It is late at night. I am driving alone from Nadzab airport to Lae. Large potholes crater the narrow road making it nearly impassable. Heavy rain obscures my vision. Lightning flashes illuminate fields of wind frenzied kunai grass. I can barely hear the Land Rover's engine above the bellowing storm. On the road ahead, I can see a creature staggering along the muddy verge. Is it an injured animal, maybe a dog?
CLOUD-CROWNED MOUNTAINS reign over Papua New Guinea. Clothed in dense jungle, they hold dominion over a brutal landscape. In places, slow-thinking forest giants stand above the heat-thickened canopy, perhaps pondering their world; one shaped by time and tectonic forces oblivious to the trespass of men.
In December 1989, a decade before the internet shrank the world to a computer screen, two companions and I attempted to climb one of these peaks, Mount Victoria, the 'Great Mountain'. At an altitude of 4072 metres, it is one of the highest mountains in PNG and casts its shadow over the Owen Stanley Range and the Kokoda Track's muddy, bloody lore.
PNG's fundamental nature is elusive, at least to foreigners. The small, culturally diverse population accounts for more than eight hundred and fifty of the six thousand or so existing human languages. Some clans still live among the bones of their ancestors, cloistered in isolated mountain valleys, in hamlets clinging to coastal fringes or scattered along the banks of slothful rivers. Many people live in shantytowns that hug the bounds of the young nation's callow, betel nut-spit splattered cities.
Paradox prevails. It is a land where arse-grass and penis gourds mix with Hugo Boss suits and Rolex watches; where some men mine the hearts of volcanoes for gold, while others worship the spirits of ancestral crocodiles. It is a place where ferociously decorated warriors battle over women, land and pigs, with stout bows and homemade shotguns; where Asian loggers plunder ancient forests alongside Christian missionaries harvesting souls, and where Australian government bureaucrats try to impose their antipodean canons upon a culture where blood and bribery are thicker than holy water.
In the 1880s, several British expeditions tried unsuccessfully to reach Mount Victoria's peak; hostile clans and the terrain drove them back. In 1889, one hundred years before our attempted ascent, the British New Guinea Administrator, Sir William MacGregor, conquered the mountain and named it in honour of his queen.
Most of PNG's interior remained unexplored until the 1920s, when a heat-maddened gold rush slashed open the heartland. Missionaries, carpetbaggers and oddballs surged into the interior, many sowing their sacred, wicked or warped ways across the island; dominating tales of its colonial past.
Now, we looked forward to testing our limits. Of my companions, the stout, auburn-haired Tony served with me in the Australian Army, and Carl, the youngest and by far tallest member of the trio, was the son of an imperious Melbourne barrister. We each had a reason to climb the mountain. Tony lived for challenge; I wanted to test my fortitude, and Carl hoped to earn his father's reverence.
SUPERSTITION SHROUDED THE mountain. Before our ascent, we visited a sweaty, overweight PNG Defence Force colonel who had been raised near Mount Victoria. He warned us, 'That mountain will stop you reaching its top. It will keep growing until you are too exhausted to climb higher. It will make you sick and pain your head.' His voice deepened to a jowly rumble, 'There is a way to get to the top...maybe land a helicopter on it.' He sat back in his worn, leather chair, 'You know, I heard it snows there sometimes, snow in PNG – crazy.' He placed his hands behind his head, ending the meeting with a wide, tooth-filled grin.
At dawn, one blanched Port Moresby morning, we left Jacksons airfield aboard a tiny single-engine aircraft bound for the Koiari village of Manumu, a two-dog hamlet nestled in a steep valley at the base of Mount Victoria. The aircraft's freckle-faced boy-pilot flew the weekly 'milk run' to some of the mountain-locked villages of Central Province. We jammed into the cabin with the other passenger, an old and shrunken, leather-skinned village man with a bright red betel nut (buai) grin, and strong, earthy odour, who sat silently chewing his bloody cud.
