Diwai bilong Missis Kwin: Keith Wall
A few years after Independence, I was teaching at the Civil Aviation Agency Training College (CATC) at Taldora (Six Mile) in Port Moresby. A group of young men and women were about to graduate as Radio Technical Officers after a concentrated four years of training. They would soon be appointed to positions at various airports throughout Papua New Guinea. Their postings would be determined by the Engineering Section of the Civil Aviation Agency. The selection criteria included overall technical grading, Province of origin and a current driving licence.
Driving licence? Nobody had thought of that during their training, and there was certainly no funding allocation for driver education. A quick check with the only commercial driver training company revealed that a hefty budget would be needed and the estimated minimum time required was an average three months of one on one instruction. These guys had only three weeks until their graduation.
The newly appointed principal of CATC Mr Oliver Ambo, made the observation that “this is a technical training college, and surely we can teach people how to drive, and just call it other duties as directed”. The CATC Driving School started off with the Education Support Staff preparing a classroom lecture series, whilst we on the technical staff were left to sort out the nuts and bolts of training competent drivers.
Just down the road was the Jacksons Airport terminal car park, all neatly painted with lines and parking spaces, just like streets and intersections. In the afternoons of most days, the car park was empty and there was no traffic or other obstacles to hit. It was just perfect for learner drivers before letting them loose on Port Moresby roads.
The CAA Airports Branch loaned us a Leyland Mini Moke as it was the only vehicle that was available. The Moke is essentially a motorised platform with two fixed chairs. It had no roof or doors and was not overly powerful. The lack of doors was seen to be an asset according to one of the unwilling instructors, as it would be easy to jump out of in the case of an emergency. On its negative side, the Moke had tiny foot pedals that were closely spaced, and a gear stick that needed stirring to find the correct gear. The canary yellow vehicle was also highly visible to all other road users. A couple of pieces of black plastic insulation tape in the shape of a capital ‘L’ on the front of the bonnet finished the transformation to a legal driver training vehicle.
My allocated trainee was a powerfully built young man who had very short legs. When sitting in the driver chair, he could not reach the foot pedals, and the seat was not adjustable. A couple of seat cushions were borrowed from the CATC staff tea room. He could now reach the pedals but still not see over the steering wheel. Another two cushions under him and we were ready to go.
I drove down to the airport car park and then stopped and we set the chair for him to start. After a few kangaroo hop starts, he got the general feel, and we slowly started to do laps of the car park. My feeling of angst was slowly dissipating, until I spotted the building afternoon crowd that was gathering at the balcony of the adjacent Gateway Hotel. I was spotted by a few mates and the yahoos and calls started to build. I kept a straight face and directed my charge to turn right at the next intersection and pull into the first marked car park space. The parking space he happened to choose had a tree in the front that was surrounded by treated pine logs. It was the only tree in the entire car park.
“OK now, gently select reverse gear and slowly move out.” He looked at me with a rather questioning look on his face. We hadn’t “done reverse gear” yet. The lads on the balcony were yahooing louder. “OK, the diagram is on the gear stick knob, and when you find it check over your shoulder (there was no rear vision mirror) and slowly let out the clutch”. The vehicle gave a small movement but didn’t go anywhere. “OK, give it a little more accelerator.” And the tiny engine screamed, and he was still watching over his shoulder as the vehicle launched forward. Up and over the log barrier we went, and the tree disappeared. I grabbed for the hand brake but it didn’t work. He managed to turn off the engine and we both climbed out amid loud clapping and cheering from the balcony mob.
Out in front of the vehicle were the last visible parts of tree top. There was a small brass plaque attached to a metal spike that was now a little further up the car park. It read “This tree was planted by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth ІІ, March 1977”. We had to lift the Moke down off the tree. The tree would not stand up again, so we hid it near the car park fence. I drove back to the college and not a word was said.
Two weeks later, the graduands were bussed to Four Mile Police Traffic Section followed by myself driving the Moke. Three hours later, ten proud young people arrived back at CATC with a new piece of paper that proclaimed them all as legal drivers. Three weeks was all that it took and the only casualty was the diwai bilong Missis Kwin (the Queen’s Tree).
My trainee was posted to the Navigation Aids maintenance section of CAA at Jacksons Airport. In the first week of his posting, he was directed to drive a Toyota Landcruiser to Kabuna Mission on the Tapini road. A terrifying road with very steep ridges and drop offs on either side. I saw him a few weeks later and was given a cheerful V-for-Victory sign.
When I left CATC several years later, there were still two chairs with no cushions.