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Signals from God

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Pindiu, P.N.G. 1977

This story is dedicated to my loyal little band of village Rural Development Assistants at Pindiu, Papua New Guinea, during the 1970’s, who did most of the foot-slogging and achieved so much yet were rewarded with so little.  
For Tala, Kosoaleng, Kati, Gindi, Sanake, Goroseng, Timbangu, Pau, Kwajau, and my friend and partner in crime, Risieve Mumengte.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

In the twenty-first century much of Papua New Guinea is covered by the mobile phone network, but 40 years ago the lack of communication facilities seriously hampered rural development.

Each Government outstation was allocated a daily 15 minute slot  (“the sked”) on a designated HF radio frequency to send messages, food and supply orders, or have the operator in town connect us with the telephone landline network to the rest of the world.

Village people continued to live in relative isolation.

*        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *        *

Rural development projects fail for many reasons, some of which can be avoided by more rigorous planning and execution, but occasionally however you encounter an insurmountable obstruction.

Like God.

With the best of intentions I tried to improve communications between our small but scattered band of didimen working on village projects in the Mongi, Kua and Burum valleys.

Tala, a good extension worker with no formal education, was our main man in the Burum Valley.  He operated out of a tiny bush-material shack adjacent to Ogeranang airstrip.
My base was at Pindiu, only 12 miles away in a straight line,
yet the two of us had no direct means of communication.
At least once a month one or other of us (mainly Tala) had to walk the narrow “mountain goat”  track between the two places so we could plan work projects.
Seven exhausting hours each way.

In an attempt to reduce the number of walking trips,
I ambitiously bought an $80 set of walkie-talkie radios which had
“a range of up to 1000 metres”.

Walkie-talkie radios operate best when in “line of sight” of each other.
As the following diagram illustrates, “line of sight” is something that was in fairly short supply for Tala and GOF.

Cross-section Huon Peninsula

In pursuit of the impossible dream I contacted a bookseller in Australia who sent me in return a wonderful publication called
“How to Build a Quad Antenna”.

Unlike the illustration above, our antennas were constructed entirely from whatever materials we could scrounge locally. Bamboo poles were tied together with bush rope to form the 4 metre-long cross arms, and discarded 7/064 building wire from the station dump served as the aerial.

My quad at Pindiu could be rotated around it’s vertical axis (for directional tuning) and was mounted on top of a long post cut from the bush, while Tala’s was permanently fixed right on top of the roof of his “office”.

In an occurrence which managed to totally astound both myself and my critics, we hooked up the radios and quite magically the “up to 1000 metre” radio reception range suddenly became 12 miles, and Tala and I were thereafter able to communicate on a daily basis.

He was extremely proud of this marvellous technology which was admired by all the people who trekked into Ogeranang from surrounding villages for Saturday market days.

A marvellous example of appropriate technology?  

A year later Tala’s transmissions unexpectedly ceased, so I flew into Ogeranang taking with me a fresh supply of AA batteries for his radio.

He had seemingly aged by about 20 years as he nervously pointed towards what little remained of his antenna.  Taking me inside the “office” he handed over the molten remains of his walkie-talkie radio through a very large hole that had been blasted in the wall by the lightning bolt before, as he put it;  “the big blue and yellow light exploded out through the door then skipped along the ground all the way down the airstrip GOF”.

Tala had been sitting just 6 feet away from the radio when this happened.
He thereafter refused to have anything more to do with my smart-arse technology suggestions, and I was left soberly considering the reality that I had come very close to contributing towards the death of a fellow worker and honorable human being.

After that, my home-base antenna at Pindiu remained unused, except as an object of intrigue for a couple more years.

A respectful monument to God’s wrath and inappropriate technology, before it too collapsed and went to the eternal scrapheap of bad ideas.

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About GOF

"Life is like a sewer. What you get out of it, depends upon what you put into it." (Tom Lehrer)

18 responses »

  1. Wow, just wow.

    Astounding that it worked in the first place….and then happily wonderful that Tala was not killed by the unintended lightning attracter in his hut.

    Great story, GOF.

    Reply
    • Thanks Lauri. I have to admit the radio only worked early in the morning when there were minimal atmospheric interferences.
      Tala passed away many years ago (from natural causes) but I am sure that he would be really happy to know that his story is now in the public arena.

