Didiman’s Diary #9 by David Montgomery (1956-65)

Continued from 2017, No. 4 – December issue pp 14-16

July 1960.

Another posting, another piece of paradise.
Prior to going on three months leave in March I advised head office of plans to be married and would like a permanent location after six years of roving responsibilities. This was agreed to and I was appointed District Agricultural Officer, Talasea, West New Britain.

The administrative area covered the sub-districts of Talasea, Cape Hoskins, Kandrian and the delightful Witu Island group. The whole of the east coast of West New Britain was actively volcanic. Pure sulphur lay in the beds of crystal clear watercourses. The coastline was constantly “breathing” sulphuros fumes. Close to Volupai plantation at the southern end of the Willaumez Peninsular, a lava vent, several feet below the land surface, was a mass of red hot bubbling lava. A fascinating and frightening phenomenon. Earthquakes were frequent, never of a magnitude to cause structural damage or too much alarm.

During 1958 a three bedroom married quarters had been constructed on a rise west of the Administration area. A picture perfect location looking northwest to the Willaumez Peninsular framing Kimbe Bay with Garua Island a couple of miles off shore from the town and Cape Hoskins on the eastern coastline. There was very little road development. An airstrip with DC3 capability was under construction close to Volupai Plantation. It wasn’t though to be Talasea’s first airstrip! Another had been operational pre-war, above and west of the town. I have my Uncle’s log books, “Jos” Crisp, a Carpenters Airline pilot, who recorded visits to Talasea in a de-Havilland Dragon (VH-URW). The flying time from Rabaul was one hour thirty five minutes! The development of the (new) Talasea airstrip was an interesting experience. Chris Normoyle (Jnr.) was the Assistant District Officer at the time and supervised the airstrip’s construction. He had arranged for nearby villagers to collect and deliver daily bilums of a couch like grass. I had the task of supervising the planting. Lines four hundred feet across the prepared surface were marked out at three foot intervals and the grass runners were hand planted along the lines! The airstrip and its subsequent demise has been well documented.

Agricultural extension work was centred on the development and management of already significant and expanding village cocoa projects; increased plantings of coconuts on resettlement blocks and improving copra quality, building hot air dyers, utilizing discarded wartime 44 gallon drums, steel mesh and corrugated iron. Coconut shells were used for fuel. Coffee, in a limited way, had also been introduced into a few of the elevated inland areas below the Whiteman Range. Associated with the foregoing was the introduction of the Rural Progress Societies (RPS) to co-operatively and more profitably market local produce. These organisations were invariably linked, by membership, to the recently formed Native Local Government Councils by the grouping of village census divisions. These paved the way for more structured political and economic change. Native re-settlement was in the formative stage, the forerunner to extensive coconut planting and palm oil development. The significance of these developments will be recorded in later Una Voce editions.

As mentioned in earlier Didiman stories, regular patrolling was the principle of effective agricultural extension work. In contrast to some of my previous postings water transport was essential to access the extensive coastline and the Witu islands. A government trawler the MV Aimara and a workboat MV Garnet were available for this work crewed by competent local lads. The Aimara was skippered by Maus, an extremely knowledgeable seaman. Maus’s ability to navigate the coral reefs was uncanny – day or night.

The four years spent at Talasea had many happy highlights. The work was interesting and particularly satisfying being at the cusp of major agricultural developments. Some of the highlights were family; some social and some hilariously official. These will be recorded in some sort of chronological order.

September 1961.

Special leave was granted and Gillian (Marks) and I were married in Sydney and after a honeymoon in Tasmania we returned to Talasea. Gillian wrote detailed and interesting letters to her family in which she best describes her introduction to Territory life. Edited extracts of her letters follow after our arrival in Rabaul and Talasea.

7 October.

“We left Rabaul about a quarter to ten on Saturday morning for Talasea and had only one stop at Jacquinot Bay. We only stopped there for ten or fifteen minutes. I didn’t even get out of the plane. You just set down on a strip in the middle of no-where, give the mail and supplies to one or two waiting people and go again. There were quite a few to meet the plane at Cape Hoskins. We had about three quarters of an hour unloading the plane onto a trailer pulled by a tractor, taking that to the beach and transporting it all out to the 38ft workboat, “Garnet” by a native double canoe. We had a terrific amount of stuff and there were also station supplies, mail, and other people’s orders. We were eventually all aboard at 1pm and set off across the bay to Talasea. The local Father was on board. He had gone to meet a Nun off our plane and saved our lives by producing tea and sandwiches. The plane was a couple of hours late leaving Rabaul and they don’t supply lunch. You normally hang out till you reach Talasea about 2pm. but we didn’t get here until about 20 to 5. We met a few people, loaded up the Landrover, collected the mail from the office, got the house keys and came home. What a relief to get here. Gosh it is a nice house. One of the first pieces of news that we heard was that the power plant was broken down so Monty went searching for Tilley lamps. We had an early tea and fell into bed exhausted”

12 October.

Prior to departing on leave I had planned an extensive patrol to the Central Nakanai as a lot needed to be done at and near the villages of UASILAU and SILANGA involving the mapping, harvesting, processing and marketing of the cocoa projects. So after a very brief orientation of the station for Gillian, this is her story.

