Having just read a book Jock lent me which he had written about
New Guinea, I was enthralled by the images - 'I would love to
have been there before the war' and was told:
'You wouldn't really.'
'Because it's damned uncomfortable. Think of the wet here on
the Queensland coast and multiply it a hundredfold - multiply
the insects by millions. The jungle is like a thick mat - everywhere.
Oh, it's beautiful - and threatening. Some of the most superb
scenery I've ever known, but getting to it is hell.'
Torn between a sybaritic liking for my comforts and a long string
of dreams of exotic adventure stretching back to childhood, I
listened but wasn't entirely convinced - especially after reading
Jock's seductive descriptions in 1936 of a land and people both
fascinating and dangerous. Huge mountain ranges enfolded in green,
knifed with valleys where the tiny planes of gold prospectors
and others - people like Ray Parer - entered, like butterflies
in a gale, at their peril; the people hidden in enclaves of habitation
and agriculture sustained by rituals thousands upon thousands
of years removed from our mechanised lives.
In Australia we didn't see the destruction. Jock's own views
were now muddied by experiences of war. The hazards of the jungle
were being multiplied - like a string of dreadful earthquakes
- the jungle gouged and macerated and a way of life blasted out
of the way; and where it remained often the silent trails were
taken over by exhausted bloodied men clanking to another confrontation.
The hidden raids of one tribe upon another were all peace and
light by comparison.
But in 1936 this was less than conjecture.
In January of that year Jock was rolling along the northern New
Guinea coast on a copra steamer from Wewak, bound for the old
German settlement of Aitape. In the distance he could see the
huge bulk of the Torricelli Ranges torn with gaping yellow scars
from an earthquake which had devastated the area only five months
before, upsetting the seismograph in Sydney, 2000 miles away.
In that September he had almost collided with a begowned professor
announcing sombrely: 'The Torricelli Mountains are falling down!'
Knowing the great range lay not far from his trail into Dutch
New Guinea he instantly visualised a plan to see the calamity
for himself if at all possible. As the little ship toiled westward
he thought this would be impossible - he knew the timing of his
reconnaissance would not allow him to satisfy his curiosity.
But equally he did not know what lay in store. Time has a different
meaning in the jungles of the world.
On January 13th he was in Aitape, a guest at Walter Hook's house
- called No. 2 Passage. He had come up on the steamer with this
man, a recruiter of native labour, inevitably known as Wally,
who had offered him hospitality. Jock liked him immensely, even
though, for the first few days after they came ashore, he was
awash with alcohol: 'Wally still in slight coma & he has
never really been quite sober since we got on the "Miawara".
What a great chap he is - generous as hell & helpful in the
extreme.' Wally's house was bamboo-thatched, shaded by large
verandahs, furnished comfortably with many books, a gramophone
and records from jazz to opera; surrounded by frangipani, crotons
and hibiscus. Fireflies came out at night and the sound of surf
lulled one to sleep. Jock was impressed with the large collection
of books. Wally took his little volumes of Everyman's Library
with him on every journey, however deep in jungle, but there was
also a well-thumbed collection of classic and modern books in
As a breeze stirred the palms in the afternoon, and Jock listened
to a tune from the latest Fred Astaire movie which he and Rita
had seen together in Sydney, he became nostalgic - 'wish she were
here with me now!' Then, thinking of hard days in the bush, adventure,
nights with the little books at one's elbow in lonely villages
contrasted with the peace of this house and the tropical scene,
he asked himself: 'Who wouldn't be a recruiter?' It is probable
Jock himself wouldn't. Not really. Presumably, Rita, his love
in Sydney, and almost any woman, would have found the life unbearably
lacking in stimulation. Not for them the interest and adventure
of disappearing into ranges and jungle and 'turning the talk'
with dozens of different tribes. Just waiting on the coast, which
was perhaps why Wally went on alcoholic binges. 'A grand man
who has been unfortunate in his matrimonial venture. But that's
on the cards for anyone. Oh woman, to whom art thou known? Not
that it is always the woman's fault.' That last remark, embodying
the puzzle and the fair-mindedness was repeated in various ways
over much of his life. He had trouble recognising his own feminine
element - at first almost unthinkable.
Wally was on a 'bender', and Jock now showed an aspect of his
character which was very good to live with - his tenderness towards
anyone helpless or sick. He was watching Wally's progress carefully
as he tracked from bed to bottle - 'Yet this bloke is intelligent,
interesting, well-read & a thorough gentleman ... Tonight
I'm cooking a wondrous concoction of a) saksak, b) bananas,
c) condensed milk ("susu") & d) sugar in the
hope of getting Wally to eat. God knows what it'll be like!
The "susu" was the "boys" idea - thought I
might as well try it.' It is uncertain whether this evilly sweet
mixture was medicinally successful, or whether it ever passed
Wally's lips; Jock did not report further.
