Across New Ireland by foot: Peter Comerford
I always had a desire to do a crossing of New Ireland. Numerous discussions with John, an Irishman who had been in New Ireland for many years, had fired my imagination. John and I had first met when he was teaching at Mongop, a Christian Brothers school in central New Ireland. He had an inquiring, mathematical mind and was always stimulating and delightful company. After dropping out of one of the best universities in Ireland he had completed ‘E Course’ teacher training and his first posting had been Sursurunga in southern New Ireland. He developed a sound knowledge of the people and the area. Bill was another teacher. Born in England, educated in Canberra and taught at Manggai with John, Bill had a brilliant mind and was very academic with a delightful touch of eccentricity to go with it. He had walked over numerous parts of southern New Ireland and covered enormous distances along its west coast.
Marian and I had planned to leave Papua New Guinea for overseas at the end of the year and thought that a walk such as this, besides being a unique adventure, would be a great way for us to finish our term. Eventually John agreed to my suggestion and, with Bill keen to join us, we began to plan what proved to be an adventure that would be imprinted in our minds forever.
We had arranged to meet up at Samo, south of Namatanai. Marian and I packed our gear and had a chance to try out our new back packs that my brother in law had purchased for us, together with a small petrol stove. We seemed well prepared but, due to the weight, we gave away some of the gear before we even reached the Weitin River. Three of us travelled by bus from Kavieng to Namatanai and then by truck, to eventually meet up with John at Samo to commence our trip on 12 December 1974. It took seven days to reach the mouth of the Weitin River.
Initially we travelled some short distances by village truck, then as the roads became worse, we were able to get at a lift on a trailer towed by a tractor. Finally when roads disappeared we made the rest of the journey on foot, covering on average about 25 kilometeres a day, following tracks and coastline. It was a an enjoyable but hard slog made difficult by walking along the stony beaches. The stones quickly wore away foot-ware and my joggers purchased especially for the trip quickly began to show signs of wear. The change in the geography was fascinating, with the black sand and rocky beaches compared to the white sand and lack of igneous rock in northern New Ireland. The black sand also had one other non redeeming feature that wasn’t asthetic, sand flies and it was alive with them. The scenery however was magnificent, with high mountains that swept up from the coast, capped with cloud and wonderful long stretches of coast line, bordered with lush vegetation. The people obviously didn’t have as much contact with Europeans in these areas and we saw people fishing with traditional fish nets and traps, something which was not all that common where we had been living. The people, despite years of German and Australian administration, were still very isolated. In this area the killing of a newborn twin was not uncommon.
We steadily made our way to Cape Sena, on to Danfu, Lei and then Cape Mimias where we met Father Chindusa, a priest who had been in the area for years. I needed petrol for my stove, but all he had was aviation gasoline, which I thought would be better than nothing in an emergency. Father Chindusa offered us his house for the night while he was away visiting other villages in his vast parish. It was an amazing hut, cluttered with shelves of tinned food, tools, engine parts and large rats, however we enjoyed the humble comforts and had a relaxing night before heading off the next day to Cape Siar.
When we arrived in Siar village there was much excitement, as many of the children had not seen a white woman before, so Marian was constantly the focus of their attention. At one stage she was sitting down on a mat and the children kept touching the soles of her bare feet, amazed at how soft and white they were, compared to their own feet. One small child even sucked her fingers, to see what she tasted like! They constantly stroked her arms and fondled and twisted her straight, soft hair. I took, what would have been, some extremely good photographs and some super 8 movie footage of our stay here in this wonderfully friendly village. John and I thought we could repay some of the hospitality by going hunting for fruit pigeon. The New Ireland fruit pigeon was a very large bird endemic to the area and is particularly good eating. We felt guilty shooting them as they obviously had not been subjected to shotgun pellets before and consequently would fly back into the same tree time and time again. We shot several for the villagers but dreaded the thought at what environmental impact we had unleashed, when the villagers eventually obtained a shot gun of their own.
We were hoping to get a guide for the rest of our journey at this point but there were no takers. Advice of all sorts had been offered to us for the trip, that would possibly save our life, most of which was totally useless; eg: Always have a Queen Victoria silver florin, in case of snake bite, to rub on the bite to draw out the poison …. Beware of crocodiles at the headwaters of the Kamdaru …. Put a few dead crocodiles around the camp, as the other crocodiles won’t walk over their dead bodies …. Crocodiles are very fast over white sand …. Big trees always lean towards the sea …. The trip down the Kamdaru is easy, easy …. down the middle of the river all the way to the coast in 6 hours!!!!