Our pilot guided the tiny aircraft through narrow valleys and around the flanks of cloud-topped mountains. We caught glimpses of wild rivers, sun-baked market gardens and small villages clinging to the spines of narrow ridges. Numerous landslides had left the landscape pitted and scarred.
When Manumu airstrip came into view, it appeared ridiculously small, steep and twisted. Showing skill beyond his years, the pilot powered-back the engine and flared the Cessna just as the warped airstrip rose to meet us. The aircraft slammed like a wounded duck into the wet, naked, red earth. I bit my tongue and the old man started wailing, making a high-pitched, animal sound. On the threshold of catastrophe, we bounced, bucked, and slewed along the airstrip until braking to a halt near a group of hollow-faced villagers. The engine stopped, the old man ceased wailing, and we alighted. I thanked god to be safe and discreetly spat blood into a hanky.
Two young village men, whom Tony had arranged to guide us to the mountain, greeted us with soft handshakes and warm smiles. Later, we three dubbed our chief guide Gabriel, a wiry, thirty-something village man with huge, flaring nostrils, who bore his initiation marks and tattoos with pride. His sinewy arms wore numerous scars. Thighs and calf muscles chiseled and hardened by a lifetime of walking over the rugged terrain of his home carried his wiry torso. Gabriel spoke English well, in contrast to his stocky, perpetually smiling, sidekick who spoke only tok ples and pidgin. We christened him Pierre. Gabriel and Pierre.
MANUMU'S POPULATION CONSISTED of fifteen to twenty small family groups living a subsistence existence. Simple, high-set houses made from bush material and rusty sheets. Each home contained a cooking area, sleep-ing quarters and a pit latrine that also served as a slop-trough for shit-eating pigs.
Gabriel and Pierre picked up our packs and directed us to a hut where we could stay: the Medical Aid Post (MAP) built some years before by an Australian aid program. Neglect and indifference had abandoned its original purpose. Now, just tropical air filled its shelves.
Around midday, we explored the village and photographed scenes of our hosts' life: people cooking, sweeping their huts, tending to their pigs and sleeping. Life in Manumu appeared bucolic. Then I saw a naked baby lying face-up on a sheet of black plastic and exposed to the sun's life-sapping heat. The ailing child's mouth lolled open as if begging forgiveness from some pitiless god. Its young mother squatted next to her child, swatting at a lazy swarm of small, sticky, black flies trying to crawl into the child's nose and eyes, seeking moisture and salt. Two sunken-bellied dogs sat in nearby shade, panting, waiting and watching. I stared at the child, wondering if I could help, then Gabriel grabbed my elbow and ushered me away.
In the afternoon, we handed out fistfuls of Minties and globs of melted gummy bears to children and gave pouches of fine-cut tobacco and packets of Tally-Ho cigarette papers to their elders. To Gabriel, we presented a dark-green beret and to Pierre a T-Shirt bearing an iridescent Ken Done style image of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. As the sun set on the first day of our expedition, the air became surprisingly cold and rain drizzled down on us. We squatted on the MAP's dusty, rough-hewn wooden floor and shared a meal with our two guides. Gabriel offered us buai, which we all tried in the traditional way with lime powder (kambang) and a pod-like green called mustard (daka). Gabriel warned us not to swallow any of the blood coloured pulpy wad, 'It will make your belly sick.' The tannin, gallic acid, terpineol, lignin, alkaloids, lime and daka acted in bitter concert. I became hot and sweated as saliva poured into my mouth; I spat the foul, red, pulp out the door and into the night.
Later, Gabriel warned us of the dangers of the trek to Mount Victoria. Like the PNGDF colonel, he whispered tales of the mountain spirits whom he said would infect us with weakness and headaches. He was worried the wet season rains would soon arrive, explaining that our timing for the climb was poor, 'You should come here in a better season.' The warning heightened our sense of adventure. I eventually fell asleep under a mozzie net, wrapped in anticipation and ignoring the sparrow-sized mosquitoes endeavouring to sup upon my Caucasoid blood.
