As some of you may know, I had the good fortune to go to PNG for several days from the 18th to 21st October 2007. An opportunity arose in my capacity as a Director of Queensland Teachers’ Credit Union to attend the 35th Anniversary celebration of PNG’s Teachers’ Savings and Loan Society Ltd. Their celebration was on the Saturday evening (20th) and I soon found that I was to be the night’s guest speaker, a duty I was happy to perform. In reaching a suitable dialogue with the staff of the Savings and Loan Society prior to my departure from Brisbane, it transpired that the CEO, Mr. Michael Koisen was a former school mate of Commander Peter Ilau. By then it was known that I was once a “chalkie” from Taurama Barracks, so it was arranged that I visit an army establishment possibly Goldie River during my stay.
The trip to Port Moresby was not without its drama. The flight that I was to take on Thursday morning (10:40am) was reassigned to another aircraft and some passengers were offered other flights. I was expected at 1.30 pm so I opted to a take a flight to Cairns at 6:40am then take the Air Nuigini flight to arrive by 1:30pm local time. Due to the flight rearrangement my hosts were not at the airport, expecting me 2 hours later when the Brisbane flight arrived. This then led me to take the Crowne Plaza Hotel courier service, and as I was the only passenger, Bara, the driver gave me a running commentary on the development and changes taking place in Port Moresby, including the new highway to the city. He was interested to learn that I once lived there forty years ago at Taurama Barracks. After booking into my room, I was anxious to see the sights, so I took my camera, placed on a straw hat and ventured out for 1½ hrs walk. It was great, the sights, sounds, smells, new buildings, old buildings demolished, (Papuan Hotel/Picture Theatre) old Parliament House in ruin, people on the streets and in shopping centres, I simply walked and took photos as I went. On returning to my hotel, I was met by my hosts and taken to meet the Savings and Loans staff – but that is another story.
On the Friday morning following breakfast and a morning walk I was picked up by a Colonel Vagi Oala of Murray Barracks and a driver, who took me to Taurama Barracks. Firstly the road was sealed to the barracks; the hills were familiar but brown, being the dry season. As the driver moved around the area, I took photos from the window. We went firstly to the Officers’ Mess, and I met Ted Diro’s son Col. Siale Diro the Commander of Taurama Barracks. I was surprised to find the NCOs were part of the Officers’ Mess. The reason for this became obvious later. After several photos in the Mess, I saw that a former Commander was Col Ken Noga who was a Lieutenant and hockey player with me so long ago. From here it was on to visit the local primary school on the army site. Col Oala told me that he helped to build some of the buildings when he was an engineer, stationed there.
The Principal welcomed me to his school of 700 pupils and showed me around the grounds. He was anxious to point out to me how he had spent the money like overseas aid that was given, allocated or saved from other projects to benefit the school. Capital works were high on his agenda; indeed one way to increase capacity was to raise each building up and build new classrooms underneath. This was taking place as we toured the new and old classrooms. Many of the youngsters sat with their teacher under the shade of the many trees in the playground. The tour concluded back at the administrative centre and teachers, who were not already in the staffroom, were summoned. I was asked to say a few words to the assembled gathering. I gave them a brief overview of my visit to PNG and I told them of the time I had spent at the Sergeants’ Mess down the road. I then spoke to them about being a teacher, the rewards, the disappointments, the frustrations and the reasons that we all work hard for a better society for the children in spite of the conditions or lack of pay and other incentives. I related an experience that my daughter, a second year teacher, had with a troubled child. The assembled gathering understood the message, as I was speaking their language. At the close, Col Vagi Oala spoke about the building which we were in and how he helped build it. He also praised the work that the staff were doing and the benefits that were accruing for the country as a result of teachers’ dedication and hard work. As we were about to depart, the staff lined up and each shook me by the hand, I was very humbled by the total experience. The members of the school community were proud to show me their achievements and listen to a visitor, and I thanked them for their hard endeavours. They were grateful that I showed an interest in their labours. Obviously a chance to highlight their achievements and receive recognition was a rare occurrence in that part of the world.
I later found out that Commander Peter Ilau had attended Taurama Primary School and that at least one chalkie’s wife was a teacher at the school. Possibly one or two of the original education sergeants had given lessons at the school whilst on their National Service duties, with the Battalion. Talking of the Battalion, it is now known as the Royal Pacific Island Regiment (IRPIR).
From the school, we headed by vehicle around past the swimming pool, which was empty due to tree roots protruding through the pool’s walls, past the old married quarters, Admin. Company and finally to the Sergeants’ Mess. Alas it was burnt down due to an electrical fault. The charred remains were still standing. The living quarters were still there and I spoke to the only resident of the quarters and showed him my former room, top floor first on the left. We spoke for a few minutes then this Sergeant (?) continued to cut the grass on the embankment with his long bladed knife.
The vehicle then continued on past the education centre past the guard room and out to the new guard hut at the perimeter of the army reserve. We stopped for photos and a chat before I was taken back to my hotel. I did not see much activity at the barracks, possibly due to soldiers being deployed elsewhere at that time of day. Large cutbacks in military personnel would also be a factor since our time in the battalions, the force being only half the size we once remembered.
In the years 1965-1972 when National Service was in progress in Australia, and prior to PNG independence in 1975, Australia spent large sums of money in building up the PNG defence force, in capital works and the training of soldiers with the purpose being a self governing defence force. We helped to educate the soldiers and suggest possible candidates for officer training and trade training in Australia. Australian politicians like Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock visited our battalions as part of their respective portfolios. Commonwealth Works Department (Comm Works) was ever present to carry out building programmes requested by the Australian Government.
Forty years on the scene has changed dramatically. The Australian Government is not present on the ground as it was pre –independence. Although Australian Aid money is sent to PNG the new national government in Port Moresby has other spending commitments. The local defence force now competes for funding just like education, police and health services do. The new capital works we saw being constructed are now 30 to 40 years old. Money is needed for maintenance, new capital equipment and recruitment programmes. The Kina is not a strong or popular currency outside PNG.
What is evident is that the people are committed and are immensely proud of their new nation. Mistakes have been made but I sensed a fierce determination by the locals to improve their own circumstances as well as for those around them. This was evident by Taurama’s Primary School Principal who was working miracles in education using limited resources. The same can be said for the military, which were a positive influence in the society.
It should be noted that as I walked around the Port Moresby area, people to whom I spoke all replied in English and a small conversation ensued. Up to a dozen tall buildings grace the skyline where as only one tall building was evident in our time. The town is served by a multitude of buses and taxis driving along numerous roads, all with roundabouts at intersections and a new highway cut through the hills linking the airport (Jackson Strip) with the CBD. Several TV channels service the region. Beetle nut chewing was evident in all walks of life but the CBD was an industrious hive of activity at the times I visited. The harbour looked glorious as ships were unloaded and port facilities were being extended.
At the 35 years TSLS celebrations, I had the opportunity to meet Commander Peter Ilau and Col Vagi Oala was also in attendance. Several teachers from both the highlands and Bougainville recounted how they had worked in their respective schools for up to twelve months without pay due to local disputes. It was pleasing to learn that the money was waiting from them when the crises were over. How is that for dedication?
I came away thrilled by the experience. The locals were very interested and pleased when they learned that I was once with the PIR and that I had come back for a visit. My hosts were generous and were proud of the success of their financial organisation. The Saturday evening function was a great success. One of the TSLS staff members was once a little girl whose father was Sgt Major Jock Pini from the IPIR Band. It was a thrill to see her again.
So it was with regret that I left the NCD (National Capital District) via the new International Airport and returned to Brisbane, back to real life. The memories will be with me forever.