On Thursday 19 December we made our first camp on the banks of the Weitin River. Two village men had accompanied us as guides and to help cut our way through the bush, but declined to go with us for the rest of the journey. Evidently the last group to make the crossing was an official patrol in 1966, who made the crossing in three days with twenty carriers! The villagers were concerned about our safety on the trip, especially as we also had a white woman with us and were very concerned about her personal ability to cope with the trip. There also seemed to be a fair amount of superstition surrounding the mountains and the rivers. One of our temporary guides asked us if it was true that the waters from the rivers ran out of the mouth of a huge python. Rather than laugh off his very concerned and genuine query, we replied that we simply didn’t know. The men eventually left us to go and search for some other villagers, who were hunting pigs and John went fishing while Marian, Bill and I set up camp.
Our accommodation consisted of two newly cut, forked poles and a ridge pole that supported a large sheet of plastic that was draped over it and kept secure with rocks placed along its two edges, to form an ‘A frame’ tent, opened at both ends. Another sheet of plastic was placed over a bed of ferns and leaves and held down with rocks around the edge to keep us dry and provide a ‘comfortable’ mattress. Marian and I had two light weight tropical sleeping bags, John a blanket and Bill a sheet, which he managed to set fire to after a couple of days, so in the end it was a mass of gaping holes.
Our first efforts to set up the camp were clumsy and time consuming but it was amazing how adept we became after a couple of days. It was also interesting how, without delegating jobs, we individually assumed responsibility for a task to set up camp. Once our campsite had been agreed upon, John would grab his rod and set off to catch dinner. Marian would start collecting ferns and spreading them on the ground to be later covered with plastic. Bill would collect rocks to weigh down the edges of the plastic tent and I would select and cut the ridge poles and supports and then set them in position. The three of us would then drape the plastic over the frame, to form an ‘A frame’ tent, secure the edges with rocks and then start collecting firewood. John would eventually return with a fish and set about his task of lighting the fire. He had become quite adept after our first attempt was washed away by the rain. We ate very well, considering we hadn’t overloaded ourselves with supplies, as we had planned to survive on what we could catch on the way. Our supplies at this early part of out journey consisted of 4 onions, two tins of Chinese goose, a bottle of curry powder, some rice, tea, coffee, a 40 ounce bottle of Johnny Walker Scotch that I refused to leave behind, and a large piece of tapioca or cassava. This had been given to us by one of our village guides when we set up our first camp on the Weitin. On that first night John’s fire was extinguished by the downpour and I used my little petrol stove to cook our meal.
The next day after a late start we made our way up the Weitin. The river was different to what I had expected. It was shallow and wide, and consisted at this point of only a few flat islands with secondary vegetation. These were bordered by shallow streams, which flowed swiftly around them, while stones and boulders, bordered the narrow beaches of black sand and gravel. As we travelled up stream, the river appeared to constantly separate around large sandy islands and then reform again to divide further on. It wasn’t very deep but was swiftly flowing and we found ourselves crossing it continually.
Casuarina was a predominant tree and was the one we came to recognise as a reliable source of firewood, no matter how wet the conditions may have been. We constantly came across the tracks of wild dogs and pigs and overhead the large brown sea eagles drifted lazily. Hornbill or kokomo were very common in the area and the ‘swoosh swoosh’ of their wings, when they flew overhead always made us stop whatever we were doing and look skyward. In the north of the island I had observed pairs of hornbills in the jungle but never flocks or ‘squadrons’ of them like this. We made our second camp and that evening John and I lay in wait for a pig to shoot, unfortunately without success. That night we drifted off to sleep, our bodies relaxed by both the days physical activity and the hypnotic rumble and rhythms of the river.
On the third day the river began to change in appearance and it was far more swiftly flowing, with larger rocks and less islands. We had been roughing it for nine days now. We were feeling fairly confident, our fitness had improved and were now quite optimistic about making a successful crossing of the island. John’s success with the rod provided us with fish, such as the jungle perch, known locally as ‘barrah’. We all seemed to thrive on the excitement that came with our daily adventures and the companionship we shared in our isolation. The animal tracks of wallabies became more common but were always followed by the prints of very large feral dogs and we often came across the partially eaten carcasses of wallabies, abandoned on rocks beside the river, where they had been shredded and partially devoured by a sea eagle or Malingulai.
Nights on the Weitin were very special. We always felt tired at the end of a day, as a result of our activities, but this was complimented by an exhilaration we experienced as a result of our daily activities. We were reasonably dry, had a fire and a delicious meal of baked fish, washed down with a cup of tea and later in the evening a glass of scotch, accompanied by laughter, stories, companionship and the sounds of the river, the jungle and the crackle of the fire. These remain wonderful memories that both Marian and I will always cherish.
