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

Chapter VI — Exploring Viti Levu

page 46

Chapter VI
Exploring Viti Levu

Between the Fijians' training periods, the New Zealand-ers spent their time exploring the tracks in their areas, and accustomed themselves to the bush by bivouacking anywhere they happened to be at night-fall. The OC encouraged the competitive spirit, and the NCOs increased their endurance by undertaking longer and longer journeys. Few white men had penetrated the interior of Viti Levu apart from missionaries, district officers, and the surveyors who had made a trigonometrical survey of the Island to define tribal land boundaries.

In seeking fresh fields the Southern commandos penetrated to all parts of the opposite coast, and expanded their knowledge of what the other commando units were doing. Later the Eastern Commando paid return visits. The New Zealanders would study the existing map, plot a course to their objective which might be a prominent landmark or a native village, making each day's journey fifteen to twenty miles. They would always endeavour to return to their platoon headquarters by a different route, for there was something unsatisfying in covering the same ground twice. If the commandos kept to a native path they would pass one or two villages in a day's travel; but if they got off the beaten track they would cover jungle areas that probably never had even a Fijian's foot upon them before. The Fijians are not explorers, and individuals are rarely found living apart from a village.

There is a common belief that an abundance of fruit grows wild in the tropics—this is not entirely correct. The only food obtainable is that planted by the villagers, and when coconuts and bananas are found growing in isolated places, page 47it is because those places have been the sites of villages in the past. Coconut seed weighs several pounds and does not blow about like thistle-down. The commandos could not live off the land without encroaching on the gardens belonging to the Fijians, they therefore carried tinned bully-beef and biscuits on their backs when they went out on reconnaissance. As they always carried four days' rations, in case of accidents which might prolong their journeys, the packs weighed between thirty and forty pounds.

The reconnaissance trips were fraught with various dangers. Once when David Williams and Atu, the cook, were in the middle of the island, and a day's journey from the nearest village, David sprained his ankle. Strong as Atu was he could not carry this fourteen stone New Zealander over the 2,000 feet they had to climb to get to the nearest track, and David had a very painful experience in the next few days, limping out. Many New Zealanders had narrow escapes from drowning in the flooded rivers, and several owe their lives to the skill of the Fijians in rescuing them from the rapids. In the early stages of the formation of the commando units it was a rule that no reconnaissance party went out without a Fijian guide.

The tracks in Fiji range from well-defined mud tracks a yard wide, to ill-defined breaks in the jungle which are little easier to get through than the jungle proper. The latter are quite obscure to the beginner, and in the early days of the commandos it appeared to the New Zealanders that the Fijian guides led them aimlessly through the undergrowth. The Fijians could not explain how they knew that a track existed under all the foliage—they just knew which way to go without thinking. This did not satisfy the New Zealanders; they were too matter-of-fact to believe that the Fijians possessed a sixth sense and they continued to observe the Fijians at work. Thus, within three months the New Zealanders developed a jungle sense almost equal to the Fijians. The secret of the whole process lay in minute observation, and familiarity with the way jungle grows if it has never been pruned. The undergrowth may look the same all round you, but if you look up at the sky you will see a gap in the larger tree tops. This gap in the larger trees has come about through the Fijians page 48constantly lopping off the larger saplings before they have had time to grow into trees. There are other factors too, such as the observation of knife cuts in the saplings, but if the track has not been used for several months these knife cuts are completely covered with new vegetation. The New Zealanders also found that the undergrowth was less thick on the ridge tops, and when they learned the run of the country they frequently travelled on the ridge systems. Another method of covering the ground was to scramble over the boulders of the smaller streams, but these wound so. much that they would take one three times the map distance.

If you want any information from a Fijian guide it is no use asking leading questions, because the native will always give you the answer you are hoping to be correct. The Fiji-ans are strictly honest as regards touching a white man's property, but they show not the least compunction in making untruthful statements just to be agreeable and flatter the European. The Fijians' conception of time and distance is very vague, and it changes to suit particular circumstances. If he is guiding you to a village which he is keen to visit himself, he will urge you on to the destination by repeating on the summit of each hill that it is just over the next hill. On the other hand, if he gets tired at one village, and you want to push on to the next, he will put all sorts of obstacles in the way, and it is invariably, "Plenty hills ka levu na wai," (meaning big rivers): he switches from English to his own language when he gets excited.

