GAGL, 1966 – I’d been teaching in the New Guinea highlands for two years at the one-teacher, 12-student Australian curriculum primary school in Kundiawa when Konedobu (Pidgin English for ‘place where big men give orders’) decided I was old enough.
With me having reached the significant age of 20, Konedobu determined I had accumulated enough chronology to be dispatched as head teacher to a more remote primary school – a fully-fledged institution with real classrooms and 150 students.
The Kundiawa A School had been located in the bar of the Chimbu Club, where the day’s first drinker – mechanic Cec Schultz - would sneak through the rear door at 10.30 each morning and fumble around before the gentle hiss of gas into a keg could be discerned followed by the soft squirt of 10 fluid ounces entering a glass.
Lessons for the year had only just begun when, in February 1964, soon after arriving in the township, I was assigned to trek through lands south of Chuave on a two week patrol led by District Officer Laurie Doolan as part of the conduct of PNG’s first national parliamentary election.
It was a perfect introduction to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. A day walking up and down ridges and crossing precarious bridges; a day taking votes; repeat for two exotic weeks.
Under the bivouac each night, the pressure lamps creating a warm glow as the mist settled around the mountains, I watched the older men drink overproof rum and water and listened intently to their stories of the world war, their first contacts with unknown tribes, “bloody Canberra” and bastards they had known.
If that election patrol had been an education, and it was, then life in Kundiawa was also a learning experience. I learned the practice of teaching simultaneously across seven grades, how much I could drink before toppling over, how inconvenient it was to be lost in a cave, what a fine and stoic people the Chimbu were and how to survive journalism with no knowledge of defamation law.
Within a few months of arriving in Kundiawa, I had begun publishing a newsletter – the Kundiawa News - first as a joke, then as a passion. I didn’t know it at the time but it was an initiative that would contribute more than a little to my subsequent career.
And here at Gagl, in early 1966, I found myself in charge of a proper school: three pitpit and kunai huts with dirt floors, two conjoint classrooms with concrete floors, iron roof, no walls and a water tank, and four teachers’ houses for the three coastal New Guinean teachers and me, just turned 21 and inordinately proud of my patch.
The nearest expatriate settlement was Mingende mission station five kilometres along a rough road and which, to my exasperation, seemed to be the only Catholic mission in the Territory where the occupants didn’t drink. Not with outsiders, anyway.
Fortunately, about eight kilometres in the other direction at Kerowagi was an Australian patrol post replete with airstrip, a clutch of trade stores and plenty of hardened drinkers in the Territory tradition: stubby in hand; chip on shoulder.
Every two or three weeks I’d walk the pleasant track from my school to Kerowagi for a weekend unshackled from education. And, in between, on the steep slopes of the Bismarck Range where the yar trees grew among the clouds and the village people made sure I was safe, I had my school, my books, my shortwave radio and my typewriter.
One night, marking school work and distractedly listening to a clumsily produced radio play crackling through the static from the ABC in Port Moresby, it occurred to me that I too could write in a style no less turgid and vapid.
So next morning, the Standard 6 schoolboy selected as that day’s runner carried with him to the airstrip my official education correspondence, the monthly grocery order for Burns Philp in Goroka and a brief letter to the ABC offering my services as a radio scriptwriter, a skill foreign to me although I had written revue sketches and felt I had the general drift.
Some weeks later, to my surprise, I received a commission to write a maiden script on copra growing in New Guinea – a subject about which I still know nothing.
With the assistance of a Tolai teacher colleague, I ploughed through the technical bits as briefly as I could and dressed those bare bones of substance within a cloak of adventure. After a month or so, a letter arrived bearing the ABC logo and advising me that the script had been accepted.
It revealed I would be paid a fee of $30 ($400 in today’s money) and a further amount of $15 each time it was repeated for a maximum of two repeats at which point the ABC would own my work.
Furthermore, the ABC commissioned another script – this one on fishing, about which I also knew little.
My eyes glistened with avarice at such largesse, and I knew instantly that broadcasting was the career for me. I just didn’t know how to get from Gagl to Broadcast House at Boroko, let alone Sydney.
Footnote: The only complete set of the 50 original issues of Kundiawa News reposes securely in the National Library of Australia. I have copies of them all. 'Broadcasting in Tongues' will be an occasional series