Horses on patrol: Chips MacKellar

(Published Una Voce, June 1997, page 6)

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

Remember the allowances we used to get paid? Patrol allowance, boot allowance and so on? Well, in addition to these, as far as I am aware, I was the only kiap ever to be paid a saddle allowance. It was approved by the Public Service Commissioner, for supply, while on patrol, of horses, fodder, saddlery and accoutrement.

When I first arrived in Madang in the early 1960s, I was amazed at the size of the horse herds which then served no useful purpose, other than to keep the grass down between the coconut trees of the big plantations then owned by the Catholic and Lutheran missions. While the smaller plantations had only three or four horses, the larger plantations had as many as 40. Introduced before the war to supply remote inland mission stations, the horse had been superseded by light aircraft which did the same job, and a lot faster. Nevertheless, the horse herds which had survived the war were still there, slowly increasing in size by natural breeding, and all waiting for someone to take them on patrol.

To this day I can never understand why we busted our guts climbing mountains on foot, or sloshing through flooded flatlands, or plodding through the sweltering kunai, when it would have been so much easier with horses doing it all for us. But wherever I was stationed, no kiap, except me, ever seemed to be interested in using horses on patrol.

There were, however, two basic problems. The horses, although sometimes tame enough for mission kids to ride them around bareback, were generally unbroken to serious work; and there was always insufficient riding equipment. Although each mission station generally had a few left over saddles and bridles, these had long since rotted from years of humidity and neglect, and were no longer serviceable. The only answer seemed to be to supply my own equipment and to break the horses myself.

Although I had grown up with horses in North Queensland, I had never before broken one. But a few long foot patrols through the hot Madang hinterland soon convinced me that I could make patrolling a lot easier for myself if I used horses, and in order to do so I would need to do a crash course in horse breaking. There was no one in Madang to teach me how to do it, but I bought two books which proved to be so amazingly useful that I have kept them ever since, and they are still on my desk today as I write this story. One is How to Make Cowboy Horse Gear by Bruce Grant, and the other is Breaking and training a stock horse by Charles Williamson. The authors were retired Texas cowboys, and both have long since gone to the big Rodeo in the sky. But they left behind them, for others like me to learn, the traditional skills the cowboys used in the days of the Old West.

‘Horse breaking’, I was to learn, is not the same as ‘bronco busting’, which is a cruel and dangerous method of breaking a horse’s natural spirit. ‘Breaking’, I found, didn’t break anything. It uses simple animal psychology, or what we might call ‘good horse sense’. I was amazed to read for the first time at page 29 of Williamson’s book that in less than 30 minutes, the average barn-raised colt will ‘freeze’ when you say ‘Whoa’ and the commands of ‘whoa’ ‘hold it’ and ‘come here’ can be taught in an hour. But it was true, and all the rest was just as easy.

So, it didn’t matter if I was in Saidor, Madang or Bogia Subdistricts. Whenever it was time to go on patrol, I would approach the mission closest to the patrol route and ask to hire a horse.

At first, the standard reply was, you are welcome, but alas none of the horses is broken and we have no saddles. No problem, I would reply, I’ll break the horse for you and supply my own saddle. And I did. And thereafter there was always a well trained patrol horse waiting for me whenever I passed that way again.

The saddle at first was a problem, because the Australian saddle only has one girth and was never intended for the rugged mountain tracks of PNG. However, I soon twigged that the secret lay in the use of American style equipment, because a double rigged American saddle has two girths, better able to distribute the load during steep mountain climbing, and is otherwise better rigged for mountain work.

There was one other consideration. In the hot coastal climate of PNG, a grass fed horse burns up more energy than it would if it were in a temperate climate. It needs to eat while working, otherwise it will tire quickly. Australian bridles have bits which obstruct a horse from eating. On the other hand, an American hackamore has no bit, and allows a horse the freedom to eat while plodding along the track.

So, American gear it was to be, and following instructions from the book I made my own hackamore, and from an American mail order catalogue I ordered a Texas double rig saddle.

When the saddle arrived in Madang, all the kiaps and all the didimen assembled on the wharf while the crate was off-loaded from the ship. Customs officers, equally curious, cleared the crate immediately, and everyone stood around in a circle as we opened the crate, then and there, on the wharf. And as the saddle came out of the crate, everyone stared in amazement at this latest example of patrol technology. For, complete with its roping horn and wooden oxbow stirrups, Cheyenne cantle and hand tooled flaps, my saddle looked like an escapee from the Wild West.

But that saddle served me well, and although my horses changed from one mission station to the next, the saddle went with me everywhere as I patrolled the flat lands of the Ramu Valley, the hills behind Saidor, and the coastal plains along the shores of the Bismarck Sea. And these mission horses were amazing. They were in bred, cross bred, line bred, and anything but thorough bred. In fact they were no recognisable breed at all. But they swam the rivers while I rode in a canoe beside them, and they rafted across swamps on four canoes lashed together, and they trod the narrow mountain trails without fear of the precipitous drops into the valleys below.

