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Further adventures of a young patrol officer

Robbins - Musa Gorge downstream
Downstream from the Musa Gorge

DOUG ROBBINS

SPRINGBROOK - This first story is fairly statistical but I have to do justice to the magnitude of the proposed Musa Dam hydro-electricity project.

This involved some of the biggest challenges that I ever had to face in Papua New Guinea.

To get an idea of its size, the estimated budget was $130 million, and that was prior to 1971. It would have been $1.4 billion in today’s money.

My first task on this project was to locate a road from Pongani on the north coast using a strip map I had earlier prepared on a long patrol and which subsequently was extensively referred to by Comworks engineers.

My patrol report of the time records:

“These diagrams are on a scale of 1 inch = 5 minutes walking time. This is equal to approximately 580 yards on reasonably flat, dry ground. There have been no adjustments for those places where the track climbs steep hills etc.

“The entire route from Pongani to Busi took 18 hours to walk (excluding detours and backtracking) which would be about equal to 70 miles of flat and dry track”.

Bruce Neale, the engineer in charge, told me later that, when the bulldozers broke through two years later, it was 62 miles. I walked the route four times, including camping out when clearing it but never saw it finished nor drove along any section of it.

At about the same time, I received instructions to survey the dam site and determine ownership of the land so Comworks could establish a base camp. Work relating to this project took me on six patrols totalling 115 days over 18 months.

Apart from being extremely rugged country, remote even for the locals, the challenge was made more daunting by a total lack of information. This from my final patrol report: “At the early stage, little of the area was known by our department in Popondetta, consequently I went in virtually blind.”

Robbins - Safia temporary Patrol Post built 1970
The temporary patrol post at Safia, constructed in 1970

From Safia all I could see was very hilly country about five kilometres away on the other side of the Musa (Moni) River and for two weeks (the mail turnaround time) I procrastinated.

There had been some protest from the people and I had plenty of other matters to attend to.

Finally, I received a communication from the assistant district commissioner at Popondetta, Chris Day, ordered me to proceed, adding, “If the people confront you, pull out and don’t press the point”.

Getting there wasn’t easy. Normally, it took two hours to walk from Safia via Gobera, crossing the Adau River, then to the Gorge on the side of Streamgauger’s Hut ending in a hair-raising crossing by raft to the Old Camp, with wild rapids in sight immediately downstream.

On one occasion, expecting the worst, I put my field notes down the front of my jeans – maski (never mind) losing my gear and food but I couldn’t bear starting the survey over again – and the river was relatively low.

This river could truly flood - in 1971 Comworks recorded a 12 foot overnight rise. So we crossed further upstream then cut our way through boggy jungle on the other side of the Adau River, taking five hours to reach Safia.

On my first night at the deserted Camp, torrential rain caused me to find a way into the musty but dry Comworks shed. Looking around next morning, I noticed on a bench a QASCO air survey of the Gorge. There were a number of copies so I took possession of one.

For the first time, I could see the topography and other features, including five possible dam sites and a site for the proposed 400MW power station. Based on aerial photos, this map was an invaluable acquisition, giving me the confidence to proceed.

The first day, walking three hours to a start point, part of the chain broke off, so each measurement had to be adjusted. Then heavy rain and the dark forest made it impossible to read the prismatic compass, so I aborted the traverse two hours from my camp.

In the end, out of 93 stations up and down from 350 to 1,450 feet above sea level over a measured distance of 6½ miles, only 23 were level readings, the steepest being 29° on the east side and 17.5° on the west.

Using trig tables, I manually converted each of these ground distances to plan measurements and with aneroid altimeter readings I was able to tie positions onto the contour map. My eventual plan of survey covers 1,620 acres (calculated using graph paper) and overlaid on the QASCO map all features matched exactly, with only a 0.5% error on the calculated closing line of 2,055 feet across the Gorge (an intervening drop which was virtually a cliff).

Footnote: The Musa hydro scheme never eventuated. It remains "standing in a wilderness like an unfinished adventure by the gods of legends and fables era".

Robbins - Pilatus Porter at Tufi
Papuan Airlines Pilatus Porter unloading cargo and mail at Tufi airstrip


Returning to Tufi by Twin Otter after one of my patrols to the Middle Musa (Safia), half way across Dyke Acland Bay we were confronted by an ominous wall of dark cloud rising straight from the sea.A touch of Nelson

We were flying at just a few hundred feet, hoping there would be a way under the storm but there was not.

Nor was there any hope of going inland around the volcanic peaks of the Topographers (also known as Nelson Range) - Trafalgar, Victory, Britannia and Temeraire - rising to over 6,000 feet behind Tufi.

The peaks memorialised the English Admiral Nelson’s famous battle and three of his ships.