IN THE EARLY 1990s, some years after our Mount Victoria climb, the Australian Army posted me to Port Moresby, there to be a military advisor to the PNGDF. My family and I arrived in December 1993 on an early morning flight from Cairns with chattels and child, our eyes wide and ears pricked. Peter, a national and our team's appointed driver, greeted us and helped load our baggage train into two of the High Commission's Toyota Hilux utilities. During my time in Moresby, Peter and I became close friends. He tried to teach me to speak Motu, the language of the Motuans. For three years, I helped Peter run a martial arts club – Yun Jung Do. We trained children whose parents worked with the Australian High Commission, alongside teens from Peter's village, Hanuabada: a Motu village, consisting of a collection of jerry-built shacks on stilts and linked by rickety walkways. Peter's ancestors departed on trade expeditions from Hanuabada, travelling along the Papuan coast in large outrigger canoes seeking to trade their hand-hewn crafts and tools for sago flour, axe heads, bows and canoe hulls, not in our time.
We lived a short distance from Hanuabada, in the Australian High Commission Compound, Kone Dobu, 'Kone', which I nicknamed the Hanging Gardens. The compound was indeed a wonder. Ten-metre-high brick walls topped with razor wire and paranoia protected the perimeter. Stern nationals in blue coveralls patrolled the compound day and night, sometimes with ravenous guard dogs tethered to quick-release chains.
Inside the compound, luxuriant gardens shaded us; abundant amenities coddled us. There were tennis and squash courts, a twenty-five-metre pool, playgrounds, a gym, barbecues and a communal area we called the 'haus win'. We lived in an air-conditioned, fully furnished home and employed a 'haus meri', a local woman, Asaké, originally from the highlands. Asaké earned a pittance for cleaning our home, washing our clothes and looking after our daughter. We paid Asaké well, apparently too well. The High Commission administrator once chastised me, 'You shouldn't pay the locals so much – you will cause inflation...we will all have to pay them more.'
Kone was supposed to be impregnable. On occasion, local criminals prevailed and managed to trespass and steal anything of value left lying around the compound – such as pushbikes and inflatable pool toys. Nonetheless, we felt safe huddled inside our compound, though the floodlights shining upon the perimeter at night illuminated our prison-tight isolation from the broader community. Next door to Kone, a settlement of impoverished squatters lived in lean-tos and shanties built from scrap. They had no access to potable water, sewerage, electricity, jobs, justice or hope. Many squatters had moved to Moresby from rural areas in search of work. They found wretched poverty. Many turned to crime and joined street gangs. Corrupt police, crooked politicians, and unscrupulous businessmen controlled some of the gangs, but some ran amok as their temperament and desperate circumstances demanded. Known colloquially as raskols, the gangs made life in Port Moresby precarious.
Moresby was indeed a violent place when we lived there. The year before we arrived, a raskol gang murdered an Australian Army Warrant Officer. The killing occurred during the early hours of a dark morning when a gang of mean, beetle-eyed youths intent on robbery and rape confronted the soldier and his wife as they arrived at their Australian Government-supplied house from a party. The raskols dragged the Warrant Officer from his car. He fought back, trying to stop them attacking his wife. A single shotgun blast shattered the night's silence and fatally wounded the soldier. I later heard rumours that all the murderers had died within two years of their arrest, trial and incarceration – maybe fate, maybe payback.
The Australian High Commission officials constantly reminded us to follow the many security rules: don't break the curfew, don't leave the compound late at night, keep your two-way radio charged and with you; don't stop at the scene of a car accident; if female, wear modest clothing and do not go to a police station alone. We rarely wore jewellery or expensive watches and carried enough cash in a cheap wallet to satisfy a potential thief. We drove with our car doors locked, windows closed and air-conditioning on. We carried a shrill alarm and some folk attached a small can of (illegal) mace to their key ring. Each Kone home had a panic room: a steel cage, to be used as a refuge until the threat abated. We all wore mistrust on our sleeves like bright chevrons.
