Kairuku Village by Graham Hardy

Chris Warrillow’s letter in Una Voce (2017, No. 3 – September) regarding Kairuku village in the Upper Purari got me thinking of a series of events that I recalled over several years from 1950 to 1954 which culminated in a raid on Kairuku in 1954.

In 1950 or 1951 Lyn Clark, OIC of Beara Patrol Post in the Purari Delta, went on a patrol up the Purari and towards Mt. Karamui, which was then part of the Gulf District. Somewhere south of Karamui they were ambushed and, despite the police in the lead deflecting the first arrows with their rifles, Lyn was hit in the head with an arrow which entered near the temple and lodged between the skin and skull. The carriers dumped their loads and bolted.

It took the police two weeks to get Lyn back to the Purari just below Hathor Gorge, from where they could use canoes to get him to Port Romilly Sawmill. By this time, Lyn was very ill and was treated by the doctor at Kapuna, the London Mission Society hospital across the river from the sawmill, before he could be evacuated to Port Moresby. Lyn recovered and returned to duty at Beara. A first-contact patrol to the area was then mounted by Ted Hicks and Ken Chester as far as Karamui but they were met with a friendly reception. They had no luck in identifying the attackers.

I arrived in Kikori in October 1952 as a raw cadet. I was there only a few weeks when I met Lyn very briefly as he was catching a Catalina flying boat to go on leave and then to a posting in another district. After about four months learning the ropes about everything except patrolling, I was sent to ‘babysit’ Beara for six weeks until a permanent PO arrived. Circumstances changed and I ended up being there alone until April 1954. I learnt patrolling from patrol reports and the patience of the police detachment for whom I was for ever grateful. In early 1954, I was told that I would soon be transferred to Kerema Sub-district but there was no definite date.

For some time I had played with the idea of doing a patrol up the Purari to carry out an initial census. The Pawaia-speaking people who lived on the Upper Purari and the Vailala were bush nomads, relatively few in number and who moved about the trackless bush from sago patch to sago patch, which provided their staple diet.

The last patrol to specifically visit the Pawaia was in 1948, but patrols from Kikori to what was to become the Southern Highlands often came home by canoe or raft down the Purari. From time to time these nomads had been told to establish villages on the Purari for the convenience of the government. This was done but usually had only small numbers of caretakers in residence.

The Pawaia felt much safer wandering the bush than being targets for the head hunters who lived further inland and would raid them from time to time. For some time, murders committed by these head hunters had been reported but it had not been possible to do anything about it because of lack of staff. These reports were supported sometimes by mutilated human bones.

I had already seen the lower part of the Upper Purari by launch when I was sent to meet Bill Johnstone who was rafting down after a patrol in the Samberigi Valley. The Purari was (and no doubt still is) a magnificent river and I fell in love with it. As I would not get another chance, I decided to take off and do the census. As the station had no radio transmitter the sooner I got out of contact and disappeared the better!

On the 4th April 1954 I arrived at the top of Hathor Gorge where an exploratory party of the New Guinea Resources Prospecting Company had a semi-permanent camp in the charge of Jack Sargent, a former patrol officer. Their job was carrying out surveys of the major Papuan rivers’ capacity—to determine the possibility of a major hydro-electric station being built to provide power undersea to an aluminium works under consideration in North Queensland.

The Hathor Gorge was of great interest. The Gorge is six miles long with a fall of 600 feet from top to bottom. I recall they had one reading of 250,000 cusecs of water. One cusec was a cubic foot of water passing a given point in one second. Jack Sargent told me that in a few days’ time he was taking a party further inland across the Pio River, a Purari tributary, and beyond if it was worthwhile.

There was a radio message from District Office Kikori that I was to finish the patrol and prepare to move on, so I gave up the idea of going as far as Lake Tebera and began recording the census at the nearby villages and then work down-river. On April 7th 1954 I arrived at Kairuku and stayed overnight. The local people were very nervous as there had been a recent visit from a head hunter who told them to expect a raid soon. My carriers, being coastal people, were also nervous as were the police. When I went to bed in the rest house, which was set slightly apart from the village, I made sure my loaded revolver was under the pillow and promptly went into a deep sleep!

I was wakened by two of the police stamping around inside the rest house. They had a story to tell. Because of their nervousness many of the villagers and carriers as well as the police decided to sit up all night around a fire. One of the locals went off into the shadows to relieve himself. He let out a yell and raced back into the firelight yelling that one of the enemy had drawn an arrow at him but did not fire it.

I gladly accepted the offer of one of the police to sleep on the rest house floor. The next morning I heard the sequel. Another local sitting around the fire gave a yell and said he had seen one of the enemy again. What he saw was a pig, which had wandered into the firelight. The general opinion was that the first alarmist had let his imagination run away and had only seen a pig.

The next day we continued the patrol and arrived back at Beara on 14th April and I shortly afterwards packed up and left without a replacement and arrived in Kerema on 25th April 1954. I was then posted at Kukipi for about 5 months before going on leave.

I had not heard of any further events on the Purari and when I got on the Catalina at Kerema to fly to Port Moresby it was a pleasant surprise to meet Jack Sargent on the plane with a story to tell. They had left for the Pio River a few days after I had left down-river and arrived at the Pio after a couple of days. There they met a local man who informed them that he was the government ferryman who had been appointed by the patrol two years before. He was upset because he had not seen any more patrols and he had not been paid for his labours. When asked who he ferried he said his passengers included the head hunters on their way to and from their targets.

Jack heard chanting and yelling on the other side of the river and the ferryman said they were a raiding party he would be bringing across the next morning. He suggested Jack’s party leave at once, which they did. During their walk back to Hathor Gorge they could hear the raiders behind them but didn’t see them. Jack’s party reached their camp without mishap. The head hunters turned off to visit Kairuku and killed five Pawaia and took their heads as trophies. As far as I know nothing was done about these killers either.

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