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Friday, September 25, 2020

The Bougainville Copper Project


This is a 1960s color movie about the Bougainville Copper Project in Papua New Guinea. Construction started in the late 1960s, and the mine was officially opened in 1972. My two years on this construction project, then the world's largest, forever shaped me and my future working career.

To this day, fifty years later, I still have a handful of friends with whom I regularly share memories of those exciting days. As one ex-engineer, now living in retirement in Kuala Lumpur, wrote to me recently:


"Until old age caught up with me very suddenly - it sneaked up on me without my realising it - work had been everything to me. I was in demand and there was one project after another. Altogether, it has been a successful career, all thanks to my time on Bougainville. A lot of people worked there for lots of reasons; dollars were probably the main reason. I had just spent a year living in a boarding house in Melbourne run by Jews which was all right except that the cooked dinner was beef schnitzel and mashed potatoes every night, so a change of food and scenery was enough for me to sign up.

Engineering-wise there was a lot of 'new' technology on Bougainville with little back-up information which taught me to innovate. Thanks to my time on Bougainville, I enjoyed a working life which I would never have dreamed of."


Can't we all relate to this? I certainly can! After my first and futile attempt to rent a furnished room with a family in a Canberra suburb - I spotted their Jewish menorah on the sideboard before they spotted my German passport! - I also had moved into a boarding house - click here - with an also very predictable menu - "if it's Chicken Maryland, it must be Friday!" - after which I went to Rabaul where I shared a house with two other chartered accountants - click here.

I'd gone to Rabaul just for the adventure on a much reduced pay and an even more reduced menu because, as each one of us took a turn in doing the weekly shopping, and when it was the turn of the other two, they merely bought a leg of lamb and spent the rest on beer.

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. I was hired on the spot, returned to Rabaul to give notice, and within a few weeks was back on what was then the biggest construction project in the world. Woo-hoo!

Seeking adventure had been my main reason for coming to New Guinea, seeking more money was an added reason for going to Bougainville - I went from $2,000 to $7,500 a year, plus full board and lodging and a beat-up Toyota Landcruiser - , but it was the professional challenge that kept me there for two years.

"Auditing" meant checking contractors' monthly progress claims against contractual terms and conditions. Those contracts had been written not by accountants but by engineers in far-away Melbourne, often with little or no regard to the practicalities on the ground.

Pitting our brains against those of the contractors' representatives whose aim it was to make the most of a once-in-a-lifetime chance, interpreting contractual clauses and, where necessary, pushing through essential contract changes which could save vast sums of money, made those long ten-hour days often seem not long enough.

Of course, there were those to whom Bougainville came as a shock. There was one who had arrived on the island and, taking one look at those cloud-covered mountains behind which Panguna was supposed to be, refused to even leave Aropa airstrip and took the next morning's plane back out. Then there were those who, after having run up an adding-machine striplist from 365 down to zero which they stuck on the wall, would slowly cross off their one-year contract. Needless to say, not many endured this mental torture for the whole 365 days.

As for me, and a select group of others, we revelled in the challenge, in the comraderie, and in the opportunities that, thanks to our time on Bougainville, eventually came our way on other projects and in other countries.

As he said in his email, "Altogether, it has been a successful career, all thanks to my time on Bougainville." And so say all of us!

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