Often, though, our wary perceptions were misplaced. Once, my wife slipped while crossing a busy main street in Boroko, Moresby's main shopping district. She was carrying our daughter on one hip and shopping bags on the other. As she fell, the contents of the bags and her purse scattered over the road. For a few seconds she sat on the tarred road, winded, embarrassed, fearing robbery and that our daughter was injured. But caring hands helped her to her feet and gathered her belongings. A stranger brushed down her soiled clothes; somebody comforted our distraught, crying child. There was no danger, no threat of opportunistic robbery, or attack, simply thoughtful people helping someone in distress.
On one sorry occasion, however, we tripped over our thoughtlessness. The poorest of the poor lived on the Port Moresby rubbish tip, a great mountain of rotting filth. Children lived there, as did a pack of bare-skinned dogs with remnant clumps of hair, weeping sores and patches of a greenish tinged fungus. Biting insects buzzed and swarmed, feeding upon the source of the powerfully rich stench. Life there, a dozen kilometers from our Australian taxpayer-funded existence, was foul.
To my enduring shame, one Sunday afternoon we drove to the rubbish dump to photograph those living there. I parked the car near the entrance and we started taking photos of the crude shelters, the snot-nosed children, sick dogs and sicker people.
The stench of rotting waste filled the car as our cameras hummed and clicked. Unexpectedly, ragged children begging for money swarmed about the car. Dogs started howling and barking at the sudden excitement. We closed the car's windows and I tried to drive away. A small group of older children attempted to block our path, their hands extended in an aggressive, begging gesture. I tried to drive on but stalled the engine. Some of the children threw rocks at the car, hitting the bonnet and cracking the windscreen. I restarted the engine and accelerated the car through the group, leaving behind a cloud of red dust and abuse. We drove in silence back to the sanctum of the Hanging Gardens.
IN MANUMU, ASLEEP in the MAP, we awoke – pre-dawn. We could hear people wailing and shouting. I thought I heard the muffled 'blam, blam' of distant shotgun blasts. Gabriel entered the MAP. I shone torchlight in his face. He shielded his eyes from the bright light.
'The baby is dead, the one you saw lying in the sun.'
I was fearful. 'What's with the shotgun blasts?'
'It's how we tell the people up the valley to come back here.'
I felt relieved, though remained nervous.
Gabriel whispered, 'I blame the meri, she is not a good mother, it's her third child to die. Some of the people, some of the elders blame you for the baby's death.'
'You should go away from the village while we bury the child.'
Tony asked Gabriel, 'Are you and Pierre coming with us?'
'We cannot. You must go soon, now, before morning time.'
The sun had not begun to warm the chilled night air when we left Manumu, without Gabriel and Pierre, and hurried away from the village. Soon, we were lost to the early morning gloom and the wet, unfamiliar forest. We talked as we walked. Should we continue? Without guides, we would travel slowly. We had topographic maps, albeit inaccurate, a detailed route description from Gabriel, food for seven days and the supply of fresh water seemed inexhaustible. The decision was easy – we walked towards the mountain.
The trail we followed was vicious. We moved slowly and fell often. We struggled to climb and descend steep spurs and cross fast-flowing tributaries on nervous, moss-covered logs. The effort needed surprised us and drained our stamina.
We were exhausted when we reached a clearing late in the afternoon. A small thatched hut, used on occasion by hunters, stood at the clearing's centre. Gabriel had told us this was the place to leave the river and start climbing a steep spur, our main route to a grassed alpine valley a day's walk from the peak. We crossed a stream, slogged across fifty metres of boggy ground, and then started climbing.
As we climbed we tried to follow an elusive hunting trail. At times we used machetes to cut a path through the thick, wet undergrowth, or lay upon matted ferns to crush them flat, thereby easing the way for those coming behind. Carl found the going tough and we stopped on a dozen occasions throughout the afternoon so he could rest or catch up. He walked slowly, his shirt unbuttoned and flapping as he walked. We all stumbled and fell from time to time, though Carl fell more often, which surprised me given he was a gifted football player and fine athlete. At first, Tony and I laughed at Carl's ungainly tumbles; but every fall slowed us further, and in time we silently cursed his awkwardness. After one fall when we had to stop and help Carl to his feet, Tony looked at me and shook his head, 'This is bullshit.'
