‘Indiana Joan’ by Joan and Colin Dwyer
Joan Dwyer turned ninety-two in November 2018. She was a patrol officer’s wife in Papua New Guinea for almost two decades—resourceful, friendly and determined, she lived in three countries, but Papua New Guinea was her favourite place. It’s where she loved, had children and overcame some amazing challenges. In 1956 she met the love of her life, Patrol Officer Terry Dwyer, who was touring England whilst on leave. They married, and he convinced her to travel 12,000 kms away from family and friends to an isolated ‘uncivilised’ life in a tropical paradise.
Her story is one brave woman’s memory of life in a tropical paradise with some unexpected experiences:
Our time in Sydney was almost over; Terry’s course at ASOPA was finished and we had made plans to travel to PNG by ship, namely on the Sinkiang, a Chinese cargo ship. I was sorry to leave Sydney—we had arrived early February 1957 and lived near Manly. Apart from studying, we found time to do things with other patrol officers. We played tennis once a week with the Goodyers and Browns, and also travelled to the Blue Mountains and Bowral with Peter Gall, Singleton and Maitland with John Cochrane, and Canberra with Darryl and Ellen Penhail. My first plane trip was over Bankstown in a Tiger Moth with Denis Faithful.
Australia had an abundance of social life, but it was time for us to leave and venture to Papua New Guinea. The Sinkiang travelled from Sydney to the Solomon Islands, Rabaul, Madang, Kavieng and Lae, where we disembarked on 2 January 1958. Two days later we boarded a single engine Otter from Lae to Goroka.
Mr WE (Bill) Tomasetti greeted us at the airport and informed us we would be travelling to Kundiawa, half way between Goroka and Mt Hagen, later that week on one of John Wells’ trucks—by road! This road was a basic cutting in the side of a mountain with deep potholes, hairpin bends and in some parts strong water running across it—one false move and we would have gone over the edge. Two years later a John Wells’ truck went off this road and many people were killed.
We made it to Kundiawa after a very bumpy and dangerous ride. The acting district officer (ADO), Orm Matheson, showed us to his guest house and invited us to dinner that evening. Halfway through the dinner someone said ‘Guria!’ Even if I had known that the word meant ‘earth tremor’ I wouldn’t have noticed as my body was still rattling from the trip up the treacherous mountain road.
The next day I started as supervisor for the local European children—there were eight on the station at Kundiawa. They were doing their schoolwork by correspondence. Terry was away on patrol quite a lot, but my days were always occupied, and it was something I really enjoyed. August 1958 was school holidays and Terry was set to go on patrol in the Upper Chimbu region, and permission was given for me to go along.
Peter Hardy (cadet patrol officer), Terry and I spent the first night camped in Chuave—a beautiful place with dense tropical foliage and a moderate temperature. Terry organised some local people to help prepare an ablution block just for me. They dug a deep hole and surrounded it with a tent. This sort of privacy must have seemed curious to the local people.
Early the next morning we set off for Kau, a village 6,250 feet above sea level. The hike was hot and steamy. I remember seeing some amazing things like a beautiful crackle of cockatoos flying overhead and spectacular rainforest. I imagined the bleak cold weather back in England. This was a paradise. When we arrived at Kau we set up tables and the locals lined up for the census. After two days of name-taking and listening to their stories, a message came from Kundiawa that had us packing up. Terry was being transferred to Goroka. Terry would be relieving as ADO until December, then we would return to Kundiawa. Time passed quickly in Goroka, but in January 1959 Terry replaced Orm Matheson as ADO in Kundiawa.
We entertained a lot of people, including delegations from United Nations and Lord and Lady Carrington. Lord Carrington was appointed High Commissioner to Australia in 1956, was a member of Churchill’s government in the 1950s, and eventually became Foreign Secretary of the UK. He and Lady Carrington were very nice people.
While at Kundiawa I helped establish the native women’s club with the help of two nurses, Rita and Shirley. We would meet on a Friday afternoon (after school). The local women enjoyed these gatherings and we discussed many important issues relating to isolated women and developed solutions.
I would teach the women sewing (on my old treadle machine) and cooking, while Rita and Shirley would check the babies and provide information on hygiene. Lots of giggling and screams of delight could be heard from that hall on a Friday afternoon—and there was no alcohol involved.
July 1959 and we moved to Kerowagi, a small place with a village atmosphere, but we still had plenty of visitors. I was six-months’ pregnant with my first child, and while the doctor would make occasional visits to these smaller places, we were isolated by today’s standards. I remember on one occasion I needed to see a doctor. We had to travel to Goroka, over fifty kms away. Terry organised a car and we set off with some helpers. We came to the Chimbu River and the bridge was out. The river was a torrent from recent rain. Terry checked the river upstream and down but couldn’t find an easy path across. He decided with the help of many local men to use a flying fox to cross the raging river. People probably wouldn’t do this these days, but I was harnessed up after a test run.
Six-months pregnant, but determined to do the best for my unborn child, I started my cross-river journey. Terry went downstream in case the harness broke, and he could attempt a rescue. Really, I wasn’t the best swimmer so if the flying fox had failed, I would surely have been washed away. The river below me was raging and while it seemed like a long time, I made it across and Terry followed. A huge crowd had gathered, presumably waiting to help if things went wrong. I remember thinking I would never have done this in England let alone Sydney. Still, we had to be resourceful to survive and on 1 October 1959 my first son, David, was born.
After a short amount of time in Chuave, Terry was transferred to Goroka. I took the job of librarian and loved it. Terry moved to the Local Government Department. We were happy in Goroka—I was pregnant with my second child and was only ten minutes from the hospital. But in January 1963 we were transferred to Finschhafen. Terry became the principal of a patrol officer training centre for young local men.
Finschhafen is on the coast and presented different challenges; the climate was constantly hot and humid, and being six-months pregnant added to them. I got on with life as a patrol officer’s wife. We lived in a house that overlooked the Bismarck Sea with a sheer drop in one section. My adventurous three-year-old was a handful, but I had good help.
In April 1963, I hopped on the local transport/cargo boat with several other pregnant women and travelled into Lae to have our second son, Colin. So, I had two children, one a baby, isolated from my family in a humid place, and my husband’s job took him away for three weeks at a time. I missed my husband but quickly established networks to help with the children and isolation.
After a stint in Goroka, Terry was transferred to Port Moresby and became the Director of the Bureau of Industrial Organisations. I was offered a position at the Ela Beach Preschool and loved the work—just as challenging as crossing a swollen river on a flying fox! My boys went to Boroko East Primary School. They have both been successful in their careers. David runs his own accounting practice outside Brisbane, while Colin prefers the tropics and is a media and economic consultant in Townsville.
Finally, all experiences, good or bad, have an ending. After self-government, Terry trained a local person to replace him and we departed for Australia on 1 May 1974. We decided Brisbane would be our next home and base to explore another beautiful country, Australia.
‘Indiana Joan’ overcame challenges of isolation and survived some extremely risky situations, while pregnant—even Indiana Jones couldn’t do that! Seriously, Joan loved every moment of her time in Papua New Guinea. Terry and Joan were a great team (Terry died in 2011) and Joan hopes they made a small difference to the lives of Papua New Guineans, our friends and PNG colleagues.