In spite of the Fijians' skill and powerful physique the New Zealanders in a few months learned to cover the ground faster. The Fijians in their bare feet had the advantage in the first few miles, but the New Zealanders could wear them down after one day's travelling. This was mainly because of mental attitude; physically, the Fijian was generally superior to the New Zealander. One NCO covered a ninety-five mile track over rough country in four days, but the four Fijians who accompanied him were too exhausted on the third day to continue, and they stayed at a village en route. The New Zealanders became exhausted on these long trips too, but their determination to accomplish whatever they set out to-do, carried them on. It took many months to impress on the Fiji-page 49ans that the army had to keep to a time schedule, and that they had to be trained to co-ordinate the movements of then-one little platoon, with the movements of perhaps hundreds of other troops. They could not understand why the New Zealanders rushed around in such a hot climate just to keep fit. The New Zealanders found if they did not keep going they would soon lose their energy: if they rested for a week after a bout of dysentery it required a tremendous effort to regain physical fitness.

The New Zealanders learned to build fires with wet wood, and to make lean-to shelters quickly with a few sticks and the broad leaves common to tropical vegetation. They carried small mosquito nets that would cover the face and hands when suspended from a tree. They also learned from bitter experience not to bivouac close to the "bank of a stream. Streams can rise suddenly, and a wall of water several feet high often surges down after heavy rain. This is caused by leaves and sticks wedging themselves in the boulders of the streams and forming a temporary dam. Eventually the water pressure becomes too great behind the dam and it suddenly bursts.

The New Zealanders carried spare sets of clothing which they kept as dry as possible by wrapping them in waterproof sheets. When they camped for the night they changed into the dry clothes which they slept in and then changed back into the wet ones in the morning. Once on the move they did not notice the discomfort of the wet clothes, and no one ever caught cold through this practice. If, as often happened, they had to sleep in wet clothes, the New Zealanders would shiver in spite of the tropical climate: in fact it was better to sleep naked than wear wet clothes at night. However, it was necessary to use some covering or the bites of insects and crawling bugs would prevent sleep. Fiji is teaming with insect life, yet relatively few birds exist. The lack of bird life is said to be due to the mongoose which devours birds' eggs. Toads are so thick in some places that one treads on them with nearly every step one takes. There are also hornets, ants, and mosquitoes, to mention but a few of the pests. It is a lizard's paradise but a bivouacking soldier's hell; and if anyone wants the answer to the age old question—" Where do page 50flies go in the winter time?" any Fijian soldier can tell him. There are no poisonous snakes, but some wild pigs exist, and a few wild cattle as a result of the Fijians' failure to ereet fences around the domestic animals that they have acquired in the past.

Reconnaissance work took up the greater part of commando training in the first few months, and the nature of this work is exemplified in an account of a trip across Viti Levu. Four days was the record time for crossing the Island through the geographical centre, and one of the NCOs decided to reduce it to three days. Bill planned his trip so that he started from the northern coast and walked back to the unit's area on the southern coast. He got round to his starting point at Nandarivatu by hitch-hiking on army trucks and American scout cars. Nandarivatu is near Mount Victoria, the highest mountain on the Island, and the village itself is 3,000 feet above sea level. From here Bill started his journey alone as he hoped to pick up Fijian guides on the way. His first objective was Nasonggo Village, twelve miles away.

Leaving Nandarivatu in heavy rain at daylight he descended about 1,000 feet on a mountain track into a valley, and then had to climb a thousand feet to get over the next ridge; after this the journey was all downhill on a winding mud track. This part of the journey was quite easy—Bill was fresh after a good night's rest, and while he kept on the move he did not notice the discomfort of his wet clothes. He reached Nasonggo by mid-day, so he pressed on for five more miles to a village called Nanggelewai.

By this time he was feeling tired after battling through three flooded streams, and he was pleased when a naked little native boy rushed out and directed him to one of the bures. Bill eased off his heavy pack and was about to change into drier clothing when Fijians of all descriptions crowded into the bure. He could not speak much Fijian at this time, but he indicated that he was cold and hungry and started to unpack some of his bully-beef. The Fijians built a fire in the bure, and he gave them a packet of cigarettes which was immediately shared round the curious group. There were not enough cigarettes to go around, and with their characteristic page 51desire to share possessions, the Fijians began breaking each cigarette in half, so Bill gave them another packet.

