A Saturday afternoon bowling at Bulolo: Paul Oates
While stationed at Wau as the Patrol Officer in late 1972, over Christmas my fiancée came to visit. She worked for a short while as a casual at the New Guinea Gold Mining (NGG) General Store while I was on patrol.
A mate who worked for NGG was going on leave and asked if could I mind his old VW Beetle until he and his family returned from down south. We could use the car he said as long as we were aware of its shortcomings.
Now having a private vehicle was infinitely preferable to the Station Honda 90 motorcycle that we weren’t supposed to ride anyway on non-government business. I therefore jumped at the opportunity.
The shortcomings of this bloke’s old Beetle were a flat battery, due to a defunct generator that obviously couldn’t recharge the battery. That meant roll starting the car every time you wanted to use it. That was no problem however as the township of Wau had many small hills around and the road outside my SOQ (Single Officers Quarters) was fairly flat. To push start the old VW was therefore not that bad and decidedly worth the effort.
The car’s brakes however were a bit ‘squishy’ and had to be pumped vigorously in order to work. There was no way you could stop if it was in gear although one of the gears was a bit tricky to get properly engaged. Fortunately, the hand brake seemed to work OK and doubled as the brakes. The exhaust system was a trifle religious (holey) as well and you had to be careful about where you accelerated or people in town might get an idea they had suddenly entered a war zone.
During the evening socials at the Wau Bowling Club, we met the daughter of a local expat coffee planter and her partner who was staying with her family. About our age, we got on quite well and one Saturday, I suggested we drive down to Bulolo and have a game of bowls as visitors from Wau often did.
During my first trip to the Bulolo Bowls Club I was introduced to the extremely gentile yet somewhat quaint custom of having a refreshing drink at the completion of each ‘end’. At the time, my preferred tipple was Meri Buka (Rhum Negrita) and coke. Given there are (I think) about 24 ends in a game of bowls, this ritual may have had some small bearing on the condition of my memory when I was driven home that evening.
The gravel road between Wau and Bulolo was something those who have never driven it will probably have difficulty in imagining. There is possibly not much by way of comparison to today’s metropolitan standards.
Leaving Wau township, you turned away from the end of the road that ran past the bottom of the airstrip and the sign warning that ‘Landing Aircraft have Right of Way’.
At a number of intervals along the road, there were tracks leading off the side of the road. Each had a circular sign made of the cut out end of a 44 gallon (200 litre) metal drum and nailed to a post. Each sign read: “ITAMBU” (It is forbidden) and had a red hand painted on it. One assumed it was to stop people exploring what was further along the track.
Having passed ‘Misi Booth’ (named after a pre-war gold miner Mrs Booth) and the last one of the various official gold mining communities, the road then progressed down through the Wau Gorge. The Wau Gorge was a series of hairpin bends where on one side there was the shear stone wall of the chasm and on the other side, the gorge descended to the swift flowing Bulolo River below. The road was just wide enough for two vehicles to pass one another.
Exiting out of the Gorge, you drove down towards Mumeng and Lae and past a huge, old rusting gold dredge and the mullock heaps from the alluvial pre-war mining days. You then took the Bulolo turn off on the left. Driving through the Bulolo township we finally reached the Bulolo Bowls Club.
After a very pleasant afternoon bowling and fortunately not consuming as many drinks as on the previous occasion, we left to drive home in the gathering gloom of a fast disappearing sunset.
Arriving at the Gorge, we had proceeded half way along when we met a McCardle’s timber jinker, right on a hairpin bend. The jinker was coming the other way in a hurry and fully loaded with Klinki pine logs.
Five things all happened at once.
I steered up against the rock wall trod on the clutch madly pumped the brakes while pulling the handbrake on The car stopped, the headlights went out. The truck just narrowly missed us as it careered around on the outside bend in a cloud of dust. There was no way the local driver could have stopped even if he had wanted to and he just continued on his way.
We were suddenly alone in the middle of Wau Gorge and in total darkness, there being no moon that night. Needless to say, we hadn’t thought to bring a torch.
The other chap had a suggestion. He’d stand on the lip of the gorge with a lighted cigarette and frantically wave it backwards and forwards so that I could hopefully see where he was. The girls could then help me push the car and when rolling, hopefully I could leap in and roll start it before we both disappeared over the edge. Given the shape of the road and the slight incline, we had but one chance of success.
Backing up the old Beetle, to the opposite side of the road, the girls and I started to push it towards the glowing end of the cigarette.
Luck was on our side as I was able to jump in and kick the old car into life. Once started and the engine revved, we had headlights again.
Thankfully we arrived back in Wau without further ado.
One of the Bulolo gold dredges operating in better days
An example of what a timber jinker looked like