11 prisoners gunned down during mass escape in PNG
We must confront our internal ‘masta’ head on

My Story: The PNG connection, a benign type of PTSD

Chris Overland16 - CHRIS OVERLAND

On 15 March 2013, PNG Attitude began publishing autobiographical profiles of its leading contributors with ‘Arresting cannibals sure beat banking’ by Phil Fitzpatrick. The series eventually ended many months later with the publication of its fifteenth profile. Since then, the blog has benefited from the memoirs, views and knowledge of many new writers, who have joined the ‘old guard’ in keeping this forum topical and lively. Today we resume this occasional series with Chris Overland’s story….

I WAS born in a small Australian country town in 1951. My parents had been born and raised in the country and neither liked the city nor felt comfortable in it.

Dad had been in the RAAF during World War II, flying a full operational tour in Beaufort Bombers. He was based in Papua New Guinea, mainly at Vivigani on Goodenough Island.

He had several terrifying experiences, surviving three crash landings, but counted himself lucky because 20% of RAAF aircrew died in training or operations. The war changed him but did not break him.

Like many veterans, Dad found it difficult to settle down in post war Australia and, as he moved from job to job, Mum and I went with him. Eventually, he found work in his home town of Murray Bridge, South Australia, and I spent all my school years there.

Murray Bridge in the 1950's and 1960's was, like most of rural Australia, conservative and inward looking. But it was a comfortable and sheltered place to grow up. While it lacked most of the facilities and entertainment found in a large city, it also lacked the noise, pollution, bustle and crime.

I was a fairly bright student but indifferent to the charms of mathematics. My first and continuing love was - and remains - books, especially those dealing with history and adventure. By all accounts, I read constantly from an unusually early age, encouraged by my parents who provided a steady supply of books.

My schooling progressed well up to Year 11 but faltered in my Matriculation year. The joys of editing the school newspaper totally overshadowed study, with predictable results. I failed the year rather spectacularly, despite writing an epic poem for the mathematics examiners which, strangely, attracted no marks at all.

My ambition was to go to Duntroon Military College and I joined the Reserves as soon as I turned 17.  Despite meeting the essential requirements for admission to Duntroon, I missed out in the very competitive entrance process.

Instead, I was offered admission to the 18-month officer training course at Portsea. I rejected this, knowing it was the Duntroon graduates who invariably won promotion to the highest ranks, which was my objective.

Employment choices in rural Australia were severely limited so I knew my future lay beyond Murray Bridge. At a loss as to what to do, I went back to school.

Then fate took a hand. I spotted an advertisement for Assistant Patrol Officer positions and the idea of working in PNG immediately gripped me. My parents, especially Dad, were appalled but hid their dismay, comforting themselves that I would never get the job.

But I did.

I arrived in Port Moresby in mid-1969 and undertook two months initial training at Kwikila before being posted to Kerema in the Gulf District along with an even younger colleague.

We were the youngest of our intake, being barely 18 years old.  Our older colleagues confidently expected the pair of us to be on our way home to Australia fairly soon, unable to handle the remoteness and severe conditions thought to prevail in the Gulf.

Indeed, my colleague lasted just six weeks before fleeing south but I was made of sterner stuff and, over my first two years came to love the PNG people, the place and the job.

After two hard ‘training’ patrols in the mountains between Kerema and Kaintiba, I was posted to Kikori and then Baimuru. Patrolling along the serpentine rivers of the Gulf of Papua was fascinating and I revelled in the autonomy that came with the job, despite the sometimes unpleasant and risky aspects of it.

From the Gulf I was posted to the Southern Highlands, firstly to Koroba (all too briefly) and then to Kagua. Unhappily, I fell out with the Assistant District Commissioner at Kagua and decided to resign, but was offered a transfer instead. 

And so I was moved to the Northern District, based initially at Popondetta and then, to my great joy, Kokoda.

As PNG moved closer to independence, it became evident that a long term career as a patrol officer was out of the question. Consequently, in mid 1974, when I was offered the post of officer-in-charge at Ioma Patrol Post, I declined and opted to resign. I left PNG in August of that year.

Back in Australia I soon found that almost no-one was even faintly interested in my time in PNG, nor was much value attached to my experience there.

After several months of looking for a job, I was somewhat unexpectedly appointed as a Regional Clerk in the South Australian Education Department, based at Whyalla. 

Over the next few years I progressed through the ranks of the South Australian public service at a steady rate and finally acquired a university degree. Then in 1989 I was appointed to the executive ranks where I held a succession of increasingly senior positions, culminating in becoming chief executive of a large metropolitan hospital.

Due to a combination of frustration with the politics of the Department of Health and the impact of a life-threatening illness, I eventually retired – although earlier than I had planned.

PNG had been very much thrust into the background during my working life in Australia. Family, career and study consumed most of my time and energy.

After retirement, however, I had both the time and inclination to interest myself again in what was happening in PNG and this is how I came to stumble across PNG Attitude.

Like many, perhaps most, former kiaps, didimen, tisa, masta mak and missionaries, I never really got over PNG.  It exerts a fascination over me today that baffles and bemuses my family and friends.

I think they suspect that I may have a benign type of post-traumatic stress disorder. They may even be right.

I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to have seen Papua New Guinea at a critical moment in its history. I remember the country and its peoples with affection. It deserves to be, and should be, a moderately wealthy country with good basic public services and facilities. That this is not the case is a cause of sadness for me.

My hope is that PNG Attitude and other media like it, will become catalysts for long overdue change within PNG, to the benefit of its peoples.

I am somewhat comforted that there are signs that this might be beginning to happen, with intelligent, educated, literate and thoughtful Papua New Guineans beginning to express their ideas and opinions in increasing numbers.

In them lies the best hope for the country and I wish them well.

Comments

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Michael Dom

It is probably a weird and wonderful joy for expatriates living and working in PNG and I'm glad of your PTSD, Chris.

I think what you and your fellows have is the result of the grain being separated from the chaff.

You know what its like to really be alive and valuable in the world.

Much like in war time, you've thrived when everything was against you.

The dissapoinment stems from your unique understanding that things can and do work in PNG despite the odds.

Thank you for your story, it is a blessing.

Raymond Sigimet

Thank you for your story, Chris.

Joe Herman

Thank you for sharing a part of your life with the people of PNG, Chris.

Barbara Short

Thanks for your story Chris. I appreciate your comments from time to time on PNG Attitude as they show a good understanding of the PNG situation.

As you may know I "waste my time with all this rubbish" (as my husband calls it) on a dynamic Facebook site for Sepiks. Yes, there are signs that the educated, thoughtful people of PNG are willing to stand up to those who are tied down with petty jealousies or have got carried away with thoughts of affluence.

There is so much holding them back. But slowly the mindsets are changing. If only the people elected to run the country could undergo some mindset change and start to realize what Development is really all about.

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