PNGAA Library

Settling in at edie Creek: Hilda Johnson

Member, Ross Johnson, sent us this letter, dated May 1935, written by his mother to a long time friend. Ross was about 18 months at the time and his mother about 35 - she had never been to PNG before. In 1934 Ross’s father, Ted, had acccepted a position as Mill Manager for New Guinea Goldfields (NGG) at Edie Creek leaving his wife and son to come up later. Ross’s mother died in 1976.

C/- N.G.G. Ltd, Edie Creek,
Via Wau, New Guinea.

May 5th (1935)

Dear .......

Possibly you’ve had some news of me 'ere this from the family. Without Ross, the trip on the Neptuna would have been most enjoyable; with him, it was most exhausting as he behaved very badly. The food & the service were excellent & I did manage to get dressed up and to dinner at 7:30 tho’ I always went to bed early and didn’t join in any of the evening arrangements. It didn’t get rough until I’d found my sea legs and anyway the ship is very steady and was heavily laden – hundreds of tons of flour chiefly, an excellent cargo for a rough sea. The first two days were quite cold and the last two very hot both day and night. Both Ross and I felt it rather much. The Neptuna manages about 11½ m.p.h. and goes all out to do it. Her speed is painful but she is ideal for people doing a leisurely pleasure cruise – plenty of deck space and a swimming pool. All the waiters and cabin boys are Chinese and there are swarms of them. She also has a Chinese crew.

We anchored at Salamaua at 4:30 am, I was finishing my packing at 5 am. The doctor had finished with us soon after 6:30 and there were only a few of us disembarking so the Customs didn’t take long. Ted was on board soon after 7 am and we had breakfast together. I was very glad to get off the ship as Ross had been more than trying and was most shockingly spoilt after his stay in Sydney. It’s wonderful now he has settled down here and he sleeps so well at night again now. Travelling at his age is no joy. Salamaua is rather pretty – a narrow strip of land with sea on both sides – all planted with coconut palms and then, all round, high densely bush clad hills. Without the foreshore we might have been in a N. Auckland harbour. We left the ship about 9:30 am and then a Mrs Williams (she was Miss Idriess) met us (Ted had stayed with them the previous night). She showed us the coolest spot – the back verandah of the hotel and we stayed there till it was time to go out to the aerodrome. We didn’t want to stay too long there as it gets very hot and I didn’t want to run any risks of being mosquito bitten either as the place is full of fever. I looked thro B.P.’s store and bought floor covering for the bedroom – a greenish natural coloured ground – done in squares and some of the squares had a bit of navy and dark purple in them – rather modern looking and a very thick one. It goes very well with the green bedspread and hangings of my bedroom.

Our plane left a bit before 11:30 am. We went in the big three engined Ford, seven of us and about four times as much luggage as I had. The trip took 35 minutes, rather longer than usual as we were circling over Salamaua for quite 15 min. gaining height as the clouds were very thick inland. It was wonderful looking down on it all and it was very pretty and we could see the Neptuna going north to Lae. She left at 11 am. Quite a party made a plane trip from the ship. We met them when we arrived at Wau and they went off in our plane to Bulolo and they were to rejoin the ship at Lae from which port she was leaving about 4 pm. I’ve never been so thrilled by anything as by the plane trip. We had to climb 9000 ft and at times there were only clouds below us. We struck one air pocket and suddenly dropped about 50 ft – a bit like the J.C.L. lift [probably the lift in a New Zealand store].