The river continued to become stronger and rockier, with steeper banks, fed by numerous, swiftly flowing streams, running down from the mountains. We came across very steep gorges, cut into the mountainside by the river during flooding. They were spectacular but very tricky to traverse and we found ourselves having to make numerous crossings in order to make progress. Bill found some of the going difficult and kept losing his footing on the slippery rocks. He had already proved that he could walk forever on the flat but the constantly moving rocks on the river bed made walking difficult for even the more sure-footed of our party.
Our camp on this day was not very pleasant and we had difficulty finding a patch of ground that was suitable. The river banks were covered in a tough cane and spiky grasses and it was beginning to get darker and misty by the time we set up camp, right on the edge of the swirling torrent. I felt concerned at our close proximity to the river, however we had little choice. Everything was wet. We were now well up into the mountains and virtually in the clouds. John managed to get a fire going by peeling the bark from thin sticks of Casuarina and then whittling away the wet wood, until he reached the dry centre of the twig. With an incredible amount of patience and blowing, these slivers of wood eventually burst into flame and we had a fire for the night.
We used my petrol stove only during the day, after our first night on the river and that was only to make a cup of tea. The stove was designed to use white spirit, which was not available in PNG, so petrol was the next best thing, despite its highly flammable nature. The aviation gasoline provided by Fr Chindusa, proved to be a very poor fuel for the stove, as it kept building up a deposit of lead oxide around the nipple of the burner and the stove would splutter and then go out. The only way to counteract this was to lie down beside it, so the stove was at eye level and then scape the deposit away with a long thin stick, until it roared back to life again. This needed to be carried out on a regular basis in order to successfully boil a ‘billy’ of river water. The smell of aviation fuel however, even today, too easily conjures up memories of that rather precarious task.
By now we were now reasonably high up in the mountain range and still following the Weitin River. We felt we were gradually nearing its source but the climbing became steeper. The river banks were strewn with large grey boulders and we again found ourselves continually criss-crossing the turbulent current. Marian’s grit and determination were incredible as she slipped, struggling to maintain her footing and balance on the continually moving stones that tumbled along beneath our feet. My ‘Adidas’ shoes were looking rather ragged and again needed running repairs. I again used fishing line and wire fishing trace to stitch my failing shoes together and was now very concerned that the shoes would not last the distance. If that was the case, I would have to either complete the trip in thongs, which would be treacherous, or in bare feet, an experience I was prepared to forego. I took a close up photograph of the shoes one evening, as they were drying by the fire and thought I would send it to ‘Adidas’ to see if they would give me a replacement pair as compensation for the shoes not standing up to this rather extreme test.
John had not been successful with the rod that evening and as we sat, savouring our meal of ‘Chinese goose’, the roar and rumble of rocks in the torrent near the head-water was awesome. We were wet, cold and shrouded in mist and we gazed up in wonder at a spectacular wall of stone, some 60 meters high, that had been gradually hewn away by the intensity of the waters. Our view was becoming less impeded and to our joy we at last witnessed the sun setting through the leaf canopy. Above us there didn’t appear to be any evidence of other mountains higher than our present position. Bill, after consulting our maps, finally announced, to a very receptive audience, that in his opinion we had reached the saddle of the mountains and at last were very close to the head-waters of the Kamdaru River.
The animal life in the valley was fantastic. Squadrons of hornbills passed overhead in the morning, as they flew to the coast to feed and then made their loud return in the evening to roost. These flocks sometimes reached 20 or more birds in a noisy, rhythmic, wing beating, formation and their early morning advance had become our wake up call over the past three days.
We made preparations, once we realised the close proximity of the Kamdaru River, to then casually follow it down to the west coast. This proved to be a lot more difficult than we anticipated, due to the incredibly dense jungle undergrowth that tore and grabbed at our bodies as if deliberately trying to impede our progress. We would send ahead one person at a time in 20 minute shifts, armed with a compass and bush knife, to cut a path through the clinging, grabbing vines and stinging plants. It was hard work and by mid day we still had not found even a sign of a creek that was running in a westerly direction. The going was tough and quite treacherous in places as we scrambled down banks, crawled across fallen logs that formed natural bridges over deep ravines, and ploughed determinately through the creeks. Eventually we reached an area where the undergrowth was not as severe and there we planned our next move.
As it appeared there was a likelihood we would be spending a night in the jungle away from the water, it was decided that John had better do some hunting and that Marian stay with our backpacks, while Bill and I searched for a creek that ran in a westerly direction. To our relief everyone was successful. John had shot a plump pigeon, Bill and I had found a creek that was running in approximately the right direction and the three of us all managed to find our way back to where Marian was patiently waiting. This had not been without incident as something huge had crashed past where she was standing in the jungle and disappeared before she could see anything. Her calls to us went unanswered, swallowed up by the jungle, and to this day she is still unsure what it may have been. Bill also heard something crashing through the bush as well, so it well may have been a large goanna, pig or wallaby.
