Time for a coffee break: the Book of Me and our first house

Book of meJulie Goucher from Anglers Rest blog has been running a series called The Book of Me for some time. My good intentions came to naught some time ago and I haven’t written on many of the topics. This week’s topic, though, is about “your first home” and Julie has given us free rein to interpret this any way we like, and it seems I’ve gone off for a gallup. I’ve written previously about my grandparents’ house and a little about my home growing up, but today I thought I’d like to share with you the story of our first home together as a married couple. It’s turned into a long yarn, so take a tea break and settle in for a read.

P1170161Mr Cassmob and I married many decades ago in suburban Brisbane. Two weeks later we flew to the then-Territory of Papua New Guinea where he had grown up and had a job with the Education Department in Alotau, Milne Bay. The departure at Brisbane airport was wrenching and full of tears all round – I have a clear memory of one of my male friends from uni standing with my girlfriends weeping on each shoulder. Port Moresby was to be our first stop on my first “proper” flight. I was “armed” with my new entry permit, issued in my married name, probably the first such document, come to think of it.

The heat hit with a soggy smack as we disembarked the aircraft and I remember smell of the tropics, and that the local ground crew were dressed in lap-laps. Absolutely nothing was the same as I was used to and it was all such a massive change after my life in a working class Brisbane suburb. We spent a few days in Moresby with my sister-in-law who was then studying at the new University of Papua New Guinea but we were keen to get on with our new life together.

Milne Bay Province is on the south-eastern corner of Papua New Guinea. Image from Google Earth.

Milne Bay Province is on the south-eastern corner of Papua New Guinea. Image from Google Earth.

The view of Milne Bay from the relaxation area under the house, circa 1968.

The view of Milne Bay from the relaxation area under the house, circa 1968.

We flew into Gurney airstrip in Milne Bay in a Piaggio aircraft, a cosy nine-seater, though that would have been pretty squashy.  For once, luckily, we were the only passengers and the weather was clear that day[i]. We collected our luggage from the bush-materials shed which served as the arrival hall. I remember our drive into the town of Alotau from Gurney through dense trees with glimpses of the Bay and occasional villages, crossing the three or four unbridged creeks that were part of the journey. And then we were there…our new home!

Strangely I found Alotau much less confronting than Moresby even though it was such a small town of a few hundred people and an even smaller expat community. I guess the magnificent scenery went some way to mitigating the rest of it. We were to spend our first months as a couple in the house of my parents-in-law, who had been posted to Moresby for a few months (why, I don’t recall). In most respects it was a typical government-issued house of the era, and very like Darwin’s high-set houses.

THEN: The Cass family's first home in Alotau, taken soon after the move from Samarai 1968.

THEN: The Cass family’s first home in Alotau, taken soon after the move from Samarai 1968.

What was unusual was its spectacular location with a view over Milne Bay. Alotau was a newly-established town, purpose-built when the government decided to move the Milne Bay District headquarters from the island of Samarai to the mainland. The Education Department had an allocated government trawler, used to do school inspections in the remote far-flung islands of the district, for which Mr Cassmob Senior was the District Inspector.  As such he was able to choose where their house would be built in Alotau… sounding a little colonial? The story goes that he took the trawler up the bay and pointed to a fabulous spot with views of the Bay in front and, at the back of the block, of the cloud-draped mountains. Only the District Commissioner had a better view <smile>.

The house itself was on metal stilts to catch the breezes, reminiscent of many Brisbane houses but much more open and more “flimsy”. Louvres ran the length of each room and were floor-to-ceiling. At the lower level they were metal louvres, but at the top they were glass. The walls were a fibro-like construction and the floors were beautiful polished timber. The kitchen, dining room and lounge were essentially an L-shaped open plan with the stairwell coming up adjacent to the kitchen wall. It had three large bedrooms and a bathroom with a basic shower.

NOW: The old Cass home in Top Town, 2012. The verandah upstairs is an addition as is the fencing on the bottom level.

NOW: The old Cass home in Top Town, 2012. The verandah upstairs is an addition as is the fencing on the bottom level.

Government houses were issued with furniture from Government Stores. It was perfectly functional but would never win any design awards. Simple aluminium tables and chairs, ditto the beds, and a reasonable but basic lounge suite. Mr Cassmob Snr was skilled with his hands and had made some lovely wooden bookcases and coffee tables. Most of the houses were of similar designs which made it easy when you moved from one place to another – just put everything where it “belongs”. You made the house your own by the memorabilia and decorations you used and the soft furnishings you’d sewn. It it was always interesting to visit someone else’s house to see their style…and you never had to ask where the bathroom was <wink>.

THEN: Part of the much loved gardens 1960s - 1970s.

THEN: Part of the much loved gardens 1960s – 1970s.

One humungous difference from my earlier life was that, along with the borrowed house, we had house staff. Poor Jimmy….what a challenge he had with the new sinebada[ii]….I probably drove him demented. I had known in advance that the kitchen oven was a slow-combustion stove so I’d asked my aunty Bonnie, who knew about these things, how to work with them. She had told me that I needed to keep the heat pads down (or was it up?) on the elements to keep the heat in. Jimmy had the opposite view so we spent weeks putting them up and down in turns. How ridiculous! I should have just let him get on with it! On the up side he also chopped the wood for the oven so we didn’t have to worry about it until our next house when we chose not to have house staff.

