Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967

by 2Lt John Stringfellow

Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967 -
2Lt. John Stringfellow, March 1967

Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967 -
John Stringfellow today

I was instructed by my company commander, Major Greg Warland, to take my 11th platoon of D Coy, 1st Pacific Islands Regiment from Kerema on the south coast of Papua to Wau in New Guinea via the Bulldog Road. I had three weeks to complete the patrol. My fellow D Company platoon commanders were to patrol the highlands west of Wau.

Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967 -

Bulldog was a pre-war goldmining centre at the junction of a river system from which it was navigable down the Lakekamu River to the Papuan Gulf. The road from Bulldog to Wau had been constructed by Army engineers in 1942 as a supply route to Wau for a planned assault on the Japanese positions in Lae. Pre-war goldminers had constructed a railway line at Bulldog and I was to find it and report on its condition and on the condition of the road from Bulldog to Wau.

Prior to the patrol the company 2IC, Captain Tim Britten, and I were to have been taken on an aerial reconnaissance of the patrol route in an Army Cessna 380 airplane. We flew from Port Moresby to Lae, where we refuelled the plane and the pilot’s cigarette lighter with aviation gas direct from the plane’s fuel tank overload outlet, then to Wau where we stayed the night in the Wau Hotel. During the evening, and after a few beers, the pilot, a captain, fell in love with the barmaid. Our early morning start was delayed an hour whilst we waited for our amorous pilot to surface. When he did, he was most happy and in a jovial mood. However high cumulus cloud had begun to form in the mountains surrounding Wau and he expressed his concerns about flying over these mountains, which are in excess of 2300 metres in height. After a brief discussion, Tim persuaded the pilot to make an attempt to cross the mountains. We took off down the steepest landing strip in PNG and rose gradually to enter the clouds at a height of about 2000 metres when the pilot did what all daring young men in their flying machines do. He went up tiddly dah and he went down tiddly dah and around tiddly dah trying to find a way around the clouds before he decided it was too dangerous to fly any further and made a welcome and beeline return to Wau. Whilst in the air my knuckles went white from holding my seat too tight. I imagine my face would have been ghost white as well, as we received a real bucket ride. Tim and I spent a long day in Wau without the pilot’s company. However I did meet a hard bitten, tough looking Australian expat in the bar of the Wau Hotel and filled in the afternoon.

The next day we took off earlier and flew west to Menyamya where an Administration sub-district office was located. This was an exciting experience as the airstrip was half way up a mountain and was about 200 metres long. On landing, it felt as if the plane was to fly straight into the mountain. The approach was so slow and as soon as the plane touched the ground the pilot braked as hard as he could. Taking off was worse. Once the plane left the ground it fell into the deep and steep valley leaving your stomach in your mouth before gaining speed and altitude. We never got to Kerema. I presume that because of the previous day’s “joy ride” our fuel was low so the pilot made for a mission airstrip east of Kerema and towards Port Moresby. During the flight we entered a magnificent valley that had been formed by an ancient glacier. It was about 150 metres wide and about the same depth. The sides were almost vertical and were covered in light green grass. This part of the flight lasted about five minutes and had me spellbound. Later in the flight the pilot turned to Tim beside him in the front seat and said that we had 20 minutes fuel left. I looked at my watch then and again ten minutes later when the pilot was looking anxiously around at the jungle canopy from his cockpit seat. Out the windows all I could see was the tree tops of the jungle canopy. I was mentally preparing my self for a crash landing when in another five minutes the pilot said “there it is”. We landed on the strip and not only did the airplane get refuelled with the help of a local missionary but also the pilot’s cigarette lighter. An adventurous flight but I came back none the wiser.

