The Kwato Incident

The Kwato Incident

View of Kwato Island

Jane Brumley

Our family has had a very adventurous life. From my parents, especially Mum, down to us. Our parents were quite happy for us, their kids, to run amok and ultimately learn from our mistakes. This story is about one of those incidents. I often think back to it and think ‘My God, the things we did as kids!’

It occurred when we lived on the small island, Samarai, in the middle of Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea.

On one glorious sunny morning, the Edwards kids, who lived a couple of doors up from us, my sister Jillian and I decided we were going to commandeer a dinghy from amongst several that were landed on a small sandy beach near the local library, close to Samarai wharf. I think I was ten or eleven years old at the time.

We decided to row this boat from the beach across a stretch of water to a small mission island called Kwato. Our goal was oysters, yes oysters, located on rocks at one end of Kwato Island.

I hated oysters, but it sounded like a great idea, and we were itching for a big adventure.

Never mind that the currents through this stretch of water were treacherous—or that the waters around Kwato were inhabited by a huge shark, that had eaten a couple of swimmers. The tale of this shark had got taller with each telling until it made legendary status. Everyone was really scared of it.

The other undersea current that flowed around the other side of the island, between Samarai Island and the mainland, in a channel called the China Straights, was even worse.

However, on this day, the air was still, the water was like glass, not a ripple in sight. Only the sound of little waves running up on the beach and water bubbling through sand under our feet. It was a beautiful day! The thought of looming trouble never entered our heads. So, we borrowed (stole) someone’s tinny and set off to Kwato, taking turns rowing and singing sea shanties all the way. ‘Row, row, row your boat …’ that sort of thing. The going was easy.

As luck would have it, we chose the larger of the dinghies. We Brumley kids had our own small dinghy at home. It was made for us by a shipwright friend of the family, and we named the little boat the ‘Uncle Jack’ after Jack. The ‘Uncle Jack’ was tiny. But on this day, it was someone else’s boat we were rowing and, being much bigger, it saved our lives. We arrived at our destination around mid-morning.

I cannot remember eating any oysters. We mucked around on the rocks for an hour or so, then noticed that the wind had picked up, so decided to head back to Samarai.

We hit trouble as soon as we left the sheltered bay near the rocks and moved into the channel. The wind had really picked up by this time and the water was choppy. From what we could see we were being carried off course by the strong currents. We pulled those oars even harder trying to get back on course but by now it was blowing a gale and the sea was rough. We were definitely heading off course in a direction that would have seen us carried out past the islands of Milne Bay into the Coral Sea.

From afar we saw the Samarai ferry taking off from Kwato wharf and as it levelled with us, in the distance, we tried to flag it down, waving wildly trying to attract the skipper’s attention. Our hopes were dashed, as it motored past on its course to Samarai wharf.

By this time we were up the proverbial creek, trying to hide the look of panic on our faces. We tried to reassure each other by keeping our chins up and keeping rowing, knowing it was hopeless making any headway against the current.

As it happened, Mum had come home for lunch and found her kids missing. The housekeeper told her we had gone to the ocean pool for a swim, so she headed down there to see where we were. No sign of us. At the deep-sea end of the pool a couple of locals were fishing so she went over and asked if they had seen us. The older man pointed to a little dot on the horizon—a dinghy with four kids in it being carried away by the strong current and disappearing fast over the horizon.

Mum raced home and rang Dad who rang Uncle Jack to organise a rescue effort. Uncle Jack sprang into action, cranked up his outboard and roared off. While still in earshot he heard Dad yell out ‘And while you’re at it, kick their a###s!!!’

Meanwhile, by this time we were growing tired and really frightened. It was then that we spotted a large tinny heading out from Samarai in our direction. As it came closer we recognised the familiar silhouette of our Uncle Jack steering the outboard.

You can imagine the sheer relief when his tinny sidled up to our boat. All I can remember is he had a huge grin on his face—like, you kids are in deep s##t. He threw a line to us to lash to the bow of our boat and then towed us back to Samarai. The trip back was rough, but we all made it in one piece.

We did not get kicked; our parents figured we had got the fright of our lives and that was enough.


Worked for Burns Philp in Popondetta and Port Moresby from 1980 through 1987

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