The Bulldog Track by Peter Phelps
Hachette, 2018. ISBN 9780733639777
(Age: 14+) Recommended. When the Japanese Army invaded New Guinea in 1942, Australian civilians working as gold miners in the Highland region of Bulolo fled on foot after the company's aircraft were strafed and destroyed. Not to be confused with the more legendary Kokoda track to the East, the Bulldog offered their only means of escape. However its terrain was more extreme and weather more appalling than even the almost insufferable conditions endured by the Australian and Japanese soldiers as they later fought each other and the landscape.
Peter Phelps' Grandfather Tom was one of the miners who survived. The author conveys evident and justifiable pride telling this remarkable story, not just for the man's superhuman effort to endure the ordeal but equally for his mettle and decency as a human being throughout his life. Considered unfit for military service due to age and a massive leg injury, Tom Phelps made the difficult decision to take work as a carpenter and miner in New Guinea to provide for his family after financial hardship caused by the Great Depression. Peter Phelps presents the perspective of his father George, his sisters and their mother as they are tormented by the absence of their father and husband for years on end. Whilst Tom missed his family dearly, living in extreme isolation, complex and lasting suffering was felt at home, including resentment felt by George.
The family had no knowledge of Tom's welfare or progress beyond the fact that miners deemed too sick or old to join the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles had abandoned Bulolo to make their way to New Guinea's Southern coast. They were however only too aware of the extreme brutality of the invaders and naturally feared the worst whilst waiting for any scraps of information.
The trekkers were unsupplied and faced gruelling hardship including starvation and countless medical problems caused by disease and mishap. These men would not have survived without the guidance and physical aid of local New Guinea villagers who had formerly been employed by the mine but who assumed responsibility for ensuring the welfare of the escaping miners of Australian and sundry nationality. It must be emphasised that their own villages and families faced great danger from the advancing Japanese. Una Beel was a local highlander assigned as assistant to Tom Phelps in his role as carpenter and the two developed a close relationship which must have been pivotal to Tom's survival. I found the description of the pair's parting after they had been delivered to European missionaries on the coast to be curiously understated. These villagers risked their lives sharing the arduous journey and as the author notes, they were essentially in foreign lands themselves, having left their own territory. The journey demanded that they communicate with fearsome, potentially lethal villagers along the way and it is difficult to imagine the miners' survival without their efforts.
The author has undertaken tremendously detailed research to give voice and description to both the plight of his grandfather and the daily trials of his family waiting at home. The amazing feat of his indomitable grandfather and his ragged but resilient companions has been presented in an exciting story demonstrating great family pride and affection. There is no doubt that Tom Phelps earned this respect but I was disappointed that Una Beel and his companions were not acknowledged in the conclusion and epilogue.
Recommended for 14 years +