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Best of 2019: Travelling with donkeys


GOLD COAST – As a kiap [patrol officer] in the 1970s, I assisted the Lutheran Mission with one of the first herds of cattle introduced into the Menyamya Sub District.

The cattle drive started at the Bulolo roadhead, traversed the mountains between the Bulolo valley and Aseki Patrol Post before continuing along the Aseki-Menyamya ‘kiap road’.

I knew Menyamya already had some cattle and I’d heard there were some horses as the Assistant District Commissioner and his No 2 used to ride them.

The mission agricultural officer happened to mention that he’d been told by didiman Al Leong about a large mob of donkeys that were going to waste at Mumeng station. The donkeys had been imported into Papua New Guinea to alleviate the need for carriers on patrol.

But no one had been prepared to try this and the donkeys let pleasant lives just eating and breeding.

I radioed the Mumeng didiman [agricultural officer] and McCardles Transport in Wau and arranged to have two donkeys trucked to the existing roadhead in the Bulolo valley. I would take delivery of them at 1600 on the same day the herd of cattle arrived.

My idea was that I could drove the donkeys with the cattle and have an easier time getting them to Aseki. It was a good idea which didn’t turn out to be successful in practice.

I talked over my plan with Gunter, the Lutheran Missionary at Aseki, who expressed a wish to join me in the enterprise.

Two days before we were due to meet the cattle and the donkeys, we started along the road towards Bulolo with a limited number of carriers and cargo. I had with me the station Colt .38 revolver in case we had a problem and had to put an animal down.

The kiap road towards Bulolo soon petered out into a walking track and we camped overnight at one of the last villages on the Aseki side of the mountain divide.

We requested that the villagers build a temporary yard so the cattle and donkeys could be held together on our return. I was apprehensive that a herd of cattle would make a mess of the village gardens.

There were some amazing sights in the mountains between Aseki and Bulolo. I don’t know what the altitude was however, after we stopped climbing, we had to traverse through extensive moss forests. As these were above the tree line, it must have been fairly high.

Unlike most areas in PNG, there was no fresh water or streams you could drink from and the only available water was held in the sphagnum moss that abounded in large clumps. If you grabbed a large handful of moss and squeezed it, you could get a cupful of dirty, brown water.

Gunter started to feel the effects of altitude sickness and a lack of bush patrolling. Several times we had to stop for him to get his breath and I started to look at my watch, given I had to meet McCardle’s truck and the donkeys at the Bulolo roadhead at 1600 to pay the driver.

Finally the track started to descend and in the distance we could see kunai. I told Gunter we didn’t have far to go but he only nodded as he was puffed out. At about 1500 we arrived at the first village on the Bulolo side and we asked directions to where the roadhead was.

Gunter said he couldn’t go on so I left him with some villagers to recover. Following the directions, I arrived at the roadhead to find it deserted. Phew! I was feeling a bit puffed m’self.

Then a feeling of apprehension came over me. The donkeys should be here by now. I started to walk along the road so to meet the truck coming towards me.

After about 20 minutes, I came across a huge boulder in the middle of the road. Obviously, no vehicle could get past this so the true roadhead must be further on.

In a lather of sweat, I doggedly strode on and around the next bend was a village and McCardle’s truck. I said g’day to the couple standing alongside the truck and looked at my watch. It was 1600 exactly.

Some months later, after I was transferred to Wau, I heard how Mr McCardle had got rather a shock when a sunburned, mud-splattered apparition with a moustache with twirled up ends appeared in khakis, slouch hat, hobnailed boots and mud gaiters.

At the roadhead I wrote out a cheque, thanked the McCardles and took delivery of two donkeys. Never having looked after a large animal before, I was apprehensive but I needn’t have worried. Two more gentle and placid animals you would never find.

Donkeys come in two main colours, brown and grey, and there was one of each. They were both jenny’s, as the female donkey is called (the male is a jackass).

The grey had the black cross on her withers, traditionally referred to as the mark of Christ, given that he reportedly rode a donkey into Jerusalem.

They were tethered and quietly cropped the grass around an old school building. I decided to leave them until the cattle arrived.

When the herd of cattle arrived there was immediate pandemonium. They were all young animals that went charging everywhere with the mission agricultural officers and herdsman constantly rushing around trying to keep the herd together.

By contrast, my donkeys were on their best behaviour and were able to be led away without a problem.

Owing to excitable young cattle, it was late afternoon when we arrived at the last village on the Bulolo side, where Gunter waited for us. We decided to spend the night there in preparation for the drive over the mountains the next day.

Driving the cattle over the mountains was another day of mayhem. While the young cattle rampaged, the donkeys calmly plodded after me. They were very gentle beasts and only once was I trodden upon, when one slipped in the mud.

It was a different story with the young cattle. One heifer get too close to a donkey and it went up on its front feet and let fly with its rear hooves. It caught the heifer amidships with a ‘thump’ that knocked it off the track and down the hill.

However, the donkeys weren’t too keen about crossing some of the kiap bridges. On one small bridge, a donkey refused to cross. All we could do was put a long rope around its neck and about 30 of us pulled the rope.

The donkey’s neck began to stretch and telescope until I feared its head would come off. Just before that happened however, it decided we really did want it to cross and surged forward over the bridge leaving 30 men sprawled in the mud.

The second time I tried to use donkeys was at Sialum. The didimen in Finschhafen had two donkeys that were badly affected by grille (Tinea imbricata or skin pukpuk in Tokpisin) in the humid climate. This fungus had almost stripped the hair of one animal and it was suggested that the dry Sialum climate might do some good. Getting two donkeys to Sialum was another matter though.

We had two long wheel base Toyotas and the didiman was able to get the donkeys onto the tray and force them to lie down. Six labourers than sat, three a side and kept each donkey in place by resting their feet on its back.

The drive back to Sialum was almost uneventful except for crossing the Masaweng River. The technique was to put the vehicle into low ratio and keep the revs up. Lose the revs and you courted a stall and possible disaster. The water level was up to our knees and the current swift.

When we got to Sialum, I asked Ziroc Kalong, our resident medical authority, if we had any grille medicine? “Yes”, Ziroc said, “We’ve got a couple of gallons of the stuff.”

Many medicines were in those days issued to bush health centres in large plastic bottles and to ensure there were no mistakes, each type was colour coded. The skin fungus medicine (Salicylic acid) was coloured bright green.

Using two labourers and some paintbrushes from the government store, we painted the green marasin (medicine) on the donkey most affected. The poor thing had lost most of its hair and was a sorry sight. It was an even more sorry sight as it walked around the station, now a brilliant green.

But the marasin worked and within two weeks in a dry climate, its hair had started to grow and it never looked back after that.


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