How I Ended Up at Brandi High School – by Ian Willis
The three years that Margaret (my wife) and I spent at Brandi High School near Wewak began with a newspaper advertisement about August 1964. At the time I was running a one-teacher bush school at Warrambeen, 53 kilometres west of Geelong in Victoria. The ad invited government schoolteachers to apply for two-year secondments to the Education Department of Papua New Guinea, starting in early 1965.
Eager for change, I wrote away to the given address. Several weeks later I was summoned to an interview in the new Commonwealth Centre on the corner of Spring Street and Victoria Parade in Melbourne. The interviewer, from the PNG Department of Education, was Barbara MacLachlan, a genteel, kindly, middle-aged woman. She seemed more interested in why I wished to teach in PNG than what I had accomplished in my three years at Warrambeen, which was the only teaching experience I had. She also asked what I knew of PNG’s recent political development, mainly the first popularly elected House of Assembly. She must have been sufficiently impressed by the way I presented myself because a couple of weeks later I received a letter from the PNG department telling me I had been accepted and would be required to start work in early January 1965. The Victorian department wrote to say it would release me for two years, with the option of two more after that.
A medical examination followed. I must have passed it because the PNG department soon sent me a plane ticket with instructions for travelling to Port Moresby, where I had to spend my first three weeks undergoing an induction course. I left Melbourne on
7 January 1965. About ten Victorian secondees caught the same mid-afternoon flight from Essendon. Among them I was pleased to meet Ivor Salkin (1926–2018), with whom I had trained at Toorak Teachers’ College six years earlier.
The long journey north was slow and tedious. We changed planes in Brisbane, where we joined about another 30 secondees from the other states. The next stop was Port Moresby. We landed there at Jacksons Aerodrome at about 2.00 am the next morning. Clambering down from the aircraft to cross the tarmac, we had our first experience of PNG—its astoundingly hot, humid climate. The sensation was akin to walking into and being swallowed by a wall of thick steaming blancmange.
After going through immigration and customs, we were loaded aboard a couple of buses then driven to our accommodation. The men were billeted at Four Mile, a hostel for Commonwealth Department of Works employees. Four Mile was four miles from downtown Port Moresby. The hostel was comfortable. My roommate was Ian McRaild, a secondary arts-crafts teacher from Victoria. There was a large communal dining room with cafeteria-style service and a separate bar, serving bottled beer. During the three weeks I lived there I got to know my fellow secondees well. Among my new friends was an older secondary teacher from Victoria, Matt Power (1919–2015).
During the war Matt had served with the 2/14th Infantry Battalion and had seen action in Syria, on the Kokoda Track, at the recapture of Lae, in the Markham-Ramu Valley
campaign and finally at Balikpapan in Borneo. Matt was later the principal at Lorengau High School on Manus and then at Kerevat High School; but like many other ex-PNG teachers he subsequently settled in Canberra and taught in the government school system here. At age 93, he returned to PNG to attend the opening of the memorial at Isurava on the Track. We regularly socialised with Matt and his wife, Bertha, until they retired to Mount Tamborine. We continued corresponding until shortly before his death, aged 95, in March 2015.
During our first Saturday in PNG, Ivor Salkin and I caught a bus from Four Mile into Port Moresby. We wandered the town and went shopping. I bought a couple of pairs each of tailored shorts, short-sleeved shirts and knee-length socks—standard local ‘white-collar’ working attire we had been told. Apart from that, we sat around at Four Mile getting to know our fellow secondees, drinking Merakis, i.e. SP or South Pacific lager that came in distinctive long-necked green-glass stubbies. We generally took in the exotic local social scene and were amazed by the passing parade of Papua New Guineans, who probably came from most parts of the country. We also chatted to various permanent Four Mile residents, who mostly seemed to be heavy earth-moving equipment operators on major building sites.
Early on the Monday morning after our arrival a bus took us to the Ela Beach Primary School. We spent the next fortnight there undergoing an induction course. Run by the amiable Denis O’Donoghue, a lecturer at the Port Moresby Teachers’ College, it aimed to familiarise us with the country where we would spend at least the next two years teaching.
We listened to lectures by senior officials of the Department of Education, the government anthropologist, and representatives of the various government departments. We also watched films and participated in discussions on the future development of PNG. All very stimulating. It also enthused us for our new home and the teaching we would soon be doing, which meant that the course had fulfilled its purpose.