He was about to take off for Dutch New Guinea (now Irianjaya);
a mysterious land then, as in many ways it still is. He had
found it almost impossible to get useful information about it
in Sydney and was equally frustrated in the Mandated Territory
administered by Australia. There were no maps because, they said,
the country was virtually unexplored. There seemed to be no co-operation
between the two administrations and he met no one who could tell
him anything useful about the country - 'The two territories might
be a million miles apart.' Time was running out because of numerous
delays - boats, "boys", acquisition of equipment, all
geared to the elasticity of time in a land where it was more important
to catch a cassowary or a pig than a boat. But Jock knew he had
less than three weeks to make the journey to Hollandia and back
before the coastal steamer left Aitape for Madang, where he must
catch 'the smelly bug-infested copra freighter' which was to take
him non-stop to England. 'I calculated that I should just have
time to make the double journey before the boat sailed. It would
be the fastest three hundred miles I ever had to travel.' He
was worried that he had to start out at the height of the boisterous
north-west monsoon; the rivers would be flooded and their crossing
might cost precious days. The seas would be rough - too rough
for even the big native canoes, so it seemed every mile would
have to be walked and every bit of cargo carried. Wally had said
that as far as Wutong near the border the country had been well
patrolled, but he did not think any white man had ever been by
land from there across the border to Hollandia, so - 'It's up
He set out with a few porters and a minimum of gear. Soon they
had to find a canoe to take them through palm swamps. Gliding
through the narrow channels in the glare of a hot afternoon he
was writing up his diary and noting everything around him. Later,
'a breeze has sprung up, the palms rattle. I see Willy Wagtails,
black shags on high lookouts watching us cautiously. Shoals of
fish in the water. I see behind and to the left of us black storm
clouds, hear thunder rumbling and to the right hear the roar of
the surf.' Out of the channels onto the broad lagoon he saw women
fishing with bows and arrows. 'Mountains brown all around landslides,
cloud-hung & sullen - I don't care though - I'm not climbing
And so westward, climbing hills, crossing the swollen muddy rivers,
never able to spend the time to go upstream and ford more safely.
They crossed a muddy estuary 'with brave display of nonchalance
but with certain amount of trepidation - water swirling about
shoulders & holding helmet & watch & compass above
head. Naked. We crossed, & boys immediately pointed out
tracks of large crocodile which had landed & meandered across
to the sea beach, precisely where we did. What would
He praised his porters as they carried the heavy loads over razor-sharp
coral, across hot black sand, through steaming rain forest, over
or around immense coral headlands - talking with each other and
with Jock in pidgin because they had about six different dialects
between them. 'It is always a good thing to have porters of as
many "talks" as possible. Too many "one-talks"
become cliquey; and are always apt to cause trouble in other
ways as well.' Their trail led them past an area which was theoretically
under control; but one of the carriers, who came from the country
behind the ranges on their flank, declared he recalled cannibal
raids and had himself eaten human flesh. Jock, having no reason
to disbelieve him, thought this ritual was probably still practised
as the hinterland near the border was rarely patrolled and remote
indeed from 'white' law, which might prevent the people from doing
what they considered natural - death as a part of life; a cycle
that would bring them strength. He knew he had to be wary but
thought it more likely he could die by angry spear than the cooking
On one of the jungle paths he walked through a patch of fallen
red-brown leaves and trod on a death adder - red-brown too. Miraculously
it did not bite. The natives were afraid - deadly they said,
and would not approach it by more than ten feet. He killed it.
He mused on the fact that humans, no matter how close to nature,
have a deep-seated aversion to even harmless snakes; although
a few declared themselves not scared, most unashamedly admitted
On they went - the carriers now knew nothing of the country, Jock's
watch had stopped and he had no real idea of the time. The sun
was obscured by heavy clouds. It rained and finally 'we come
to Vanimo - a beautiful place.' Once this had been an important
district station, the nearest to the border, and during military
occupation had held a large staff, 'High up on a green isthmus
between two magnificent bays the old residency stands, aloof and
picturesque, commanding superb views of the surrounding ocean,
coast-lines and misty inland ranges. Vanimo is that kind of earthly
paradise that one reads about but never actually sees, remote,
and deserted except for a couple of grubby police-boys, separated
by ninety miles of beach and jungle from the nearest settlement
- Aitape.' Excited by the beauty and a 'rough but comfortable
house - a shower! Mirror! Startled to see myself in it!' and
a lot of magazines and books, good clean tank water and a tin
of coffee, he immediately decided that if the expedition came
and it were possible to lease the Government buildings, this would
be its first base. He mapped the area roughly - 'it's good &
the advantages for a base overwhelming.'
The next morning he was up with the sun, crossed the great bay
in a small carved canoe, and with some new carriers was back to
the coral tracks. The sun was their constant companion on the
long weary days. From the east it pursued them relentlessly all
the morning, caught up with them in the muggy heat of clearings
at midday, and passed on as they rested briefly in the shade of
trees along a strand. 'All the afternoon we followed it into
the west, losing it in an inexpressible pageant of colour as it
slowly slid below the horizon.' He noticed with interest the
way in which his carriers scrupulously observed the food taboos
of the various tribes. One of them might not eat the red-backed
sea-eagle, another the hornbill, another the gouria pigeon; killing
cuscus or wallaby could be disaster for others - 'such customs,
whether they began by design or accident, undoubtedly help keep
the forests well stocked for future generations.'
