The Hagen Country Club: Chips MacKellar

(Published in Una Voce, September 1998, page 5)

Malcolm (Chips) MacKellar
1953-1955 CPO Daru and Lake Murray (Western District)
1955-1956 P.O. Mount Hagen (Western Highlands District)
1957 ASOPA Long Course
1958-1964 PO at Madang and Bogia: ADC at Saidor (Madang District)
1964-1968 ADC Esa’ala, Samarai and Trobriand Islands (Milne Bay District)
1969-1970 Queensland University – B.A. (Anthropology)
1971-1972 ADC Kaiapit and Menyamya (Morobe District)
1972-1974 Enga District, District Court Magistrate, Wabag
1974-1980 District Court Magistrate, Ela Beach Court House, Port Moresby


When I first went to Mount Hagen in the early 1950s the District was then in the grip of development fever. It was the final frontier of Papua New Guinea, where planters were staking out their empires along the Wahgi Valley, and the Government was opening up the District to contact with the outside world. This was done by building a network of roads and airstrips, and the developmental pace was of necessity so brisk, that it called for the highest qualities of coordination and leadership.

Predecessor to such equally famous Western Highlands District Commissioners as Tom Ellis, Mick Foley and Bob Bell, the DC during my era was Major R.I. Skinner, MC RAA (Retd.)

Like most DCs of his time, Skinner ruled the Western Highlands District as though it were his own personal earldom. He was diligent, dedicated and demanding, and he exuded such an awesome aura of charisma and command that he was always addressed as “Sir” by his own officers, “Mr Skinner” by the planters, and “Number One Kiap” by the Western Highlanders. This latter title was an apt form of address, since in those days, he was a number one administrator in all respects. Amongst the expats, however, he was always referred to as “RI”. This reference was often mistaken for the initials of his Christian names, Richard Ian. In fact they signified the kind of autocracy he administered, and stood for Rex Imperator —- The King Emperor.

There were no hotels in Mount Hagen in those days, and the Hagen Country Club had not yet been incorporated. But there was no shortage of parties. Entertainment ranged from spontaneous drinks after work in somebody’s house, to formal dinner parties in the District Commissioner’s residence. It was at such social functions that we got to meet visiting judges, diplomats, and even the odd Governor-General, in circumstances which, for us, never would have happened in Australia.

The problem in those days was that there was no respectable venue big enough to host a large-sized social gathering as, for example, a Christmas party for all the expat residents of Mount Hagen and the neighbouring plantations.

This problem was exacerbated on one memorable occasion which produced a party so big and so infamous that its consequences have survived to this day.

The occasion was for a patrol officer who had been told he was dying of cancer, and he was ordered to return to Australia. As the next ranking officer, the social duty fell upon me to host his send-off party. In those days, all the single expat personnel at Mount Hagen lived in a disorderly collective of native-built huts across the airstrip from the District Office. This part of Hagen was called “Cannery Row” after a similar disreputable neighbourhood in the Steinbeck novel. Although the huts we lived in were small, and were each built for only one or two officers, they could, with some inconvenience, collectively accommodate a moderate number of transients at any one time.

And so it came to pass that Cannery Row by default, acquired a sort of doss-house function for itinerant visitors in the days before hotels were built at Mount Hagen, and because it was the collective residential for idle after work single officers, it also became a drop-in place for after work or weekend drinkers. And, because our departing officer also lived amongst us, Cannery Row was considered to be the appropriate venue to hold his farewell party.

Now, in relation to our dying officer, departure arrangements were made for one Saturday morning, with his farewell party to be held the previous Friday night. The departing officer was so popular, that we knew that people would come from everywhere to say goodbye, and we knew that overnight accommodation would have to be supplied for all out of town visitors. For this purpose, I had to reassign the sleeping arrangements in Cannery Row. Regular residents were dispossessed of their bedrooms and told to sleep anywhere they could find space in the kitchens, laundries, storerooms and outhouses. Meanwhile, floor space in the corridors and verandahs was assigned to single male visitors, with the bedrooms reserved for visiting married couples, and visiting single girls. It was a tremendous party, and it went all night, but after the departing officer had left Mount Hagen the next morning everyone was still in a party mood. There was still a mountain of food and heaps of grog left in Cannery Row, and as the whole purpose of the party had been to send the officer South to die, the send-off party turned into a wake, and continued unabated for the whole weekend.