NOW: You can glimpse the mountains at the rear of the house. Sadly the hibiscus plants are no more. Taken 2012.

NOW: You can glimpse the mountains at the rear of the house. Sadly the hibiscus plants are no more. Taken 2012.

Under the house was an open space with a relaxing area where we’d have an evening drink and nibbles, a Cass family tradition. Around the back of the stairwell was the open-air laundry with its high-tech twin tub washing machine.

Mrs Cassmob Senior was a mad-keen gardener and their garden was a delight. She had lots of hibiscus growing and had even imported some from Hawaii, especially a lovely lilac one. She passed her love of flowers on to her children so I have her to thank for the flowers I’m given regularly.  Each day Jimmy would pick a hibiscus and put it in the upside-down fish-bowl-vase on the dining table.

Bougainvillea not hibiscus, but you get the idea.

Bougainvillea not hibiscus, but you get the idea.

Milne Bay is very wet and the jungle reached up to the garden’s boundary with ferns and staghorns. I don’t think I fully appreciated the beauty of that garden in those days. I think my mother-in-law enjoyed spending time in it. She was born a country girl, and with her husband away for long periods on the trawler, and children away at boarding school, it probably gave her relaxation away from

her own job as a teacher at the primary school across the road.

Nowhere in PNG had television as well so our entertainment was self-driven, or a movie at the Cameron Club (don’t get excited, not as flash as it sounds). There were no restaurants so we had friends over for dinner and vice versa. There were four trade stores with a minimal variety of items, rather like something from an old Western-style movie. No department stores like TC Beirne’s, David Jones, Myer or McWhirter, no walking from the Valley to the City looking at which particular item suited best. Doing some sewing on my mother-in-law’s machine? Need cotton? Don’t worry about colour matching – choose between black and white and maybe one or two other colours.

Milne Bay, Alotau

This shows the main street of Alotau in 2012 with far more shops than were there in our day. Above the power lines you can see the line of houses where the Cass family lived…theirs used to be the last one in the street.

Major groceries were ordered in by mail from Samarai, where the “big” shops were still based because of its place on the shipping lanes, and they came in to us by trawler. Meat and other freezer goods were ordered from Moresby and came in by plane – when the clouds weren’t socking in the bay. You can imagine the potential for confusion with three Cass families spread around PNG – we’d wind up with each other’s freezer accounts…and as for our government staff files!

The Cameron Club promoting everyone's favourite tipple. We used to go to part-open-air movies here weekly.

The Cameron Club promoting everyone’s favourite tipple. We used to go to part-open-air movies here weekly.

The Alotau power system was only on for 18 hours a day so we also had kerosene lamps, and torches, handy for the hours between midnight and six. We would have to rush home from the movies at the Cameron Club to get the coffee made before the power went out.

Although the phone system had recently progressed from the previous radio telephone (over), it was erratic, expensive, and unless you wanted to share your conversation with the whole street, not worth bothering with. Instead I wrote regular lengthy letters to my parents and friends back in Brisbane. Unfortunately I have none from those early days, not even the first letter of 19 pages I wrote to Mum and Dad. And did I mention that in those early months, during the Wet Season, mail didn’t arrive when the plane couldn’t get in?

So much of that time disappeared from my memory in the overwhelming changes that I was adapting to and I really wish that I had some of those letters to remind me, or had written a diary. Before that first year was out I had come to love Papua New Guinea despite its challenges…it had become home. This was part of the reason we made a trip back in 2012…always risky to revisit a place but we still loved it. You can read some of those stories herehere, and here.

A long story from me, as always, and not just about our first house, but as with family history generally, it’s about context.

Milne Bay women dancing at the Kenu and Kundu Festival, Alotau 2012.

Milne Bay women dancing at the Kenu and Kundu Festival, Alotau 2012.

[i] Flying in PNG is notoriously risky as this website shows http://aviation-safety.net/database/dblist.php?Country=P2. Strangely it doesn’t include the one in Milne Bay that occurred soon after we arrived there.

[ii] Roughly translated, a white lady, now more often called dimdim.

Anniversary of Battle of Milne Bay

This week is the 71st anniversary of the Battle of Milne Bay.  Far less known to the average Aussie than Kokoda in the annals of our military history, it was a vitally important victory against the Japanese Forces.

This is the approximate location at which the Japanese landed: very difficult to get a good photo when bouncing along in a banana boat.

This is the approximate location at which the Japanese landed: very difficult to get a good photo when bouncing along in a banana boat.

You can read what I wrote about it for last Remembrance Day, not long after we returned from visiting Milne Bay, as well as the memorial stained glass windows in the Catholic church.

This excellent link provides an interactive map of the battle field, and progress of the battle itself.

Facebook fans might be interested in liking the Milne Bay Memorial Library and Research Centre.

Milne Bay Province is on the south-eastern corner of Papua New Guinea. Image from Google Earth.

Milne Bay Province is on the south-eastern corner of Papua New Guinea. Image from Google Earth.

Sepia Saturday 162: “Marlon” on a bike

sepia saturday 2 Feb 13The highlight of this week’s Sepia Saturday image are the telegram boys on bicycles. This is a very apt theme for my family: my father rode his push bike to work every day, in hail rain or shine because we didn’t own a car. Mum and I also had bikes and we would sometimes go on family outings in the wider neighbourhood. I distinctly remember having to ride my bike down some of the scary roller-coaster-like hills in our suburb with my heart in my throat.