The day drifted into the late afternoon and still we climbed; exhaustion crippled our enthusiasm. In some places, we needed to use exposed roots, clumps of scrub or tree branches to help carry our ungainly weariness higher. We kicked footholds into the muddy trail and sometimes crawled up the slope on our hands and knees. We frequently lost our footing and slid backwards until we collided with a tree, rock or each other. We rested only long enough to catch our breath and pick a route for the next lung-tearing surge up the slope. Each piece of vegetation we touched seemed ferocious, intent on causing us pain. If it did not sting, it lacerated and gnawed in a cruel coalition with the hot, rotting world around us. By the time the sun had started to set, we had climbed nearly one third of the way up the spur. Through a gap in the trees, I caught a glimpse of tiny, jungle-bound Manumu nestled at the bottom of the valley and wondered if they had buried the baby.
We set camp at the feet of a two-hundred-year-old forest giant and tried to light a fire to dry our sweat-sodden clothes, creating only a pall of thick, damp smoke – which at least kept the mosquitoes at bay. As night fell, mist and drizzle closed in on us. The canopy and cloud hid any light from the moon so we were as blind men; sometimes a firefly or fluttering luminescence briefly lit our Stygian world. Then we slept.
IN 1995, PAUL Keating, Australia's prime minister, illuminated my world when he and his pale entourage visited PNG. Despite his strong republican leanings, Paul Keating was monarchical as, during his visit, the Orokaivan people, the traditional inhabitants of Central Province, crowned him chief with a chaplet of Hornbill beaks. Keating's minders left the king's crown in the care of the Australian High Commission for some weeks after the 'coronation'. Some staff had their photo taken wearing the ornate headdress, posing in jest and mockery.
Keating may have left his crown in the care of jesters but he did perform a deeply symbolic ritual. In 1992, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Kokoda, he flew into Kokoda aboard a RAAF Caribou transport aircraft, one of three making up the largest Australian sortie into the area since the end of WWII. The Australian PM created headlines that day when he kneeled and kissed the ground of the Kokoda track. In the shadow of Mount Victoria he declared, 'There can be no deeper spiritual basis for the meaning of the Australian nation than the blood that was spilled on this very knoll, this very plateau, in defence of Australia.'
Since Keating's Kokoda speech, the number of Australians making the pilgrimage to cross the track has grown from less than a hundred to more then five thousand a year. They traverse the Owen Stanley Range in lemming-like troops; most plod and stumble, painfully following those in front across the mud-splattered and lore-torn trail. Occasional trekker deaths fail to dim the Kokoda spirit and today, thousands remain drawn to the challenge, which for many has become a self-imposed rite of passage, a response to an inarticulate need to express national pride through shared suffering.
On Anzac day 2006, Kevin Rudd, then a budding Labor prime minister, stood at the Kokoda Memorial at Isurava and took part in the traditional dawn service. He had completed the crossing with a portly Liberal politician, Joe Hockey, and Channel 7's morning infotainment show host and self-proclaimed kingmaker, David Koch. Channel 7 held the service later than the traditional time for the benefit of Australian breakfast show viewers. As the service progressed, the camera focused on Kevin, Joe, and David, unshaven, rugged looking, standing together in solemn contemplation. The telecast and the sentiment it meant to portray seemed genuine – except for the oversized, blood red, Channel 7 logo covering each man's black-shirted chest.
THE FIRST MORNING on the shoulders of Mount Victoria, we awoke with refreshed spirits, hurriedly ate a cold, bland breakfast, threw on our packs and started climbing. Late in the morning, we stopped to replenish our water bladders from a thin stream trickling down a mossy rock face. Here, for the first time after my arrival in PNG, I reflected on the jungle's beauty and sat leaning against my pack, sipping water and looking at the ripple of morning light spilling through the canopy. Loud hoots and hollers tore me from my reverie. 'Morning wantok!' Gabriel and Pierre had arrived.
