AT ABOUT this time nearly 50 years ago I arrived in Mount Hagen as a callow 19 year old cadet patrol officer. It would be my first Christmas away from home.
My father was Irish but my mother was English and we lived near her family in Suffolk before coming to Australia.
They were farmers and they celebrated a traditional English Christmas. They fattened a goose for dinner and they began making the Christmas cake and pudding months before the event.
When we came to Australia, my mother brought all these English traditions with her and, despite the usually blistering heat on Christmas Day, insisted on serving lashes of hot, stodgy English Christmas fare.
My sisters and I revelled in the bounty of that day, which ranged from opening our stockings on Christmas morning and discovering sixpenny pieces in the Christmas cake and pudding.
Some of my childhood years were decidedly lean but at Christmas time we still managed to eat well and receive gifts, even it was a repainted second hand bicycle fitted with new tyres.
I had taken part in a similar celebration the year before I left for Papua New Guinea but the outlook for Christmas cheer as I arrived in the Territory looked decidedly bleak.
Those of us who had been sent to the Western Highlands had spent a couple of days in the local hotel and, a couple of weeks before Christmas, been despatched to our various postings around the district.
I was supposed to remain in Mount Hagen working out of the Sub-District Office but had been sent to the Nebilyer Valley to rebuild a bridge swept away in a flood.
It looked like my first Christmas in Papua New Guinea would be spent by myself in a rest house in the sticks.
With the bravado common to young men of 19, I shrugged off my fate. I was, after all, a kiap and we were tough and unsentimental.
Christmas Day dawned. I had sent home all the villagers working on the bridge for a few days rest so I stayed in bed until the chill highland air had dissipated and been replaced by the welcoming rising sun.
I was pottering around the rest house when I heard what sounded like a car horn in the distance. I listened for a while and then got on with what I was doing.
Then the honking started again, this time a lot closer. I walked out to the road and stared both ways. Then out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a Land Rover in the distance.
As the vehicle got closer I could see it was swerving this way and that and appeared to be draped with flowing rolls of toilet paper. Following it was another Land Rover covered similarly in bilas.
The two vehicles dipped down to cross the temporary ford in the river and then charged up the slope to the rest house.
Both vehicles were loaded with red-faced kiaps and a solitary didiman, none of whom I knew. Also jammed in the vehicles were an assortment of policemen, interpreters and sundry villagers.
An SP beer was thrust into my hand and I was told to grab a few clothes and climb aboard. I signalled to my police and interpreter and they ran to get their things.
“Where are we going?” I shouted to the three kiaps in the front seat. They were engaged in a rollicking abortion of a Christmas carol that include the line, “We wish you a merry syphilis and a happy gonorrhoea”.
They stopped singing and turned around.
“Hagen mate! It’s bloody Christmas!”
And it was. One of the most memorable for many years to come.