Guam Lakes Patrol – Des Pike
In January 1972, I undertook a brief patrol of the Nodabu region of the Aiome Patrol Post administrative area, which includes villages along the banks of the Ramu River. As this was to be a brief trip of only a few days, I thought that this would be a good opportunity for my wife, Philippa, to accompany me into an area that was seldom visited by outsiders. This was a departure from normal practice, and would probably not have been agreed to had I sought approval from Port Moresby. However, at the local level the District Commissioner, Des Clifton Bassett, gave his consent, so the proposed trip could proceed.
Although the Ramu Valley had numerous oxbow lakes (billabongs) and cut-off meanders and flooding in the wet season temporarily covered huge areas, permanent wetlands were a rarity in those upper and middle sections of the river. It came as a real surprise when, on an earlier visit, it was not possible to access these villages from the Ramu River by our outboard-powered river truck. Instead, we proceeded up a small, but strongly flowing clear water creek, to a point where encroaching vegetation made further progress impossible. From there, all the cargo was transferred to dugout canoes, which were waiting for us across a narrow stretch of dry land.
These canoes were then used to travel through the very extensive expanse of wetlands categorised as Lake Vargu, which was fed in part by wet season overflows from the Sogeram River, a major tributary of the Ramu. Much of the area was dependent on the monsoonal rains to maintain water levels, which dropped significantly during the dry season. The
interlocking lagoons were covered with water lilies and bordered with banks of tall rushes. Water birds were present in large numbers and the inherently unstable nature of the dugouts, together with their few inches of available freeboard, were of some concern in such a crocodile-friendly environment.
Fish were feeding at the surface among the lily pads while frogs and insects were abundant in the water. Dead trees were encountered as we paddled along, and I noted a fine specimen of the orchid Dendrobium mirbellianum flowering on the spare branches of one as we drifted by.
The trip to the first village took over an hour in the hot sun, but it was a revelation to me, as I had never experienced such a natural wonderland before. In later years, at Morehead and in Kakadu, the traversing of wetlands was to become commonplace, but that first quiet journey through the water lilies and winding reed-lined channels is still one of the most pleasant memories of the time I spent in the Madang District.
My initial visit to these villages had established that they were an independent lot. Given to quarrelling among themselves and harbouring a deep suspicion of other villagers who lived on the banks of the Ramu, they were renowned for their contentious qualities. I later learned that a little over twelve years previously, two patrols had been attacked while visiting these Guam Lakes people. In September/October of 1953 while on patrol of Kominimung area of Guam River, Jack Worcester and Bob Blaikie were attacked by a large group of village people many of whom had not had previous contact with Europeans. Patrol Officer Graham Taylor had a similar incident the previous year on the first visit to the area. Fortunately, there were no fatalities on either side on either occasion.
On this second visit Philippa, our dog Psyche and I first travelled to Aiome on one of the regular government charters and then, on a tractor with all our patrol gear, to the bank of the Ramu at Atiape. We then travelled downstream by river truck to the Base Camp established at Nodabu, which was more central to the majority of Middle Ramu populations.
A furnished, permanent material single officer’s house had recently been built there, which was currently unoccupied. While walking around the environs of the small station we found a good crop of mushrooms emerging from the grass around the house. Rather foolishly perhaps, we decided to have these mushrooms as a supplement to our evening meal. They were fried in butter and were a tasty and unexpected garnish to our dinner. However, I still had qualms about these fungal delicacies, so before retiring for the night I wrote a brief explanation of what we had eaten and left it on the dining table, addressed to ‘The Coroner’. In the event of our deaths by mushroom poisoning during the night, I thought I would make it easier for anyone conducting any inevitable investigation.
The following morning, we awoke without any adverse gastric consequences and set off in the river truck for the stream accessing the Guam Lakes. The canoes previously arranged for our onward journey were late but, eventually, after transferring our gear, we were off, paddling among the water lilies and after another pleasant journey we reached Kominimung village and set ourselves up in the rest house.
One of the reasons I was returning to the area was to purchase one of the traditional mosquito nets still being used by these villagers. I had noticed these on my first visit and had approval to use government funds to buy a suitable specimen for the PNG Museum, so I set about negotiating a fair purchase price. I was also to offer a Madang training course in gill netting to three suitable young men from the area.
