By donkey through the Adelberts: Chips MacKellar

(Published in Una Voce, September 1997, page 7)

Malcolm (Chips) MacKellar
1953-1955 CPO Daru and Lake Murray (Western District)
1955-1956 P.O. Mount Hagen (Western Highlands District)
1957 ASOPA Long Course
1958-1964 PO at Madang and Bogia: ADC at Saidor (Madang District)
1964-1968 ADC Esa’ala, Samarai and Trobriand Islands (Milne Bay District)
1969-1970 Queensland University – B.A. (Anthropology)
1971-1972 ADC Kaiapit and Menyamya (Morobe District)
1972-1974 Enga District, District Court Magistrate, Wabag
1974-1980 District Court Magistrate, Ela Beach Court House, Port Moresby

In a previous story, I told how I became a ‘mounted’ kiap, patrolling mainland Papua New Guinea for many years, on horseback. I told how I took my horses everywhere throughout the Madang District during the 1960s, through swamp and kunai, rivers and rain forest, always amazed at the agility and stamina of these sure footed PNG bred Mission horses. I did say however, that there was one patrol when I could not take my horses, and this is the story of that patrol.

The Adelbert Mountains are not high by PNG standards. They do not rate as ‘highlands’, but rather as ordinary coastal hinterlands. In fact, the Adelbert Mountains were so close to Madang that their villages could look down on the coastal settlements around Dylup Plantations. But geographically close through they might have been to the settled Madang coastline, villages in the Adelberts were isolated from each other and also from the rest of the Madang District because of the towering cliffs and the plunging ravines of this rugged mountain region. Sometimes villages on adjoining crags were within earshot of each other, yet they were days apart by walking track. This was because of the incredible mountain topography. It was such difficult patrolling in fact, that kiaps avoided it like the plague. And it was no place to take a horse.

So after I drew the short straw to patrol the Adelberts one year, all the other kiaps were giving me a bad time in the Madang Hotel. They teased me that I might have to walk for a change, and they made jokes of me climbing vertical rock faces with my saddle dangling on a rope, and so on. There were even those so unkind as to suggest that even though I could not take a horse there, I might be seen crossing these mountains on my saddle astride a pole, held aloft by a team of carriers. It was all in good fun until one of the didimen witnessing my discomfort said “Why don’t you take a donkey?” and suddenly the talk was all serious.

I had seen little donkeys carrying big fat Arabs during a previous overseas trip to the Middle East and I remember marvelling at the time, at the incredible strength of these little animals. The didiman who made the suggestion told me that a nearby village had been given four donkeys for some kind of livestock project, but that the project for some reason not explained to me, had failed. The donkeys, however, were still there, and though they were no longer used for their original purpose, whatever that was, they might be available for me to take on patrol.

So, accompanied by this didiman, I went next day to the village just outside Madang, to inquire. The Village Councillor said I could take one of the donkeys, but like all donkeys he said knowingly, this donkey was a ‘bighead’. Would it buck? I asked tentatively. No, he said, but it would only obey one handler, and that handler was a young child. Moreover, that child could only control the donkey by the carrot and stick principle, which he operated in tandem with his mother. They had no carrots of course, so they used pawpaw instead, the principle being the same, you see.

My saddle was too big for the donkey, and he had none of his own. There was no bridle, and the donkey, being a bikhet, refused to be led by a rope. I would have to ride bareback, holding on as best I could, and there was no way I could control the donkey’s movements alone. The whole idea did not seem very promising at first, but spurred on by the horrible thought that I might otherwise have to walk across the Adelberts, I decided to road-test the donkey. He was only waist high, and I mounted him simply by standing on one leg and swinging the other across his back. When seated, I could almost touch the ground with my toes.

The donkey did not seem to mind my weight. In fact, as I was later to learn, my weight did not seem to affect his performance at all. However, I envisaged that there might be a problem in getting the donkey to move and stay on course. Not to worry, the Councillor reassured me, the donkey will simply follow the child.

And he did. And I know you won’t believe me, but this is the way they got the donkey to move: First, the child stood in front of the donkey, with a pawpaw in a bilum. The child would call the donkey, and show him the pawpaw at the same time. As the donkey moved forward towards the pawpaw, the child would swing the bilum around behind him, and walk off. The donkey, with the pawpaw clearly in sight in the bilum on the child’s back, would then follow, intent on closing in on the pawpaw. But he would never quite get there, because the child was always one step ahead of the donkey. Now and again, the donkey would tire of this game, and would simply stop in his tracks. The child’s mother following along behind would then catch up to the donkey, and smack it gently with a stick on the rump. Starting forward in response to the smack, the donkey would suddenly develop a renewed interest in the contents of the bilum, and would begin to close in on the pawpaw again.

