The first plane at Tari: Quentin Anthony

In 1951 a decision was made to open a new patrol post in the Tari valley of the Southern Highlands of Papua. A suitable site for an airstrip had earlier been located by Sid Smith and Des Clancy during a patrol from Lake Kutubu to the north-west, and in an area of heavy population first reported by Hides and O’Malley in the 1930s.

In early 1952, ADO Arthur (Shorty) Carey and Patrol Officer Ron Neville took a large patrol from Kutubu to the airstrip site at Rumurumu and started construction of a strip which would accommodate aircraft up to the size of a Norseman. In July of that year I was despatched from Kutubu by ADO David Wren with a 50-man patrol to re-supply Carey and Neville at Tari who were running desperately short of essential food and medical supplies. In those days there were no helicopters available and it was nine days of quite hard slog.

I arrived to find the new airstrip nearing completion, despite several interruptions due to outbreaks of tribal fighting in various parts of the Huri Basin which required intervention by the Tari officers. Shortly after my arrival a serious stoush erupted between the Tani and Tigo clans to the west of the camp. Carey, Neville and myself, with 15 police and 40 carriers departed immediately for the area, and after a couple of days of high tension and a “stand-off” between the warring groups, a ceasefire was effected, due largely to a courageous one-on-one negotiation instigated by Shorty Carey. At one point he literally “stared down” a gathering of 700-800 armed men who were clearly of hostile intent.

After two hours of talk and explanation of the Government’s peaceful intentions, a pig was purchased and shot by the police, as a demonstration of the Government’s “firepower”. The initial alarm and consternation was followed by amazement at the damage the rifle shot had inflicted on the deceased pig. To reinforce the magic of the patrol’s weapons, Carey had the police fire a volley at a limestone cliff some 400 yards distant, the shattering noise of the rifles and the cloud of white dust and stones issuing from the cliff providing more than enough evidence that these strangers were not to be trifled with.

A number of arrests of Tani warriors were made without incident, as a result of deaths caused by the fighting, with the assurance being given that a similar number of men from the Tigo clan would also be taken.

Some 20 or 30 men were taken back to Rumurumu where they were put to work on the airstrip. This put a temporary stop to the fighting, but unfortunately some time later another serious outbreak occurred, during which a young Constable Agau was shot through the throat at close range when the patrol was ambushed in long kunai grass. With little available in the way of medical assistance, Constable Agau died in great pain during a forced march back to Tari.

The work proceeded on the new airstrip, with at times 4 to 5 thousand men, women and children making it a sort of extraordinary social occasion. Many times we were asked through the interpreters what it was all about. We gave up on the real function of an airstrip. These people had never seen or heard a plane and had no conception of such a thing, so we took the line that it was to be a big “sing-sing” ground for a huge bird that was coming from Lake Kutubu. It would be the greatest celebration they had ever seen. This story generated great enthusiasm and the work continued apace.

The airstrip site was crossed by three large fighting trenches, six feet deep and six feet wide. They formed a defensive network during tribal fighting, in much the same way as the trenches in World War 1. With no equipment or tools apart from a few spades, these trenches had to be filled with earth taken from the other end of the strip, using primitive digging sticks, and carrying the earth in bags, baskets and on sheets of bark.

Carey then decided, with a stroke of genius, that we organise a practice sing-sing to take place over the newly-filled trenches, when thousands of stamping feet would compact the earth down to the required firmness. Many pigs were purchased and slaughtered, the workers decked themselves out in their best finery and the practice sing-sing was a great success. Or so we thought.

The days slipped by, and the strip was nearing completion. However our A510 radio transceiver, which had been a repetitive failure from the day it had arrived, had given up the ghost months ago, and the replacement I had brought in from Kutubu proved to be no better, defying even the practical skills of Ron Neville. We were totally incommunicado, with no way of advising Port Moresby of a projected completion date for the strip. Arthur Carey decided that I would have to make the long trek back to Lake Kutubu with news of our situation and that I should leave the following week.

Monday 18 August 1952 dawned bright and clear, and the usual 6 a.m. start of work on the airstrip got under way. Just after 10 a.m., to our great astonishment, an aircraft engine was heard approaching, and shortly a tiny speck over the distant mountains resolved itself into a Gibbes Sepik Airways single engine Norseman. Obviously, having had no word from the Tari camp, the District Commissioner at Mendi had decided to send an aircraft to investigate.

The Norseman circled over the strip, clearly hoping to land, but there was one small problem. At that moment there were probably 5000 awestruck Huris on the strip, gazing up in wonderment at this enormous, noisy bird. The three officers, together with police, medical orderlies, cooks and all available camp followers, immediately set about the daunting task of trying to clear the people off the strip. But there were too many of them and too few of us. As fast as we cleared people off one side of the strip, another battalion would swarm in from the other.

The pilot, seeing our problem, and with the best of intentions, decided to “buzz” the strip at an altitude of about 30 feet. The net result of this manoeuvre was that 5000 people threw themselves flat on their faces in terror and refused to move.