How frustrating then, that I have nary a photo of any of us on a push bike! Can you believe it? I can’t and will have to see if I can hunt one down (assuming there is one).

Mr Cassmob and his bike

So being lateral I had to find another picture which would serve. This photo of Mr Cassmob aka Marlon was taken in Alotau in Papua New Guinea, outside his parents’ new house, not too long after the government offices moved there from the island of Samarai. Mr Cassmob was studying long-distance and working on a coconut plantation about 30kms away, supervising the labourers. I’m sure they loved being under the jurisdiction of a teenager.

I ask you, which one is more handsome? Photo from Wikipedia.

I ask you, which one is more handsome? Photo from Wikipedia.

On the back of the photo which he sent me, he wrote “Love from Marlon. What no ‘pack’ behind fearless leader?” I think he was kidding himself on a number of counts:

  • Marlon? I think he was much better looking that Marlon Brando, though perhaps “smouldered” rather less
  • He’d been listening to the Shangri-La’s Leader of the Pack too many times
  • That his little Honda was in competition with the deadly rumble of a Harley Davison.

Milne Bay: Our Heritage Places Tour

One of our priority activities in Alotau was to hire a taxi driver to take us around the town to see our old familiar places. Eddie was educated as a health worker with a degree from the Divine Word University and his English was excellent (as well as probably being his third language) so we had a good chat along the way.

Before we start I should explain that in those pre-Independence days of the Australian administration of TPNG, the government issued specific houses to its employees, based partly on status, and partly on need. They also had full authority to move employees to wherever they were required –not unlike being in the military I suppose – so you could find yourself relocated with minimal notice….or rumours spread that you were leaving when you weren’t, come to that.

 FAMILIAR PLACES & MEMORIES

 Up Red Hill

 The main street up to Top Town, as it’s now known, is now called Tawara Hill Rd. Once upon a time it was unsealed, red clay through which your car or motor bike slipped and slid during the wet season. It was a killer-hill, very steep, so no surprise we didn’t walk it even though we had no car in those days.

 House #1: Top Town, Dalai Heights Rd, western end

The old Cass home in Top Town.

We were invited into the garden of my parents-in-law’s former house where they lived when Alotau first became the district headquarters in 1968. The story goes that my father-in-law, as District Superintendent for Education, stood on the deck of the Education Department trawler (the Kamonai) as it stood offshore, and selected their house block for its scenic outlook. Its proximity to the primary school at Red Hill where my mother-in-law taught was no coincidence either. Colonial days!

You can glimpse the mountains at the rear of the house. Sadly the hibiscus plants are no more.

The house is no longer the last in the street, but it was a thrill to see it once again. I remembered the covert disputes I used to have with Kaye’s haus boi, Jimmy, who insisted the heating pad for the slow combustion stove should be put up on the hooks while I’d been taught by my aunt that it needed to be down on the hot plates. A more experienced sinebada would have known better than get into a silly argument like that with long-term house staff. Every day Jimmy would bring one of Kaye’s beautiful hibiscus (some imported from Hawaii) into the house where they were placed in an upside-down fish pond thingy. They only lasted the day but were quite spectacular.

Thank you Vincent for your kindness and openness in letting two complete strangers come into your yard. He probably thought we were quite mad when Mr Cassmob mused on how his father had the driveway built at a particular angle, or the drainage he’d also had constructed. I, on the other hand, visualised the photo of my future-husband sitting in the open area beneath the house getting ready for his day’s work at Gili Gili Plantation.

 House #2, Top Town (Dalai Heights Rd, eastern end)

Not much to show of Cass house #2. In fact it looks like the remains of an Irish wall.

This one nearly stumped us as we hadn’t lived in it for more than a couple of months. Unfortunately it was largely obscured by the curved driveway lined with plants. We remember it for those mornings when we’d wake up to butterfly devastation by our cat Tabitha who was a balletic leap-er, who would then shred her catch, and the in-laws’ dachshund, Tinka, who loved nothing better than shredding a box of tissues. You can imagine the chaos on the floor.

Not to mention chopping wood for the slow combustion stove, and hence hot water for washing etc, while violently morning sick and observed worriedly by both cat and dog!

This house is also famous for the kerosene lamp which exploded early on New Year’s Eve morning, when I was many months pregnant. Mr Cassmob woke to a sea of glass and flames across the lounge room floor and eventually found me in the kitchen starkers as my nylon nightie had partially caught fire. One local responses: from the Agriculture man “Someone’s shot his wife”; another “why is Pauleen running down the street?” Short answer – to the health worker!

Masurina Lodge, Middle Town

Masurina Lodge, now owned by the Abel family but formerly a guest house started by Glyn Wort.

Once I’d seen the map of Alotau and its Middle Town area, I suspected that Masurina Lodge was formerly the Glyn Wort guesthouse where I’d worked briefly. Sure enough when we rocked up to reception and enquired, one of the staff was able to confirm my guess. Now much bigger and flasher it was weird to remember how each morning the cook would bring us fresh cake for our tea-break. Just as well that job came to an end quite quickly or I’d have quickly lost my then-thin appearance.

 House #3, Middle Town, Bagita St

The view over Sandersons Bay from opposite Cass house #3.

This was the house to which we were moved with a small baby, our final house in Alotau. We were a little miffed because it had limited under-house space where I could hang the baby’s nappies…rather important in the wet season when there was no such thing as dryers.  On the flip side it had a fantastic view over Sandersons Bay and Milne Bay in general, so swings and roundabouts.

