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Lower Watut patrol 1973

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With the benefit of hindsight it was inadvisable and doomed to failure from the very beginning.

Tsili Tsili, Morobe province PNG

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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.

Lower Watut River

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.

Pindiu, Huon Peninsula

About GOF

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

26 responses »

  1. You certainly had an exciting time, GOF. It must be very satisfying to know you did make a difference to the lives of so many living in an undeveloped country. My old Milne Bay veteran mate often spoke fondly of the fuzzy wuzzy angels as the troops called the New Guinea stretcher bearers who saved so many lives. It’s good to know that you were able to return some payment on their behalf.

    • Although my intentions were good Snowy, I suspect my achievements were quite small.
      I think the “education” flowed in reverse, for they taught me so much about community, family, and how to live sustainably on this planet. The fuzzy wuzzy angels have some important messages to tell the rest of the world, if only it would slow down and listen.

  2. Well, we are all most certainly pleased that you managed to breath another day.

    I have always felt that Australia should be ashamed of the way we treated the peoples of New Guinea. I feel as though we always treated them like second class citizens in their own country and then just dumped them. What do we do for them today? Do we assist in anyway? It seems like the country we forget.

    • I can understand how you could form that opinion FD, because the real story of Australia’s involvement in PNG somehow got lost in the political grandstanding which surrounded the granting of Independence. Looking back on it now from a distance I think PNG was extremely fortunate having Australia to guide it’s transition literally from the stoneage to the 20th century in about 50 years.
      We were a benevolent colonial master which did everything possible to unite fragmented tribal groups into a coherent nation. One only has to look over the border to see the disgraceful mess that Indonesia has made of the western half of the island to fully appreciate the work we did in PNG.

      The United Nations forced Australia’s hand to grant early Independence to PNG and it was a remarkable achievement that we handed over a united and basically law-abiding country with a sound economic future in 1975.

      The shambles which resulted from corruption, mismanagement and the breakdown of law and order after that time should not be attributed to us.

      Every year since Independence we have continued to support PNG with hundreds of millions of dollars.
      Most of it, I would submit, poorly administered by both Australia and PNG with the result that the money is frittered away on projects that make no contribution to improving the lives of ordinary PNG village people.

      Apologies for the long-windedness FD.

      In short, be proud of Australia’s involvement. You have every right to be.

      PS. What Australia SHOULD be ashamed of today, is the blatant racial discrimination our High Commission in Port Moresby exercises towards PNG nationals who have genuine reasons to apply for visas to visit Australia.

      I think I’m done now. 3 pm…is that too early for a large glass of port? 🙂

  3. It sounds like you left a part of yourself in the Lower Watut, too.

  4. Interesting account, I didn’t know that you had been there for so long. PNG is one of the places on Earth I would most like to travel in…someday I will 🙂

    • I spent 12 years there fatcat. I hope you get to visit PNG one day, there are some stunningly beautiful places and welcoming people if you get off the beaten track. Just avoid the towns. They are dangerous lawless places.

  5. Totally fascinating. I can never hear enough from people who have actually been involved in projects like these…..have been on the ground and in amongst the people.

    From a distance (cue the music) all we ever hear is filtered through people/media for political-selfish-greedy reasons.

    It is nice to hear that people with truly good intentions were there, too.

    • Thank you Lauri. I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to work there during that period of history.
      I hesitate to write these historical pieces because there were so many other devoted well-intentioned field workers attached to Government or Christian Missions who would be more qualified to write them.

      Unfortunately aid projects around the world fail because there is a lack of committed workers who are actually prepared to get their hands dirty and do the field work, and where they are in place, funds are syphoned off by bureaucrats before it gets to them. I feel very strongly about this, and it was one of the reasons why I eventually decided to leave PNG.

  6. The response of the Lower Watut people reminds me of that of many Native Americans when they were visited by Christian missionaries and European traders. They said they were happy with the way their lives were, and they didn’t need any Bibles, guns, alcohol, or iron kettles. Unfortunately they were often forced to take these “gifts,” because it was felt they didn’t appreciate Western Civilization’s “improvements.”

    I am sorry you got sent off on a banana tree raft, GOF. It says something about your courage (or madness) that you actually got on the thing and floated back to safety.

    • This reception was atypical of most places in PNG. Perhaps I caught them on a bad day in a period of mourning or, being close to the wartime airfield, they might have had a gutfull of the behaviour of Europeans. I will never know.

      There was no alternative to rafting out…..planes only flew into Tsili Tsili irregularly when they were chartered to do so and there were no roads.

  7. Great story, as always, GOF! It’s so interesting to hear about history from the people who made it.

  8. wow! you are an adventurous one. i love fellow adventurous people. 🙂 great blog!

    • Thank you Christina and welcome to this mess that I call my blog.
      I am not a naturally adventurous person, but occasionally in life I have had adventurous situations thrust upon me despite all efforts to avoid them. 🙂

  9. I couldn’t peel my eyes from the screen on this one, GOF. It was like a really good suspense novel. It’s rare I get to hear about this part of the world. I’m glad that your party was not more aggressive in trying to help folks who did not accept it. The confluence of experiences among a tribe or village surely makes attitudes hard to change, but it sounds like, as you said, the Watut were doing just fine. Surely the people who wanted your help and their families are thanking you to this day – meeting them and the exchange of cultural understanding must have changed the world for the better in many ways.

    • Thanks Emmy…you are very kind. Many old folk in the Huon Peninsula will, like me, now look back with some affection on the various moments of cultural understanding and cultural misunderstanding which we shared almost forty years ago.

  10. Beautiful work, GOF, and as always I think there is a fantastic book just waiting for you to gather all the bits together.

    I too think Oz has plenty to be pleased about in our post war record. In those days we actively encouraged the countries around Asia to become independent. Much to the frustration of the Americans who wished to become the new colonial owners. Sadly these days we run around kowtowing to the US instead of thinking things through and both sides of our politics are guilty of this new misbehavior.

    • Thank you for the vote of confidence Peter, and I think that Australia has every right to feel proud of the leg-up it gave PNG before it declared Independence in 1975.

      We were strictly accountable for every dollar of taxpayers money which we spent. This is no longer the case for a lot of the hundreds of millions of dollars we throw into the PNG misappropriation and corruption pit as “foreign aid”.

      • Michael Somare seems to have had several trips to the trough since the Aid has been less regulated. Sad to see self interest come before the well being of the nation but it’s hardly unusual.

        • Yes, he started off as a highly principled activist for Independence and village development and somewhere along the way got tempted by the distractions that appeared on the side of the road. Village people ended up being the big losers.

  11. I love your tales of your time in PNG . Like most of us have said before, you have a book trying to burst out of you. I was really interested in your response to FD – I learnt very little really about PNG’s track to independence.

    • Thank you Emjay for reading the story as well as my verbose response to FD.
      The enforced rapid transition to PNG self-government then Independence was handled in a manner that Australia should be proud of. There was no uprising or civil unrest within PNG, and attending the Independence day ceremony was one of the most moving experiences of my life.
      Not a dry eye under the raintrees as the Aussie flag was lowered to be replaced by the brand new PNG flag.


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