Of course, there were some sheer mountain tracks and some one-log bridges they could not negotiate. In such places, the tracks had to be rerouted and the bridges widened with one or two more logs. But these innovations served a useful purpose, because after the horses had passed, the modified tracks were then negotiable by motorbikes, and as the years rolled by, these motorbike tracks were later widened into four-wheel drive roads.

The result was that wherever my horses went on patrol, a road of sorts would eventually follow. Therefore, not only did these horses give me more comfortable patrolling, they also played a useful role in opening up the Madang hinterland to its present day development.

There was, however, one patrol I could not take horses. The Adelbert Mountains were so close to Madang that its villages could look down on the coastal settlements of Dylup Plantations. But the Adelbert villages were so isolated from each other by plunging ravines and towering cliffs that sometimes villages on adjoining crags although within earshot of each other were days apart by walking track, because of the incredible terrain. It was such difficult patrolling that kiaps avoided it like the plague and it was no place to take a horse. So, I took a donkey… but that is another story.

For all the years I was stationed in the Madang District, I always used mission horses on patrol, and it was not until I arrived in the Morobe District that I had horses of my own. Kaiapit lay in the heartland of the Markham Valley, and its broad alluvial plains were good horse country. However, there were no mission stations nearby from whom I could hire horses.

But, at Dumpu, there was a big cattle station, with real live Australian stockmen in elastic sided boots and big hats, and Brahman bulls, and stockyards, and a homestead which looked like it had been transplanted from North Queensland. And along with their beautiful cattle they bred their own stock horses, equal to anything you might have found in the big cattle runs of North Queensland. I bought two of their best stock horses and kept them at Kaiapit – a dappled grey mare, and a fiery chestnut gelding.

Because of the broad flatlands of the Markham Valley, most of the patrolling there was done by vehicle. However, there were times when the horses were indispensable, for example, when flash floods wiped out bridges and creek crossings and made our feeder roads impassible to vehicles. The horses, of course, could still get through.

Some time in 1971 came a transfer to Menyamya which was an isolated mountain station deep in Kukukuku country. It was accessible in those days only by light aircraft, although foot patrols could of course get through with some difficulty.

When I was told of my transfer, I was devastated. ‘What will I do with my horses?’ I lamely asked District Commissioner Ron Galloway, ‘I can’t fly them in.’

‘Ride them in,’ he said.

For a moment, I was dumbfounded. Then he explained. DASF (Department of Agriculture, Stock & Fisheries) and the missions had for years been in the process of establishing cattle projects in the Kukukuku grasslands, by flying small calves in, in Cessnas. These calves had since grown up, bred up, and from these humble beginnings a cattle industry had developed, to the extent that cattle were now available for market. The problem was, without a road, there was no way to get them out. An access road had been commenced both from the Wau end and from the Menyamya end, but construction at both ends had stopped because of the impossible terrain.

Just as roads had followed my horses in the Madang hinterland, so the plan was for me to find a way for my horses into Menyamya, so that a road might follow them there.

Eventually, it did. But this trail blazing expedition into Menyamya took weeks, and because these were the first horses into Menyamya, when they arrived, they made headlines. Literally that is, with their photos, together with a Kukukuku warrior, on the front page of the PNG Post Courier. At the time I felt miffed, because my photo never made the front page, but my horses’ photo did.

Although the Kukukuku had by now become used to seeing cattle, they were totally amazed by the horses. At Menyamya I built a paddock for my horses adjoining my house and, for months after our arrival, fascinated Kukukuku would sit in a line along the paddock fence, huddled in their bark cloaks, just staring at the horses.

But soon the Kukukuku began feeding the horses. This habit began when the horses were attracted to the lines of Kukukuku people by the smell of roasted kaukau which the Kukukuku would eat while watching. Tentatively, young Kukukuku children would offer kaukau to the horses through the fence, and thereafter the horses associated the Kukukuku with food.

So whenever the horses passed a group of Kukukuku on a narrow mountain trail, the horses would sniff them out gently to see if any kaukau were offering. Sure enough, the Kukukuku would produce kaukau from their bilums, which the horses would munch, much to everyone’s delight. And so it came to pass that the horses became a useful contact medium between us and the Kukukuku.

At that time the policy was to open up the previously isolated Kukukuku country to the world outside. So, while the road to Wau was under construction again along the route the horses had come to Menyamya, we were also opening up the country internally, with roads radiating out from Menyamya along the valley walls. The horses were perfect for this task because they could negotiate the narrow foot trails easily, as we pegged out the routes for the future roads.

Even after the roads were built, the valley walls were so steep that a sudden rain storm could cause landslides and close the roads to vehicular traffic. But the horses could still get through, by walking over the landslides.

As the roads snaked out along the valleys, the road heads became more than a day’s ride from Menyamya. lt then became necessary for us to camp out and for this purpose the Kukukuku built small horse yards beside the rest houses for the horses to stay in overnight. The Kukukuku had experience in building stock yards for the mission cattle projects so they knew exactly what to do. The only problem was that in the Kukukuku grasslands, there was a shortage of bush timber, and on these steep mountain slopes, there was a shortage of flat land. For these reasons, the yards tended to be small, so small that there was hardly enough room inside for the horses to walk around. Still, the only other alternative was to tether the horses at night, so a small yard was better than no yard at all. Soon, from the highest mountain peaks, these little yards and their adjoining rest houses could be seen scattered along the valleys, like pony express stations.

