Papua New Guinea 1970-1972
January to October 1970, Hancock, Woodward & Neill, Rabaul
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.
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.
[Noel returned to Australia in the late 70s but 'homesickness' for his spiritual home New Guinea meant that he never settled successfully anywhere else. He moved from Bundaberg to Caboolture (1980) to Innisfail to Mt Perry (1985) to Childers (1990) where he passed away in 1995. During all those years we remained good friends and exchanged a constant stream of letters and visited each other on several occasions. His passing-away not only broke my last link with New Guinea but also meant the loss of a very dear friend who belonged to that generation of Australians who took pride in their self-reliance and fortitude in the face of hardship. Whenever our talks turned to a problem one of us had experienced in the course of our quarter-of-a-century-long friendship, he simply remarked, "A philosopher I ain't" and got on with the nearest job to hand. Rest in Peace, Noel.]