Australia & PNG: Pawns in ‘The Great Game’
A prosateur writes on best prosateurs

Blunting a few, grilli & gumi races

The Moresby Hotel,  1964
The Moresby Hotel, 1964

HENRY SIMS
| From the Archive

MARCH 1968 – Life for us in Papua New Guinea began in a multiplex Single Officers Quarters in Gavamani Road, Boroko.

We had just arrived from a cold Tasmania and on our first night my young wife, like me, spread-eagled herself naked on the bed under the ceiling fan, too hot to be modest.

Soon after a husky voice proclaimed through the louvered window, “Mi lukim iu, Misis”.

The consequent scream caused the voyeur to detach himself from the security wire and drop to the ground.

“Bloody woman’s scream; caused me to bloody miss,” complained a disgruntled neighbour, who, armed with a squash racket, had been stalking the miscreant.

So welcome to the tropics and, in some people’s opinion, paradise.

After relying for some time on a universal household ‘emergency’ kit provided by our employer, our belongings arrived and, replete with purchases from the local Chinese trade stores and Beeps and Carpenters, we set up home.

Whereupon metal parts began to rust, books, linen and leather started to mildew, and grilli – unseen and unrecognised at first – began to grow on our skins.

This latter infliction occurred despite many showers and multiple changes of clothes each day.

Squatters encamped in their tacky shacks in the gully just below us, and the antics of nocturnal raiding parties from diverse tribal groups, proved to be somewhat entertaining.

In time, with some work seniority, a better address at Pruth Street evolved, with its view over Koki and the Basilisk Passage.

While we missed the delicious harmony of groups walking home from the pubs up Gavamani Road, singing songs in exquisite tongues, it was pleasant not to have to wait every night for the second boot to drop from the foot of the inebriated kiap upstairs.

 Moresby hotel  1963
A lazy Sunday lunch at a pub in Moresby, 1963

We became conditioned to the monsoon, mosquitoes, geckos, tree frogs in the washhouse, fruit bats and SP Green.

We waited for the ‘ship to arrive from South’ so we could purchase quality meat and imported chocolate and toiletries, frequently in short supply in Moresby.

It was somewhat piquant to have fruit stolen from your trees and sold back to you by astute entrepreneurs just a day before you had intended to harvest it yourself.

Then along came our children, conceived in the heat of night, both girls and ten months apart. No television then.

And another move to family accommodation in Tanatana Street, followed by a full upgrade to a three-bedroom house in a compound off Waigani Drive at Six Mile.

These were the heady days of being a Territorian in a country with 850 tribal groups and a few thousand intrepid expatriates.

We expats all seemingly of a similar age and background; most of us on contract assisting a budding nation to statehood.

We worked hard and we played harder.

A typical week would be five eight-hour days in harness and lots of nights and weekends to miss our Australian homes and families.

The calendar looked something like this:

Monday night - Hash House Harriers running through the ‘shiggy pit’ and lots of coldies afterwards at the ‘bucket’.

Tuesday night - Training at the Papua New Guinea Volunteer Rifles ending at 2200 hours and then ‘blunting a few’ until all hours of ‘grenade pin’ pulling and ‘burials at sea’ over the barracks railings into rose bushes.

Wednesday night - Quiet time at home after a trip to the Library.

Thursday night - Maybe an Apex dinner meeting and the odd convivial refreshment amongst young men of good intent. On other Thursdays, a dinner at home for the boss, where a few pre-dinner beers were followed by a couple of good wines and cards (illegal) over an entire bottle of rum.

Friday night - After work drinks at the Aviat Club, Yacht Club, RSL or wherever. The children entertained by an open air movie while parents unwound from a week of toil with a counter meal and more greenies.

Saturday night - A trip to the Drive-In to park at exactly the same spot each time and with the same neighbours to share a picnic tea (with drinks of course).

Sunday night - The roving barbecue circuit, where the party trick was to do a jug of claret, solo.

Some of us built boats, flew light aircraft, walked into the jungle to explore World War II wrecks, did the Track, helped people with disabilities at the Cheshire Homes, danced at social does, gumi raced down the Laloki and swam at the beach on high tides.

Jacksons departure lounge  1964
Off on leave - the departure lounge at Jacksons Airport, 1964

We drove up to Sirinumu and the Rouna pub, visited coastal villages, holidayed in the Highlands, got bored with the sameness of the limited road circuit within the district and counted the days to the ‘going on leave party’.

Then, as our contracts expired, the ultimate go-pinis do.

We came, we saw, we left and now we just hope it was not for nothing.

Comments

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Philip Fitzpatrick

When living in the moment it is hard to be analytical. It’s only in retrospect that people start thinking about what they did and what they experienced.

For Australians in the pre-independence bubble that was Papua New Guinea in the 1950s, 60s and 70s the exotic lifestyle was fascinating and all enveloping, particularly for those in Port Moresby and some of the bigger towns.

For those in business there was money to be made and for those in government there was a level of power and privilege that could never have been enjoyed back in Australia.

And for both groups there were all the added privileges, such as a low tax, tariff free goods, cheap labour and the luxury of personal servants.

Added to that was the opportunity to misbehave. Living in what was largely a transitory community without familial constraints any baggage collected could be easily left behind upon the return to Australia.