We were living here when the government told us we were to move to Goroka. In the family folk lore this came about because the District Superintendent for Education in Goroka wanted a new district clerk (Mr Cassmob) while the DS in Lae decided he wanted a new executive chair more! On such whims are our lives changed <smile>.

Sandersons Bay in the early 1970s.

When we pulled up outside this house, with its little sales stall of drinks and betel nut/buai, we were amazed to be welcomed by the whole family who lived there. Astonishingly they had taken over the house only a couple of months after we left for Goroka (from whence they had come). The house had been their home ever since. When we left the house in a mad rush, having had only a week to get packing crates made and our belongings packed up and ourselves out of there, we’d made arrangements for our cat to be adopted by friends at the high school and her kittens to be also shared out. For 40 years I’ve worried whether that happened and whether the high school kids contracted to clean the house had done so.  Unless the family was sparing our feelings it seems my fears have been unfounded so it’s a concern I can now lay to rest.

We were all quite blown away by this coincidence and had a long chat with the extended family. One brother had also met Mr Cassmob’s brother briefly from when he’d visited while working on a short-term consultancy with the Eastern Star newspaper.  I have a great photo of us with the family but I won’t publish it here as I don’t have their permission. Thanks Jessie and family for greeting us so warmly!

 Cameron Club

The Cameron Club promoting everyone’s favourite tipple.

It was hot and we were tired so we only had a quick visit into the Cameron Club. Situated right on the Bay it was the setting for some fierce squash matches as well as our Friday night movie venue. With only 18 hour power we would finish the movies, jump into someone’s ute, race up Red Hill and switch on the kettle for coffee and light the kerosene lamp before the power went off at midnight.

 The Movie Theatre, the Government Offices and the Shops

Alotau’s main shopping street only held 4 trade stores in the old days: Chan’s, Cheong’s, Denis Young’s and ??

We suspect there’s an arsonist at work in Alotau as several large and important buildings have burnt down.  The Government Offices, opened in late 1970, burnt down a few years ago so there’s now a vacant block where they once stood.

Similarly the “new” movie theatre built by a man called Geoff Masters also burnt down…something of a mystery since we remember it as being besser block. It was built during 1970 and we remembered going to a “Ball” there as well as Mass every Sunday, the latter being interesting as the floor would be covered in buai spit from the movies the night before. Betel nut or buai is a popular habit, sort of like tobacco chewing,generally not appealing to Western eyes. When spat out it looks like blood on the ground. The movie theatre was eventually replaced by the new Catholic church, with the stained glass windows I posted about the other day. It wasn’t completed until either late 1971 or early 1972 after we’d left, but we reckon we might own one of the bricks <grin>.

The shopping precinct in those early days of Alotau comprised four trade stores – sort of like an old-time general store. It’s bigger these days but still restrictive in what’s available.

An early 1970s aerial view of Alotau with the approximate location of our houses marked.

Milne Bay: The People and Old and New Friends

In Moresby our big adventure is ahead of us and we’re as excited as two-year olds (thanks for the photo Jan!)

Yesterday I spoke about our return to Milne Bay after 41 years. Today I wanted to share some of our personal highlights, and the ensuing memories, with you.

Like two excited two-year olds we waited for the plane to take us back to Milne Bay. Despite a flight delay, the excitement and memories didn’t abate as we landed at the much-improved Gurney airport with its formal building – so very different from the bush materials place we knew “before”.  Initially I’m going to tell you about the people we met and later about the places, so hop on to share our journey.

The Festival dances and canoe races will feature on Flickr or Tropical Territory when I get them organised.

THE PEOPLE

The old familiar, gentle handshake of Papua New Guinea, shared by almost everyone you meet along with an exchange of names.

I love this image of the young boy enthralled by his cultural heritage.

Where else could you walk safely down the street at 6.15 in the morning and have every single person say “hello” and “how are you?”

 Where the taxi drivers introduce themselves, even on a short trip, and on learning that you had once lived in their town take a real interest in who/how/when/where/why.

Where the lodge staff quickly learn your name and are ever friendly and courteous even though incredibly busy with the festival.

Where an accidental interpersonal collision (due to me being preoccupied looking at something) results in a “sorry aunty”.

Where the local people will make sure you get a good view for your photo or tell you about the dance group, and really care that you’re having a good time.

Who wouldn’t love Milne Bay?

Where you can have an extended chat with a carver from a distant island who has come to town to sell his hand-carved artworks…a man who is a mechanic in another part of his life.

Where the churches are packed on Sundays with those educated by missionaries of various denominations.

Where people willingly invite you into their homes and gardens when they know you used to live in their house.

Milne Bay is the answer to all these questions. Very different from PNG’s well-deserved reputation in other centres, Milne Bay people remain as friendly and courteous as they have always been. We never once felt even slightly unsafe.

Milne Bay: where tradition meets the 21st century and everyone enjoys the spectacle.

But there were also a couple of positive interchanges in Moresby apart from those tremendously welcoming hotel staff:

Where the “meet and greet” man for the fancy hotel launches into Pidgin when he knows you once lived in Goroka and treats you like a wantok (relative), introducing you as such to the security guard on the gate at the international terminal.

Mr Cassmob silencing the hotel bus (including an airline pilot) with some comment about flying on a QANTAS Empire Airways Sandringham flying boat in the 1950s.

