An entry in The Crocodile Prize
Buk bilong Pikinini Children’s Literature Award
DAY after day my ungko (mother) told me to avoid the Katoo falls for the river current was too strong and would harm or kill me.
But day after day I admired my big brother and sisters enjoying the Bovong River’s strong currents that flow beneath our home through a secured rock ditch full with rock holes that are full with water and falls that were not so steep.
I loved the river and the kids and so needed a single step to touch the river.
‘I am big and strong,’ I would tell myself looking at my muscles and body in the mirror. ‘But why mama cannot let me swim and play in the river?’
Our village, Siriang, is on the west bank of the mighty Bovong River in the Kupe Mountains and so the sun raises every morning and heats us, the village animals like dogs and our bush and gardens but still mama could not let me down to swim and play.
So every day when the sun raised high and the whole village begins shimmering I must be there in the village or the gardens running after mama under the heat of the sun.
Mama would be sweating and I would be hot and screaming for the cold river water but mama would not let me go. Mama would only bring me to the stream to drink water and bath on the kopero, a bamboo pipe carrying water for drinking or bathing from steep mountain streams.
From the Petekeng Hills the sun heats us every morning and the children of my village left me alone and crying and rush downhill to the Katoo falls and pools to bath in the cold mountain river that flows towards the blue sea faraway in Arawa where papa works.
‘Ungko, I want to bath in the river,’ I would cry but mama would say, ‘Ungko, you are too young and precious in my heart so I am not ready to lose you.’
Mama would kiss and hug me to calm me down but still I wanted to be in the river alone to play with the river just like all the elder village children do.
I cried when the children returned from the river singing jokes at me that I will be growing old in the village without knowing how to swim in the deepest part of the Katoo pool and ski down the cruellest of the Katoo falls.
‘There will be a boy in Siriang who will never see the river till he has grand children,’ the happy and freshly bathed would sing at me, ‘and we the children of Siriang hope and pray that his grand children will teach him how to swim down at the Katoo or out at the seas in Arawa.’
But I knew how to swim for I watched the way they paddled in the water using their tiny hands and legs against the river current. I also saw toads and frogs darting through water when I surprised them on the bush streams. So I was a swimmer in heart.
They followed after me and sang jokes at me. In tears I would press my open palms against my ears to avoid listening to their songs and run to mama in shame but they would follow on laughing till mama chased them away.
Then one morning suddenly the village fell asleep. All the adults and the children were not on the lawn singing and playing waiting for the sun to come for it was the mango season and all the children and parents had flu and so were in bed.
I was free from flu and was happy. Mama had flu and papa had flu. My elder brother and sisters had flu and they were sneezing in bed for it was the mango season that we all contracted flu from the flowering mango trees.
I was free and happy. Mama was down and the children who harassed me for not been with them down at the noisy Katoo were down, too. I was free for my minder mama was down and would ignore me for awhile.
So I played happily and waited for the sun to topple the Petekeng Hills. And when the sun was glaring high in the blue sky, just like the village children, I sneaked down to the river. It was now me and the brawling Bovong River; it was me against the might of the river, and without my mama’s eyes to scare me away.
I took a step to the banks of the mighty Katoo pool. I looked into the water, it was crystal clear and but I could not see the bottom of the pool. But I jumped in quietly. The cold penetrated my skin and I was fresh and paddling my legs and hands just like the children and the toads and the frogs.
I was moving and not sinking till I reached the opposite bank.
Happier than ever, I carefully climbed up the rock to the largest fall, to explore the foamy waters that falls with loud brawls, bumps and crushes against the rock beds and walls. It was beautiful and inviting me for a joy ride.
So I went in seated. The water snatched me swiftly from a pool down the primary fall. I was happy. It turned me round and round in a swirling pool for a few seconds and threw me into a larger fall. Down I went in a cloud of foamy water falling so heavy into an endless hole.
The moment my consciousness returned I was in the mother pool of Katoo exhausted and happy with the fun of the Bovong River. I swam to the banks and rested and rested for a second trial.
I was free and brave to take the Katoo on single handedly. I had taken the largest fall feared by all the children of Siriang.
I was an unsung river swimming and skiing hero of the Kupe Mountains in Bougainville.