My expatriate life, part 3: Diane Bayne
We were barely settled in Lae again when we were transferred to Kabwum in the Morobe Province in May 1976. It was an outpost they were re-opening in the mountains. It was isolated and primitive. There was a house there, left vacant for several years by the previous pilot who was killed when he crashed his aeroplane. My husband’s company employed about 70 pilots and the tragedy was that between two and five were killed every year, along with their passengers. Such were/are the flying conditions in PNG. The weather is unpredictable and ever changing and the isolated, short take-off and landing (STOL) airstrips are often inclined at angles and on the edge of mountain tops. I stopped to think once, only once, about the precarious nature of flying small aeroplanes in PNG. (I was very young.) Yes, this could happen to us. It was when a close pilot friend, the South African, was killed. He had a young wife and a small child like us. It was awful.
The expat pilots in PNG at that time were a unique breed, mostly single, many with a ‘cowboy’ approach to flying and very out to prove their ‘alpha male-ism’ (as it would now be known). I remember one particular senior pilot in Lae. He was rugged and good hearted and drank a lot. He wore cowboy boots and wore his pilot ‘wings’ as a buckle on his belt. He was one of the race callers at the Nadzab Races. Another pilot rode bulls on his days off. A pilot who lived close by told us he was really fed up with seeing the same dog on one particular runway he flew into.‘It’s a safety risk,’ he said. ‘Next time I’ll fix it.’
So he did. Soon after we heard he was taxiing out on that runway, saw the dog, leaned over the passenger next to him (who happened to be a Catholic nun), said ‘Excuse me,’ and promptly shot the dog with the gun he carried. He lost his job for that.
We were at high altitude in Kabwum. It was cooler, slightly humid and very sunny in the mornings but thick cloud would close in in the afternoons. We lived next to a fast running, bubbling stream with an overgrown rose garden and tall trees at the front of the house. Eric resurrected and improved upon a water wheel set up by the previous pilot which gave us all the electricity we needed, including the running of a big freezer in which we stored our food. There were no other expatriates. The locals lived some distance away, mostly in basic houses or grass houses and huts. We had a tiny little Suzuki 4WD, which the engineers in Lae dissembled and loaded into the Twin Otter aeroplane and sent up for us, to drive on the rough tracks. We shopped once a month in Lae.
I enjoyed this fascinating new life, away from civilisation and wasn’t lonely. I was in awe of this experience. I loved that it was so unique, in a different climate, completely isolated and beautiful. Eric was home every night and I’d hear his STOL Porter aeroplane coming and going throughout the day on the airstrip below. It had a unique roar to its engine. I made my own bread and set up my daughter with paints and sand to play every morning outside in the garden. I was sure she had a very artistic bent to her personality and ... I was right! As a grown woman, she just oozes artistry and creativity with everything she does (and she too now works in aviation, as a flight supervisor for Virgin Australia).
I had a two-way radio if needed when Eric was away flying each day. In the afternoons it would cloud over and rain. I’d hear the Porter he flew circling overhead above the cloud, ‘waiting for a hole’ (as he put it) to land. The locals were very primitive and scary looking to me at first. They had bones in their noses and ears and they wore leaves and bark as decoration. Most spoke Pidgin as well as their own language and they were helpful and very respectful.
The first time we got the electricity going, Eric invited some local men in to watch the lights go on. I’ll never forget their faces; these proud men in such awe and fear as they recoiled and ‘ahhed’ and ‘ohhed’ at the magic of a light bulb! I couldn’t believe their reactions. And that was in 1976. At night the jungle around us shrieked with life, animals, insects and frogs and the stream next to the house seemed louder. I soaked it all up. I really enjoyed it and Eric enjoyed flying the Porter. I flew in it with him sometimes to go down to Lae. I remember one time he said, ‘Do you want to see a World War Two crashed Japanese aeroplane?’
He dove down. (I loved that Porter too. It felt like a racing car.) There it was crashed into bits on the side of the mountain. Amazing. I can still see it. Our daughter was so accustomed to flying in aeroplanes. To her it was just like travelling in a car.
One day we were flying in an Islander aircraft with Eric and about to land at Satwag, not far from Kabwum. It was a short strip on the side of a mountain and it had an abrupt start and end so there was only a small space to land. It had been raining and the grass was slippery. We landed but rather than stopping, we slid and kept sliding on and on! I knew it was a short strip and there was nowhere to go at the end but we kept going! I hugged my daughter. I couldn’t believe what was happening! I knew Eric was a good pilot but what could he do? I saw the end coming up and just felt, ‘This is it’.
We went right over the edge with an extra roar of the engines and the aircraft dropped really fast over the valley below. As we dropped it seemed so quiet. I didn’t say anything. I felt a sense of inevitability as we went down, down, down and I hugged my daughter closely and closed my eyes. We were just dropping. Then there was another roar of the engines and we were spearing up into the sky again. I looked at Eric. He was fine but I was suddenly terrified and shaking.
‘We’ll give it another go,’ he said. ‘No!’ I said. But he did. Back we went and inevitably slid off the landing strip again! We fell down over the edge as before and roared up again like before. I couldn’t believe it!
‘Don’t worry. We’re quite safe. There’s a 2,000 ft drop at the end of the runway,’ he said. ‘But I think we’ll give Satwag a miss for today.’ ‘Thank God!’ I said.
