We are on our way again. A stray ray of sunlight fights its way through the canopy overhead and dapples the track. There is a flash of movement as a snake basking in the warmth makes off into the undergrowth. He must have been asleep. Usually they are gone the second they feel the vibration of our tread on the ground. There is no sign of any other wildlife except for an occasional bird. The animals are away long before we see them. Only when we lie in ambush do we catch a glimpse before they smell the scent of man and are gone.
There is movement on the track ahead and the lead scout has his shot-gun into his shoulder so fast that his movement is a blur. But it is only a stray party of Temiar aborigines with their women and children on their way to collect food from some nearby cultivation. ‘Lucky for you, abo,’ I think to myself. ‘In the days of my ancestors you would be the maroro kokoti ihu waka—the fish which crosses the bow of the war canoe. Friend or foe we would have to kill you or bad luck would surely dog our war party.’
The abo is a stocky well-built fellow with a quiver of poison darts over his shoulder and a long blow-pipe in one hand. He wears nothing except for small twist of dirty cloth. His wife stands beside him and says nothing. I give the abo two cigarettes, one for him and one for his wife. If I handed the cigarette to the woman myself it would mean I was proposing marriage. Aue ra, e tama! I can find a better wahine in New Zealand some day!
At four o'clock in the afternoon we stop, not too far away from the river. We stand-to in complete silence whilst sentries scout all around our site for many hundreds of yards out, to make sure that the coast is clear. Then while some stand and watch, we take it in turns to make our bashas ready. A little square of green plastic slung over string between two trees becomes home for the night and half a dozen parachute hammocks make a comfy hammock. The jungle night falls like a curtain so there is no time to be wasted. Bob Slater and I basha up together. He puts up the hammocks, one on top of the other, while I cook the meal. First the rice is cooked, boiled and boiled until it is dry and fluffy. Then the meat is added, made as hot as fire by the curry powder.
I have a real Maori appetite. Bob doesn't eat much, so it's a good arrangement. The little tablets of solid fuel give off a flickering flame. Dicky Pomana in the next basha finishes cooking and douses the tablets with a drop of water. There is a sizzle and a puff of smoke and an acrid smell from the normally smokeless, odourless fuel. I curse him in a low voice for this bloody idleness. The smell will carry for many hundreds of yards down the river. Dicky gives a sheepish smile: ‘Kaua e wareware—don't worry’ he says. I tell him with a few choice East Coast expressions thrown in, that if I didn't worry, silly buggers like him might get us all killed. I tell him he will do an extra sentry duty for two nights, and Dicky gives that charming smile of his. ‘Baik-lah, e hoa’—a mixture of Maori and Malay. ‘O.K. Boss’. It's hard to get too wild with Dicky for long.
It will be dark soon. Bob and I strip off our stinking sweat-soaked clothing and naked, but always with our rifles under our arms, we stroll down to the stream for one of the few luxuries which the jungle offers—the nightly bath. A sentry is stationed overlooking the washpoint. It wouldn't do for the bandits to catch you here, literally with your trousers down! There is a sensual pleasure in feeling the surprisingly icy coldness of the water. Then we come out and soap ourselves on the bank and wash the suds off with water scooped up in mess tins. If we wash it off in the water the soap will float downstream and its sweetish scent is detectable for a long way to nostrils attuned to the smell of the jungle.
I get dressed in my set of clean clothing from my pack and then it is time to order stand-to. The men move out to the perimeter vine which rings the camp and stand as silent as statues, straining their eyes into the rapidly deepening gloom. The jungle, which seemed so quiet before, suddenly seems to spring to life with the onset of twilight. There is the small insect which we never see but which makes a noise like a high-pitched electric motor—continuous and penetrating. Then there is the tick-tock bird or burong batok as the Malays call him. His monotonous voice goes on and on.
I walk around the perimeter vine handling out the paludrine tablets for malaria protection, watching the boys swallow them and inspecting their weapons at the same time. I pause here and there for a whispered word. ‘Kumaiti ra, e hoa’—Pat Onslow from Invercargill has chummed up with Dicky Pomana and is proud of his newly acquired Maori, even though it isn't strictly according to William's Dictionary.
The tropical twilight is shortlived. The final curtain falls with startling abruptness and it is pitch dark. Thunk! Thunk! The distinctive but quiet noise, as I rap my jungle knife on a tree, signals stand-down and the boys pick their way cautiously to their hammocks. The sentry sits close to my basha. Each of us will do an hour's stint. I would prefer a double sentry but there are few of us and anyway the beggars can't seem to stop yapping, so each man goes on alone and only for one hour.
