Family Farm to PNG Development Bank—Story of a Didiman by Murrough Benson (Part 1)
Papua New Guinea was my home from February 1966 until September 1977, initially as a didiman (agricultural officer) and then with the PNG Development Bank as a rural officer. This instalment traces the first phase of that journey.
In the latter part of 1965, when I was nearing the end of my three-year Diploma of Agriculture course at Dookie Agricultural College in north-eastern Victoria, I started casting the net around for a job once I graduated. One application was for a position as an agricultural officer with the Australian Administration in the then Territory of Papua and New Guinea (TPNG). In due course, along with a number of my colleagues, I went to Melbourne for an interview with the Department of Territories.
Some three months later, though, as my time at Dookie drew to a close, I still had heard nothing from them, so I returned to the family dairy farm in western Victoria. While I thoroughly enjoyed life on the farm, it was never a realistic option for me to carve out a career there. We never wanted for much growing up, but a milking herd of seventy or eighty cows would not have sustained a grown family—and potential new family members in the. So, within a week of my returning from Dookie I was back in Melbourne in search of a job.
Ten days later I had a phone call from the Department of Education offering me a position as a maths and science teacher at Derrinallum High School, a little over an hour away from our farm. So, what teacher training did I have? Absolutely none! In those days a qualification such as my Diploma of Agriculture was sufficient. I accepted the teaching job straight away and the next day was off to see the headmaster and arrange accommodation in town.
When I arrived home that evening, lo and behold, after three months of silence, there was a letter from the Department of Territories saying that I had been accepted as an agricultural officer in TPNG. Not only had I been accepted, but I was given a starting date of 21 February 1966, just seventeen days away! Having been brought up to honour my commitments, my immediate response was to say I would stick with the teaching job to which I had already agreed, and which I was due to start in three days’ time.
My father pointed out that I owed the Department of Education nothing, and argued that the TPNG opportunity was too good to pass up. Interestingly, Dad’s diary shows that the headmaster supported this view. How right they proved to be! I ‘did the right thing’, though, and fronted up at the school on Monday morning, was duly introduced at assembly and muddled my way through a number of classes.
Meanwhile, at the headmaster’s suggestion, my father negotiated my release with the department from the normal requirement of one month’s notice of intention to quit. Dad could mount a very persuasive argument and, indeed, used to revel in taking on the authorities. So, helped by the fact that I had yet to sign formal acceptance of the position, by the end of day two of my teaching career I was free to go. I never did get paid for those two days of teaching! Clearly, not only did I owe the department nothing but the feeling was reciprocated.
Nothing heard for three months and then two and a half weeks to get myself to a new country, a largely alien new job and ready to hit the ground running. I was soon to learn, though, that this was how the world generally operated.
In reality, though, two and a half weeks was ample time; after all, I had very few worldly possessions, my commitments were even fewer and my bank balance was hardly a burden to bear—just one shilling left in my Commonwealth Savings Bank passbook (I still have the passbook to prove it).
So, having enough time to get myself ready was never an issue—and that included being formally released from my National Service obligations, which were due to be decided at the next ballot in March. I learned almost four years later, just after I was married, that my marble was in fact drawn at that ballot but I’ll come back to this later in my story.
So, on the evening of 20 February 1966, I flew out of Melbourne headed for Port Moresby—on an Ansett-ANA Douglas DC-6B aircraft I think it was. Early the next morning, after a flight of nine and a half hours or so, we touched down at Jacksons Airport. After the initial blast of tropical humidity as we walked across the tarmac to the tin shed that served as the terminal, I was met by a local driver. He dropped me off at Burnley Court Guesthouse in Boroko, where I managed to grab a few much-needed hours of sleep.
After lunch I was picked up again and whisked off to DASF (Department of Agriculture, Stock and Fisheries) Headquarters at Konedobu. I found my posting was to be Okapa in the Eastern Highlands, some sixty-two miles south-east of Goroka and, so they told me, three hours by road. I liked the idea of the temperate Highlands’ climate after just a few hours in ‘sticky’ Moresby. After getting on the payroll (it’s interesting how these pressing issues stick in one’s mind after fifty years) I was booked on a flight to Goroka the following morning. So ended my formal induction as a didiman!
An early start the next day saw my introduction to the wonderful old DC-3 aircraft and, after a brief stopover in Lae, I was in Goroka by mid-morning. I booked into my temporary accommodation at the Goroka Hotel and then fronted up at the DASF office alongside the airstrip. Then I was introduced to my first job, overseeing the harvesting and curing of tobacco leaf on the DASF experimental plot alongside the Asaro River just outside town. These trials were the forerunner of smallholder tobacco plots that proved quite successful in the Goroka area over the next few years—in co-operation with the tobacco giants Rothmans and WD & HO Wills.
