Our first year was over, we had helped to make a difference with the people, but the concept of developing a large western style cattle ranch was to my mind unproven, problematic even. I had 12 months left to develop a plan that would turn things around and I was far from confident.
I wrote in the previous chapter some anecdotes illustrating the madcap situations needing to be dealt with on a daily basis, it must be remembered that these events took place over 40 years ago. Many of the villages in our territory were situated in remote valleys and mountain areas several hours walk from civilization. The young people in these villages hadn’t grown up with mechanical things and the concept of taking care of farm machinery was difficult for them.
Early after my induction I had realised I was now the local vet, the after hours ambulance driver, and the conciliator of personal disputes. My wife Rosie, hadn’t bargained on the role she had to play as hostess and caterer for the endless stream of visitors attracted to the project. As a farmer’s wife in NZ she was used to cooking for staff and supplying country hospitality at short notice, but at Uluisaivou this chore assumed industrial proportions. In our first six months, Rosie found herself providing meals, and occasionally lodging, for a range of visitors. These came from such diverse places as the Asian Development bank, the American Peace Corps, WHO staff from Brussels, Ministry of Agricultural field officers from both Fiji and NZ. And on 20th March whilst I was languishing in hospital with a broken leg, Rosie was informed that the Fiji Governor General, Ratu Sir George Cakobau was approximately an hour away and was dropping in for a cup of tea. He arrived with 10 followers made up of family and officials, stayed for two hours, and delivered a warm speech of thanks to Rosie when they left.
On 25th May the NZ Minister of Maori affairs together with the NZ High Commissioner made an unannounced visit in two NZ army Iroquois helicopters, together with 12 followers. We showed them around, and gave them all a cup of tea. Everybody was welcome. The Uluisaivou project was accepted by the local people and endorsed by the NZ and Fiji governments who were funding it. But I was experiencing a growing sense of unease about the viability of the operation. The livestock were for the most part in good condition but with the latest shipment of 530 cattle from NZ now on hand, I could see a looming overstocking situation, but there was no avenue available for me to connect with the chairman to discuss my concerns. And then there were the profit forecasts in the management accounts. I struggled with their authenticity because they had been produced in Suva and were based on theoretical carrying capacities unsupported by actual verified stock tallies.
I touched on these issues in my mid year report to the NZ High-commissioner where I put forward two requests. The first was the creation of a new position of expatriate head stock-man, to work with and train our Fijian team. The second was a study tour for myself and my deputy, to learn about best practice with Tropical Agriculture on comparable properties in other parts of the Pacific. I was elated when both these requests were approved.
Bernard Trumper was recruited from NZ to lead and train our stockmen. Bernard was a good choice. He was experienced and an excellent horseman. Below is a report he wrote soon after his arrival which illustrates the problems encountered when running Brahman crossbred cattle on difficult country.
1979 ranch Manager Diary Notes
9th June – 6am start, helping men straggle muster Yavatu block. Picked up 27 more yearlings. Took Jon Raicebi to cattle yards to interpret for me while I gave the stockmen an impassioned lecture on horse care and cattle handling. It’s not easy for them! Note: The stock-men were fearless riders when chasing down cattle over steep rocky country and through thick bush. But they had no feeling whatsoever for their mounts and no concept of how to look after them. 11th July – To office at 7:15 Had the thin horses brought to the small paddock by the office for treatment, mainly for saddle sores caused by negligence of the riders. Visit this afternoon by Police Superintendent from Adelaide and district officer from Rakiraki. Further heated discussions with Epeli about the two horses he rode to death. Put him on notice and settled on a payment of $20.
A detailed report of the Muster of Koroka – by Bernard Trumper
This was my fourth attempt to muster Koroka. Although this block is only 400 acres, it is fairly steep and is covered in heavy Bush. The previous three attempts were unsuccessful. A helicopter had been used before that, and a clean muster was achieved in about an hour. The steers were left in a small yard for a week to quiet them down, but sometime during that time, towards the end of that week, pig hunters from a neighbouring village left the gate open and they all escaped into the bush.
We decided to re-muster the block on January 4th. And in preparation we gathered 50 cows from Vuniyamunu and took them to Koroko in the hope that the cows would quieten down the wild steers. That job took my men only six hours to complete. On January the 4th, we started at 6:30 AM with 7 stockmen on horses, 9 men on foot from Vunisia village and 4 extra Uluisaivou staff also on foot. All 20 men got into the paddock at 7:30 to begin mustering. Heavy rain fell throughout the day.
After an organizational discussion the 13 men on foot and four Stockman walked up the creek to the far side of Koroko. I and two other men made for a vantage point where we could observe the muster. Walkie talkies were used to communicate between the stockmen and us because as we were at the highest point we could observe all cattle movements. After about two hours the cattle were in a good position to be moved into the 20 acre capture pen. After another half hour, the men were in position to complete the final stage of the muster. The steers were much quieter with the cows present, than they were on previous attempts but when pressure was put on they all broke away once more. Although all the men were in good position and I couldn’t fault the muster, the steers were too fast and wild for the 20 men. They would have trampled anyone in their way. Another attempt was made, but they just broke deeper into the Bush, making matters worse for any future attempt.
