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Mark Lynch's extraordinary life: 'My heart's still in PNG'

Mark LynchSCOTT BEVAN | Newcastle Herald

Photo - Mark Lynch talks with Scott Bevan (Jonathan Carroll)

NEWCASTLE - Sitting in Talulah bar and cafe at The Junction, Mark Lynch looks very much like a manager, which is what he was for many years. He wears a crisp business shirt, and his hair and beard are neatly trimmed.

Yet hanging from his chair is a beautiful indication of what has occupied much of his life. It is a string bag, or bilum, hand-made in the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea in 1964.

“It would have been used for carrying spare bow strings,” Lynch explains.

More than 50 years since the bag was crafted, Lynch uses it to hold more than just bits and pieces. The bilum also allows Lynch to carry his love for Australia’s nearest, but barely known, neighbour.

As he says of Papua New Guinea, “it’s a place that gets into your soul”.

Long before Mark Lynch first went to the territories of Papua and New Guinea, pieces of PNG found their way into his family’s home in Sydney. 

Born in 1941, Lynch has few memories of his father from the first four years of his life. Max Lynch was serving in Papua and New Guinea, fighting against the Japanese during World War ii. For a time, he worked in the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, helping organise carriers to take supplies to the frontline.

When Max Lynch returned home at the end of the war in 1945, four-year-old Mark was entranced by the boots his father was wearing, and what came out of his pack.

“He had giri-giri shells, cowrie shells, money with holes in the middle,” Lynch recalls. “I found that fascinating, but I didn’t carry any interest in New Guinea through my childhood.”

Many years later, in 1974, Max Lynch returned to New Guinea to attend the wedding of his son and Mark’s brother, John, to a local woman. The bride’s father had been a carrier during the war. 

“So by the time the afternoon was over, my father and he had both convinced themselves they’d known each other!,” Lynch says. 

By the time Mark Lynch finished high school, the family was living in Brisbane. His first job was in the despatch office of an asbestos cement factory, while studying commerce at the University of Queensland.

“I was not excited,” Lynch says, before explaining how his escape to a new life came about.

“I was home with the flu in winter, and I saw an ad in the paper: ‘Career with a challenge. Cadet patrol officer [for the territories of Papua and New Guinea]’. And I thought, ‘You wouldn’t get the flu up there in the tropics’.”

The 17-year-old applied and was offered a position. But his mother, Marie, wasn’t happy about it, so he delayed accepting. The day before his deadline, Lynch went to the Royal Queensland Show, because there was a PNG pavilion, and he quizzed a patrol officer there about his job, and what the teenager could expect.

“After an hour and a half, I went to a phone booth, rang my mother and said, ‘I’m going’,” Lynch recalls. “My mother said, ‘Stay there, I’m coming in to see this bloke’.

“She was still not enthusiastic by any means, but he did a pretty good job in reassuring her.”

In August 1959, having just turned 18, he was at the Australian School of Pacific Administration in Sydney, undergoing an intense course about a complex and fascinating place, tackling subjects from land use to tropical medicine.

Six weeks later, he and 25 other young men were in Port Moresby: “We were like a bunch of young puppies, wanting adventure.”

Mark Lynch in highlands  c 1964Adventure awaited in 15 districts, each a world unto itself. Lynch applied for, and was sent to, the Eastern Highlands.

On his first patrol with a senior officer, Lynch walked into a village and received a traditional greeting. A man grabbed Lynch by the testicles. The shocked teenager’s reaction was to clench his fist, ready to fight. Then he thought better of it.

“I suddenly realised this bloke was still holding me, so I’d better be careful!,” he recalls. “I was very cranky that the senior patrol officer hadn’t warned me about this.”

The learning curve was as steep and variable as the terrain of the Eastern Highlands.

As a patrol officer, Lynch was involved in everything from ordering supplies and hearing disputes to medical emergencies. And all the while he was trekking further and further out of his comfort zone.

“I had to learn very quickly at least to pretend to be capable of a whole lot of things I’d never be able to do,” Lynch says. “You just didn’t know what you were going to confront and deal with from day to day.”

There were confronting moments, as he picked his way through the impacts of tribal fighting. On patrol, he had to bring in carriers from far away, not from a local village, otherwise they’d often be walking into enemy territory nearby. He was threatened with sorcery.

But he rarely felt in danger: “I only ever had an arrow fired at me once.”