During the lunch breaks we swam at Ela Beach, across the road from the school. A coral reef lay just off-shore, about 50 metres out in waist-deep water. Among my first purchases were a facemask and snorkel so I could explore the reef and marvel at the astounding variety of the corals and tropical fish. We also walked up the hill into the shopping and banking precinct. Outside many shops, Papuan women sat on the pavement, their wares neatly arrayed before them. They were selling their hand-crafted trinkets—exquisite shell, seed and glass bead necklaces, models of outrigger canoes with lobster-claw sails, grass-skirts, little statuettes and masks carved from wood and galip nuts incised to resemble stylised faces. I bought many such trinkets to send to the folks back home in Victoria.
At the weekends we went on various excursions. One day I joined a group that travelled up the Sogeri Road beside the Laloki River, past Hombrom Bluff and the Rouna hydroelectric power station to the Sogeri plateau. We visited Sogeri High School and Owers Corner, the beginning of the Kokoda Track. Another trip was to the Bomana War Cemetery, where Matt Power found the graves of several comrades killed on the Kokoda Track. Ian McRaild contacted a friend at the PNG Administrative College, John Rumens, a former teaching colleague from Victoria, who arranged for us to take a flight in a light plane over the mountains north-east of Port Moresby. Another weekend several of us visited Kwikila High School, 80 kilometres south-east of Moresby.
We also toured Koki Market. Its exotic sights, sounds and smells assaulted the senses. The spattered, scarlet spittle from betel-nut chewing had to be stepped over. Banana-leaf-wrapped ‘drums’ of fresh sago were another new experience; so, too, were roasted flying-foxes, stalks of bananas and plantains of unimagined varieties; cords of brus (leaf tobacco) woven together; and people smoking long cigarettes of twist trade-store tobacco rolled in sheets of newspaper. All this was in addition to the mounds of kaukau (sweet potato), cassava, yams, pawpaws, pineapples, breadfruit, custard apples, soursops and the ubiquitous betel nut, with its associated catkins of pepper.
Papua New Guineans were milling around everywhere, buying, selling, visiting and socialising. I could not yet differentiate between their ‘tribes’ as I could later, but I realised they came from many districts. Nor could I hear what they were saying, but I guessed they’d be speaking Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu, the lingua franca of the Port Moresby region, as well as many other languages.
During the third week of our induction course, we began receiving our postings and, one by one, departed to the schools where we would spend the next year or two teaching. After our dispersal, I rarely saw any of my fellow secondees. I kept in touch with several, but never heard of most of them again.
Ivor Salkin went off to the Police College at Bomana, Matt Power to Sogeri High School, and Ian McRaild to Lae High School. I was initially assigned to Kwikila High School but was reluctant because I’d already been there and had been disappointed. Further, I was anxious to go to Brandi High School near Wewak in the Sepik District, because my younger brother David was the didiman (agricultural officer) at Angoram, on the mighty river a short flight from Wewak. One of my fellow secondees was marked down for Brandi, but, as he wanted to remain near Port Moresby, we swapped.
I travelled north to Brandi on Friday, 29 January 1965. This expedition took much of the day. First there was the regular Douglas DC3 flight from Moresby to Lae, which probably took 1½ hours. I then had a three-hour wait in Lae for the flight to Wewak. I used the time to stroll to the southern, seaward end of the runway to see the Tenyo Maru. This was a beached Japanese cargo ship which had run aground there in 1942 under attack by Allied aircraft. Only the prow was visible, rising some ten metres above the waves. (The ship eventually slid into the depths eight years later, while I was living in Lae).
The Lae-Wewak flight was on another DC3, a ‘side-saddle’ with canvas seats running lengthwise down the cabin. The plane was on the ‘milk-run’, which took us first to Goroka in the Eastern Highlands, then Madang. On the final Madang-Wewak run we passed Manam Island with its perpetual plume of smoke, the first active volcano I’d seen. We reached the Boram airport at Wewak about 4.00 pm. As
we approached the aerodrome, I was amazed to see that water-filled bomb craters pockmarked the entire coastal plain. They spoke eloquently of the savage war fought thereabouts 20 years earlier. From the air, Boram looked like the surface of a huge crumpet.
A Land Rover from the district office took me from Boram to the government headquarters buildings on the top of the Wewak hill. The Department of Education’s district clerk was unwelcoming and unhelpful. He knew nothing about my joining the Brandi staff nor what accommodation I might occupy. He then indicated a young chap on the far side of the room. ‘He’s from Brandi, come to collect the mail,’ he said, ‘so he can take you there.’
I introduced myself to the Brandi bloke, Ron Reisner, and asked if he could drive me to the school. Thus, my three very fulfilling years at Brandi were about to begin . . .