The road test of the donkey in that village outside Madang on that day proved quite successful, notwithstanding some unscheduled stops and starts. But the donkey, you see, was part of a team which included the child, and his mother, and I could not take one without the others. So, some negotiation followed with the didiman and the Councillor and the child’s parents and the end result of these negotiations was that I hired the donkey for the duration of the patrol, together with the child and his parents whom I signed on as carriers. The didiman was so pleased that he had at last found a use for one of the project donkeys that he then agreed to transport the donkey by DASF (Dept of Agriculture Stock & Fisheries) vehicle to the road head, and on the appointed day, the patrol began.

As each patrol always developed its own dynamics, the police quickly identified all the patrol personnel for easy reference purposes. The child became “donkey boy” and his parents were “moma papa donkey”. All reference to the donkey automatically included its accompanying family. Thus when the senior NCO reported each day “donkey ready” that meant that the child’s bilum contained a pawpaw, the mother was ready with her stick, the father was packed up and ready to go.

With the donkey well integrated into the patrol’s retinue, we soon settled into a useful routine. The order of precedence went like this: The patrol was guided by two Tultuls, one from the village of departure, and the other from the village of destination. Thereafter came the interpreter, the police bugler who also doubled as my orderly, the child with the pawpaw, me on the donkey, the child’s mother with the stick, the child’s father carrying the family personal effects, the junior police NCO at the head of the carrier line, then the carriers interspersed by police and, finally, the senior police NCO bringing up the rear.

This order of precedence was not strictly in accordance with DDA Standing Instructions for General Field Administration (Volume 1, page 32, Para 10), but then we were, after all, in extraordinary topography, so I had adjusted the Standing Instructions with appropriate local variations, in order to accommodate the donkey.

At the end of each patrol day, the donkey got to eat the pawpaw he had been following that day. He must have thought it was all worth while, because the following day we would start all over again with a new pawpaw in the bilum. Thus, with the donkey following a different pawpaw in the bilum each day, that is how I patrolled the Adelberts.

In the beginning, all went well, then four days out of Madang, we came upon our first major obstacle. The foot track went straight up, zigzagging from one rock to another, six hundred feet from bottom to top. It was a typical Adelbert mountain track. I was doomed to walk the Adelberts after all, I thought… But not so. True, I had to dismount on this occasion and clamber up the cliff face on foot, just like everyone else. But the unladen donkey continued to follow the pawpaw up the cliff face, by jumping from rock to rock, just like a mountain goat. At the top of the cliff, I remounted the donkey and continued riding until we reached the next major obstacle.

Thereafter, I had to dismount for every vertical ascent or descent, but for any other ascent less than vertical, the donkey continued to carry me unperturbed, as I clung on bareback like a monkey. The strength and agility of this little donkey was amazing. And so were his eating habits. He would not eat at all during the day, but once we arrived in a village for the night he would be given the pawpaw which he had followed faithfully during that day, and by then he would be ready for a decent feed. In consultation with the family we would select, within the village precincts, a young banana tree for the donkey’s evening meal, negotiate a price for the tree, and lead the donkey to it. Eating first the leaves, and then the trunk, the donkey would totally demolish the banana tree. Then, on the exact spot where the tree used to be, the donkey would curl up like a dog and go to sleep. The child’s parents would then make their camp fire beside the donkey and cook and eat their meal there. Later, all four would sleep around the fire until morning, just like a typical village family camping out with the family dog.

Because of the donkey’s position at the head of the patrol line, the speed of the patrol was governed by the speed of the donkey. So when the donkey was hopping happily from rock to rock like a mountain goat, the patrol proceeded at a fairly brisk pace. But you see, donkeys are by nature, ornery, cantankerous and stubborn, and sometimes when the mood visited him, the donkey would stop, and refuse to budge. When this happened, the patrol would also have to stop.

There was no predicting when these unscheduled stops might occur. Sometimes they happened in the pouring rain, or when the patrol was negotiating its way along a narrow rocky ledge, of some horrible, precipitous Adelbert ravine. These unscheduled stops were always inconvenient, but we soon developed useful techniques for dealing with them, by using variations of applied donkey psychology. There was of course the “carrot and stick” method, using the pawpaw in lieu of a carrot, in the manner already explained. When this did not work, we used the “push-me pull-you” method. For this method the mother would move to the front, and with an arm around the donkey’s neck, try to pull him forward. At the same time, the father would put his shoulder to the donkey’s rump, and push from behind. Inducing the donkey to take a single step was often all that was required to break his gridlock, and we would then be mobile again.

However, on one memorable occasion, no amount of coaxing could get the donkey to move. We were stopped, near a village, on the sheer wall of a craggy ravine. The track was so narrow that the carriers could not pass the donkey, and they had put down their loads and were resting. The Police Corporal made his way up from his rear echelon position in the carrier line to inquire into the hold up. “Wanem?” he asked abruptly. “Donkey les*” the donkey boy announced. The Corporal looked around for inspiration, then seeing the front line carriers sitting around a small fire smoking, he came up with a brilliant idea. “Light a fire under him,” he suggested. I had no wish to harm the donkey, but a small fire might work. “Okay,” I said. The Corporal took part of the carriers’ fire and deposited it on the ground beneath the donkey’s belly. This new tactic momentarily surprised the donkey, and feeling the heat, he moved forward several paces to avoid the fire, then stopped again. “Move the fire,” the Corporal commanded. The carriers put the fire beneath the donkey again, and again with the same results. So we kept moving the fire, and the donkey kept moving forward a few paces. Finally, after five movements of the fire, the donkey tired of this game, and walked off happily down the track again, towards the village.