Urged on by our success, we decided to follow the creek, as water will find the simplest and most direct route down a slope. The idea was not as simple as it first sounded and we soon found ourselves slipping, crashing and crawling our way down some very precipitous ravines and a series of waterfalls, some of which ranged between 4-7 meters in height. In these creeks at this altitude, we came across tiny crabs and even a large eel that slithered between Bill’s feet. Our bodies and clothing were being ripped and torn by vines and hidden tree roots. Creepers grabbed at our feet and ankles, sending us sprawling and tumbling on more than one occasion and then, as if to increase the challenge even more, it began to rain.
The light under the jungle canopy was rapidly becoming dimmer and this caused some consternation, as we were determined to spend the night on the Kamdaru. We struggled on doggedly and eventually, Bill, who was in the lead at this stage, began to call out excitedly. We charged forward and literally burst out of the jungle onto a pebble beach, which marked the edge of a swiftly flowing river. We had finally arrived at the Kamdaru on Christmas Eve. It was our sixth day on the river and thirteen days since we first started walking.
We were elated and totally exhausted but it would have been a fatal move to sit down and rest at this stage. It was getting late and would soon be dark, so we busied ourselves setting up camp, in anticipation of a comfortable, dry night on the Kamdaru. Unfortunately we couldn’t find any dry wood or casuarina so we cooked a delicious, but chewy, pigeon stew fit for a king, on my little ‘aviation gas fuelled’ stove. We gave a prayer of thanks and finished the last of the Scotch whisky. The memory of this night remains imprinted indelibly in my mind and is one of the very special memories that evokes tingling feelings of warmth and companionship shared with special people in total isolation. We huddled in a small group, serenaded by the rush of the river and the rumble of rocks tumbling along within it, the chirping of insects and the occasional cry of a bird from within the dark green blanket of vines and large leafed trees that surrounded us.
It didn’t seem like Christmas. It was different and far removed from what we were accustomed to in our homelands. We sat in our Garden of Eden and shared personal and intimate memories of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with families in our own countries, that seemed so far away at this precious moment. John, who was Irish, talked of Midnight Mass in Kilkee County Clare, traditional Christmas dinner with pudding and brandied butter. Bill who had grown up in England, talked of Christmas Day being a day where, after Church, the family would gather together with their servants and housekeepers to share presents and Christmas dinner. Marian and my memories were different yet again. As we were both about leave PNG we experienced feelings of sadness mixed with excitement, but our minds were on our parents and families at Christmas, who didn’t know where we were or if we were safe. In our mind and heart we could see and hear them, sitting around with our relatives, after the traditional hot dinner at Marian’s parents, and tuning in for the Queen’s Christmas message in Honiton Avenue, Carlingford. We could visualise the cold, buffet style lunch at my Uncle Bob’s, at Chiswick, where my family would gather. There they would eat and have a sing-a-long around the piano, accompanied by lots of laughter and skits. There was no possible way of contacting any of them, and we weren’t even quite sure where we were either. Each of us felt a little sad in this brief moment, so we cheered our spirits by sharing and talking about those special times spent with our families, that obviously meant so much to us all. Eventually we were lulled off to sleep by the sounds of the river.
Christmas Day was bright and sunny. After greeting each other on this special day we had a slow start. We said a prayer of thanks and then pottered about for a while, each to his or her own thoughts. I tried to repair my shoes which were now in a terrible state. The romantic in me prompted me to write a note with our names and addresses, recording the date that we had crossed the island and reached the Kamdaru River. I then placed and sealed it in the empty Johnny Walker whisky bottle, made a small cairn of river stones and placed the bottle on top of it, in the hope that one day some one might cross at this exact spot and find it. We then packed up and after checking our maps and locating where we thought we were, made our way down the river. We eventually selected a camping site for the evening which was both protected and near the river and John found the fishing superb, so we ate well having a baked fish and curried cassava for our Christmas dinner that evening.
The river was spectacular at this point, with huge boulders and steep gorges where the sedimentary layers were clearly exposed. These would undoubtedly have told a fascinating history of the river. There also seemed, by our observations, to be a greater volume of water rushing down the Kamdaru compared to that of the Weitin. This assumption became even more credible when we came across a huge waterfall that plummeted, for what seemed like 70 meters or more, down the mountain side to meet a tributary far below. We scaled some very precarious gorges as the water rushed past us, rock hopping across the river time and time again. At one point we came to a roaring, foaming torrent where the river squeezed tightly through a gorge. I was not prepared to risk a crossing so Marian and I back tracked and tried to traverse the river higher up, which we successfully did, although when we finally located John and Bill they were situated way down below us in the river. They were forced to retrace their steps and eventually met up with us again, but the trip was clearly becoming more and more difficult and our progress was certainly a lot slower.