 OLD FRIENDS-NEW FRIENDS

In Alotau we stayed in a place called Napatana Lodge and one of its strengths was its staff while the other was the opportunity to make new friends in the open bar/dining area/informal lounge.

A vibrant and enjoyable Friday night social dinner at Napatana Lodge in Alotau.

We had barely arrived when we headed to the lounge for a cold drink and some lunch. Another couple were already there and greeted us. Further enquiries revealed that John and Judith had not long arrived, but also that Judith and Peter had known each other as children on Samarai where her father had been the District Commissioner! How amazing and what great exchange of stories and memories took place. A highlight of our holiday!

A contemplative cat in the sunshine in the haus wind guest lounge.

Not to mention that we all had a great fondness for cats so we seemed to constantly have one or other of the Lodge’s kittens on our laps. If Judith was here she’d tell you how evil Nanna took the tuna dish from one VBK (very bad kitten). I still maintain it would have exploded if it kept eating, Judith <grin>

Thanks to Judith’s discussions with one of the Lodge cooks, Diana, we learned about another family connection. Diana comes from an island called Logeia off Samarai. She remembered that when she was seven, Mr Cass (THE Mr Cass, not Mr Peter Cass as he used to be known) had come to the island to do a formal inspection of her mother’s teaching. Les had a pretty formidable reputation so this seems to be why it stuck in her mind. Diana and the kitchen and bar team also set out a wonderful spread for dinner each night, including beautiful floral and fruit arrangements. The atmosphere at the Lodge was just so companionable.

Hours of work to create a tropical ambience with frangipani and palm fronds.

The connection with Diana also led to calls to Samarai where we met two men who had been in my brother-in-law’s class and taught by Peter’s mother. Mr Cassmob also met another of the guests who he’d last known through work in Goroka: truly it can be a small world.

We also met other sets of people from a variety of places and heard about their travels and where they’d visited: all very interesting with fascinating stories (Hello to Kim and Lyn, Andrew, Ian and Anne,and Phil). Because we were attending the Festival and most of us were photoholics, we kept tripping over each other either at the Festival site or at the Alotau International Hotel where we’d migrate for a cold beverage, lunch, and a rest-room break during the day, because it was the closest venue.

There were a number of chilly South Pacific export beers enjoyed over the hot days of the festival.

Jeff took us on our boat trip to Samarai and he and Mr Cassmob had much to talk about as both had lived there around the same time (including reminiscing about picking up fresh loaves of bread and picking out the centres).

As we walked around the small island we met others who wanted to know why we were there and what we remembered of the place. My memory was sketchy as I’d only had a couple of brief visits years ago but of course it was like an old movie for Peter. Sadly, but perhaps not unexpectedly, the family’s house no longer survives, but we were able to admire the wonderful view they’d had to the government wharf and over the water to Logeia. We knew that the island was a shadow of its former self when it was a thriving government and shipping hub so were not shocked by the ghost-town aspects of some areas.

Mr & Mrs Cassmob (aka Pink Hat Lady) enjoying every minute of their return to PNG…and (mostly) avoiding sunburn.

One of the aspects of Milne Bay which we noticed is that it is no longer one homogenous ethnic group. Workers have come in who were born in other provinces, and some have married Milne Bay people.

You have probably gathered just how much we loved being back in this wonderful place, and how much the people added to that enjoyment.

I’d love to include images of the friends we made but without permission to publish I haven’t added them here.

Return to Milne Bay

Seven days in Papua New Guinea (PNG), seven days home in Australia. A short enough time you would think, but somehow our world has shifted ever so slightly on its axis. It seems that we have been reinfected with the PNG virus. Our normal life seems vaguely strange as we try to reacclimatise to all our normal activities. Thank heavens for family and grandchildren to ground us back here.

We landed at Jacksons Airport in Port Moresby on 31 October, 34 years and 2 months after we last flew out in a Boeing 747 Jumbo “going finish” (left permanently) to Australia. For me it was the end of 8½ years of a challenging discovery of another world vastly different from my pre-marriage life in suburban Brisbane. For Mr Cassmob he was leaving his home, probably forever. He was an emigrant as surely as our ancestors were when they left their home countries for the new world.

Mr Cassmob returns to PNG 34 years after going finish.

A book I’ve been re-reading called Territory Kids (author Genevieve Rogers) highlights that for children who grew up in the then-Territory of Papua New Guinea, their exotic life was the norm. They had not previously been acculturated to Australian life as their parents (or spouses!) had. For ten years Mr Cassmob had lived the life of a dual citizen, much of the year spent having a “civilised” Australian experience in school or university, then returning to his life on a frontier once or twice a year. He had built up some emotional calluses to protect the constant transitions. It was me who burst into tears one day in Mass in 1978 when the organ sounded briefly like the sound of kundus (drums).

When we planned this return-to-PNG trip we had considered that so much might have changed we’d be disappointed or disillusioned. Returning to a much-loved place can be an emotional hazard. What we hadn’t bargained on was that we might settle back so quickly into our relationship with it, and be in thrall to its charms.

Overlooking Jacksons Airport from our hotel: the plane is a feature.

Jacksons Airport had changed yet much remained familiar, not least the overlooking outline of Hombrum’s Bluff, part of the Owen Stanley Range. There were new terminals and new aircraft on the apron including far more helicopters than we used to see –presumably used in part by the mining companies. We had chosen to only overnight in Moresby –its reputation has never been good but it is now violently unsafe. It seemed easier not to navigate that issue –we’d lived there for four years so we knew it well and didn’t feel the immediate need to return.

