden jerk it came free and so did some eye tissue. Yandoua screamed with pain, but he was happy it was out. Later that afternoon Yandoua was to show his gratitude. When it was 4 o’clock the Sergeant and I were one and a half hours behind. I could not continue without frequent stops and water.
In the distance we heard a shout. It was Yandoua. Soon after the platoon had made camp, he returned to carry my pack. By the time I reached camp I could barely walk. Yandoua and Jerry had fixed my ‘hootchi’ (tent and bedding). The river near the camp provided a good bath tub, with running icy cold water I might add. I felt quite ill as I returned and went straight to bed. With a start I awoke. Jerry had cooked a meal but that was the last thing I wanted. However, I knew that my system was in need of food. After managing only a few spoonfuls of ‘kai’ and a cup of coffee I hit the hay wondering whether or not I’d be alive in the morning. I did awake the next day and thanked God I was still alive. Things had become desperate for me.
Fortunately for me some guides had come to our aid. This enabled me to continue without carrying any equipment. The trail went straight up but the guides assured us that their village, MANUARKA was close. We had heard of such assurances before and now regarded the natives’ judgement with skepticism.
Leaving the bush we came upon tall kunai grass which offers no shade or relief from the sun. Before long a village fence came into view on the next ridge line. Now I could recuperate a little while Tani took a census.
While in MANUARKUA a noticeable change could be seen in the type of houses and people. Most of the men had beards and large crops of natural hair in the shape of an elongated chiefs hat (for want of better description). Houses were different from those in the Sepik areas. The exclusion of windows was the most striking feature. It is very cold at night in the Highlands so this explains the absence of the windows. A further distinction was the predominant use of kunai grass as a building material where as in the Sepik areas it is the sago palm leaf.
The inhabitants were happy to give us food. People from all around helped contribute. The harsh topography of the highlands presents a special problem – that of suitable flat land for cultivating gardens. Some people make their houses near to their gardens. The result being that the village is spread out. Accommodation for us again was in the empty house ‘kiap’. Only when the Kiap (patrol officer) inspects the village is it occupied. (I took many slides of the village so I won’t elaborate any further.)
After leaving MANUARKA the next village was YENGUS MISSION STATION. It took nine hours for this journey. When looking at the map it seems a long time to move just over an inch. But the map doesn’t show how high we had to climb up and then down. At YENGUS the news had spread that the army was coming and this had explained the huge crowd that welcomed us. Luluais and Tultuls had come from distant ridge lines just to see us. It was a great spectacle but after 20 separate welcomes my hand was starting to ache.
When the excitement had subsided the faint whirr of a Light plane could be heard. As I now had dysentery my only thought was of evacuation. As the 3 missionaries departed from the plane I soon found out the plane’s destination was MT.HAGEN. “Pipped at the post”, the punter would say. With disappointment I took my equipment back to the hut.
The next afternoon we awaited for yet another bloody ‘air drop’. It was beyond my logic to understand the reason why a perfectly good air strip was not used. No area of flat land could be marked out because none was available. That fact did not seem to disturb the civilian pilot or the 2IC for the air strip was clearly definable.
From a height of 200 feet and moving at about 80 knots, rations, clothing, medical supplies and hexamine tablets were free dropped.
The lack of adequate packing was soon to be evident. As they hit, the packages literally exploded. Tins of meat whistled through the air 20 feet from the ground. The remaining rations went tumbling down the air strip spraying rice, biscuits and condensed milk over the entire air field. The tumultuous shouts and bad language from the soldiers would have made the Port Melbourne ‘wharfies’ look like ballet dancers on opening night. Tears came to some of the boys and one particular Sergeant, as we surveyed the damaged rations. At first glance it was obvious that there was not enough rations for the next stage of the journey to BAIYER RIVER.
I only wish the C.O. was there to witness this fiasco and the damage done to the air strip. To see the soldiers shoveling dirt and rice into a ration tin was quite pitiful. Its no good getting upset now but in the heat of the moment I’ve never felt so angry and disillusioned. No consideration had been given and it was obvious no-one cared less about our position. The clothing issue can further illustrate this. Bloody great leather parade boots without laces were dropped instead of light patrol boots. Most of the soldiers strung the boots around the neck and walked barefoot. After returning to Moem Barracks I was informed that there were plenty of patrol boots available, except in size nine. Four platoon had a similar experience when rations were dropped behind their position. Its hard to believe this statement but Greg Smith says it took 2 days to find the rations. I hope those responsible learnt a few lessons from their incompetent mistakes.
Looking into the rugged mountains ahead it seemed an eternity before we’d ever reach BAIYER RIVER.
Personally l had a few doubts whether I’d ever get there. The following 4 hours took us to WARABU. It was hoped by lunch that INDINAGA would be reached. My memory is not a hundred percent clear at this stage so descriptions are brief. The brevity may also destroy some of the monotony.
Village life is much the same, no new customs or dress. I did, however, take numerous slides I so I will let them tell the story. The next afternoon a large creek junction confronted us. Two alternatives faced the platoon commander. Either follow a well used track to KABUMANDA and then to LAPALAMA MISSION or follow and old mountain track in the search for unmarked villages. The latter meant 4 days walking. The alternatives were sent to H.Q. and the reply came back with a distasteful ring. In his wisdom the Company Commander had decided that the 4 day jaunt would be the best alternative. I was horrified and so was the platoon commander who uttered a few well chosen similies to show his displeasure. However, fate was to give us a helping hand. Four Committee Men from LAPALAMA had come to guide us. When they told us it was only 2 days to LAPALAMA, a polite message (Get Stuffed) was returned to HQ informing CO that our route would not be changed. By the next night we had reached the small environ of LAPALAMA. The welcome was not a particularly warm one. The Committee form of local government was operating here and everything was very business like. No gifts of food. We couldn’t even cut down worthless trees for stretchers. We had to pay 10c for each tree cut down.
