Patrolling the Maramuni: Graham Hardy

I was saddened to read of Don Vincin’s death in the March 2011 edition of Una Voce. The mention in his obituary of the Maramuni area stirred memories of one of the most satisfying patrols I ever carried out. The Maramuni and Wale/Tarua census divisions were located on the northern slopes of the main range, generally north-west and north of Wabag, in the now Enga Province and were named for the rivers which flow into the Karawari and eventually the Sepik. It is a remote mountainous area, thinly populated and a couple of days walk from (then) Laiagam Patrol Post to the first population. Wabag in 1958 was a typical sub-district headquarters, accessible only by air. It would be a couple of years before the road connection to Mt Hagen and the outside world was completed. The only permanent materials house was the recently
completed ADO’s residence, the remaining buildings being a mixture of local material and corrugated iron and kunai thatch roofing. Wabag was a pretty station and at an altitude of 6,700 feet had a pleasant climate. At the time Bob MacIlwain was the Assistant District Officer (a title later to be changed to Assistant District Commissioner) and Dr Keith Wilson was the Government Medical Officer.

By 1958 the anti-yaws campaign had been launched throughout Papua New Guinea and it was decided a joint DDS&NA/PHD patrol would be carried out in the Maramuni and Wale/Tarua to record the initial census and to carry out anti-yaws treatment as well as any other medical treatment that could be provided. I was a patrol officer at Wabag and Don was an EMA (European Medical Assistant) at Wabag Hospital, so we got the job.

At the time, the area was still part of the Restricted Area, and although the people were peaceable enough, officially a PHD patrol by itself would be against the rules. Earlier patrols by Jim Taylor and a few others had passed through over the years since the Enga had first been visited pre-war, but were few and far between. As a matter of interest, Danny Leahy had passed through while escorting a party of Catholic nuns escaping from the Japanese invasion of the Sepik on their way to Wabag. The last patrol before this one was carried out by ADO Dick White five years before.

An Administration presence in the Maramuni had been maintained in the person of Constable Perano, himself a Maramuni man, for some years. Perano was a quiet, unassuming man, who probably would not have stood out if posted in a normal police detachment, but a decision by some earlier kiap to send him to live in his home area gave him his chance, and it may well have been a unique experiment in extending government influence in a Restricted Area. He supervised construction of a few rest houses at strategic spots, and looked after the fairly primitive track system. He no doubt arbitrated minor disputes. He
may well have been the first indigenous kiap! Every six months or so he would emerge from the bush to collect his pay and some “luxuries”: bully beef, rice and tobacco.

Because of the small scattered population and the rough terrain, such a large patrol presented some logistical challenges. We could not depend on enough local food being available without placing a burden on the local people so it was necessary to take rations for a large party: half a dozen police, half a dozen medical orderlies, as well as a considerable quantity of medical supplies, tents and other patrol gear requiring a large carrier line. Constable Perano was sent for to escort an advance party of carriers with additional rations.

We departed from Laiagam where Chris Day PO and his wife Gwen were posted. It took two days to cross the range and reach the first rest house and population at Woilep. Readers unfamiliar with patrolling in PNG should be aware that a day’s walk did not necessarily mean eight or ten hours on the track, especially if a bush camp had to be set up at the end of the day’s stage. If rain was about it often meant stopping early, for example 11 am or midday to pitch tents and make bush shelters to get everybody and the patrol gear under cover. This was especially important at high altitudes where night time temperatures were often very low.

The main objectives of the patrol were for me to record the census for the first time while Don and his team administered penicillin injections to all, and rendered other medical treatments. For this reason, we needed to contact as near as possible one hundred percent of the population, especially if the anti-yaws programme was to be successful. Therefore we did not necessarily travel far between meeting places, because we did not want the aged and mothers and their children to miss out on the treatment. At a couple of places Don wanted to build a village aid post, as plans were afoot to train locals as medical orderlies to work among their own people. With our carrier line and the local men getting stuck into it, it took only a day or so to build a bush material clinic and a house.

Don and I got on well together, and his medical team was very efficient. His head orderlies had been well trained by a former EMA at Wabag, John Tommerup , and included Tei Abal who later became a prominent political figure in post-independence Papua New Guinea. We had no radio transceiver and Tei demonstrated his fitness when he volunteered to take a message to Wabag when we only had a couple of days to go before ending the patrol at Kompiam Patrol Post in the Sau Valley. We thought it would take him a couple of days, but he walked virtually non-stop overnight and reached Wabag the next day!

Our last stop in the Maramuni was at Kaiyematok rest house, where we also built an aid post. Here we found some cases of tinned meat and margarine which Dick White had left in the care of the local Luluai five years before. If “use by” dates existed in 1958 I know not, but apart from a few “blown” tins, the rest was soon eaten by the carriers without any ill effects. Our visit here coincided with a visit by five men from an unpatrolled area further north in the Sepik District, who claimed Don and I were the first Europeans they had seen. Crossing the dividing ridges to the Tarua valley involved a bush camp under canvas at a spot identified by a local as one of Jim Taylor’s camps. I had to call for a few volunteers at Kaiyematok to help shift our surplus stores, and to my surprise a couple of young women stepped forward. They were given light loads, but when we reached the first stop in the Tarua, the first carrier into camp was a woman nonchalantly carrying a four gallon drum of kerosene in a bilum. It would be hard to imagine a more uncomfortable load on such a bad track.

After completing the census and anti-yaws programme in the Wale/Tarua, we finished the patrol at Kompiam without any problems and with a great sense of satisfaction. Joe Martyn PO was OIC Kompian at the time. We had been out for 52 days and Don and I were both a bit leaner than we were when we left Laiagam. Almost another five years later when I had returned to Wabag as ADC, I did another patrol into the Maramuni with CPO Peter Wilson. Little had changed except that with de-restriction, the Lutheran and Catholic missions had started up stations, the former at Kaiyematok, and the latter at a place named Pasalagos. Both missions proposed building an airstrip at their respective stations. I thought the work load on the small population in building two airstrips would be too onerous, and after discussions with the local heads of the two missions, they agreed to join forces and build one strip at Pasalagos. It was high on the side of a ridge overlooking the junction of the Maramuni River and a major tributary, with a magnificent view towards the Sepik. It would require a lot of work cutting into the hillside for most of its length, with a one way approach and take-off over the Maramuni Valley, but with a drop off of a couple of thousand feet it would be a breeze taking off. Years later I met a pilot who had landed there and he said it was a hairy experience because of crosswind.

This was the longest patrol in my experience, and I could not have wished for a better patrol companion than Don Vincin. Vale Don! We kiaps have been getting a lot of publicity lately about our role in pre-independence PNG, but has the work of the EMAs been sufficiently recognized and honoured? Is somebody out there writing a comprehensive history of their part in the development of PNG from the end of the Great War onwards?


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