Arrival in Popondetta, 1947: Marjorie Kleckham


Two children; lost plane; torrential rain; soggy suitcases; barefoot trek and a missing husband!

Marjorie Kleckham’s father, Geoffrey Sheldon, was a surveyor in PNG. He surveyed the Bulldog Road which eventually became the Wau to Salamaua road. The family stayed back in Australia while he was in PNG and Marjorie eventually went to PNG in 1947. After WW2, Fred Kleckham (snr) applied for agricultural jobs in Fiji and PNG. Fiji didn’t reply so he went to PNG six months prior to Marjorie. This is the story of Marjorie’s arrival when she landed on a disused war airstrip in the middle of the PNG jungle.

Near the end of the war my husband returned to Australia and when war finished he was discharged and we faced the task of settling down and deciding our future. As my husband was a trained agriculturalist he decided to try and join one of the island agricultural departments and when the New Guinea position came up first he accepted that and once more left me while he went to the islands.

It looked as though it was going to be a case of my own family history all over again. However, after almost a year of this separation word came that I was to join him in Papua at a place called Popondetta.

I immediately rushed over to my family with the letter to be told by my brother-in-law that I would be glad to get away from it before long. He had fought over the Kokoda Trail and had been carried out from Popondetta on a stretcher to be forever on a full military pension. Little did I realise how right he was to be.

By this time we had two small babies and my family was horrified at the thought of my taking them to such a primitive place. However, this was to be our first real home, and I was determined to go. I packed two years supply of clothing for us and all my trouseau linen which had not been used—all beautifully embroidered linen done by my aunts—and set off on my journey.

There had been considerable formalities to go through: taxation clearances, permits to enter New Guinea, air passages to be got from Canberra, and a guarantee that there was a family gathering to farewell me at Mackay when I left for Townsville to board the New Guinea plane. At last I was away. After spending a night at Townsville, we left for Port Moresby, calling at Cairns on the way. I was to land at Port Moresby and transfer to a small plane to fly me through the gap in the Owen Stanley Range to a strip near Popondetta.

However, this was not to be. Port Moresby was completely clouded over and we had to continue straight on over the range to Lae.

This meant climbing to a height of 17,000 feet over the Owen Stanleys and at this height the children both collapsed from lack of oxygen. Young Fred went out first and I called the steward, who brought an oxygen bottle and mask.

He no sooner attended to Fred than Betty passed out and he had to attend to her, then it was my turn.

At this stage the pilot came along and told us that we had to fly at this height to get over the range safely under these conditions. However we were now over the range and were starting to lose height on the other side. Soon we were in Lae, a town well known to my father in pre-war years, now a makeshift town of army huts and scrap materials, and a population composed almost entirely of men.

Being expected in Port Moresby instead of Lae, I had no-one to meet me and no accommodation. However, I was taken to the Lae Hotel which gloried in the name of the ‘Hotel Cecil’ and the owner, an old friend of my father’s, soon had me installed. This hotel was really something to see. It was a former AWAS quarters built of very temporary materials, mostly paper, and well spread out.

These old army huts were built for maximum hearing and a minimum of privacy. Partitions of paper stopped a foot short of the floor and were only six feet high. This went for the bathrooms as well. Outdoor privvies were scattered about at some distance with little to indicate whether they were ‘ladies’ or gents’.

At night, life in the hotel was really interesting. Conversation and sounds would float down the length of the paper building for all and sundry to hear and comment on. Some of the comments were as entertaining as the conversations and little was left to the imagination. The toilet facilities were equally as matey. Shower cubicles had the same partitioning and anything was liable to happen at any time. I remember my husband telling me about one of the times he stopped there.

Having a shower one day, he noticed a cake of soap slide under his partition and then to his surprise heard a very feminine voice asking for the soap back. Did she want it delivered?  Oh, just kick it back under the wall!

Lae being almost entirely a men’s town, the kids came in for a lot of attention. So many men wanted to do things for them and take them out, that it became embarrasing, and the first night in Lae we arrived at the picture show—a great barn of a place built of corrugated iron—surrounded by a company of men, all eager to entertain us. The children thought this was wonderful.

