Isolation in post-war Papua: Nancy Johnston

(Published Una Voce, March 1997, page 15 and in Tales of Papua New Guinea, page 105)

Nancy Johnston was wife of the late Bill Johnston who began his career in PNG as a Patrol Officer in 1946. He rose through the ranks to a/DC and was promoted to Director of Civil Defence in 1970. Nancy went to PNG as a bride in December 1946 and spent her early married life on outstations.

In September 1947, after living in primitive conditions with idyllic tropical surroundings at Bwagaoia on Misima Island we were transferred to Kulumadau, Woodlark Island, for Bill to open a patrol post. Life was an adventure and we were not perturbed at the prospect of isolation. There was no wireless receiver/transmitter available but we were promised one would be on the next boat and there would be six-weekly visits by the Government trawler with our stores and supplies. Neither promise was kept, we were fourteen months without a wireless transmitter and there were intervals of three or four months between the visits of the trawler bringing our half filled orders from the stores in Samarai.

Our house, reputedly, was the old school building, built early in the century when gold mining was flourishing on the island. It was made of corrugated iron with timber panelling inside and the contents were an old wooden table and three chairs. The only furniture issued to us was a Silent Knight refrigerator which only worked if propped lopsided. There was no electricity and water was carried in buckets from a nearby creek. Makeshift furniture was made from packing cases and we scrounged what we could from pre-war junk including bits and pieces of a fuel stove and a rusty wire bed mattress which, in reality, was in better condition than the one we slept on at Misima. That one had a lid of a tea chest covering a large hole in the wire mattress which was then covered with an army blanket substituting for a mattress.

At the time of our arrival native foodstuffs were not available – a cargo cult was in progress and the prevailing drought conditions did not help. We had brought a six weeks’ supply of rice from Misima for the native staff but with no local vegetables available to help along and the trawler not coming within the six weeks as promised, the situation became desperate. The police, medical orderlies, hospital patients and prisoners needed to be fed. Bill, in desperation, took a canoe across the open sea to Gawa and Kaiwata Islands to obtain food for the hungry people. He was subsequently reprimanded by Headquarters for his ‘foolish’ action and told not to do it again. Our plight had been drawn to their attention but it made no difference to our situation.

We too were short of food. Until we reared some poultry for eating and grew some taro, yams and sweet potato, we relied on bush pig, pigeons, fish and turtle. We even ate parrots and stingray. I had the unique advantage of being able to shoot parrots for the soup pot through the kitchen window with a .22 rifle. With Christmas being three months after our arrival and the trawler not calling, and not having Christmas cheer and greetings, we took a canoe to a beach, shot some pigeons, cooked them in a camp oven with rancid tinned butter and called it a day.

When the trawler did arrive we took stock of our half filled order, realising it was likely to be another three months before more stores arrived. Many items had been substituted with inferior goods. If we were an example, the outstation people really got a rough deal from the stores in Samarai in the early post war years. We did not receive potatoes or onions for eleven months and the tinned meat was usually beef steak pudding, so named because, on opening the tin, a flaccid piece of pastry was found covering a few bits of anaemic meat in some watery gravy – it was disgusting and inedible. This meat was substituted for tapered bully beef. The flour, without exception, came in weevil ridden hessian bags. With time the ‘protein’ value of the flour increased! Our experiences at Woodlark, where we made do with things and did without others, are too many to condense to a few pages.

What a wonderful sound it was when the natives set up the call ‘sailo’. The visit of the trawler was a big event. It meant MAIL and that we saw other European people, the skipper or perhaps a Government officer from Misima. The visits of the vessel, three or four times a year, and the mail and newspapers we received, was our contact with the outside world. It was good to hear the local gossip and what was happening in the world. We stayed up all night, sorting and answering official and family mail so replies could leave at first light the next morning. Personally, we did not consider it a lonely life, but we missed not having frequent news from our families.

The only transport was by foot or canoe so Bill decided, instead of relying on native owned canoes for patrolling, to build a large ocean going double canoe. It was my job to handsew the sails from old discarded navy blue serge police ramis. It was an ongoing job, the material was old and rotten and consequently tore in the wind. We had a ‘social’ life – some weekends we spent living and sleeping on this canoe. In addition, we used a pit on the old mine site, that had filled with water over the years, as a backyard swimming pool. A heavy roller, found amongst some discarded mining equipment, was used to make a tennis court by hardening and flattening the surface of some level ground. Lime from burnt coral was used for painting the lines and long pliable sticks, woven together, made an adequate fence. The net was made by the local people, using the same materials they used for their fishing nets.

There was no proper medical help. The hospital, built from bush materials, was staffed by three Native Medical Orderlies and, being without a wireless transmitter, we had no way of calling for assistance if needed. Bill and I stayed fit and well and the police and labour line were kept healthy by Bill lining them every morning and, armed with a large beer bottle filled with cod liver oil and a jar of ascorbic acid tablets, the men were given their daily dose. Bill stood elevated on a flight of steps at the back of our house and, as each man ambled past, he opened his red betelnut-stained mouth for Bill to throw in a tablet, followed by the upending of the bottle of cod liver oil so the recipient got a good swig to wash it down.