In this version of Australians unconstrained one could drink to excess, engage in dubious sexual adventures, create outrageous lies about one’s past, indulge in excessive swagger and engage in riotous behaviour largely without fear or consequence.

Papua New Guineans interacting with Australian expatriates during this time must have come away with some strange impressions and some very mixed feelings.

Did they admire and lust after such lifestyles or did they find them crass and abhorrent? What lasting effect, for instance, did the experience have on mature men employed as house boys and described as thus?

Was the development of the selfish lifestyles of Papua New Guinea’s elites in any way influenced by what they saw of the way the Australians behaved?

It is tempting to attribute, at least in part, ALP opposition leader Gough Whitlam’s ill-considered descriptions of Australians in Papua New Guinea during his 1969/70 tour as second rate to what he might have observed of this sort of behaviour.

Whitlam aside, it could be argued that life at the coal face on the outstations was more objective and that as a consequence any hedonism was constrained. That is a matter of conjecture but it is part of a distinction that many people like to draw.

Town or bush, as memory erodes away the rough edges of those hedonistic years the period still resonates with many people as the best years of their lives.

For those not prone to retrospection that’s probably as far as the matter goes. However, for many others wondering what it all meant has become a significant preoccupation.

Not least among those preoccupations is the uncomfortable feeling of being part of something that was not as simple or, indeed, as honourable as one was led to believe.

Reading about the machinations of the Australian government during that period, particularly as it is revealed in declassified documents and telling accounts by people like Bill Brown tends to make one feel uneasy about what they might have unwittingly been involved in while they were in Papua New Guinea.

If this is added to the scenes of hedonism among many expatriate groups it makes for a very complicated can of worms.

It also puts a new twist on otherwise innocent activities like getting pissed at the Aviat Club on a Friday night.

Chris Overland

Thanks Chips. Even at Baimuru we at least had fishing and water skiing.

In the case of the latter sport it was imperative to pick up a fallen skier quickly, before the crocodiles got too interested.

No white beaches I'm afraid, just black sand or mud, plus the accompanying bities.

Chips Mackellar

Chris - You forgot to mention the fishing, the snorkeling, the sailing, the moonlight in the palm trees and the blue lagoons and the beautiful island girls, and an outstation lifestyle so exotic that it never could have been matched in Port Moresby.

Chris Overland

I enjoyed this recollection of the 'glory days' in Port Moresby.

Of course, life in Moresby was quite different from that on an outstation.

The social whirl was rather restricted when the entire European population could be counted on one or two hands.

Station life revolved around the routine demands of your job and those that arose simply because you were the go to person for virtually anything untoward or unexpected that happened.

There was still a bit of boozing and card playing and the odd dinner or BBQ but, most of the time, it was a quiet life devoted largely to work or doing the necessary chores at home.

On patrol the entire day was consumed by the work required to keep up with the planned schedule and managing the inevitable complications served up when you were travelling.

These included injuries to carriers or other patrol members, enforced diversions when the chosen route became impassable for whatever reason and, if water borne, the trials and tribulations imposed by the vagaries of the weather or uncooperative mechanical devices (notably outboard engines).

In the wilds of PNG the country truly was the 'land of the unexpected' and so flexibility, pragmatism and a distinct lack of a tendency to panic were essential requirements.

Once properly acclimatised to the peculiarities and pleasures of outstation life, few outstation dwellers really had much desire to see the bright lights of Moresby.

It was a place best viewed from the window of a 727 as you headed south.

That said, it is very clear that many people loved their time in Moresby which was, as Henry Sims explains, full of opportunities for socialising, playing sports of various kinds and more than a little hedonistic feasting and carousing.

Whether living in Moresby or on an outstation, we were mostly young and comparatively carefree. There were strange and wonderful things to see and experience, together with adventures to be had.

Sure there were a few sweaty nights to endure and grilli or other exotic skin diseases could be unpleasant but these were a small price to pay for a unique experience.

It was a privileged life in many respects and one which we should be grateful to have experienced.

Richard Jones

Absolutely delightful, thanks Henry. That's how it was in Moresby in the old days: in our cases - the sixties and into the seventies.

None of the glossy, rose-coated remembrances of many of KJ's contributors.

Just matter-of-fact memories. Of course we remember the prowlers, the thieves and scammers, even those who fed the household dogs so they could sneak closer towards our dwellings while we were at work.

Coming from a family where Mum was a pharmacist, I was always regular with my intake of anti-malarial tablets.

Some of them were as big as a 50 cent coin but breaking them into shards did the job.

But unlike several of my colleagues who were tardy in swallowing their recommended doses I have never suffered upon return to Oz from the fevers, the sweats or the ice-cold feelings of that lot.

And yes, we recall very well those after work evenings in the Moresby pubs and clubs.

In my single days I was never a rum drinker though. After the obligatory SP or two at the Boroko RSL or the Boroko Sports Club on Friday nights we'd get stuck into Bacardi and coke. That's the soft drink not the hallucinogenic drug.

And yes, we remember the very 'limited road circuit' around Moresby. The Moresby-Rouna-Sogeri-rubber plantations road was pretty good, though. The old girl who ran the Rouna boozer was a real character.

She got a bit angry, though, when I parked an old, near-its-end Austin out the back of the pub and took longer than anticipated to get a mechanic up from Moresby to get it roadworthy again.

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