The Best Beer I Ever Tasted by Chips Mackellar
On page 11 of the March 2019 edition of Una Voce, mention is made of the Star Mountains Patrol, conducted by Assistant District Officer Jim Kent from 22 September to 22 December 1954. This mention reminded me of the small contribution I made to this patrol. At that time, I was a Cadet Patrol Officer stationed at Lake Murray in the Western District, and the Patrol-Officer-in-Charge at that time was Christopher Gordon Day. The nearest patrol post was Kiunga, further up the Fly River basin where, at that time, Patrol Officer Jack Baker was stationed.
Accompanying the Star Mountains Patrol was Patrol Officer David Jacobs. Both he and Jim Kent were stationed at Daru, and they had made the long journey up to the headwaters of the mighty Fly River, past Lake Murray and Kiunga, to begin their even further journey into the Star Mountains.
At some stage during its duration, and I don’t exactly remember when, the Star Mountains Patrol ran short of rations, and permission was granted by the Department of District Administration—Headquarters to resupply the patrol by airdrop. In those days there was no airstrip either at Kiunga or at Lake Murray. However, at Lake Murray there was, of course, the lake—roughly forty miles long by five miles wide—and it was decided that the airdrop to the Star Mountains Patrol would be made by Qantas Catalina flying boat staging out from Lake Murray.
The airdrop was to be made free fall. That is, no parachutes, or any other fancy airdropping equipment. Qantas pilots, who were well versed in the inflight art of airdropping, advised us on how to prepare for a free-fall resupply. Basically, what they told us to do was to re-bag everything to be dropped.
For example, they explained that a bag of rice dropped from a great height would burst on impact, scattering rice all around the drop site. Some rice will remain inside the burst bag, but the recovery rate would probably be less than fifty per cent. On the other hand, they said, if we were to enclose the bag of rice inside another bigger bag, for example, a copra sack, then when the rice bag bursts on impact it will spill most of the rice into the copra sack, and there will be 100 per cent recovery, albeit all inside the copra sack.
Jack Baker came down from Kiunga to assist, and so together with Lake Murray police and station labourers, we set about re-bagging all the supplies to be dropped. Bags of rice, twist tobacco, cans of meat, tea, sugar, salt and all manner of trade goods were all re-bagged into copra sacks, all stitched up with government-issue bagging needles and twine, ready for the big airdrop.
And when all the re-bagging was complete I mentioned to the other officers, ‘You know, Jim and Dave would not have had a beer for weeks. Why don’t we airdrop them some?’
The only beer we had at Lake Murray was SP in long-necked bottles. Impossible, the other blokes said. Even inside a copra sack they said, the bottles will smash on impact, and all Jim and Dave will receive will be a sodden bag of broken glass. But not if we pack it well, I insisted. One bottle packed in kunai could survive on impact. So Chris Day, being the senior officer, made the big executive decision, ‘OK. One bottle. You pack it.’
So with station labourers allocated to the task we unstitched two copra sacks and re-stitched them into one big sack. Into this we inserted one bottle of SP tightly packed all around with kunai grass harvested especially for the event. When complete the package was about two metres tall and two metres wide, tightly packed enclosing a single bottle of beer.
And so the Catalina arrived. We stacked all the airdrop items onto the station double canoe, paddled out into the lake where the Catalina was anchored, and there we loaded everything through the blister. The crew distributed the items around inside the plane to give the correct loading, and then they explained the drop. They would fly around the drop site in wide circles. While the Catalina was circling, we were to stack items to be dropped, onto the rim of the blister. For this purpose the canopy of the blister would be folded back, to leave us standing in the body of the Catalina with the open air above us. Then, at the crew’s command, we were to push the items out of the blister. Since the blisters were not very wide, and there were so many items to drop, several circuits of the drop site would be necessary to complete the airdrop.
The crew would only allow Chris, Jack and me on board, and we alone were to make the drop. Jim had radioed the pilots the co-ordinates of the drop site he had prepared. Thus the Catalina crew knew where to go and so off we went.
From inside the Catalina we had no view of the journey, and it was so noisy we could hardly hear each other shout above the roar of the engines. Finally, when we were approaching the drop site the crew opened the blister and told us to load up. And I can tell you it was really hard work lifting up 112-pound bags of rice inside copra sacks on to the sill of the open blister, only one bag at each circuit, and to hold it there with the wind whistling around us waiting for the crew’s signal to push it out.
So after a series of circuits the airdrop was complete, and we had pushed all the rice bags and all the other items to be dropped out of the blister, including the enlarged sack containing the beer bottle.
I saw it bounce when it hit the ground, and I hoped it survived intact.
And would you believe it—it did survive the drop—and back at Lake Murray we received a radio report from Jim that the drop had been successful, and he thanked us for the beer.
Years later, when Jim was a Deputy District Commissioner, I said to him, ‘Hey Jim, remember when we dropped that bottle of beer to you in the Star Mountains?’
And Jim said, ‘Yes, Chips. It was very welcome. We hadn’t had a beer for weeks and after what we had been through on that patrol I can tell you it was the best beer I ever tasted.’