      Reply
  2. Ihave been meaning to tell you about my father for a while Gof. So here goes. His name was Noel Griffin. During the years 1973-1975, he worked as a party manager for an oil search company called Digicon in PNG.
    He worked along the Sepikand and Fly rivers from memory. One of the villages was Moore I think. They found a WW2 plane in the jungle and brought the prop back to the village. It was placed outside the schoolhouse I think. The majority of transport was by foot or helicopter.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the story about you father Brad. I had already left the Sepik by 1973, otherwise our paths might have crossed.
      It sounds like he might have quite a few interesting stories to tell too, because both the Sepik and Fly River areas were very challenging places to work.

      Reply
  3. Damn. Ball lightning?
    My dad used to tell a story about a lightning storm when he was a kid. Ball lightning entered the house somehow, then traveled very slowly around the interior, before exiting straight through a wall. It was about the size of a football. Everyone just froze and watched it. What else are you going to do?

    Reply
    • I’ve never heard of ball lightning before, but hell, that would be scary. Maybe that’s what it was because the hole in the wall was about the size of a football…..but Tala’s recollection was that it all happened in just a few seconds.

      Reply
  4. Another great story from your time in PNG – I really enjoy these posts. I’m glad that Tala survived to fear further years of your inventiveness…..

    Reply
  5. I salute your ingenuity, GOF. I suppose in hindsight we can see that the quad antenna would act as a good lightning conductor at the altitude where it was operating, but it was sure worth a try as shown by the results. I used to have a radio amateur operator licence years ago but have now forgotten most of what I learnt about antennas. I do recall that the quad was a very popular HF antenna. The closest I came to making one was a horizontal loop antenna which worked quite well. It’s over 20 years since I was active as I moved on to computers and daylilies.

    Reply
    • Thanks Snowy. I’ve always found short wave radio and aerials fascinating. I was completely astounded that the quad antenna could improve the walkie-talkie performance to the extent that it did. I think the aeronautical radio operators licence I had to obtain in the ’70’s was probably similar to your radio licence.
      About 20 years ago I bought a Sangean short-wave radio (receiver only….no Tx) and spent many hours listening to radio stations and amateur operators all around the world. I was tempted to go the extra step but the cost of a transceiver and proper aerial deterred me at the time.
      Like you, my interest has been overtaken by by all this whizz-bang technology available to us today.

      Reply
  6. Delighted to see another PNG story GOF.

    Love the ingenuity and happy to see it wasn’t fatal. The bush mechanics have always been an inspiration to me.

    Reply
    • Thanks Peter……reminds me of that wonderful ABC doco series from a few years ago of the aboriginal bush mechanics in the NT and WA keeping cars on the road with fencing wire and tree branches

      Reply
  7. GOF,you and your local men were heroes. Thanks for putting this story to the public.

    Sadly some are dead some are still alive. From memory Tala, Rukunzinga are dead as they are from Burum where I come from.
    I remember seeing a white man come around to Ogeranang in late 1979 when I was in the first grade.
    We used to follow this white man around watching carefully how he spoke or walked and everything he did so we could imitiate him when playing our child game.
    I can still recall seéing the Quad antenna that stòod over Tala’s office and the impact that lightning left to the ròof of Tala’s office and the nearby coffee shed. I evén recall myself curiouosly digging into the ground where the bolt has left a rat track hole.
    Gof FYI the didiman activities that you helped Tala to set up are no longer effective as there is no assistance from our government. Coffeé trées have beaten the jungle trées. Airstrip is not very safe for planes. No road linking Ogeranang even thouhgh a few hundred kilometers from Lae.

    I wish you were here GOF. I would work with you to change this place, because today is worst than those good old days of late 1970s to mid 1980s.
    Thanks once again to GOF TEAM.

    Reply
  8. dear GOF i just want to thankyou for your dedication and strongwill to be one of the first expatriates to have developed my home district.
    As you mentioned the locals who had aided you through your time spent in rural Pindiu i am grateful you mentioned my grandfather Gindi Liko.
    I have heard many tales about you verbally through him.
    you are a true legend in my heart for what you have done to my community and people..

    May GOD truely bless you!!

    Reply
    • Thank you Benjamin for your comment, as it is for your generation and all the other children and grandchildren of my co-workers that I write these stories about life at Pindiu during the 1970’s. My wife met your uncle (Gindi’s last born son?) on the road near Faseu last month and we understand that Gindi is still alive and living in Lae. Please pass on our best wishes and appreciation of a job well done to him. Most of the other good men have since passed on to God’s Didiman Station in heaven.

      Reply

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