To claim that Bob experienced no deep night of the soul would confound moralists and theologians, but perhaps the truth lies at the bottom of a well. Bob would have agreed that at least it lay at the bottom of a bottle.
Robert Cowan Mackie was born sometime after the end of World War I on one of the Scottish islands to people of good Presbyterian stock. Soon after his family emigrated to South Australia.
It would be an understatement to say Bob had come a long way since his 6th Division days in Greece and then in Papua New Guinea during World War II.
The highlight of the Greek campaign for Bob was making love – if that is not a too elaborate a word to describe what went on – with a Greek girl within sight of the Acropolis.
Whatever Bob’s faults, many people agreed that his attraction lay in the way he squandered the treasure of life with seeming disregard for the future.
At the end of the war Bob took his discharge from ANGAU in Port Moresby.
He had some idea of returning to Australia to see what happened to the wife he had married just before the war to discover on returning from the Middle East that she had taken up with someone else.
As Bob so delicately put it, she found another bull in the paddock.
Bob did arrange to go to Australia shortly after his discharge, but he made the mistake of contemplating this move in the Snake Pit Bar of the Bottom Pub. Needless to say, he never made the plane.
His deferred pay from the Army was coming to an end, so he concluded that a man with a drinking habit needed a livelihood. He decided to try his luck in the Sepik and went to Wewak.
Over a beer with an acquaintance it was suggested that recruiting labour for the plantations was the best thing to get into.
With this in mind, Bob moved inland and settled just outside Nuku patrol post. From here he set out on recruiting patrols over most of the inland Sepik, including journeys on the Ramu and Sepik Rivers.
Over the next few years Bob became a legend taking hundreds of men to Angoram and Wewak to be signed on for work on plantations around Kavieng, Madang, Rabaul and elsewhere.
Most other recruiters didn’t have a chance as Bob became so popular in the various villages that the locals would wait for him to come. Or as they used to say: Mi laik wetim Masta Bob.
By his own account, with him getting £10-20 a recruit, thousands of pounds passed through his hands. With a doctor friend, he bought a plane. It unfortunately crashed off the coast killing the doctor.
Of this event Peter Skinner wrote: “Whenever I hear the words Vanimo, Auster or John McInerney, I have almost instant recall to Wewak, March 1953, and being told by my distraught mother, Marie, that the single-engine Auster owned and piloted by Dr John McInerney, medical officer, had crashed into the sea off Vanimo.
“McInerney had been killed and my father, Ian, at that time an ADO, was alive but badly injured. Also injured in the crash was ADO George Wearne.”
Perhaps this was a turning point in Bob’s life, as John the doctor was a great friend of his and he felt his loss greatly.
I have no proof of Bob’s financial interest in the plane, but it is suspected to be true. When Bob had a trade store and a recruiting setup near Hayfield airstrip, between Pagwai and Maprik, Mac, as the doctor was known, very often flew out to spend time drinking and socialising with him.
They were great mates. John McInerney, an ex-commando medical officer, was himself a flamboyant and interesting character.
Over time recruiting ceased to give Bob the financial stability it had in the past. He didn’t seem to care much about going to get recruits, making only the occasional trip to keep body and soul together.
He eventually ended up at Angoram in a houseboat that he referred to as his outfit. In Angoram he kept to himself, often inebriated, keeping the locals and expatriates entertained with stories of drinking sprees and sexual exploits.
His faithful hausboi, Yum, stayed with him looking after him as best he could, even when he was on the white lady – methylated spirit. He also developed a market in stuffed crocodiles, becoming quite a skilled taxidermist.
Perhaps Bob’s life was a journey that was more involved in travelling than reaching any destination.
If he had been a botanist he would have spent his life in searching for the famed orchid – the Sepik Blue – but Bob was involved in the art of living, at least from his point of view, and such things had little interest for him.
He was more concerned with stories about the blue throbber, the term he used to describe his genitalia, and even these yarns, one suspects, were more in the imagination than in the actual, although he claimed to have worked out an involved methodology that protected him from venereal disease.
Early in his time at Angoram he took Douglas Newton, then the chief curator and later the director of the Museum of Primitive Art, New York, on an artefact buying expedition upriver on his houseboat.
The sleeping arrangements were that Bob was on the bunk and Doug was on a mat on the floor. After a few drinks and a meal they each retired to their respective sleeping areas. Later in the evening Doug awoke with the sense that some warm liquid was flowing on his face.
In the moonlight illuminating the inside of the houseboat, Doug noticed that Bob was peeing on him – apparently Bob had forgotten that Doug was on the floor and was following his usual custom of relieving himself.
Doug took it all in his stride and boasted that he was probably the first official of the Museum of Primitive Art to be pissed on in the moonlight.
Peter Johnson and I were sitting in my house at Angoram in the late 1960s when Yum knocked on the door with a note from Bob. Johnson, on a first superficial reading of the note said: “My God, Bob wants to shoot himself!”
We both looked at the note again, and what he had written was: “I’m desperate send me a reviver.” Not a revolver! He wanted a can of beer to get him over a hard night. I sent him a couple of cans.
As Sandra King, former manager of the Angoram Hotel, wrote: “What about Bob and his star turn in the French movie, La Vallee? Surely one of his highlights, and so he remains captured in time!”
Sandra also mentions “how he sat outside the hotel with his stuffed crocodiles, and one or two live ones. They sat ever so still with their little mouths open until you went to pick one up…old rogue!“
One supposes that in the final count Bob’s end of life was as he would have liked it, in the bar of the Madang Club with a glass in his hand. He lasted in Madang until the early 1980s.
Inevitably there had been some do-gooders in Angoram who wanted to get Bob moved to Australia in the interests of his health!
Fortunately more sensible minds prevailed, and they managed to get Bob, holder of the Africa Star and with an excellent war record in the Middle East, Papua and New Guinea, an old-age army pension and accommodation in Madang.
And so he ended his days in the land he loved and remained a man of significance.
I believe the RSL in Madang gave him a worthy send off.