It was while lolling in the pool at the very flash, very expensive, but critically, very safe, hotel that we made our first friends of the trip, Keith and Jan from England. This was their second trip to PNG and they’ve had some amazing adventures which you can read about on their blog, Claremont Globetrotters.

Milne Bay Province is on the south-eastern corner of Papua New Guinea. Image from Google Earth.

The main focus of our trip was to revisit Alotau in Milne Bay on the south-eastern corner of Papua New Guinea. Mr Cassmob regards this area as his “place”: that defining environment in which we grow up. For me it was to be a trip of rediscovery, 41 years after leaving the Bay, despatched by the government to live and work in the Highlands.

Not the bush material hut that we once knew.

I thought I’d been so overwhelmed by the vast differences between Brisbane and Alotau in my 18 months there (not to mention being uprooted from friends and family) that I hadn’t remembered Milne Bay well.

To my surprise I found I was quite wrong. There were things I hadn’t remembered, such as the mountains visible at the back of my parents-in-law’s house, but then that was easily explained by the fact that it had been the Wet Season when we lived there and the cloud descended so you couldn’t always see the clothes line, let alone the mountains! And yet, so much looked and felt familiar: the essence of the place was still there, in situ and in my memory.

Napatana Lodge, Alotau.

Milne Bay people have a tradition of friendliness and courtesy and we were delighted to find that hadn’t changed at all: everywhere we went we were greeted by those we passed, taxi drivers chatted and told us of their families and their own stories and happily we met people with connections to our past.

We had scheduled our trip to coincide with the National Kenu and Kundu (canoe and drum) Festival and perhaps that helped make for a more welcoming atmosphere but I think what we saw was the people’s traditional courtesy.

Of course we had to have a souvenir of the Festival.

When we lived in Alotau, in those pre-self-government, colonial days, there were about 100 expatriates and 1000 local people. It was a newly formed town built for the administration of the district when Samarai became too small.

Alotau and the surrounding area has grown a great deal and there’s now 10,000 people living there. We remained a very small minority of white faces amidst the brown and one of the things I especially liked about the festival was that the Papua New Guineans enjoyed the dancing, canoe racing and other festivities as much, if not more, than the visitors.  It felt like a festival for them, to which we’d had the privilege of being invited.

From a commercial point of view, more expatriate visitors would no doubt be welcome, but hopefully that will not change the engagement of the local people. In 2013 they will celebrate the 10th festival and a cruise ship is scheduled to arrive to coincide with it, I only hope that the voyagers recognise what a privilege it is to share in these traditional activities.

Coming up: Sights, sounds, memories and more.

I’ll probably post more of my photos on Flickr than I will here but I’ll let you know when that happens –some sorting and prioritising to be done.

Lest We Forget: the Battle of Milne Bay

As you know we’ve just returned from Papua New Guinea, and in particular Milne Bay where we spent most of our time. We had lived there for a couple of years after our marriage but Mr Cassmob had also spent his teenage years in the district, when home from boarding school, and he regards it as his “place”.

It always shocks me how little known Milne Bay is within the history of World War II, while Kokoda gains a much higher profile. Despite contradictory stories, it was in the Battle of Milne Bay that the Japanese suffered their first land defeat, proving they were not invincible. Following the rapid domino effect of their overthrow of the Asian countries such as Singapore, this battle gave hope that their forces could be defeated. While there is now no indication that the Japanese forces intended to invade Australia, there’s little doubt that an enemy force ensconced in Papua or New Guinea would have been cause for grave concern and fears for Australia’s security. This year has been the 70th anniversary of the battle.

The Battle of Milne Bay was a relatively short but difficult campaign exacerbated by challenging terrain, heat and the hazards of malaria. It raged up and down the northern coastline of Milne Bay exactly where we were visiting last week and where we had lived in the 70s. The major air base was on Gili Gili Plantation where my husband worked briefly in the late 60s (see the story of his discovery of a wartime artefact here).

Rather than give you chapter and verse I’m going to show you the images of the War Memorial near Alotau and also the information plaques which tell the story of the battle. You might also be interested in the images on my Tropical Territory blog which show the stained glass windows in the Catholic Church in Alotau, honouring those lost in the battle.

The map shows the range of the battlegrounds. Alotau, the provincial headquarters, where we’ve just been, is slightly to the left of the arrow.

The memorial overlooks Milne Bay: a far more tranquil scene than 70 years ago.

The Australians gained great support from the local people who risked much to help them.

Lest we forget

Image of poppies from Wikipedia.

In Memoriam: Crows Nest Memorial to those who gave their lives in World Wars I and II. The memorial includes the names of Cpl French VC and my grandfather’s cousin, James Gavin.

P presents Popondetta, Port Moresby and Peel Island

I am participating in the A to Z 2012 blog challenge throughout April. My theme is a genealogical travelogue or a travel genealogue (I’m not sure which). Today we have a guest post from Mr Cassmob on Popondetta, a place I’ve never visited. I divert into a sort of pathetic poetry on Port Moresby, and tell of tragedy on Peel Island.

P is for POPONDETTA (Papua New Guinea)

Mr Cassmob as a small boy with his Dad and big sister in Popondetta outside house #2. © Les Cass 1954.