Bill could not explain in Fijian that he wanted the women-folk to leave while he changed his wet clothes; he tried to indicate his embarrassment by taking off his boots, socks and shirt, and stopped ostentatiously at his trousers. However, the women continued to stare at him with wide-eyed innocence, and he shivered beneath their relentless gaze for an hour. Eventually he decided to take the plunge, so he wrapped a sulu around himself and changed his pants underneath it. He learned later that the Fijians used the same method for changing their clothes as the bures are rarely partitioned. It is only the nether garments that concern the Fijians, for the women of the interior do not wear tops to their dresses like those near the coastal road.

The natives brought in some cooked dalo for Bill to eat with his bully-beef and they sat round and watched him eat it. After the meal the children ate what was left.

Later in the evening a young Fijian, named Elia, who could speak some English, came to the bure and said that the village chief wanted to see Bill. The chief had a huge bowl of kava made up and Bill had a mbilo full, but could drink no more as he was not particularly fond of the stuff. The chief wanted to hold a taralala in Bill's honour and asked him to stay for a week or so. Bill spent about two hours trying to explain, through the interpreter, that he wanted to have some sleep and push on first thing in the morning. The chief said the rivers were too high in flood to continue, and he could not understand why it mattered whether Bill returned to his army headquarters this month or the next. But Bill was determined not to let anything interfere with the record breaking trip; he eventually won the day and went to bed.

When he awoke next morning there were some chattering children around him obviously discussing the white man and his army equipment. He got up and ate his breakfast of bully-beef and biscuits, put on his wet clothes, and was about to leave when the womenfolk brought him a huge breakfast of fish, dalo and tapioca. He could not refuse the hospitality of these people so he sat down and ate what he could—the children ate the rest. The interpreter then appeared and page 52tried to dissuade him from continuing his journey in the rain. When Elia saw that Bill had made up his mind irrevocably, he was so concerned for the white man's safety that he decided to guide Bill to the next village, Lasu Levu, eight miles away. The track was very poor, and they crossed many small streams on the way, but there were few steep climbs and they reached Lasu Levu about eleven o'clock. Whilst resting and drinking coconut milk at this village the sun shone through the clouds for a few minutes, and Bill persuaded Elia to go on to the next village with him. Lasu Levu would have been a bad village at which to stay anyway, for the natives were covered with ring-worm and various skin diseases, and the flies were as thick as dust in a desert storm.

Bill and Elia struggled on until they came to the Waini-mala River, which is part of the largest river in Fiji, the Rewa. At this point the river cut its way through a gorge, and they were now confronted with the choice of climbing up a steep jungle-matted mountain side entailing a long detour around the outside bend of the river, or taking the short cut across the river, walking round the inside bend and then crossing the river again. The river was highly flooded, and was an uninviting, surging, muddy torrent with tremendous boulders combing the current at the rapids. The travellers were feeling very tired, however, and the prospect of climbing a, thousand steep feet, with the knowledge that they would have to come down again to nearly the same level on the other side, persuaded them to take a risk on the fifty yards of water.

Bill plunged into three feet of water near the bank and began to wade steadily across with his pack and equipment held above his head, the Fijian followed close behind. Ten yards out from the bank the water was swirling around Bill's shoulders as the river got deeper and he leaned steeply against the current; the weight of his pack helped him to keep his feet from being washed away. He was just deciding that he had better turn back when he stepped into a pot-hole and lost his footing: he had no hope of regaining his footing in this deep water while being swept along at a terrific pace, so he swam as he had never swum before, for the opposite bank. Fortunately he was a strong swimmer, and even with page 53the handicap of boots, and still clinging to the strap of his equipment, he made headway across the current which was carrying him swiftly towards the rapids. In spite of five tins of bully-beef his pack remained slightly buoyant because of the air in the clothing it contained, and he pushed this in front of him. He couldn't quite reach the bank before the first boulders of the rapid appeared just above the surface, so with the strength that comes with desperation he flung his pack around one side of a boulder and his body automatically wrapped itself around the other side; he then held himself fast by hanging onto the strap: his body and the pack were held tightly against the rock by the pressure of the current. Bill was nearly winded as he had been under the water most of this time, but he managed to scramble on top of the boulder, and then, with a super-human effort, he jumped to the bank, pack, equipment and all. There he lay exhausted for over ten minutes; shaking like a vibraphone with the nervous reaction. The Fijian, who was carrying nothing and wearing only a sulu, found the crossing a struggle too, and made no attempt to move for some time after reaching the bank.

