My first patrol: Rod Noble

Being Queensland born, when I read a Government advertisement for Patrol Officers in PNG, in the Hobart Mercury newspaper (and it was a cold winter in Hobart), I didn’t hesitate to reply.

Another incentive was that I had at that time no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had camping and bush-walking experience—with school friends I had walked to Lake Pedder (before it was drowned and before air-drops of food)—and I felt that a spell of tropical warmth would be welcome. Plus I would be paid for doing what I used to do as a recreation. And most importantly it provided an opportunity to live my school motto “nemo sibi nascutur” (no-one is born unto themselves), by leading less civilised peoples into the modern age. This was in mid-1953.

I was accepted and with 23 other Cadet Patrol Officers (CPO) flew into Ward’s Strip, Port Moresby in early 1954.

Now, in mid-1954, for me, it was all going to happen. I had had 6 months in Port Moresby, which was something like a tropical Canberra: so socially stratified; never the government personnel to meet private enterprise and neither to meet the locals socially. Then the stint at Wewak, the Sepik District head office, and where I never heard the word “patrol” mentioned. I had been sent there to man the Police Station whilst the O.I.C. had gone to calm down the locals who had slaughtered two Patrol Officers near Telefomin. The situation at Telefomin had settled down and the very experienced polis masta, Inspector J. Grainger, had returned to his post. Apparently I was not the worst CPO he had met, and so I was recommended for posting to the Sub­ District Office of Angoram. There I believed the real work of the Department of District Services and Native Affairs (DDSNA) would be done.

Angoram was an interesting place both geologically and with regard to the residents. Although it was some sixty miles from the present delta, it was comprised of former coral reef and at least six metres above the highest high water mark. This also meant that the grass air-strip was an all-weather one. There were nine Europeans living beside the airstrip; the Assistant District Officer (ADO) and wife, Peter England a saw miller and wife and daughter, “Sepik Robbie” Robinson, Administration clerk and wife, the Dutch doctor (thanks to Dr John Gunther’s policy of recruiting European doctors whom the AMA refused permission to practice in Australia) and, tailing the field, a young, green CPO. Down near the river bank was Tobacco Road where traders, store keepers and others lived. The Police detachment and the labour line had buts in between.

Social life centred round the Sepik Club. It was a modest structure of sawn timber with a nipa palm roof, a bar, a kerosene fridge, a dart board and, believe it or not , a full size, slate bed, green baize billiard table. And with all the accoutrements: snooker, billiard and pool balls, cues, rests, score board, etc. The club did not close at 9 pm when the generator was turned off, so candles were provided.

After a month or three I had learnt what the induction course had not told us: that the life of field officers was mostly paper shuffling for the Port Moresby administration. It was quite a tense time making sure all the monthly reports were dispatched so the office did not get a rocket from the “clever ones”, as Michael O’Connor called them. Now if you have read this far you may be wondering about the title to this reminiscence. But I thought it best to set the scene.

My days were spent in the office on paperwork, listening for a “balus i kam” (a plane is coming) call from a local with the aural acuity of TV’s “Radar” O’Reilly. I could then leave the office and receive mail, freezer goods, visitors and gossip. There were other visitors arriving by boat: traders, recruiters, crocodile hunters (Tom Cole, et al.) and once the SS Yankee, an American yacht. I have forgotten the skipper’s name but I do remember the sight of his scantily clad all female crew.

Then it happened.
My boss, the Assistant District Officer (ADO) announced that I was to go on patrol, although it was not Administration policy for CPOs to go on their first patrol alone. But if the ADO reckoned he had done enough patrolling then the phrase “exigencies of the service” was used.

The patrol was to the villages along the Keram River, a Sepik tributary and done by launch so no carriers would be needed. The Police and my experienced haus boi packed what was necessary and off we went. I had received one instruction from my boss: “Make sure that the Census Book figures balance”, i.e. add births and deduct deaths. I thought I could cope with that arithmetic.

At the first stop I decided that the first thing to do would be to raise the flag. The Police agreed and I was fortunate in two respects: I had brought the station bugler with me and I knew enough parade ground stuff from CMF training to give the other four police the correct commands. I did know that I was on a United Nations mandate and not on Australian soil. But I am sure it was impressive.

The haus boi had set up the patrol table and chair at the foot of the haus kiap (every village kept one small cottage for visiting Administration officials) and I proceeded with the census. Having duly noted any comments in the back of the book by the previous kiap I duly handed it back to the Luluai (village headman) and went for a stroll around the village accompanied by the elders. Everything seemed in order and the elders did not seem to have anything they wanted to discuss with this new face, so I returned to check on my accommodation.

The camp stretcher was set up and a mosquito net tucked in to the bedding. The kerosene pressure lamp was noisily alight and an aerial had been strung for my latest acquisition, an AWA portable shortwave radio. Dinner was served and I read for a while and climbed into the bunk. After the excitement of that first day I fell asleep quickly but only shortly. I had found the tucked in net too restricting and had loosened it to fall on the floor. Not clever. I had not noticed the floor’s construction: bark from the areca (betel nut) palm, very strong but not sealed. So I seemed to have more mossies inside than outside the net. I did not catch malaria and the stings went away after a few days.

The rest of the patrol followed the same pattern (except for the deployment of the net of course), and we all returned to base with no losses or collateral damage.

Then I had the very daunting task of preparing a Patrol Report. It had been emphasised in Port Moresby before any of us had been let loose that each and every report was closely studied and they were to be without spelling mistakes or errors. Since arriving in PNG I had become acquainted with typewriters but what could I possibly say in the report that would be of interest to the clever ones? I cannot remember now of course but no rocket came back from the big boss, Alan Roberts, thank goodness.

The area had been pacified by the Germans the previous century. Co-operation with the invading Japanese, if any, was long forgotten. The villagers had sufficient food from their gardens: sago and coconuts, fish, chicken and pork (the latter restricted to ceremonial occasions). Some money came into the villages via the repatriated plantation workers. It was not quite the scene of J-J Rousseau’s The Noble Savage but the Administration had no money or personnel that could in any way affect their way of life. Most publicity was given to the “First Encounter” patrols into uncontrolled territory such as by my fellow inductee, Neil Grant (aka Billy Peters).

I should emphasise here that kiaps were not the only government officials going on patrol in those days. Apart from government vessels calling at coastal villages, there were medical, dental and agriculture patrols. I have been told that most patrolling has ceased since Independence in 1975.

Having just reminisced about that first patrol I am reminded of my second; but that contains those three restricted topics: sex, religion and politics.


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