John estimated that we were possibly only making 5 or 6 kilometres a day at this point. We were tired and decided to make camp mid afternoon and found enough Casuarina to have a blazing fire. After referring to our maps, we estimated that we were at the most maybe one or two days’ walk from the coast. Consequently we had a large meal, finishing off the last of our rations to accompany our baked fish. It was obvious that we wouldn’t really be needing them after tomorrow.
We made an early start the next morning and had a breakfast of two vitamin tablets and a cup of tea. As we made our way down the river it became apparent that the geography had begun to change slightly and the river became much wider and deeper and the current far stronger. We still remained positive but we were all beginning to show signs of the effects of the walk, which was now in its 16th day. My shoes were in tatters and now consisted of more fishing line and wire trace than leather and rubber. Carrying my heavy camera equipment had its drawbacks as I had pinched a nerve in my right shoulder and now had some minor difficulty raising my arm above shoulder height. Marian was fit but beginning to show signs of fatigue and was looking forward to reaching the comfort of a village. Bill was having trouble with his feet and was becoming noticeably more frustrated when he slipped or fell on rocks in the river. John was certainly tired but revelling in the situation, except that the fishing was not as successful once we left the mountains.
It was mid-morning when we were making yet another crossing of the swiftly flowing river, when we reached an extremely treacherous bend. There didn’t appear to be any obvious safe way to cross at this point so we made our way upstream where we located a log that had fallen across a narrow section of the river. The river here was approximately 7 or 8 meters wide and although the current was still very strong, it appeared a safer route than what we had encountered further down stream. John crossed successfully followed by Bill. Marian entered the current holding onto the log, with me following close behind her. We moved carefully, carrying our packs and equipment and battling to keep our balance on the tumbling rocks and stones beneath our feet and struggling to keep our packs and equipment dry. John noticed our predicament and entered the current to assist Marian. I was beginning to experience some difficulty as the pressure of the water was pulling me under the log together with my camera cases containing my film, two Minolta still cameras, lenses and a Yashika Super 8 movie camera. The cases quickly filled with water and the effect was like that of a sea anchor in reverse as the water towed them with incredible force down stream. I could not hold my grip on the slippery log any longer and released my grip on the slippery log to be suddenly whipped away down stream.
Marian, momentarily stunned by my predicament, let go the log and suddenly she too was being whirled along at the mercy of the current. At this point I was washed to a bend in the river, where I managed to grasp a branch of a protruding tree trunk and began to pull myself up onto the bank. Marian also was able to grab another tree trunk and was struggling, trying to hold on for dear life but the force of the river was too powerful and she slipped back into the current before John could reach her. He yelled a warning to me to ‘Watch out for Marian!’ I took one look at her being swirled around at the mercy of the current and launched myself back into the torrent in order to get in front of her, somehow reasoning that this was the best place to be in order to rescue her. Fortunately Marian was caught in an eddy, which carried her back to the shore after being swept only a few meters. I was totally unaware of this however, as I was tumbled upside down, my pack dragging my head down to the bottom of the river. I was then buffeted along, with my legs kicking in the air, my head centimetres above the rocky bottom, struggling for breath and thinking that any second I would be knocked unconscious by a submerged log or boulder.
This whole scene is still vividly clear in my mind. I remember thinking that unless I manage to get myself back to the surface very quickly I was going to drown. I couldn’t believe that my time had come, I wasn’t ready and I began to say ‘Acts of Contrition’ as I continued to be bundled and tossed along under the surface of the water. I had swallowed quite a bit of water and was fighting furiously and without success to free my arms from my back. At this point I had what is referred to as an ‘out of body experience’, where I was suddenly looking down at my bobbing duck like body tumbling, kicking and battling the current and literally fighting for my life. I watched, an interested observer as I struggled and twisted, trying desperately to get my head and shoulders back to the surface, to rid myself of the back pack which had now filled with water and was as heavy as lead. It now tended to act like an underwater spinnaker and towed me relentlessly and with incredible force down under the water, crashing me over the submerged rocks and boulders. I continued to pray waiting for the final, fatal blow to the head or face but still refusing to believe that the time had come and I was really about to die.
