“I asked a group of fishermen sitting in the shade of the inevitable coconut palms, at what time it would be high tide, so I could plan to get my boats over the reef flat. ‘We’re not sure,’ came the answer. ‘Then how do you know when you should take your boats out fishing?’ I asked. ‘Oh that’s easy,’ they replied with the penetrating logic one only imparts to a complete imbecile, ‘we just wait until the tide has come up high enough’.” (Soames Summerhays, Geo vol.8 no.2)
SPRINGBROOK, QUEENSLAND - While we were in Papua New Guinea there was the story of an anthropologist searching for evidence of clay pots at Wanigela who insisted on scratching around for fragments in old cooking fires.
Although the villagers could produce any number of good quality intact pots which were in daily use and for which they are renowned, these weren’t asked for, so they smashed some and buried the broken pieces in the ashes.
In late 1972, I was at Sairope, the last village of the Orokaiva people in the upper reaches of the Kumusi River on the western slopes of the mile-high plus Mount Lamington, an active volcano which last erupted in 1951, killing around 3,000 people.
My big toe was giving me trouble and the natives, claiming to have a cure, rubbed some crushed dried leaves on my leg. It was a stinging nettle, the resulting pain of which masked the pain in my toe.
I was not convinced that I should push on with the seven hour return walk to Asapa which was higher in the mountains near the start of the plateau behind Mount Lamington and the territory of the Managalas people, traditional enemies of the Orokaiva.
During our two years at Tufi, the station generator supplied electricity for two hours in the morning and six at night (unless the operator fell asleep, when the diesel engine would throb all night across from our bedroom window).
We had a kerosene refrigerator and slow combustion wood-stove which also supplied our hot water. While we were on leave one time, they were replaced with a gas stove and refrigerator.
We arrived back in Tufi to a scorched kitchen (the refrigerator leaked gas and caught fire) and cold showers – someone had decided hot water was unnecessary in the tropics.
So I bought and repaired the Tufi Honda 90 motorbike which had bottomed-out too many times and stripped the sump-plug thread.
I fixed it with Araldite, reasoning that the bike could always be turned upside down when I needed to change the oil. But I never had to – it burnt so much oil I was always topping it up without regular servicing.
There was little variety in our meals. One time, as a treat, we ordered a side of lamb to be brought by the coastal boat which had a freezer. And that’s exactly what we got. An uncut frozen half sheep.
I had to work quickly with an axe and saw to cut it into meal size portions and get it into our freezer before it thawed.
But even the luxury of daily roasts eventually cam become monotonous. When we were in Port Moresby for eight weeks for my magistrates’ course we stayed at the government’s Ranaguri Hostel at Konedobu - the set menu repeating itself week after tiresome week.
Then there was my first patrol to the Musa Gorge early 1971. We were away from Tufi for five weeks and arranged for Steamships to send our usual weekly ‘freezer’ order to Safia.
The first Tuesday after our arrival, it failed to turn up on the once-weekly flight from Popondetta.
The two-way radio wouldn’t work, so we had to wait until the next week’s plane to send a note and, the week after that, the original two week old order duly turned up – the vegetables were shrivelled, the bread mouldy and eggs rotten.
I was again at Safia at the end of 1971 and the same thing happened. This time I was by myself, Annette having ‘gone south’ for her sister’s wedding. Late one afternoon my solitude was interrupted when fellow patrol officer Drew Pingo walked into Safia from the Lower Musa.
As was my habit at sundown, I lit my pipe, the kerosene stove to make dinner and the spirits to preheat the pressure lamp – all with one match. Observing this, Drew expressed his disbelief at my frugal ways. I thought it quite normal, having no desire to run out of anything on patrol.
I had been away for seven weeks by the time I returned to Tufi and Annette. On one night, camped in the Musa Gorge with a plastic fly above my bed-sleeve, it had started to rain and, as I dozed, the native labourers gradually moved under my bed, the only shelter.
In the dark, I half woke to feel something against my chest. Not sure whether it was a strange arm or maybe a snake, I braced myself, made a sudden grab and threw it off.
But I was now home and a stunned three months pregnant Annette was flat on our bedroom floor.
(From ‘Penetrating Logic’, Doug Robbins’ memories of his experiences as a patrol officer in the Northern District (now Oro Province) - 22 short stories compiled around 2006)