Tales from old Oro – new roads, uncharted seas & wild rivers
14 February 2019
SPRINGBROOK - My one-third of the 100km road-clearing work was the hilliest - from sea level up to a camp at a superb vantage point 1430 metres above sea level.
On Google Earth around 9º32’30” S / 148°39’46” E parts of "my road" (as District Commissioner David Marsh referred to it) can still be seen.
We spent our first five months in the Northern District (now Oro Province) at Popondetta. Drew Pingo who was on the same course as me had a young family and had already been posted to Kokoda, a reasonably civilised station with a road connection to Popondetta.
I was informed by other officers that the cream of the District’s outstations was Tufi but if I even hinted that I’d like to be posted there I would end up somewhere else like Ioma, supposedly a less desirable place.
In ‘Wanderings among South Sea Savages’, Wilfrid Walker, writing in 1910 about the nearby coastal plains of the Kumusi River, said “this district has the reputation of being one of the most unhealthy spots in New Guinea, and the natives round here are none too friendly.” On the other hand, the time I spent there showed me the area does have its good points.
Anyway, leaving Annette at Popondetta, it was with much satisfaction that on 12 May 1970 I set off on the government workboat Ubuna on temporary transfer to Tufi.
After nine and a half hours of diesel fumes and hot sun, ending with rough and windy weather past Spear Point, I arrived at Tufi in the dark.
Assistant District Commissioner Chris Vass and Patrol Officer Fif Favetta (who hoped to be transferred from the coast because he suffered badly from seasickness) met me at the wharf and we headed off on my first motorbike ride as pillion passenger on the station Honda 90.
Half way up the steep and narrow track with the extra weight at the rear, Fif lost control, careered off the track and stalled. I walked the rest of the way. Two weeks later I returned to Popondetta, packed our gear, and three days later returned to Tufi with Annette on permanent posting.
My first patrol out of Tufi was a familiarisation of the coastal villages, travelling with Kevin Bourke on Aizara chartered by the government, the Ubuna being out of commission since my arrival.
In Collingwood Bay south of Tufi, so we could pick out the reefs which were all but invisible from a distance, Annette and I sat on top of the wheelhouse wearing polaroid sunglasses which clearly showed the reefs as a darker colour.
We went as far as Kewansasap, then back to the north coast from Tufi around to Sebaga, and returned by canoe. At Sebaga, my Field Officer’s Journal records that “Mr Bourke found a good anchorage in the mouth of the Foru River with a very pleasant view upstream to Mt Victory and Mt Trafalgar and the other way across Dyke Acland Bay to the Hydrographers Range”.
Annette and I stayed on shore in the village rest-house and Kevin and his offsider Guy Potts invited us to dinner on board. As night came, so too did the mosquitoes. To escape them, we decided to move to the centre of the river.
Guy was attending to the anchor and Kevin asked me to push clear from the mangroves before he started the engine. While pushing on a mangrove tree, the gap unexpectedly widened as the boat swung into the current and I was left clinging onto the tree with deep crocodile-infested water all around and the boat disappearing into the darkness.
I was rescued from the tree but ultimately not from District Commissioner David Marsh who criticised my later Patrol Report as being “a lengthy narrative approximating a travelogue rather than a report”.
John Stafford, skipper of the Ubuna, knew the coastal waters of the Northern District extremely well and had a healthy respect for the reefs, the weather and his own and the boat’s capabilities.
Collingwood Bay is littered with reefs and the Naval Chart, based on incomplete surveys to 1968, was marked, ‘Caution – Unsurveyed Areas” with notations such as “breaks, foul ground, shoal patches, black headed rocks, almost awash, discoloured patches, many shoals reported, and unexamined waters’.
After returning to Australia, this Reader’s Digest ‘All in a Day’s Work’ story by Edward Flanagen reminded me of Stafford:
“I accepted an invitation to go out on a crayfish boat. The harbour was particularly treacherous because a pea-soup fog hid barely submerged rocks. Seemingly unconcerned, the skipper steered a zigzag course at his usual speed.
