NOOSA – I have been deeply saddened to learn of the death of Doug Robbins, a former patrol officer and, in recent years, a prolific contributor to PNG Attitude.
Doug died in Springwood in south-east Queensland on 8 May, his last article for the blog being published just last month.
Much of Doug’s writing was about the Northern (Oro) Province and the experiences of he and his wife Annette there in the 1970s.
What I did not fully appreciate was how Doug and Annette had remained committed to that part of Papua New Guinea right up until his death.
Doug wrote on his Linked In page, “Since 2009 I have worked in a volunteer capacity with Gangai Kokona together with his associates in Port Moresby and his extremely efficient teams in the villages.
"Specifically this involves pursuing Gangai's passion for eco-enterprise for the people of PNG. I know Gangai's family and people from over 40 years ago.”
And Gangai has written: “Doug shares my passion for the protection of nature and all its providence, however his wealth of experience in outback eco-tourism surpasses anyone I have met.
“We engaged his services as a business volunteer to enhance our vision for communities in the Tufi District of the Northern Province to benefit economically from its natural beauty through tourism.
“With Doug's support the local villagers are well into marketing the pristine natural beauty of Tufi - a paradise in the Pacific.”
As a mark of our respect to Doug, I republish here a few short extracts from his recent writing – and express the deep condolences of PNG Attitude and all our readers to Doug’s wife Annette and the family.
In 1972, after two years as the government patrol officer in the Wanigela-Tufi area, I was transferred to Kokoda with my wife Annette and our baby. In that year, our little Papuan outpost welcomed back, with their families, 40 survivors of the 39th Battalion, raised for service in Papua, for the 30th anniversary of the Kokoda Trail Campaign.
It was obvious that these brave men still suffered physically and mentally from the Kokoda battle. One man had recurring skin rashes while another, who had been cared for by a nurse since the war, wandered off up the track looking for his mate.
Bert Kienzle, who during the war organised the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angel carriers, killed a beast and we all had an enjoyable barbeque with our visitors, billeted for three days on the station and at the Kienzle’s.
In rural Papua, Pidgin wasn’t common. Randolph my loyal interpreter during our days at Wanigela-Musa died not long before Annette and I revisited New Guinea in 2009. He had been one of the Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels – medical orderly, carrier and labourer.
No poppies grow along the Kokoda Track. For burial services the Padre would pick a lantana-like flower, native to the jungle, from beside the path as a symbol of remembrance for the life given in service of our country - Australia.
To this day, veterans of the 39th Militia, the only battalion to have the Kokoda Trail battle honour, lay a sprig of lantana alongside a red poppy in memory of their comrades fallen on the battlefields of Papua New Guinea or claimed by age.
Annette and I had been married for just two years when we went to Papua New Guinea in 1969.
During my induction course at Kwikila with 38 other patrol officers before we were assigned to unknown postings, Annette waited at home in Brisbane, arriving in PNG at the completion of our five weeks training and we flew to Popondetta five days after our second wedding anniversary.
Probably because I was the newest recruit at Popondetta, in the first few months I was given two burials to administer. The first was still on the hospital operating table and I wondered if the relatives would blame the death on the white doctor and his knife.
Thankfully the deceased’s wantoks were nowhere to be seen and, with help from a native orderly, I lifted the body into the plywood coffin which Public Works had made and organised the kalabus [prisoners] to dig a grave.
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.
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”.