However, by Sunday night, all my carefully planned accommodation allocations had fallen into such disarray because of the continuous revelry, that ordinary domestic sleeping arrangements became totally disoriented. Some husbands forgot they had brought their wives, and partied on without them, while others forgot where their wives were sleeping and crawled into the beds of other wives, by mistake. On the other hand, there were some wives so exhausted by the revelry that they did not know that their sleeping partners were not their husbands, while there were other wives who knew but did not care. And while all this was happening amongst our married visitors, the single girls discovered that they were not single any more, at least as far as the sleeping arrangements were concerned.

Monday dawned in a torrential downpour which closed the airstrip to all air traffic. This was just as well, because none of the out of town guests were by then fit to travel in any case. So some stayed where they had fallen the previous night, while others lurched through the morning drizzle, scouring the huts of Cannery Row for lost husbands and mislaid wives.

RI, of course, expected business as usual, so the remainder of us had to front up for work. As I had been continually engaged in organising the party, I had had little time for carousing, so I was still in reasonable shape on Monday morning. But the District Clerk who had not slept since the previous Thursday night, was not exactly up to scratch when it came to sending the weather report to Madang. All the technical weather details he could hear on the radio like two eights of alto-Q, six eights of stratus, wind Southeast 10 to 15, QNH one zero one niner and all the other air traffic control mumbo-jumbo totally bamboozled him.

So, by the time Madang tower asked the District Clerk for the Hagen weather report, his meteorological expertise had totally abandoned him, and in desperation he said……. “Hello, Madang……Don’t send any planes to Hagen today, cos we’re having real shitty weather.”

Skinner, of course, could hear all this from his office.

“Get off the air, McGowan!” RI bellowed in his best parade ground voice.

“But it’s true, Sir,” the clerk responded lamely, “it is shitty weather. Somebody shit in the rain gauge.”

“Don’t be ridiculous”, RI bellowed again, “Get off the air. Mackellar, you do the weather report!”

“Yes Sir,” I replied, and I went outside to check the rain gauge. And there in the middle of the gauge, like a big fat sausage, was a large human turd. I returned to the office and stood outside the DCs door. “He’s right, Sir,” I said, “somebody did shit in the rain gauge.”

“I don’t care,” Skinner bellowed again, “Do the weather report. And when you’re finished, take him home. I don’t want to see him in this office again in that condition.”

“Yes Sir,” I replied. And after I had done the weather report, I put the District Clerk into the DC’s Landrover, and took him back to Cannery Row.

And while some of the out of town guests were thoughtfully coming to terms with the regrouped sleeping arrangements, there were others for whom the party was still in progress. “Yipeeee! A party,” the District Clerk yelled when he saw these revellers, as though he had forgotten where he had been for the last three days.

The bad weather and the party continued off and on for the next two days, and finally when both had finished, the immediate aftermath was too awesome for me to relate.

But I can tell you that the long-term consequences of this party resulted in four separations, two divorces, and three marriages, and there were many irate husbands who, to this day, have never forgiven me, as though the subsequent disruption to their lives was all my fault.

But the worst blame was reserved for the officer who had been sent off to die. Within three weeks, he was back in Hagen again, cured. There had been a wrong diagnosis, and he was not dying of cancer after all. In fact, he is still alive today, living in Sydney’s northern beaches. But thinking that he would be welcomed back from the dead when he returned to Hagen he was unprepared for the poisonous atmosphere which greeted him. On the day after his return, an irate planter who had been severely cuckolded during the Cannery Row party confronted this officer angrily, outside the District Office. “We sent you South to die, you bastard!” he yelled, “So, why didn’t you die?”

Skinner, at the time, happened to be standing nearby, and by then he was sick and tired of hearing about all the domestic problems which had resulted from that party. “Don’t use that language around my office,” he bawled, “we’ve got enough problems of our own without having to listen to yours. Now, get out of town!”