At Wau, we went straight to Parer’s Hotel – kept by the parents of Ray Parer, the airman. He runs the P.A.T. air service in Wau. We patronise him to bring up our groceries as his Co. only charges 2½d [tuppence h’penny] a lb and Guinea Airways charge 3d [pence]. Guinea Airways own the very big machines. There was a big Junker at the ‘drome with a wing spread of 120 ft. They are only used for freight carrying. The machine we were in, a Guinea Airways one, is the best passenger plane. We had our trip, luggage, freight and all at the Company’s expense. Luckily for us the Managing Director joined the Neptuna at Salamaua and I travelled from Sydney with his wife. They are on their way to England on Company business. Ted has worked very hard at the Battery as it has been a big worry so it was the least they could do for him. It saved us about £15 pounds however and I wished I’d brought a bit more stuff in with me. Ted has got much thinner but he’s looking miles better now than when he met me. We spent the night in Wau, rather a noisy night too as a party of Italians from up here were down for a funeral. However Ross was so tired that he slept thro’ it and we had so much to talk about that it didn’t matter. Ross loved the plane trip and kept on telling us how it went up in the air and came down again. He was very thrilled with Wau as there are planes constantly coming and going. When the breakfast bell went in the morning Ross and I had only just returned from the bathroom and Ted was having his shower (wash-wash on top, in pidgin). Ross, as soon as he heard, darted out the door, clad only in his singlet. By the time I’d gathered my dressing gown he had disappeared. I found him in the dining room where he had helped himself to a banana off the table! That morning the Company’s car was placed at our disposal for me to do my shopping! A visit to the Bank and to B.P.’s store for some groceries completed that.

Wau is rather pretty, at least the hills all round are. There isn’t much of a township – a Bank, P.O., Radio Office, several general stores, a Chinese tailor and a few hair-dressing notices outside private houses. There is a large hospital, two hotels – both doing an enormous bar trade and quite a few bungalows in decent gardens. We had morning tea at the General Manager’s house before we left Wau and we were here for lunch which we had at the Superintendent’s here. The road up, only 11 miles but one climbs 2,500 ft in the first few miles, is the worst I’ve ever been over and there are constant slips on it. One daren’t tackle it without chains on. It was most interesting and the views were magnificent. Wau was very warm and I was quite glad to leave it. It is full of malaria too. This is the only livable spot in the Territory. It is deadly quiet of course tho’ the time seems to pass very quickly and I’m feeling better than I’ve felt since Ross was born. At present I still have lots to do in the house and soon I hope to get very busy in my garden or what will I hope be a garden some day. The single chaps here spend their time in drinking and beer is 3/5 [3 shillings & 5 pence] a bottle. The married ones can’t afford too much of it. The amount of beer imported from Victoria, Tasmania and NSW into Salamaua is amazing – whatever cargo has to be left behind in Sydney, the beer is always safely stored on board. I thought they’d never cease unloading it off the Neptuna and they refused me cargo space for a box of groceries! My big grocery order from Sydney has only just arrived and I’ve been scratching along, only buying what was absolutely necessary and paying exorbitant prices for it locally – 9d a lb for rice, 1/10 [1 shilling 10 pence] for a 2 lb tin of Golden Syrup (it works out about 1/3 [1 shilling & 3 pence] bought from Sydney) and 2/- for a 1 lb tin of raisins. Flour and sugar are about 7d a lb when bought in bulk. Milk, butter, bread and meat we buy from the Company – bread is 1/2 [1 shilling & 2 pence] for a 2 lb loaf. I don’t yet know the price of butter or meat. Eggs come from Sydney and it’s only safe to boil them for a few days after their unpacking here. I’ve got a case of mixed apples and oranges from Sydney and of course they are most expensive especially as they are “cooler” cargo. Ted had an orange last night – the first he has eaten for 10 months. My hausboi only returned last night after two weeks holiday so I hope to have a bit more free time.

