ANDREW LESLIE PHILLIPS
From Assignment Papua New Guinea: 1968-75
Link to more writing in Andrew’s Note Books
NEW YORK - Advertising was not my first career choice. I’d wanted to be a traveller and a journalist. But I couldn’t get a job in journalism because I didn’t have a university degree.
Advertising was my next choice - it was creative and better paid than journalism but I never got to the “better paid” part.
I spent five years in the ad business learning copywriting and media, printing and design and finally I was an account executive selling the American dream that had become Australia’s.
I felt a dark cloud descending. And as it thickened around me I struggled to find a way to escape.
I thought about inland Australia. Mining companies paid well and life was rough in the desert.
I considered joining the army, something to initiate and toughen and help me escape the malaise I felt.
But the war in Vietnam was in the headlines every day and Australians were dying in a distant land, that made no sense and I quickly dropped the idea.
And then, one day an old school friend suggested Papua New Guinea.
We were having lunch at a pub in one of Melbourne’s leafy neighbourhoods when he told me about patrol officers, young men employed by the Australian government taming the wilds of Papua New Guinea.
Suddenly the cloud lifted. I realised perhaps this was the answer - a way out - overseas travel and adventure all paid for by the Australian government.
I loved the bush. I relished the idea of working outside, traveling far away from, ‘Tip Top Bread/ As the baker said/ It is especially fine/ Hurry to the shop/ There you’ll make a stop/ When you see the Tip Top sign’.
The banal and insidious nature of advertising was getting to me.
Immediately I began reading as much as I could about PNG and applied to become a cadet patrol officer with the Australian Department of External Affairs, the department that oversaw PNG under a United Nations mandate.
It would take six months before the invitation for an interview finally arrived.
Rudyard Kipling and Joseph Conrad had nothing on James Sinclair and Jack Hides, Ivan Champion and others who documented their real adventures in PNG; who’d disappeared behind the ranges and into the swamps and vast inland valleys deep in unexplored territories on the second largest island on Earth.
The accounts vibrated with authenticity and raw excitement and tantalised and fascinated me. The authors were ordinary Australians in an extraordinary country and I prayed that one day I would get a taste of what they wrote.
Their books described journeys into territory never seen by white men, cannibals and crocodiles, exploratory patrols that lasted months and yielded reports of sorcery and magic, unique characters and taim bilong tumbuna [ancestral times] filled with totems and animist spirits, the time in the past which still lives in the present in Papua New Guinea today.
It has been called The Land That Time Forgot, The Mysterious Island, The Most Primitive Place on Earth.
But these were European appellations and had no significance to a people who had evolved complex kinship systems and survival techniques of great diversity and complexity unmatched in modern western society today.
I felt ready for this new life and my desire was strong. My will to make the cut filled my every day.
But I was 23 years old, at the older end of the spectrum for applicants, and feared my dream might not materialise.
Then the invitation for an interview arrived. Four hundred young men had applied for 40 new positions as cadet patrol officers in what appeared to be the last induction, as the colonial period slowly wound down in PNG.
My interviewer was a big, bluff former senior patrol officer who spoke softly belying the image I had of hard-bitten veterans of New Guinea.
He told of his love of the island and the people and a life very different to mine and I hung on his every word.
Some months later I learned I was accepted and would soon leave my home in Melbourne and drive the 600 miles to Sydney to attend ASOPA – the Australian School of Pacific Administration - a tertiary institution established by the Australian Government to train administrators, patrol officers and school teachers to work in Papua New Guinea.
In November 1968, 40 excited cadet patrol officers fastened their seat belts and roared down the runway, lifted into the air, and looked down on Sydney’s harbour; the ferries ploughing white furrows in the blue sea, the white lines of breaking surf skirting the serpentine coastline, the endless blue Pacific ocean, flat and limitless and then the Arafura Sea that separated Australia from its nearest northern neighbour.
Ahead lay a new life. A feeling of elation filled me as we droned towards the place I’d read so much about and soon would touch and taste in person.
I felt reborn. It was only the second time I’d flown and the exhilaration I felt was palpable.
Suddenly my previous life seemed old and distant, as if a great lid was closing on the trunk of my childhood and a new portal opening to real adulthood. I don’t think I’d ever felt such relief and happiness.
And then the intercom crackled and a voice told us that Papua was in sight and I looked out a porthole and saw the formidable coastline slowly materialising on the horizon.
The sea changed colour from deepest blue to green as we approached. White horses whipped by the wind raced across its surface as we descended.
Now I could see Port Moresby’s scattered bungalows and rusted tin roofs, stilt houses on the edge of the harbour, a yellow dry and desolate landscape caught in a rain shadow created by the Owen Stanley ranges.
It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The mountains in the distance were steeply-rising monoliths – great green giants looming, rising endlessly into the clouds and the dark interior.
The Kokoda Trail, the track renowned for viscous World War II battles between Japanese and Australian forces in 1942, wound its way through some of the most impenetrable country in the world, down to Port Moresby.
The Kokoda Trail was legendary in Australia, its history written in blood and courage, the final holdout where my countrymen fought back against the Japanese invasion of Australia.
Relatives of mine had fought and died in the war in PNG and I was filled with awe and humility as I looked down as we descended and felt grateful for the opportunity of adventures I’d only dreamed about.