Chapter 57

The Sepik River and reminiscences of my patrol days

The Public Works Department had a need for two wharves up the Sepik River, one at Angorum and the other at Ambunti to replace the existing ‘make do’ structures.

The Sepik River is the largest and most important river on the north coast of New Guinea. From the Admiralty Pilot you read its mouth is about one mile wide with no bar and depths varying from 18 feet to 48 feet with sand-banks on either side and a current running from 2 ½ to 3 knots. It is navigable 60 miles for large vessels and 300 miles for vessels drawing 13 feet. The channel is of varying width and subject to continual change. At 300 miles from the mouth the river expands into a large lake with depths around 9 feet. The maximum variation in water level is 20 feet. The flood season is in April and the low season in September. At Ambunti, 235 miles from the mouth, there is a difference of about 25 feet between flood and low levels. Floating islands of grass on which small trees grow constitute a danger in the river and these islands which reach half an acre in size are a danger to ships at anchor.

Angorum, 60 miles from the mouth is the Government Station on higher land surrounded by low lying land. The banks in the lower reaches are dense sago swamps with fish, eels, crocodiles and mosquitoes. The type of malaria experienced here is malignant. About 35 miles up from the mouth the ground is less swampy being replaced with stout timber. Marienburgh Mission, about 40 miles up the Sepik River is located on a small hill. The locals do not live near the river but in villages a few miles back. The country between Angorum and Malu, about 60 miles further upstream, is generally swampy and impassable and at Malu the first high land begins. The locals are river people who navigate the Sepik in large dug-out canoes made from readily available timber.
The Aministrative centre of the Sepik District is at Wewak on the coast with District Offices at Angorum and Ambunti.

Arrangements were made for my visit involving a flight in a DC3 to Goroka then to Madang. A charter plane was waiting. It was a Catholic mission plane, single engine and the pilot was a priest. Flying low across the mountain ranges from Madang showed how difficult the country was for developing and there was no way you would be found if you crashed in these mountains. Native villages were built on the tops of the mountains with steep valleys and fast flowing streams separating them. Once over the mountains you could see the flood plains of the Sepik River with the river meandering through the plain. I landed at Angorum and made contact with the Administration there and the plane returned to Madang. Two nights were spent at the hotel which was comfortable and typical of these out-lying centres. The Sepik people are renowned for their carving skills and there was a large museum there with all sorts of artifacts for viewing or for sale.

While I was there a trading vessel came into the wharf so I could observe how they operated. There was no rock outcrops visible so to prove there was mud for founding the wharf piles I had several long lengths of ½” diameter reinforcing steel driven into the river bed as a probe for obstructions and indications were it would keep going, so timber piles could be stood up in the mud and driven to a minimum penetration or a predetermined set. While waiting at the aerodrome for the flight to Ambunti I saw wood carvers chipping away at logs. They were making totem poles and all sorts of other carvings and I ended up buying three of their carvings. The flight to Ambunti was uneventful with the Sepik below, but the approach to the air-strip was across the Sepik River and straight to the landing with a vertical mountain-face to stop you if things went wrong. Here, I stayed the night with the District Officer and his family.

The houses and offices are high, accessed by a road cut into the slope of the hill and have extensive views. The Court House has a carved totem pole as a centre support with sago palm roof and walls. It was like going back in a time capsule. Each place had the gravel roads and paths lined with multi-coloured tropical plants such as boganvilla, hibiscus etc., and the variegated leaf colour of croton shrubs; these are found along every pathway. The inspection was similar to Angorum, basically to replace and upgrade what was there. It was proposed to keep to timber piles and deck since there was unlimited supply upstream and this would give the locals the opportunity to cut, trim and float downstream the logs needed, so everyone gained. The design was basic. Instead of designing for the berthing forces from a vessel it was necessary to allow for floating debris and to assist with this, trash barriers were constructed upstream of the jetties at an angle to the bank to deflect debris past the face of the wharf. These, too, were substantial structures. Not knowing the founding depth for the piles, splice joints were designed to extend the pile, if necessary. These consisted of a heavy section of steel tube fitted over the pile head and end and then bolted in place to secure and resist any tension or uplift. There was provision made for extra piles which, if not required, could be stockpiled for fender piles or for maintenance. It was preferable to over supply than to wait for another season to pass and the contractor knew where he stood when tendering.
Ambunti was a District Office as I remembered them to be; well- kept paths, roads, grass cut around the air-strip and prisoners working, mainly cutting grass. I saw two prisoners working in the bottom of an excavation about 3 metres square and 2 to 3 metres deep excavating for a reservoir for sewerage or water. This was really hard labour. I bought two more artifacts before leaving on the regular flight to Wewak on the coast. Here I spent a few hours before catching the plane to Madang and Port Moresby. It was good to be home again.

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