It’s been a hectic rush since I arrived and I’ve been too tired of an evening to settle down to letters and we’ve had quite a few visitors – practically all masculine and for the first week I seemed to be entertaining plumbers, carpenters and electricians, all doing odd jobs here of an evening. Our hausboi is quite intelligent – not too young, 28 I think and has been indentured for five years. He has just “made paper” with us for another two years, hence the holiday. It isn’t easy to get hausbois up here as they don’t like the cold of Kaindi. Being without him meant a great deal of extra work for me tho’ there has been no scrubbing done and no “cooked” wash-wash. I had a great pile of washing after the voyage and it took ages to get ahead of it. I haven’t got all my white frocks ironed yet. Ted starts work at 7:30 am, so getting breakfast at 7 am was quite an effort especially as none of our electrical gear arrived for a week after I did. However when the jug and toaster appeared things were much simpler. Ted has also given me a wedding present – a chromium plated electric coffee percolator – rather a beauty and so very useful too. The stove is a small Dover one – rather awkward to manage as the oven is very small. It takes awhile to get hot and then it is often hard to cool the oven down a bit. However I’m managing quite well. Had a dinner party last week – rather an effort too without Unianiba [name of hausboi] but it was very successful – the washing up the next morning was rather fearful tho’ as I had practically all the china and cutlery I own to wash up. I got a very pretty dinner set in Sydney – ivory ground with a hand painted flower design on it – chief colour being orange. It is rather gay and most attractive when all set out. I also bought amber glass to go with it – jug and tumblers and wine glasses. So far we’ve had no lack of vegetables. Ted grew some potatoes and we have another lot coming on now and a boy is now clearing a patch for another planting. I’ve been kept well supplied with carrots, beans, peas, leeks, silver beet, cabbages, passionfruit and cape gooseberries. We’ve also had paw-paw and a small bunch of bananas – the latter are ripening now. I can also buy a small lemon here at Peach – they are rather like a lime and are called moulies. They are tiny with a rind about 1/16th inch thick and full of juice. I have five roots of silver beet, about ten baby cabbage plants and some mint and parsley growing so far.

Ted has a “one-talk” here, the only Waiheathen [New Zealander] hereabouts whom we see every Sunday. He is in charge of the prospecting and returns here each weekend. He is a great gardener and a mine of information about the native flora. He has dug up a vegetable patch for me and weather permitting, it will be planted next Sunday. I’ve also got a bit of my flower garden dug but not ready to plant yet. The soil is good but full of roots and needs a bit of digging and turning over. Now that Unianiba has returned I hope after this week to be able to start on the garden. It has rained a part of nearly every day so far but I believe the rainy season should be over now. We’ve had two thunderstorms and one earthquake since my arrival. Last week we had two perfect days, just like a perfect Auckland autumn day. I usually wear a cardigan for breakfast but discard it by 8:30 and it begins to get cool again about 3:30. It is often very warm between 12 and 2 – there seems too to be all the languor of the tropics in the air. We are only 400 miles from the Equator here. I’m getting more used to the elevation now. At first I found I couldn’t exert myself much. I can’t do anything very strenuous for long yet and some days the air seems much rarer than on other days. Water boils here at least 20o lower than on the coast with the result that it is wise to let it boil for a bit before making tea. It takes 5 min. to boil an egg fit to eat and vegetables take twice as long to cook.