On the thirteenth day of November, the platoon, an attached signaller and medic left Port Moresby by Caribou aircraft as guests of the RAAF. Seating was side saddle on the floor and with the rear door open for ventilation. The aircraft became only the second Caribou to land on Kerema airstrip (the previous one was a test flight to determine if it was possible) and as the locals were not used to seeing such large aircraft, or it was possible that they thought the war with Japan had restarted, they turned out in force to see what was happening. On disembarking, I looked up at what seemed like a plateau 10 to 12 metres above the airstrip that was lined with people shoulder to shoulder, all talking excitedly. With such an audience it was too good an opportunity too miss, so instead of going off casually in section groups I asked Sergeant Guri, the platoon sergeant, to form the men into columns of three and we then marched into town. I think the locals were impressed.

The platoon was quartered in a 40 man bunkhouse and spent the rest of the day sight seeing and amusing the locals. I went to the District Office and met with the senior administration officer (“Kiap”) and his staff to discuss our proposed route and to meet the police constable who was to accompany the platoon as far as Bulldog. The policeman’s role was to ensure the locals provided us with guides and were not frightened by our presence, and I imagine observing our behaviour. He spoke the police Motu language that was a common language amongst the travelled Papuans being the local Port Moresby language. (Most Papuans spoke Melanesian pidgin, English and their local village language or “ples tok” of which there were over 700, and a few Papuans also spoke several other ples toks.). I showed my map (Wau SB55-14 overprint Feb 66) to the Kiap and discussed the route to Bulldog that Greg Warland, had indicated he wanted me to follow which would have taken me north along a track from Kerema then east to an area shown on the map as “Hell’s Gate”. The Kiap looked at me in amusement and told me that the track did not exist. The map showed that the area had close contour lines and numerous creeks which suggested it as being steep mountainous country. The highest mountain was shown on the map as being 857 metres high. It also showed Menyamya in three different locations of which two had been crossed out. He advised me to go east from Kerema along the coast past Silo, 11 kilometres east to the village of Karama then head north to the Biatava village and as the track behind Biatava was unknown to keep a compass in my hand. This was a flatter route and took us within 10 kilometres of Hell’s Gate.

Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967 -
Private Simon (12 Platoon from memory), showing his rifle to a Kukukuku tribesman.
The photo was taken by the Army’s PR people in the more ‘civilised’ part of Kukukuku country.

We were also heading into the country where the Kukukuku people lived. These people had a reputation of being the most fierce head hunters in PNG even though they were of a small stature. It was normal at that time for a patrol to demonstrate the power of modern weapons compared to bows and arrows and the might of the Army should they come across a primitive tribe. Every man in the platoon carried 60 rounds of live ammunition for his rifle and I carried a 9mm pistol and 50 rounds to meet any emergency situation with locals or fauna such as wild pigs, cassowaries and crocodiles. This discussion with the Kiap, and the map, dented my confidence. The prospect of heading off with the responsibility of leading the platoon of 36 men into deep jungle occupied by head hunters and steering by compass was daunting to say the least. Had I not been conscripted I would have been back in Perth surfing and drinking beer. And that is exactly where I wanted to be at that time. I made a decision to ask Greg Warland for permission to go to Bulldog via the easier route suggested by the Kiap. A radio call to Company headquarters, now in Wau, and Greg gave me the go ahead. The kiaps bought me a beer or two that night and a local coconut plantation owner offered the platoon a ride on his tractor wagons for part of the way.

The first 2 maps show the path taken from Kerema to Bulldog – shown as a dotted line
The start of the Bulldog Track is shown on the second map marked in a solid red line and continued in the third map to Wau.

Click on each map to get a larger image

Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967 -

Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967 -

Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967 -

We set off in the morning with the patrol sitting on flat open sided wagons towed by a tractor over a bumpy dirt road. The three wagons carried the 37 of us and all our gear. It was a bit noisy, crowded and hard on the bottom but the coconut plantation with the ocean in the background provided nice scenery and it beats walking with a heavy back pack. After about an hour we parted company with our transport and began a four hour walk along the grey sandy beach to Karama. Good surf over a metre high was rolling in from its break about 150m off shore in ideal surfing weather. As I had not seen surf like that for over 18 months I was tempted to go swimming. Having passed Silo we overnighted on the outskirts of the village of Waima where I was told a child had been taken by a crocodile two months earlier while she played in a creek’s mouth on the beach.

