Chapter 12.


First, we had to get away from the islands, and this turned out to be pretty tricky as they seemed to be alive and had the nasty habit of positioning themselves in our path and even when negotiated wanted to follow in our wake!  Neville on the first trip had not had this trouble and we were at a loss as to why they were now acting like this.  Finally we came to the conclusion that the extra drag was caused by us hanging to the side rope loops.  We tried hanging on to the rear and this improved progress slightly and markedly improved the steering. After half an hour of this frustratingly slow movement we suddenly emerged into clearer and shallower water and there before us were the policemen waiting.  A clear channel could be seen ahead and we correctly guessed that, pre-flooding, this must be one of the many creeks flowing into the swamp. In the belief that, if this opening was followed, we would eventually reach dry land or, at least lead us in the right direction, we changed bearings and set out again with the policemen, Bob and myself, wading alongside.

  So now we waded and pushed and tugged the dinghy, in what we were almost certain was the right direction to the shore, and found with great relief, that after about half an hour of very slow progress, the going became a great deal easier in the thigh deep water.  When the end of the creek was reached we found ourselves among small trees and undergrowth and progress again became very much slower.

The water was warm and very clear but this didn't prevent some of the party suffering from the effects of the long immersion and they were rapidly becoming exhausted and needed help.  The water was still thigh deep and wading was becoming very tiring.  Looking around one could clearly see fatigue mirrored in their faces and clearly rest was needed. Bob called a halt to the struggle and gratefully we stopped wrestling with the dinghy and sought the support of the many small trees that were now impeding our progress.  Ten minutes of this standing around resting sufficed to give us enough energy to renew the struggle and we again fell to the task, though somewhat reluctantly!  I say reluctantly, because we had become a pretty disillusioned group by this time and really needed something in the way of good luck to re-kindle our hopes!      

Still, and despite this, we determinedly struggled on.  I remember, at the time, marvelling at the amount of punishment the human frame can stand when there is no other possible alternative but to keep going!  Here we were, a sorry wet and bedraggled muddy bunch of humanity, in a seemingly hopeless situation, with darkness falling rapidly, trying to find some dry, or if not dry, at least reasonably solid footing, and there was not one complaint to be heard.  Plenty of cursing, to be sure, but I think a little cursing always helps in these circumstances!  Our only desire was to press on and rid ourselves of this watery and muddy hellhole!

And this determination paid off as, before darkness set in, we finally had made enough headway to be able to stand, to everyone's relief, a little over knee deep in the water.  But here, once again, we seemed to be stumbling from problem to problem in this watery wilderness.  Having overcome one obstacle, we were now stuck with another.  The nearer we got to dry land the deeper the deposit of silt became.  We were now sinking deeply in the mud!  Boots were filled with the fine silt and causing all sorts of chafing problems with our feet which were already pretty sore from their long immersion in the water.  Progress, if anything, was even more difficult as we were slipping and sliding all over the place and were only saved from disaster by the plentiful growth of small trees.  Our packs were making us top heavy and clumsy and often someone would only remain upright by making a last desperate clutch at a tree trunk to save from falling into the mud and slush.  Those of us unlucky enough to be bringing up the rear were ploughing through a thick muddy slime that covered us from head to toe.  I, for one, was wishing for deeper water in an effort to get rid of the stinking muck and hoping the awful conditions wouldn't last much longer.  But, unhappily they did last for another quarter of a mile or so.  Perhaps the only consolation was that now we were not going to drown in the deeper water.  Break a leg or arm perhaps, by falling over, but not drown!  Small comfort!

It was now much harder to push the dinghy and battle the bottom and our progress was not helped by the many small trees that had to be negotiated.  Some had to be lopped below the waterline to allow further progress and it had become necessary to station a man in front of the boat to make sure that the stumps of the lopped saplings didn't hole the bottom. At this point we decided to abandon the dinghy as clearly it had outlived its usefulness and was rapidly becoming a liability.

So, with some reluctance, as we would now be much more disadvantaged by the additional weight, the gear was unloaded, the radio was given to Anis to look after, and we shouldered packs and waded through the gathering darkness and very soon had our second bit of good luck.  There was a moon. Not a full moon, but plenty bright enough to see by, and then finally, about three hours after sunset with the water level just below knee height, a mud flat above water was reached.

A spot to rest, at last!  But what an awful resting place it turned out to be.  The bank was barely large enough for us all and there was no chance of lying down for fear of sinking in the slimy mud.  A fallen tree trunk bisected the bank and this gave some of us a resting place of sorts.  So we rested (?), some sitting on packs and some perched on the log, wet through and covered with mud, and spent a most miserable night besieged by millions of mosquitoes and constantly thinking that a nice hot cup of tea and a bite to eat would be very welcome.

