Thank you, little red tent!
Is it just us - or is the whole world stupid?

Forget your McMansions – my AR10 was heaven on earth


IT wasn’t until I reached the exalted rank of officer-in-charge of a patrol post that I had a permanent materials house all to myself.

Until then I had either lived in shared accommodation or in various bush material abodes whose architecture ranged from pigsty rudimentary to spectacular, depending upon the extent to which the designers had advanced along the road to becoming troppo.

I remember one such edifice that would have put the Sydney Opera House to shame.

I think that first house was an AR10, which I presume meant it was an Administration residence of 10 squares, small but cosy.

In any event it had two bedrooms, a kitchen and a combined dining and living room. It also had a verandah with a rail just right for resting one’s feet on while sipping a cold SP.

It was also wholly self-contained. Something I think about whenever I receive another outrageous electricity bill or water and sewage rate notice for our present abode.

My patrol post house had two large rainwater tanks at one end and a smaller header tank on the roof. There was a hand operated pump on the back wall for topping up the header. It was an excellent means of aerobic exercise and Kure, my cook, and I shared its benefits.

The water in the header either gravitated through a system of pipes to the cold water taps in the kitchen, toilet and bathroom or through another system of pipes which took water via the back of the Metters wood stove to an insulated storage tank housed in a cupboard in the corridor between the two bedrooms and the bathroom.

This tank and the taps operated on pressure generated by the hot water it stored. On particularly cold nights or when Kure had the wood fire roaring for hours baking stuff the tank rumbled, gurgled and steamed alarmingly and, despite having a safety valve, threatened to blow up and take us all into orbit. Thankfully that never happened.

The waste water and sewage from the house was channelled to a concrete septic tank buried under the lawn out the back. Where the overflow spilled out was an excellent place to grow beans and peas.

I don’t recall ever having to pump out the septic tank, not like I had to on the farm in South Australia many years later. I guess the climate broke down the solid matter very quickly.

I had a kerosene refrigerator which occasionally blackened the wall behind its chimney but was otherwise most efficient. It worked really well on salvaged and contaminated AvGas if I ever ran out of kero but you had to keep an eye on it in case it got too hot.

Lighting was provided by a flash stainless steel Petromax pressure lamp. This was streets ahead of the government-issue Colemans and also had the advantage of not requiring metho to pre-heat it.

Later I acquired an ancient Petters diesel generator but it was so noisy, no matter how deep I buried it or padded its walls, that I often left it off and resorted to the friendlier Petromax, which just hissed soothingly.

My short wave radio operated on batteries and I rigged up a system using a car battery to run my Akai portable tape deck. With a goodly supply of books all my entertainment needs were met – something that our modern and mostly inanity-sprouting television can’t do.

In short, I had a very comfortable house that was entirely independent of the outside world and apart from the nominal rent taken out of my pay, cost me nothing to run.

It makes you think. We have gained so much over the years but we have also lost so much, simplicity and contentment being among the most notable.


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Phil Fitzpatrick

I well remember the 44 gallon drum hot water systems from some of my less salubrious dwellings. Another ingenious invention that relied on pressure and hot water sitting at the top. Commonly called a donkey (?).

Quite a few of those little tin ovens that the chalkies lived in had donkeys out the back.

You can still see them in exploration camps and in outback shearers quarters.

Also remember the self-combusting Brazilian fridges. I think one took out the Sub-District Headquarters at Nomad.

Alan McLay

Thanks for recounting what many of us did and faced. I think many of us enjoyed hot water from a 44 gallon drum out the back of the house, insulated with cement and fired by wood.

In about 1972 the old Kelvinator fridge was replaced by a Brazilian kerosene fridge that Government Stores had decided to purchase on the cheap, and several of my mates' houses burnt to the ground - probably it was lucky that no one lost their life (that I know of at least).

I remember I got hold of a gas fridge which was great - and I felt more comfortable leaving the house unattended.

Dave Ekins

An AR10? I used to dream about an AR10. I lived in grass hut with no grass, got up at 4.00am, licked airstrip clean with tongue, worked 26 hours a day balancing cash in cash office and when I got home, ADC would throw me in pit latrine and dance on lid.

And you try telling that to the young kiap of today-he wouldn't believe you.

(With apologies to Monty Python)

Richard Jones

Your description of the AR10 fits the house we lived in at Amazon Bay (in the far east of the Central Province) almost to a tee.

I say "we" because my future wife came down and spent four months there, working out very nicely on the hand-operated pump out the back to top up the header tank.

There was no insulated storage tank in a corridor so we had cold showers.

