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March 10, 2012

UNA VOCE


I have been a member of the Papua New Guinea Association of Australia Inc. for many years during which I enjoyed reading their quarterly magazine UNA VOCE with its many stories of life in the former Territory of Papua New Guinea.

I have added my own voice 'poco fa' with this article to be published in the next issue:

Perhaps it is the result of having read Coral Island and Somerset Maugham at an impressionable age, but the South Pacific islands have always evoked a powerfully romantic image with me. Mention the South Seas and I conjure up a vision of waving coconut palms and a dusky maiden strumming her ukelele. Silhouetted against the setting sun, Trader Pete (that's me!) sits in a deck-chair in front of his hut sipping a long gin and tonic while a steamboat chugs into the lagoon, bringing mail from home.

This is the story of how I got to New Guinea:

After my 'compulsory' two years in Australia from 1965 to 1967 as an 'assisted migrant', I was free to leave again - and leave I did as it seemed impossible to live on what was initially a youth wage and later became the salary of a junior bank officer with the ANZ Bank.

I had booked a passage back to Europe aboard the Greek ship 'PATRIS' operated by Chandris Line (or, as we came to call it, Chunder Line - but that is yet another story!) which had been scheduled to leave Sydney and call at Port Moresby on its way through the Suez Canal. But history and the Eqypt-Israeli war of 1967 [the so-called 6-Day War which began on June 5, 1967] intervened and the Suez Canal was closed to all shipping.

So the 'Patris' never got to Port Moresby but sailed through the Great Australian Bight and around the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town) instead. However, a good number of 'Territorians' from the then Territory of Papua & New Guinea had already booked a passage and the shipping line at great expense flew them down to Sydney to join the ship. And so it came that I spent some four weeks aboard the 'Patris' in the company of a whole bunch of hard-drinking and boisterous 'Territorians'.

Having barely scraped together the fare, I had no money to spend on drinks but I did mix with the 'Territorians' night after night in the ship's Midnight Club to listen to Graham Bell and his Allstars. I was spellbound by the stories those 'larger-than-life' 'Territorians' told about the Territory and my mind was made up that I would go there one day.

One of the 'Territorians' whom I befriended was Noel Butler who then lived in Wewak in the Sepik District. If New Guinea seemed remote and exotic, then the mystical Sepik District was even more remote and more exotic! It sounded all very Conrad-esque and straight out of "Heart of Darkness"!

Noel had been sent up to the Territory as a soldier during the war and had never left it! After leaving the army, he had tried his hand at coffee and tea in the Highlands and had held numerous positions of one kind or another ever since. He epitomised the typical 'Territorian' with his Devil-may-care attitude and his unconcern about the future, about money, and about a career. Somehow, for those people, the Territory provided everything they wanted from life and the rest of the world was the place that was visited once every other year during their three-month leave.

Our love of chess made Noel and me shipboard mates and we spent many hours hunched over the chess board as the ship ploughed its way towards Europe. And as we played game after game, I learnt about the Territory and listened to stories of some the Territory's 'old-timers', including one Errol Flynn of whom I had never heard before (but whose autobiography 'My Wicked, Wicked Ways' I was to read many years later.) It seemed the Territory attracted three types of people: missionaries, moneymakers, and misfits. Which category would I fit?

Eventually the ship docked at Piraeus in Greece where Noel saw me off at the railway station as I was bound for Hamburg in Germany. I had been promised a job there and my thin wallet was in urgent need of some fattening-up! There was no time or money left for sightseeing as I boarded the train on a wintry Athens morning to spent several days transiting through Bulgaria, Yugoslavia, and Austria before reaching Germany.

I spent the next few miserable winter months in Hamburg and then in Frankfurt before finding a way out again: I got a job in southern Africa which, as I saw it, was almost halfway back to where I eventually wanted to go: New Guinea. That is not to say that my career was a planned one. Although I have not been an out-and-out drifter, circumstance usually played a larger role than choice in what I did with my life - or perhaps I should say what life did to me (but that's probably true of most people's lives).

With no money in my pocket, I had to rely on employers to get me back to the other side of the world. My destination was South West Africa, or Namibia as it is called now, which stretches north from South Africa's Orange River along 1280 kilometres of the loneliest, yet in parts most hauntingly beautiful coastlines touched by the Atlantic Ocean. The Namib desert, whose desolate sands have trapped and killed thousands of men and women of every race as they sought to unlock its secrets or merely to survive, runs right to the sea. The local Ovambo people call Namibia "the land God made in anger" and as the sun mercilessly bakes deserts, plains and mountains alike, it is a close cousin to hell. I spent some time in L├╝deritz where I worked as a book-keeper for Metje & Ziegler Ltd. to earn the necessary money for a passage from Cape Town back to Australia where the ANZ Bank re-employed me immediately.