This was bold frontier talk coming from RI, but then it was in keeping with the times. Hagen was then a frontier town, and Skinner, like Davy Crockett, was undisputed king of this wild Highland frontier. So, unwilling to contest this harsh frontier edict, the injured planter slunk out of Hagen like a mangy dog, and was never seen there again.

But before the dust could settle on this infamous party, Cannery Row’s reputation went from bad to worse. Rumours began to circulate that nubile young Highland girls who then frequently plied from house to house in Mount Hagen selling vegetables, were making a lot more money than their vegetables were worth, by lingering longer around the huts of Cannery Row. In those days, Hagen girls wore a G-string and a shell necklace, and nothing else, and nervous expat wives began to suspect that when “having a drink with the boys” in Cannery Row, their husbands might have been sampling other enticements which might have been on offer there.

So it came to pass that people began to talk about setting up a decent sort of clubhouse in Mount Hagen, where they could have movies and dances, and a few quiet drinks, without having to frequent the disreputable hovels of Cannery row. Even the local missionaries who were against fornication and strong drink were advocating a club for Mount Hagen as a less sinful alternative to Cannery Row, which for them had become the Hagen equivalent of Sodom and Gomorrah. But since nothing of any consequence could then happen in Mount Hagen without RI’s consent, the matter was put to him. Skinner was generally on side, but saw the practical difficulties. In those days before the Highlands Highway was built, airfreight costs alone, he reasoned, would have been so prohibitive as to make the building and maintenance of a decent private clubhouse totally unviable. Anyhow, Skinner said, he was too busy setting up a decent expat primary school to think about a club at this stage. He had a point there, because enrolments at the expat primary school were increasing so rapidly that the school was in need of new premises.

The teachers at the time were two Australian girls, and they were amazed that the District Commissioner was suddenly taking such an interest in their proposed new school. They were having funding problems and other administrative difficulties with the Education Department, so Skinner offered to help. Of course once RI got his clutches on the project, the teachers lost all control of it for ever after.

But by making the new school his top priority, RI got a long distance dialogue going between the Treasury, PWD and the Education Departments in Port Moresby, and the airlines in Lae and Madang. Eventually plans were finalised and funding obtained for a brand new permanent building primary school for expat children at Mount Hagen, with everything to be airfreighted in. Skinner even selected a new site for the school, on prime residential land overlooking the airstrip which was then in the centre of town.

To begin with, the plans were fairly basic, and showed an admin office for the teachers between two classrooms, with a storeroom at one end of the building, and toilets at the other. But no sooner had construction started, than mysterious alterations began to be made to the plans. A verandah was added, and another storeroom was inserted, this one between the admin office and one of the classrooms.

Nobody could understand who authorised the alterations. PWD and Education each blamed the other, and Skinner who had somehow escaped any blame at all, demanded extra funding for the alterations, and got it. Then a tennis court was added, which Skinner said was for “school sports” and then the furniture arrived, not only classroom furniture, but also casual chairs and tables of a kind you might find in the beer garden of a hotel. These, Skinner said, were for “parents and citizens meetings”. Then a large fridge arrived, which Skinner said was for “school milk.” Whatever the total cost was, RI managed to have it all funded, and when the school was finished it was the most handsome building in Mount Hagen.

To celebrate the opening of the school, RI invited all the expat residents of Mount Hagen, and some of the nearby missionaries and planters, to attend the premises on the Saturday night before the children were to move in. Of course a school was of no interest to the single expat residents of Cannery Row, but we were invited anyway, and in those days because an invitation from RI was the Mount Hagen equivalent of a Royal Command Performance, we all attended whether we wanted to or not.

For the purposes of this opening ceremony, the school furniture had been stacked in one classroom, while the other classroom had been bedecked with flowers and fronds. The casual furniture had been arranged around this classroom and out on to the verandah outside. The whole scene was lit with strings of twinkling fairy lights, and the building looked quite impressive. But, except for the blackboards, it didn’t look much like a school.

