SPRINGBROOK, QLD – It had taken me 30 hours hard walking and backtracking over four days to get from Safia to Pongani. Now the flight back along the same route was over in 30 minutes.
It had been my first patrol to Safia in the Middle Musa of Northern District: inland from lowland villages and over the Didana Range skirting the 100 square miles of Agaiambo Swamp between the mountains and Dyke Acland Bay.
I’d been constantly recording features along the bush tracks, including detours (thus the backtracking), to establish a route for a bulldozer to clear a road from Pongani to the Musa Gorge.
The result was a detailed 17-sheet strip map based on my walking speed of about six kilometres an hour, which I’d calculated along the 610 metres of Tufi airstrip.
The days were a trial and so were the nights. At Pongani, I dined alone on tinned irish stew on what was our wedding anniversary before sharing a bush hut with the Afore malaria control team who left on their hissing pressure lamp all night.
I shared my evening at Kinjaki with the mice and at Korala I fell through the floor of the bush latrine and, having cleaned up, listened to the people wailing long into the night for a departed loved one.
I flew out of Safia to spend the night at Popondetta with only what I was wearing plus a fiercely itching bright red rash. And finally, I made a long and stormy trip back home to Tufi on ‘Ubuna’, arriving after midnight.
Pongani was notable for a few things. Recruiting carriers at the Seventh Day Adventist village on a Saturday to patrol into the adjacent Anglican area meant two days downtime. But, even leaving aside religious days-of-rest, it wasn’t easy getting carriers any time there.
But it made up for this frustration in its wartime relics and memorabilia. Up from the beachhead was an old wartime strip and plane wreck. A couple of hours down the track were the well-tended graves of two Japanese soldiers who had been captured by locals and handed over to the police.
Just over the Bariji River was another wartime airstrip beside Kinjaki village. Two more days walk to Ovesa where we left the lowland track, our route then taking us through virtually uninhabited country on a long day’s trek to Safia.
As it eventuated, the bulldozer trail would leave the Safia track near Gogoripapa, a small mountain hamlet that marked the end of my data collection for the strip map and the start of my homeward journey.
Exhausted, I rested for an hour with a cup of tea – my only sustenance for the whole day and the only time during my four years in New Guinea I had a cup of tea on patrol, tropical fruit or coconut milk being the usual offer. But that cuppa couldn’t have been more welcome.
I knew Territories Minister ‘Ceb’ Barnes was visiting Safia this day with District Commissioner David Marsh and I held two hopes, slim though they might be.
One was to make a grand entry to Safia in front of the Minister and the other, more important yet even less likely hope, was to fly out with the VIPs in the official aircraft – which is why I had made an early start from Ovesa.
Just before we reached the Musa (Moni) River, a plane flew overhead. Half an hour later it returned from the direction of the Gorge and I could hear it landing. My hopes were raised, however it took us over an hour to retrieve a raft from the other side the river and transfer all our gear and people across. Then the last walking leg to Safia took an hour and a half.
My Field Officer’s Journal records that we made the end of the airstrip at 4.35pm just as the Minister’s Islander was starting its engines. We were halfway along the strip as it taxied past, turned and took off. Ten minutes later, at the village end of the strip, I reported to the DC who offered a spare seat on his chartered Pilatis Porter. Tattered, muddy and wet I hopped aboard.
Another 10 minutes as I was flying back over the route I had just walked en route for Popondetta with my itchy rash and from there bound for Tufi.
I waited my turn at hospital outpatients. I didn’t know what the rash was and nor did the European doctor fresh to PNG, who seemed surprised that I should line up with the local people.
Next time I was in the same mountains during a land survey of the Musa Gorge, the same rash again gave me trouble and looked like developing into tropical ulcers – always difficult to clear up in a hot, humid climate.
Closer examination revealed tiny mites embedded in the flesh. It seems they inject a bacterial parasite that causes scrub typhus; the serious outcomes of which can include death. Knowing this, I was more careful when I once again returned to the area to finish the survey and start clearing the road.
By this time, I was acting officer-in-charge at Safia, now a temporary Patrol Post, and my 50 days there were varied and exciting, including my first ride in a helicopter to seek consent from landowners to use the small pieces of land required for stream and rain gauges.
The helicopter lifted off, flying the full length of Safia airstrip tail up and nose down. I thought the pilot was struggling to get airborne and expected to plough into the ground nose first at any moment.
We flew on to sites up to the headwaters of the Musa River. One small hamlet in the vicinity of the infamous Kapa Kapa Track was at such a high altitude that the thin air put the helicopter close to its lift-off limit.
As it had to reverse out of landing places to avoid trees on departure I was left in the village while my Comworks companion installing the gauges was deposited lower down on a gravel creek bank in the Urinu River.
The plan was that, if something went wrong, one of us would still be around to seek help – my companion in the middle of nowhere and me in a remote village with people who could barely communicate.
The next day we dropped in on Brian Keech who was camped at the Adau Gorge site. Here, the helicopter could only land on a piece of rock just big enough for its skids, its tail over a sheer drop into the gorge.
The four of us considered the outcome if, as we jumped on board, the helicopter toppled into the rushing waters below. I agreed with the engineers: no hope of coming out alive. Solution: don’t think about it.
On the final day, a tropical ulcer on the pilot’s elbow, which had started as a mere scratch as is often the case, caused such swelling that he couldn’t risk flying. We radioed Port Moresby for help and next day a replacement pilot came and I was on my own again – walking back to my road camp in the Didana Range.
But I had the mites where I wanted them, having learned to apply ‘mocka juice’, a potent mix of repellent kept in a four gallon drum in the Comworks shed.
The Musa has long had a mite problem. In 1901 resident magistrate Monckton wrote: “Scrub-itch made things very interesting for us in the Didana hills.
It is a microscopic tick, almost invisible to the naked eye, that falls in myriads like a shower from certain shrubs, which, burrowing under one’s skin, raises a lump and causes intense irritation.”
And during World War II it was recorded in the history of 2/10th Battalion AIF that “most of the section had suffered considerable discomfort during the trip from scrub mite bites”.
And Colonel Miller of the US 3/128th Infantry, advancing from Wanigela to Pongani, described the terrain as “the most filthy, swampy, mosquito infested area” he had ever seen.
Knowing that others had the same experience made me feel a bit less singled out by this difficult and perilous topography.