TUMBY BAY - It was 1969 at Kiunga on the Fly River and we were unloading MV Pipi Gari, named after Steamship Trading Company’s first Papuan skipper.
It was the dry season and the river was very low, but the skipper had been able to steer the vessel across the rock bar eight kilometres downstream and motor to the station.
Unable to moor at the usual unloading spot because the water was too shallow, instead he nudged Pipi Gari up against the bank below the Assistant District Commissioner’s house.
It was not perfect but it was the only option. Weary station labourers had to heave the cargo up the steep climb to the waiting council tractor and trailer.
This was when the Ok Tedi mine was still in the exploration stage.
There was no town, no wharves and no mine road.
Kiunga was a sleepy little backwater in the Western District.
There were four kiaps. The ADC, Barry Creedy, local government advisor, Peter Hawke, and two Patrol Officers, Joe Nombri and I.
Apart from that, there was a grass airstrip, a small agriculture station where didiman John Serjeantson was introducing rubber trees to the locals, the Catholic mission and a Seventh Day Adventist Pasuwe store.
Not so far away there were also Indonesians, and the Australian Defence Force was represented by Warrant Officer Bill Lapthorne, who was supposed to be keeping an eye on the border with what was then called West Irian.
Joe and I were taking a break in the shade of a kapiak tree as the council tractor and trailer pulled up ready to pick up the first load from the boat.
The driver turned off the engine and joined us in the shade.
Beyond a steep grassy slope we could just see the top of the Pipi Gari’s boom and the aerials on the roof of the bridge.
The labourers had just begun lugging the cargo the 50 metres or so up to the tractor and trailer when it lurched forward and took off at gathering speed towards the river and the boat.
We watched in awe as the little Massey Ferguson 135 and its trailer launched off the slope and sailed between the vessel’s boom and bridge.
Those people on the vessel stared in astonishment as tractor with trailer still attached soared over them and plunged into the river.
Fortunately we were able to borrow the mission’s Fordson tractor and trailer to finish unloading and, as the vessel sailed away, we contemplated how we might retrieve our sodden little tractor and its trailer from the river bottom.
A couple of us tried to dive down with ropes to locate it. The current was so strong we were forced to enter the water quite a way upstream and hope we’d encounter the tractor in the murk as the river swept us downstream.
A couple of times we thought we had found it but, gasping for air, had to surface. That imaginative idea just wasn’t going to work.
Someone then had a smarter notion – to use the anchor from the station workboat, MV Jade, drag it through the water and hope it would snag on either the tractor or trailer.
Remarkably, this did work. The anchor caught on the front axle of the tractor, now separated from its trailer.
We hauled the tractor to a spot where we were able to manhandle it out of the river.
The river had taken the trailer but had not dragged away the heavier tractor.
When we got it on dry land it looked quite smart and largely undamaged.
The Army’s Bill Lapthorne was a bit of a bush mechanic and he and council adviser Peter Hawke decided they’d try to salvage it.
Bill was in his element. Apart from the odd sortie along the border with me or Joe he had very little to do. Rehabilitating the Massey Ferguson was a welcome change.
It took the pair a couple of weeks to strip down the tractor, dry and oil everything they needed to and put it all back together again.
We were all there when the big day came and they tried to start it.
Lo and behold, after a couple of coughs the little red Fergie sprang to life.
What’s more, the trailer had washed up on a sandbar a few kilometres downstream and after we collected it on our double-hulled canoe it too was made operational.
As for the tractor driver, we arranged a new job for him at the mission sawmill, well away from the river and anything with wheels.