Ian Ogston (1970/71)
The Chalkie experience at Goldie River was different.
‘Goldie’ was the Papua New Guinea Training Depot, to give it its full name. It was known universally as ‘Goldie’ because of its location on the floodplain of the Goldie River. Its purpose, in what was then known as PNG Command (of the Australian Army), was to provide training for newly-recruited soldiers and as well, provide specialist courses for medics, drivers, cooks, clerks and signallers.
Goldie’s differentness was defined not only by these particular functions but also by its isolated location. The thirty kilometre-long winding gravel road to Port Moresby was never a particularly fast trip. As well, we had to contend with flooding of the road in the wet season and the one or two settlements of local people along the way who were generally regarded as being not particularly partial to army types. ‘You did not want to break down along this road,’ we were always told.
Goldie was surrounded by occasional rainforest remnants and grassland – not a particularly attractive physical environment. In the dry season, it was brown and in the wet, it was swampland.
The brown and rather turbulent Goldie River which flowed past the camp was rarely visited by most. Apparently, a crocodile attack some years before guaranteed its unpopularity. On the upstream boundaries of the camp were the Koiari village lands and this was well and truly out of bounds to army personnel.
All of this contrasted with the other locations that Chalkies were posted. Places like Wewak were invariably described as ‘paradise’ and bases at Port Moresby and Lae were integrated into the social web of these urban areas.
In Goldie’s fairly remote location, the Army way pervaded every aspect of this small community. (A similar situation exists in mining towns in remote areas where the company is everything.) From the moment you woke up in the morning to the time you went to bed, it was Army. In this situation, people were thrown together more closely than usual and the consequences were often stifling and conducive to destructive friction. On top of this, Goldie’s function as a training camp created an atmosphere of strict discipline (for the benefit of the recruits) and inflexibility. Inordinate attention was given to such pettiness as dress, saluting, marching, looking ‘military’ and other small games enjoyed by the martinets of the army world. There was a strong sense that this was very ‘Army’ and don’t you forget it. It reminded me very much of Singleton Barracks.
Physically, Goldie was a relatively new, well-designed island of buildings in the wilderness. The soldiers were housed in large, three-storey cement block buildings. There was a chapel, a squash court, several tennis courts, a hospital and one large mess hall for the troops. As well, there were a variety of other buildings essential for the functioning of a military establishment such as the Q Store, main administration building, theatre/hall and the canteen/shop/post office. The trouble was that everything was built of grey cement blocks. Grey was the colour of Goldie.
The Sergeants’ Mess was one of these buildings. It was set apart from the main group of buildings and consisted of a two storey accommodation block and a nearby single story block consisting of the bar and mess/kitchen. It was the hub of social life and physically, not an unpleasant place to be. There were comfortable chairs, fans, a well-stocked bar and movies every Friday night on the big, white open air screen out the back. (See below)
Our problem was that more than a few Australian sergeants did not particularly like Chalkies very much. They thought that we were not real soldiers (let alone sergeants!) and to make matters worse, we were getting paid too much. The Army pay structure meant that we were certainly on a very high rate of pay, even more than a second lieutenant (at least for a while).
This seemed to contrast with the experiences of the Chalkies in other places. The esprit de corps of the battalions at Wewak and Taurama was something remembered with some pride and fondness by those posted there.
While the situation at Goldie created some uncomfortable moments for us in the mess, we enjoyed our work with the recruits and the various activities we did together. We usually went to Port Moresby on the weekend in our clapped out old Volkswagen and played hockey and cricket for army teams on Saturdays for most of the year. As well, we took up the Army’s offer of free study and did courses out of the University of Queensland by correspondence. This involved quite a bit of reading, writing assignments and visits to the University of Papua New Guinea at Waigani. One of the parts of the subject I was doing involved education in developing countries and this was immensely interesting given my situation. Another advantage was that the library at the university was full of books relevant to this topic.
Midway through our time at Goldie (1971), the Prime Minister, Billy McMahon, announced a reduction of the time National Servicemen were required to serve. It went from two years to eighteen months. We could have left immediately but we chose to stay to complete our work with the second intake of recruits for the year. It was good work as the new soldiers were keen to further their education both for themselves and their country. It was a pleasing view of what they needed to do and also demonstrated an awareness of the bigger issues facing their country. It was an attitude that I fondly looked back upon as I later taught more than a few adolescents in Queensland high schools who cared little about their education and certainly even less about the contribution they could make to the betterment of their society.
At the end of our time at Goldie, we were farewelled by the mess and parted in good spirits. The farewell consisted of the presentation of a suitably inscribed pewter mug (still in use!) which had to be filled with the local beer and skolled amid much cheering and encouragement.
By this stage, we were not sorry to leave Goldie. The weather was diabolically hot and humid and there was the promise of a new life and the restarting of a stalled career in civilian teaching. It also meant an end to the less attractive aspects of being in the army.
None of us were in any doubt though, as to the value of the PNG experience. It was an exotic adventure which used our professional skills and opened up a country and its cultures in a way not available to the vast majority of people. It was the best thing that could have happened to a Nasho. As well, it made an indelible imprint on our lives that enriched us immeasurably.