TUMBY BAY - When I left Papua New Guinea at the expiration of my contract as a kiap in 1973, I did so with a quiet sense of achievement, both personal and professional.
At a personal level my experiences had been unique and life changing.
When I climbed the steps of the aeroplane to take me home to Australia I was a completely different person to the one who had arrived six years earlier.
Even though my professional achievements were small and largely insignificant in the grander scheme of bringing a new nation to self-government, I felt a great deal of pride in what I had done.
Back in Australia I got a job working in Aboriginal heritage. That too was a unique experience, allowing me to spend time with the last of the tribal nomads of Central Australia.
Unfortunately, as the years went by my work with Aboriginal people devolved into a series of frustrating administrative and political battles which I and my fellow workers invariably lost.
After 20 long years I finally decided I’d had enough of banging my head against a brick wall and left.
I set myself up as a private consultant doing what is generally referred to as social mapping.
That eventually took me back to Papua New Guinea but also to places in the South Pacific and parts of Australia I had not previously visited.
Although social mapping is usually funded by private enterprise there is still an opportunity to act as an advocate for the people among whom the mapping is carried out.
Seeking compromise agreements between resource developers and local landholders, for instance, can be satisfying work.
However, because developers, aided and abetted by governments, tend to ignore social mapping studies, as do local landowners eager to get their cut of the action by any means possible, the whole process can become decidedly messy.
I was recently reminded of these challenges when I was approached to write a history of the agency involved in administering the laws related to Aboriginal heritage in South Australia.
It seemed like an interesting project, and I had my own personal experiences to relate to, so I began some initial research.
That was not a good move because I found myself revisiting all the unpleasant political and other battles in which the agency had been involved.
I also discovered that what had begun as an advocacy agency had evolved into a rubber stamp for government staffed by sycophants and yes-men (and women) whose allegiances were firmly in the court of developers.
I politely declined the project and went back to writing novels.
Along the way and out of curiosity I stopped to review my working life and realised that apart from those first few years in Papua New Guinea it was mostly a history of effort and failure.
That is not to say that I didn’t enjoy large parts of it. It was by any stretch a most unusual experience and quite out of the ordinary.
Most of all in all those 50-odd years of work I had pretty much done my own thing.
And I had never once had to deal with such deplorable prospects as time clocks, repetitive work, dress codes and a host of other debilitating requirements.
Having to be at a certain place at a certain time for a certain period each day is for me the stuff of nightmares.
It is on a par with having to wear ridiculous suits and ties and having regular haircuts.
What is interesting now is to measure that part of my life against all the other things that have happened in the wider world over the same period, including what might be termed my own peer group cohort.
The most singular emotion that such contemplation evokes is a sense of luck. Luck to have been born at the right time in the right place.
I also can’t help thinking that lucky break was admirably kicked along by my early experiences in Papua New Guinea.
It was there that I learnt a very fundamental fact – there is more to life than most people will have you believe.