ADELAIDE – As a newly minted Assistant Patrol Officer in 1969, I was assigned to Kerema in Gulf Province, seen by new kiaps as a fate worse than death - perhaps exceeded only by a posting to Western Province.
Old hands confidently expected that junior kiaps posted to the Gulf would flee back to Australia, unable to cope with living in the estuarine delta, full of pukpuks and binatangs.
Happily for me, I soon discovered that patrolling in the Gulf was more than crocodiles and mosquitoes because it required a great deal of time using various forms of water transport.
As a boy raised on the banks of the Murray River, this struck me as a great opportunity and not a threat at all.
My first ventures were restricted to short journeys in powered canoes or dinghies under the careful tutelage of experienced Papua New Guinean drivers. I soon learned the various traps for beginners by the simple expedient of falling into them.
Running aground at speed on a mud bar is not recommended, nor is miscalculating your approach speed when seeking to neatly beach your craft.
And leaping from a boat before being certain the mud was not several feet deep is an experience I had more than once.
Anyway, I soon picked up the basic skills and became a relatively competent skipper. Indeed, I found such great pleasure in driving the vessels that the designated drivers became quite irritable.
In addition, they lived in mortal fear of an enthusiastic taubada mereki charging around the rivers and waterways at speed.
When I was posted to Baimuru, I made the journey in the District’s largest vessel, MV Magila. She was a Norwegian style trawler, about 20 metres in length, with the typical high prow of such vessels.
This design ensured that she was a good sea boat but on the rivers the helmsman often could not see where the boat was going.
The solution to this problem entailed the captain standing on the flying bridge, shouting navigational instructions into a gleaming copper voice tube leading down to the wheelhouse.
You will appreciate that opportunities for miscommunication were plentiful, so running aground was not an uncommon experience in the treacherous tidal waters of the Gulf.
Luckily, Magila could be readily refloated either by the rising tide or physical exertion by the crew and passengers. These episodes were accepted with a combination of exasperation and resignation.
At Baimuru, I was introduced to outboard powered canoes which routinely undertook patrol operations. These ranged in size from six metres to our pride and joy, the 16 meter canoe, Eiwo.
Eiwo had been constructed especially for patrol work by council tax defaulters who had been banged up in our kalabus for two months to ponder on their sins.
The Gulf canoes are of exceptionally efficient design, perfected by the local people over several millennia. They can be propelled at walking pace with minimal effort and, if they become water logged, can be emptied simply by sloshing the water out using a vigorous back and forth motion.
Local children as young as five years could be seen in tiny canoes busily paddling around the crocodile infested waters. They invariably stood up to paddle the narrow and unstable vessels but falling out seemed an astonishingly rare event.
Perhaps the potentially lethal consequences of doing so resulted in the gradual development of almost supernatural balancing skills. These skills were something I conspicuously lacked so I invariably travelled sitting down, except in the exceptionally large Eiwo.
It was about this time that outboard engines began to appear in greater numbers and it was not uncommon to see a canoe sailing majestically along powered by a 5 or 10 horsepower engine.
These small engines revolutionised travel for the local people, making what had been very long journeys of some day’s duration achievable in a few hours.
This doubtless made life much easier but the engines were notoriously temperamental and required continuous maintenance to work reliably.
Quite quickly bush mechanics appeared, as they so often do in PNG, self-educated in the dark and mysterious ways of the Johnson, Evinrude and Mercury engines of that era.
If we were lucky, we might be allocated the government’s most powerful and comfortable boat, MV Ruby. She was a workboat of World War II vintage, 40 feet in length and equipped with a powerful Gardiner marine diesel engine.
Although spectacularly lacking in creature comforts she was a good cruising vessel, making a steady 11 knots in the comparatively slow moving estuarine water, rather less in the fast moving waters of the Purari or Kikori or Omati rivers.
Ruby could carry a large group of people and their gear to all but the most inaccessible reaches of the rivers which flowed to the Gulf from the Southern Highlands.
Twice I took her up the Purari River but she could only make it about half way before the current effectively stopped progress, after which we switched into canoes we had towed behind us.
Struggling against the current, the canoes could make it as far as the last navigable sections of the river. The journey upriver would take just over five hours with a 40 hp Johnson outboard driving the canoe.
The journey back took a breathtaking 45 minutes, during which time you fervently hoped the notoriously unreliable outboard motor would not fail.
If it did, there were many whirlpools and rapids in which the canoe could easily overturn. Luckily, this never happened to me but it did to others, sometimes with disastrous results.
By far the most important boats in our lives were the K Boats which plied the coastal waters of PNG transporting passengers as well as essential cargo such as surface mail, fuel, freezer goods and dry goods.
The major trading companies Steamships and Burns Philp owned fleets of these robust and versatile coastal vessels. Their arrival was always greeted with intense pleasure, especially if food or fuel was running low.
The typical K Boat was around 20 metres long and drew a bit less than a metre so it could navigate surprisingly shallow water.
They were not built for comfort or speed, nor was money lavished on decoration. In short, they were a highly utilitarian vessel, well built to do a very specific job.
Almost all the K Boats were operated by exclusively Papuan crews, with many of the skippers being of Motuan origin.
The Motuan people had sailed along the coast as traders for many centuries at least and were intimately familiar with its inlets and rivers, as well as the Gulf’s capacity to generate sudden and violent changes in the weather.
Of all of the river craft I used in PNG, the undoubted favourite was MV Aveta. She was a 19 foot launch, powered by a two cylinder Petters diesel engine.
Her top speed in still water was a modest six knots, enough to be stopped in her tracks by the morning and afternoon tidal flows. Of necessity, this enforced a leisurely patrol routine.
Aveta had been built before World War II and had a crew of two quite elderly men had apparently been with her almost the entire time.
They resolutely refused to retire and, astonishingly, would sail this ancient vessel back and forth to Kerema and even Port Moresby, risking the treacherous Gulf waters without any apparent concern.
This was all the more remarkable because Aveta had the disconcerting habit of dropping her propeller shaft off the engine’s drive shaft resulting in the engine violently accelerating whilst the boat lost way.
There would be a mad scramble to shut down the engine, accompanied by swearing in Motu, after which the crew would re-attach the offending propeller shaft and progress would be resumed.
A great virtue of Aveta was her ability to navigate the small creeks that meandered through the vast sago swamps of the Gulf.
This could save hours of tedious travel time provided you did not get caught out by the rapidly falling tide. If this occurred, there were six to eight hours in which to contemplate mud skippers or the meaning of life generally.
I spent many a happy hour on Aveta, which could make a six week tour of the patrol area whilst using less than 200 litres of diesel fuel. It may not have been luxurious but it certainly beat walking up and down mountains all day.
These days, I no longer mess around in boats but I reflect fondly on my time in the Gulf when I had the chance to explore its watery highways and byways in all manner of fascinating vessels.
This was the delightful secret of a posting to the Gulf or the Western Province, about which highland kiaps knew nothing and probably cared less.
I have no idea what the water transportation system in that region is like now. Perhaps the K Boats are still running?
However, I suspect that Magila, Ruby and Aveta have long since fallen foul of either age or the sea and part of my history has died with them.