But the die was cast and I knew I would find a way to get to the Territory. From Noel, with whom I had stayed in contact during all this time, I had heard about PIM, the Pacific Island Monthly which was read by one and all in the Territory. I bought a copy and decided to place in it a tiny classified ad which from memory ran something like this: "Young Accountant (still studying) seeks position in the Islands." The response was hardly overwhelming but the two letters I did receive were enough. One was from a Tom Hepworth of Pigeon Island Traders in the Outer Reef Islands in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate who described to me in glowing terms the leisurely life on a small atoll in one of the remotest part of the South Pacific. It all sounded terribly tempting but his closing remarks that "of course, we couldn't pay you much at all..." stopped that particular day-dream as I had to think of my future and what future was there after several years spent on a tiny island away from anywhere and with no money in my pocket? (As it happened, I made contact with the Hepworths again almost 35 years later (but thereby hangs another tale).

The other letter was from a Mr. Barry Weir, resident manager of the firm of chartered accountants Hancock, Woodward & Neill in Rabaul on the island of New Britain in the Territory of Papua & New Guinea who, subject to a satisfactory interview with their representative in Australia, offered me the position of audit clerk. That was it!!! I passed muster at the interview and in the dying days of the year 1969 I left Australia for New Guinea. I was on my way!!!

Rabaul was everything I had expected of the Territory: it was a small community settled around picturesque Simpson Harbour. The climate was tropical with blazing sunshine and regular tropical downpours, the vegetation strange and exotic, and the social life a complete change from anything I had ever experienced before! And to top it all, I loved the work which offered challenges only available in a small setting such as Rabaul where expatriate labour was at a premium. The firm was small: the resident manager, his wife as secretary, and two accountants (both still studying) plus myself. One of the accountants was a real character who was destined never to leave the Territory. For him the old aphorism came true that "if you spend more than five years in New Guinea you were done for, you'd never be able to get out, your energy would be gone, and you'd rot there like an aged palm." He and an accountant from another chartered firm and myself shared a company house (which was really an old Chinese tradestore) in Vulcan Street and a 'hausboi' who answered to the name of Getup. "Getup!!!" "Yes, masta!"

Each of us took a turn in doing the weekly shopping. I always dreaded when it was their turn as they merely bought a leg of lamb and spent the rest of the kitty to stock up on beer! We spent Saturday nights at the Palm Theatre sprawled in our banana chairs with an esky full of stubbies beside us. The others rarely spent a night at home; their nocturnal activities ranged from the Ambonese Club to the Ralum Club to the RSL. When they were well into their beers, mosquitoes would bite them and then fly straight into the wall! Then, next morning, they were like snails on Valium. How they managed to stay awake during office hours has always been a mystery to me!

Easter 1970 gave me the chance to visit my old mate Noel Butler when the Rabaul tennis club chartered a DC3 to fly to Wewak for some sort of tournament. I got a seat aboard and visited Noel who lived on his own little estate along the Hawain River some ten miles outside Wewak. It was a wonderful place! Tilly lamps at night and a shower gravity-fed from a rooftop holding tank which was refilled by the 'haus boi' with a handpump. A native village was just down the road and far into the night small bands of villagers would pass the house strumming their ukeleles. An alcoholic beachcomber by the name of McKenzie (who was said to be an excellent carpenter on the few occasions when he was off the grog) lived even farther out than Noel. He had no transport which however did not stop him from walking all the way into Wewak to quench his ever-present thirst at the Sepik Club. On his return late at night he would stagger in to Noel's for a few more noggins to propel him on his way. In later years some friendly people in town fixed him up with a donkey which used to carry him home safely. The Territory was full of characters like McKenzie.

During my time in Rabaul, advertisements began to appear in the local POST-COURIER for the Bougainville Copper Project. I applied to the project's construction managers Bechtel Corporation for the advertised position of Senior Contract Auditor and was invited to fly across for an interview in October 1970. In those early days, all incoming traffic stopped at the transit camp at Kobuan where one had to wait for transport to Panguna where Bechtel's "top brass" had their offices. The road to Panguna was still something of an adventure and it was some time before I could present myself to Sid Lhotka, Bechtel's Manager of Administrative Services. He hired me on the spot and I returned to Rabaul to give notice and get my things and within a few weeks I was back "up top" only to be told that I would be working at Loloho, senior auditor in charge of several large contracts such as the construction of the harbour facilities (built by Hornibrook), the Power House construction (built by World Services), the Arawa Township (built by Morobe-ANG), and the haulage services (provided by Brambles-Kennellys.) Des Hudson and a string of time-keepers, amongst them Neil Jackson ("Jacko"), Bob Green, and "Beau" Players joined the team later.

We all lived in Camp Six which was idyllically situated on Loloho Beach. Every day (and often even before going to work), we would go for a swim in the beautifully warm and clear waters of Loloho Bay. Except for one: Bill Avery, our telephone operator who was ex-Navy and claimed he had a pact with the sharks: they wouldn't come onto his land, and he wouldn't go into their water. I'll never forget the day when we had a prolonged power failure and no running water in camp, and the whole camp population washed and shaved in the surf! Ever since I've been keeping a cake of soap which lathers in seawater. The camp had a certain hierarchy with "oldtimers" occupying the front row of dongas facing the beach, also known as "Millionaires' Row." Twice a week was film night to which viewers brought their own plastic chairs and victuals and liquid supplies and watched whatever was being offered (the Natives were crazy about Cowboy movies), against a backdrop of stars twinkling through swaying palm fronds and with the surf as background music. Payday was the big night in Camp Six with gambling tables such as Snakes & Ladders doing a roaring trade. Flick shows (with little to be seen across the tops of a dozen boisterous guys, all drinking and smoking, crammed into a 6-by-10ft donga) were also highly sought-after.