At least we could smoke.  That is, we could smoke if we had any dry tobacco and luckily three of the constables had unopened tins!  Those days tobacco came in sealed tins and amazingly Anis had somehow kept some thin white paper dry and this enabled us to satisfy our craving and forestall the hunger pangs.  The wax matches, thank goodness, ignited without much trouble.  You may laugh at the desire for a smoke but I can assure you it was most welcome.  We just sat and waited for the dawn, wrapped in our own thoughts, too miserable even for conversation.

Our one consolation was that we were fairly safe from observation as our information indicated the Japanese had not penetrated this far west in this area.  Sam stated the obvious when he said that no Jap in his right mind would come near the place anyway!  This observation met with general agreement!  Only silly 'bloody' Australians and Dutchmen would come here!

Just on daybreak we heard voices in the distance, and of course immediately thought the worst and kept very quiet.  When it became light enough we were greatly relieved to see it was not a Jap patrol but Capt. Van der Vien and his party, still with their rubber rafts, which we could see were very much bigger than our small one, some several hundred yards from where we had spent the night.  They had not seen us and Bob asked Neville to wade across and let them know we were nearby.  Neville approached and when a little closer shouted out to let them know he was coming, much to their surprise, he said.

It was significant that the Dutch party were much better equipped with dinghies and we put that down to their prior knowledge of the difficulties that would be encountered in the swamp.  This, we thought, was just another example of their non-co-operation and bloody mindedness!

In view of the treatment we had been shown at Merauke, we were not overjoyed with their willingness to dump their dinghies and temporarily combine parties until we cleared the swamp.  Their party was so much larger than ours and consisted of several Dutch officers and N.C.O.s, who spoke good English, and about a dozen Malay policemen with a good number of coolies who were being used as porters.

Feeling a whole lot better after a meal of tinned 'bully' beef, our first since leaving the aircraft, we donned muddy packs and continued, once more, to plough through the mud flats, all the time wondering if the swamp would ever end. It was extremely difficult to make much headway and I for one was praying for some hard dry ground to give my feet a little rest from the chafing effect of the constant immersion in the muddy water.  I could feel what seemed to be a couple of big blisters around my heels and guessed the others would be saddled with the same problem.  Even a few square yards above water would be heaven!

We could see by the waist high debris left on the trees that the water level had receded by about three feet and were thankful that the operation had not begun a few weeks earlier.

The Dutch party, after a few hours travel, in their wisdom, reckoned we were going in the wrong direction and decided to go their own way.  We, thankfully gave no argument, and were only too glad to see them depart as we had become fed up with the incessant chatter of the coolies and were already regretting the decision to combine parties.  The coolies were all criminals and had been collected from the jail at Tanah-merah and were being used as porters as a way of serving their prison sentences.  The soldiers and Malay policemen carried only their weapons and radio and the coolies carried the rest of the gear.  What an army!  We thought this particular party was far too large for their own mobility and, while they were fortunate to have coolies carry their food and gear, we were greatly disadvantaged by their lack of progress.

We spent a second night in the god-forsaken swamp, though this time were greatly bucked to find ourselves among trees large enough to rig hammocks and allow us to get out of the mud and water and have the added protection from the thousands of mosquitoes and leeches.  A much better night although the mud from our clothes, boots and bodies certainly gave the hammocks a lived in look!  For safety's sake we had previously agreed that when sleeping in the hammocks we should also take on board all our gear.  This, as you can imagine, left little room for our bodies!

At first light, after a quick meal, and feeling somewhat stiff and cramped, we continued on our way until about 2pm. when Bob called a much needed halt.  We had been walking (?) the whole time in foot deep slimy mud, slipping and sliding and occasionally falling over in hidden holes or tripping on tree roots, and the going had been very difficult. Strangely the mosquitoes had gone and we were now beset by hordes of leeches.  They were everywhere, in the mud, in the trees, and in the water.  I do not exaggerate when I say they were in the millions.  Even a momentary pause would see them advancing on all sides and try as we might we were unable to keep them at bay.  They invaded our bodies from every angle, backs, arms and legs and even through the eyelet holes in our boots, where they gorged themselves unseen on our blood!  The policemen were lucky as they were barefoot and could see the invaders and deal with them.  I couldn't help wondering how they managed to survive as, except for us, there was no sign of any animals or birds for them to feed on!

There did not seem to be any end to the mud and, to increase our worries, we were now ploughing through heavier undergrowth and larger trees and visibility had decreased to about ten yards.  The thought that we might be approaching areas patrolled by the Japs caused us to try and keep our movements as quiet as possible but with very little success.

Finally, in desperation, Bob sent Sabi, a policeboy, to climb one of the taller trees to see if there was a way out of this mess.  Up he went to about 30 feet from the ground and from this vantage point called out that he could see a small hill to the northeast.  This was the news we were waiting for, and with high hopes and renewed vigour we immediately took off in that direction and found in a few more hundred yards that we were gradually walking up a slight slope on to firm ground.

To Chapter 13 ->