Next morning began the serious business of trying to get to Popondetta. The air company which was to fly me from Port Moresby to Popondetta did not have a plane free in Lae to do the job. Eventually, after a lot of trouble, they succeeded.

This proved to be disastrous as the pilot did not know the area we were to go to. After what seemed an interminable delay we eventually got away from Lae in an old “Dragon” DH 86 aircraft headed in the general direction of Popondetta with the pilot spending most of his time gazing at a map of the area on his knees. After about an hour’s flying, the pilot put down on a strip where to his surprise there appeared to be no sign of life whatever.

After waiting a few minutes he apparently decided that he was on the wrong strip and took off again. He flew around for a while and then spotted another strip; down again. This time there was a European waiting who was just a little intoxicated and quite deaf. When the pilot asked him where Popondetta was he waved an arm in the general direction and said, over there! Once again into the plane and off, headed in the general direction. We were hardly up when a strip came into view. The pilot put us down again and ‘Well, here we are’.

This was a tremendous bitumen strip which appeared to be about a mile long. There was no sign of a soul or of anything else. However, out I got with the children and my luggage and sat down to wait for my husband. This was at four o’clock in the afternoon and the pilot took off again for the last strip to pick up the European we had met there. Shortly after they flew over again, gave me a wave and headed for Lae.

I settled down to wait. Time moved on, the sun started to go down and there was no sign of my husband. The children were hungry and I started to worry about the night ahead. I walked around the strip and found a few empty benzine drums and a few sheets of corrugated iron. These I gathered together, and standing the drums up put the sheets of iron across them to make a little shelter for the night. Also, I put a sheet of iron on the ground, covered it with clothing to make a bed for the children and eventually got them to sleep. I was worried about snakes and wild pigs, but soon my thoughts were changed, a thunder storm was brewing and before long it was upon us. Thunder and lightning and Pouring rain for the rest of the night took my thoughts off everything else.

The water ran inches deep on the ground. My suit cases with all our clothes and linen were completely saturated, there was not enough room for them under the shelter, and my cigarettes and matches were soaked. Through it all, the children slept soundly, thank God.

By daylight, the rain had slowed to a slight drizzle and I set off around the strip to look for a track which might lead us somewhere. After a while I found one and collecting the children set off to follow it, leaving all our things at the side of the strip.

After some time, I came to a fork in the track and had to decide which track to follow. I chose one and set off again, however, it was not long before it became obvious that it was very seldom used, the grass was high and there were dead trees across the path. I turned back and coming to the fork again, took the other path.

After walking for about half an hour, I suddenly came into a native village. I don’t know who got the greatest shock. Imagine a wet, dishevelled and dirty woman with two children suddenly coming into a village and picture if you can, the surprise of the natives. Imagine, too, how we who had never seen natives before, felt when suddenly surrounded by a mass of natives, some with knives, some with axes and spears and all talking and waving their arms twenty to the dozen. We were scared to death. After a while we were led to an empty house where we sat on the floor, waiting for God knows what next to happen.

There was a lot more excited talk by the natives and to my great relief, a native came to us with a bunch of bananas and some green coconuts to drink. Not having had anything since lunch time the previous day, we were ravenous and really appreciated this scratch meal.

Feeling a little better, I was determined to make the effort again to get to Popondetta. Not being able to talk to the natives, I kept repeating the word Popondetta and pointing in what I hoped was the general direction of the place. They got the idea airight, but were loathe to make a move, it was still raining slightly.

Then I asked for the ‘Police’! A native came forward dressed in a black serge lap-lap and I pointed to the track out of the village and said ‘Popondetta! Now’! He got the message. I later learnt that this man was the local policeman. There is one in every village appointed by the Government. There was considerable talk and a man appeared with a pole about seven feet long.

On one end of this they tied my handbag and then indicated they were ready to start. They wanted to carry the children too, but they were so scared that they would not leave my skirt. I had no option but to carry Betty.

Fred was alright while we were on a wide clear track, but once it narrowed down and the grass got thick, then I had to carry him too, on my back.