Driven on by a will to survive and a mega injection of adrenalin I gave one final almighty thrust and twist and suddenly found myself on the surface of the river. It seemed to take minutes to realise what had happened. I was still being swept along at the mercy of the river but this time I was on my back and now my pack and frame were taking some of the buffeting but at least I could finally breathe. The jungle and trees seemed to glide past overhead, while the sun shone brightly down on my predicament, from a rich blue sky. I followed the scene from somewhere above, observing the action, as if I was watching myself in a film. Then from somewhere in my confused state I could hear the roaring of water pounding in my ears.
I seemed to be rafting along with the current and struggled continually, fighting to slip my shoulder straps from my pack and then without warning the pack was suddenly ripped from my shoulder. With one arm freed I tried to twist away from the pack and as I turned the pack was ripped from my body and I caught a brief glimpse of a splash of red, it as it disappeared, bobbing along in the rapids. Once free, I tried to grab hold of anything to slow my progress, but to no avail and I continued to be rushed along with the current. I was quickly approaching what appeared like a bend in the river and could hear the roar of the torrent, as the massive volume of water squeezed and forced its way around it, exploding with a deafening roar on the other side. I was rapidly approaching a large boulder in the middle of the river when suddenly I found myself in calmer water behind it. I hung on with all the strength I could muster, with feet, hands, fingernails and eventually I saw John running along the side of the river.
When he reached a point slightly upstream from my position, John made his way out to where I was clinging. My first words to blurt out were ‘Where’s Marian?’ John reassured me that she was safe and as he assisted me back to the riverbank, Marian and Bill appeared. Marian rushed to me and we stood hugging and trembling. I was bruised, where the pack frame had been constantly rammed into my back by the buffeting on the rocks, but otherwise, other than being totally exhausted, I was fine and more importantly… we were alive.
The whole unexpected incident threw us into turmoil. We had felt quite confident up until this point and crossing the river, while quite difficult on occasions, had not been considered a threat. Now the game had changed and we had allowed ourselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. The river was suddenly in charge and it rattled our confidence. I had been carried nearly 400 metres down stream and it was a miracle that both Marian and I hadn’t been drowned. To our horror we realised that the waist belt on Marian’s pack was still buckled around her waist. She had not unbuckled it before attempting to cross the river and was very fortunate, as it was unlikely that she would have had the physical strength to unbuckle her belt and escape from her pack once in the rapids. The realisation of how close we had come to a double tragedy corroded our confidence and subdued us even more. In the accident I had not only lost my cameras, diaries, my pack, which contained sleeping bags and some meagre supplies, but more importantly our only bush knife. We were all in shock and clearly in trouble and after we had regained some of our composure, we continued making our way slowly down the river. We were all particularly concerned about crossing the river now, me particularly. We tried therefore, to avoid it by barging our way through the bush along the bank, but not having a bush knife to cut our way through the tough grass and cane, progress became exhausting and extremely frustrating and futile.
We kept referring to our maps and reassured ourselves by thinking we recognised various points on the river and surrounding mountains. How wrong we were. The shock of the river accident had totally thrown our judgement. We began to blame the map as, due to its age, the river had possibly changed course a number of times. We kept telling ourselves that the coast would be just around the next bend in the river. Bill had become a concern as he was beginning to show real signs of stress and had become quite introverted. Trying to avoid the river by ‘bush bashing’ was becoming absurd and we realised that we were going to have to keep crossing the river if we were ever to reach the coast. Trying to overcome these fears and misgivings was quite a test of character for us all.
Eventually we spied a red shape anchored in the middle of a less swiftly flowing and shallow section of the river. It was my pack and as I stumbled my way cautiously out into the river to help John retrieve it I was staggered at its enormous weight as it was now totally saturated with water, the sleeping bags having absorbed the river water like a sponge. I shivered at the thought of my miraculous escape.
Despite the fact that we didn’t have any food and our sleeping bags were soaking wet, we raised our spirits by talking about the delicacies we were going to indulge ourselves in once we arrived back in Kavieng. We made camp and lit a fire in an attempt to try a dry our sleeping bags and drank mugs of black tea. The night sky was beautiful and the stars so bright as we sat around the fire and discussed, over and over, our misadventure and how fortunate we were that no one had drowned. It seemed the right time to offer a prayer of thanks together before trying to sleep. I had difficulty getting comfortable due to the bruising on my back and hips.
The following morning, John, who we regarded as the natural leader of our little group, decided we had better have a serious talk before we commenced our journey again. It was obvious we were not sure of our exact position and that we could last without food for a few more days but our energy levels would be rapidly depleted as we made continual crossings of the river. We thankfully were not without water, as the river water was fresh and we had enough vitamin capsules to last us three more days. Marian, John and I, in spite of everything, felt quite fit. My shoes were now in ruins and would not last the distance. Bill did not have a lot to say and tended to sit quietly by himself, not joining in conversation and rocking to and fro.
