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Today's quote:

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

It was a dark and stormy night ...


This most widely known incipit in English literature is perhaps the best way to describe that particular Canberra winter's night on this day in August 1995 when the phone rang and a woman's voice asked, "Are you Peter Goerman?"

"Yes", I replied.

"I'm Noel Butler's sister", the woman's voice continued, "I'm sorry to tell you that Noel passed away last night".

I was too stunned to ask about the when and where and how or the caller's phone number. I mumbled a shocked "Thank you for calling" and hung up.

And that was the end of a friendship which had endured for twenty-eight years during which we kept up a regular correspondence and met perhaps a couple of dozen times. While I travelled the world, Noel spent all those years in Wewak in the Sepik District, before Papua New Guinea's Independence in 1975 and old age forced him to return to his homestate Queensland.

I first met Noel aboard the Greek ship 'PATRIS' which had been scheduled to leave Sydney and call at Port Moresby on its way through the Suez Canal. But history and the Eqypt-Israeli war of 1967 intervened and the Suez Canal was closed to all shipping. So the 'PATRIS' never got to Port Moresby but sailed through the Great Australian Bight and around the Cape of Good Hope (Cape Town) instead. However, a good number of 'Territorians' from the then Territory of Papua & New Guinea had already booked a passage and the shipping line at great expense flew them down to Sydney to join the ship. And so it came that I spent some four weeks aboard the 'PATRIS' in the company of a whole bunch of hard-drinking and boisterous 'Territorians'. Having barely scraped together the fare, I had no money to spend on drinks but I did mix with the 'Territorians' night after night in the ship's Midnight Club to listen to Graham Bell and his Allstars. I was spellbound by the stories those 'larger-than-life' 'Territorians' told about the Territory and my mind was made up that I would go there one day.

One of the 'Territorians' was Noel who then lived in Wewak in the Sepik District. If New Guinea seemed remote and exotic, then the mystical Sepik District was even more remote and more exotic! It sounded all very Conrad-esque and straight out of "Heart of Darkness"! Noel had been sent up to the Territory as a soldier during the war and had never left it! After leaving the army, he tried his hand at coffee and tea in the Highlands and had held numerous positions of one kind or another ever since. He epitomised the typical 'Territorian' with his Devil-may-care attitude and his unconcern about the future, about money, and about a career. Somehow, for those people, the Territory provided everything they wanted from life and the rest of the world was a place that they visited once every other year during their three-month leave.

Our love of chess made Noel and me shipboard mates and we spent many hours hunched over the chess board as the ship ploughed its way towards Europe. And as we played game after game, I learnt about the Territory and listened to stories of some of the Territory's 'old-timers', including one Errol Flynn of whom I had never heard before. It seemed the Territory attracted three types of people: missionaries, moneymakers, and misfits. Which category would I fit?

Eventually the ship docked at Piraeus in Greece where Noel saw me off at the railway station as I was bound for Hamburg in Germany. I spent the next few miserable winter months in Hamburg and then in Frankfurt before finding a way out again: I got a job in southern Africa which, as I saw it, was almost halfway back to where I eventually wanted to go: New Guinea. From Noel, with whom I had stayed in contact during all this time, I had heard about PIM, the Pacific Island Monthly which was read by one and all in the Territory. I bought a copy and decided to place in it a tiny classified ad which from memory ran something like this: "Young Accountant (still studying) seeks position in the Islands." The response was hardly overwhelming but the two letters I did receive were enough. One was from a Tom Hepworth of Pigeon Island Traders in the Outer Reef Islands in the then British Solomon Islands Protectorate who described to me in glowing terms the leisurely life on a small atoll in one of the remotest part of the South Pacific. The other letter was from a Mr. Barry Weir, resident manager of the firm of chartered accountants Hancock, Woodward & Neill in Rabaul on the island of New Britain in the Territory of Papua & New Guinea who, subject to a satisfactory interview with their representative in Australia, offered me the position of audit clerk. That was it!!! I passed muster at the interview and in the dying days of the year 1969 I left Australia for New Guinea. I was on my way!!!

Noel on the Wewak Golf Course at Christmas 1975

Rabaul was everything I had expected of the Territory: it was a small community settled around picturesque Simpson Harbour. The climate was tropical with blazing sunshine and regular tropical downpours, the vegetation strange and exotic, and the social life a complete change from anything I had ever experienced before! Easter 1970 gave me the chance to visit Noel when the Rabaul tennis club chartered a DC3 to fly to Wewak for some sort of tournament. I got a seat aboard and visited Noel on his own little estate along the Hawain River some ten miles outside Wewak. It was a wonderful place: Tilly lamps at night and a shower gravity-fed from a rooftop holding tank which was refilled by the 'haus boi' with a handpump. A native village was just down the road and far into the night small bands of villagers would pass the house strumming their ukeleles. An alcoholic beachcomber by the name of McKenzie (who was said to be an excellent carpenter on the few occasions when he was off the grog) lived even farther out than Noel. He had no transport which however did not stop him from walking all the way into Wewak to quench his ever-present thirst at the Sepik Club. On his return late at night he would stagger in to Noel's for a few more noggins to propel him on his way. In later years some friendly people in town fixed him up with a donkey which used to carry him home safely. The Territory was full of characters like McKenzie.

left to right: Cerebos Salt, Noel, moi at Christmas 1975
on Wewak Beach next to the old Windjammer Hotel

I went back to Wewak on two more occasions and Noel came to spent Christmas 1973 and Christmas 1974 with me. Or at least he tried because by the time he arrived on Bougainville in 1973, I was in Arawa Hospital being prepared for an urgent appendectomy; and when he came to see me in Lae in 1974 I was already packed up and ready to fly out to my next assignment in Burma. Our paths crossed more frequently after I had temporarily come back to Australia in 1979. I visited him several times and observed with some concern his struggle to make himself at home again in Australia, first at Caboolture, then at Mt Perry, and finally at Childers. He never quite succeeded since, as he put it, after a lifetime spent in PNG, "my spiritual home will always be New Guinea".

Perhaps this struggle is something else that we shared. I, too, still think almost every day about those many faraway places in which I lived and worked. The years spent there have left me unsuited in many respects for life in the deep south. I feel suspended between my past life in the islands and my present life in mainstream Australia, and I still seek a place where I can feel truly content.



Noel finally came to rest in the Bundaberg Cemetery. Rest in Peace, Noel!

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