“We left at 10.30 this morning on a beaut little boat called the “Aimara” for Uasilau. We were later than we expected to be leaving and will now only be away for about a fortnight. I am armed with writing paper and books and we seem to have enough food to last an army a month. We will have to sleep on the boat tonight and will go to Uasilau in the morning. We will then have about a two hour walk inland to the village and the boat will be calling to collect us again on 28th. We are just crossing Kimbe Bay to Cape Hoskins and there is quite a pleasant swell. At Cape Hoskins we collected Monty’s only English-speaking field worker called Moses! I suppose there would have been nine or ten of us on board. Monty and Moses and me and the captain and five or six other crew members, all native of course. We got some terrific hauls of fish on the way. Had four trawling lines on the back of the boat and every now and then there would be cries to slow the boat or, once, to stop the boat all together while tuna, mackerel or something else, I have forgotten what – huge big fish, hauled on board.

The captain decided we couldn’t get all the way so at 6pm. we anchored off a coastal village called TAROBI. No sooner had we stopped than a native canoe and a very sober looking gentleman came slowly paddling out to us. He drew alongside, gravely shook Monty by the hand and stated he was the village Luluai (head man). Monty said who he was and asked if we could come to his village for a wash. We were invited to sleep the night too but decided it would be too much trouble to get beds and mattresses unloaded and ashore so said we would sleep on the boat. We collected our soap (one of two cakes), and our only tin of Johnson’s Baby powder, clean clothes and our shower bucket and we were paddled ashore. They had quite a decent little rest house so we dumped our things and while willing hands went off to get buckets of water and heat them we walked around the village and along a little one man track a bit further inland to another village.

I have no idea how many hands we shook or how many little black heads we patted but the time we got back to the rest house it was quite dark and we followed behind the leader, who carried a lantern, I was tripping up and down and over things and trying to keep up with Monty and various of our new pals in Pisin English. Unbeknown to us, while we had showers the local teacher was gathering together all his children outside our hut and when we were nearly ready to go he said could they sing. Monty said we would love them to and I sat myself down on the step to listen and there in the dark were all these little black children lined up with big white looking eyes in the lantern light and very serious faces. Their singing was absolutely beautiful. The teacher had been trained at the Catholic mission school in Rabaul and he had those children practically perfect.

Their harmonizing was like nothing I had heard before. We expected there to be three or four songs but they sang on and on while we sat on the steps of the rest house in raptures and wishing we owned a tape recorder. At last Monty said we would have to go and did they know a farewell song. They sang “Wish me luck as you wave me Goodbye” and “Now is the Hour”. Honestly, I’ve never heard anything like it. It was one of the most moving things I’ve ever experienced. When you think the Vienna Boys Choir is paid thousands to tour the world and here were these little children – as good or better, considering their training, singing to us for pure pleasure in the middle of no-where.

They followed us back to the beach and just as the canoe left, they sang “Goodbye” from White Horse Inn. It lasted until we were to the boat and they called out “Good night Master” and “Good night Missus, God bless You”. We didn’t get back on board until after eight (minus the soap and powder which we had left in the rest house) and we lit the primus, heated a mug of mince for tea, put two mattresses on the floor of the cabin and went to sleep.”

“They started the engine right under our heads at 5.15 the next morning and nearly frightened ten years good growth out of me. An hour later we were at WALO, our destination in BANGULA BAY. We had breakfast while the bois got all our patrol boxes, our beds our mattresses, a stove for the rest house and other odds and ends rowed ashore. Monty sent a man to UASILAU to tell SOA UBIA the village Luluai we had arrived and we would need carriers to collect our things.”

“About 2pm Soa and a mob of bois arrived. Soa was all dressed up in a nice embroidered lap lap and was all smiles. This was the bloke Monty had promised would be the first to have his new wife stay in his village. Then the men and the bois began picking up the boxes, the beds, the mattresses, the chairs and the buckets and I picked up my hat and myself and off we all went. We left at 3.30 and walked and walked and walked till 6 when we arrived here. Actually we did have one stop by a swiftly flowing river with COOL water and had a drink there. The whole journey was only about 5 miles but, heck, it felt like fifty by the time we got here. I thought my knees were going to buckle under me. I bet it is the first time in my life I have ever just got up and walked 5 miles. If you thought about the scenery instead of your knees and your thirst it was a lovely walk really. Huge trees and vines I had never seen before and, in spots, formed an arch over our head. I appreciated it and asked intelligent questions for the first mile!!! The village was so tidy, the houses are all separated and the people keep the grass between them cut and looking very nice. Our rest house, at the top of the village square, is quite a palatial joint”

Gillian’s continuing description of life on patrol, and she joined me on several, make interesting reading. Our Editor’s guidelines require a conclusion for this issue however, I would like to continue for the next edition. There is the need to explain mattresses, stove, refrigerator etc as patrol necessities and to record a kaleidoscope of events over the four years. The birth of our two sons at the Namanula Hospital; a seafaring mishap on patrol, visits by the “Warship” Paluma, the HMAS Anzac, Lord De L’Isle and his daughter, the Hon. Catherine Sidney and a pilgrimage by members of the 2/22nd Lark Force. The investigations into the establishment of the town of Kimbe and the early establishment of the palm oil industry were historical highlights.

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