Our progress that day was very slow and the river seemed to wind on for ever. We kept thinking that we would see the ocean once we had reached the next bend and then the next bend and so on. I commented that it seemed as if we were in a scene from the movie Deliverance, and John suggested that perhaps we had all died and we were in fact in Purgatory. Bill was having a lot of trouble keeping his balance crossing the river and was noticeably experiencing problems and could not be drawn into any conversation. We stopped often and waited for each other to catch up before attempting to cross the river, referred to our maps and tried to recognise more land marks. That night John, Marian and I sat up late near the fire talking. Bill was behaving strangely and sat by himself rocking backwards and forwards without talking. His behaviour prompted us to discuss in a very matter of fact manner, what we would do if one of our party was unable to continue or, in the worst possible and macabre scenario, died before we were able to reach the coast. We decided that somehow we would have to bury the person as best we could and mark their grave with a rock cairn so that we could lead a party back later to recover their body.
There was a coldness in the way we discussed the situation. Our decision seemed to lack emotion and focussed on practical reality. On reflection, we felt this was our basic survival instinct beginning to emerge and was an indication of our acceptance of the life threatening situation in which we had placed ourselves. Bill’s behaviour was clearly a warning sign that he was experiencing some major problems and further crossings of the river were now going to be even more precarious. Hunger now began to have an affect on our physical strength as we had not eaten for three days and were expending an enormous amount of energy.
Throughout our trip we had at on occasions become preoccupied with food. Discussions of Christmas had assaulted our imagination and senses and sent our digestive juices into turmoil as we discussed Christmas banquets. Our cravings for freshly baked bread, steak, curry, roast lamb, roast chicken, baked potatoes and gravy had at times became overpowering. But now it was interesting to note that having not eaten for three days we began to crave very basic food, such as a plain, hard, ‘navy biscuit’ and a spoon full of ‘bully beef’.
The next morning we again set off slowly. Bill’s condition appeared to have worsened and Marian, John and I agreed that, as our situation was not improving, we desperately needed to get Bill to a safe location. Marian and I were in relatively good shape and condition. It was obvious we weren’t going to be separated, so it was agreed that we would both go on ahead for help, while John remained with Bill and followed us at their own pace. We shook hands, hugged and set off and prepared to strike out for the coast, but not before John reminded us of Chindusa’s warning. He had told us to keep to the left bank of the river as we neared the coast, as the right side was swampy and the river was infested with crocodiles.
The day was magnificent and was truly mother nature at her very best. The river was a lot wider now and continued to flow swiftly towards the coast. It seemed to deliberately toy and play with us by rolling rocks and stones under our feet to make us stumble and fall. There was no shade and our energy levels were down due to lack of food. We constantly drank water from the river, resting frequently and lay down where ever we could, using our packs for shade. At one stage we lay directly under a fallen log on the river to try to escape the heat. In the early stages I would cross the river on my own, take off my pack and then return for Marian’s pack, cross the river again and then return to help her to cross. After several crossings however I was becoming quite exhausted and it was obvious that we would have to make further crossings together.
Before deciding where to cross the river we would stand quietly observing the river surface for tell tale signs of swift currents, submerged logs or calm but treacherously deep water. Once we had decided on our point of entry we would pause and hug each other, say a quiet prayer, and then would plunge into the torrent, clutching each other for support on the unstable river bed. The crossings were becoming deeper and once in the current we had to try to stay upright by quickly moving our legs in a walking motion. This action seemed to help us control our buoyancy and use the river’s current to carry us to the opposite bank. At each point of entry to the river and at the exit points we left clearly defined signs for John and Bill to follow, by drawing arrows in the sand, pointing to the direction where we had crossed and left the river.
No matter how hard we tried, the thick cane and grass that grew profusely on the left bank proved impossible to penetrate and we always seemed to end up back on the wrong side of the river. The left bank was supposed to be the ‘safe’ side but try as we may we seemed to always end up back on the right hand bank. Things were again becoming desperate. We were lost, hungry, physically weak and tired and emotionally stretched by our near catastrophe, compounded by the numerous and often potentially dangerous river crossings. We were worried, but together and in an extremely hazardous situation. It was then that my attention was drawn to some tiny pieces of gravel, split pea size, that appeared to have been disturbed by something, as they were partly moist. I was later to relate these experiences to my uncle, an ex 2nd 19th POW in both Changi and Japan. I felt that he was the only other person outside of our group with whom who I could share these experiences.