The next day it took us an hour’s walk to reach Karama which was situated on the mouth of a river estuary. The policeman suggested water transport and I readily agreed. He spoke to the locals and arranged for a guide and canoes to take the patrol up the Karova Creek. We departed Karama by dugout canoe. Four soldiers and their gear per canoe paddled by a local went up this creek in style. With ten canoes making their way up the creek it looked like a scene from the Jungle Jim films I had watched at the Saturday afternoon matinee sessions as a boy 10 years earlier. The creek was about 100 metres wide and bordered on both sides by dense dark green mangroves. Every now and then a bird made a raucous call from the foliage. As it was warm and sunny I was completely relaxed and enjoying the tranquillity of the occasion when a loud splash broke my dreaming. At this shock, my immediate thought was that a crocodile was attacking “Jungle John” in his canoe but the paddler via the interpreter told me it was only a turtle. After 45 minutes we had been disembarked onto the bank where the track started. The canoe paddlers were paid off from the $100 float in 10cent and 20cent coins that were carried equally between Sgt Guri and me that was to be used for such purposes. We then began our walk through the jungle before making camp in the bush near a clear water running creek.

Once the camp had been established with an off ground wooden stretcher made of bush timber covered by a hootchie, washing in the creek and cooking became the priority. Boiled brown rice accompanied by canned meat became the standard fare for the next three weeks.

With the money float, we would buy fruits and vegetables, mostly taro (yams) kow kow (sweet potatoes), maize, and bananas, from the local villages to supplement the ration pack food. Occasionally in our walk, we would come across a patch of “tuleef” which look like a stinging nettle but had a spinach flavour and the men scooped up this tuleef with great delight as it went well with the rice.

Whilst the meals were being prepared I would try and work out our position on the map and then radio our location to the company headquarters in Wau and comment on any relevant matters with Greg Warland. Our position was a bit of guesswork as in the jungle there are few geographical features, other than rivers, to accurately plot your position. I would then talk to the corporals and the men and see if there were any problems and generally make sure everybody was happy.

On day four of the patrol we reached the village of Eboini which was not shown on the map but was located near to where the village of Hempe was shown. It was quite common for the local people to relocate their village every couple of years as their gardens became less fertile and for health reasons. It was unusual for the name of the village to change. On our approach the village head man or ‘luluai” (identified by his “Salvation Army” hat and his “sheriff’s” badge that he wore on a cord around his neck) and his younger deputy head man or “tultul” came out to greet us. The old grey haired luluai was chewing betel nut which made his mouth, lips and teeth red. It also rotted his teeth to blackened pillars. The tultul dug the luluai in the ribs to remind him of his manners and the luluai turned his head and spat out a large blob of red juice which landed blood like on the side of the path about four metres from me. I found this ironic and rather humbling, as two months before the battalion had played host to Lord Casey, the Governor General of Australia, and we second lieutenants were left to entertain the GG until the brass hats arrived. We had to be on our best behaviour and did a bit of grovelling over a cup of tea with biscuits. A great experience entertaining a GG and now here I was being treated like a visiting dignitary. Little did they know I was relieved to find some sign of civilisation no matter that it was primitive? Eboini was a typical native village situated in a jungle clearing about 100 metres wide by 120 metres long where all the vegetation was removed to reveal a red clay hardpan. There were 14 huts for the families to live in and a long community house for village meetings and so forth. Two large vegetable gardens were situated on the outskirts of the village. As part of my given duties, I had to make a sketch map of the villages and make notes of any interesting features of the villages that I found on the patrol which were duly recorded in my patrol log. The Kerema kiap suggested I look at the village books that luluai kept in each village. It was the kiap’s record of the village demographic statistics. In some cases it was two to three years since the last kiap’s visit. The further away from Kerema the less frequent the visit and after Bulldog my request to see the books were given a blank “what is he talking about” stare. In most of the villages we entered, the small children would look at me with their mouths agape and a hesitant look in their eyes. I felt that I was the first white skinned man they had seen and that the stories of their parents to make them behave were true. I was not the only unusual looking man on the patrol as the men came from all over PNG. The Bouganvillians were jet black skinned, the Highlanders were pink skinned and chubby if from the east or tall if from the west, Tolais from New Britain were brown skinned and round faced with blonde / gingery hair, Sepiks were brown, small and wiry. With our varied skin colours and shaped heads we must have looked like a circus to the locals.