One part of my garden, now covered with stumps, great tree trunks and bamboo roots, I intend to keep native. There is quite a depression in it, ideally suited for growing ferns. I have about eight small tree ferns growing there and hope to plant a great many more. A great deal of burning off will have to be done but quite a few of the dead trees I want to keep for growing orchids and ferns on. I have five different orchids already and the “one talk” brought me three small trees the other Sunday – a flowering shrub with clusters of bell shaped orange and yellow flowers – a very lovely thing. I hope to collect the flowering shrubs and later, if I can, to keep the seeds of them. If I’m lucky with them I won’t forget you and Elaine and Ella. Everything about the place is rather damp and muddy but it dries up very quickly. We have no paths yet and the place isn’t quite finished yet. It doesn’t boast a scrap of paint and is not very pretentious outside but it is quite decent inside. – chiefly owing to Ted’s efforts before I came. The living-room is all panelled in beautifully grained three-ply – quite unstained. We intend to keep it so as it is the best background for my pictures. We intend to stain all the floors however and I’m also going to paint my cane furniture brown. I’ve just about finished all my loose cushion covers now. All the chair seats are cushioned in a heavy linen in the same colourings as my curtains. The big floor mat has a natural centre – a brown border about 15 inches wide and autumn coloured leaves round where the two colours join – very nice – chosen by Ted and nothing could have been better for my colour scheme. The curtains and the pictures have made the room of course. Our dining table is of cedar and the top is wonderfully grained. I intend to oil it just to bring out the grain. The head and foot of the bed also are of beautifully grained cedar. My dressing table, not yet made, is to be of cedar also. The cushion making was rather an effort – all done by hand too. Everyone tells us we have quite the prettiest living room in Edie Creek so that’s something. It’s very comfortable anyway and that’s the main thing. I have a large wardrobe built in, in my room and one also in Ross’ room where I park the linen and all my oddments. We also own a bath – rather a luxury up here, due partly to the cost of importing them and partly to the shortage of water. Most folk here have a species of shower bath but ours, made by the Battery plumber, imported specially to build the cyanide tanks, is a great secret and is not displayed. Ted is going to have an electric water heating business made for it. We also own a sink tho’ the water isn’t yet laid on from the tank. The sink, I think, is Unianiba’s chief joy.

Ross is still very trying and will go wandering away. He loves the natives and will go with any of them. They are very good to him but some of them are not over clean and have skin diseases. Unianiba has a very clean skin and wonderful physique – quite a good specimen. I’ve given him two towels and some Lifebuoy soap and he really does wash his hands after he has been lighting the fire . He is a wonderful laundry boy, most professional and the best scrubber I’ve ever seen. He seems quick to learn too and of course my efforts at pidgin aren’t too clever yet. His attire at present seems to consist of a red lap-lap and an old brown waistcoat of Ted’s – much prized owing to its pockets, and his pipe is always stuck in his belt. I sent him to the store today to buy two white lap-laps for the house. They wear shorts under their lap-laps up here and play kick-ball in them. We live just above the kick-ball field and to go down to the store, I have to cross it. When I appear there is a yell and a wild dash for lap-laps. They are very modest and consider themselves unclothed just in shorts. There is a path round the back of our place to the Battery – “on top” as it is called. Ross knows the way to the Battery and goes “on top” to meet Daddy! He was very thrilled with the stamps (blocks that crush ore in a stamp-mill) and shows us how they go up and down. We get a lot of thunderstorms up here and one second’s failure of the electric power stops the Battery for at least 15 min. until they get the stamps going again. The lights went out during the storm last night and Unianiba cheerfully remarked – “Light, he all buggered up”. Pidgin is very liberally adorned with the choicest Australian adjectives. No one can keep a cat here – it’s always a case of “pussy – he die finish” – and ends up as kai kai too. The sanitary service here is excellent – the tins emptied every day and the place well washed out with disinfectant by the lavatory boy. The great fear here is dysentery from the flies but there is no fever. They are also very strict with the boy’s sanitary arrangements. There is a lot of malaria at Wau, and at Bulolo fever is very bad. They also have lots of snakes there, great pythons 17 to 20 feet long that raid the hen roosts. We have no snakes here but every known species of insect and dozens of tiny lizards. There are very few birds up here and what there are, are not very melodious.

Ted wants to know why I’m writing so much to you when you never answered his letters? However I’ve about done my dash now I think. There is so much here one could write about too. There really is gold here – great chunks of it. I haven’t seen an alluvial clean-up yet but I believe it’s a great sight. Ted says he’s never seen so much actual gold in his life. For its size this is the richest find in the world – Klondyke was larger of course but this is really a small area and there is gold everywhere, all owned by N.G.G. – no one could peg out a claim here now.

I really must write to someone else now so au revoir. My love to your mother and all your family.