They crossed the border into Dutch New Guinea after coming across
a massive block of concrete with a tarnished copper plate embedded
in it, which stated that the frontier was, at a certain latitude
and longitude, 400 metres west: 'I wondered why on earth they
had not put the inscription precisely on the borderline of the
two countries until, about a hundred yards past the block, the
leading boys halted undecided at the blank face of a coral cliff,
and then I wondered no more.' They hauled themselves up the cliff,
clinging to coral projections and trailing creepers, and once
over the rim, plunged into 'one of the densest jungles I have
ever been in.' They were on an immense coral plateau. Somewhere
in the dark forest they passed into foreign territory. 'No fence,
no cairn, not even a scrub-clearing marks this farthest frontier
of the British Empire.' The British Empire, so soon to disintegrate,
still had meaning.
They had to cut their way through jungle following the faint hunting
pads and tree scars of occasional huntsmen. There were no tracks
and little light. Thousands of land-leeches emerged from sodden
humus to attack the near naked carriers and even thrust their
way through the lace holes of Jock's boots. 'One lost all sense
of time on that nightmare trip over the plateau ... on & on
- monotonous as hell.'
Finally they broke out of the leech-ridden darkness. In blinding
sunlight they saw a wide river in muddy flood barring their way.
The carriers took one look - dumped their loads and sat down
to stare at Jock. He saw it was hopeless to ford it. Utterly
deserted, the walls of jungle crowded down right to the water's
edge. As he contemplated this depressing sight a small crocodile
splashed off a mud bank upstream, causing yells from the men.
This was the Tami River and he realised he had to find a way
across or abandon the expedition. As he was running short of
time he couldn't contemplate days of delay while they followed
the river up around the plateau to try to find a village with
a canoe or a place to ford. He asked the men if they might be
able to build some sort of raft. They agreed to try. They found
an old worm-eaten shell of a canoe up the bank and got to work.
An extraordinary craft took shape with two long poles from the
bush and vines for binding, a rough outrigger fashioned with the
tomahawk and a couple of rude paddles from the worm-eaten wood
which once formed the top of the old canoe - next they cautiously
scooped black mud from the river and caulked the holes where water
would pour in. 'And now our strange craft is ready for the crocodile-infested
Tami River. I wonder if I will be "cut off in my prime"?
- 1pm - GOT HERE.'
The craft was then towed back upstream and sent on its diagonal
journey to the other side. Cris-crossing hazardously, laboriously,
they got everyone and the equipment to the other side.
Enormously relieved, Jock set course through the coastal country
which was sparsely scattered with tribal villages - in itself
hazardous in a different way. There was no way to announce their
coming, no booming slit-gongs, no warning runners, huge distances
between settlements; just the chance to meet, as they did, a
snarling, frightened naked warrior with spear raised in self-defence.
Jock yelled 'Soba! Soba!' - the only friendly word he knew of
pidgin Malay. The man calmed down and dumbly pointed to the village.
The people were shaggy and wild, the men clad in only the pubic
gourd. The villagers traded some coconuts, but refused anything
else in a disobliging way. So, after gathering from the sign
language that there was a missionary somewhere to the west Jock
took the hint and moved on.
After trudging miles along a black sand beach they came to a creek
and the missionary. He indicated his astonishment at the direction
from which Jock came - it seemed no white man had come from the
east over that dreadful barrier - but 'as 4 people had to talk
before either of us understood anything, conversation languished.'
As Jock wrote up his diary sitting on a chair on the verandah
the entire village gathered, chattering and pointing inquisitively
- especially when a table was set and he and the missionary sat
down to eat.
But after this tiny sip of "civilisation" they were
off again in the morning to trudge west through rain and swamps,
where they plunged in muddy ooze, sometimes waist-deep. 'There
were no leeches; conditions in that swamp were much too unpleasant
for them. It was bad country. I have never been more pleased
to see a range to be climbed than when we abruptly emerged to
the foot of yet another coral mountain.' A thousand feet of climbing
brought them to a ridge where they could look down on the mists
hiding Humboldt Bay. After more slogging around the coast they
came to Tobatei, a delightfully free-form aquatic community precariously
perched on stilts and rotting planks above the shallows of the
bay. Jock photographed the village as he did Aitape and many
of the jungle people in New Guinea and the New Hebrides. He enjoyed
photography - both the artistry and the sense of recording; he
used it constantly.
While at Tobatei he met a Malay school teacher, Rudolph, sent
there by the Dutch. Rudolph offered him a bed and after discussions
of a sort in sign language, they set out together for Hollandia.
They went by way of a plantation owned by a German, Herr Stuber.
Jock was impressed with the estate - Stuber grew kapok, coffee,
sago and bananas and spent much of his time collecting butterflies
for the Batavia Museum. Jock knew of his international reputation
among lepidopterists but was excited to find he had made pioneering
trips into the interior. This was exactly the kind of contact
he sought. He talked with Stuber for hours about his work, his
trading with the inland natives and the establishing of friendly
relations - his life among butterflies and savage man.