The huge area of wetlands and swamps surrounding these villages meant that they were exposed to attack by dense swarms of mosquitoes after nightfall. The residents sought to solve this problem by weaving a large bell-shaped bag, open at the larger end, about six feet high, with a circumference at the open end of about twenty feet. This was made from the soft inner bark of the ‘tulip’ tree, Gnetum gnemon, and was very tightly woven to preclude access by any insect. The bottom sections were left as long unwoven streamers, which assisted in sealing the bottom of the bag. The pointed end was suspended from the roof of a village house, which was built on supports having a raised floor usually made from split lengths of black palm.
As the evening meal was consumed at twilight, the nightly sleeping arrangements were organised. The floor of the sleeping area was covered in mats closely woven from pandanus leaves, preventing mosquitoes from coming up through the floorboards. The mosquito net was then lowered until the streamers of fibre covered these mats and formed an acceptable seal. The whole family would then crawl into the protection provided by the woven bag and settle down for a night’s sleep.
The claustrophobic atmosphere inside this bag must have been dreadful and the foetid air barely breathable. I had heard stories of puddles of sweat being found under houses, beneath these mosquito nets after a particularly hot and humid night. These nets were highly valued and represented many hours of weaving by women in the extended family. Despite their shortcomings comfort-wise, anything was better than being attacked by the hordes of relentless and malarial mosquitoes.
After some haggling, I was able to buy a net in good condition. On handing over the cash, I suggested that the money paid be used to buy proper mosquito nets at the trade store at Annaberg Mission, but there was distrust of the flimsy European nets, and the old style of insect protection still had its supporters.
The changes that progress was imposing upon these isolated group of villages was brought home to us later when we were travelling back down the Ramu, and called in at a recently established riverside mission station at Korbanka. The missionary had been approached by a delegation from the Vargu Lake villages, with an unusual request. These villagers had a
strong tradition of men’s cult activities, based on intermittent celebrations held at night, despite the mosquitoes. While the whole village assembled at a designated area, the cultural ceremonies would begin by the lighting of fires around the periphery of the area. At some point in the proceedings, a mournful sound would be heard coming from the surrounding bush interspersed with a vibrating drone. The women and children would be very fearful as they were told that this was the sound of their ancestors’ spirits, emerging from the waters to participate in the ceremonies.
In fact, these sounds were produced by long bamboo flutes played by older men, and bullroarers so large that they took a strong man to swing them around at the velocity needed to create the vibrating drone.
At puberty, young men were initiated into the secrets of the cult, including the existence and function of the flutes and bull roarers, and were required to keep all they were told a deadly secret. Women were never to learn the truth about what was generating the sounds heard during these night-time ceremonies.
The problem for the tribal elders was that the flutes and bullroarers had to be hidden away in a haus tambaran (spirit house) or even in the bush, so that none of the uninitiated would ever come across them. In an inundated area such as the Guam Lakes, secure hiding places were difficult to find, and many were concealed in the convoluted trunks of banyan trees. The traditional penalty for any woman finding one of these sacred ceremonial items by accident, was immediate death.
Traditionally, the death of a village woman could be attributed to, and accepted as, due to supernatural causes. However, with the advent of regular government patrols, the covering up
of a death imposed for a cultural infringement, was a much more difficult proposition. As a way around this dilemma, the tribal elders decided to approach the Korbanka missionary with the request that he assume control of these sacred items, and that he hide them in some place on the mission where they were safely out of sight of all females. He told me he was initially reluctant to take on the job of caretaking heathen ritual objects, but he later consented on the grounds that it was evidence of the breaking down of unacceptable traditional practices, as well as eliminating a potential source of tragedy for some girl or woman.
We returned to Nodabu with the mosquito net, which was duly despatched to the museum. Philippa had had the opportunity to see an area which was seldom visited by outsiders, and in which the inhabitants still retained some of their more interesting traditional cultural practices.
I made several subsequent visits to the Kominimung area and never tired of the canoe journey to reach the group of villages surrounded by water. However, the outside world was catching up with this group. The local member of the House of Assembly, Jim McKinnon, arranged for a drum of Tilapia fish fingerlings to be dumped into the lake system. This was done on the grounds that these Tilapia had already been introduced into the lower Sepik area and had become a staple food for the villagers there. They were also supposed to prey on mosquito larvae in the water, but their dietary preferences in such an unfamiliar environment could not be guaranteed. Why he thought that the Guam Lakes needed an alien fish species, when there were large stocks of native fish available, was not explained.
We did arrange for several young Guam village men to visit Madang to be instructed in the use of gill nets and they were sent home with several nets each, to provide the residents with a ready source of food. What they caught with these is unknown, but it was probably an endless supply of tasteless, soggy-fleshed Tilapia.