At Eboini we paid off our guide and engaged another to take us to the next village of Bakoda.

This was the daily routine until we reached Bulldog on the 9th day. A departure from the routine was a ration resupply, where a radio call directed the Army Cessna airplane, call sign “Hawkeye”, to where call sign “Sunray Delta 42”, (11th Platoon commander), was waiting anxiously by a selected creek in the middle of the jungle with Sgt Guri holding a smoke grenade. The purpose of the smoke grenade was to show the pilot exactly where we were amongst all the other creeks. Once we heard the plane and were in radio contact, the grenade would be fired and the pilot would make a beeline for it. The selected creek was the only clear space I could find in the jungle on the day and hour the resupply was due. I selected a straight stretch of the creek about 50 metres long and 20 metres wide. This allowed the pilot the opportunity to fly at tree top level whilst his offsider kicked the parcels out of the plane’s open door. Each parcel contained two kerosene tins bound together with grass filled hessian sand bags to cushion their impact when they hit the ground. Each tin had eight ration packs inside so several passes had to be made by the pilot to unload all the required rations and special requests such as replacement boots, radio batteries, etc. The resupply was great fun for the platoon and the pilot. The latter getting the chance to play as a bomber on a small target, which required a great deal of skill, and for us to hear the deafening roar of the approaching plane and see the parcels disgorged from the plane and splash into the creek whilst the plane vanished like a startled bird. This particular resupply was a great success as we were able to recover 90% of the rations. The rest were damaged when the tins burst open on impact sending the contents flying in all directions.

Other departures occurred when a native animal was spotted and out came the Army rifle for a bit of pot shooting. I allowed my batman to carry a loaded magazine in his webbing pouch and he was always behind me who in turn was behind the guide. I found shooting at tree tops difficult so it was Sergeant Guri who had the pleasure of shooting a hornbill and two tree kangaroos. It was terrible to see what a military 7.62mm bullet could do to the poor animal. It almost cut the animal in half. However the men enjoyed the fresh meat. My contribution to the fresh meat diet came when a bush pigeon about the size of a soccer ball walked out of the bush and across my path. Without thinking I did a lightning draw from the hip and shot the pigeon with my 9mm pistol, much to my surprise and the delight of the men. Pigeon soup for tea. The bird was gutted and cooked head, feet and feathers altogether in the pot.

Another departure occurred when the track led to a wide stream that had to be crossed. It was about 20 metres wide, murky brown of unknown depth and not fast flowing – a possible crocodile haunt. Normally the locals would have created a “rope” bridge out of the jungle vegetation on such a wide stream but it was non-existent. A tree had been felled across the stream but was 3 to 4 metres too short. How to cross the stream presented a problem similar to the practical tests for officer cadet selection. After a short discussion, a limb of the tree was hacked off and thrown over the gap to just reach the far bank. With a great deal of mirth the platoon went one by one across the tree and its limb before stepping into the shallow water on the other bank. The weight the soldiers carried on their back, and balancing their slung rifle, caused them to make an ungainly and gingerly walk over the unstable tree which was comical to watch as we all expected someone to fall into the stream. We had swimmers waiting on each bank to pull out anyone who fell in, however nobody did and we all crossed safely to have a good cup of tea on the far side.