Gabriel was wearing the beret we had given him, faded and torn shorts, a sleeveless Parramatta Eels rugby jersey, and a pair of ragged football boots: he believed the studs helped him grip the muddy track. Pierre's feet were bare. Both were breathing heavily, and had wide, warm grins. As soon as the baby's funeral finished, Gabriel explained, they raced to catch us. They stayed overnight in the hunters hut at the bottom of the spur and laughed at our clumsy attempts to bush-bash. We sat with them for some time, our anxiety relieved by their arrival; we planned the rest of the trip, drank tea and smoked harsh, throat-scarring cigarettes made from bush tobacco tightly rolled in the pages torn from the Post-Courier, PNG's daily newspaper. Pierre chewed betel nut.
Soon we were slogging our way up the spur, lost in private thoughts, pain, cursing, and heavy breathing. We climbed the unyielding slope until, with little warning, the trail flattened and the forest changed. For several hours, we strode through the dank shadows of a stunted, primal forest. Matted carpets of green moss covered logs, rocks and forest detritus. Moss hung in dreadlocks from tree limbs. Occasionally, Gabriel would call out in a loud, high-pitched wail, warning the mountain's spirits of our approach.
Late in the afternoon the moss forest ended, before us a large bowl-shaped grassy valley. Here, huddles of tall tree ferns stood among clumps of stunted, yellow tussocks and narrow streams that dissected the valley and drained into wet, black bogs. Above all, crowned in cloud, Mount Victoria was dominant, offering a silent challenge.
WE WERE WALKING across the valley when the first symptoms struck me – severe headache, breathlessness, dizziness and fatigue. I had no idea why I had become feeble. Soon after I returned to Australia an Army doctor diagnosed my lethargy and illness as malaria – or maybe mountain spirits tormented me.
Gabriel noticed I was lagging. He stopped and picked a wicked looking, spine-encased leaf from a nettle-like plant growing on the side of the trail and pressed it to his forehead, rubbing the spines into his skin. His eyes rolled back and his mouth opened wide as he moaned. The pain seemed intense. He drooled like a rabid dog and muttered something about the plant's sap curing the mountain sickness. He offered a leaf to me. I politely declined.
As we walked, Pierre set clumps of grass alight. The purpose of this apparent ritual has remained elusive. Whatever the reason and despite the damp, within an hour twenty or thirty acres of grassland were ablaze. We walked through the smoke and the gloom of the late afternoon until we reached a thicket of tree ferns and found shelter from the cool wind. Pierre lit a campfire and soon we were drying our clothes and preparing a hot meal.
The valley appeared pristine, despite the blackened, smoldering scar from Pierre's fire. I wondered what Gabriel and Pierre thought about us; were we intruders? I thought that we three were probably among a handful of westerners who had climbed to this spot. I thought about the first European explorers opening the heart of the island, the months of gut-busting trekking, illness, fatigue and the mutual shock of first contact. Then I noticed an empty sachet of Vegemite, trodden into the ground near my right foot. I dug around it and found a small cachet of rubbish: an empty Australian Army dehydrated food packet, curried chicken and rice, and a flattened, empty tube of Nestlé condensed milk. I asked Gabriel if he knew who might have left the garbage. He shrugged his shoulders, 'I don't know, maybe soldiers.' Too drained and unwell to consider the significance of the find, I crawled into my sleeping bag from where I watched night drift across the grassland, dragging with it a marrow-aching fatigue.
Heavy rain woke us at dawn. Cloud obscured the mountain's summit. I still felt sick. After a lengthy debate, we agreed to press on, hoping to reach the summit mid-afternoon, return to base camp, and start our return trek to Manumu early the next day. We lightened our loads, leaving most of our gear at the camp in the care of our guides who feared offending the mountain spirits by making the final ascent.