After half an hour's rest Bill got up and surveyed his predicament—he was now on the wrong side of the river up against a precipitous cliff, there being only a narrow ledge of shingle between the cliff and the river. After working his way around the inner bend of the river he discovered that this narrow ledge petered out and the river cut its way over another rapid and hard up against the cliff—there was no way out but to cross the river again, this time two hundred yards above the previous spot.

At this point the formation of the river was different, it being narrower and deeper, necessitating a thirty yard swim. But to strip off and swim the river would mean leaving all his food and equipment behind, and Bill could not afford to do this in the centre of Fiji, miles away from any habitation. There was no bamboo growing on the ledge to make a raft. It is no exaggeration to say that Bill hesitated, cogitated, and sat down frustrated. Elia tried to find a way of climbing the cliff face but was unsuccessful, so they had a meal.

Bill would have sacrificed a modest fortune to have had a white companion to share his feelings of frustration. As he page 54sat contemplating the mounting, turbid waters, the Powers That Be must have answered his prayers for on the opposite bank there appeared three husky Fijians intent on doing nothing in particular. They yelled out a greeting to Bill and his companion, and then disappeared into the bush. Bill's heart sank; he thought the Fijians had not recognised his plight; but they soon reappeared carrying the trunk of a fern tree. This trunk was about ten inches in diameter, and it was of the soft mushy type of vegetation common to the tropics. In a few swift blows with their knives the Fijians cut the trunk into three lengths of about four feet. These they joined together by driving two hardwood sticks, like skewers, through the soft fern trunk; thus forming a small raft about three feet by four feet.

The three Fijians then carried the raft upstream about a hundred yards to a spot where a rapid finished. Here they plunged into the deep water, and swimming under-water most of the time, pushed the raft in front of them. By the time they reached Bill's side of the river the current had swept them almost to the start of the rapid below. They dragged the raft out of the water and carried it upstream again, as far as the narrow ledge and cliff face would allow, then Bill placed his equipment upon it. The Fijians wanted Bill to get on the raft too, as they assumed that the white man could not swim very well. However, Bill insisted on swimming because the raft was not very buoyant—it was almost submerged by the weight of the equipment alone—and he knew that it would take the efforts of all of them to push the now heavy raft back to the opposite bank before they were swept over the lower rapid; as it was, they only just made it.

When they had all climbed up on the bank and had regained their wind, the Fijians asked, in broken English, how and why the white man had journeyed so far into the heart of Fiji. Bill could not explain very clearly the "why" and "wherefore" of his trip because of the language difficulty— even Elia's English was difficult to understand. Bill opened up his pack and gave the Fijians some silver at which they; looked quite blankly; then as he rummaged in his pack for further gifts they uttered "Backy, backy." He withdrew the last of his wet cigarettes and handed them round. The Fiji-page 55ans were overjoyed, and their smile of gratitude put to shame Bill's efforts at thanking them.

It was mid-afternoon by this time and Bill pushed on for ten more weary miles that day, reaching Korovou at dusk. Elia could not keep pace with the New Zealander so he stayed at Lutu, and Bill travelled the last five miles on his own. At Korovou, which is almost in the geographical centre of Viti Levu, he was greeted by the village schoolmaster. This Fijian, whose name was John Selala, could speak English very fluently, and he asked Bill to stay the night at his hut. Bill was amazed at some of the amenities in the schoolmaster's home, which, unlike most Fijian bures, was partitioned into three rooms, each containing furniture produced by some civilised establishment. Bill was treated to a grand meal cooked on European lines by the Fijian's wife. The schoolmaster had a good library of modern books and a spherical map of the world; he had been educated in Suva and he had a most progressive attitude towards life. He kept Bill up far into the night talking on the latest war situation, and then insisted on Bill using his double bed while his wife and he slept on the floor.

