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Pacific Commandos: New Zealanders and Fijians in Action. A history of Southern Independent Commando and First Commando Fiji Guerrillas

Chapter V — School of Experience

page 41

Chapter V
School of Experience

Among the adventures experienced by the New Zealand-ers in their new life, the most exciting was shooting the rapids in a canoe or on a raft. The Fiji rivers contained many large whirl-pools, and drowning accidents were common enough to make the commandos realise the risks that they were taking.

Rafts were made of bamboo poles strung together with reeds or vines: three layers of bamboo made the raft about nine inches thick, and the completed raft was about four feet wide. These rafts, called "mbilimbili," were about twenty feet long and so unwieldly that it required a great deal of skill to control them at the bends of the rivers. They were made in the upper reaches and were used only for travelling downstream. To control them, a man stood at each end and warded them off the rocks with long poles. The timing of the man in front had to be particularly accurate when he guided the raft through the best avenue in the rapids, or round a bend, for the raft floated with the current and even though it travelled at breath-taking speed it had no steerage way. If the man in front pushed too hard the back of the raft would swing round the opposite way, the current would catch it broadside on, and in no time it would wrap itself round a boulder and smash to pieces. The occupants would then have little chance of surviving a pummelling in the rapids.

Whirlpools are also hazardous. These are caused by extremely large boulders projecting from an inside bend; water flows under them as well as round them; the result is a permanent vortex with upward and downward currents. As a raft approaches one of these vortices the front end is drawn down several feet below the surface; then, as it passes through, page 42the front rises and the rear gets drawn down. Fortunately the whirlpools are close to the bank, and the two polers can, if they synchronise their pressure exactly, push against the side of the river to keep the raft on a straight course. If the raft is allowed to spin round the polers may never regain control.

This means of travel was by no means smooth, and the thrill lay in the number of times the commandos avoided being tipped out. The Fijians, of course, are so skilled that they can usually guide a raft past a whirlpool without being drawn into it.

As the men on the raft moved about to maintain their balance, the bamboo would become cracked and waterlogged. By the time the mouth of the river was reached the buoyancy of the raft might be so poor that only the outer edges would break the surface, and the men in the middle would be floating up to their knees in water.

The New Zealanders quickly adapted themselves to handling the most precarious river craft including dug-outs and punts which required considerable practice to master. They extended their emulation of the native by scaling the limbless trunks of coconut trees—not so difficult when the leg muscles adjust themselves to the unusual alignment. They also learned to spear fish. This sport was not nearly as difficult as it looked, in fact it was difficult to miss when aiming at thick shoals which cruised about the warm shallow water covering the reefs at high tide. The real skill was demonstrated by a few Fijians, specialists at the game, who dived down into the large pot-holes in the coral and speared fish under water. Here they got the larger fish, in spite of the pressure of water restricting arm movement. The New Zealanders dived into these holes and, with goggles on, everything was crystal clear. They saw all the coloured fish common to aquariums, but they could not stay under long enough to do much damage with a spear. Some of the Pijians were outstanding in their ability to stay under water for several minutes. Members of the Ngaloa Platooon tried to overcome their short-windedness by making an old gas mask into a diving helmet: the air tube was held at the surface by a float. The experiment was very page 43popular until someone poured water down the tube for fun— no one would risk using it after that.

Many pleasant hours were spent on the reef where the marine life of all descriptions was a delight to the biologically minded; but the favourite method of catching fish was to use a small piece of gelignite. The use of explosives had to be demonstrated to the Fijians, and sometimes, when the food problem became acute, the NCOs found it convenient to demonstrate its use in water. The Fijians delighted in diving in to scoop up the stunned fish on such occasions, and sometimes they got. so excited that they had to be restrained from diving into the water before the charge went off.

Some of the New Zealanders acquired a working knowledge of the language, and got to know the Fijians so well, that they were initiated into all the Fijian customs: they learned the native superstitions and some of the Fijians' innermost secrets. The rules of native custom are almost inviolable, and sometimes it was difficult for the New Zealand-ers to restrain their laughter at the ceremonies. The members of Ndeumba Platoon had to stand with solemn faces while the Fijians sang a hymn to celebrate the completion of a new latrine. The NCOs at Kalokolevu fell foul of the villagers because they ate a certain kind of prawn that was taboo. However, the Fijians have all the necessary ritual or penalties to nullify broken customs, and the strained relationships were easily overcome by the Mew Zealanders drinking several mbilos of kava with the chief.

An old Fijian at Namuamua frequently regaled the New Zealanders with stories of his early cannibalistic days, and he bemoaned the fact that human flesh was now barred from his diet. He was quite convinced that he could work harder in, the good old days—it did not occur to him that he had been eighty years younger then.

The Fijians have a high regard for the missionaries, and they are outwardly devout Christians: but they still cling to much of their ancient philosophy and superstitions. The inexplicable is always the work of spirits referred to collectively as tevoro—an adaption of the English word devil. Some of the hill tribes have little faith in the Suva public hospital which they call "A Vale ni mate," the house of death. If page 44they become ill they will do all in their power to prevent going to hospital: the result is that the authorities get some of them there when it is too late for treatment to be successful. When a Fijian dies his tribe carries him away from the hospital immediately. The tribe is so anxious to claim the body that they'll wait for hours near the sick man: hovering over him until they can carry him off. They like to bury their dead in their own village graveyards. One night the Commando Headquarters staff at Navua was woken up by a dozen Fijians who wanted the unit's truck to go to Suva to collect a body of tremendous inportance. On reaching the hospital they found that the Fijian was not yet dead and they had to wait another two hours. But the truly fantastic feature of this episode was that, even then, another tribe came and snatched the body from under their very noses.

The hardihood of the Fijians was demonstrated once at Kalokolevu when a woman was stung on the foot by a stingray. Several stalwarts held her down on a mat while another Fijian made two great gashes in the foot with a razor blade. The poison was let out with the profuse flow of blood and the woman was running about next day.

The New Zealanders had difficulty in persuading the Fijians to accept paper money. There was such a shortage of coins in Fiji that the Government had been forced to print all denominations — even pennies. These paper pennies were about the size of a tram ticket and soon became unrecognisable with handling.

One of the Fijians in the Komave Platoon would not accept payment for his services. He reasoned that if the New Zealanders could travel over a thousand miles to protect his country, surely it was up to him to contribute his services free. Every month he was called up for his pay, but each time he refused to accept it.

The generalisation that human nature is the same the world over is supported by the Fijians who differ in degree rather than in kind. The Fijians, especially the uneducated ones, are less selfish than Europeans; they have not the ambition of the white men, they are happier towards life, and they do not suffer with any inhibitions. The Fijian social system is so organised that no one, living in accordance with page 45native custom, becomes destitute or knows hunger. The New Zealanders had the greatest difficulty in giving the Fijians an incentive to do things. Fijians think there is nothing in life so terribly important that it is worth unremitting toil. Nevertheless, they like the products of civilisation, such as wireless music, watches, and gaily coloured clothing, when their acquisition entails little effort.

Life is not a struggle in this land of plenty, providing one is content with the simple existence, and the Fijians' easygoing social system has many features that the so-called civilised world has lost. After observing the Fijians, the New Zealanders realised just how much freedom civilisation had sacrificed to gain the amenities of a modern home. But they also realised that their minds had become too active ever to return to the simple life of their forefathers and still be contented. In comparing systems some thought it a pity that life could not be organised so that electricity, running water, transportation, and the like, could be enjoyed without people having to become automatons and slaves to the clock.