AS WE WALKED we passed through stands of thick scrub and stunted, wind-tortured trees. The going was tougher than anything we had experienced so far and the higher we climbed the more distant the summit seemed. Was the mountain growing? Squalls and rain stung our exposed skin. At times, I am sure sleet fell. We each stumbled a dozen times on the slippery, wet rocks. Then Carl had a very hard fall and lay face-up on the ground, winded, the rain pelting into his eyes. He called out to Tony who was striding ahead, 'Mate, let's go back – please – this is getting dangerous. Maybe we can try again tomorrow.' At this junction of rain, sleet, and challenge, Tony wanted to continue and so did I, despite the weariness and bad weather that nurtured doubt and gnawed at our confidence. Rolling thunder amplified our anxiety.
After a heated discussion, we agreed to return to camp. I marked the spot where we turned back with a small cairn and a good dose of regret. Underneath the cairn, I placed a note in a plastic bag. I can't remember what I wrote, though I can recall that the PNGDF colonel's toothy grin was in my mind as I wrote it. By the time we got back to camp it was mid afternoon. Gabriel said it was too late to try and ascend again; the weather was only becoming worse. If we stayed too long, we might have trouble crossing some of the creeks. So, he led our party off the mountain.
Soon, we were rolling through the moss forest in full retreat from Mount Victoria. At times, the rain was so heavy we barely heard each other's shouts. We descended along an inglorious, muddy route, slipping and shuffling our way down the track. Around us, watercourses surged and flooded, and the forest giants shook with anger. Down, down we flew. After a full afternoon of tortured descent, we arrived at the small riverside hut we had passed two days before. The river was rising rapidly. We paused for ten minutes to rest, share out the load with our guides and then strode along the river trail, marching without rest, our heads bowed in silence and our spirits drenched in disappointment.
To this day, the trip back to the village in that seemingly endless storm remains a blur of half-formed images. I recall though, that we moved fast and with great determination. Each creek had turned into a torrent, every slope into a muddy slide, but each step brought us a little closer to the safety and relative comfort of the village. Eventually, we staggered into Manumu, just as darkness was claiming the forest. We returned to the MAP, changed into dry clothes, ate and slept while Gabriel arranged for some women to clean our packs and muddy clothes. One young woman visited us, insisting that we trade our rations for her cooking bananas.
The next day, we waited for the aircraft. But the rain didn't stop for two days and the plane couldn't land. We moped about the village and absorbed the pulpy boredom of village life, entertaining ourselves by swimming in the river, reading, telling stories and playing cards with Gabriel. We didn't discuss the dead baby. We did talk about coming back the following year to complete the climb. This prospect excited Gabriel, perhaps next time the mountain would be more welcoming. We have never returned.
On the third morning, the rain stopped and the skies cleared long enough to reveal a large patch of bright blue sky. On cue, the 'milk-run' aircraft threaded its way through the gap in the clouds, circled the airstrip once, quickly descended and landed heavily on the airfield's now sodden threshold, taxiing to a halt near where we stood waiting. There in the cockpit was the same baby-faced pilot who had delivered us. Without fanfare, we shook hands with our hosts, ran to the aircraft, stowed our gear and strapped in. This time, we were the only passengers. As the aircraft raced along the airstrip, I glimpsed Gabriel – standing alone on the edge of the village waving his beret in farewell. We waved back enthusiastically until he disappeared from view.
The pilot flew the aircraft above the cloud and set a course for Port Moresby. At some stage, I guess we flew over the Kokoda track. I imagine that at that time only locals were walking along it because the era of mass trekking had yet to start. On Mount Victoria's summit, snow fell unseen.
