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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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A tribute to P. A. Yeomans

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Your blogger has had an involvement in agriculture and horticulture for the past 40 years. Farming is an honorable profession.  Australian agriculture has much to be proud of in terms of supplying the nation and the world with food.  Nevertheless its record of caring for the environment has often been less than optimum. As a nation during the past 200 years we have introduced plagues of rabbits, cane toads, prickly pear cactus, and bureaucrats.
During the 1960's and 70's Australian farmers literally went berserk clear- felling huge expanses of native bushland in order to establish farms.   As a result, much of the continents fragile soil was eroded either by wind or water.  Huge dust storms swept across the country carrying precious topsoil and depositing it in the oceans.

Today, Australias Murray-Darling river system is a disgrace to the nation.  Farmers have been given permission by past Governments, to completely block its tributaries to provide irrigation water for crops totally unsuited to Australias semi-arid regions.  (eg cotton and rice),  and been given almost unlimited pumping rights for other crops.  During 2007 the Darling river stopped flowing completely as did the mouth of Australias largest river, the Murray, allowing saltwater inundation to destroy fragile flora and fauna habitats.  It was convenient for officials to blame this occurrence on an extended drought.  The truth I suspect is that Government officials over the past 50 years have failed to recognise water as a finite resource and regulate its usage accordingly.
Additionally many thousands of hectares of good farming land in Eastern and Western Australia is now unusable because of salination…..the result of unsuitable irrigation practices.

P.A. Yeomans (1905-1984) was a geologist turned farmer during the 1940's and 1950's.  (The writer would like to apologise for any factual errors as he is relying on memory)   He was a man who devised sustainable systems for farming long before anyone else saw the necessity of doing so.   His geological experience enabled him to design a farm planning model almost totally opposite to conventional agriculture at the time.  He was derided by Government officials and many conventional farmers alike.
Yeomans designed the "Keyline System" of farming detailed in his book "The Challenge of Landscape".  Tradition had it that farm water storages be placed at the lowest point of a farm then pumped back uphill to irrigate.  Yeomans found out that by placing smaller water storages as high up on the property as possible, and often on ridgelines, he could divert rainfall runoff from the valleys out to the ridges using contoured and  grassed water channels.  This system prevented soil erosion, increased absorbtion of rainwater into the soil, and reduced the need for subsequent irrigation, which, if required could be done by gravity flow from his higher water storages.  It was revolutionary thinking, which he proceeded to prove and  put into practice on 3 large grazing properties in New South Wales.
Additionally he retained or planted wide strips of trees to improve the farms micro climate, when accepted practice was to bulldoze vegetation.  He did not plough large areas of soil leaving it vulnerable to erosion, but deep- ripped his grazing land to open up compacted soils and gradually integrate organic matter into them, increase rain penetration, and improve micro-biological activity in the soil.  He judged his success by observing the huge increase in earthworm numbers in his soils.
The Permaculture movement of the world now recognise these practices as part of their system of sustainable agriculture.

P.A  Yeomans should be remembered as an innovator and intelligent custodian of our fragile earth.  In the 21st century, farmers can no longer afford to ignore the lesson he showed the nation 50 years ago.     The bureaucrats who failed to recognise the value of his work should now take a look at the Murray and Darling Rivers, and bow their heads in collective shame.

The world contains too many parasitic non-achievers wielding power far in excess of their knowledge and abilities, and not enough intelligent and innovative doers getting their hands dirty. (literally and/or figuratively)

P.A. Yeomans, you deserve the greatest honour for being an outstanding caretaker of mother Earth.

The German physicist Max Planck (1885-1947) is quoted as saying;
A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.

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