We were only in Kabwum for three months and maybe that’s why I didn’t have time to get bored or lonely. Once again, we went back to our life in Lae. I played tennis again, took up yoga classes and found a play group where other young mums took their toddlers. It was here that we decided to have another baby which we did. Our son was born on 7/7/77, a sweet natured, blue eyed, fair headed little boy who loved balls of all kinds. He’d try to kick and catch when he could barely walk and now as an adult, is a true altruist and an amazing tennis player.
In all, we spent six years in PNG. I was keen to return to Australia to be with family again and have our two children start school there but flying jobs were not so easy to come by, especially in Adelaide. Eric was convinced the UK was the place for him to get work and I conceded. I didn’t feel I had the ultimate choice as I wasn’t the bread winner. I was a mother. In the 70s it was generally not usual for young mums to work and if they did, it was part time. My husband had a British passport. He was sure he could get the licences needed to fly in Britain.
He did but it wasn’t in the UK. Bristow Helicopters needed fixed wing pilots to fly in Nigeria, two months on, one month off back in England where I would be living with our children. It was difficult as my expectations were not realistic. I thought the culture and attitudes would be very similar to Australia’s. In many ways they were but there were differences too.
It was not an outdoor lifestyle like in Australia and PNG. To start with we went from the tropics to a British winter and the contrast was from furnace to freezer! The children got sick and so did I even though I bought warm clothes and had central heating in our rented house. I found it hard to make friends although I’d happily introduce myself to other mums at my children’s school and kindergarten. I’d have their friends around to play. I joined an aerobics class and went to parent meetings at the kindergarten and school. People were polite and pleasant when I spoke to them but I felt at odds, an outsider more than I expected. Their ways of communicating were quite different from the accepted ways in Australia. In England there seemed to be a natural reserve, a certain politeness. Australians can appear brash and over-familiar perhaps, when our intention is friendliness.
Here, as in PNG, I was an expatriate, but I didn’t live amongst other expatriates. Here I looked like everyone else and I spoke the same language, but I didn’t belong. My husband didn’t feel quite as I did, after all he had been to boarding school in Scotland. He was away for long periods and I became very lonely. Weekends were the worst. I’d take the children to parks and playgrounds which they loved but I’d see mums, dads, grand-parents and kids everywhere, reminding me of my aloneness. I tried to keep positive but I wasn’t a very happy mother for my children at that time and they likely missed out on the more carefree times which other children enjoyed.
When Eric came home from Nigeria on his time off, he was obviously suffering from the culture shock of living in Lagos in Nigeria. Going by his stories, it was very different and quite a difficult and sometimes scary place to work as a foreigner. I was keen to return to Australia but as he had a job, he didn’t want to leave it, knowing it was harder to get one in Australia. I accepted our situation. I became friendly with a neighbour but she had her own life, her own family. The children adapted more easily than I did. The rain and cold seemed to close in on me. It was such a contrast to the tropics and the open air life I’d become accustomed to in Australia and PNG.
The rain was incessant. English people seemed to ignore it. They would stop and chat under umbrellas with it pouring all around them and there were certain outdoor events, like fairs, that went ahead no matter what! I remember going to a fair one rainy, cold night with my neighbour and her children. It was soaking wet but the ‘loop the prize’ stand, ice-cream stand, hurdy gurdy and all the others were doing a roaring trade with mums, dads and kids seemingly loving it all. My children joined in too, ignoring the rain just like all the rest. I thought it was utterly miserable. Were they actually enjoying all this? I was told, ‘If we waited for good weather, we’d never do anything.’
I tried hard. I wanted to provide a good life for my children and I soaked up every opportunity to learn about the fabulous history of the country and visit the buildings, monasteries, towers and castles when my husband was home and especially when my mother came to visit us from Australia. That was a wonderful time having mother and nana with us and having her to talk to, as part of the family for a while. The children adored having their nana stay.
We became tourists together with our home as a base. We’d also take the children to parks and have picnics on summer days. I’ll never forget that time and it was sad when she returned home. I did love the warm, long days of those short English summers. It intrigued me how the bright green grass grew to the very edge of the roads in the countryside and then there was the blackberry picking. And there’s nothing like waking up to the shrill tweeting of those English birds and the perfect cuteness of countryside England with its brilliant greens. It was such a contrast to the Australia I knew, the mostly dry, brown earth and the green brown of most trees, especially the gum trees. There was something special about the English autumn too as it felt more extreme than the Australian autumn. We’d take the children for country walks amongst the tall trees and they’d kick up thick layers of brown and red leaves with their boots and roll around laughing. It was all quite different from Australia.
But it was, ‘have suitcase, will travel’ and by now, with a 737 endorsement, Eric had been offered a job in Sri Lanka. Did I want to go? For me, all this moving around wasn’t easy. However, we didn’t have many possessions to pack and I really wanted my ‘bread winner’ husband to be happy in his work. I was torn though. I was very concerned for my children, especially my daughter at that time, who had started school in PNG and then attended two different schools in England, one in Surrey and then one in Hampshire when we’d moved house. On the other hand, we would be escaping the dreary weather and Eric would not be away for weeks on end. It wouldn’t be so lonely. I have to admit too, that part of me enjoyed that sense of the intrepid, the excitement of new places. I also rationalised that living in different countries was an education in itself, for our children and for us. We were assured that there were suitable schools in Sri Lanka with accommodation provided. So Sri Lanka was to be our next expatriate experience.