When camped out along the roads at these rest houses, I would bring both horses with me from Menyamya, riding one, with the other following behind, nose to tail. Thereafter I would ride each horse on alternate days, leaving the other in the yard. As pickings were slim in these small yards, I fed the horses on the best Riverina racehorse mix, airfreighted in from Lae, and kept on patrol in ordinary patrol boxes. I would leave the box in the yard and open it at mealtimes. The horses would eat directly from the box, and then to keep out the rain and the damp night air, I would close the box until next meal time. And sometimes, late at night, I would awake to the sound of munching in the horse yard and I would know that the Kukukuku, huddled in their bark cloaks to keep out the cold mountain air, were also feeding the horses.

Gradually, the Kukukuku got used to me and the horses. Nevertheless the Kukukuku remained as wild as they always had been. J.K. McCarthy in his Patrol into Yesterday said that the Kukukuku tribes were the most bloodthirsty and vicious in New Guinea, and he was right, and in the more remote areas things had not changed much since McCarthy had passed this way. Even our own police were terrified of them, and I always carried a revolver strapped to my saddle horn, just in case. Of course there were still Kukukuku living is the distant hamlets who had never yet seen a horse, and one day I met one, face to face.

On this occasion, I was riding alone along a windswept mountain trail, ahead of the road work gang. I rounded a bend, and came face to face with a lone Kukukuku warrior, standing astride the narrow mountain track. Out of sight of my work party, I was alone with this fierce little warrior on the grassy wall of the plunging Menyamya Valley. The mighty Menyamya gorge towered high above us, and the river roared far below.

The Kukukuku was holding his traditional stone club, with which I knew he could crush a skull like an eggshell. The track was so narrow that there was no way around him, and the horse stopped, unable to pass. Knowing that the Kukukuku could bound up and down these grassy slopes like mountain goats, I asked him to move off the track and let me pass. Instead, he continued to stare at the horse boldly, even though he had never seen one before. The horse, on the other hand, unaware of this tense Mexican stand-off, began to sniff the Kukukuku in a friendly manner searching for the usual kaukau he had learned to expect when meeting Kukukuku along the track.

Fearlessly, the Kukukuku allowed himself to be sniffed all over, then casually he said, ‘What is this thing, Kiap? Is it some kind of bulmakau?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘it is a horse.’ I was amazed at his composure, confronted as he was by what must have been, to him, an enormous unusual animal.

‘Is it for eating?’ he asked again, casually. ‘No,’ I said, ‘it is for riding. You sit on it, just like I am sitting on it now.’ ‘Mi laik trai im,’ the warrior suddenly announced.

I certainly would not have wanted to sit on an animal as big as a horse, which I had never seen before, yet I was so astonished at this warrior’s courage that I dismounted and offered him a ride. The Kukukuku scrambled up the grassy slope beside us, and stepped into the saddle, still holding his stone club. I then walked ahead, and the horse followed, giving this fearsome warrior his first adult experience of mobility, other than on his own two feet.

‘Stop!’ the Kukukuku called suddenly after about 40 yards or so, ‘As bilong mi pen,’* and he dismounted. Then taking a final look at the horse, he concluded, ‘Mi no laik.’ And he walked off, leaving me alone with the horse on that windswept mountain track, high in the grasslands above Menyamya.

When my term at Menyamya was due to expire, I was told that my next posting would be Wabag, in the Enga District. I knew that the population there was so dense that there would be no more wide open spaces for the horses, and that my mounted kiap days were over. But my horses had been such faithful companions and had done such terrific work at Menyamya that I could not bear to sell them. Instead, I gave them to Lloyd Hurrell at Wau, knowing he would give them a good home.

When the time came to leave Menyamya, I rode the horses out along the same route I had ridden them in, but this time the route was a nearly completed motor road to Wau. This road was a fitting tribute to the work done by these magnificent horses at Menyamya.

After I left Menyamya, I never rode another horse again. But the saddle stayed with me for the next 10 years, and I brought it here when I returned to live in Australia. Unfortunately, big Texas double rig saddles don’t fit easily into small suburban residential units, and although I knew it would break my heart to part with it, there was, at the time, no other practical choice. So I took the saddle and its hackamore to the nearest saddler, and sold it.

I have no idea where that saddle is now, and its current owner will never know its history. But if this saddle could talk, it could tell wondrous tales of river crossings and swamps and jungles, of narrow trails and plunging ravines, and of the windswept high grasslands in some of the most magnificent mountain scenery in the world … memories which, even to me, are now slowly fading away.

But I still have a few mementos of this wonderful experience. I still have the books I mentioned, reminding me of how it all began. I still have the hat I wore everywhere I rode a horse in PNG, and hanging on the wall behind me is a pair of spurs I wore with all my horses on patrol.

*my bottom hurts


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