But the worst delay on the patrol route occurred through no fault of the donkey. Towards the end of the patrol, we came across a monstrous gorge which separated two villages, each within sight of the other, on opposite walls. The sides of the gorge were perpendicular, and there was no track down to the bottom. But, since time immemorial, a suspension bridge had connected the two villages.

Made from vines and native rope, this suspension bridge was a masterpiece of traditional engineering, and it was strong enough to take the whole carrier line. However, the footway consisted only of twisted vines, and there was no way the donkey could walk across. My heart sank. To think we had come so far, only to be thwarted during the final days of the patrol. I sent the carrier line with my cook boy and some police across the bridge to set up camp in the village on the far side of the ravine, while the Corporal and I, together with the donkey’s family, considered the options.

We thought about detouring around the gorge but that would have taken days. The only other alternative seemed to be to send the donkey back home along the way we had come. However, the donkey’s family, being from coastal Madang, were in unfriendly country up here in the Adelberts, so for them to get home safely, I would have had to supply them with a police escort. Suddenly, the Corporal had another brilliant idea. “Why don’t we carry the donkey across?” he suggested.

We all agreed that the donkey was small enough for four policemen to carry him upright, each lifting one of his legs. However, this was provided that the donkey did not struggle, kick, or bite. Yet, looking back to our experience with him so far on this patrol, he had never done that. All he had ever done, when blocking the patrol, was to prop, with his legs rigid, which was, after all, an ideal stance for him to adopt if we were to carry him.

Still, I needed to be sure, before risking the safety of my personnel on the suspension bridge. I needed to be convinced that the donkey would cooperate. This time wisdom came from the mouths of babes and sucklings, or more precisely, from the mouth of one child, the donkey boy. And standing there on that rocky mountain ledge, what we all got then was not a lesson in child psychology, but a lesson in donkey psychology from a child.

Like us, the donkey boy explained in his own way, the donkey is a social animal, with a herd instinct. This particular donkey has become attached by his herd instinct, to the donkey boy’s family. The donkey is far away from his home paddock, and his only point of social reference is his family. If we leave him behind here alone, and cross the bridge without him, he will try to follow. But knowing that he cannot cross the bridge alone, he will call for help. Donkeys, the child reminded us, are ornery, obstinate and stubborn. But they are not stupid. So if the family stays on the far side, the donkey will know that the only way he can rejoin them is to be carried across the suspension bridge, so he will not struggle, kick or bite.

I was convinced.

So, following the child’s instructions, we approached the suspension bridge; the Corporal, the donkey’s family, and me on the donkey. The donkey took one look at the bridge and propped suddenly. But this time there was no “carrot and stick”, no “push-me pull-you”, no encouragement of any kind. I dismounted, and walked across the bridge, marvelling at the intricacy of its construction. The Corporal and the family followed. They ignored the donkey, who was left alone beside the gorge.

And it wasn’t long before the donkey’s mournful braying could be heard from across the gorge, and I looked to the child for direction. “Not yet, Kiap,” said this little boy with the wisdom of Solomon, “let him cry more.”

We were already late, and I had a lot of work to do in this village. “When the time comes,” I told the Corporal, “take some police back and see if you can help the donkey across.” The Corporal acknowledged and disappeared, and I began the village census. And all that morning, the doleful braying of the donkey could be heard reverberating across the gorge.

As the day wore on, I became enmeshed in land disputes, civil claims, adultery cases, native labour compensation claims and all the other assorted matters of routine village administration, and towards late afternoon I realised that the donkey had stopped braying. Then, as darkness fell and I was returning to the rest house, I saw the donkey boy enter the village, closely followed by the donkey and four policemen.

I took the pawpaw from the child’s bilum, and fed it to the donkey. “Was there any problem?” I asked the Corporal.

“No Sir,” he said, “we just carried him,” as if carrying donkeys across swaying suspension bridges was a routine police patrol function. And a few days later, back in the Madang Hotel, the other kiaps listened with envy as I told them how I rode that donkey through the Adelberts. And one old hand who had done that patrol before, was amazed. “But how did you get the donkey across that suspension bridge?” he asked.

“No problem,” I said, “we just carried him.” And to this day, I still don’t know if they believed me.

All this happened 35 years ago, but the experience is still with me as if it happened yesterday. And whenever old kiaps are together at reunions and other gatherings and we are swapping yarns and reminiscing, I still tell this story of how I patrolled by donkey through the Adelberts.

*The donkey is lazy/tired.


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