Kudgeru and beyond, 1972: Paul Oates

Map ThumbnailClick on the image for a hand-drawn map of the Kudgeru area.

One of the few Patrols at Wau was to visit the area down near the Papuan border and over the ridges from the Waria River area (Garaina Patrol Post). Some years before, a previous patrol had marked out an airstrip site down near the Papuan border and the people there were keen to ensure the construction was progressing well. The site had not been visited for some years and I checked the old Patrol Reports to get some background on area and people.

In early 1970s there were no villages between Wau and the village of Kudgeru to obtain carriers (porters) so a permanent carrier line was required. Usually we paid carriers from one village to carry the patrol’s cargo to the next village. This was a good system as the local people knew the area and tracks and didn’t have to leave their village for long periods. Carriers were paid by the hour and the traditional one shilling an hour had recently been increased, due to pressure from the Papua New Guinea House of Assembly.

A local advertisement produced plenty of local volunteers from the out of work/luck gold miners and itinerants in Wau. The local Police Inspector, Kari Tau, helped by allocating two police to accompany the patrol. We headed off with about 50 carriers and 5 days’ emergency rations (rice, hard tack biscuits and tinned bully beef) expecting to buy food from the local villages along the way. We were making for Kudgeru village along a designated walking track, so no local guides were required.

While we left in the mid morning, it proved further than we were led to believe and we were still walking as night fell. We therefore set up camp in small clearing, boiled water for rice/tea and mixed some bully beef into the rice for the carriers. I put up my bed sail, using the bamboo cargo poles, under a tent fly as it started to rain. The carriers built bush shelters for the night of branches and leaves.

In the morning I woke up to see a movement along the bedsail leg. A leech was slowly looping its way towards me. Although it was in the mountains and the air was crisp and cool, I was feeling fairly warm and (sniff!) also a bit ‘high’. I looked down underneath me and found three carriers had decided to shelter under my tent fly (and under me) that night. Another breakfast of Navy biscuits and more bully beef and rice we were back on the track and at about 10 am, came out of the forest into a large kunai area approximately several square kilometres in size. No village in sight however. Oh oh! Not a good start to the patrol.

No one with our patrol knew where Kudgeru village was exactly. The old Patrol Reports had said it was at the end of the track and we were directed onto the right track. Villages however quite often moved around when the soil of their gardens became exhausted, but there was usually a track to follow.

To anyone who has not been in tall kunai (8 feet high and over), it’s very easy to lose your bearings and get lost. One of my affectations was to wear my old school slouch hat that had a bright red puggaree.  Gathering the carriers around, I put my hat on top of the longest cargo pole and stood it up vertically. “Fan out” I said “but always keep this hat in sight”. After about 20 minutes way off to the south west we heard a yell. All carriers gathered back together and we set off over a small ridge. There, over on the other side of a small creek was the village. It also appeared to be completely deserted.

Depositing the cargo alongside the stream and away from the village, we walked over to the houses to investigate. In most villages there are usually at least some old people around in the daytime, while most adults work in the gardens. This place seemed completely deserted. The whole village had a very eerie feeling about the place. It was really spooky. The carriers were not impressed and left myself and one of the policemen to investigate further. The policeman said he thought he thought he knew where the haus kiap was so we went that way, stopping to look inside every house.

When we arrived at the designated building, we found it was in a state of extreme disrepair. It had a dirt floor, whereas most government rest houses were on stumps, and it had an open doorway. The thatching was rotting and I didn’t like the look of the place one little bit. We went inside to look around and see if we wanted to stay there or camp out. While we were standing in the centre of the floor I had this eery feeling again and suddenly my feet started to tingle. This sensation slowly crept up my legs and I felt the hair on my neck tingle. I turned to the policeman and he looked at me as if to say, “I can feel it too.”

I looked down at my feet and saw a thick brown substance, not unlike golden syrup, flowing up from the floor and over my boots, up over my mud gators and up over my bare legs towards my knees. Holy smoke! My feet seemed locked in place, as in a bad nightmare. Then I had a closer look at the ‘liquid’ and realised it was composed of a semi solid mass of fleas. We had disturbed them as we walked in and not having any fresh meat for some time, they all made a ‘Bee’ line for the two of us.  We both had the same thought at the same time and turned and ran full pelt for the creek, jumping in up to our waist, fully clothed.

We were now in a bit of a pickle. No food, no guides and no idea where to go. There was however a track leading south west and two of the carriers volunteered to go and see if they could find where the people had gone. I made up a message stick to take with them. The design of the message stick had been explained to me by another officer when I was at a nearby station. This was a custom in those parts whereby you sent out a ‘holey’ New Guinea shilling, attached to a stick, as a mark of the Government. A holey shilling was an Australian minted, Sterling silver coin (*See below) with a hole in the centre, specifically for use in New Guinea where trouser pockets were not the norm. It could therefore be strung around the neck with a string when you had no pockets to put it in. They were last minted during WW2 and were so much in favour with the local people that today’s PNG kina has a hole in it. I had a number of these attached to my leather belt and I unclipped one to use.

