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An Army patrol from Kerema to Wau via the Bulldog Track

John StringfellowJOHN STRINGFELLOW | NashosPNG

IN November and December 1967, I was instructed by my company commander, Major Greg Warland, to take my 11th platoon of D Coy, 1st Pacific Islands Regiment from Kerema on the south coast of Papua to Wau in New Guinea via the Bulldog Road.

I had three weeks to complete the patrol. My fellow D Company platoon commanders were to patrol the highlands west of Wau.

Bulldog was a pre-war goldmining centre at the junction of a river system from which it was navigable down the Lakekamu River to the Papuan Gulf.

The road from Bulldog to Wau had been constructed by Army engineers in 1942 as a supply route to Wau for a planned assault on the Japanese positions in Lae.

Pre-war goldminers had constructed a railway line at Bulldog and I was to find it and report on its condition and on the condition of the road from Bulldog to Wau.

Prior to the patrol the company 2IC, Captain Tim Britten, and I were to have been taken on an aerial reconnaissance of the patrol route in an Army Cessna 380 airplane.

We flew from Port Moresby to Lae, where we refuelled the plane and the pilot’s cigarette lighter with aviation gas direct from the plane’s fuel tank overload outlet, then to Wau where we stayed the night in the Wau Hotel.

During the evening, and after a few beers, the pilot, a captain, fell in love with the barmaid. Our early morning start was delayed an hour whilst we waited for our amorous pilot to surface. When he did, he was most happy and in a jovial mood.

However high cumulus cloud had begun to form in the mountains surrounding Wau and he expressed his concerns about flying over these mountains, which are in excess of 2,300 metres in height.

After a brief discussion, Tim persuaded the pilot to make an attempt to cross the mountains. We took off down the steepest landing strip in PNG and rose gradually to enter the clouds at a height of about 2,000 metres when the pilot did what all daring young men in their flying machines do.

He went up tiddly dah and he went down tiddly dah and around tiddly dah trying to find a way around the clouds before he decided it was too dangerous to fly any further and made a welcome and beeline return to Wau.

Whilst in the air my knuckles went white from holding my seat too tight. I imagine my face would have been ghost white as well, as we received a real bucket ride. Tim and I spent a long day in Wau without the pilot’s company. However I did meet a hard bitten, tough looking Australian expat in the bar of the Wau Hotel and filled in the afternoon.

The next day we took off earlier and flew west to Menyamya where an Administration sub-district office was located. This was an exciting experience as the airstrip was half way up a mountain and was about 200 metres long. On landing, it felt as if the plane was to fly straight into the mountain.

The approach was so slow and as soon as the plane touched the ground the pilot braked as hard as he could. Taking off was worse. Once the plane left the ground it fell into the deep and steep valley leaving your stomach in your mouth before gaining speed and altitude.

We never got to Kerema. I presume that because of the previous day’s “joy ride” our fuel was low so the pilot made for a mission airstrip east of Kerema and towards Port Moresby.

During the flight we entered a magnificent valley that had been formed by an ancient glacier. It was about 150 metres wide and about the same depth. The sides were almost vertical and were covered in light green grass. This part of the flight lasted about five minutes and had me spellbound.

Later in the flight the pilot turned to Tim beside him in the front seat and said that we had 20 minutes fuel left. I looked at my watch then and again ten minutes later when the pilot was looking anxiously around at the jungle canopy from his cockpit seat.

Out of the windows all I could see was the tree tops of the jungle canopy. I was mentally preparing myself for a crash landing when in another five minutes the pilot said “there it is”. We landed on the strip and not only did the airplane get refuelled with the help of a local missionary but also the pilot’s cigarette lighter. An adventurous flight but I came back none the wiser.

On the thirteenth day of November, the platoon, an attached signaller and medic left Port Moresby by Caribou aircraft as guests of the RAAF. Seating was side saddle on the floor and with the rear door open for ventilation.

The aircraft became only the second Caribou to land on Kerema airstrip (the previous one was a test flight to determine if it was possible) and as the locals were not used to seeing such large aircraft, or it was possible that they thought the war with Japan had restarted, they turned out in force to see what was happening.

On disembarking, I looked up at what seemed like a plateau 10 to 12 metres above the airstrip that was lined with people shoulder to shoulder, all talking excitedly. With such an audience it was too good an opportunity to miss, so instead of going off casually in section groups I asked Sergeant Guri, the platoon sergeant, to form the men into columns of three and we then marched into town.