When Bill saw the village in daylight next day, it was obvious that the schoolmaster had had an influence on its layout. Every thing was neat and tidy; all the bures were in excellent repair, and there was a large soccer field adjacent to the school hut.

Over-night rats had eaten the casein buttons off Bill's clothes, a common occurrence in Fiji, and the schoolmaster was most perturbed that such a thing should happen in his house. No words of Bill's could pacify his consternation. It did not worry Bill because he seldom used the buttons on his shirts anyway; but to a Fijian a shirt is something to be highly prized.

The third day of Bill's trip was fine, and he set out optimistically with a guide that had been found by the schoolmaster. The guide's name was Eferemo; he was a young man. athletically built and obviously fit. He set a terrific pace that kept Bill breathing heavily. Eferemo wore only a sulu and he carried, of all things, an umbrella—for what purpose, Bill was unable to discover. He had probably been given page 56the umbrella by some white man and he cherished its possession. Eferemo offered to carry Bill's pack but Bill was not going to spoil the full glory of his prospective achievement on the home stretch. He had about thirty walking miles to go to reach Namuamua, his destination. He had covered only forty miles in the first two days but the mud and the numerous river crossings had held him up. Now that the weather was fine the ground was rapidly drying and much of the third day's journey included a good track. The morning was taken up with climbing over a steep mountain ridge several thousand feet high but by mid-day they had dropped down into the headwaters of a tributary of the Navua River. This they followed until they arrived at the village of Wainima-kuta. Both men were exhausted with the pace at which they had been travelling and Bill had developed a blister on one foot. The Mbuli gave Bill an excellent meal while he rested and Bill unloaded the last of his bully-beef with a sigh of relief—even if he did not reach Naumuamua by nightfall there were now plenty of villages on the way so he would Hot starve. By two o'clock Bill had recovered sufficiently to continue his journey but Eferemo said that he had had enough for one day.

With his lightened pack and a dry track to walk on Bill strode off in grand style: his blister was excruciatingly painful for a few minutes but it suddenly burst and the agony was soon forgotten. He had fifteen miles to go and although he was extremely tired he was determined to make a strong bid for his goal. With long loping strides he passed villages about every half hour. These villages acted as land marks and he could see by his map that he was visibly covering the distance. The Fijians here were familiar with the work of the commandos, and some of them were members of the Namosi and Namuamua platoons. Bill dared not stop to chat, however, for he knew that once he sat down his fatigued muscles would stiffen and it would be too difficult getting going again. The villagers all rushed to greet him and shook hands as he passed by, reminding him of the marathon races that were a craze in New Zealand years ago. The nearer he got to Namuamua the faster his elated spirit drove his legs, and when he finally reached it at six o'clock he strode up to page 57the Platoon Headquarters as though he were just starting the trip.

Bill was greeted nonchalantly with: "We didn't expect you until to-morrow, but there's probably enough bully-beef in the pan for a feed. Have an exciting trip?" Bill tried to put on an air of deceptive indifference as he casually replied that it had been nothing startling. The Namuamua commandos were not easily bluffed, for they knew the country, and knew that with the rivers in flood Bill must have had difficulties during his journey. But they were not going to pander to Bill's vanity by showing excessive admiration so they changed the subject. Half way through his meal Bill decided that he was not hungry, and, as unostentatiously as possible, he hung up his mosquito net, crawled under it, and slept on the floor of the bure for the next fourteen hours.

Besides developing physical fitness and endurance, journeys like this taught the New Zealanders what it was possible and what it was not possible to do in this mountainous, wild, bush country.

It is impossible to learn the jungle sense from books, or from others—jungle sense is only gained by plenty of hard personal experience. One has to learn to discriminate—when to follow a stream and when to follow a ridge system—and every situation is slightly different. After a while one learns the "run" of the country, and can tell approximately where a ridge will lead to without being able to see much of it: even if one climbs a tree on the summit of a ridge, vision is limited; if not by bush, by other ridges which twist and turn in many directions. If rivers and ridges carry one too far off one's course it may be necessary to march by compass straight across country. But the experienced bushman knows that this is a slow process and a last resort, because it leads one up and down many hills, and one has to hack one's way through the thick bush of the gullies. It is the succession of climbs that break one's heart on long journeys.