The idea of the message stick, I was told, was that it should be given to the person whose presence was required. That person was then expected to return it to the kiap who issued it. I hoped it would work, never having used the method before.

There was nothing for it but to camp overnight and use more of our iron rations. The carriers wanted to raid the village gardens and let me sort it out later however I said no. That wasn’t how you made friends and we needed help. It was however, how you consumed another day’s rations. I decided to keep carriers busy for the remainder of the day by building a new ‘haus kiap’, just outside of the village and near the gurgling stream of fresh water. When the bush materials were collected and the house built, everyone then went exploring.

Gela, my Chimbu mankimasta, returned in delight saying, “Lukim masa, mi painin dispela” and handed me a live hand grenade with the rusty pin still inserted. Ahhh! (Put it down carefully and slowly walk away.) It wasn’t long before a positive treasure trove of live ordinance was discovered. Live .303 rounds, bombs, and some still discernible slit trenches, just on the fringe of the forest, not far away. Of particular interest were cases and cases of a type of grenade that I had not seen before, given my previous experience with the Army. The cases were marked 5ST and the grenades (3 to a case) were made up of a long, black bakelite handle with the usual locking pin and handle, connected to a thin, sperical metal case that enclosed a black substance that had appeared to have disintegrated over the years. Inside this was a glass globe, about 6 inches in diameter. The glass globes were empty but had obviously contained something when they were ready for use. Previous historical records had shown that members of the 1 Independent Company Commandoes had once held this position to stop the Japanese from outflanking the Bulldog Track.

(I later had an opportunity to ask the Army Bomb Disposal expert what kind of grenades the 5ST were. He said the ST probably stood for “Sticky Tank” and they would have been used against armoured vehicles, etc., by throwing the grenade against a vehicle and having the black sticky goo, surrounding the glass globe, stick to the metal. The charge in the handle would then set a hydrocarbon liquid (petrol?) in the glass globe off. In other words, a more advanced type of Molotov cocktail.

The carriers then returned with some villagers and my message stick had apparently worked. Incredibly, the leader was a bloke I had last seen in the Aseki Patrol Post area, six months before. He and his family had migrated here, trying to make a better life. He had brought his dog with him and it had found and killed a kapul (a tree kangaroo) on the way. They also brought some sweet potatoes, but not enough for more than one meal. I gladly paid for the food and the carriers ate well that night on roasted tree kangaroo and sweet potatoes. 

We now found out why the people had deserted the village. They had all recently run away when an old man had died, in case his spirit ‘infected’ them before it went away.

With insufficient food available locally, we had to move on so after getting directions on which track to take to get us to the airstrip site, we started out again.

I sent two men on ahead to notify the people at the airstrip construction site that we were coming and to bring some food back for us. By mid afternoon I was again starting to get a bit worried that we might have been misdirected. We had only enough food for another night or so and I had used most of my personal tinned food to help the carriers.  At about 3 pm, I heard voices up ahead and we met three men with billums of cucumbers and fresh food. I took a cucumber and sent the rest back to carriers. I ate the cucumber like an apple and I have never tasted anything more delicious. Fresh food, after three days of preserved and boiled food, is marvellous.

We finally arrived at airstrip site just as it was getting dark. You could sure see why these people wanted an airstrip, being so far away from anyone.

There had been some good prior preparation with people having planted food gardens where they were going to clear and level land. When it came to moving the soil, the villagers ate the food as gardens were cleared and levelled. I supervised work for two days, however it was clear the people knew what they were doing. The plans made by the previous patrol were being followed correctly. I can remember raising two flag poles and two flags at the patrol camp site rather than the usual one. The Australian flag was raised together with the new PNG National flag, but the new PNG flag had to be slightly lower than the Australian flag as Self Government had not actually been granted at that stage.

Having drawn up a report of how the airstrip construction was progressing we departed for Wau, taking a different route to the one we came down.  There were more villages on this track however there was a notoriously terrible climb, straight up a mountainside. The people who lived near the top of the hill had built an extensive water reticulation system out of bamboo pipes. I checked the water out, as I was thirsty, however it wasn’t the cleanest and I went thirsty until the next stream. I remember a mate on the next patrol going through the same process and actually drinking some water. Poor bloke, he ended up with hepatitis.

One more bush camp and then we arrived back in the Wau area and onto the roadhead. As usual, the thought of a cold SP (South Pacific Lager) kept me going for the last stretch. You know the one. Where you can almost see the green bottle with the droplets of condensation slowly sliding down the sides and you can almost taste the contents gliding over your tongue and down your throat.

* The Australian Mandated Territory of New Guinea (note, not Papua) had a distinct currency that was minted before and during World War 2. It was minted in denominations of One Shilling, Sixpence, Threepence, One Penny and a Halfpenny. All had New Guinea designs on one side and a hole in the middle.

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