I have tried to explain these events many times since, reflecting on how acute the senses seemed to become when one is placed in a life threatening situation and battling to survive. For some reason I had noticed these tiny damp pebbles in a sea of gravel. A little further along the river bank I found more pebbles disturbed in the same manner. I reasoned that something living must have disturbed them and searched the area nearby, eventually locating the print of a dog paw. My spirits leapt as the presence of dogs could possibly mean feral dogs, but the paws were too small, or more likely hunters. A short distance further on, my new found powers of observation, zeroed in on a tiny piece of cigarette ash and then a little further on the remains of a small fire. We started hooting and calling out and a dog appeared on the far, left hand side of the river and then promptly disappeared.
I don’t pretend to be a good bushman but at that point I felt that the dog was the answer to our river crossing concerns. I reasoned that the dog would not cross the river where it was unsafe and after explaining this to Marian, we set about looking for more dog tracks. Our search was soon rewarded and as predicted the tracks suddenly stopped at the water’s edge and that was where we too also entered the river. We crossed, clinging to one another and then to our amazement we actually found dog tracks, leaving the river within metres of where we staggered, dripping wet, out onto the bank. We continued to follow the dog tracks, leaving directions in the sand for John and Bill to follow, until we eventually came to a particularly swampy area.
We were still having trouble reaching the left bank and now found ourselves wading through waist deep murky swamp on the wrong side of the river. This was one of the really unnerving and frightening memories of the trip, as we clutched onto one another, wading through the murky water, looking for any tell tale signs of ripples or bubbles on the water’s surface, scanning the river banks and preparing ourselves to cope with the sudden, violent attack of an estuarine crocodile. We kept scanning the river’s surface and banks, feeling with our feet trying to recognise any change in the river bottom just in case we happened to step on a submerged crocodile. The water was inky and deep and we felt particularly vulnerable when on a number of occasions we plunged up to our necks in hidden pot holes. We struggled, constantly fighting panic and clasping protectively to each other, as we found our footing once again and continued on what now had become a very arduous and emotionally draining journey.
To our relief, at about mid afternoon, we came across the dog tracks again. This time they led us to the left side of the river and to a track leading up from the river. We followed eagerly and suddenly found ourselves face to face with some villagers who stared at us in disbelief, as if we were ghosts. We had finally arrived at Kamdaru. They couldn’t believe we had walked across the mountains and we explained that we hadn’t eaten for nearly four days. Later we were told that they did in fact think we were spirits because no one ever came across the mountains and we were white skins! They led us into the village and there someone broke open the village trade store and gave us some navy biscuits and bully beef. We attacked the food as if possessed, savouring every mouthful but after about two mouthfuls, were bloated and burping, our stomachs obviously shrunk by our recent diet or rather lack of it, over the past couple of weeks. We explained to the villagers that there were two others, still making their way down the river, who needed help. We left our packs in the village and now that we had eaten, energetically strode back up into the river again followed by the villagers, while one of them went to get the plantation manager from Mala plantation.
We followed our tracks back up the river and chatted to our local guides about crocodiles. The river they said, was ‘pulap’ or full up with ‘puk puks’ or crocodiles and the men hunted them by feeling for them in the mud with their feet and then spearing them!! Suddenly around a bend in the river we saw John and Bill. They had been following our tracks and the signs we had left for them and were safe. When Bill saw us, he suddenly took off like a man possessed and literally ran all the way back to the village where he collapsed, exhausted and relieved.
The manager of Mala Plantation arrived eventually with a tractor and trailer. He was a Scot by the name of Alex McCrae and he took us all back to his plantation where his gate crashing guests recovered over the next five days, eating and drinking him out of house and home. Alex was a wonderful host, a thorough Scottish gentleman of the highest order and we spent a very enjoyable New Year’s Eve in his company. We are all eternally grateful to Alex for his company and generosity, while we waited for boat transport to take us further up the coast where we could then get a truck to take us back into Namatanai. While staying at Mala, we noticed for the first time how much weight we had all lost and we also saw the reason why Bill had been acting so strangely. He had been wearing canvas jungle boots for the whole duration of the trip. These were effectively of large damp sandshoes and his feet and legs were continually damp. Consequently his legs were covered in infected tinea from his feet to just below the knee. He obviously had been suffering terribly during the past few days, but would not burden us with his predicament. We were all astounded by the extent of his infection and were full of admiration for him.
When we had all arrived back in Kavieng we made up a parcel of food supplies and Scotch whisky to send down to Alex McCrae. We then had a celebratory dinner at the Kavieng Hotel. It was a memorable evening. We toasted each other, our good health and Marian’s incredible courage and strength and tenacity. As far as we know Marian was the first white woman to ever make the crossing, a remarkable feat. When in England I purchased four small brass compasses, one for each of us and had them engraved in memory of our adventure and forwarded them on to both John and Bill. Ours sit proudly among our many souvenirs.