Thinking about this and his own love of wild places he wondered
about the urge that drives men into the wilderness: 'It has nothing
to do with a desire for wealth or profit. Nansen wrote of the
"power of the Unknown over the mind of Man" and this
power is as strong in the tropics as it is near the frozen Poles.'
He admitted gold fever drove the prospector but thought it natural
to ponder secrets 'beyond the blue haze of the mountain barriers,
to speculate on what lies hidden below the horizon. It is as
natural as hunger, this urge to discovery.'
From the plantation the track to Hollandia wound around the hills
above the bay and after two hours they came in sight of the once
booming centre of the infamous Plume Trade. Jock's description
of the town as he found it then - more than fifty years ago now
- hardly matches the bustling fortune-hunting image that the port
had in the days when thousands of pounds worth of feathers from
the glorious male birds of paradise and the nuptial plumes of
the osprey changed hands almost daily: 'Sheltered among the hills
sweeping down to Humboldt Bay, Hollandia lies at the mouth of
a narrow valley between sea and forest. It is a place of quaint
little galvanised iron stores, neat wooden houses and even less
pretentious shacks of bush material, a place where yellow men,
brown men, blacks and a solitary white Dutchman mingle without
serious disharmony, a happy lotus-land where the years smile on
perpetual summer and where the only troubles are malaria and the
toothache.' This might well bring a wry smile from the men of
the Second World War!
Unfortunately, the only white man, 'the Controleur', was absent
on patrol. Jock had hoped to get more information about the surrounding
country and inland tribes but he did get some from the wireless
operator and an official quaintly called 'the vaccinator'. He
discovered that, contrary to popular British belief, almost every
navigable waterway had been explored and charted and a lot of
scientific research carried out by the Dutch; but beyond the
waterways there was a blank. However, with this information he
then had to turn his head towards the smelly copra steamer out
of Madang. He had hoped to negotiate for an ocean-going prau
which could brave the monsoon as far as Wutong over the border.
This would avoid repeating the cruel journey through swamp, over
coral plateaux, through flooded rivers. But again he was frustrated.
A storm raged. When two of his carriers crept out of the streaming
dark at midnight to talk to him, he realised no power on earth
could persuade them to take to sea. He did not try.
Only six days to retrace the long walk - more than 150 miles to
Aitape and the schooner connection to Madang. He saved some time
by their previous experiences. The Tami was a little easier,
they 'assailed the leech plateau with the carriers' legs protectively
smeared with powdered lime and lemon juice.' He was not happy
to have to repeat the agonies of that journey without the freshness
of surprise - no matter how threatening - of the first time.
But it was a challenge; to get there in the time. Over the border
and on, 'Plodded - that's the only word for it - along river,
beach and jungle. Plod, for I feel tired. Yes, actually tired
at 3 o'clock, and even though I've already done about 20 [miles]
today, I think I've got a tiny touch of fever. Cargo and quinine
far behind of course.' The fever returned several times as they
crossed the rivers and negotiated the coral headlands. After
the final day's march of 35 miles he admitted to feeling 'dull
and lethargic, really tired, practically out on my feet after
that terrible five days.' For a moment he thought the twinkling
lights of Aitape were just another tree full of fireflies.
Had the schooner arrived? No - she was due tomorrow. Jock brandished
his Dutch stamped passport at Wally 'in unforgivable conceit'
shouting 'Five days, Wally, five days!' Imperturbably, Wally
answered that he needn't have rushed; the boat was sure to be
It was. Ten days late. The smelly Comlebank left Madang
for England without him, despite his efforts to get a mission
launch, which was going as far as the Sepik, to make the extra
eight hours into Madang. It would not.
Well used though he was to the haphazard timing of tropical shipping,
Jock was at first appalled by the upset it caused to his and Tom's
plans. However, almost immediately he settled down to consider
the compensations of the situation, and made a list of them.
He would see a lot more of New Guinea and perhaps some of the
islands; he would be able to get photographs to accompany the
articles and his report to the Oxford University Exploration Club;
and would probably have to go back via Sydney 'which, though
I can't afford it, will be pleasant.'
It was February and the monsoon was again drenching the landscape
and stirring the sea 'to a hellish state'. But at Wally's house
sunbirds hovered over scarlet creeper and he drank cool muli-water
and listened to music from Wally's records. The gramophone is
mentioned often. 'Tonight I'm playing gramophone a la the old
Western Pacific days with Tom - classics; not because we were
connoisseurs of music, but purely because one doesn't have to
get up so often to change the record!' He was not a connoisseur.
He had, as in poetry, a Catholic taste in music - enjoyed all
sorts of curious and great things - liked to have it as a background
to working. Much of Wally's music stirred memories of previous
expeditions, people and places - 'Curious, but I think I'm more
susceptible to music than anything.'