We survived the hardships and never, were we bored. The total isolation did not worry us but it was a dreadful time for our parents, not hearing from us for months on end, not knowing how we were faring or if we were dead or alive. It was the life we had chosen, we were together, young, healthy and confident and did not consider we were unfairly treated. But we were. We later learnt the wireless set provided for Woodlark was retained at Misima for unofficial use.

However, the time spent at Woodlark was an experience we would not have wanted to miss. It taught us to be self-reliant in so many ways and we left with no regrets. The letter Bill still has, from the District Officer at the time of our departure, is written praise on the way he handled the patrol post and how we survived the situation without complaint. Kulumadau was not manned again for sixteen years when we were surprised to read in the South Pacific Post that Woodlark had been opened for the first time since the war. Our time there in 1947/48 was forgotten history.

Our next posting, to Sehulea on Normanby Island, was again complete isolation, particularly for me because Bill was away most of the time on patrol and there were no other white people there. The local people could not speak or understand the English language: they were primitive but friendly people. There was plenty of seafood and native vegetables and as a precaution we brought with us an over-supply of tinned foods, so except for mail we were not worried about the workboat not calling.

The house was built from bush materials with a thatched roof, the walls and doors were made from plaited sago palm and everything was bound together with strips of skin from the lawyer cane. The floor, made from split curved black palm, had large cracks between the strips, it had a corrugated effect and took me a couple of weeks to get used to walking on it. The outside thatched eaves kept the rain from coming through the windows which were openings in the walls. The whole structure was frail and it would have been a joke if locks had been put on the door. The water for household use ran from a nearby creek in a split bamboo ‘pipe’ to a drum at the bottom of the outside steps. The pit type toilet was in a grass hut some distance from the house amongst the trees and, as in other places, the clothes were boiled in a drum and rinsed at the creek. There was no refrigerator or wireless transmitter/receiver. Medical help was at Esa’Ala, a three day canoe trip away where there was a Medical Assistant, or at Samarai if a doctor was needed. There was no plane service to Samarai, so the latter depended on the availability of shipping from Esa’Ala.

The drums in the nearby village beat throughout the nights and the noise from the dense bush took a lot of getting used to but, like many other things, it was a matter of time for it to become an accepted part of my life. We bought a small lighting plant but after Bill departed on a six week patrol, taking the lamps with him, on the first night, for the first time, the engine refused to turn over which meant I was without lights. So, by using a bottle filled with kerosene, and a piece of string for a wick, I made a tiny lamp with a flame the equivalent to that of a lighted match stick.

Seldom did I get frightened to the extent I was terrified, but in the dark early hours one morning I was scared by an obvious noise under the house and I could see a flashing lamplight through the large cracks in the bedroom floor, clearly indicating someone was there. Then a voice called, ‘Sinabada, a pass from Taubada’ and a letter from Bill was pushed through a crack in the floorboards beside my bed. On looking back, it is hard to imagine how I sat alone, isolated in the middle of nowhere, every night for six weeks, with a tiny flickering flame. I was fortunate the local people were more caring than harmful so really, in hindsight, there was little to be afraid of but when alone and isolated with no one to turn to, some situations seem worse than they really are.

It was a lonely time, not having lighting and a wireless for outside contact and news. With no wireless for company, or nearby friends, relatives or neighbours to call on as would be the case in civilisation, I often sang loudly, mostly old Sunday School hymns, to break the silence and the only English I spoke was to my dog. He was a good companion and before going to bed at night we went outside together, he against the tree, before accompanying me to the toilet in the bush hut – he then slept beside my bed.

We were saved from further isolation when Bill was selected to attend the long course at the Australian School of Pacific Administration at Middle Head, in our home city of Sydney. The day and overnight trip to Samarai, by the small workboat, would rate as the worst we ever experienced in our intra Territory travels. The waves crashed over the forty foot vessel the entire night and there was no relief or escape from the stormy weather and ensuing rough sea. I was sea sick and felt like dying. Bill held me at the side of the boat whenever I was sick and this caused us to be continuously drenched. The only place to lie down was on a long wooden seat along the side of the boat where the waves were crashing over. We arrived in Samarai wet and miserable and I asked the District Officer, who had arranged our movement, what would happen if children were involved and he said, ‘If that was the case, the trawler would be sent’.

Needless to say, our families were delighted at the prospect of having us ‘home’. I know they had unvoiced thoughts that perhaps we would get some sense and give it all away and settle in Sydney, but by the end of the course, now with two babies, we had decided life in Papua and New Guinea was what we wanted. We happily returned on the Malaita with our two piccaninnies, Alan and Christine, to a posting at Kikori, our most memorable station, where I experienced loneliness, frustrations, traumas and sadness. That is another story.

Of those early post-war years Nance said, ‘We survived the hardships and never were we bored. The total isolation did not worry us …it was the life we had chosen, we were together, young, healthy and confident…’

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