This guest post is brought to you by Mr Cassmob who lived in Popondetta as a small boy.

Popondetta, capital of the Oro Province of Paua New Guinea, sits on the north Papuan plains, between Buna and Gona on the coast and Kokoda in the mountains; the area was the scene of vicious fighting when the Japanese invaded in the Second World War. In 1953, when Mr Cassmob’s parents, both teachers, arrived with their two small children, Popondetta was a very small town being established as the new administrative headquarters of the Northern District. Nearby Mt Lamington had erupted in January 1951, killing about 5,000 people and destroying the previous township at Higaturu.

Our first house in Popondetta had a coconut frond thatched roof, woven pit-pit (local cane/grass) walls and split bamboo floor, shutters, palm rats and a carpet snake in the rafters, and a long-drop toilet or thunder-box outside the back door. We thought we were the bee’s knees when we moved into our third house, a brand-new wooden high-set with louvres, internal doors, and an inside flush toilet attached to a septic tank. On the concrete slab under the house – very much our outdoor living area – Mum and Dad installed a cane-furniture bar complete with illuminated sign that said “Cass Bar”. For those who remember 1950s movies about Morocco, they greatly enjoyed saying ”Come wiz me to ze Cass Bar”.

School children, Northern District c1954 © Les Cass. Mould is what you get on your slides in the tropics!

I have happy memories of three years in Popondetta. It was, quite clearly, a colonial experience, but children could go anywhere in town, spending all day at the pool until dark drove us home; seeing flying foxes in columns half a kilometre wide and stretching from horizon to horizon pouring out of the jungle at dusk; checking Mt Lamington every morning to see if it was still smoking – if not, it might be trouble! Officially starting school flowed naturally from home because our mother was our teacher. The air link to Port Moresby (no roads) was through the Kokoda Gap in the Owen Stanley Ranges in a war-service Avro Anson flown by Papuan Air Transport. The Dutch pilot completed his flight preparations by walking out onto the tarmac, squinting at the clouds over the ranges and saying “Looks OK. We’ll have a go.”

I was saddened this morning to look at Popondetta on Google and see reports of raskol gangs, gambling, cyclone damage – in short, a town in collapse with no great reason for anyone to go there. Here are some recent insights into Popondetta life these days: Stranded in Popondetta and  SteveinPNG (unbelievable prices for betel nut).

P is for PORT MORESBY (PNG)

Poetry isn’t normally my thing, but for a change of pace I thought I’d present my impressions of (Port) Moresby in a different way.

At Jacksons Airport, Mr Cassmob's parents leave PNG after 23 years service (called "going finish") © P Cass 1976.


MEMORIES OF MORESBY

Bereft of family and friends

arriving at Jacksons Airport

humid heat slams like a truck

ground staff in lap-laps

a sea of different faces.

Betel nut sellers Port Moresby © P Cass 1974.

People sit around town

lime bags at their feet

mixed with betel nut to chew

mouths turn bright red with

blood-red globs of spit.

Catholic Cathedral near Ela Beach, Port Moresby. © P Cass 1975

Cathedral with indigenous art

becomes my refuge

a bastion of familiarity

flee, fly to Alotau and

our new home.

Returning to Moresby years later

we learn its other faces

children, jobs, a different life

Family and friends sit on the fence, Variarata. © P Cass 1975.

new friends, old friends

Gerehu greetings.

Ela Beach swimming, picnics

take the dog, leave the cat

adventures at Variarata

family photos on a fence.

At Christmas in Moresby

Santa arrives by plane or fire engine

Gerehuligans gather together,

a new tradition.

The Prince and the Bishop at a loss for words.on Independence. © P Cass 1975.

Independence for PNG arrives at last

watch the visitors, princes and chiefs

lower the old flag, raise the new,

commemorate our contribution

celebrate the start of a new country.

P is for PEEL ISLAND (Queensland)

It is late 1876 and a husband, his young wife and infant child set forth on the 869 ton Woodlark for the long voyage to Queensland. He is bred to the sea, but she is not. The voyage passes uneventfully thanks to the care and attention paid to the emigrants, and the cleanliness of their persons, berths and clothes[i]. The ship’s arrival in Moreton Bay is announced by the newspapers in January 1877. Among the 295 immigrants on board is a suspected case of enteric fever, also known as typhoid fever.  The ship is not granted pratique and the immigrants and other passengers are detained while those who are ill are placed in quarantine.

After a week most of the passengers were brought up to Brisbane but the case of a young woman remained doubtful. Six weeks later the young woman dies on Peel Island, in quarantine, but not of an infectious illness. The question has to be asked whether if she had been brought into the hospital she might have survived. There is some consolation in knowing her husband was with her throughout but her younger brother had probably been sent ashore previously. How did they write to tell her father the terrible news of his daughter’s death?

Janet Melvin nee Peterkin was barely 22 years old and she was my great-grandfather’s first wife.

For today’s A to Z challenge link, why not pop over to Stephen Tremp’s intriguing posts on astrological matters or Like a bump on a blog on blogging tips.

A feisty blog from someone living in PNG now is A Goddess in the Jungle, interesting insights into today’s expat lifestyle.


[i] Letter to the Editor, The Brisbane Courier, 25 January 1877, page 3.

Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories – 21st December 2011 –Christmas Music

What songs did your family listen to during Christmas? Did you ever go carolling? Did you have a favourite song?

One of our first Christmas albums as a couple.