Tired as he was from that extraordinary 150 mile dash from Hollandia,
he was unable to relax totally. In the four days after his arrival
he radioed his mother, Rita, Tom and Ernie Austen about the situation,
wrote letters and despatched reports; he also collected, dissected
and described several birds at length as to their reproductive
readiness. A year later, in England, after an expedition to the
Arctic Circle, he wrote: 'Monotony, the terror of life in the
Arctic, need never trouble the traveller in the tropics. Each
equatorial day brings other problems, new vistas and fresh faces.
There are flooded rivers to be crossed with cargo, delicate negotiations
to be carried out with the tribesmen for food and shelter. And
the shoot-boys bring in the treasures of the forest for the asking;
certainly no scientist could ever spend a dull day in the hot
belt. In my own case, even after the most strenuous soaking day,
a biological conscience never let me escape from the evening ritual
of writing up my diary. So much had been seen; and there were
so many little important things easily forgotten.'
On the fifth day he was preparing to leave with Wally for a long
recruiting trip which would fulfil the wish he had made in Sydney
to visit the scarred Torricelli Mountains. They were to cross
the Range and go deep into the land between it and the Sepik River.
This allayed his anger at missing the ship, though he felt it
was going to be interesting rather than exciting: well-equipped
and comfortable - beds, books, plenty of food, trade goods, spare
clothing, arms, etc. . 'What a difference to my epic Dutch N.G.
expedition - which I enjoyed thoroughly. Yet this trip, on which
will exist plenty of opportunities for collection and study, I
am not nearly so excited about - just looking forward to it with
a calm, pleasurable anticipation.' That wild trip across the
border had meant discovery - and he had done it by himself.
They set out. The mountains were in chaos. They climbed laboriously
over wreckage to their first camp - 'after the afternoon showers
the jungle closed about us like a sponge' - and then they slid
and toiled from one jagged top to the next until they came to
wide green valleys and ridges dotted with villages. Their advance
was heralded by the rumble of drums. It was important to learn
whether the great slit-gongs boomed welcome or threat. After
the tragically disease-ridden and depopulated New Hebrides Jock
could hardly believe his eyes - seeing thousands of people living
their varied tribal existence in these immense highlands: 'we
gazed over tumbled ranks of hills to the smoky yellow grasslands
bordering the mighty Sepik. On clear days we could see a hundred
miles and farther - to the austere central ranges of the island
- the very backbone of New Guinea where I hope to go later.'
Wally was going about his business recruiting "boys"
for work on the coast. But Jock was anxious to find men who had
not discarded their stone axes for the baubles of trade. He found
them; men who were 'a picture of splendid savagery in their elaborate
head-dress of shell and fur and feather' and 'even the women are
beautiful here! ... pretty "Job's tear" pul-puls
slung about smooth brown hips; with "tails" swishing
behind. The curtains in front were all decorated with iridescent
mussel-shells gathered in the mud of the rivers.' He often described
graceful women and charming, shy piccaninnies. He wondered about
their life. Concerning the tribe he had just met - 'one could
perhaps remain discreetly silent on the question of the work and
status of women in native communities. They do most of the heavy
labour and are not given much share in secret ceremonial. But
they take a vital part in all feasting and dancing.'
One evening they made camp by the edge of a plateau. Jock stood
on the cliff edge at 2000 feet watching the brief, glorious process
of night engulfing the broad valley and mountains beyond. Clouds
drifted across 'arranged like Zeppelins in a perfect V formation
as though proceeding to an attack on the western smoke screen.
Fantastic, of course, yet such was the impression conveyed to
me, a lover of high, lonely places, standing rapt at the edge
of an isolated N.G. plateau.' In the dusky valley he saw a flash
of fire, burning, then dying to a gleam and visualised a pig killed
in the hunt being scorched on its tripod before being apportioned
to the hunters. Gradually the mists gathered and the distant
mountains and the valley between merged 'to a uniform smokiness.
I wonder how often a man must see such things to claim true kinship
with the high places?'
He was standing lost in imagination when his friend joined him
- 'I was perhaps a trifle, maybe subconsciously immeasurably,
irritated. "What are you listening for?" ' The valley
was now a sea of gloom. Wally could only hear the voices of their
carriers. ' "All sorts of things" I said ... &
could have told him of the muffled double call of the awakening
owl below, the myriad subdued sibilant hissing and whisperings
of the crickets, the low croaks of organisms I couldn't name,
even the silken rustle of the coconut fronds - & the pattern
of the moisture which steadily dropped to the ground about us
- all this was beauty and more to a truly sympathetic wanderer.'
That feeling of oneness with high places or environments unravaged
by humans was always with him - yet mixed with a real gift of
communication with humans. A little later, listening to the natives
talking and singing - 'And they sing, chant slowly in chorus,
& in solos; sometimes slowly others rapid, but always pleasing
to me at least... Wally says "Droning bastards - you like
that noise?" "Yes", I reply "& if you
weren't here I would join in with them, & risk lowering the
'good old prestige''.'