The pattern is repeated in the morning. Just before first light, while the air is deliciously cool and sweet, everyone moves out to the perimeter vine and stands to, yawning and scratching and knuckling the sleep out of their eyes. To the accompaniment of the weird whooping of a distant family of howler monkeys, we have a hurried meal, break camp and are on our way again. During the course of the day we walk through jungle aisles, along stony stream beds where the water cools our feet, across rivers where the water wets your armpits, and balance precariously above some foaming torrent on a swaying log which has been an abo bridge for generations. We force our way, cursing and swearing quietly, through a dense tangle of bamboo, trying not to make too much noise. In such a thicket a hundred yards may take an hour and for much of the time you are crawling on hands and knees keeping a close lookout for snakes and scorpions and fuming with impatience when your pack snags on a vine or some obstacle.
A break in the monotony is the arrival at an abo village. The jungle thins out and there is a smell of woodsmoke. All the dogs in Ulu Perak seem to combine to express their disapproval of our arrival. The headman bustles out full of importance to meet us. He wears a cast-off singlet as a symbol of status. ‘Selamat pagi, Tuan’ he greets me in Malay. Most male abos who have had contact with civilisation speak a smattering of this language. ‘Selamat pagi, penghulu’, I reply, offering him a cigarette which he accepts with eagerness. He beams as he notes the blue bands on our hats. ‘Newseelant? Orang Maori?’ he enquires and I nod. He gabbles to his wife in their Temiar dialect and she and the other women bustle about fetching leaves full of the fragrant baked tapioca root. The boys accept the food and offer cigarettes to all and sundry, from babes in arms upwards.
We buy Chinese cigarettes in town at 3d for twenty for just such an occasion.
Naked little goblins of children with distended bellies rush about poking inquisitively at the soldiers' packs. The women squat in shy groups in the shadow of their huts. The young ones, those in their teens, are quite shapely and boys discuss their form in a down-to-earth way as they would a good-looking horse and make the off-colour jokes which soldiers do. The old women, and anyone over twenty-five is old because of the hard life they lead, are leathery and worn, with pendulous flaccid breasts and tired expressions. They puff on tobacco rolled in green leaves and talk incessantly. The boys barter for fish traps, blowpipes or spears and keep their eyes open for any sign that terrorists might have been using this village.
The headman and I talk of the weather and the crops—about everything in fact except the thing we're here for. Gradually the odd indirect question. ‘Ta’ tahu, tunan' says the headman, shaking his head until I fear it will fall off. It is nearly always the same. Finally we take our leave after a round of effusive and insincere farewells and fulsome compliments. For a few minutes we have talked in our normal voices then we are back in the jungle and the silence closes in. It is oppressive, almost physical in its intensity and the degree to which one can feel it.
So the monotonous business of patrolling goes on, yet we are happy, the Maori especially. For the Maori was born to hunt and fight and the blood of the warrior is in our veins. There is a mystic but quite indefinable feeling of returning to something which is part of the soul of our people.
For months we have patrolled—searching for our elusive enemy. Sometimes we see tracks. Acting on information we swoop on an abo village. Our quarry has just gone, we have been misinformed … Patience and yet more patience, frustration and yet more frustration. Our quarry escapes us, eludes us, perhaps he's laughing at us. Our taua is unlucky. Perhaps I am doomed to be he tangata hinapo—a man unlucky in battle who cannot even find his enemy. The doubts start to come. ‘Himi, old chap, how will you face up to it when you meet the enemy? This isn't New Zealand of olden times. You aren't a warrior. You are almost pakeha in everything but colour. What about your taua? They're civilised like you. Half of them are pakeha anyway and the rest only have a bit more sunburn! If they do sight the enemy, will they be as swift as a bird to catch the first fish—rere a manu tonu, ki te hopu matangohi, kei hoki te ingoa? Who can tell?’ I wonder and think I may never know the answer.
For hours at a time, for days on end we have lain in ambushes, tense and strained. This is the worst part of the jungle war, waiting and yet more waiting. Through a small chink in the greenery we watch the track. Dicky Pomana is close to me squinting down the barrel of his bren. We split the section and every four hours we relieve one another laboriously. Taking the best part of twenty minutes to do it, we worm our way out of the position backwards until we can roll down the small bank about twenty-five yards behind the position. Here we relax, stretch and eat some of our cold hard tucker. Because of the cooking smell, the only hot food will be the can of self-heating soup, cooked by lighting a wick running down the centre of the sealed can. At nights we leave the ambush after last light. This is deep jungle. Our enemy is unlikely to move at night. We will be back into position at first light.
