Jimi River memories: Peter Skinner

Tabibuga in the Jimi River was one of the more far-flung patrol posts in Western Highlands District while my father Ian Skinner was DC during the mid-to-late 1950s and, while most of the time the Jimi was relatively peaceful, occasionally tribal fighting erupted. At one stage there was an attack on a patrol with a few fatalities among the attacking tribesmen.

At about the same time of that attack, there had been a few other disturbances so my father figured a visit to the area by the Namba Wan kiap (the DC) was called for. In addition to reading the riot act to the locals, it would also show support for the efforts of patrol officer Barry Griffin who was based at Tabibuga and he could inspect progress around the patrol post.

Among other projects at Tabibuga was an airstrip being carved out of the bush but it was a long way from completion so walking in was the only way of getting there. From memory, Tabibuga was about three days’ walk in from near Kinjibi, not far from Banz, and about the same out to Tremearne, where Bobby Gibbes had a plantation.

So, when Dad announced he was going to take a patrol into the Jimi—to “wave the flag”, as he put it—my older brother David, who was home on holidays from boarding school, and I begged to be taken along. Also, my father wanted to show the Jimi Valley people the film that had been made by David Attenborough in their area so a projector and generator to run it and a screen were also to be carried in. By that time, August 1957 if my memory serves me, law and order had been re-established. There were still areas in the Jimi officially designated as “uncontrolled” but for all practical purposes this would be a safe patrol. Well, that’s what Dad told our mother, Marie, who was not too keen on seeing her sons, aged 11 and 16, wandering into a very primitive part of the world, even with an armed escort.

From the moment we left the Wahgi Valley it seemed a constant uphill slog as we climbed over the mountains, through what I believe is the Banz Gap, and then down into the Jimi Valley to Tabibuga. The line of carriers sang and yodelled, with great excitement and enthusiasm as we set out, less so as the terrain became steeper; the police escorting the patrol made the climb seem effortless, as did the locals—young and old—who we encountered along the way. They all smiled and wanted to shake hands and as I was probably the smallest white person they had seen in their area, I was a special focus of interest. When the carriers reached the boundary of their tribal area they were paid off in shillings and sticks of tobacco and bid us farewell and returned home, and a new line was taken on.

Government rest houses—Haus Kiaps—at overnight locations en route provided comfortable accommodation—if bare dirt floor and grass thatch roof and canvas stretchers fit that description—and we always had hot bucket showers to rinse off under at the end of each day. My father had a motto that has always stayed with me: “only a fool is uncomfortable in the bush”.  So, while our accommodation was not exactly five-star Hilton style, we were warm, dry, and comfortable. Besides which, at the end of a day’s walk up some pretty steep grades, it was not hard falling to sleep. Although it probably was not necessary, an all-night police guard was posted at each Haus Kiap. When I queried one of the police about this he said something along the lines of: “Em hia ples bilong bushkanaka tru. Mipela polisboi mas lukautim yupela na kiap.” (This is a wild place and the police have to look after all of you and the DC.) To an 11-year-old boy, it didn’t get much better than that.

My most vivid memory of the walk into Tabibuga centred on almost ruining the official reception and singsing Barry Griffin had organised to welcome the namba wan kiap into the Jimi River. Barry was one of my favourite people, in fact I regarded him as almost family, and I was keen to see him. So, when we got closer to Tabibuga I asked if I could run ahead of the patrol. As I trotted around a final bend the small group of huts at the patrol post came into view. Almost immediately there was a thunderous burst of yodelling voices and what seemed to be hundreds of locals, their feet stamping and kundus thundering, headed my way. I was quite impressed. Then I saw Barry, accompanied by a few policemen, charging down the hill heading off the mob. They managed to stem the tide and after a few minutes herded the crowd back up the hill.

Apparently, the plan was to stage a massed charge welcome as soon as the patrol, presumably with the Namba Wan Kiap at the front, came into view. My early arrival almost upstaged the DC’s arrival to Tabibuga. Not long after, the patrol came into sight, the locals staged their enthusiastic welcome and the Namba Wan Kiap strode into the Jimi River patrol post with all the appropriate pomp and ceremony.

While we were there supplies were dropped in to the site of the airstrip and that generated great excitement. Barry Griffin told David and me to stand behind some tree stumps just in case a bag of rice or some other object didn’t hit the target spot. Fortunately, the pilot was right on target and during the course of several runs accurately unloaded all the cargo so we didn’t have to find out if a tree stump was strong enough to withstand the impact of a rice bag.

David and I were keen to do some hunting—for pigeons or kokomo (all good for the pot)—so with a police escort and a few hangers-on, plus a couple of excellent local guides, we walked a few miles north east and down to the Jimi River. Our hunting was reasonably successful as we did get a few balus (pigeons) but I missed a kokomo because I stupidly decided to use a .22 instead of the 12-gauge shotgun. While at the river we walked across a bamboo, cane and wood bridge—a typical highlands suspension bridge—to the northern side and we later were told by Barry Griffin that technically we had crossed into uncontrolled territory, but he wouldn’t press charges!

The walk out of the Jimi was more tropical and picturesque than the route in—giant butterflies, the screeching of cockatoos and parrots, and the machine-gun like noise of various unseen Bird of Paradise come to mind. We also encountered what looked like the site of a bomb blast—massive trees splintered like matchwood, the victims of a thunderstorm and lightning, possibly the day before, according to our carriers who were from the area.

Another memory was of thousands of small bee-like insects that obviously loved the taste of salt. They almost drove us mad by crawling into our eyes and around our necks in their search for perspiration—of which there was plenty. A more pleasant memory was walking through a cool grove of pine trees, the delightful temperature complemented by having a soft path of pine needles to walk on; so soft that we were able to walk almost silently.

Another distinct memory was standing on final ridge looking down into the Wahgi Valley before we began the descent to Tremearne. The valley looked so picturesque and manicured by comparison with the country we were emerging from. Of course, such comparisons are relative—an Englishman probably would have viewed the Wahgi Valley as wild country in contrast to his more refined English countryside.

A few weeks later, David and I, our haus boi Olon (a Madang) and a Hagen boy who was a friend of mine, Den Kingal, with a single policeman as our armed escort, returned to the Lower Jimi Valley for a week or so of exploring and hunting. We went in from Tremearne and set up our main camp beside a tributary of the Jimi from where we hunted, mainly for pigeon. While we got a few birds, the most successful hunter was a local who, armed with a bow, shot a huge python and a goanna which he shared with us. We, and the carriers who had decided to camp with us, ate like lords and while I was a bit tentative at first, by the end of the evening was tucking into the white reptile meat, roasted over our campfire, with gusto. In retrospect, two young white kids in a very remote and primitive bush setting alone with our local companions, probably was a bit unusual. For David and me, it seemed pretty normal and it’s obvious to me now that we really didn’t appreciate just how privileged we were.


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