The companions and their long line of recruits fought their way
back to Aitape over the jagged ranges again, where Jock discovered
that the next steamer for England or Sydney would not be calling
for three months. Apart from other considerations he now had
a tooth urgently demanding attention. The only dentist was a
hundred miles along the coast at Wewak 'a place in the making
with none of the beauty or "atmosphere" of Aitape.'
But he had his teeth fixed. While contemplating the hundred
mile walk back (as so often, there was no boat) he was accosted
by Ray Parer, a man intimately connected with the mining of gold
and the pioneering of flight in the dangerous New Guinea terrain.
They had met previously on a primitive bush landing ground at
Wom when Parer had brought in his incredible little Fairy Fox
dangerously low on water because of a leak. This time Parer was
not flying but taking his pinnace ('every inch taken up by some
gadget or other invented by its brilliant owner') up the coast
with a couple of prospectors and he offered Jock a lift to Aitape.
They all set out in a lull in the North West monsoon weather,
but not far out it blew up again and they had to run for cover.
For days they pitched and battled against the wind, but eventually
Parer had to give up, landed his three sodden passengers and turned
back. Jock walked the remaining seventy miles to Aitape, to be
greeted by Charlie Gough, the local store-keeper - 'You're supposed
to be dead!' It was known he had left with Parer but, having
heard nothing since, they had been looking out for bodies and
There was one more expedition with Wally behind the ranges which
brought experience and insight into the ways of villagers and
savage warriors. He even had a small flurry of gold prospecting.
The recruiters always carried a pick, shovel and prospector's
dish; just in case they saw a flash of gold. Almost at the end
of supplies and ready to turn for the march back they were down
on the Sebi River. It looked promising and beautiful and they
decided to rest for a day or two.
'Gold! We found it in every dish we washed.' They were merely
specks or thin flakes of negligible value, but - 'This was a river
of orchids as well as gold. I saw exquisite blooms, gleaming
like amethysts against the piled banks of fern.' There were glorious
Ulysses butterflies, blue and black swallow-tails, five inches
across the wings, floating languidly over the stream, and slick
little water boatmen flipped through the water. 'Graceful limbum
palms swayed far above; the jungle crouched, brooding, to
the water's edge. Three times we started, imagining the report
of a shot gun. We knew that Charlie was in the country, but we
had no idea where. It was one of Gough's jokes to go prospecting
mysteriously "down below" keeping his route a secret
... [He was] perhaps five miles away, perhaps 50, silently searching
Pelting rain and low supplies forced them to start back to the
coast. Three days later, tired and hungry, they reached a village
within striking distance of the coast and heard that Charlie Gough
was dead. Four days' march to the east of their camp on the river
he had ignored Patrol Officer McCarthy's warning not to go "down
below" (for good, but not sufficient reasons concerning his
native carriers) and had encountered a village of savage men who
speared him and four of his carriers. He had shot several of
the men, after taking the first spear. The whole episode was
a tragedy. And a warning. Safety was rarely negotiable.
Three months to the next ship - what to do? - and how to survive
financially? Wally Hook had a suggestion. There was a small
neglected plantation, deserted by its German owners, just up the
coast from Aitape - why not run it and become a planter for a
spell? Well, why not?
So on March 31st he arrived at Tepier plantation - 'my home for
the next three months - if I live that long - the mosquitos are
godawful.' He had the old green gramophone, a score of picked
records, plenty of really good books, two writing pads and instruments.
'What more could I want.' He and "Soreleg" (an onomatopoeic
version of his native assistant's name, Solek) and another youth
renovated all day to the music of the gramophone. The plantation
faced the long drift-wood piled beach and was backed by tall hills
which rose several hundred feet. Coconuts in thousands lay on
the ground and hung in the trees; the copra sheds smelt with
the musty scorched odour of prepared copra. The house of two
rooms with plenty of doors and windows, a desk and bookshelves,
verandahed all around, had been given a solid hardwood frame but
was otherwise a thatched bush house.
He got rid of a collection of cricket elevens and chorus girl
pin-ups and substituted his own choice - 'a glade of stripling
salmon gums, a mob of sheep raising dust on a yellowing riverina
plain, [one] of a red daybreak on the surging restlessness of
the Tasman Sea.' There were many times and places when that whirlwind
energy blew out rubbish and transformed some temporary or simple
place into a comfortable nest; everything chosen with care.
He performed minor miracles with his one arm. It no one else
were about he would bang in nails, splice electric cords; even
if really pushed, sew on a button. He would stab the needle into
wood or whatever was available, thread it, skewer the button and
manipulate the cloth with feet, knees or spare fingers.
Years later a rotund weathered man came to visit us in Victoria,
and talked of another innovation. He and Jock had plenty to reminisce
about. It was J.K. (Mac) McCarthy, the patrol officer who had
warned Charlie Gough. Over a long lunch they talked of Jock's
dash to Hollandia, Wally, Aitape, Charlie Gough's death, the war.
Suddenly McCarthy started to laugh.
"Do you remember Charlie's new billiard table?"
"Of course - tremendous piece of entertainment!"
"You were more entertainment than the billiard table"
said McCarthy, and explained how Jock would take off his shoe,
nonchalantly place his bare foot on the edge of the table, and
use his toes as a bridge to steady the cue.
