TUMBY BAY - In 1970 I received a Christmas present that I didn’t really want.
At the time I was the officer in charge of Olsobip Patrol Post on the southern slopes of the Star Mountains in the Western District.
Earlier in the month I had returned from a 31 day patrol into the rugged and remote Murray Valley.
It was a consolidation patrol following a previous one where threats had been made and a rifle discharged.
While our main aim had been to smooth over the waters and re-establish good relations with the people, that quickly became a secondary consideration when we discovered that an influenza epidemic was raging through the valley.
We succeeded in slowing down the epidemic and, as a result, also getting our relationship with the people back on an even keel.
But when we finally struggled out of the valley we were all pretty knocked up and a few of us were suffering from influenza.
A good break over Christmas was something we were all looking forward to.
It was a tradition of sorts that everyone in that northern part of the Western District converged on one of the stations to get together for Christmas.
That year it was Ningerum’s turn to host the celebrations. Through various means, people from Kiunga, Nomad River, Obeimi Base Camp and Olsobip made their way there.
The station clerk and his family, along with me and my dog, hitched a ride on the weekly supply air charter, which flew from Daru to Kiunga and then did a loop to all the other stations before returning, usually empty, to Daru.
Olsobip was a one-man station, so I was looking forward to catching up with everyone, including my old mate Charlie Brillante, who had recently transferred from the highlands.
My unexpected present arrived on Christmas Eve. It began with a very high temperature and was followed by a bout of shivers and a horrible headache that stretched from my head to my toes.
It was my first ever bout of malaria.
At first I couldn’t work it out. I had been religiously taking Camoquin tablets but they didn’t seem to have worked.
In any event I self-administered a handful of the things and lay back on my bed on the floor of Charlie’s lounge room.
They did the trick and, while I missed out on the Christmas feast and had probably given my liver a bad jolt, I was well enough to enjoy the New Year’s Day barbeque beside the station swimming hole in the Ok Tedi river.
In those days the Ok Tedi was called the Alice River and ran clear and clean on its way to the Fly River.
The timing of the malaria attack allowed me to figure out that I had probably been bitten by a mosquito while on patrol in the Murray Valley, worn down from a dose of influenza and rigorous exercise.
That may have explained why the Camoquin was less efficacious. But what I didn’t realise was that malaria is a gift that continues to give.
Twenty years later, back in Australia, I was preparing to celebrate Christmas with my family. I had just gotten over a bad cold and was feeling a bit seedy but on the mend when the malaria came back with a vengeance.
I don’t know whether you’ve ever tried to convince a doctor in suburban Adelaide that you’ve got malaria and need a handful of anti-malarials but it isn’t easy. They basically don’t believe you and want to do all sorts of tests.
Once I got over that hurdle I had to find a chemist that stocked the tablets. In short they didn’t and had to get special authorisation to source them.
I gave up and went home.
Luckily the years had worn down the pesky little parasite hiding in my blood stream and I was able to sweat it out.
When I went back to PNG in the 1990s I decided not to take anti-malarials. Camoquin and Nivoquin had lost the battle against new strains of the disease and the new drugs had some horrendous side effects.
I carried tablets with me just in case but I never took them. And I didn’t get malaria again.
Maybe my body had done what the bodies of many Papua New Guineans do and developed some sort of immunity.
Nevertheless, that 1970 Christmas is one that I remember well.