By PAUL OATES
When I was 21 I was lucky enough to be selected as an assistant patrol officer in the then Australian Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG).
Not many people in Australia knew much about our northern external territory except those of my father’s generation who had fought there during the Second World War.
My training as an assistant patrol officer commenced in 1969 at the Australian School of Pacific Administration (ASOPA) located in Mosman, Sydney.
The lectures included law, government, geography, and language.
Mostly these subjects were taught by those who had some association with PNG, although they had little or no experience in the territory’s rural areas.
After our time at ASOPA, my course of 39 trainees was flown to Port Moresby and continued its training at Kwikila, a sub district headquarters 100km east of Moresby in the Rigo area of the Central district.
Here practical experience involved police administration, local government and public works.
At the end of this training, we were given our field postings.
My posting was to the West Sepik region, however I swapped with a colleague so I could go to the Morobe district to hopefully learn a little about cattle farming.
In the event, I was posted to Pindiu patrol post in the Finschhafen sub district where there were very few cattle.
Paul Oates as a young Australian kiap at Pindiu, Morobe district, in 1970
When I arrived at the district headquarters in Lae and visited the district commissioner’s office, I was told I was to fly out the next morning to Pindiu and was taken around to open a country order account at Steamships New Guinea Company.
An assistant district commissioner from another sub-district wanted to snaffle me for his domain and, when he came around the following morning to order me to go with him; I wanted to be loyal to my actual posting and hid until he had to catch his plane.
Later that morning I was loaded into a small Cessna 172 along with a new government clerk and his family and we flew from Lae to Pindiu, where I was expected to complete my two years of field training and after which I might be lucky enough to be promoted to patrol officer.
The type of field training offered usually depended on the senior officer at the time. There appeared to be two schools of thought.
Villagers building the Ogeranang airstrip in Finschhafen, Morobe district, in 1969
One was to take the newly posted ‘cadet’ and lead him through the ropes.
The second appeared to be: ‘Toss him in at the deep end and see if he swims?’
The officer-in-charge of Pindiu, who had previously served in the Western Highlands, belonged to the second school of thought.
Not long after I arrived, I was told I was to go on patrol.
This involved preparing my meagre supplies and rations and flying from Pindiu to Mindik airstrip where the OIC and I walked to where an airstrip was to be built.
My role was to supervise the construction of that airstrip at a village called Ogeranang using a plan on a foolscap piece of paper kept at the site.
My boss took me to the site, showed me what had to be done and left me there for a fortnight to learn the ropes.
What I didn’t know at the time was that in the future I would be directed to build a base camp at Mindik and generally ‘look after’ the whole of the Kua and Bulum river valleys and their people.
I would also regularly walk back and forth to the airstrip construction site at Ogeranang village in the Bulum valley.
What I also didn’t know was that my little base camp would eventually become a centre of government administration and I would plan schools to be built in Mindik and Ogeranang that would help the people of that area.
But all that was in the future.
I considered myself at 21 to be fairly fit.
Outdoor training with the army reserve and ‘bush bashing’ as it was called was something I was very keen on.
Our patrol started from Mindik and walked for about three hours from the Kua valley over the ridge to the Bulum valley and to a village called Areganang.
Here we met the driving force behind the new airstrip, a councillor called Rukanzinga. Councillor Rukanzinga turned out to be about my father’s age and a man of vision.
He was very keen to have an airstrip in his area so that his people didn’t have to carry their coffee all the way to Mindik or down to the coast to sell.
Leaving Areganang, we set off again towards Ogeranang and the airstrip site only this time the climbing was harder going.
“Don’t drink anything!” the boss told me, but the cool, clear water in the stream before the final climb was just too tempting.
Up, up, and up we climbed until my breath started to shorten.
Stopping and taking ‘a breather’ to look at the scenery didn’t seem to help.
My breathing became very laboured and I wondered what on earth was going on.
“Ha!” said my boss, “You drank some water didn’t you? I told you not to?”
What I hadn’t yet worked out is that my body wasn’t yet acclimatised to altitude and at around 5,000 feet about sea level I wasn’t used to the diminished oxygen at that altitude - especially when taking rigorous exercise.
Villagers digging a drain for an airstrip in Ogeranang, Morobe district, in 1969
As I gasped and wheezed up the mountain, Councillor Rukanzinga came forward and said gently in Tok Pisin, “Just take little steps, kiap. You’ll be OK.”
Slipping his arm into mine, the councillor helped me forward and showed me how to take little, six inch steps upward.
Ever so slowly I continued to climb, leaning on Councillor Rukanzinga.
When we arrived at the top of the ridge where the airstrip was being built, it seemed thousands of people were waiting for us.
The experienced PNG councillor had successfully led the inexperienced young Australian up to the camp site.
I realised that my PNG education had only just commenced!