I think the locals were impressed…..

Private Simon showing his rifle to a Kukukuku tribesmanWe were heading into the country where the Kukukuku people lived. These people had a reputation of being the most fierce head hunters in PNG even though they were of a small stature.

It was normal at that time for a patrol to demonstrate the power of modern weapons compared to bows and arrows and the might of the Army should they come across a primitive tribe. Every man in the platoon carried 60 rounds of live ammunition for his rifle and I carried a 9mm pistol and 50 rounds to meet any emergency situation with locals or fauna such as wild pigs, cassowaries and crocodiles.

My discussion with the Kiap dented my confidence. The prospect of heading off with the responsibility of leading the platoon of 36 men into deep jungle occupied by head hunters and steering by compass was daunting to say the least.

Had I not been conscripted I would have been back in Perth surfing and drinking beer. And that is exactly where I wanted to be at that time.

I made a decision to ask Greg Warland for permission to go to Bulldog via the easier route suggested by the Kiap. A radio call to Company headquarters, now in Wau, and Greg gave me the go ahead. The kiaps bought me a beer or two that night and a local coconut plantation owner offered the platoon a ride on his tractor wagons for part of the way.

You can read this fascinating memoir in its entirety on the Nashos website here.



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Alan Brooke

I think this film will be of interest:


Paul Oates

Now that the old memory kicks in, I did use a station 3 Oh at Sialum a couple of times to dispatch some huge, semi wild cattle that needed to be put down and the people couldn't get close enough to use a shotgun.

We who came later didn't seem to have the same confrontation the older Kiaps like Des Martin and Bill Brown had. Des reckons on one occasion his police reckoned the arrows fell like rain.

That's not to say we didn't have confrontations but fortunately, all mine were able to be handled by theatrical speeches in fiery Tok Pisin. Firearms wouldn't have stopped the crowd and would only have stirred them up further.

Where I couldn't stop the riot or fight, I simply stood apart and after they had tired themselves out, gave them a lecture and sent them off to the court.

So much for reading the Riot Act. Kain pasin olsem i longlong pinis ia.

Paul Oates

Aseki was the only post that had a hand gun, a Colt .38 revolver from memory.

I once took it on patrol in case I had to dispatch either a cow in the herd that I was helping bring in from Bulolo or a donkey of the two I also brought in with the cattle.

It turned out the donkeys from Bulolo were very well behaved but the young cattle the Menyamya mission were bringing in were a real handful.

Apart from that one instance, the only weapon ever taken on my patrols was one of the confiscated shotguns (license not current or renewed), that the accompanying police favoured and were used for game or to dispatch a village pig.

That said, while my CMF experience gave me training much the same as Ross and Chris have already said, I also had training and experience at school in the use of the SMLE .303 and that was useful when supervising police drill and firearms training when on station.

Chris Overland

The point Ross raises about Lee Enfield rifles not being issued to the police is correct, at least so far as I can recall.

In 1969, whilst I was a complete novice kiap, I had previously spent about 18 months in the Citizens Military Forces as an infantry private. I knew how to fire and maintain the L1A1 Self Loading Rifle, F1 Machine Gun and M60 General Purpose Machine Gun.

My DC at Kerema, Bob Bell, had interviewed me for appointment as an APO whilst I was dressed in my army field uniform. This was so because I had to travel to the interview directly from a major army exercise.

He therefore knew that I had weapons training and I assume this is the reason he felt confident about giving an 18 year old a Lee Enfield Carbine for self protection if needed.

So far as I can recall, my police carried single cartridge shotguns which were mostly used to shoot game.

I did two patrols only amongst the Kukukuku and only carried weapons on one occasion. Never again was I to do so, nor did I ever feel the need.

That said, my police always carried shotguns on long patrols, partly as a symbol of their and my authority, but mostly to shoot game.

In many cases, at least in the Gulf, quite a few villagers were by then in possession of shotguns themselves. Licences were issued fairly freely for the purpose of hunting game.

Ross Wilkinson

During my thirteen and a half years in PNG I had field postings in the Morobe, Gulf and Madang Provinces (Districts) and I can’t recall one patrol where my police carried Lee Enfields, let alone any ammunition for them.

I took my semi-automatic .22 rifle on a couple but made sure that the station shotgun and plenty of cartridges always went with us to supplement rations.