The approach into Bulldog was on a track across a vast kunai grassed plain which was a wonderful change from the claustrophobic jungle. For some distance we followed the Lakekamu River, upon which we saw several canoes powered by outboard motors, and we forded several wide but shallow lesser rivers to arrive in Bulldog. There were a large number of dilapidated native houses and a disused war time airfield which contained a landing strip well over 500m long. The larger field was all covered to over head height with the kunai grass which was difficult to walk through and made the landing strip unusable. After we established our camp near one of the shallow creeks I went back to inspect the village and have a chat with the locals. All I found was a London Mission trained pastor, his wife and three children. I pointed out all the native houses and asked him where the rest of the people were. He replied in pidgin “mosquito i bin killim ol” That is, they had all died of malaria. I looked at the kiap’s village book and on the last visit by the kiap three years previously there had been a recorded population in excess of 100 people. Not all would have died of malaria as it is possible they may have migrated away from the mosquito infested area. But it made me aware of the dangers of the anopheles mosquito.

Our campsite was mosquito infested. At night I would climb into my bed, tuck my mosquito net in firmly about me; spray the inside with insect repellent and go to sleep. During the night, in my disturbed sleep, I would wake up to the sounds of the men slapping themselves. In the morning I would wake up to a mosquito net full of large fat mosquitoes and would entertain myself for a few minutes by reaching out of the netting and swatting the mosquitoes trapped inside until the netting ran red with my blood that they had been dining on. Each morning I took the net down to the creek to wash out the blood stains. It was my responsibility to make sure none of my men caught malaria, so the daily anti-malarial “paludrine pill parade”, in which I had to ensure everyone had taken his paludrine by physically putting the pill in the soldier’s mouth and watch him swallow it, became serious.

The platoon stayed at Bulldog for four days. The first day was a rest day. Hawkeye reappeared in his Cessna to bomb us on the disused airfield and resupplied the platoon with clothing and other personal stores that had been prepacked in Port Moresby and had gone to the company headquarters in Wau. I received my tin of “Big Sister” steamed pudding that was eaten with delight. The second day we received another food drop. This one was made by the RAAF who flew three Caribou aircraft over the landing strip and dropped the supplies by parachute. It was a magnificent spectacle to see the khaki coloured parachutes coming down over you. We recovered 100% of the rations dropped as they had hit the ground in a gentler manner than the Cessna’s bouncing bombs. I had not been previously briefed about a RAAF airdrop so apart from the wonderful surprise I was also stuck with the problem of what to do with the silk parachutes. I did not want to carry them as we were loaded to the hilt so I rather naively asked the Pastor if he could arrange for them to be shipped down the river to Port Moresby. I never saw them again and nobody in the Army asked me about them, so I assume the RAAF considered them written off. I hope the Pastor got good use of them.

On the second and third days I sent out half sections of 5 men under the command of their corporals, in a series of fan patrols, to seek the start of the Bulldog Road and the iron railway line, and to report on the characteristics of any native villages that they came across. The start of the Bulldog Road was found but not the railway. In the meantime I walked about the general area to keep myself amused as a tourist amongst the deserted gardens and houses. I found lots of iron pyrites in the creek beds and could understand why Bulldog was a gold mining centre. During this time the Pastor came to our camp carrying two hessian chaff bags full of pineapples. There were about thirty in each bag which we purchased for the princely sum of ten cents per pineapple. After peeling the skin off the pineapple with a machete the pineapple was eaten like a water melon with vertical slices rather than horizontal slices. It was a delicious treat that was enjoyed by all the men.

The fourth day was an enforced stay. Two injuries occurred whilst we were in Bulldog. Sergeant Guri had jumped from a log onto a stick which penetrated his rubber thong and about 1.5cm of his foot. His leg then became swollen. Private Koi swung at a vine with his machete and it bounced off and hit his leg 8 cm below the knee giving him a 5cm long gash 1 cm deep. Our platoon medic patched them up as best he could and they had to grin and bear their pain for the next section of the walk. These injuries meant that we had to spend a day longer in Bulldog than originally planned.

Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track, Nov/Dec 1967 -

When the wounded were considered able to walk, we set off for Wau. The Bulldog Road was easily discernible as at Bulldog it had a flat surface about 5 metres wide and had drainage channels about 30cm deep on either side. At times it had been cut into the low hills and at others it had been built up above the surface of the muddy ground. Its surface was mostly compacted soil but in some sections stones had been laid down. Secondary jungle growth had taken hold over the road so at times it was necessary to cut a small path through. Either side the secondary jungle was thick for about 10 metres. At various intervals were relics of its construction. Mostly old 44 gallon fuel drums with the occasional rusting iron of rejected equipment. At a point on the road where “Dead Chinaman”, a pre war mining centre, was shown on the map we found the remains of two jeeps; a bull dozer blade; several truck wheels and a winch. Dead Chinaman had also been a depot for the army engineers.

The road generally followed the Aiv Avi River which became the Eloa River and flowed fast enough to cause white water rapids along the way. Smaller creeks flowed into this river and had in places eroded the road’s surface. At other places wild pigs had been digging it up. Remnants of several old bridges across the major creeks were evident where the bridges had been washed away or collapsed.

Two days out from Bulldog we were having a 20 minute rest for morning tea on an elevated part of the track when we became aware of a fellow traveller going in the opposite direction. On a jungle track some 4 metres below us and 15 metres from where we were sitting, a local walked past clad in a grass “sporran” covering his private parts, “billis”(decorations) in his hair and around his neck; a string bag “billum” containing his goods in one hand and a bow and arrow in his other hand. He may have been a Kukukuku head-hunter but it did not matter. We watched in silence as he travelled on completely unaware of our presence and I wondered how many of the locals had done the same to us.

After Dead Chinaman the road began to rise so that we were able to look down the valley to where we had started. The road crossed the Eloa River twice and a few pieces of old manual gold mine sluicing equipment was littered along the banks of the river. The locals in the native villages also seemed to becoming less welcoming and their appearance became less tidy with fewer pidgin speakers and less European clothing worn by the men (that is cotton shorts) while the women wore the traditional grass skirts. Hawkeye, in his Cessna, re-supplied us once more by dropping the supplies in the wider Eloa River and we continued our walk up to the imposing foot hills of what was shown on the map as the Ekuti Dividing Range. The Bulldog Road was visible as a narrow scar across the mountains to the west when we made our camp near the Army Engineers “central camp”. To our right was the lowland, Kudjeri-Winima-Kaisinik, track to Wau – a shorter and easier path to Wau and why the Army Engineers did not build their road along this track is a question only they can answer. Perhaps it was subject to flooding.

The next morning we crossed the Eola River for the last time and began our ascent. The road was narrower having been cut into the mountain side and was covered in a very thick secondary jungle of closely spaced small trees as it received more sunlight than the lower section. This growth was so bad we had to cut our way through using the machete and in single file with each man taking his turn at the face. It was very slow progress. After hacking our way through this for over 6 hours we made camp and were able to look down on where we had made camp the previous night. It looked so close about a kilometre or so below us but the map allowed me to calculate that we had travelled a distance of just over 8 km. The next day was worse. I calculated that we had travelled a distance of less than 7km in 8 hours of walking and cutting. To make matters worse we lost radio contact with the company headquarters in Wau and could not reach Port Moresby. (I consider that the high steep mountain was deflecting the radio signal skywards.) The radio came with an aerial that was a length of wire that stretched about 30 metres and hung between two suitable trees. Using my compass we placed this wire in a north south orientation and then in an east west orientation along the road without any success. After several attempts I gave up and pressed on only trying again at our nightly camp site. On day three of our ascent, the road entered into a high alpine vegetation zone where green moss hung in metre long strips from what looked like dead trees and the ground was continually wet being covered in a low spongy type bush. Its condition began to deteriorate as mountain landslides had taken out large pieces of it and erosion from the numerous creeks had also cut the road. Below its surface it was stony having been cut into the bed rock. The road had swung east around the mountain side and we had the morning sun on our faces. There were very few trees and we were surrounded by low straggly scrub. Mid-morning we came across an area where a massive landslide had reduced the road to less than a metre wide for a distance of at least 80 metres on a steep mountain side which seemed like it was a cliff face. The map’s contour lines were so close and showed the mountain slope falling 800 metres over a horizontal distance of 400 metres. We edged our way rather gingerly along this ledge, crab walking with our backs to the wall until we passed the narrow section. Shortly we heard an aeroplane engine above us and watched fascinated as Hawkeye in his Cessna flew over our heads. Whilst we were watching and waving at him he got caught in an air pocket and his plane literally fell before our eyes. One minute he was above us and seconds later he was below us. Quite spectacular for us, but frightening for Hawkeye as he later cursed me and told me his plane had dropped 2000 feet on his altimeter. He may have seen us on the ledge and got distracted. I was scared on the mountain ledge. It must have been terrifying for the pilot.