Ever the accomplished Master of Ceremonies, Skinner stood in front of the blackboard and made a short welcome speech. He thanked Treasury, PWD and Education for funding and supplying the materials. He thanked Barry Blogg and Bill Lane for building the school, he wished the teachers well, and he asked all the parents to support the school’s activities. It was the usual sort of speech you would expect at a school opening. Then he called two of his kiaps forward. “Mackellar and Howlett, come up here please.”

John Howlett and I went to where Skinner was at the front of the classroom, and stood beside him. “You two get behind the bar,” RI commanded, then with a flick of his wrist he pulled a lever, and the blackboard slid away, to reveal a well-stocked bar in the storeroom behind.

Everyone stared in amazement, then in a loud voice Skinner said, “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Hagen Country Club.”

At first there was a stunned silence. Then as the reality of Skinner’s school project suddenly sank in, there was a tremendous cheer, a burst of applause, and a rush on the bar, and John Howlett and I spent the rest of the night serving drinks at this ecstatic, spontaneous party, the best Mount Hagen had ever seen.

And that is how the Hagen Country Club was born.

It was a masterpiece of Skinner’s guile, manipulation, creative accounting, organisation, and design. For at no cost to anyone at Mount Hagen, RI had presented us all with a superb social club. It was exactly what everyone wanted.

True, the club had to double as a school from Monday to Friday, and considering that the Government had funded the building for this purpose, this was not surprising. But each Saturday the school would evaporate and in its place the Hagen Country Club would appear, to host tennis matches, movies, barbecues, dances, birthdays, Christmas parties, and in my time, even two weddings.

Then, late each Sunday night, when nearly everyone was asleep, the Country Club would disappear, like Brigadoon, into the midnight mists of Mount Hagen, leaving no earthly trace behind, other than a locked storeroom behind the blackboard, in the primary school.

Skinner, of course, was in total control of the Club and he ran it like an extension of his own lounge room. But even he would not dare to licence a primary school building. So, during a Supreme Court visit to Mount Hagen, RI pestered the Judge for ideas on how to sell liquor from the Club legally, without the necessity of a liquor licence. And the answer was pure genius. According to the Judge, Skinner said, liquor sales without a licence would be lawful, if they were made in a currency which was not legal tender, and that currency was not exchanged on the premises. So Skinner got Barry Blogg to produce, in the PWD workshops, the Club’s own currency. This consisted of coins made from masonite, with the Club’s name stamped on one side and the denomination of the coin on the other.

A bank account for the Club was then set up in the CSB agency at the District Office where, as part of his atonement for his “shitty weather” episode, the District Clerk was volunteered by Skinner to exchange Club currency for Australian legal tender. People simply paid cheques into the Club’s account and got Club currency in exchange. And I know you won’t believe it, but this Club currency soon developed a dynamic of its own and was quickly in regular usage around Mount Hagen. Both Danny Leahy and Norm Camps would accept it in their trade stores, because it saved them from having to make their own exchanges before they went to the Club.

But while the Club was the venue for some magnificent social gatherings in Mount Hagen, it also became the scene of some bitter confrontations. For, as the planters became increasingly more wealthy and therefore more powerful, they began to challenge Skinner’s divine right to rule the Western Highlands. One such memorable challenge occurred in the Club, following a breach of his “camber rule.”

In those days, all the road construction was done by volunteer Highland labour. There were no funds to tarmac or gravel the road surfaces, but plain dirt roads proved themselves to be capable of carrying considerable traffic if they were adequately drained and shaped.

And we built these roads simply by digging by hand, two parallel six foot deep ditches and then by throwing the fill onto the ground between the ditches. This fill was then levelled with a slightly convex surface, curved sufficiently to allow rainfall run off. A thousand stamping feet from the road gangs would then mould this camber into its final shape and, left alone for a month, alternate lashings of sun and rain would bake the surface until it was as hard as concrete.

The secret lay in allowing the surface time to harden before subjecting it to four wheeled vehicular traffic. Meanwhile, motorcycle and pedestrian traffic could still use both shoulders of the road without disturbing the camber.