The Christmas carols I remember most from my childhood were Adeste Fidelis and Silent Night. Then when I got a small record player in my high school years we bought a new Christmas LP and on it was Oh Tannenbaum, the German carol which gave me a chance to practice the German I was learning at school.

On our first Christmas together my husband and I bought an LP by Nana Mouskouri and on that was the song, the Little Drummer Boy. I’d never heard it before and it’s become one of my favourites ever since along with Mary’s Boy Child as sung by Boney M (Mr Cassmob used to love it by Harry Belafonte but we didn’t have the music though his rendition is superb). In our house at Christmas time rocking Xmas songs by Neil Diamond are interspersed with Christmas Carols by the Oxford Boys Choir and Joy to the World or Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus.

As a child in Brisbane the only carols I remember singing were in church over Christmas and I have no recollection of anyone going carolling. I was a bit surprised to discover when reading some old diaries recently that the Uniting Church people used to go carolling in our neighbourhood of Gerehu in Port Moresby…I had completely forgotten this. When we returned to Australia from Papua New Guinea our family used to go to carols by candlelight every year including when our youngest was just a tiny baby. We did this every year for about 20 years, without fail, until the television channel which hosted it turned it into a commercial farce. After that we settled for watching Australia’s iconic carols from Melbourne on Christmas Eve, often while wrapping presents.

At the church our own family used to go to in Brisbane, the band would play sedately throughout midnight Mass then as the Mass ended they would launch into full scale, full noise versions of carols and Christmas songs. Very exuberant and joyful and full of the Christmas spirit –put a smile on everyone’s face!

Thomas MacEntee at Geneabloggers is encouraging us to celebrate the 2011 Christmas season with a series of posts called the Advent Calendar of Memories. This is today’s entry.

52 weeks of personal genealogy and history: Week 46: Politics not one of my favourite things

The topic for Week 46 in Amy Coffin’s and Geneablogger’s 52 Weeks of Personal Genealogy and History series is: Politics. What are your childhood memories of politics? Were your parents active in politics? What political events and elections do you remember from your youth?

If I was to go all Julie Andrews in Sound of Music, politics would not be one of my favourite things in the world.

I have few childhood memories of politics until towards the end of my primary school years when reading the newspaper became part of our school homework. I think family listening to the news was restricted because of my father’s shift-work hours and sleeping patterns. I’m sure my parents listened when he was up and about…Dad was devoted to his “tranny” (transistor radio) as he always called it and in his old age would listen to the hourly news bulletins. Politics was not really discussed at home all that much when I was a child, at least that I recall.

Union politics and work matters were more likely to feature in the daily discussions as Dad was always an active union member, not always agreeing with the majority rank-and-file, and outspoken in his views. It’s only recently through Trove, that I’ve learned of my maternal grandfather’s political involvement: he was a union official and also had an official role with the Australian Labor Party(ALP), (not to mention the Hibernian Society). Given the presence of a declaration re the Irish constitution among his belongings it seems he also maintained a close interest in Irish political happenings, despite leaving the country as a two-year old. Neither of my parents was active in political affairs generally.

Particular memories of political events which have stayed with me are the election of John F Kennedy as the President of the United States of America which was a landmark event for Catholics across the globe. His assassination was consequently all the more shocking, and I remember my mother coming to wake me up that morning to tell me the President had been killed. Somehow it’s linked in my mind with being woken up a couple of years later to be told my beloved grandfather had died overnight.

I also remember the visit of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) to Brisbane and the cries of “All the way with LBJ”. The significance of the first visit of an American President to Australia was huge at the time and he was received by enthusiastic supporters. An interesting contrast with this week’s visit to Darwin by President Barack Obama when roads were closed and the general public had very little opportunity to see him – except on TV. The Defence Force members who heard his short speech and had a meet-and-greet with him seemed very keen to shake his hand and say hello (or g’day). He also won hearts among the survivors of the Bombing of Darwin who met him.

Other political “events” I remember are:

  1. The response of church leaders and teachers to the Communist Chinese threat in the 1950s, complete with gory details taught to five year olds.
  2. The establishment of the Democratic Labor Party (DLP) with its anti-Communist, pro-Catholic aims and the break-away impact on the Australian Labor Party.
  3. The conservative governments in Queensland and Australia which were in power through much of my youth and into my adulthood.
  4. The all-pervasiveness of Prime Minister Robert Menzies and later Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen in Queensland.
  5. The disappearance/drowning of Prime Minister Harold Holt in 1967 with all its attendant conspiracy theories. Prime Minister John Gorton, a war hero with a mashed-up face.
  6. The right-to-march and anti-Vietnam-involvement protests at The University of Queensland in the 1960s and almost-daily speeches in the Forum outside the refectory. Brian Laver was the charismatic left wing speaker and Bob Katter, leader of the recently formed Australia Party, was then (from my memory) head of the student union. This story by a friend I knew at uni, reveals some of the issues of the time..in fact I should have just put a link to this story against week 46, and left it at that!
  7. The election of an ALP federal government in 1972 and the rise of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, free university education, withdrawal from Vietnam etc, and later, his dismissal by the Governor General.
  8. The evacuation from Saigon in 1975 sticks in my mind as we were in New Zealand on holidays with our kids, watching the helicopters lift people out of the American embassy.
  9. Most importantly for my own family, self-government for Papua New Guinea in 1973, and Independence in 1975. My story about Independence is here.