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Anthrax. Another New Guinea memory.

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The portly government recruiting bloke in Australia warned me that the job I’d applied for as an Agricultural Officer in Papua New Guinea would involve unique challenges and responsibilities.
And so it proved to be…..time and time again during my 12 years working there.
I’d only been in PNG for a few weeks when this event happened;
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I was nineteen years old when I found myself in charge of one of the most remote agricultural extension stations in Papua New Guinea. Lumi in the West Sepik District. No roads to the outside world, and all supplies were flown in from Wewak once a week on a chartered Piaggio or Cessna ‘push-pull’ aircraft.

No telephones either. Just a crackly HF radio sched each morning which delivered the following telegram from my boss in Vanimo;
“OUTBREAK OF ANTHRAX IN PIGS REPORTED AT RAUIT, BOGASIP AND ANGUGANAK VILLAGES STOP PROCEED AT YOUR EARLIEST TO VACCINATE ALL DOMESTIC PIGS STOP VACCINE ON NEXT GOVERNMENT CHARTER STOP’
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Pigs are a highly valued asset in PNG village culture.
My journal entry for Monday 24 June 1968 reads simply;
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“Departed 10.30 am to Rauit village for anthrax vaccination of pigs. Arrival Rauit 6.30 pm. Overnight Rauit.”
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Now God knows what the village elders thought of us earnest well-intentioned lily-white overgrown children from Australia who were scurrying around their tribal lands ineptly pushing forth barrows full of Western superiority and magic potions delivered with administrative aggrandisement. My own ineptitude on this occasion;
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1. I hadn’t been in PNG long enough to acquire a working knowledge of Melanesian tok pisin, the lingua franca necessary to tell the good folk of Rauit that I was about to poke holes in their pigs with sharp objects. Fortunately a Persian anthropologist was living nearby and able to translate.

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2. I’d never previously administered an injection to anything or anybody, but I thought I’d once seen a vet do it to a cow somewhere.

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3. I had zero knowledge about anthrax. Obviously a rare failure of the Australian agricultural college curriculum. No books or library to look it up. No internet. To this day I do not know if pig anthrax can be spread to humans or if I should have taken any personal precautions whilst administering the vaccine. I spent three days from sparrow-fart to sundown ‘shooting’ hundreds of domesticated pigs with my new fancy veterinary equipment, so I’m assuming either the disease was relatively harmless or I have natural immunity to anthrax.
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Now, one more little thing…… “Departed 10.30 am to Rauit….arriving 6.30 pm” is a statement which totally overlooks the degree of technical difficulty involved.

Getting to Rauit village was not some sort of air-conditioned cruise down the freeway in a Mustang with a Camel cigarette hanging out of my mouth and Hank Marvin and The Shadows twanging away in the quadraphonic speakers. It was a project best left to idiots  people like me who were being adequately remunerated for all the effort and inconvenience. Fifty six dollars per week plus 65 cents camping allowance for every night when we didn’t make it home again.
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Stage One; Lumi to Anguganak. Anguganak Missionary Station was 25 kilometres from Lumi on what we sarcastically referred to as the Sepik Highway. In fine weather it took one hour riding the Government issue Honda 90 motor bike, but on this day, like many others, the journey took several hours.
With every shower of rain the wheels jammed up with sticky mud until they would no longer rotate. The rocky fords at the four major river crossings were so deep that water flowed back up the exhaust pipe, instantaneously killing the engine. Recovery procedure as follows;
Curse and gesticulate.
Push bike over slippery boulders to other side of the river.
Curse extravagantly. Arms too tired for gesticulating.
Dismantle engine and pump water out of cylinder with kick start.
Curse with greater originality and cranked-up volume.
Spray Jesus Juice (CRC) on all parts and reassemble.
Repeatedly push bike up nearest hill and roll back down in gear until engine eventually fires up again. (allow 30 minutes to 1 hour for each river)
(Travel tip; Stop swearing and referring to CRC as ‘Jesus Juice’ before arriving at any missionary station.)

Stage Two; Walk to Rauit.   Leave motor bike with the good missionary folk at Anguganak, then zig-zag walk for an hour up the vertical escarpment behind the station before sloshing through the jungle for another hour to Rauit village.
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I treasure all these memories of what was a wonderful chapter in my life.
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Pictures below; Apologies for crap quality. Not my fault. Almost half a century of fungus and fading did it.
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'Sepik Highway' near Lumi 1968.  Many years later is actually became a graveled highway to the coast at Wewak.

‘Sepik Highway’ near Lumi 1968. Many years later is actually became a graveled highway to the coast at Wewak.

Rocky ford at Keifangu River. Motor bike on far side.

Rocky ford at Keifangu River. Motor bike on far side.

 

Walking up the Anguganak escarpment.

Walking up the Anguganak escarpment.

 

On top of the bluff...mission station far below near the river.

On top of the bluff…mission station far below near the river.

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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)

26 responses »

  1. Without the motorbike the trip would have taken six hours? lol

    Reply
  2. What I needed was a little helicopter but the Government wouldn’t come to the party. 🙂

    Reply
  3. It’s no wonder young GOF stayed slender, toting motorbikes about the hilly countryside.

