A final patrol: Laurie Meintjes

(Published Una Voce, December 2002, p 13)

The shelf-life of the kiaps at Nomad River was relatively short. This was not surprising because the isolation, the reliance upon a none-too-reliable air service for everything from aspirins to zucchinis, the rugged nature of the patrolling, and the constant need for vigilance among defiant tribesmen who didn’t always appreciate our efforts, got to us sooner or later. The married officers lasted longer than the single officers which was surprising because most of the married women hated the place. But those of us who were married, were newly married and perhaps our wives were still starry-eyed enough to stand by their men without complaint, even in this godforsaken wilderness. We owe them a great debt.

By the time my use-by-date came round I was ready to leave. In particular, our daughter Nicole had arrived and we became increasingly conscious of our isolation because young lives always seem so fragile to new parents. When Nicole fell ill with a chest infection and was pulled through her crisis by a doctor on the other end of the radio, we decided enough was enough. But I was to go on one last patrol, and it was the life-saving radio that sent me.

A month after Nicole’s little emergency I was sitting at the radio waiting for District headquarters to come on air when Koroba Patrol Post in the neighbouring Southern Highlands called us up: ‘Nomad River. Nomad River. This is Koroba. Do you read me?’

I said that I did, and for Koroba to go ahead.

‘Ah, I’m glad to catch you,’ said Koroba, and I wondered what I was being caught for. I found out soon enough.

‘We’ve heard bush-talk that two headmen have been murdered at Buguhai* in the upper Strickland,’ said the Voice that had been happy to catch me, ‘and we are wondering if one of your officers can take a patrol up there and do some snooping around.’

‘You make it sound like a walk in the park. Can’t one of your chaps go in there? After all, it is your neck of the jungle and you are more familiar with it.’

The Voice chuckled. ‘It’s just like your jungle. All green and lumpy.’ Then it got serious. ‘I’m the only one here at the moment and I have a bit of a tribal fight going on. I can probably get away next week, but if someone from your end can go there sooner, it would be much appreciated.’

Appreciation aside – it never matches the favour, anyway – murder was murder and so I told the Voice I’d see what I could do. The Voice said, ‘By the way, Tyler’s the name and I owe you one,’ and then told me what it knew about the murders, which wasn’t much. This favour was getting bigger by the minute.

Margaret didn’t want me to go on this last patrol because we were in the middle of PFS (Packing For South) but she relented when I promised to be back within a few days. I had never been to the upper Strickland before – to me the journey was a 60-mile squiggle on the map – but I was as fit as a piston and had no fear of the hard miles. Indeed, I was prepared to stretch every valve and sinew to accommodate them, the more so because this was my last hurrah and I could not allow myself to fail. We Patrol Officers could be cocky at times, but cockiness and confidence are the one coin and generally it buys success more readily than failure. On this occasion it bought a magnificent result—at least for me if not for the Buguhai killers—and it was the hard walk that did it.

Usually when a patrol moves through an area it does so fairly leisurely so that the bush-talk can slip ahead and alert the villages further up the track and give the people time to prepare themselves for the visit of the kiap. But not on this occasion. We were travelling lightly and moved so fast with relays of carriers, almost forty miles in that first heart-thumping day, that we startled every village we passed through. Also, we didn’t stop and chit-chat so there was little opportunity for the people to discover our destination and purpose. This suited me because I figured our true purpose would be guessed only by those who had been involved in the killings or those around them and I wanted to keep them in the dark for as long as possible. If there was one thing I had learned from criminal investigations in New Guinea it is that guilty people, or their associates, will almost always try to discover, in a covert way, exactly how much the investigating officer knows about the matter. Look for the person fishing for clues and you are probably very close to your quarry.

We made camp that first night at Gabiomosom village which was within a few hours’ walk of Buguhai where the murders were supposed to have taken place. It was the perfect spot for a bit of fishing of my own. I asked interpreter Dina and my two police to say nothing to the villagers about our purpose, but to say only that we planned to stay there for two days. I knew that the villagers would speculate about our intentions, and perhaps wildly so, but I also knew that the drums would be busy tonight and that the news of our arrival would reverberate from hamlet to hamlet and that the people of Buguhai would soon be wondering why the kiap had come. Would the morning bring a response, the response I was hoping for, a trout rising to the fly?

