With the benefit of hindsight it was inadvisable and doomed to failure from the very beginning.
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(As background for new readers, the often dangerous “coalface” ground work carried out in Australia’s colonial administration prior to New Guinea’s Independence in 1975 was done by young Patrol Officers (kiaps).
After initial “pacification” was established by the kiaps, Health Officers and Rural Development Officers (didimen) such as myself then entered the field in an attempt to improve living standards for village people.)
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Just as Papua New Guinea has more than 700 languages,
so also does it have a vast number of variations in social customs and practices.
Some villages and clans during Australia’s colonial presence welcomed outsiders and assistance from development agencies, whilst others shunned them either because of tribal pride or negative past experiences with foreigners.
My years prior to this Lower Watut debacle had been spent working in other areas where the people had traditions of hospitality toward travelers. I had become accustomed to conducting week-long foot patrols alone, trekking between villages carrying just a backpack without the need for a full-time guide or interpreter.
The people in these other communities had always looked after me with food and accommodation because they were eager to find ways to start making money or to learn about things which might improve their standard of living. (eg. polythene pipes to bring water into the heart of the village from a distant creek.)
Not so in the Lower Watut.
Accompanied only by an older native didiman assistant from another district, and the self-assuredness that attaches itself to men of my then 24 year-old vintage, on the 5th March 1973 I flew by chartered Cessna into the old wartime airstrip at TsiliTsili where the aircraft eventually clattered to a halt on the perforated-steel marsden matting surface.
At a meeting with villagers that night it became obvious that this patrol was not going to be a pleasant excursion.
The people had zero interest in whatever services my assistant and I were offering on behalf of the Government.
In response, I unwisely mirrored their contempt.
It was a potentially dangerous situation.
The aircraft had long ago departed back to Lae town airport and we had no means of communicating with “civilisation” to get it back again.
After several hours of negotiation and payment of money to them, the village leaders grudgingly agreed that a couple of the younger men would construct a raft to get the two of us out of their lives by sending us floating off down the snaking Watut River past Wuru and Wuruf to it’s confluence with the Markham from where we could access the “Highlands Highway” and hitchhike our way back to Lae.
The raft was built from banana plant stems lashed together with kunda bush rope. The result being a raft which “floats” in a semi-submerged fashion, but more under the water than on top of it.
Floating down the river for two days was a memorably uncomfortable experience which included a moment of misadventure which brought me the closest I have ever been to prematurely meeting my maker.
The raft, perhaps by design, kept breaking apart, the mosquitos were ferocious during the overnight camp on the river bank, and the sunburn unbearable during the day.
Early on the second morning after floating rapidly around a bend in the river we were both knocked off the raft by a low overhanging tree.
I can remember being trapped underneath the raft with my already bruised head bumping up against it’s underside.
To this day I have no recollection of how I extricated myself and found my way to the muddy river bank to hear the welcome sound of my partner yelling out to me from further downstream.
Here is a more recent picture which I just purloined from the net, of much larger rafts on the Lower Watut River.
I don’t have any warm feelings for the people or landscape of the Lower Watut. I do however accept my responsibility and stupidity for initiating this doomed venture without adequate planning or regard for my own safety.
No doubt the Lower Watut people remain proud, noble and self-sufficient to this day, and will survive long into the future without intervention from people like me.
Accordingly, for this they have my respect.
Shortly after this experience I was posted to the Huon Peninsula where I happily spent my remaining six Papua New Guinea years working amongst some of the most likeable, hospitable and industrious people you could ever expect to find on this planet.
Thirty two years after returning to Australia a very large chunk of my heart remains there.
Perhaps one day part of my final remains will return to that place where I always felt at home and among friends.