I undertook patrols into areas that were deemed not politically sophisticated enough to have local councils with the aim of assessing their respective readiness for such a step.

I took over from Paul Oates at Aseki in the heart of the Kukukuku country and at one time unsuccessfully attempted to meet Dave Henton in the middle somewhere as he was patrolling towards me from Kaintiba. We were trying to find some supposed uncontacted people.

I have an interest in the Chalkie Sergeants who completed their National Service obligation with the PIR and have just finished reading Darryl Dymock’s history of that group so am aware of the 1970 patrol that John Stringfellow refers to in this tale.

In 1974 I was serving as ADC at Malalaua when an SAS patrol wandered into the station having walked the Bulldog Track from Wau. They advised me that their mission was to assess the capability of the track being reopened for vehicular traffic.

So, in the space of about five years we have at least four Army patrols all tasked with the same objective. It would be interesting to read any reports and recommendations that came from these patrols as I get the impression that the stated objective was a blind to give these patrols a sense of purpose and the actual aim was merely field experience only.

The stories relating to the need for live ammunition were probably enhanced by the PIR troops having a bit of a lend of the Nashos accompanying the patrols or at least were coloured by tribal influences and legends.

Time tends to affect the sharpness of memory, particularly with regard to accentuating unfamiliar impressions.

For example, whilst steep, Wau airstrip was not the steepest in PNG. Omkalai in the Chimbu was very steep. Likewise, Menyamya was not 200 metres in total length but closer to 1,200 metres (3,500 feet).

Civil Aviation would not have licensed any of our airstrips for commercial operations at such a short distance.

Several that I had a hand in building or extending were never less than 500 metres.

Paul Oates

I don't know if this was an annual exercise however I remember when stationed at Wau in 1972 an Army patrol going through from the New Guinea side at Wau to Aseki and down to the Gulf.

I remember the Officer in charge was a good bloke and I hope the patrol went very well.

Terry Edwinsmith

Keith - The comments in response to this story have been excellent. Thanks for posting this story on your website.

One of the most chilling paragraphs of this wonderful story is the section regarding the malarial mosquito infected area where the patrol spent one terrifying night.

I recall John retelling his adventures to those who remained behind at Taurama Barracks following this patrol.

'The blood soaked mosquito nets washed in the stream,' is vividly recalled by me after 50 years. My uncle served in TPNG during WWII and contracted the dreaded malaria.

I was determined not to succumb to this ailment when posted to 1PIR as the thought of my uncle suffering malarial fevers throughout his life was enough for me.

Thankfully I survived intact.

Garry Roche

There is an interesting tale about Army patrols from Baiyer River in the Western Highlands.

There was a well known lament in the Hagen language concerning a girl named Yan from Ropanda, a daughter of Rumba from the Ukini Repka clan in the Baiyer area.

This song was a lament for young Yan who went missing in the bush and never returned. The song was in fact published in Andrew Strathern’s collection of courting songs of the Melpa people, 'Melpa Amb Kenan' (Institute of PNG Studies 1974, Song no 37): “The sun rises up in the east. Girl of Ropanda, Yan …”

Several years after the song became well known, and after it had been published, there emerged the tale that the girl Yan had actually gone with an PNG Army patrol that came through the Baiyer on its way from Hagen to either the Sepik or Madang.

It was also reported that a brother of the girl had somehow discovered that the girl was alive and living in the West Sepik area and visited her.

The presumption was that she had married one of the PNG soldiers. I was not able to confirm this from primary source, but the tale was widespread.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I had some memorable falls off those things William. Barats and river gravel spread on the roads achieved my most magnificent expulsions. I can still feel the grazes.

The trick with clay was to drop it into low range and then hop off and walk beside it Keith.

And roar the guts out of my precious machine, not likely. Easier to singaut long ol long kisim baik na karim igo bek long sikul - KJ

William Dunlop

If I remember correctly Neil Desailly was the Resident Magistrate in Kundiawa when I lived there from 1969-71.

He was much involved in the opening up the Aseki Menamani area in the early days.

Rather a hairy airstrip somewhat like Omkalai. I landed on both in 1969 as a passenger inspecting Administration Transport vehicles, including the Honda 90 go anywhere bikes.

At Menemani, the kiap gave myself and another a lift on his machine all at the same time.