Up went the radio aerial and our signaller was able to contact Hawkeye and I told him we were travelling alright and when we expected to be in Wau. His mission, to find the lost patrol of D Company, had been successful but he was not impressed with his sudden drop. Near this area as we were so high I looked back to the south and saw the Arafura Sea in the Torres Strait and 100 metres further on around a bend I could see the Pacific Ocean to the north east.

We made camp that night on a rocky ledge about 4 to 5 metres wide. It was bitterly cold as according to the map we were on the 3000 metre contour line near the peak of what the map showed as Mt Kumbak 3141 metre high. I thought the mountain was aptly named. There were no trees to make a comfortable bed or “haus” and we all slept under the stars on the road’s stone surface. It was so cold and to keep warm it was suggested that we sleep in pairs. I teamed up with Sergeant Guri and my batman, Private Waufahua. We slept together with me in the middle (I pulled rank) with a single hutchie as a ground sheet and our inflatable inserts put into the mattress cover under us and two hutchies over us. I also wore my two sets of jungle greens (my day pair and my night pair) in a vain attempt to keep warm and, invariably, one of the three inserts deflated during the night.

The next day we got up happy that our ordeal was almost over and began our descent into Wau. The descent was through alpine vegetation and the country became less stony with several fresh landslides revealing bright yellow and red clays. Radio contact was made with company head quarters in Wau and everything was going along pleasantly. That night we made camp in the old goldmining centre of Edie Creek and for the first time in 19 days I saw a white skinned man.

“Sandy” Mac (?) was the resident caretaker of the non-operating Edie Creek goldmine and he invited me around for tea that night. He was lanky and at least 185 cm tall with fair hair, a broad Scottish accent and an intelligent glint in his eyes. Why he chose to live in Edie Creek, I was not game to ask. In the evening I fronted up and Sandy’s “meri” (local female) served us pre dinner drinks of two stubbies of South Pacific Lager; a bowl of canned minestrone soup as a main course, and a dessert of day old baked bread and IXL plum jam before she discreetly retired to a rear room in the tin shanty. A meal I still remember with delight as eating brown rice for breakfast and dinner becomes tiresome. Whenever somebody complains about food or its cooking, the meal I shared with Sandy is immediately recalled. I had noticed the locals walking over the mines’ old tailing dumps and asked Sandy why they were doing this. He told me that they were specking for nuggets that had somehow got through the treatment process and often found pieces up to 10 grams in weight which Sandy would buy from them and then resell in Wau. Sandy was an amazing story teller and a remarkable man to my callow youth. The evening finished with a second glass of Scotch whiskey.

The next day, 6 December, we set off down the well-made gravel road to Wau. I was a bit dejected as my adventure was coming to an end, but the scenery was nice with a large river flowing rapidly down the deep hillside gorge to our left and a panoramic view down the valley. After about an hour Hawkeye had found us again and repeatedly flew over and then under us again in the river gorge. An hour later we were surprised to see two Army trucks and a jeep making their way up the valley. They had come to collect us and take us into Wau and through to Kaisinik, where we were quartered in the school grounds as the school had broken up for the summer holidays. The platoon climbed aboard the trucks and so ended the patrol for the men. Greg and I went in the jeep.

