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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;
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;
Pigs are a highly valued asset in PNG village culture.
My journal entry for Monday 24 June 1968 reads simply;
“Departed 10.30 am to Rauit village for anthrax vaccination of pigs. Arrival Rauit 6.30 pm. Overnight Rauit.”
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;
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.

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.

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.
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.
I treasure all these memories of what was a wonderful chapter in my life.
Pictures below; Apologies for crap quality. Not my fault. Almost half a century of fungus and fading did it.


'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.

Lae – Horn Island – Brisbane 1978

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P2-WKD at Pindiu ….with my apologies for having scanned transparency as a mirror image.

In 1978 our nineteen year old Cessna 182 had to be ferried from PNG to Brisbane for it’s mandatory major overhaul, a procedure which required 2 weeks of dismantling, primping and pampering in Mr Curley’s Archerfield airport workshop.

Even before I got hold of her and treated her like a farm truck, P2-WKD had won no beauty pageants.  In 1978 the  exterior  looked like a mongrel dog who’d been in one too many junkyard scraps.

One sniff inside the cabin was enough to remind you of what cargo this aircraft had carried in recent times;  jute bags full of cabbages and coconuts jammed in from floor to ceiling, pigs, chooks, cows (alive and dead), fish (alive and dead), kerosene, engineering parts for waterwheels and micro-hydro electricity installations, one deceased person, and a live tribal warrior with an axe half-buried in his skull.

The flight time to Brisbane was 16 hours with 8 refuelling stops along the way as a precaution against strong headwinds, and an overnight break in Cairns.  It was a memorable trip for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, my friend and co-pilot Robert was at the time undergoing training for his Instrument Flight Rating, so despite my frequent protestations involving selections from GOF’s Dictionary of Bad Language, he still insisted on diverting to and through the middle of every little bit of cloud he could find along the way just to get some extra practise and hours to enter into his pilot’s logbook.

Not being a born aviator, my idea of safe flying (i.e. keeping the wings level and the wheels permanently pointing towards the ground, a position in which they tend to be most useful) involved two primary instruments.
My left eye and my right eye.

Robert wanted to put his faith in the ancient little cluster of steam gauges in front of him, and the Lear direction-finding radio, a relic from World War 2 which I knew could be as reliable as a blind alcoholic butcher performing cut-price circumcisions.

Rob must have known what he was doing, for we arrived safely and he eventually ended up flying jets around the world, whilst I discovered my true destiny and contentment back on terra firma growing tropical vegetables and decorative garden plants.

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The most memorable part of this journey was the Customs and Immigration procedure at Horn Island which is Australia’s most northerly entry point for light aircraft.

All International air travelers arriving at major airports in Australia during the 1960’s and 70’s will undoubtedly remember that before disembarking they had to wait in their seats until they, and the cabin, had been thoroughly fumigated by a uniformed man discharging numerous aerosol cans of insecticide.

Prior to departing PNG, Robert and I had been advised by other more experienced pilots;
When you arrive at Horn Island, whatever you do, DON’T OPEN THE WINDOW of the plane before the Customs/Quarantine Officer gives you permission to do so.
Flight Service in Weipa will have advised him of your estimated arrival time at Horn Island, so he’ll be waiting for you.”

Right. No opening windows. We understand Australia is serious about not allowing malaria-carrying mosquitoes past it’s borders.

Arrival at Horn Island. Midday, Day 1

At around 10 degrees south of the equator, Horn Island is seriously hot and humid at the end of summer. We taxied to the parking bay, stopped the engine and waited.

And waited.

There was only one other aircraft, a Britten Norman Trislander, parked on the other side of the airfield.

No movement anywhere.

No sign of life in the ‘Terminal/Customs Office” which was about the same size as Beyonce’s walk-in wardrobe.

We waited,……… and we broiled and felt nauseous from the sickly rotting sauerkrauty smell coming from beneath the seats.

We were just discussing how long it might take to run out of oxygen when a nondescript gentleman arrived at the airport in an old car and a cloud of dust.  He wandered nonchalently out towards us. He was wearing daggy shorts, thongs (the footwear variety) and a tee-shirt which thankfully supported a “Customs and Immigration” badge.

He tapped on the window and said “What the hell are you two silly buggers doing inside there with the windows shut…..y’know it’s bloody hot out here today.”

We presented passports, signed a few pieces of paper, refuelled, then headed off into the southerly gale towards Iron Range.

To this day I do not know if we had been ‘set up’ by pilot pranksters, or if there was indeed a pile of skeletons with single bullet holes in their heads buried in a nearby mass grave…….the only remains of pilots who had dared to open their windows prematurely.

Border security today is much tighter in an effort to combat the smuggling of people, weapons and drugs between PNG and Australia.

We have sadly lost much of our innocence and relaxed attitude towards life during the last 34 years.

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(Other stories about flying in Papua New Guinea may be found by clicking the  ‘aviation’  tag  near the bottom of the sidebar on this page.)