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New Guinea recollections. (Part 2 of 8)

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 South Wapei Patrol 1970

I should firstly acknowledge that Christian organisations and their missionaries with practical skills deserve much of the credit for providing improved services such as health and education, to village people in many of the remote areas of Papua New Guinea.

The Australian Government's mandate was to firstly explore uncharted territory, pacify warring tribes and headhunters, then rapidly improve infrastructure and services throughout the country in preparation for PNG's eventual Independence as a nation.

On the ground that process was led by "Kiaps" the Australian patrol officers who can now look back on a proud, meritorious and often heroic history in PNG.  They often put their lives on the line on a daily basis.  From 1950 to 1977 there were 18 recorded incidents of patrols being attacked by natives.  Fifteen Kiaps were killed in the line of duty from 1950 to 1977. (not all from ambush incidents)

Once areas had been officially pacified by the Kiaps, Medical personnel and "Didimen" (rural development officers like the writer) were introduced to do their own field patrols to identify and implement ways to rapidly improve the standard of living of the people who were often malnourished and sick with malaria and other parasites.

We would walk from village to village, on the way gathering information about sociology, geography, soil and vegetation types, then sit down at night with everyone in the meeting house to learn about their social aspirations and priorities for future development.  Comprehensive "Patrol Reports" were then compiled and sent to our Port Moresby headquarters for analysis and evaluation.

The task of economic and social development in places like the South Wapei was daunting.  The vast flood plains which drain into the upper Sepik River are not traversible at all during the wet season, and at other times the walking distances as notated below make any sort of life improvement extremely difficult for these sparse populations of people.
They had no roads, communications with the outside world, education or health facilities.

Some financial income was remitted by men who had been "recruited" by labour agents and shipped off to work on private coconut and cocoa plantations near Rabaul on the more developed island of New Britain. Small amounts of cash were also earned locally from selling salted crocodile skins.

A large percentage of the adult men were away working for years at a time, leaving behind a legacy of family and social disruption, and a disproportionate burden of village work on the shoulders of women, young people, and the old folk.

Our foot patrols involved packing all food, bedding and medicine (most important were anti-malarial tablets and antibiotic ointment and powder to treat infected wounds and tropical ulcers) into galvanised or black steel trunks.

Carriers were recruited from the nearest village, (sometimes against their wishes) and they lashed the patrol boxes onto long bush poles using kunda (vine rope)….one carrier at each end of the pole.

The Government payment rate for carriers was set at 10 cents per hour.
We also carried blocks of tobacco.  Twisted greasy tobacco leaf  sticks which were glued together with molasses to make a single heavy block. 
Tobacco, rather than cash was sometimes preferred by the carriers as payment for their work. 
We also traded tobacco for fresh food supplies along the way.

Our patrol box contents also included old copies of Sydney's broadsheet newspaper which we distributed to people who tore them into appropriately sized sheets to wrap the untwisted, dried and cut tobacco and made "cigarettes".

August 1970.   (Blue represents journal entries)

Lumi to Bulawa;
Commencing from Lumi patrol post in the foothills of the Torricelli mountain range in the West Sepik (now Sandaun Province) walking south towards the middle reaches of the Sepik River.
" 6 hours walk to Bulawa village following the rocky river bed and crossing the Gwenif River 41 times"

Domestic servant/fixer/part-time interpreter Fortel (with gun) and a meal of fish and hornbills at Bulawa village.

Bulawa to Abrau;  
7 hours through alternating steamy lowland forest and "kunai" grassland.
" Abrau village deserted, roof of rest house removed by storm at night"

Abrau to Yakeltim;

                                          Patrol in state of shambles (top picture) following canoe capsize.

Village leader with Goura pigeons from hunting expedition.
Children with big bellies, the primary symptom of kwashiorkor.
(acute childhood protein malnutrition)

Abrau to Norambalip and Yegerapi;
12 hours walking time, then a village meeting at night to discuss strategies for marketing crocodile skins.
Mosquitoes so tiny here that they get through mosquito bed-net mesh.

Yegerapi to Yowari;

" 12 hours walk. Depart 7 am crossing endless kunai swamplands and following pig tracks into Yowari at 7 pm."

Semi-permanent floating foot paths had been constructed in the flooded kunai grasslands. They were made from split palm trunks cut  from the adjacent woodlands.  The planks were laid end to end across the "teis" (swamp) and floated on top of the mud.

"Yowari women and children fled into the bush at first sighting of the patrol's arrival, returning later at night".

The Yegerapis were not on friendly terms with the Yowaris and the carriers, fearing sorcery being applied to them if they camped at Yowari overnight, chose to immediately turn around and walk the 10 hours back home by moonlight.