Incidentally, a few years earlier I'd had my first experience with a kerosene refrigerator on the Aroma coast. As an urban Victorian I had never clapped eyes on one of these oddities, but after a bloke named 'Hunk' Thompson schooled me in the ways of start-up, running efficiency including wick trimming and regularly filling up the emptying tank everything was hunky-dory.

Back to Amazon Bay. The 44-gallon drum of kero for the fridge and located down the side had to be padlocked. It had developed the habit of 'running dry' when left unlocked and considering visits from BP's or Steamies coastal vessels weren't all that regular, the supply of kero had to be monitored.

There was a need for a rather big dig-out of the septic system late in the year. The vocational school lads handled this extremely efficiently!

The presence of an unwed lady living in a donga with someone not her husband (that's been rectified and we celebrated 44 years of marital bliss in January) caused some angst among the LMS folk on the other side of the airstrip.

The last part of the year unwound with a much more acceptable living arrangement when Judyth caught a Stol Air flight and headed to Moresby, thence Melbourne.

Incidentally in relation to an earlier post from your goodself, Phil. Weren't expats who headed to PNG labelled as one, or a combination of two maybe: mercenaries, missionaries or misfits?

Chris Overland

Phil, what memories you have conjured up.

I too have lived in an A10, boasting all of the modern features to which you refer.

Also, your article caused me to reflect on some of the now lost skills associated with out-station life.

What about the near mystical knowledge required to successfully trim your kerosene fridge's wick to achieve the wonderously efficient blue flame, as distinct from a yellow smoker?

Or the fernickety business of successfully attaching a new mantle to your Coleman?

For those of us that survived the Gulf District, there were the dark arts of outboard engine operation and maintenance.

There was nothing worse than the 40hp Johnson expiring half way up the Purari River or, worse still, sputtering to a halt immediately before the Turama River bore was due.

I also claim an almost unique skill, being the ability to get an A10 portable radio to actually work most of the time.

Not many people can say that.

Ed Brumby

Your account of life in an AR10 brought a wry grin to my face as I recalled my own experience of Admin housing in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

My favourite, but by no means the best, was the head teacher’s house I occupied at the Passam Primary School.

Sited at the edge of a bluff which overlooked the school and the Wewak-Pagwi Highway (which was little more than a single lane of crushed koranas in those days), it was, unusually, a two-storeyed affair.

Set on a concrete slab and with an unlined corrugated iron roof, it had been constructed by a bunch of Vocational School boys using timber scavenged from a Wewak sawmill – which explained both the curious mix of timbers used in the frame, stairs and upstairs flooring, and the less-than-perfect detailing throughout the house.

The walls, inside and out, were made from panels of woven cane and the abundant ‘windows’ were simply spaces covered by flywire netting, with pushout woven cane shutters to keep out the rain.

Upstairs was a small bedroom and a narrow verandah-like space with a wall of the aforementioned ‘windows’ which I used as my study.

Downstairs was a small kitchen, a dining area and a washroom which had a ceramic washbasin and a bucket with a shower head which could be lifted and lowered via a pulley system.

A Kelvinator kerosene fridge, being too large for the kitchen, sat next to the front door.

The only tap was in the kitchen, fed from a header tank on the roof and fed by the ubiquitous water tank at the side of the house.

To have a warm shower (somewhat necessary in the cool evenings in the Torricelli Ranges) required heating a large tub of water on the woodstove and decanting it into the shower bucket.

The toilet was a deep hole some 50 metres from the house, topped by a typical dunny-type outhouse.

It was doorless, thus allowing the occupant to gaze out in contemplation across the rainforest while doing their business.

Like many, I started out using a Coleman pressure lamp for light, then switched to a Tilley.

When spare parts for Tilleys became difficult to obtain, I changed to a couple of Chinese-made Butterfly lamps which were easier to use and repair and which were supported, parts-wise, by the Chinese trade stores in Wewak.

The only significant nuisances in living in this curiosity of an abode were the bush rats which insisted on chewing through and living between the cane walls, and the occasional python which slithered in at nights to sleep under the warm wood stove.

Apart from seemingly thriving on and not perishing from the liberal doses of Ratsak I spread about the house, the rats were, I discovered, rather partial to bookbinder glue.

Early one year, I took delivery of a parcel of hardback textbooks, both English and American and required reading for my University of Queensland distance learning studies.

Forgetting to store them in a cupboard, I awoke next morning to find the spines of the American texts completely eaten away.

The English texts remained untouched ……

Robin Lillicrapp

What you describe might, ideally, be the lot of most PNGeans today if not for the waste, mismanagement and corruption of processes over the last decades.

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