1979 Ranch Manager Diary Notes
20th July – 6:30 organising day. Men started burning Vunibua 3 in preparation for planting sugarcane. Examined all our horses, they seem to be picking up. Gave Peni a driving lesson and checked out the leaky roof in the co-op shed. Office work for an hour then took Koro to Nauria village. Due to faulty fuel gauge and my carelessness ran out of fuel by Burelevu, eventually siphoned some from a passing bus. Got back in the dark then took staff home and delivered the wages. Home at 8:45.
6th August – Rehearsed speech then went to Naviti school at 10:00am, and addressed the children on International Year of the Child until 11am. Had Yaqona ceremony and morning tea with staff. An enjoyable morning. Office work this afternoon
18th May – Took Timoci to hospital with cut hand.
There’s a lot more to the story than conveyed by this cryptic comment in my diary. One of the villagers had burst into the office and asked if I could come quickly, Timoci from Nyalevu was badly cut. I found him sitting on the side of the road at the bottom of the hill. He was rocking from side to side in pain and discomfort but gave me a polite smile and asked if I would mind taking him to hospital. He had a deep ugly machete wound running diagonally along the top of his forearm, across his wrist, and over the back of his hand. He wouldn’t tell me who or why someone had done this to him and I never found out, but he wasn’t calling for the police so had plainly done something wrong. I don’t know how far he had walked to get to the road but his clothes were soaked in blood. I had somebody drive while I sat in the rear compartment of the Land-cruiser elevating his arm and keeping pressure on the wound. I hadn’t been trained for this and wished I knew more. If he stays conscious for the next 25 minutes I thought, he might make it, but 10 minutes into the journey he started sweating copiously, Then his eyes rolled back and he passed out. Meanwhile the blood continued to seep through the dressing. We made it at last, with Timoci unconscious but still breathing. He needed several units of blood but against my expectations made a full recovery. He was an extremely tough man!
The study tour took 4 weeks and I was accompanied by two Fijians, Isakeli Naitura my deputy, and John Fatiaki previously my deputy and now General Manager of Yaqara another cattle enterprise in Fiji. We spent our time between the Solomon Islands, Queensland Australia, and Papua New Guinea, and the information gathered was priceless. We learned that calving percentages in other properties of the pacific were comparable with ours which was encouraging. We were shown some new pasture species which could be more suited to the poorer soils in our environment. We learned of the proven advantages in the tropics of continual mating, of cattle, as opposed to seasonal mating practices more common in temperate climates, and we were shown convincing results in favour of villagers farming goats, coffee, and honey on marginal land in the tropics that was less suitable for beef cattle.
I felt a lot more confident after returning to Uluisaivou and wrote a 5-page report to the Board with my findings and recommendations.
Whilst in Papua New Guinea, we flew with Dr Alan Quartermain to a remote village, high in the mountain ranges about 20km from Port Moresby. It was called Ogeramnog, and Dr. Quartermain had introduced a goat farming trial into the village and was conducting a routine weighing and worm-drenching exercise.
The six-seater Cessna aircraft dropped us onto a bush airstrip on a high ridge 5,500 ft above sea level and was to return for us later that afternoon, but a dense fog came down and left us stranded for three nights. We were told this outpost was only visited by 2 or 3 Europeans a year and we were very much the centre of attention as the older children struggled for the honour of carrying our bags.
Dr. Allan Quartermain in hat, Isekeli Naitura from Uluisaivou in dark glasses, and John Fatiaki from Fiji in the middle. The children were very wary of the camera. We were asked to describe where we came from to them while a school teacher translated. The kids soon relaxed and sang us some songs.
Even though we were unscheduled guests we were afforded the hospitality of a small hut reserved for visitors. It had a raised floor with a fire in the middle for cooking and to keep out the cold at night, and a woven matt for a mattress. Cooked meals were provided by a generous woman whose husband was nowhere in evidence.
The next day was market day and people from outlying settlements walked in from near and far to trade produce. Some were in loin cloths and carried bows and arrows. The head man gave a speech in pidgin English to introduce us. He explained to the tribes-people ; that the two black fellas were from Fiji, and “him pella lik lik” (the little fellow, that was me) came from NZ and “him pella mos’ grass” ( the fellow with the biggest beard) came from the university in Lae. Everyone stared at us for a while, we received a welcoming speech, and from then on we were politely ignored. We went walking in the afternoon by following a well worn track and we came across a small coffee plantation and a water well like structure where the coffee berries were steeped in water so the flesh could be removed before the “beans” could be transported to market.
While we were there, a frail looking elderly lady in a ragged dress, with badly betel nut stained teeth, emerged from the steep track below us carrying a huge sack of coffee beans on her back. She did a double take at the site of two white men in the clearing but trudged on past and disappeared up the steep track to the top of the hill. I as a young man wouldn’t have been fit enough to emulate that feat. Nowadays I live in Melbourne, the home of the coffee culture, and I frequently get a flashback to that scene as I sip a coffee in a cafe on a cold Melbourne morning.