Once the rain stopped, the day became hot and steamy and even moving was a burden. We travelled through tall Kunai grass and then through real tropical jungle. We crossed swiftly flowing streams, on one occasion chest deep with smooth round boulders underfoot, and climbed, scratched and. slipped up and down slippery banks. The journey was a nightmare.

Periodically I’d say “How far” and every time I’d get the answer “Close to”.

After about an hour we passed through another village which was really frightening.

The natives were all painted up, wearing great headdresses of hornbill beaks, bird of paradise plumes and parrots feathers and wearing large strings of white cowrie shells and strikingly designed ‘tapa’ cloth skirts. Later I learned that this was the time of dancing and feasting to celebrate the taro harvest and that all the people of the area spent this period in dancing and feasting all night long from village to village. Every night the air was alive with the sound of their drums thumping away until daylight. On and on we went through more villages until we came to one where I found a native who could speak English. He was an Anglican mission teacher and he and his wife ran a native school in the village.

I was all in and had to rest. Much to my surprise, after a little while, the teacher’s wife brought me a cup of strong black tea. Nothing was ever so welcome. The teacher, his name was Phillip, told me that he would send a message to Popondetta, still two hours away, to let my husband know I was here.

Here, I wrote a note with my lipstick on an old envelope.

After a rest I decided to push on and Phillip said that he would come with me to help me. I was really grateful to this man and his wife for their kindness to me.

After what seemed an age, we met a band of natives coming the other way. These turned out to be a portion of my husband’s labour line led by the boss boy Ingaripa, a colourful character with legs like logs, a royal blue lap-lap and a bright orange singlet. He was wearing beads, earrings and arm and ankle bands of woven fibre and carried a huge bush knife. He had quite a personality and finally succeeded in separating the children from me and getting them carried by some of my husband’s boys.

The children, of course, had been frightened by all the attention that had been shown to them. White children with straight blonde red hair were something that few, if any, of these natives had seen before, and they all wanted to touch the kids and feel their skin, their hair and their clothes.

We pushed on and on and on, the track seemed never ending, but at last we came to a house and here I was delivered with ceremony to my husband, so some of the natives said, but alas it was the wrong man. However, I was glad to be safe somewhere at last. This man proved to be a great friend and was the manager of the trade store in the area. Jack Scurrah is quite justly famous in Papua, and he told me some of the story of the past twenty-four hours. When I did not arrive at Popondetta the previous evening, and hearing the plane fly back to Lae, my husband thought that I had gone back with it. At daylight he had sent off a message to be radioed to Lae to find out what had happened. Then he had gone to the Dobudura area to await the next plane in. The Dobudura area, I learnt, was a maze of old wartime airstrips.No wonder the completely new pilot had been bushed.

During the day a message had come back from Lae to say that I had been left at Popondetta. It had been sent to Jack and as I had not turned up a search party was being organised to search for me.

While Jack was talking to me, my husband came in. He had walked the sixteen miles to Dobudura and there found a native who had been on the strip when my plane had come back to pick up the deaf European. The native said that he had helped to put the man’s luggage in the plane and that there was no white woman or children in the plane when it took off for Lae. My husband then decided to search all the airstrips in the vicinity, starting, fortunately, with the Inonda strip where I had been left. Here he found my suitcases and pushed onto Inonda village where they told him the story of my coming in the early morning and departure for Popondetta. He had followed on and almost caught up with me.

It was fourteen miles from Inonda to Popondetta and I felt every step. It seemed like forty!

When my husband arrived I kicked off what was left of my shoes and started to relax. “Don’t do that”, he said, “we still have half a mile to walk to get home”. I walked the half mile in bare feet.

Two days later I got our luggage, and what a mess! Everything was mildewed beyond redemption. There was nothing for it, I had to buy material from the trade store and make a complete set of new clothes for the lot of us.

The patrol officer who delivered the luggage from the strip told us that when he saw the drums and corrugated iron and the suitcases beside the strip, he stood to attention and saluted them. My first real compliment in the Territory!

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