At the plantation Jock gathered together a team of natives to
work the copra, the kernel of the fallen ripe coconut, which was
extracted, dried, bagged, branded, then loaded onto island boats
and eventually delivered to the markets of Europe. He decided
this team could be parallelled by any comparable group of Europeans.
There were one or two honest boys, a cunning malingerer, an efficient
hunter who brought in their meat supply, a mild industrious fellow,
and one - inevitable in any group - accident prone. Jock found
them 'all enthusiastic, though hopelessly bad liars. This always
annoyed me. It was inexcusable considering all the practise they
He wanted to write up his scientific notes and also collect skins
for the Sydney Museum so he decided to teach the women to skin
birds, and discovered they were artists at it. 'Why, Oh why didn't
I think of this in the New Hebrides?!' The discovery freed him
to do a lot of writing besides overseeing the copra work and the
collections. He wrote a complete draft of his book on the New
Hebrides in the time he spent at "Tepier".
And during his stay at "Tepier" he was also trying to
face the end of an idyll, as he walked among the palms one moonlit
night: 'The graceful fronds glint as the moon touches their wet
dewiness; they cast dark feathery shadows on the grass below,
and the grey stems rise ghostly pale in the broken light. The
air is cool as running water and the incessant chirp of cicadas,
'hoppers and other night things sounds above the splashing crash
of surf. The stars are bright, cloud-wisps float slowly across
towards China, & the golden glow of lamplight spills through
the windows of the old thatched bungalow.' There were few mosquitos
but he went inside for another reason: 'however beautiful, it
is hard to idle in the moonlight when it recalls poignant memories
of events which seem gone forever, and of one on whom she depended
most of all, yet who has???'
His writing becomes smaller and smaller in the last few lines
and ends with uncharacteristic lack of clarity. The huge question
marks? The sad inquiry was evidence of a failure to give Rita
the comforting security she obviously craved from him. 'She jilted
me' he said later with a wry grin - had written to tell him she
was marrying an older man.
Jock was a romantic but he had not been able to tie his thoughts
down to suburban somnolence, nor contemplate giving up the expanding
vistas of adventure and discovery in order to achieve financial
security. His letters may have unwittingly - or even overtly
- communicated this. Typically he would not spend time brooding
on it. There were storms which made shipping the copra difficult
and dangerous, though there was satisfaction with the tonnage
he was getting, constant work with the birds and animals that
were brought in to him, small altercations or sickness among the
men to be attended to, trips into the ranges or down to Aitape
- and on August 27th he wrote: 'Finished the book "Black
Musketeers" tonight. My first book, took three months to
complete. Of course, I'm not satisfied with it; but then, I've
scarcely ever been satisfied with any of my work. Not that this
worries me, for as Alec Chisholm told me when I was an aspiring
kid (to bird-observing!!) he who is satisfied is "hopelessly
lost".' But that night he was glad it was finished - 'though,
it needs much brushing up before I should be keen to see it in
He never was satisfied with that book; although, of course, its
publication was exciting and gave him a number of good reviews.
It was, despite amusing, even elegant writing, and an articulate
exposition of island problems, a bit scrappy; a point picked
up by The Times Literary Supplement reviewer who took
him to task for this and for playing the cold-blooded scientist:
'nevertheless the chapters considered singly amply repay the
reader for the trouble of taking his bearings afresh; for one
or another is vivid in its picturing of animals, traders, scenery,
missionaries, tropical convulsions such as the hurricane, and
pirates of various types and centuries.'
A month later Jock had to wind up the work at Tepier. It was
necessary to travel down the coast to Wewak in order to catch
the mail boat for Sydney. He was not sorry to be leaving sandflies,
mosquitos, often prolonged discomfort ('which I mind least of
all'). But he was satisfied that a lot of work had been done
there - 'and what a lot of water has flowed under the A.J.M. bridge
since!' He would have good memories of Tepier - and some bitter,
hurtful ones of Australia - 'But hell! who cares?!!! ... and
those days under the coconut palms gave me an insight into native
character that I've never had before.'
At Aitape there was news. Jock exulted 'There's a woman in our
midst!! - Oh la la la la - probably a wizard female anthropologist!!
perhaps a travelling woman writer - in a cutter! - or maybe -
As soon as he heard she'd come from Hollandia he knew who she
was - Evelyn Cheeseman, the English entomologist. Herr Stuber
had told him she was coming. She made the trip in a native outrigger
canoe; not at all unusual for her. For years she had been wandering
about in all parts of the tropic world seeking specimens for
the British Museum. Jock was delighted - 'She is intrepid &
indefatigable & is that strange, unusual & wholly attractive
thing - a woman with brains & charm.' In that compliment
there was the usual implication of male superiority, and it was
typical of Jock's attitudes at the time - indeed, there was always
an element of it in his thinking, however hard he tried to be
fair; and he did.
He went along to talk with her. He hoped she might have useful
information about the Dutch territory, but found much of her work
had been done around Hollandia at 4000 feet and at a lake nearby.
