Building Nuku airstrip: George Oakes

In early 1957 I did a patrol of many of the villages in the Palei/Maimai region of Lumi Sub-District in the Sepik District. In early February I met up with ADO Frank Jones near Nuku and we cleared and surveyed the possibility of building an airstrip. We agreed an airstrip could be built on the site of a small previous Catholic Mission airstrip which was not then used. However, there would be quite a bit of work involved as the site had a slope of about 8 degrees and also a fairly steep cross slope. Our patrols then went their separate ways finishing at Lumi.

The Palei/Maimai area had been patrolled prewar but some of the villages in the southern Maimai approaching the Sepik River had not had much contact with the outside world. In about 1938, Patrol Officer N C Elliott had been killed near a village a few miles north of Nuku. About this time, the Maimai Police Post was established not too far from Nuku. After the war the area had been patrolled a few times. Recruiters had been through the area and many of the men had worked on plantations mainly in the New Guinea Islands. In early 1957, the estimated population of the area was about 15,500. At the time of my visit many of the people still wore traditional clothes: men wore a small shell covering the tip of their penis and tied around their scrotum, and, especially in the lower Maimai, nearer the Sepik River, single women wore a short grass skirt about 50mm long and about 200mm wide. Married women wore nothing!

In March we received word at Lumi for me to go ahead and construct an airstrip at Nuku where a new Patrol Post would be established. I had some previous experience with airstrips. In 1952, I spent 6 months in National Service with the RAAF when I trained as a pilot on Tiger Moths. Part of the course was a study of airstrips. I had also spent some time in 1954/5 at Mendi reconstructing the Mendi airstrip. I realised I needed an instrument to check levels as we built the airstrip. No clinometer was available. So I made one. I got a thick piece of plywood and cut out a triangle about 200 mm high and about 400 mm long shaped like the roof of a house. I then drilled a hole about 10 mm diameter near the top of the triangle. Through this hole I put a large nail so that the triangle could swing. When it stopped swinging I got a spirit level and marked along the bottom a line representing a level surface. It was then easy to mark in various slopes. The important ones I needed were 8 degrees, representing the slope of the airstrip, and approximately 1.125 degrees, representing 1 in 40 for the cross slope of the strip. I then put little nails into the wood representing the various slopes. Then by holding it up by the nail and waiting for it to stop swaying I was able to sight the angle I wanted.

I then moved to Nuku where I had arranged for a Haus Kiap and police quarters to be built near the side of the proposed airstrip. The first job was to put a centre line down the strip keeping the slope fairly steady at 8 degrees and putting in pegs at intervals. The strip would be when completed about 730 m (800 yards) long. The width when completed would be 76 m (250 ft). However, in the early stages only about 60 m (200 ft) would be available until filling had settled. Most of the work involved cutting on one side and filling up the other side to get a 1 in 40 cross slope. To do this, trenches were dug at right angles to the centre line and pegs put in every 3 m. Trenches were 3 m apart. The first thing was to dig out the trenches then we were left with islands 3 m by 3 m to be dug out. Some of these islands were over 2 m high.

Every village in the Palei/Maimai became involved in the airstrip work. Villages which were close to Nuku were given the job of growing food rather than working on the strip. Further away village people then came in for several days work and were fed from the food grown by nearby villages. This system worked quite well. The only equipment we had for the strip building was 120 spades. The people made stretchers from bush materials in order to carry the soil from one side of the strip to the other. As we were short on spades, many people used sharp pointed sticks to break up the clay. Others used the base of limbon fronds to carry the soil to the other side. As the lower side gradually filled up we arranged singsings when the men stomped the ground to help it settle. The daily attendance to the strip work was about 500 to 600 although on some occasions we had over 1,500 men working on the strip. Work went on from Mondays to Saturdays each week from April until October. I estimated that by the time I left Nuku over 30,000 cubic metres of soil had been moved from one side of the strip to the other. One of the big advantages of so many people working on the strip was that enmities between villages seemed to stop and everyone got on much better with each other. When the soil and clay had all been moved over we then put a thin layer of   black soil over the surface into which we planted grass. This work had to be checked regularly as when it rained, rivulets of water would cut into the surface and the soil had to be replaced.

On 8 October 1957, a Cessna 180 landed with Bishop Arkfeld at the controls and the District Officer, Fred Kaad. The people were ecstatic. Also I was surprised to find that most of the people who came to see the plane land were wearing laplaps. Then on 4th November, the Cessna 180 came in again with the Bishop in control and 3 passengers: Fred Kaad, Mr Ungan, the District Airport Inspector, and Mr Digby from Dept of Works. The airstrip was then opened to Cessnas and I was told would be opened to Norseman and other aircraft when the filling had hardened and some more work had been done.

Before I left Nuku to go on leave and then to the Patrol Officer’s 1 year course at ASOPA, I marked out 130 acres to be purchased for the new Patrol Post. I had spent a total of 214 days at Nuku building the airstrip with just patrol equipment. One of the comforts I had while I was at Nuku was having about 2 kg of freezer meat air dropped to me once a fortnight by an MAF plane on its regular run to Green River. Sometimes this landed safely wrapped in its small bag while on a few occasions it was splattered across the strip. However, it was always cooked up quickly and if I did not finish it within 24 hours it went rotten. But it was always nice to look forward to it. I also learnt a good way of finding out when a patrol from Lumi was on its way to Nuku as I had no radio contact with the outside world. When a patrol entered the Palei area, the village garamuts would beat a message which would be sent down through the villages to Nuku usually just after the sun had set. Each village would have their own introductory message beaten on the garamut followed by the message. Although the patrol was still over 3 days away I would know about them in less than half an hour and often who was on it. It was cleverly done like morse code.

I appreciated the comment that Fred Kaad later wrote. He said, “The difference between the Palei-Maimai people I saw in the Dreikikir and Seim area in 1956 and the same people I have seen on my three visits to Nuku over the last two months is astonishing. Whereas before they were naturally hostile and non-co-operative, even with the Administration, they are now, at least on the surface, friendly and helpful toward one another and anxious to aid the government as far as possible”.

More recently I have been in contact with Michael O’Connor who has written New Guinea Days, describing his time as a Patrol Officer in New Guinea. After I left Nuku, Michael spent several months there and as requested by the District Airport Inspector had to construct 5 big drains 4 feet deep diagonally across the strip and fill them with stones. Following the completion of these drains Norseman aircraft were allowed to land.

I have been able to compile this story from my patrol reports, from the many colour slides I have, and from about 15 minutes of 8 mm movie film I took during 1957 and, of course, from memories.


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