The day was saved with the arrival of Punga, the fight leader of the Huri people. Punga was a man of impressive physique, bearing and demeanour, rumoured to have killed more than 30 enemies in combat, and, most importantly, had proved to be very supportive of the Government and its stated intentions. We had accorded him VIP status and Carey was quick to recruit him into the situation, to good effect, as he strode down the strip, roaring like a bull, and clearing his terrified followers off the runway. At last the Norseman was able to make its final approach and touch down at the end of the strip, amid scenes of wild excitement. It turned to taxi back to where our camp was located, but the morning’s dramas were not yet all played out.

As the Norseman taxied slowly back past thousands of amazed onlookers, it came to the first of the newly-filled trenches. Recent rain has apparently caused subterranean subsidence, despite all the sing-sing stamping, and although the surface looked firm, the wheels of the aircraft broke through the crust and the Norseman performed a spectacular sixty degree headstand, with the propeller ploughing into the ground. The passengers and cargo shot forward into the cockpit, and my lasting impression was of several anguished but unharmed faces squashed against the windows, interspersed with sundry boxes and bags of cargo.

We quickly threw a rope over the skyward-pointing tailplane and a score of strong rescuers hauled the aircraft back into a horizontal position. The shaken passengers disembarked. They were: John Wells pilot, District Commissioner Jock McLeod, Frank Galliano airport inspector, Gordon Young Methodist missionary, and one police constable. The much anticipated cargo of mail, a replacement radio transceiver, medical supplies and some essential stores included a small quantity of alcoholic beverages.

We escorted our visitors back to our camp, with the slightly wounded aircraft in tow, as Jock McLeod’s vocabulary of expletives slowly exhausted itself. The three of us were crestfallen at the prospect of Galliano ever issuing a permit for Tari airstrip to be opened, to say nothing of what the D.C.’s reaction was likely to be when he had us alone.

The good news was that John Wells’ examination of the propeller showed there was no substantial damage, thanks to the soft earth.

The bad news was that I was to be busy all that day and all the following night with a labour line of about 500, digging out the three filled-in trenches and re-packing them with river stones from the nearby Rumurumu Creek, to enable the aircraft to take off the next day.

A couple of weeks earlier, we had graduated from our tent accommodation to a larger bush materials hut with a dirt floor, and it was here that our four visitors spent an uncomfortable night in makeshift sleeping arrangements. My sympathy for them was imperceptible. I spent a very cold night (the altitude was over 5000 feet), organising the digging out and re-filling of the trenches by the light of fires and hurricane lamps, fortunately fortified by a good meal from the newly-arrived  stores, and a couple of nips of Rhum Negrita.

It was a spectacular sight. Long lines of Huris carrying stones up from the creek past the fires. Women and children bringing food and water for the men, and the twenty or so police under the admirable Corporal Arthur Igarobai providing the urgency to finish the job by daybreak. Every so often the deep, rumbling chant of the Huri echoed through the darkness as they cheerfully went about their work. They must have wondered what on earth these strange white people were up to.

By daylight the job was finished to the satisfaction of pilot John Wells. The previous day he had been able to raise D.C.A. on the Norseman’s radio to advise them of the situation. On this Tuesday morning he contacted them again to report on the rectification work and to obtain permission to take off.

By now, the news of this wondrous bird had spread far and wide across the Huri basin, and the airstrip and camp was awash with a human tide of thousands of people. The police were keeping the crowd away from the aircraft which by now was surrounded by piles of food which the women had brought to feed the great bird. Others were attempting to look under it to ascertain its gender. One old man asked me through the interpreter whether this bird lived in a huge tree at Lake Kutubu or did it make its nest on the ground? And how were men able to get in and out of it? I attempted plausible explanations of these phenomena, but it was all too much for them. The magical powers of these pale skinned people defied explanation!

By mid-morning on Tuesday 19 August, the Norseman’s passengers had climbed aboard the now much lightened aircraft. Galliano had assured Shorty Carey that the operational permit for the airstrip would be issued once the final 300 feet of the runway had been completed in two or three weeks. Rev. Young had led a short prayer for the safe take-off of the aircraft, and a calmer and more rested D.C. had congratulated us for our work.

Wells wanted to generate as much ground speed as possible before the Norseman reached the first of the filled trenches, despite his expression of confidence in the rectification, so the aircraft was towed to the extreme end of the strip for take-off.

But there was still one small problem. By this time we estimated there were 8 to 10 thousand Huri on the strip, fascinated by the drama, and showing no sign of moving off. They weren’t going to miss it for quids!

Enter the redoubtable Punga again. “Clear off the sing-sing ground or the great bird will eat you!” His orders lent added emphasis when the radial Pratt & Whitney engine bellowed into life, and thousands of people fled in all directions. Wells gunned the motor to maximum revs, slipped the brakes and the Norseman surged forward down the runway. Our apprehension dissipated as she negotiated the repaired ground without difficulty and climbed into the blue yonder, in the direction of distant Mendi.

It was 1030 hours, and getting the workers back on the job was difficult. People were standing in small groups, chattering excitedly. After all, it had been the event of a lifetime for all of them.

I had been instructed to recruit 30 labourers to take back to Lake Kutubu for orientation in the ways of the government and, following the excitement of recent days, I was swamped with volunteers.

I wonder what the grandchildren of those men will think if they read this story. I hope it makes them smile. The 60th anniversary of the landing of the first plane at Tari has just passed. It is now a small part of the history of Papua New Guinea.

 

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