At exactly 10 o’clock the next morning I was having a cup of tea and chocolate cake at the teacher’s house at LAPALAMA. I left there to find the platoon settling into the house kiap. The ration situation was low so Toni (Platoon Leader) decided to ask for another resupply. He practically pleaded and in the end H. Q. conceded. One could hardly call it an air drop. Simple arithmetic would show you can not divide a 20 man ration pack among 29 men. Still we managed. Prior to the air drop I again asked to be evacuated but no dice. Disappointment was no stranger at this stage. I was determined to see the venture through now. The people at the mission assured us BAIYER RIVER was only 2 days away. A fantastic feeling began to glow inside me. Another signal arrived stating that the Caribou aircraft would be waiting our arrival at 12.00 on the 29 of May. It was now the 27th.
Before reaching the main track a vine bridge had to be negotiated. Below were rapids. One slip and you would have been dashed to pieces on the rocks below. The flimsy bridge was shaped like a V. The bottom of the V was made of 6 strong vines which extended across the river. These were securely lashed together at either end to a large wooden frame. There were single strands that acted as hand rails at the top of the V. Other small vines were attached from the top to the foot rail to eliminate the risk of falling. Fear at this stage seemed the least of my worries. The only thought that entered my head was that Baiyer River was getting closer. Only one man at a time could cross and this tedious task took nearly an hour.
When everyone was safely across we moved onto the KOMPIAM – BAIYER RIVER ROAD. We made steady progress under the blazing sun. After 4 miles we took a breather in the shade of a hill. It was decided to rest for 2 hours to give the sun a chance to cool off. When the sun was nearly gone, walking on the road enabled a fast pace. We followed the road further and came across a small settlement. At KOMPIAN a policeman greeted us and handed out some cigarettes to the soldiers. A store was open but no cigarettes. I inquired further and the policeman produced a packet and gave it to me. He would not accept any money insisting I take them. That cigarette was the best I’d ever had. But to see the looks on the soldiers’ faces weakened me. In minutes the packet was half empty. In the distance I could see a patch of brown. Another village I thought. Later I found out it would be our quarters for the night. From what I could see of the road it seemed to wind straight up the mountain slope. Heaving and moving only by instinct I reached the top. It was well past seven and most of the soldiers were already half way through their meal. I slept well that night but not for long as we were on our way by 6 o‘clock next morning.
At 10 o’clock I was looking at the distant ridges of BAIYER RIVER. It was a pleasant sight compared to the one that immediately faced us. It was the steepest ascent we’d encountered. At the bottom of the ravine was another vine bridge (kunda) and the raging waters of the LAI RIVER. The weight of my pack added to the pain already creeping into my legs. At any moment I thought my knee caps would pop out.
The LAI RIVER was the last major obstacle besides the mountains which towered above on the opposite bank. The same procedure followed and there were no mishaps. A small winding track made the going a little easier but it didn’t alter the fact that this was just as steep as the mountain we’d previously come down. It seemed to take an eternity before the ridge line was under our feet. It was 12 o’clock on the 29th and we were nowhere near BAIYER RIVER. The following pace was slow now as it typified everyone’s disappointment. Information gathered from the village pointed to one thing. BAIYER RIVER was still a bloody long way off.
After conquering another two tall mountains we came across a Malaria Control Station which was on a made road linking MT. HAGEN and BAIYER RIVER. Those who had food made their last meal. One of the corporals was sent to BAIYER on a truck that happened by. Soon transport would be arranged for the remaining nine miles. As night was falling a cattle truck arrived .Not very fitting but I’d have settled for the “night cart” at this stage. Even in the darkness there was no sound or sign of Company Headquarters. My first assumption was that we had been left, but as the story unfolded it was obvious that our platoon had beaten everyone there.
After we found the Kiap he showed us to an agricultural boarding school. This was our last place of rest before leaving for Moem Barracks. The school had showers, a kitchen and the most important thing a 3 inch thick rubber mattress. Most of the soldiers were still hungry but the situation was soon remedied when the Kiap arrived with a slab of ‘bullamukau’ and a 100 lb. bag of rice. As you can imagine it was hard to control the saliva as the meat sizzled in the mess tin. That night I seemed at peace and I felt every muscle relax as the fight was now over. The next morning everyone started to clean their gear. Soldiers were talking in whispers and all around there seemed an eerie stillness. Suddenly there was a commotion among some of the soldiers. “Listen a plane” they shouted. I heard the faint drone of a motor. Then we saw it. A Caribou was circling the air strip. We raced to the edge of the strip eagerly awaiting its arrival. On talking to the RAAF pilot we learned they had come to look around BAIYER RIVER and were soon to head back to PORT MORESBY. After much persuading and pleading they decided to take us to WEWAK.
“Hookim, Hookim!” The cry went out. Soldiers hastily gathered their equipment ready for the return journey. Then we boarded the Caribou. An hour later the plane landed at Wewak. It was hard to realize that we were back but as the Caribou’s ramp was lowered humid air rushed into our compartment. Then I knew it was for real. That rush of air climaxed the end of the patrol. And brother was I glad.
A few days later after weighing in at less than 8 stone, I was admitted to the Military Hospital at Moem Barracks. But that’s another story.