Lynore von der Borch: Variety in a slice of life

(Being an account of one day in the life of a house-wife at Wau, New Guinea)

Part One

“Whatever do you do all day?” is the question I have so frequently been asked since my return from New Guinea by those misguided individuals who seem to assume that women in the tropics have difficulty in filling in time! Furthermore, they conclude that life in Wau, because it is in New Guinea, necessarily implies intense heat, the amassing of great wealth, and limp forms reclining on cane lounges languidly waving fans and issuing peremptory orders to an efficient staff of native servants who would as soon put a knife in one’s back as comply with one’s requests!

In an endeavour to dispel at least some of these fantastic notions, I turned in desperation to my diary, and, having singled out one typical day, propose to describe it in some details, so that I may convey, from my own point of view, the variety and interest in every day life at Wau, the centre of the Goldfields.

When it is fully realised that Wau and the adjacent goldfields had to “fly” lock, stock and barrel to their present situation, because of the formidable barrier of mountains that divides them from the coast, one can appreciate something of the colossal enterprise involved.

Wau, then, has appropriately been referred to as the town that “flew”. Its cranes, its derricks, its dredges, machinery of every kind, and in addition all that makes for comfort and convenience in modern communities, were transported in aeroplanes over the mountains and set down in their present picturesque surroundings – Wau itself being 3,500 feet above sea level, (at that time) and boasting probably the biggest freight aerodrome in the world. Edie Creek, where New Guinea Goldfields Ltd are operating on the original reefs of gold, is more than twice that height and is connected with Wau by a narrow mountain road.

Impossible, then, to image that life in a town that had to “fly” before it was born could be anything but eventful and exciting, and I have certainly found it so. How could it be otherwise for one endowed with two characteristics essential to the enjoyment of such a life; ie an appreciation of the beauty of nature and a sense of humour! 

But to proceed with my story. On a certain morning in March 1936, I awoke as usual to the muffled hum of engines, and looked sleepily out through the bedroom doors to see which of the flock of planes was astir so early. A thick blanket of mist, however, had blotted out the mountains and tucked itself snugly round the little town as though reluctant to admit the dawning of another day. Now there seemed to be two planes speculating up there in the clouds, judging by the throb of the engines; both presumably had come in from the coast and were probing round noisily for a gap in the clouds that would reveal the aerodrome. The day before, the Macdhui had arrived at Salamaua and there was much cargo to be transported.

I never failed to get a thrill of excitement out of the droning of these invisible planes in the early morning, and leapt out of bed to investigate further. Once on the verandah which faces the drome, I waited several minutes while the mist withdrew a little, and suddenly out of the filmy curtain of cloud shot a three-engined Ford plane, which swooped down on to the drome and taxied up to Guinea Airways hangars and offices.  Still more speculation on the part of the second plane – a fox-moth, before it too floated through the mist and took up a position behind the first, looking diminutive and fragile by comparison.

The mountain over which the planes had flown were now partially revealed in their purply splendour  The drome – an enormous green clearing lined by hangars, offices, work-shops and Pilots’ houses – fell away in a gentle slope towards the thick timber closing in at its base. One or two planes crept out of these hangars, coughed and spluttered a little and droned off.

Wau was suddenly very much awake and apparently very much aware of the busy day that lay ahead! The boat was late. The stores and freezers were impatient for their cargo, there would be many passengers for Wau, and there was a general atmosphere of bustle and unrest. Engines throbbed, coons in gay laplaps staggered about with cargo, drew planes from their haunts and stood by while the pilots started their engines which must be adequately warmed before the first morning flight. At signals from the pilots, blocks were withdrawn from the wheels of the undercarriages, and one by one the mechanical birds took the air, climbed high, and flew towards the so-called ‘Gap’ in the mountains, which is the lowest part of the range, some fifteen miles from Wau, and a little less than half way to Salamaua. Wispy clouds hung suspended in blue valleys and the cool crisp air of morning coupled with the feeling of excitement inseparable from Mail Day filled me with a desire to be up and doing, but Vondy, who could never share my early morning enthusiasm for invisible planes, cloud-capped mountains and a prospect of mail, remained unmoved!

“It’s not only the mail that excites me!” I argued, “But the prospect of new freezer cargo! Rump steak is becoming rather monotonous, and I am tired of thinking up new disguises for that uninspiring commodity. Besides, I’ve almost forgotten what an egg look like, and it will be nice to have real butter again!”.

The boat was already several days late, having run into monsoonal weather, and all freezer goods had dwindled accordingly, much to the chagrin of the house-wife. I fell to planning a small dinner party for that night to celebrate the fresh supplies of foodstuffs that were imminent, but resolved not to enlist Vondy’s help in the matter till breakfast time, for he had already slipped back in to the land of dreams.

Calling to Korn, my ‘Wash-Boy’, I ordered him to ‘Put ‘im wash-wash!” and from an enclosure in the back premises I heard a muffled “Yessir!” followed by a splash of water and a clatter of cans as he filled two buckets from a copper of hot water he had in readiness. In due course he had padded into the bathroom, let down a large bucket with a shower-spray attached, filled it with hot water, hauled it up again, put towels and bath-mat in readiness and announced my bath!

Korn, skinny and rather sulky looking, looked strangely different this morning and I soon realised that I could ascribe the change in his appearance to the fact that his usually bleached mop of hair had taken on a decided bluish tint, and that his manner was more alert than usual; I recalled the fact that there was to be a Native ‘singsing’ that night and assumed Korn was eager to attend!

In the passage, I encountered Kamungi, Korn’s wife and an important member of my staff who was busy arranging flowers. She had a bunch of pine stuck horizontally through a hole in her nose. These she had presumably picked up while sweeping the floors and had nonchalantly placed them temporarily in the convenient position mentioned, just as a clerk would place a pencil behind his ear! I made a mental note of the fact that afterwards I must whisk out some of those purple bougainvillea she was mingling with the scarlet hibiscus, for Kamungi’s idea of colour schemes did not always coincide with my own! This fact was further born out in the clothes she wore this morning, for her loose red tunic was worn over a gaudy yellow laplap that swathed the lower portion of her anatomy. I recalled that she had begged me to make her a dress from the same material as the surgery curtains, a request which I had gently but firmly denied. Yet perhaps even that would have been preferable to these brilliant garments. Her tunic was obviously a recent purchase and would have been bought from one of the many Trade stores for tonight’s singsing.

Kamungi, though an invaluable member of my staff, was paid nothing for her services, her husband drawing the customary 2/6 per week of which 1/3 only is given as ‘hand money’. Kamungi also had a festive look about her and was tackling her jobs with a new vigour this morning. No doubt she would later ask permission to attend the singsing and I resolved in my present magnanimous mood to let her go early during the afternoon.

My shower over, I dressed hurriedly and went to visit Ramu, my cook-boy, in his sphere. Ramu had the big brown eyes of a faithful dog and a constant air of importance that invariably made me feel dubious about interfering in any way with the culinary processes, and that the ‘house-cook’ was his legitimate kingdom. His tight black curls were adorned this morning with a gay hibiscus flower and his initialed laplap was spotless white. His serious brown face was suddenly illuminated with genuine pleasure when I informed him that there would be a dinner party that night and he suspended operations on the stove to listen to my instructions. Here was his opportunity to display his prowess as ‘cook-boy’!  Let the other boys have the ‘singsing’ if they wished; he would prefer to cook for the master and ‘missus’.


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