I was still a couple of months short of my twentieth birthday, and relished being thrown in the deep end, and being largely left to manage my own affairs. The nature of the job I had been given also meant that I had the use of a Land Rover over the weekend, which was quite a bonus, not that it was used for other than work but it did add to the freedom I enjoyed right from the start. I was to find that this freedom was a feature of many jobs in PNG—and one that equipped you to cope with most things later on in life, even if it led to some frustration when exposed to more restrictive hierarchical structures when working back in Australia years later—perhaps that is what is meant by ‘culture shock’.
In between my tobacco responsibilities I was acquainted with budget estimates and other necessary paperwork, while doing my best to pick up enough tok pisin (Pidgin English) to be able to converse reasonably freely with the locals. I was also introduced to the key elements of coffee production, as well as the fairly new pyrethrum that was being introduced to areas at higher altitude where coffee didn’t fare so well. That, however, was about the extent to which a didiman was exposed to any orientation or training specific to the job at hand. Clearly there was an expectation that the broad training we had received before arriving in the country, together with on-the-job training, was adequate and, by and large, I don’t think many of us let down the ‘powers that be’.
About three weeks after I arrived in Goroka, it was decided that Okapa would be better suited to someone with a little more experience than me. Instead, I would now be going to Kundiawa, the administrative centre for the Chimbu District, a few hours’ drive to the west of Goroka but only fifteen minutes flying time away. Three days later I was there, having had my first taste of flying in a Cessna 206 along valleys with mountains towering above. Another eye opener on that flight was the nature of the cargo—in the cabin behind me was a small trussed-up pig and a number of chickens in a pitpit (wild sugar cane) cage. While these experiences were a fascinating introduction to flying in the Highlands, it was not long before I became quite blasé about them—it became quite normal.
The plan was that I would spend at least six months based in Kundiawa. As it turned out, six months became less than three and then I was posted to Gumine. Clearly, I was by then considered sufficiently experienced to take on responsibility for managing my own sub-district. In Kundiawa, I shared a house just up the hill from the club with three kiaps (patrol officers) as well as a collection of snakes that one of them had—fortunately well contained (to the best of my knowledge). The club was the social hub of the town and the fact that, more than fifty years later, I have stronger memories of it than I have of the house I lived in perhaps tells us something.
My first month and a bit in Kundiawa was spent being introduced to a range of agricultural pursuits in the area: native cattle projects (fencing and yards, pasture establishment, management and basic veterinary services), coffee (maintenance, harvesting and processing), pyrethrum (production, harvesting, processing and buying), tree seedling distribution and identifying and preparing some village families for their move onto land settlement blocks at Kindeng in the neighbouring Western Highlands. With a big population in a relatively small area, there was a lot of pressure on land in Chimbu so resettlement of some families was seen as one way of addressing this issue.
The remainder of my time based at Kundiawa was spent mostly on patrol promoting the expansion of pyrethrum production, largely in the Kup Census District to the south-west of the town and extending around into the Kerowagi Sub-District. With the official opening of Stafford Allen’s pyrethrum extraction plant just outside Mt Hagen on 16 May 1966, there was a renewed push to lift the production of pyrethrum, a daisy-like flower from which the active ingredient of a widely used non-toxic insecticide is extracted. Pyrethrum had been introduced a few years earlier as a cash crop in areas mostly above an altitude of about 7,000 feet, where coffee could not be grown successfully.
Another newcomer, who had come to the Territory as a didiman a few weeks after me, joined me on the patrol. We worked with the local villagers helping them replant existing gardens and extend their plantings wherever they were keen to do so. As one area was completed, we moved on to the next area, establishing our camp either in an established haus kiap (rest house), village hut or, in some cases, under our own tarpaulin. Canvas bed sleeves rigged up on bush poles formed our beds and were quite comfortable with our sleeping bags to protect us from the cold. Lighting was provided by kerosene pressure lanterns.
Camped above 8,000 feet usually gave us spectacular views over the clouds in the valley below early in the morning. It did, however, present challenges in finding any dry firewood nearby for cooking and keeping us warm into the evening—and it could get pretty chilly. Our manki masta (domestic servant) saw to it, though, that we were always well supplied with dry firewood bought from villagers lower down the mountains as well as putting together all our meals. On patrol, the local people always supplied us with plenty of lovely fresh fruit and vegetables, and we supplemented this with a variety of tinned food that we brought with us. Most of our gear was carried from camp to camp in large metal patrol boxes, slung on a sapling and carried by two men who we would engage for the job at the start of the trek.
During this time on patrol we were fortunate to be given a short break to go to our first Goroka show, a spectacular event that drew thousands of people from throughout the Highlands in particular.
In mid-June 1966 I was posted to Gumine, about thirty miles south of Kundiawa. We’ll pick up that part of my journey in the next instalment.