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Today's quote:

Monday, March 12, 2018




Perhaps it is the result of having read Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Becke and Joseph Conrad at an impressionable age, but the South Pacific islands have always evoked a powerfully romantic image with me. Mention the South Seas and I conjure up a vision of waving coconut palms and a dusky maiden strumming her ukelele. Silhouetted against the setting sun, Trader Pete (that's me!) sits in a deck-chair in front of his hut sipping a long gin and tonic while a steamboat chugs into the lagoon, bringing mail from home.


Rabaul circa 1970


In truth, I came to the then Territory of Papua & New Guinea as an audit clerk with a firm of Chartered Accountants in Rabaul (and thereby hangs another tale). When the local newspaper, the POST-COURIER, began carrying ads for audit personnel on the Bougainville Copper Project, I applied and was invited to fly across for an interview in October 1970. In those early days, all incoming traffic stopped at the transit camp at Kobuan where one had to wait for transport to Panguna where Bechtel's "top brass" had their offices.


Kobuan Transit CampTransit Camp at Kobuan


The road to Panguna was still something of an adventure and it was some time before I could present myself to Sid Lhotka, Bechtel's Manager of Administrative Services. He hired me on the spot and I returned to Rabaul to give notice and get my things and within a few weeks I was back "up top" only to be told that I would be working at Loloho, senior auditor in charge of several large contracts such as the construction of the harbour facilities (built by Hornibrook), the Power House construction (built by World Services), the Arawa Township (built by Morobe-ANG), and the haulage services (provided by Brambles-Kennellys.) Des Hudson and a string of time-keepers, amongst them Neil Jackson ("Jacko"), Bob Green, and "Beau" Players, joined the team later.


Camp 6 at Loloho


We all lived in Camp Six which was idyllically situated on Loloho Beach. Every day (and often even before going to work), we would go for a swim in the beautifully warm and clear waters of Loloho Bay. Except for one, Bill Avery, our telephone operator who was ex-Navy. He claimed he had a pact with the sharks: they wouldn't come onto his land, and he wouldn't go into their water. I'll never forget the day when we had a prolonged power failure and no running water in camp, and the whole camp population washed and shaved in the surf! Ever since I've been keeping a cake of soap which lathers in seawater. The camp had a certain hierarchy with "oldtimers" occupying the front row of dongas facing the beach, also known as "Millionaires' Row." Twice a week was film night to which viewers brought their own plastic chairs and victuals and liquid supplies and watched whatever was being offered (the Natives were crazy about Cowboy movies), against a backdrop of stars twinkling through swaying palm fronds and with the surf as background music. Payday was the big night in Camp Six with gambling tables such as Snakes & Ladders doing a roaring trade. Flick shows (with little to be seen across the tops of a dozen boisterous guys, all drinking and smoking, crammed into a 6-by-10ft donga) were also highly sought-after.

The "boozer" (or Wet Canteen in the official language), set right on the beach of Loloho, was a great place for an evening out! Offshore, across the dark waters, several small islets marked the outer limits of the reef. We named them "Number One Island", "Number Two Island", and so on. On some night, after a sufficiently large intake of SP (also known as 'Swamp Piss'), heated debates would develop as to whether they were ships coming into port!

Sometime in 1971 I transferred to Panguna where I was put in charge of the General Accounts Department with Brian Herde doing the Accounts Payable and John Gaskill keeping the General Ledger. Neil Jackson somehow found his way "up top" as well and became offsider to Brian Herde, imitating one of the Three Musketeers by attacking all passers-by with a long wooden ruler until the day the booze got the better of him and he didn't turn up for work at all. Sid Lhotka visited him in his donga at Camp 3 and rumour has it that "Jacko" told him to f%@# off! He was on the next plane out!


Panguna shrouded in cloudsPanguna mine site shrouded in clouds


Another auditor wasn't quite so outspoken to get off the island but did so even more quickly: Frank Joslin was given the monthly "perk" of hand-carrying a batch of punch cards to Bechtel's Melbourne office where he presented himself, never to be seen again thereafter. His neat little trick became known as "doing a Joslin" and was much talked about but never imitated. Some of the new recruits to the audit team were less than delighted with their posting to muddy and rain-soaked Panguna and started counting the days to the end of their twelve-month contract - literally! They ran up an adding-machine strip list from 365 days down to zero and pasted it to the office wall, ticking off one day at a time. Needless to say, not many survived that kind of mental torture. There were some others who never left Aropa airstrip: they had seen the mountain range shrouded in clouds from the aircraft and, refusing to leave the small airline building and spending a fretful night on a hard wooden bench, reboarded the same aircraft for its morning flight back to Port Moresby.

Loloho beach party Others took to the wild camp life with gusto, spending what little time was left after a 10-hour working day, in the "boozer" and even investing in their own 'fridges outside their dongas. The nights were punctuated by the squeaking of 'fridge door hinges and the squishing sound of rings pulled off beer cans. A common "status symbol" amongst serious drinkers were door-frame curtains constructed from the hundreds of pull-top rings collected from empty beer cans. Les Feeney was put in charge of the audit group but more often than not was in charge of the carousing going on in the "boozer" and endlessly stuffing his pipe but never succeeding in lighting it. He and Peter the "Eskimo", a lumbering polar bear of a man hailing from Iceland, ran a constant "throat-to-throat" race as to who was the biggest drinker. "Bulldog", a likeable Pom, tried hard to catch up with them! On one occasion he also tried to learn how to play the electric organ. He never did but the speakers and amplifier which came with it, were put to good (and all-too-frequent) use when he played his favourite Neil Diamond record, "Hot August Night." The whole camp rocked when "Bulldog" plugged in that organ! I shall always associate "Hot August Night" with nights at Camp One!

During my time on the island I became a Justice of the Peace and also obtained my registration as a tax agent (Registration No. TTA322, dated 26th April 1971) and assisted many in the camps with their tax returns. I even made successful representation to the New Zealand Inland Revenue to have the then 18-months "world income rule" set aside for the Kiwis working on Bougainville. Had I not obtained this particular ruling, they would have been liable to pay New Zealand income tax on their Bougainville earnings. I became something of a scribe for many in the camp who wanted to apply for a passport or needed documents authenticated or who - surprisingly - couldn't read or write and asked me to handle their correspondence - including some pretty red-hot love letters!!! I always toned down their replies which must have kept quite a few guys out of troubles!

After Bougainville came stints in the Solomons, back to PNG (setting up the Internal Audit Department for AIR NIUGINI in Port Moresby where I run into Brian Herde again who'd taken a job with Tutt Bryants), Playing chess with Noel Butler on Lae beach Christmas 1974 Rangoon in Burma, Samoa, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran, PNG once again (setting up the tug-and-barge operations for Ok Tedi; Bechtel was back in town to manage this project and with it came Sid Lhotka with whom I had dinner at the Papuan Hotel in Port Moresby to talk about "old times"), Saudi Arabia (where I met up with Des Hudson again), Greece - but none of those assignments came ever close to the comraderie and esprit de corps of the years on Bougainville!

Over the years I repeatedly ran into "ex-Bougainvilleans" and "ex-Territorians" in Australia and elsewhere. We would swap yarns which always ended in a great deal of nostalgia and a hankering for a way of life that would never come again. Like myself, many had found it difficult to settle back into an "ordinary" life and, like myself, had moved from place to place in an attempt to recapture some of the old life style.