He gradually immersed himself in the different cultures and languages: “You didn’t speak English, you spoke Pidgin all the time. In fact, I dreamed in Pidgin.”

And in the Eastern Highlands, he came to know himself. Mark Lynch became a new man in an ancient land.

“When I went back to where I worked [in Brisbane] to say hello to my old colleagues 21 months after I left, I just looked at them loading the rail wagons and checking the trucks, and I thought, ‘My God’. By then, I’d built a road, I’d built a school,” Lynch says.

“I’d had so much experience. I’d already had an extraordinary life, and I had gained an enormous amount of confidence in myself. So I never looked back again.”

Lynch spent more than five years in the Eastern Highlands then transferred to the Louisiade Archipelago of islands, off the tail of PNG, for 15 months: “It was like going to another planet.” For one thing, transport was mostly by boat. 

Lynch returned to Australia in 1967, studying economics at the University of Queensland, before heading back to Port Moresby and into a new role. He taught public servants at the Papua New Guinea Administrative College and tutored in economics at the recently established national university, helping prepare the next generation for the country’s future. 

He also better prepared himself to be part of PNG’s transition from Australian-administered territories to one independent state. Lynch studied comparative politics at the University of Sussex in England, before returning to PNG and being at the heart of historic change.

“It was pretty full on, because there were a lot of changes happening very, very rapidly,” he says.

Lynch served as cabinet secretary and was deeply involved in the mechanics of government in an emerging nation. There were many consultations for drafting the constitution, he travelled widely with PNG politicians.

Somare photoThen, in September, 1975, when the PNG flag was raised for the first time on independent soil, he was the first secretary of the National Executive Council.

“That was the first cabinet meeting,” Lynch says, showing a photo on his phone. A longer haired Lynch is standing at the back, smiling. In that moment, he felt part of history but was also in familiar company.

“The minister for forests was one of Lynch’s medical orderlies during his patrol officer days in the Eastern Highlands. Sitting at the front in the official photo is the country’s first prime minister, Michael Somare. 

“He was excellent,” Lynch says. “He was young, idealistic, very good at reaching consensus and brokering disputes.”

Was he a friend?

“He became one,” he replies, explaining how the Somare family would occasionally visit the Lynch family home. “His little boy and my eldest son would swim in the river.”

After another three “very bloody hectic” years as cabinet secretary and 12 months as prime minister Somare’s special adviser, Lynch decided it was time to return to Australia. He and his then-wife had three children, so for their schooling, Lynch brought a close to his two-decade career/adventure in PNG. He missed the wonder and sheer diversity of the place.

“There are 850 languages in the country, and I worked with 17 of them, so that gives you some idea of the human diversity.”

In Australia, Lynch was a federal public servant for more than a decade, working in a string of high-ranking positions. He was the head of immigration policy during the globally turbulent events of the late 1980s, such as the disintegration of the Eastern bloc. 

“So it was a bit like World War Three, being in charge of the migration policy division,” he says.

He is unimpressed with Australia’s present approach to immigration, particularly its treatment of asylum seekers on boats, and the “deterioration” of services provided to new arrivals: “I’m no longer proud of how the Immigration Department works.”

Lynch moved to Newcastle with his second wife, Elizabeth, and their son in 1994. She was returning to her hometown to care for her mother. The couple’s plan was to stay a short while then go back to Canberra and the public service. Instead, they are still here, living in Merewether.

What’s more, Lynch left the public service and became the general manager of the NSW Rural Doctors Network, helping improve the lot of medicos and the communities they serve. He was in that job for 15 years before retiring.

“What I was enjoying was there was a job needing to be done, and you had capacity to get stuck into it,” he says. “Which was very much like the way it was in New Guinea, when I was a young guy out in the bush.”

Now Lynch has returned to PNG – in words. He joined a writing group at the Newcastle University of the Third Age (U3A) early last year. The group has just published a book, ‘The Tale Makers’, and it includes three short stories by Lynch, drawing on his PNG experiences, from the tragic to the hauntingly beautiful. 

Lynch hopes to write a book based on his time in PNG, and he holds “a secret ambition” to be in Port Moresby for the 50th anniversary of independence in 2025. Mark Lynch and PNG remain entwined as tightly as the weave of his bilum.

As Lynch says, while slinging the bilum over his shoulder, “Your heart’s still there in many ways.”


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