    Have they invented the snowshoe equivalent for muck yet?

    Reply
    • “Have they invented the snowshoe equivalent for muck yet?”

      I think New Guineans found the answer thousands of years ago….bare feet. 🙂

      Reply
      • I have sunk almost to my knees in bare feet–you’re talking to a hillbilly!

        http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0615746055/ref=mw_dp_mdsc?dsc=1

        Almost everybody raised in at least my time on back went barefoot unless in church. We even went to town barefoot, hence signs in shop windows ‘no shoes, no service.’ You’d have to get somebody going inside to lend you shoes or get what you needed–or to ask special permission for you!

        I can remember telling my mammy, ‘It says no shoes and I don’t have any’ when we were going into a grocery. She said, ‘they don’t mean children.’

        HAR!

        Reply
        • Your feet aren’t big enough MT. 🙂 Many PNG locals have enormous flat feet size/weight ratio and lots of older folk have their big toes wrenched almost at right angles to their feet after lifetimes of walking through mud and hooking onto tree roots for traction.

          That’s a bit sad about bare-foot discrimination. It’s quite common in Cairns to see people walking bare-foot around streets and shopping centres and shops wouldn’t dare to refuse service (except food and beverage outlets who could probably claim public health reasons if it came to legal argument)

          Reply
  4. And btw humans can get anthrax from animals in that it enters the human body via breath, eating or spores landing in an open wound … BUT I never heard if anthrax in pigs. This could be yet another thing right in front of me that just never clicked but I’d only heard of it for sheep, cattle and humans. Further advice would be needed.

    Glad you didn’t breathe deeply back then!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your knowledge MT…..I’m almost scared to look it up on the internet. I was never given any instruction or warnings at the time. These days with all the workplace health and safety regulation probably only a fully qualified vet with protective gear could do this sort of work. I’m glad I did it anyway…..if Mrs GOF ever needs vaccinating I’m her man. 🙂

      Reply
      • HAR!

        We vaccinated cattle and dogs but again, I can’t recall doing the few sheep, lots of hogs or goats. We MAY have the mules and horses but I only remember having to help hold when they shoved (literally) horse pills into them when they got sick. There’s a long metal plunger thing in a steel tube that you rocket the pill down their gullet (horses don’t have gullets, it’s an expression).

        Horses didn’t like it at all, lemme tell ya.

        Reply
        • I’m voting with the horses here.
          One thing we were taught at ag college was how to use a trochar and cannula to relieve bloat in dairy cows…….thump a metal tube through their sides directly into the rumen to let the gas out…..all without anaesthetic. Perhaps procedures have evolved since then.

          Reply
  5. When I’m dictator after the coming revolution, GOF, I’m going to have a special medal struck for folk like you who did an important job under extremely difficult circumstances. Shouldn’t be long now after a certain federal budget…

    Reply
    • Thank you Snowy for your dictatorial generosity. We certainly were conscientious little buggers although the jury is probably still out deciding whether or not we provided any long-term benefit.

      Reply
  6. Well I’m sure I could’ve sproinged around the hillsides too if I was 19 years old and weighed 40kg. Look at you, ya scrawny beanstalk.

    Em gutpla stori tru.

    Reply
    • Tenkyu tru pikinini blo mi. I was still sproinging around at age 31, but unlike one other as pas meri in more recent times I didn’t try to lug a bloody 40kg backpack around with me. 🙂

      I’m still the same weight……it’s just the distribution that’s changed. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Shaking my head in amazement! Is there anything we couldn’t do when we were young?
    Great story!

    Reply
  8. OMGoodness that’s sounds BRUTAL. A job for the young and stupid! 🙂

    Reply
    • It was a great big adventure for all of us youngsters….if we’d had wiser heads on our shoulders we could have been a lot more useful.

      Reply
  9. I had to look up the details Gof and you should probably stop reading now. Not easy to pass on human to human, but if you encounter the airborne variety (which apparently loves hot humid conditions), it’s fatal.

    Sounds like PNG would be very inviting.
    For Anthrax.

    Reply
    • Thanks for doing the research Peter. I guess the symptoms should have shown up by now. 🙂
      It must have been a mild strain of the disease because I never heard of any villagers contracting the it, but who knows…..I was obviously ignorant of many things at the time.

      Reply
  10. Holy crap, I’ve vaccinated cows and sheep but pigs absolutely terrify me. How do you even hang onto their barrel belly shapes long enough to inject them? I’m going to sound like an idiot if I’m wrong but I beleive anthrax spores are only airborne. I can tell you one thing, lucky you weren’t vaccinated. It may be alarmism but I’ve read all out horror stories about the side effects. I met one military gal who was vaccinated, and she seemed fine although very thin. Not that it meant anything. I actually loved the photos. I thought they were at night and just beautiful – very special.

    Reply
    • Thank you Emmy for the comment and sharing your knowledge. I never thought twice about the vaccination project at the time. All the pigs were domesticated….almost family pets, and there were plenty of villagers around to restrain them. Sounds like it was good that I didn’t accidentally vaccinate myself during the process.

      Reply

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