ON A bright sunlit morning in 1969, I was walking down from my house on the hill to the station office and airstrip below.
A couple of children from the village further up the hill were happily gambolling along with my dog a few steps ahead.
I stopped abruptly.
The little poppet in the tiny grass skirt put her hands on her hips and stared up at me. “Wanem samting?” she demanded.
I looked down at her and smiled. “Maski, mi tingting tasol, yumi go.”
I’d been idly thinking about an upcoming patrol. There was nothing unusual about that: I toyed around in my head with routes and logistics before most patrols. What pulled me up was the realisation that I had been doing it in Tok Pisin.
It was a one man patrol post and apart from the odd pilot and the occasional visit from the Summer Institute of Linguistics people up the valley I hadn’t spoken directly to another European for several months.
We were fairly isolated. There were no roads; the surrounding mountains were too steep. The only vehicle on the station was an ancient 135 Massey Ferguson tractor that we used to cut the grass on the airstrip.
We had no electricity and our only contact with the outside world was via a cantankerous AWA transceiver.
I mostly spoke to the station clerk in Tok Pisin; we only mixed it with English when things got technical. I conversed with the police, the two school teachers and the aid post orderly in a mixture of Tok Pisin and fractured Hiri Motu.
At the weekends we played soccer on the airstrip. In the evenings I read books and listened to a scratchy shortwave radio. Occasionally the teachers and police came to the house for a barbeque and a few drinks. It was all pretty friendly and laid back.
In modern parlance, I was well and truly embedded in the station and local community. This didn’t particularly bother me. I was quite happy. The prospect of visitors from outside never enthused me. In many cases they were an unwanted burden and the quicker I got rid of them the better.
There was nothing unusual about this situation. Many young patrol officers spent a term or two on remote outposts by themselves. It was part of the learning process, a kind of acculturation. A few individuals couldn’t hack such insularity and bailed out, but by and large it was a common experience.
And in most cases it had a profound effect; it certainly did for me.
It shifted my view of the world and demonstrated there were alternatives to the rushing and brash cacophony that passed as society in Australia and the rest of the developed world.
It also taught me self-reliance and, in certain ways, a disdain for the myriad support mechanisms that surrounded people and were taken for granted in more ‘advanced’ societies.
In short, it taught us to march to the beat of a different drummer.
It was also the profound adjustment to another way of living that caused so many of us problems as we tried to settle back into Australian life when we eventually left Papua New Guinea.
When you hear the old kiaps and other expatriates who worked in the bush lamenting the fact that no one wants to listen to us, it is this intangible knowledge they are talking about. It is knowledge that can’t be taught and has to be experienced to be appreciated.
It is also the crucial factor that has been missing from all those advisors and consultants who have worked in Papua New Guinea in the years since independence.
And, dare I say it, it is the thing that’s missing from many of Papua New Guinea’s elite who grew up in the cities and towns.