‘I need to call in to the Mission tomorrow,’ I said to the skipper.
‘Okay Taubada. Quick way - straight up this channel. Leave early, we go with tide. Be there when the sun overhead.’
‘What about the main channel? How long will that take?’
‘We go out to sea first. Then we enter channel. Then we be pushing upriver but tide coming down. Maybe we get there in dark. But weather is okay.’
The skipper was a crusty old Kiwai, born to a sea-going life and long experienced as crew in small government coastal ships. Now he was skipper of this half-cabined work-boat named Urunga after the NSW north coastal town where it was built.
It was of rugged twin-skinned construction, slow and able to carry all cargo and personnel for a patrol visiting villages in the rivers and coasts and mud islands of this part of southern Papua New Guinea.
We were in the wide delta of the Bamu River, in the Western Province of PNG. Eons of silt, carried down swiftly from the mountains to the north, had been deposited by the river when its flow slowed here at its mouth. In this way, the delta and several large mud islands, separated by meandering channels had formed.
The year was 1960. I’d been visiting the few villages on these flat islands rimmed by thick mangroves with sago-palm swamps and scattered coconut palms. The people here managed to eke out a meagre, under-nourished living.
‘Okay, we try the main channel. Leave as early as you reckon.’
‘Yes, Taubada. Full moon soon. We leave when moon half way down.’
He meant the small hours before dawn, but I wasn’t going to request an easier time to leave. This man’s life was governed by the sun, the moon, the tides and the weather. He was the expert.
So off we went, Urunga with skipper, crewman, interpreter, two police constables, cook and yours truly. By the time we’d left the stinking, opaque, muddy water, a flaming red sunrise revealed a beautiful cloudless day with some swell before a moderate south-easterly breeze. It was good to feel and smell the clean, salty, air of the open sea.
Plugging directly into wind and swell made for slow travelling, but that was okay, we had all day. Then as we swung more to the east and north-east, the motion was a lot less comfortable and the wind steadily increased in strength and put a short chop on the long swells coming all the way from the South Pacific.
It wasn't long before the skipper judged it prudent to head directly into the increasing weather (but away from land), and for several hours that poor little boat, with its somewhat anxious collection of humanity, was bashed and battered but never bettered.
The ancient three-cylinder Gardiner kept going, we never shipped green water, though gallons of spray came inboard, and it seemed we were vertically nose up or nose down at times. I discovered that among other virtues, the Urunga was a good sea boat as well.
Suddenly, about mid-afternoon, the wind slackened right off and we were able to turn and head back towards the Bamu. I hadn’t a clue where we were. We could see no land through the low-level mist generated by the gale. Visibility quickly improved and there it was – one of the jungle-covered mud islands of the Bamu delta.
We'd made virtually no headway out to sea against the weather. We found a group of abandoned shacks on stilts so were able to camp for the night. I slept on board and was soon rocked gently to sleep.
I had wanted to visit the Bamu River Mission, widely known as "The Mission in the Mud", because they seldom saw visitors. It was run by the remarkable Mrs Eva Standen and her husband Harry.
Eva Standen was a very small Australian woman with a huge heart and dynamic energy. Except for the war years, she’d been in the area since 1936, doing her best to give the few villagers some education and a minimal health service. I admired her.
Several days later, after visiting the Standens, we were running with the ebbing tide down the river, just above the delta, and right at full moon time. Bore time. These tidal bores or tidal waves, not tsunamis, are generated when the water of a king tide flowing upstream into the wide mouth is forced into the narrowing delta until it has nowhere to go but upwards, forming a wave.
A bore could be quite big on the Bamu, but normally posed no threat to a vessel like the Urunga if tackled in the right way.
The lower reaches of the Bamu are shallow with numerous shifting sand bars. Even our experienced skipper could never be sure of finding good water under his keel. The outflow of the tide added to our speed until . . . a slight hesitation . . . recovery . . . more hesitation . . . and we slid gently to a stop on a sand-bar, invisible under the totally opaque muddy water.
Reversing and sawing back and forth didn't release the grip of the sand, and the falling tide quickly left us hard aground. So we waited, stranded, and pointing away, to port, of the river’s flow. The hull settled over onto one side as the sand-bar became fully exposed.
Standard procedure when negotiating a bore is to find deep water, keep away from the banks, meet the bore head-on and under way at about half speed, and be prepared for a burst of full throttle.
Difficult to do when you're hard aground and pointing in the wrong direction. As if that wasn't enough, the hull had settled over to starboard so the engine cooling water inlet was covered by the sand-bar.
It wasn't long before we heard the roar of the bore coming up river. It swung around a bend and into our sight and was a beauty - one of the stepped variety. The front of the wave was about two feet high, six feet further back was another two foot step, with the final four-footer bringing up the rear.
The crewman couldn't start the engine and have it idling ready for the wave or it would over-heat. He was ready, though, to heave on the hand crank just before the wave hit. The rest of us could only hang on and hope we’d be okay.
These bores travel at about 20 knots, so whatever was going to happen to us was going to happen quickly. The first bit of good news was the engine started first go. Seconds later the first wave hit the bow, righted it, lifted it and swung it further broadside-on and dumped it with a grinding, bone-shaking crunch back onto the sand bar.
The second step hit, and rolled us to port to an alarming angle and we took some water over the gunwale. The skipper slammed the engine into forward gear and gave it full throttle and full starboard rudder and at last we were afloat.
The final step of the wave was more of a slope than a step, and the faithful old vessel lifted its head, swung to starboard, and we were on our way.
I'll always have very fond memories of that old work-boat and enormous admiration for the skill of that Kiwai skipper whose name, I'm ashamed to say, I cannot remember. That was a patrol I was very very glad to see the end of.