Happy new year

The first of January 1973. New year’s day and I woke with a feeling of keen anticipation. Every day I was learning new and fascinating aspects of the unique environment I was living in and I looked forward to a new year of discovery.
I had the day off work so thought “let’s go for a picnic.” Five degrees south of the equator there is no contradiction in a picnic on new year’s day.

I was twenty six years old and was revelling in what was happening to me. Only six weeks earlier I had arrived in the large open sided hangar which was Port Moresby’s airport and encountered sounds, smells and sights which were completely unfamiliar to me.

Papua New Guinea. I towered above the lively excited crowd, many of whom wore traditional dress. Women carried their babies and their loads on their backs in string bags called bilums, suspended from their head by a long carrying strap. Men and women had bright red mouths stained by chewing betel nuts with white lime powder and mustard sticks. People shouted excitedly in Motu and in Pidgin – Balus i kam pinis long Australia – The plane has arrived from Australia. Short, stocky Melanesian highlanders dressed with leaves over their backsides known as arse grass and carrying their umbrellas, looked uneasy in this modern environment. There were tall, blue black Bukus from Bougainville and elegant Polynesian islanders with red hibiscus flowers in their hair. There were beautiful people from New Britain with their fair skin and blonde hair and graceful Papuans from Hanuabada. There were groups of Australian expatriate businessmen and public servants in shorts and long socks meeting colleagues and families from Brisbane. A uniquely vibrant arrival hall.

I was working in Port Moresby Hospital as a paediatric registrar under the inspirational guidance of Dr John Biddulph.

My learning curve was a vertical straight line. In six weeks I had looked after children with malaria in all it’s manifestations like cerebral malaria and blackwater fever, I had treated children with kwashiorkor, marasmus, tuberculosis, leprosy, severe dehydration, meningitis, severe measles, hookworms, roundworms, anaemia, encephalitis, pigbel, nephropathies, filariasis, neonatal tetanus, and the list could go on and on.
I had learned the crucial importance for babies of breast feeding and the disaster that bottle feeding can be in unhygenic circumstances.
I had learned to communicate in basic Motu and Pidgin English but as there were more than seven hundred languages in the country there were patients who could communicate with no one in the hospital. I had learned that other people may have a very different perception from mine, that a nurse from one tribe may not always have the best interests at heart for a patient from an enemy tribe. I had found that many people believed that all illness was caused by poisoning by enemies or by angry spirits.
Coastal people would be miserable if they didn’t have sago to eat whereas highlanders must have their sweet potatoes. I knew how to treat snake bites, stone fish stings, arrow wounds, spear wounds, pig tusk injuries and shark bites. I knew the signs that a witchdoctor had previously treated the patient. I had learned to accept that a patient from out of town would have several guardians sleeping under the bed or in the hospital grounds.

Papua New Guinea was largely unknown territory at that time – that is unknown to Europeans. A million highlanders had been “discovered” by westerners only forty years earlier. Many areas had not yet been explored by Europeans. Cannabalism and headhunting were probably still practised in remote areas but Port Moresby the capital was developing. Driving through the town to the hospital I was moved by the beauty of the turquoise blue Coral Sea, the white coral sand beaches, the colourful people. But there were squatter settlements, and poverty and serious crime was already becoming a problem.
I had been warned that although most of the people were friendly and peaceful there were rascals who would rob and rape and that one needed to be careful about where one went and how one behaved.

My young wife, Jacquie, had arrived from England to this amazing place only a few days before Christmas. I suggested a drive and a picnic on my day off in my newly acquired but battered and well travelled Holden estate. There were few roads but I had been told that Brown River was a good picnic spot about twenty miles away. As we drove through the steaming tropical jungle along a dirt road we met the sounds of parrots and strange tropical birds. Huge cassowaries the size of ostriches strutted their stuff. We passed small traditional thatch villages where friendly people waved and offered drinks of coconut water. We felt excited and slightly nervous, as this was our first encounter with such exotic surroundings.

After driving for an hour or so through this stunning tropical newness we knew we must be approaching Brown River. Rounding a bend in the road there was a slight descent and the wide muddy river was in sight. There were still a few hundred yards to drive when we became aware of a blood curdling yodelling sound of many voices. Then running up the road towards us from the river was an approaching army of a hundred armed warriors, their bodies smeared in mud from the river. They carried spears and axes and bottles of beer. They were fast approaching and my heart was fast sinking. We were vulnerable in this tropical jungle and were about to be massacred by a warparty of cannabalistic headhunters. We hadn’t seen another car or another westerner since we left the capital. There was no help. I reversed the car with my right foot flat on the floor, desperately looking for somewhere to turn so we could escape.

But it was too late, the crazed war party was upon us. We were surrounded. They were shouting and screaming war chants and waving their weapons threateningly. Their eyes were glazed and bloodshot from the combined effects of alcohol and betel nut. They were smearing the car and the windows in mud, completely blotting the view through the windscreen. They were banging on the metal with their fists and shouting all the time. We were totally at their mercy.
Intense fear was now another new experience to cap all the others I had encountered in recent weeks.

But no windows were smashed with those axes. The car wasn’t being damaged, only smeared. Some of the men were smiling and laughing.

Suddenly it dawned on me.
Perhaps – this wasn’t quite as bad as I had feared.
The words they were shouting.
Happy new year! Happy new year!

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