We followed her as best we could until we arrived at our village and she diverted to the co-op shed where she sold her coffee beans.
My final diary note on the evening before we left said ”it’s been very hot today but cold when night comes down. The gardens under the tree canopy here defy description with beautiful plants, birds and butterflies. Truly the garden of Eden. Chicken for tea tonight, food has been plain, but good”.
On the last morning we were woken at 4:30 am to breakfast over a smoky fire of fried chips and coffee. We trooped up to the airstrip once again and were treated to an emotional farewell from these lovely people.
Uluisaivou contained 22 villages all loosely connected to a hierarchy in Ra provence. Each village was presided over by a chief and all the villages had a ranking order that was incomprehensible to me. The chief’s house doubled as a meeting place in each village. These houses had three entrances. One in the front for the use of the village people and one in each of the side walls for the use of senior elders and important visitors. Shoes were removed and once inside everybody walked on their knees or in a stooped position in deference to the important people who would be seated on the floor at the rear.
The polite way to approach a village was to stand on the outskirts and call out in a loud voice “Dua Dua Duaa,” with the last word elongated in a drawn out manner. Everyone who heard you would show themselves at the door of their own houses, beckon, and call out “Mai, ni mai,ni mai.” Which means come in come in you are welcome. The initial call notifying the residents of your presence varied slightly from village to village, so the residents could usually tell from where the visitors had traveled when they uttered their greeting call.
– Each family had their tete or garden. The staple foods were kasava, and taro root crops, augmented also by other vegetables such as eggplant, guava, pawpaw, and plantain, (a type of banana for cooking). Meat was scarce and highly valued. Chicken was reserved for a special occasion and was usually served as curry. A little girl from a local school in an essay about the differences between Indian families and Fijian families wrote, “even Indian people eat curry.”
The young men hunted wild pigs and all the village dogs had their ears cut off because the people were convinced this made them better hunters.
Fruit Bats, called Beka, were plentiful and provided another source of protein. The young men caught them by throwing a 300 ml. long hardwood stick at the branches where the bats were roosting. If thrown hard enough and accurately, the bats could be dislodged and once on the ground were cumbersome and easily run down. Fruit Bat meat is not unpleasant to eat, it has a sweet taste similar to the scent permeating from the bat colonies. I was occasionally offered a feed of Beka, not aware at the time that these animals are known carriers of rabies!
The everyday occupation of village women was the hunting and gathering of wild plants and fish. These fingerlings were netted from under the banks of the many creeks and the women didn’t seem to begrudge the hours spent fishing each day, even though the pickings were slim. The weaving of mats was also an important task. Apart from their utilitarian value these mats played an important roll in cultural ceremonies, including engagements, weddings, and funerals.
Personal hygiene was catered for by the reticulation of creek water to one or more public showers. There were also screened off pit toilets, usually sited out of the way at the rear of the village.
On a shopping expedition in Suva I bought myself a pair of aviator sunglasses with gold frames. On Sunday afternoon a few days later we visited a nearby village and after a bowl or two of Yaqona I had a need to go to the toilet. I stood over the deep malodorous pit, glanced downwards, and my sparkling new sunglasses tumbled into a seething mass of excrement and maggots. Half an hour later they were being proudly worn around the village by a grinning teenager. He knew exactly who owned them and was lurking around, most likely wondering how much I was prepared to pay him for them – I wasn’t tempted.
Tabua are very important in Fijian culture. They are pierced and braided whales teeth originally taken from the lower jaw of sperm whales. These teeth are polished and rubbed with coconut oil and turmeric to darken them, and according to Wikipedia are considered by Fijians to be a Kavakavaturanga or “chiefly thing.” In times gone by they were important bargaining tools during negotiations between rival chiefs.
Dead people of rank would sometimes be buried with their Tabua, their war clubs, and their strangled wives, to help them in the after life.
As Tabua are a cultural item, their removal from Fiji is highly restricted and subject to permits from the ministry of Taukei Affairs.
One day I was contacted by Josefa Maveli the chief of Raviravi village. He said he had something to discuss with me. Josefa had become a close friend and an important source of cultural wisdom. When I was ushered into his house I noticed there were more elders than usual present, and they were animatedly discussing some pictures in a tattered National Geographic magazine. Josefa passed me the magazine and said “Fife, what sort of manumanu is this?” It was a brontosaurus and they’d been discussing the origin of this improbable animal for some time. Manumanu is the Fijian word engulfing all living creatures and the men were divided as to whether it was an animal or a reptile, and where one could go to see one. Once this topic of conversation was exhausted we came to the reason for my summons. The meeting became formal, a sevusevu took place and Josefa presented me with the Tabua in the accompanying photo. He said in Fijian “this is for you, to thank you for coming all this way to help us. You are now Taukei” which meant one of us.
To me, this simple gesture was the high point of our two-year stint in Fiji, unlike our inevitable departure 12 months later after I’d come to the bitter realisation we would be unable to achieve any more.
Next chapter. After 12 more months in Fiji we return to Cairn Peak to find it impossible to recapture our old life.