Lying on the hard ground before sleep steals over me, I think of home—Mum, Dad and the kids and pretty Turei from the farm up the road, lying in the shadow of mighty Hikurangi. It is winter there now. There will be snow on Hikurangi where it pierces the cloud. The boys will be playing football on Whakarua Park this Saturday. The first game of the season. Wish I could be there. And here in our confined little world there are just ten of us, linked by the bond of brotherhood which one finds between men, irrespective of race and colour, when they are dependant daily on one another, perhaps for their very lives. I like these independent jobs.
When our whole platoon is operating together I am but a spoke in the wheel. Here I am the hub … but the savour of command is made bitter by lack of success. They say it takes eight hundred man hours of patrolling and ambushing for every terrorist killed. Only if you are lucky will you ever catch a glimpse of this elusive fellow. Then there is a mad minute of action followed by the all-pervading silence of the jungle and nothing has changed—life is as it ever was … Our mad minute was just like that. The communist courier seemed to materialise out of nothingness and come loping along the path towards our ambush. He was so typical of all the descriptions we had received and yet we got a shock.
We had waited for such as him for months and then suddenly we weren't sure whether this wasn't a mirage, the figment of an overwrought imagination—a twentieth-century kehua with a flat oriental face and wearing tattered green clothes, hockey boots and a floppy jungle hat. Somehow we had expected something more grandiose, a khaki uniform with red star on his cap. He was close. Suddenly we all seemed to snap out of our dream together. There was no sound from those in ambush yet you could sense the gathering of strength, the tensing of sinew, the tightening of fingers on triggers.
And then, as they say in the best books about war, all hell broke loose. The force of the bullets spun the slight body around. He gave a yelp, of surprise and horror, the yelp of a trapped animal, and crumpled into a convulsive little heap. Even though there was no target left in sight, the hail of fire didn't stop for long seconds. Then, as if at a signal, the firing stopped as abruptly as it had begun and we emerged from our hiding place and looked at one another and at this crumpled thing lying on the track bleeding out its last, this thing which we had hunted and hated for so long. But the blooding of the warriors was not yet complete. Even now I relive the moment and see again the scene before me.
We turn the terrorist over. Incredibly he is still alive. His chest is a mangled cavity. His mauria ora bubbles form his open mouth as a frothy grey liquid. His lips move but say nothing. He is quite young, with the sallowness which long confinement to the jungle gives. Why is it that I feel no pity for this man, a young man such as myself? Why do I see him through a haze of red? What is this pounding at my temples—the panting of the victor keeping pace with the shallow laboured breathing of the vanquished.
There's a sudden sound of people crashing through the jungle, and we swing around with our weapons halfway to our shoulders before we realise that they are only those off duty coming from their resting place and cursing their luck at having missed it all. They stop dead for a moment and stare at the thing. Then the spirit of the warrior drives them to demand a share in the sacrifice. At point-blank range they all empty their weapons into the quivering mound of flesh until Bob Slater's voice rings along the track, commanding and urgent, and breaks the spell. Turei Mohi, the oldest in the section with a wife and two lively children in New Zealand—devoted father and husband who a moment before has emptied a double-barrelled shot gun at range of six inches into what had been a soldier like ourselves—lurches to the side of the track and is ill. violently sick, symbolically spewing out the hate which has risen and then drained away so quickly.
We look sheepishly at one another. No one explains and everyone understands. For months you have slogged your guts out for just this moment and when it finally comes, for a short space of time you are not human. Everything that is primitive and basic and frustrated wells to the surface to make you a killer. Then it is all over. The moment of blind rage and hatred passes and again we are just plain Jim Mason, Sonny Pehi, Pat Onslow and the rest, just ordinary sorts of guys again.
Our moment has passed and we are mortals once more. But they are wrong when they say that life is as it ever was. Nothing can be the same again. The warriors have been blooded …
Work on the Te Puea Memorial Hall, symbol of the desire of the Maori people of Mangere to preserve links with the past and to provide a centre for today's community activity, is now well under way.
The £15,000 project, financed almost entirely by the Maori people themselves, is being built on ancestral land at Mangere on a Miro Street site chosen some years ago by the late Princess Te Puea. Source - The Maori Magazine
The Rev. Keith Elliott, V.C., is to take over the Maori pastorate of Aotea-Kurahaupo, near Wanganui, replacing the Rev. Canon H. Taepa, who is moving to the Rangiatea pastorate, Otaki.
Mr Elliott was ordained in 1947. After a curacy at All Saints', Palmerston North, he became assistant missioner, Wellington City Mission (1950-52), vicar of Pongaroa (1952-56) and vicar of Pohangina (1956-59).