Patrol walking times: Paul Oates

Our concept of time and distance has been ingrained into us from an early age. Australians tend to think in words and not necessarily in word pictures or non verbal concepts. Tokpisin can also be a very imprecise language that may lose something in the translation to English if the listener may not be thinking in the same terms as the speaker.

Being used to road maps and fairly precise travel timings and measurements it was part of our ‘culture shock’ experiences to find that when we wanted to plan a Patrol, it wasn’t all that easy to find out how far it was to walk between each village. We needed to know a fair estimate of walking times so that we could work out how much coinage to take with us to pay for carriers between each of the places or villages we intended to visit. We therefore had to have an idea of how long it would be to walk between each point on the map. Inadequate estimates made while at the Patrol Post or Base Camp might prove rather embarrassing if you ran out of coins to pay carriers who wanted to go back to their village that night and couldn’t stay around. Credit (or ‘Dinau’ in Tokpisin) was not looked on very favourably by anyone, trade store owners especially.

In the late 1960s, carriers were paid 10 cents an hour or part thereof no matter what they carried. While this seems a pittance in today’s terms, it could mount up and would provide some very desirable and ready cash in areas where processing and carrying coffee beans was decidedly hard yakka.

The problem was; How do you precisely measure what could possibly be a fluid situation? Each person takes a different time to walk the same track and, due to the occasional ‘short cuts’ (up and down mountains), the track may be of slightly varying length. Also, a village may be moved around as the gardens are exhausted and to guarantee walking times between villages to someone might be a trifle tricky.

The last Patrol Report from that area was usually the best source of information but when the last one was written and who by? Were they quick and fit or slow and steady on the track?  To rely on the local estimation might also be fraught with danger and possibly involve just a tad of an exasperated response to the inevitable “Are we there yet?”

In an abbreviated form, it used to go something like this on patrol:

Ples is stap long we a?” (Is the village a long way away?)

Nogat. Emi olsem long we liklik tasol. Tripela sigaret tasol.” (It not very far. Only the time to smoke three cigarettes).

Now that doesn’t sound too far however the cigarettes referred to were made out of ‘Muruk’ stick tobacco and were rolled in a prized page of the Sydney Morning Herald. After all, everyone knows that the SMH tears straight down the page whereas other ‘rags’ often tear crookedly due to their being printed across the page. A ‘cigarette’ might also be over a foot long and burn at varying times due to the user’s amount of puffing at one end and the amount of tobacco inside the rolled newspaper. To those not familiar with this popular product of yesteryear, the tightly twisted tobacco leaves that had been dipped in molasses and then set together into a brick of approximately a foot square by about 2 inches thick and might contain over 50 sticks stuck together. Commonly known as trade tobacco it could give a positive ‘kick’ in the head to those not used to the strength of the product.

So after three hours walking: “Ah hem! Ples is stap klostu a?” (Is the village fairly close now?)

Nogat, Emi olsem long we tru.” (No way! It’s a very long way away)

Another four hours walking and just a smidgin of frustration and thirst creeping in.

Ples istap we nau a?” (How far to the village now?)

Emi olsem long we tru aiting tasol ino long we tru, em olsem klostu liklik.” (It’s still a bit further to go but its closer than it was)

Another gut punching climb (which resulted in red stars buzzing around in front of your eyes) and another two hours’ walk and what’s more, it’s starting to get dark.

Ples istap we nau?” (Where’s that village?)

Long we liklik tasol.” (Oh it’s still a bit further on)

Then around the next bend in the track appears the village, usually with the Luluai and Tultul waiting patiently and ready to salute and greet you with big grins on their faces.



Leave a Reply