DURING MY THREE-YEAR posting to PNG I often thought of returning to the mountain. I could have made the trip several times. Towards the end of my posting, a shroud of melancholy settled upon my shoulders as an unsympathetic Canberra Defence Department bureaucracy suppressed the Defence Co-operation program, reduced the number of military advisors and diluted our sense of purpose. The programs we tried to manage became anorexic. Starved of funds and resources our relationship with the PNGDF withered. We seemed to be managing a clumsy disengagement rather than sincere co-operation. One of my counterparts working in Lae had his officer trainee program funds slashed to the point where he could not run any courses. Instead of training PNGDF officer cadets he went deep-sea fishing in the Huon Gulf, played golf and experimented with making homebrew in bottles retrieved from WWII rubbish dumps. He left the Army one year later and moved to Aspen, Colorado.
In contrast to me, my wife extracted all she could from her time there, nurturing our daughter and at times travelling throughout PNG working for an aeromedical company that plied its trade evacuating the sick and injured who could not afford to pay for the medical flight to Australia. Meanwhile, my friend Peter tried to teach me Motu. I learnt basic greetings and something rude about pigs.
I kept apathy at bay by working with Peter at the martial arts club. He ran exhausting training sessions and taught me how to fight. He told me tales of his days as a raskol gang leader, and was still proud of the whisker-like tattoos around his eyes, the mark of his old gang. I distracted bouts of boredom through swimming endless laps of the Port Moresby pool, scuba diving, sailing, kayaking and collecting newspaper cuttings from the Post-Courier. I still have all the cuttings, glued onto the faded pages of a tired and torn scrapbook kept in an archive box in my garage. I collected stories about floods, tsunamis, earthquakes and a flurry of articles reporting on the time Port Moresby ran out of drinking water.
One article described how villagers set a sorcerer alight in revenge for practising his black arts; a man from Goroka was beaten and imprisoned for having sex with a pregnant pig; a farmer in Northern Province discovered a cave which opened and closed itself – in concert, it seems, with the start and end of the annual yam (fertility) festival.
I kept an advertisement for Toyota Hilux utes from Boroko Motors, with each purchase coming with a free pig and two forty-kilogram bags of rice. I collected articles about the Lihir gold mine, dug into the heart of an extinct volcano, and the environmental catastrophe caused by the pollution from the Australian-owned and operated Ok Tedi mine. I kept one shocking story that I found tucked away deep in the newspaper about the brutal beheading of a politician and the murder of his family: payback for accidentally running over a small child some years earlier.
The stories about the eruption of Tavurvur and Vulcan volcanoes destroying Rabaul Harbour sat alongside explosive articles accusing the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs of sheltering pedophiles in its ranks. Another article recorded when an Australian businessman shot three criminals who invaded the Cathay Club in Port Moresby...the diners finished off the wounded raskols, clubbing them with chairs.
The newspaper articles help me retain only a poor sort of memory, nothing more.
THE TIME TO leave arrived. As we prepared to return home we gave away many of our belongings to our PNG friends. I gave Peter a microwave oven – he said: 'It will be a good cupboard.' He looked at the ground– 'I don't have electricity.'
In mid-January one hot, tropical summer we flew home. There was no farewell, no tribute, no fanfare. Peter dropped us at the airport. We exchanged a hug and a few jokes. I waved a final goodbye as we boarded the Qantas jet. He stood amid a crowd of onlookers gathered along a Cyclone mesh fence bordering the terminal. His hands were raised above his head, fingers grasping the wire tightly. He didn't wave back.
IT IS LATE at night. I am driving alone from Nadzab airport to Lae. Large potholes crater the narrow road making it almost impassable. Heavy rain obscures my vision. Lightning flashes illuminate fields of wind frenzied kunai grass. I can barely hear the Land Rover's engine above the bellowing storm. On the road ahead, I can see a creature staggering along the muddy verge. Is it an injured animal, maybe a dog?
I slow down. No, it's not a dog, it's a crippled, near naked man hobbling along the side of the road. His legs are deformed and his spine is twisted. The Land Rover bounces awkwardly along the road, mimicking the man's pathetic gait. He looks at me, trying to shield his eyes from the bright headlights. I considered offering him a lift. Instead, I drive past and unintentionally splash him with muddy water. I glance into the rear view mirror – lightning flashes again, I see him struggling – then darkness and he vanishes.