As each section of a road was cambered in this way, letters were sent to nearby missions and plantations, asking them to avoid the use of four wheeled vehicles on that cambered section for the next month. This was called “Skinner’s Camber Rule.” It was a good system, and it worked well, when everyone cooperated.

But by this time, the planters were sick of being told what to do by RI and in the best Westminster traditional sense, they considered public servants to be their servants and not their masters. So one Saturday, a few days after I had completed the camber on this one particular section of road and delivered the usual letters requesting restraint, a Land Rover full of planters ploughed along a half mile length of soft camber surface bound for a tennis tournament at the Hagen Country Club. They had deliberately destroyed the camber and unless it was quickly repaired, the long furrows left by the vehicle’s wheels would fill with water at the next rain storm. The road surface would then collapse into the ditches for the full length of the damaged camber. It was a wanton, senseless act.

The clan leaders from this part of the Wahgi Valley were furious. Their people had built this road without pay, and they would now have to repair it without pay. I was also worried that there might be violence against the planters responsible, and in any case we needed to keep faith with the Highlanders in order to preserve the volunteer road building programme. So I got on my motorbike and reported the incident to Skinner, who was then in his tennis gear, about to join the tournament.

RI listened to my report without comment, then said simply, “Dismantle the bridges at each end of the damaged camber.” I must have looked confused, because he then repeated the order, this time a lot louder, “You heard me! Pull the decking off the bridges!” Then he marched off to play tennis.

Skinner had always threatened to do this to transgressors of his Camber Rule, but this was the first time that his threat had been seriously put to the test. So while the tennis tournament was in progress, I slaved away with 200 Highland warriors, dismantling the bridges at either end of the damaged road. Firstly, we prised off the decking. Then we rolled the big log bearers to one side, so as to make a solid foot bridge. Then we stacked the planks in a heap on top of the outer abutments, so as to form a barrier across the road, at both ends of the damaged section. Then with white paint, in large letters I wrote on each stack of planks, “Bridge Closed.” Although, in reality, the bridges were still open to motor cycle and pedestrian traffic, in accordance with Skinner’s Camber Rule.

Later that night, totally exhausted, I went over for a drink at the Club where the post-tennis party was in full swing. And as I walked up to the bar, I was confronted by this bunch of angry planters, who were then full of booze, and all looking for a fight. They had tried to go home after the tennis tournament, but could not get their Land Rover past my roadblock, so they returned to the Club, and they were now in an ugly mood.

“The kanakas said you pulled the bridges down,” one angry planter yelled at me. “Is that true?” The noise of the party subsided, and all eyes turned towards me.

“Yes,” I said, and all conversation ceased. The other drinkers at the bar moved away to give us space, as if taking part in a B-Grade movie scene from Dodge City.

“Why did you do it?” the angry planter demanded. But before I could answer, Skinner stood up at his table and said, “I ordered him to do it.” And a breathless hush fell over the club.

“Why, for God’s sake?” the planter demanded, this time facing Skinner across the crowded, silent room.

“You know why,” RI answered softly, and you could have heard a pin drop in that awesome, frightening silence.

“So how do we get home, Mr Skinner?” the planter demanded, and the dreadful silence continued.

“You will walk home,” said Skinner, Rex Imperator.

And they did. And no one ever after, ever broke the camber rule again.

But the sands of time were running out for RI. For, as tall trees have long shadows, so great men have many enemies. And as the planters became more powerful and more confident and more vocal, there were even more bitter scenes of confrontation in the Hagen Country Club. These occurred with increasing frequency, until finally, the inevitable happened, and Skinner was posted to Port Moresby where he served out the remainder of his time in PNG in relative administrative obscurity.

The Hagen Country Club later moved to its own premises, where it expanded and thrived in its own identity. Then later, as other clubs in Mount Hagen were formed, it amalgamated and changed premises.

Today, the Hagen Country Club survives as the upstairs part of the Mount Hagen Club, complete with all its memories and its memorabilia………..a memorial to those early Australian residents of Mount Hagen, ……. and a tribute to its creator, …… Skinner RI.

 

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