I was sitting in the doorway to my tent when Dina came over and interrupted my reading – The Count of Monte Cristo, a mammoth book that kept me company on most of my Nomad patrols – to tell me that some men were coming from the direction of Buguhai. He pointed. A file of near-naked warriors – I counted five – had emerged from the forest on the eastern edge of the village and were approaching us, their composite shadow stalking ahead in the early sun. When the outstretched shadow reached my feet the men stood and stared at us, motionless and without expression, and I thought how much like American Indians they looked, or at least like some of the stony-faced Braves I had seen with James Stewart in The Broken Arrow, lithe and loose and fine-featured and the colour of mahogany, and all as one with their virgin world. If the idealised Noble Savage existed outside the myth, the Apollo of the South Seas, then surely this was he.

I motioned the men closer and they came like jaguars, alert and balanced, their faces as impassive as before, except that now their dark eyes flickered between Dina and me and I saw disquiet there. I smiled and their uneasiness grew laser-sharp and settled on me. My smile collapsed and I became acutely aware that I was at the meeting place of cultures separated by a thousand years and a universe of difference, and yet sharing this patch of sun in a New Guinea clearing. I recalled, presumptuously, the stories in my school readers of the first tentative contacts between Moffat and Livingstone and the age-old tribes of Africa’s hinterland, and wondered illogically whether either of those dour Scots had read The Count of Monte Cristo.

Dina stepped forward and reached out a hand and each of the men, in turn, touched the tips of Dina’s fingers with a little tweak of his own. When I put out my hand they did the same to me and their touch was as soft as a kitten’s paw. Had any of these gentle fingers killed the men at Buguhai? Then, without being prompted, the five men dropped to their haunches and squatted in a semicircle in front of me, and Dina moved into the opening and squatted there himself, facing the men. The powwow was about to begin.

After a few general enquiries about this and that we got down to business and I asked the men, with Dina interpreting, what they knew about the killings at Buguhai. They knew nothing. Stone-blank nothing.

‘Haven’t you heard anything about the killings,’ Dina persisted in their language.

‘Mmmm-mm,’ they said with a vigorous shaking of heads, their sharp denials sounding like the sudden whine of a dentist’s drill.

More questions and more shrill denials. These guys didn’t just not know: they were absolute and vehement about it. Something wasn’t right. Those denials were too sharp; too passionate.

I suggested to Dina that he tell the men that I had just been testing them; that I already knew all there was to know about the Buguhai killings. He relayed my comments and the men nodded agreeably. They were happy for me. ‘Tell them,’ I continued, ‘that the kiap knows that five men committed the murders.’ More nods. ‘Now go from man to man,’ I told Dina, ‘and as you go I want you to count aloud from one to five and to touch each man on the head as you say a number.’ Dina stood and moved among the heads: ‘One…two…three,’ he intoned in their nasally speech and the nods became less pronounced as the numbers climbed. ‘Four…five,’ and the nods dropped off into a tense stillness as the men pondered where the kiap might be going with this disturbing line of logic.

‘Tell them,’ I said finally, ‘that the kiap is very sorry to see that they are a group of five because it can only mean that they are the killers and the kiap must now arrest them and take them to Nomad.’ I motioned to the two police, who were watching nearby, to step closer.

Dina had not yet finished his spiel before the men began to shake their heads violently and this time their denials merged into one continuous …mmmm-mm-mmmm-mm…that swelled with urgency and suddenly stopped. Then, all talking at once, they implored Dina to ask the kiap not to be so hasty. Their memories were wonderfully restored, they said, and they remembered everything, absolutely everything. What would the kiap like to know?

It all came out: names, places, dates, motive, and the whereabouts of the fugitives, which happened to be a village near Koroba. I radioed the details to Koroba that evening, including the names of the ever-so-eager witnesses, and told the Voice I would be heading back to Nomad in the morning and that the rest was up to him.

‘I really do owe you one,’ the Voice reminded me and I said, ‘No problem; it has been fun.’ And it had been. My life as a kiap was almost over and this was a good note to finish on.

*Buguhai is probably not the name of the actual village where the killings took place. It is nearly thirty years since I spoke with the OIC at Koroba and I have long forgotten the details, so I have picked a likely spot from the map. I have even forgotten the name of the Koroba kiap, and have named him Tyler. Sorry about that, old chap. You still owe me one!

Typical Nomad River (Western District) natives – a Village Constable is on far right.

 

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