Yowari to Kernam;

" Eleven hours in heavy rain.  Kwieftim village carriers deserted, found substitutes"

Kernam to Lumi;
" Depart Kernam 5.45 am to Parisko on an overgrown bush track thence via Taute to Lumi 6 pm"

Lumi was the closest Government Patrol Post providing services to the people of the South Wapei. The Catholic Church, (Franciscans) and the protestant Christian Missions in Many Lands also had establishments at Lumi.
The CMML had an additional staff member at their Yellow River base, close to the Sepik River.

(For access to all stories in this series click the "view my tags" link on the right of screen then click "png history")

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About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

16 responses »

  1. Fascinating stuff, GOF. A lot of unsung heroes contributed to PNG progress. No doubt, the shiny bums safely ensconced in their air conditioned offices took all the credit, as is usual.

  2. Thanks for reading it Snowy.The really good thing about the PNG Dept Of Agriculture, Stock and Fisheries then was that it had a priority for field staff, and relatively few useless bureaucrats. All our bosses had earned their positions after years of service in remote locations and accordingly we had the greatest respect for them.Perhaps our politicians and Public servants in Canberra took undeserved credit for what was happening in PNG.

  3. GOF- that is so interesting and something that I previously knew nothing about. Are the pictures taken by you? Are the words in blue from a journal you kept? How long did you work in that capacity?

  4. All that walking in the rain and the mud and the heat … and then the tiny mosquitoes. Sounds like "fun?" But a necessity.On a side note – I thought the normal state of a canoe was capsized, all the ones I've ever tried to use were that way.

  5. Gold.I have to ask though, did you end of with malaria? Lots of soldiers came back home with it and suffered for years. Even when I was in Mt Tom Price in the early 70's we had folk working with us who had contracted it in PNG. They were still getting flare ups years later.

  6. Thank you for your interest F.S. Yes, all photographs in this series were taken by me…. I have chosen to post them here before they deteriorate completely.It was compulsory to keep a daily journal partly because as we worked alone it provided our distant boss with some evidence that we were actually doing our jobs. It also was handy proof that we were doing our jobs if political questions were asked about us in Parliament.I worked in this job for 12 years from 1968…..loved it….the best job in the world (for me).

  7. Sounds like "fun?"Ahhh…when you are young and stupid all this sort of stuff is fun GOM 🙂 I thought the normal state of a canoe was capsized, all the ones I've ever tried to use were that way.They always seemed like an unnatural mode of transport to me.

  8. did you end of with malaria?Several times Pete….even taking the anti-malarials weekly did not prevent it, and on one occasion half delirious I almost overdosed myself on quinine or whatever was in the little orange pills.Some years ago Mrs GOF visited PNG for a month and took all the precautions, then 11 months after returning here she got malaria. Our local doctor with no experience in the disease would not believe our insistence that she had malaria…..he eventually relented so she could have the blood test.Positive result…then the whole health system flew into overdrive with priority treatment…..apparently they don't want malaria to be introduced into Australia

  9. Wow. Lucky you knew what it was.It must be (or was) prevalent up there.

  10. This is so freaking cool and yet, I've actually got the faintest, foggiest idea of how hot, long, tedious this was. Crikey.I wouldn't hold up but it's an amazing thing you were a part of. "Holy shit" is all I can say.

  11. That is amazing that you did it for that long and actually enjoyed it. I am not sure how that was possible but I am glad you came through the malaria bouts OK. What a great story and your pictures are wonderful!

  12. it's an amazing thing you were a part ofWe didn't realise it at the time m-t. It was just a job and a wonderful adventure.The world no longer has many opportunites like that.

  13. This is absolutely fascinating. As GOM has mentioned; there seems to have been a lot of walking through rivers and swamps. The photos are a great record and well worth the effort in trying to save/restore them. Why did you stick the tobacco leaves together with molasses? And was the molasses then removed somehow? (or what did you use molasses sodden leaves for?)(BTW we have malaria here in DC. 50-100 cases a year are acquired locally from indigenous malaria-carrying mosquitoes)

  14. Thanks Emjay.The tobacco was a commercially made product. Each individual stick of tightly wrapped leaf was about a foot long and the thickness of a finger. I have forgotten how many sticks comprised a block….maybe 100….the molasses was just some sort of binding agent to hold all the sticks together as they were compressed into the carton size. Maybe the molasses added some flavour to the smoke. I tried a few times to smoke the stuff, but it was way too powerful for someone raised on Alpine brand cigarettes. :-)Interesting that you have malaria in DC. I guess US health authorities must also be concerned about the possibility of more widespread outbreaks.


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