Quite a feat, William, although the Honda 90cc Trail was a rugged little bike. I bought one myself when I was teaching in the bush beyond Kundiawa in 1966. Although on those clay tracks, even though the mudguards had plenty of clearance from the tyre, the clay adhered and accumulated and eventually the machine would grind to a halt. Then it would eb ceremoniously carried back to the school courtesy of some local villagers - KJ

Chris Overland

Phil, I am happy to accept your word for it that the bones worn around the waist (along the wearer's thighs) were indeed those of a cassowary.

It is entirely possible that my informants at the time were simply having a lend of a wet behind the ears junior kiap. However, given their fearsome reputation, it seemed entirely plausible to me then as, in fact, it still does now.

Paul Oates

Anyone who was posted to the regions where the 'kuks' live will know just how different they are to the rest of PNG. No kundus at their singsings, smoked bodies of their dead relatives, etc etc.

Always remember the word for 'No' in Amte (around Aseki) was 'Meh-yag- geh-Yeh!' said in a machine gun like way of expression.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think the bones, if they were worn around the waist at the front were probably cassowary bones (kokokoko is Motu for cassowary - hence the name Kukukuku. It is a name not recognised by the people it describes but was used by other tribes near the coast.)

The bones signified that a man was married and had children.

I did some social mapping among them in the late 1990s and the people in the isolated areas hadn't changed much from your description.

They are a fascinating group. They were surrounded by a kind of no-man's land and quite isolated. They weren't big on bilas etc. and appeared very distinct from the normal PNG mobs.

Chris Overland

My first patrol in late 1969, involved walking from Kerema to Kaintiba Patrol Post. Along the way, I was to join with a Catholic Priest, Alex Michelob, to learn the art of surveying road routes through the mountainous jungle.

I was supposed to accompany ADO John Mundell on this patrol but he had to return to Kerema within a week of setting out, so I carried on under the benign guidance of Alex.

The patrol route took it deep into the heart of the Kukukuku country, so I was issued with a Smith and Wesson .38 calibre revolver and a Lee Enfield .303 Carbine. I soon gave up carrying both: the revolver was wildly inaccurate above a range of 5 metres and my police sergeant was a much better shot with the Carbine.

Officially, the area had been declared "controlled" only a very few years before, possibly not long before John Stringfellow's army patrol in the area. I gather that this was done mostly to satisfy the UN that Australia was on track in pacifying the whole territory.

The track between Kerema and Kaintiba was very tough going for even a fit and experienced bushman, let alone a novice kiap like me.

The first few days I really struggled to get to grips with the incessant rain, muddy and slippery tracks and the stifling heat.

Two weeks into the patrol I got malaria and was obliged to lay up on my camp sleeve bed until the curative effects of Chloroquine took effect. The Chloroquine cure was only marginally less awful than the disease.

The Kukukuku's who accompanied our patrol were the usual suspects: small, wiry, strong and very mercurial in nature. They were always armed to the teeth, with small one pound axe heads attached to long, black palm handles being the weapon of choice for close fighting, along with the usual bow and arrows for distance work. Happily, a steady supply of twist tobacco, rice and tinned meat kept them pretty happy most of the time.

Some of them still wore the thigh bones of enemies they had killed in battle. The woman had necklaces that held the tiny mummified hands of babies that had died in infancy.

They all wore capes made of beaten bark to keep off the rain and help stay warm at night. I soon purchased a cape for myself, as it was more serviceable than my slouch hat. They derived much amusement from seeing me slogging up the muddy track wearing this cape.

Each morning around dawn, Father Alex would say mass, using a very rough bush table as an altar. He would put on his robes, arrange the chalice and other paraphernalia as needed, and then say the mass.

He was invariably surrounded by the Kukukuku warriors, who squatted near the crude alter and paid close attention to his every move, sometimes muttering quietly amongst themselves. It was a remarkable sight, especially as the sun rose over the mountains, silhouetting Alex with the chalice raised, his robes glinting as he moved quietly through the mass.

Anyway, after 32 arduous days I arrive back in Kerema, some 15 kilograms lighter, covered in infected leech bites and convinced that I had demonstrated that I had the "right stuff" to be a proper kiap.

Like John Stringfellow, I count myself incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to walk in that country when it was still basically untouched by modernity.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I don't think the Kukukuku actually hunted heads.

They carried away arms, legs and heads of slain people from other tribes only to eat.

To quote Beatrice Blackwood, "As well as the arms and legs, they ate the eyes, cheeks, tongue and brain, and broke the skull open with a stone" (The Kukukuku of the Upper Watut, page 122).

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