GOLD COAST – This is the story of one of the few patrols I did into the area south of Wau over the ridges from the Waria River area to near the Papuan border.
Some years previously, a patrol had marked out a site for an airstrip near the Papuan border and the people there were keen to ensure construction was progressing.
The site had not been visited for some years and I checked old patrol reports to get some background on the area and its people.
In the early 1970s there were no villages between Wau and the village of Kudjeru where we could obtain carriers, so a permanent carrier line was required. Usually we paid carriers from one village to carry the patrol’s cargo to the next village.
This was a good system as the local people knew the area and tracks and didn’t have to leave their village for long periods. Carriers were paid by the hour and the traditional one shilling an hour had recently been increased due to pressure from the Papua New Guinea House of Assembly.
A local advertisement produced plenty of volunteers from Wau’s out of work or out of luck gold miners and itinerants. The police inspector, Kari Tau, allocated two police to accompany the patrol and we headed off with about 50 carriers and five days' emergency rations (rice, hard tack biscuits and tinned bully beef) expecting to buy food from villages along the way.
We left in mid-morning making for Kudjeru village along a designated walking track, so no local guides were required. But Kudjeru proved further than we were led to believe and we were still walking as night fell.
So we set up camp in a small clearing, boiled water for rice and tea and mixed bully beef with rice for the carriers. Using bamboo cargo poles I set up my bed sail under a tent fly as it started to rain. The carriers built bush shelters of branches and leaves.
In the morning I woke up to see movement along the bed sail. A leech was slowly looping its way towards me. Although it was in the mountains and the air was crisp and cool, I was feeling unusually warm. I looked underneath the bed sail and found three carriers had decided to shelter under my tent fly (and under me) for the night.
After a breakfast of Navy biscuits and more bully beef and rice we were back on the track and, at about 10 am, emerged from the forest into a large kunai area several square kilometres in size. But there was no village in sight however. Oh, oh! Not a good start to the patrol.
No one with our patrol knew where Kudjeru village was. The old patrol reports had said it was at the end of the track and we were on the right track. Villages however often moved when garden soil became exhausted, but there was usually a track to follow.
In tall kunai (it can grow to three metres) it’s easy to lose your bearings. One of my affectations was to wear my old school slouch hat that had a bright red puggaree. Gathering the carriers around, I put my hat on top of the longest cargo pole and stood it up vertically.
“Fan out,” I said “but keep this hat in sight”. After about 20 minutes, way off to the south-west, we heard a yell. The carriers gathered and we set off over a small ridge. There, on the other side of a small creek, was the village, which appeared to be deserted.
Depositing the cargo alongside the stream away from the village, we walked to the houses to investigate. In most villages there are usually at least some old people around in the daytime while the rest are in the gardens. This place was completely empty.
The village had an eerie feeling. It was spooky. The carriers were not impressed and left me and one of the policemen to investigate. The policeman said he thought he knew where the haus kiap was so we went that way, stopping to look inside every house.
When we arrived at the designated building, it was in a state of extreme disrepair. It had a dirt floor (most government rest houses were on stumps) and an open doorway. The thatch was rotting and I didn’t like the look of it one little bit.
We stepped inside to look around. As we stood in the middle of the floor I had this eerie feeling and my feet started to tingle. The sensation slowly crept up my legs and I felt the hair on my neck prickle. I turned to the policeman and he looked at me as if to say, “I feel it too.”
I looked down at my feet and saw a thick brown substance, not unlike golden syrup, flowing from the floor and over my boots, over my mud gators and up up my bare legs towards my knees. Holy smoke! My feet seemed locked in place, as in a bad nightmare.
Then I had a closer look at the ‘liquid’ and realised it was composed of a semi solid mass of fleas. We had disturbed them as we walked in and, not having fresh meat for some time, they made a bee line for the two of us.
We both had the same thought at the same time and turned and ran full pelt for the creek, jumping in up to our waist, fully clothed.
We were in a bit of a pickle. No food, no guides and no idea where to go.
We spotted a track leading south-west and two of the carriers volunteered to follow it and see if they could find where the people had gone.
I made a message stick to take with them. There was a custom in those parts to send out a ‘holey’ New Guinea shilling attached to a stick as a mark of the Government.
The holey shilling was an Australian sterling silver coin with a hole in the centre, minted specifically for use in New Guinea where it could be strung around the neck. There were no pockets in a grass or leaf skirt.
The holey shillings were last minted during World War II and were much in favour with the local people. Today’s PNG kina also has a hole in it. I had a number of these shillings attached to my leather belt and I unclipped one to use for the message stick.
The stick would be given to the person whose presence was required. This person was expected to return it to the kiap who issued it. I had never used the method before and hoped it would work.
While we waited, there was nothing for it but to camp overnight and use more of our iron rations. The carriers wanted to raid the village gardens and let me sort it out later, but I said no. That wasn’t how you made friends, and we needed help.
My decision, however, did consume another day’s rations.
I decided to keep carriers busy for the remainder of the day by building a new haus kiap just outside of the village and near a gurgling stream of fresh water. When the bush materials were collected and the house built, most of our party went exploring.
Gela, my Chimbu mankimasta, returned in delight saying, “Lukim masa, mi painin dispela” and handed me a live hand grenade with the rusty pin still inserted. Ahhh! Put it down carefully and slowly walk away.
It wasn’t long before a treasure trove of relics and live ordinance had been discovered. Live .303 rounds, bombs and still discernible slit trenches on the fringe of the forest, not far away. Of particular interest were many cases of a type of grenade I had not seen before in my previous experience with the Army.
The cases were marked 5ST and the grenades (three to a case) were made up of a long, black bakelite handle, with the usual locking pin, connected to a thin, spherical metal case enclosing a black substance that had disintegrated over the years.
Inside this was a glass globe, about six inches in diameter. The globes were empty but had obviously contained something when they were ready for use. Historical records showed that commandos of the 1st Independent Company had once held this position to stop the Japanese from outflanking the Bulldog Track.
I later had an opportunity to ask an Army bomb disposal expert what kind of grenades the 5ST were. He said the ST probably stood for ‘sticky tank’ and they would have been used against armoured vehicles. Upon throwing the grenade against a vehicle the sticky black goo surrounding the glass globe stuck to the metal. The charge in the handle would set off the glass globe. A more advanced Molotov cocktail.
The carriers eventually returned with some villagers. The message stick had apparently worked. Incredibly, the leader was a man I had last seen in the Aseki Patrol Post area six months before. He and his family had migrated here to make a better life.
His dog was with him and it had found and killed a kapul (tree kangaroo) on the way. They also brought some sweet potatoes, but not enough for more than one meal. I gladly paid for the food and the carriers ate well that night on roasted tree kangaroo and sweet potatoes.
We found out why the people had deserted the village. An old man had died recently and they had run away in case his spirit ‘infected’ them.
With insufficient food available locally, we needed to move on so, after getting directions on which track to take to get us to the airstrip site, we started our patrol once again.