They discussed boats. They both needed to travel to Wewak to
connect with the mail steamer. Waiting for the boat was a game
of chance; there was no radio link with Wewak - only messengers.
Predictably it became a week overdue. 'How perfectly bloody
typical - position becoming serious - may have to walk or canoe,
& in any case will have a female on my hands. Still, I guess
she's the best female in the world to be in a "crisis"
with. Some consolation.' It is just as well Evelyn Cheeseman
was not a party to these strutting male thoughts; but he had
a great respect for her. She was thirty years older than Jock,
which added to his admiration for her resource and courage.
Finally a runner arrived - the boat would not be at Aitape perhaps
for weeks. As they had suspected, they must make the hundred
mile journey by native canoe. So the next day they left by the
big island outrigger for which they had negotiated some days before.
Out to sea they found themselves under huge square sails of strapped-together
patches of fibre, the thirty-foot mast creaking and straining
in the wind. The outrigger, a sharpened log a foot thick, swished
through the waves as a steady breeze hurried the trader eastward.
They stopped only to adjust cargo; they were also carrying the
mail. They ate on the sand and took off again within an hour,
afraid that rough weather might spring up and delay them disastrously.
Jock could not afford to miss another ship.
All through that night and the next two they sailed on, watching
the stars, talking and dozing: 'The outline of the canoe picked
out by sparkles of phosphorus & each paddle breaks the water
to a swirling flame.' In the day the sun was high, the sea glaring.
They got sunburnt, wrote and talked in a desultory fashion, worried
about being becalmed, and drank coconut juice from the cargo of
nuts. They had to drive the crew to work ever harder because
their calculations told them they would reach Wewak with only
four hours to spare.
They arrived at midnight on the fourth day. It was no surprise
to discover the mailboat for Sydney, due to leave at dawn, was
not leaving until the following day.
What of Tom Harrisson all this time? One could hardly expect
him to be silent. No doubt due to Jock's primitive mode of travel
in New Guinea, not much correspondence remains from the period,
but what does is colourful as ever, sprinkled with admonitions
to 'lay off writing Tommy these hate letters' and 'don't get all
kind of Aussie tough and arrogant, old horse'. They were sparring
again. The period of waiting was sewing seeds of doubt and dissension
concerning the expedition - more in Tom's mind than in Jock's,
who was engrossed in absorbing knowledge of the country on the
spot - but they were well buried as yet and really only broke
the surface in England. The joint leadership, however, was showing
its cracks. Tom was upset at the delay, and spurred by it to
suspect Jock of failure to make valuable contacts and that he
would not have the sophistication to gain support. Tom considered
himself the expert in these matters, especially after his six
months on Malekula. Without letting Jock know he had made somewhat
stagey - 'glamorous', one of the administrators said - applications
to both the administrations of Papua and Sepik (as they were designated
then) from whom Jock hoped to get permission for the expedition
to go into country outside the control of their patrols. Jock
was amazed to be told, when he made contact with Sir Hubert Murray
and Brigadier General Ramsay McNicoll, that they had both refused
permission to a "Harrisson Expedition". Jock was horrified
at such interference with his side of the work - 'extreme discomfort
for me and generally bad impression received by officers of both
territories. I pray to Christ T.H.H. hasn't made any Dutch application.'
In England, however, Tom had secured an undertaking of monetary
support from the Oxford University Exploration Club. Much more
was needed. This would be the hard part later. Meanwhile he
wrote: 'The following are lined up ready to be expedition Committee,
etc. H.G. Wells, Julian Huxley, Atlee, Naomi Mitchison, Hector
Bolitho, Lord Aberconway, Lord Moyne, Douglas Fairbanks, Admiral
Sir William Goodenough ... ' and so it went on to a long list
of substantially prestigious people who had shown an interest
in the expedition even if they had not made promises. It was
a tribute to Tom's energy, enterprise and flair for enthusing,
to engage such busy people in a vicarious adventure. After Jock
arrived in England five of them formed a committee under the auspices
of the Royal Geographical Society.
But Tom was writing to New Guinea: 'we have got to get away before
June next year, when, the pros tell me, the world war starts.'
Meantime he was finishing his book on the New Hebrides and hatching
a novel anthropological scheme for studying a section of the English
working class population. This grew into a large enterprise known
as Mass Observation.
Jock finally reached Sydney in October, 1936. He was able to see family and friends before turning around again to take off for England. His mother was overjoyed to have the interlude with him; no doubt his father too. But it was always his mother who wrote, and kept in constant touch with his friends at the Sydney Museum such as Ellis Le Gay Troughton and Tom Iredale. "Troughtie" also kept Jock informed, in long letters to New Guinea, about his mother's fears for his safety or her satisfaction at the number of reassuring letters he had written. Troughton's letters, which addressed him variously as Jocka, Jack, Egglet, Pup, were fountains of museum gossip, scientific tit-bits, instructions on preserving techniques for improving the state of the specimens sent, the music he had heard, his travels and the progress of his book The Furred Animals of Australia.