"Attempting to make conversation, I finally said with a nervous smile, ‘Do you know where all these rocks are?’ ‘Nope,’ he said. A few minutes later, I asked, ‘How do you know where to go?’ ‘I know where they ain’t,’ he replied.”
Although my first outstation posting was Tufi, a coastal paradise acknowledged as the pick of the Northern District stations, in total contrast a lot of my patrols took me inland to Safia in the adjoining Sub-District; a place conveniently avoided by other officers, apparently being considered “the end of the earth”.
It was a challenge, but I liked the country and its people. One of my assignments was to clear the Didana Range section of the road from Pongani on the coast to the Musa Gorge to allow drilling equipment access to a proposed hydro-electric scheme.
District Officer Bob Webster was coordinating administrative matters and airdrops of supplies from Popondetta, and five weeks into the patrol, I received a radio message that two recruits fresh from Australia were to join me. This meant that I had to remind the Mission at Safia that the airstrip would be closed unless the almost waist-high grass was cut (they had the contract).
Working with hand-held sarifs (grass knives) to sundown and from first light next day, the villagers had the airstrip ready by early afternoon for the plane with Assistant Patrol Officers Dave Stent and Jack Banbury.
I was acting OIC Safia, the place having been upgraded in name only to a temporary Patrol Post and some Comworks engineers were staying in the Patrol Hut. Dave and Jack were expecting to relax with them. However, being on patrol, I greeted them with orders to put what they needed into one patrol box as we were departing in half an hour.
A little under an hour and a half brought us to the Musa (Moni) River. The fast flow would require that a raft be dragged laboriously upstream.
We didn’t have time for this, so I decided on one crossing - the two native carriers with the gear and the three of us would swim across.
We stripped, leaving our boots on in case we landed further downstream than expected on the boggy river flats.
Although we five men were the only humans for miles, tact prevented me from arguing with Jack’s reluctance to take off his underpants.
Being on an outside curve, the water was deep, swift and cold as we jumped in and were whisked away. Then pandemonium broke loose with loud calls from Jack.
Was it exhilaration or a cramp or a crocodile. I was sure he said he could swim. Obviously he wasn’t snagged because here we were: two heads both hurtling downstream at an alarming rate, seemingly having abandoned any ideas of reaching the other side.
All sorts of thoughts flashed through my head, including District Commissioner David Marsh’s warning never to swim over the river in the Gorge. But, I had reasoned, the Musa was joined by the Adau and two other rivers as it narrowed into the Gorge and we were a few miles upstream.
Nevertheless, Jack was in real trouble. What we hadn’t allowed for was that his wet underpants would slip down his legs ending up draped over his boots and holding his ankles together. This made it very difficult to keep his head above water.
Eventually Jack kicked his feet free and we made it to the other side, wading upstream in the shallows to the carriers. This whole episode had consumed more time than planned, so it was with quickened pace that we set off on the remaining two hour walk to my main camp at Nuaro, arriving at sundown.
Two days later (my wedding anniversary), after his gear had arrived from Safia, I sent Dave off on a good day’s walk to fellow Patrol Officer Drew Pingo’s camp in the lowland swamps, with a Highland labour line. Jack stayed with me to help with my three camps and labour line of over 100 local villagers.
Five months later in May 1972, I was transferred from Tufi to Kokoda, the station to which Jack was posted. Thankfully, Jack hadn’t developed any fear of wild rivers. Gumying (gumi: rubber tube) down the Mambare River was a leisure time activity.
On another occasion, we surfed the swift waters swelling over submerged boulders under the Kumusi River bridge to pass the time away while waiting for a vehicle to come along (it was John Kienzle, son of Bert Kienzle of the Kokoda Trail fame, who eventually gave us a lift).
Being a larger station, and with the nearby Kienzle family venture, we had some good times at Kokoda. But nothing could ever match the challenges of my patrols to the mighty Musa, which invariably began with orders by radio from the District Commissioner:
“Robbins, air charter ETA Tufi 0830 hours tomorrow. Proceed to Safia and ………”
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