The pilot had to turn back to Popondetta and we tried again later in the day, making it through the inland route with Mt Suckling (Nelson’s uncle) on our right via Wanigela on Collingwood Bay (Nelson’s vice-admiral) and up the coast past Hardy Point (the captain of HMS Victory) to Tufi.

On his 1874 survey voyage of Papua, Captain Moresby “resolved that the features of this lofty promontory are so striking that he honoured them with great names”.

Air transport is vital in Papua New Guinea and we had many memorable flights over country that we had previously trudged on foot. In mid-1972, I accompanied land titles commissioner Syd Smith to Safia to conduct a hearing to ratify my difficult and drawn-out survey and investigation into land ownership of the Musa Gorge.

We were to walk the boundaries of this extremely rugged area, camping out a few nights. However, the rivers were in full flood so we spent some days in the Patrol Hut at Safia interviewing land owners and waiting for the heavy rain to ease.

On the second night, there was a national news report that a cyclone had destroyed Tufi and a state of emergency was in place. Meanwhile, Smith endorsed my description of the boundaries and all we could do was wait for the Cessna to come and evacuate us.

Eventually, as we headed towards the coast at Pongani, pilot Alan Woodcock turned to me saying he was scheduled to pick up some vegetables for Popondetta from the agricultural officer at Afore on the Managalas plateau to our left.

One look at the dark clouds stretching from Hydrographers Range and out to sea was enough to convince me that the produce would have to await another day. Better it perish than us.

This was to be my last patrol to Safia and, to put a twist on Lord Nelson’s dying words, I thought “thank God I have done my duty”.

I had flown with Alan often, and had faith in his ability. On a previous occasion, we flew low above the Musa River so I could identify the crossing, hoping to locate assistant patrol officer Dave Stent who was on his very first patrol and under my supervision.

I’d sent a message for him to come in from Ovesa camp on the Pongani-Musa Gorge road-clearing project. The aircraft was flying so slowly the propeller was barely turning. Ten minutes later Dave walked in to Safia.

When we landed at Tufi, deputy district commissioner Max Denehy, who was also on board, drew me aside and said, “Does he always fly like that?” Thinking it a compliment, I replied in the affirmative.

On the strip at Tufi, an Army Caribou, lining up to the airstrip crabwise against a strong crosswind, aborted its take-off at the last moment with a full load of 44 gallon drums of avgas for a missing aircraft search.

We cleared everyone away and after a third attempt it took off for Wanigela flying low over our heads and just clear of the coconut trees.

Robbins - DC3 at Kokoda unloading baby gear
We unload our baby gear from the Ansett Airlines DC3 at Kokoda

Flying stories were constantly in circulation. We relied on aircraft and PNG was a hazardous place in which to fly.

In late 1972, my wife Annette was ‘going south’ (en route to Australia) from Kokoda and, after take off, for 20 minutes the DC3 circled above the station, slowly gaining height to climb over the mass of clouds covering the Owen Stanley Range to over 14,000 feet.

Finally the drone of the aircraft faded and we continued our usual office duties. The next day on the radio sked (schedule) we heard that the plane had diverted to Popondetta, where Annette spent the night.

On a later occasion, as we brought our few weeks old son back to Kokoda, the DC3 flight from Port Moresby could only be described as perfect. The air was calm and clear so for once we didn’t have to climb over the high cloud – which would not have been kind to a baby in an unpressurised plane.

As we flew through the Gap, wing-tips appearing to almost touch the jungle-clad cliffs on either side, we were enthralled by the many remote waterfalls. Suitably impressed by our flight, we landed to find that the Papua New Guinean co-pilot was being trained on instrument flying and brown paper was stuck over the windscreen.

Comments

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Philip Fitzpatrick

Doug Robbins passed away peacefully on 8 May, 2019. He was 74 years old. He leaves behind his wife Annette, and children Craig, Michael and Rebecca.

Arthur Williams

Doug in 1971, while my colleagues were engaged in patrols like you have dramatically explained, I was proving Canberra right in sending me to a cushy coastal patrol post.

What a pity all your hard work on the proposed dam was for nothing. Though one day the files may well be opened again in an effort to build ‘your’ masterpiece.

What a contrast is your fleshed out tale to the technical bare bones of the project online at Musa River Hydroelectric Scheme, Eastern Papua: Geophysical Investigations 1970 by FJ Taylor
https://d28rz98at9flks.cloudfront.net/12658/Rec1971_121.pdf.

I always enjoy anyone’s aviation stories. Indeed my final paper (thesis would elevate it to something it was not!) at Swansea College in 1966 was ‘A history of the air passenger industry’ even that seems pretentious 53 years on.

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