At Kaisinik I caught up with my fellow D Company officers as I was the last to arrive. We platoon commanders were quartered in the European school teacher’s residence where the teacher was in a rush to get away and back to Australia. He kindly suggested we help ourselves to his larder and his fridge as it would “all have gone rotten by the time he came back”. We feasted ourselves on his pate, cheeses, tinned mussels and cracker biscuits washed down by countless stubbies of beer.

Kaisinik was a lovely place and we spent four days there handing in our unspent ammunition, exchanging our old clothing for new and most of all resting and letting our bodies recover. Greg had befriended the mine manager of the New Guinea Gold Mining company and we officers enjoyed his company one evening whilst fine dining at the Wau Golf Club. I can not remember the actual meal, but it was normal officer’s mess fare: fresh soup of the day; a fresh bread roll; a choice of either beef, lamb, pork, chicken or fish, baked or grilled; four vegetables either baked, boiled or steamed; accompanied by a bottle of either claret, burgundy, moselle or Riesling wine; a choice of desserts with coffee and port to finish. Greg must have enjoyed his month in Wau while I was eating brown rice, and on one unforgettable occasion, tinned minestrone soup.

Greg had Volume 5 of the Official History of the Australian Army in WW2 “Kokoda to Wau” and we were able to read of the Japanese attack on Wau and its defence by the Australians at some of the actual sites of the battle encounters. It was a bitter and brutal struggle between the respective armies and I was glad that I was 25 years behind those times.

This patrol was a life changing experience. In hindsight we were fortunate in that 1967 was either a dry year or the wet season was late. I would not like to have done this walk if the ground had been muddied. Walking in calf deep mud is no fun and crossing fast flowing swollen creeks is dangerous. Greg had warned me to be prepared to do some wading and swimming but luckily we were spared those difficulties.

John Stringfellow
December 2016

Further reading suggestions from the author:

  • Major Henry (Jo) Gullett MC fought with the 2/6Bn near Kaisinik on the Jap Track to Lae. His book, “Not As A Duty Only”(Melbourne University Press 1976), I was told, is now required reading for all infantry officers. It is a wonderful story of his war exploits and later life as a politician.
  • Peter Ryan’s book “Fear Drive My Feet” (Duffy and Snellgrove 2001) is an account of his PNG wartime experiences at Wau and its surrounds. It is a good read of soldiering and trekking in PNG.
Editor’s Note:

Further photos from the web
To gain some appreciation of the terrain that was crossed by 11 Platoon, I have included a link to an article showing photos taken by a later expedition over the
Bulldog Track
in 1970.
The photos are at the end of the article.

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  1. I was a a Kiap stationed at Minj in the 1960’s and accompanied a PNG army, including the pipe band, “show the flag” patrol through the Western Highlands. It was led by then , I think, Lieutenant Greg Warland. We had some hilarious moments culminating in a final march of the pipe band in single file through the front door of my house and out the back door playing Scotland the Brave. I wonder where Greg is now.

  2. G`day John. You may or may not remember me. I was the WO2 at Murray Bks who was directed to organize day and week end flights to show the NS Sgts something of TPNG beyond the Army Bks. I seem to recall you went on several of my Charter flights perhaps to Rabaul, Goroka or Tapini. I read your Article with great interest. I am familiar with the pigeon you shot. Local people call it a Guria. Its official name is a Queen Victoria Crowned Pigeon. (Its one of the largest pigeons still in existence in the world.) On the Patrols I went on out of Wewak, we always carried a shotgun to shoot birds (especially gurias) as supplementary rations. They are excellent eating moist white fleshed.

    Your strong leadership shows through and confirms the selection team did well to select you for Offr Trg. Well Done John.

    cheers Dan

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