TUMBY BAY - When I arrived to take over the remote and tiny Olsobip Patrol Post in 1970 the place was a mess. Patrolling had obviously taken precedence over maintenance.
The government store, on its dangerously rotted stumps, leaked like a sieve. The aid post was in a similar condition and the sacsac roof on the school was slowly being carried away by cockroaches.
The airstrip had several dangerous boggy patches, the grass around the office was a foot tall and the station clerk’s house had a decided tilt.
The station had about a dozen labourers on its meagre payroll and no recourse to prison labour, the locals were an unusually law abiding people and a kalabus had never been thought necessary.
Some fairly serious badgering of Daru for extra funds was called for but in the interim a re-ordering of priorities and a little creative accounting was required.
As far as I could work out the sole occupation of the labour force was swinging sarips in a vain attempt to keep the grass around the station under control. Freeing them up from their grass cutting duties was going to be crucial to the station maintenance program.
We had an old grey Massey Ferguson tractor with a mower on the back to cut the grass on the airstrip but it couldn’t get in among the houses and other buildings.
Besides that, it was flat out cutting the grass on the airstrip so the boggy patches would dry out.
I’d had a couple of very good teachers in the subtle art of creative accounting on previous stations on which I had served and I soon had a Briggs & Stratton lawnmower on order from BPs along with iron for the school roof.
A pit saw team was also making timber with two newly bought saws to rebuild the store, clerk’s house and aid post.
The lawnmower that arrived one morning on the weekly charter was one that started with a wind up handle and a release mechanism. An internal spring provided the oomph instead of a pull cord.
The labourers took to the mower with great enthusiasm. So did the interpreter and all of the police.
Soon the dulcet tones of the little two stroke motor could be heard echoing along the valley most mornings.
That spring starter mechanism bothered me though.
Sure enough, about a month later, one of the policemen wheeled the silent mower up to the office and announced that the ‘stat em i bruk pinis’.
An inspection confirmed his diagnosis. Winding up the handle and letting the release mechanism go only produced a muffled metallic whirr and a dead motor.
When I took it apart I found the high tensile spring snapped in half. My instruction ‘noken taitim hat tumas’ had been in vain. Mind you, breaking such a strong piece of metal was no mean feat.
I got onto BPs in Daru to see if I could get a spare spring or failing that a screw-on pulley we could use to pull start the mower. “Sorry, we don’t stock mowers anymore,” came the reply.
I tried BPs in Mosbi and then Steamies and a couple of other places with no luck. Clearly we would have to improvise.
We didn’t have electricity at Olsobip but we had a petrol-driven charger for the station’s two way radio battery. It was started with a pull cord attached to a pulley.
I don’t know where the government got the chargers but they were notoriously unreliable and starting them was often difficult.
One weekend, with nothing better to do, I took the charger apart and removed the pulley. With a bit of adjusting I was able to attach it to the lawnmower.
Soon the putter of the mower could again be heard in the valley.
On Monday morning a telegram went to district headquarters in Daru advising them that the charger had broken down and a replacement was required.
For a while I had to swap the pulley from charger to mower and back but finally a replacement charger arrived on the weekly charter.
When the mechanic in Daru received our old charger he must have scratched his head when he unscrewed the cover and discovered that it had a pull cord but no pulley.
Funnily enough I didn’t hear anything about it.
Neither did the policemen and teachers playing cricket on their freshly mown pitch behind the office.