The "boozer" (or Wet Canteen in the official language), set right on the beach of Loloho, was a great place for an evening out! Offshore, across the dark waters, several small islets marked the outer limits of the reef. We named them "Number One Island", "Number Two Island", and so on. On some night, after a sufficiently large intake of SP (also known as 'Swamp Piss'), heated debates would develop as to whether they were ships coming into port!

Sometime in 1971 I transferred to Panguna where I was put in charge of the General Accounts Department with Brian Herde doing the Accounts Payable and Gaskill keeping the General Ledger. Neil Jackson somehow found his way "up top" as well and became offsider to Brian Herde, imitating one of the Three Musketeers by attacking all passers-by with a long wooden ruler until the day the booze got the better of him and he didn't turn up for work at all. Sid Lhotka visited him in his donga at Camp 3 and rumour has it that "Jacko" told him to f%@# off! He was on the next plane out! Another auditor wasn't quite so outspoken to get off the island but did so even more quickly: Frank Joslin was given the monthly "perk" of hand-carrying a batch of punch cards to Bechtel's Melbourne office where he presented himself, never to be seen again thereafter. His neat little trick became known as "doing a Joslin" and was much talked about but never imitated. Some of the new recruits to the audit team were less than delighted with their posting to muddy and rain-soaked Panguna and started counting the days to the end of their twelve-month contract - literally! They ran up an adding-machine strip list from 365 days down to zero and pasted it to the office wall, ticking off one day at a time. Needless to say, not many survived that kind of mental torture. There were some others who never left Aropa airstrip: they had seen the mountain range shrouded in clouds from the aircraft and, refusing to leave the small airline building and spending a fretful night on a hard wooden bench, reboarded the same aircraft for its morning flight back to Port Moresby.

Others took to the wild camp life with gusto, spending what little time was left after a 10-hour working day, in the "boozer" and even investing in their own 'fridges outside their dongas. The nights were punctuated by the squeaking of 'fridge door hinges and the squishing sound of rings pulled off beer cans. A common "status symbol" amongst serious drinkers were door-frame curtains constructed from the hundreds of pull-top rings collected from empty beer cans. Les Feeney was put in charge of the audit group but more often than not was in charge of the carousing going on in the "boozer" and endlessly stuffing his pipe but never succeeding in lighting it. He and Peter the "Eskimo", a lumbering polar bear of a man hailing from Iceland, ran a constant "throat-to-throat" race as to who was the biggest drinker. "Bulldog", a likeable Pom, tried hard to catch up with them! On one occasion he also tried to learn how to play the electric organ. He never did but the speakers and amplifier which came with it, were put to good (and all-too-frequent) use when he played his favourite Neil Diamond record, "Hot August Night." The whole camp rocked when "Bulldog" plugged in that organ! I shall always associate "Hot August Night" with nights at Camp One!

During my time on the island I became a Justice of the Peace and also obtained my registration as a tax agent and assisted many in the camps with their tax returns. I even made successful representation to the New Zealand Inland Revenue to have the then 18-months "world income rule" set aside for the Kiwis working on Bougainville. Had I not obtained this particular ruling, they would have been liable to pay New Zealand income tax on their Bougainville earnings. I became something of a scribe for many in the camp who wanted to apply for a passport or needed documents authenticated or who - surprisingly - couldn't read or write and asked me to handle their correspondence - including some pretty red-hot love letters!!! I always toned down their replies which must have kept quite a few guys out of troubles!

After Bougainville came stints in the Solomons, back to PNG (setting up the Internal Audit Department for AIR NIUGINI in Port Moresby where I run into Brian Herde again who'd taken a job with Tutt Bryants), Rangoon in Burma, Samoa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, PNG once again (setting up the tug-and-barge operations for Ok Tedi; Bechtel was back in town to manage this project and with it came Sid Lhotka with whom I had dinner at the Papuan Hotel in Port Moresby to talk about "old times"), Saudi Arabia (where I met up with Des Hudson again), Greece - but none of those assignments came ever close to the comraderie and esprit de corps of the years on Bougainville!

Over the years I repeatedly ran into "ex-Bougainvilleans" and "ex-Territorians" in Australia and elsewhere. We would swap yarns which always ended in a great deal of nostalgia and a hankering for a way of life that would never come again. Like myself, many had found it difficult to settle back into an "ordinary" life and, like myself, had moved from place to place in an attempt to recapture some of the old life style.

If you know any persons mentioned or their present whereabouts, please contact Peter Goerman at riverbend@batemansbay.com. I have also set up a website at www.riverbendnelligen.com in memory of the thousands of expats and locals who built and worked at the Bougainville copper mine.