Category Archives: Travel writing

The marvels of modern medicine

In 1983, while working in Port Moresby at the National Library Service of Papua New Guinea, I contracted a terrible ear infection. In time the pain almost drove me insane. Blood, pus and black goo leaked from my ear all day and night. I had to sleep with my head on an old towel and I lost my hearing completely in the infected ear.

Over the next two months I tried two types of ear drops, went to see the doctor five times, underwent an ear syringing, completed five full courses of four different antibiotics and had three injections, with absolutely no effect.

An acquaintance at the University of Papua New Guinea, who had heard about my ongoing problem with the ear infection, rang me and told me that a certain Dr Ghosh, an Indian ear, nose and throat specialist, was in town on a temporary training attachment at the Port Moresby General Hospital. I promptly went to see my doctor and asked him for a referral to see this Dr Ghosh.

On a steaming hot day in March, nearing the end of the wet season, I walked into Dr Ghosh’s office, introduced myself, and told him, “I’m getting really depressed about this ear infection, Doctor. The damn thing appears to be incurable and the pain is driving me around the bend.”

Dr Ghosh raised both his hands as if to fend off my words. “Depressed? Depressed? My dear fellow, there is no need to get depressed. This is the Twentieth Century, after all. We can now cure almost any infection!” I nodded and kept my disbelief to myself.

The doctor proceeded to peer into my ear. “Ha!” he exclaimed triumphantly, after a minute, “no wonder the antibiotics have had no effect. What we have here is a fungal infection, not a bacterial one. Oh, no, no, there are no bacteria in that ear. Only fungus.” He then proceeded to tell me with great merriment how he had recently cured a young fellow’s nose problem by advising him to get married! It was with difficulty that I managed to hide my lagging confidence in the good doctor.

He wrote out a prescription for anti-fungal drops, which he handed to me. He noticed that I was looking a tad sceptical. “Oh,” he said, brimful of confidence, “you use those drops and within three weeks’ time you will say to yourself, ‘My goodness, Dr Ghosh has cured me!’”

Having no alternative but to hope desperately for a miracle cure, I thanked him and set off to the chemist to get the anti-fungal drops. As I was leaving his office he shouted after me, “Depressed? Oh, no, my dear fellow, no need to get depressed! This is the Twentieth Century, after all!”

The prescription I collected from the chemist was for Tinaderm drops. I carefully read the instructions on the label, which stated that Tinaderm would cure things like tinea, foot rot and crotch itch. There was no mention of using them in one’s ear.

I had little choice but to trust Dr Ghosh, so I gritted my teeth and put a few drops into my ear, repeating the process the next morning and the next evening. After two days I woke up in the morning and discovered to my amazement that my ear infection had vanished completely.

“Oh, the marvels of modern medicine,” I mused to myself. “No, no, there was no need to get depressed.”

Papua New Guinean sojourn

In 1980 my wife and I went to Papua New Guinea on a three year contract to work for the National Library Service in Port Moresby. My job was to train Papua New Guinean staff so that they could take over positions held at the time by expatriates.

On my first day at work the Deputy National Librarian asked Ben Gar, a Papua New Guinean staff member from West New Britain, to show me where I could buy a take-away for lunch. Ben drove me to a little caravan that sold food and drinks. We each bought a hot dog and a bottle of Coke. Ben asked the seller for a bottle opener, but she said that someone had stolen it, so Ben gripped the top of my Coke bottle between his molars and prized the top off.

There was no television service in the country at the time, but there were two cinemas in town, one of which was a drive-in. The drive-in was the only public place where one could sit outside in the tropical evening in a folding chair, safe from the ‘rascals’ (young thugs) who ruled the streets after dark. Often people would take along a picnic dinner to eat there, or occasionally bring along a birthday cake with candles.

The first time we went to the cinema we saw “Saturday Night Fever”. During a scene where a young man fell to his death from a bridge, the Papua New Guinean policeman who was sitting next to me had an uncontrollable fit of laughter whilst grabbing me by the shoulder and shaking me.

I distinctly remember a double feature that we saw which was typical of the type of fare that the cinema dished up. The first film was an Israeli production called “Parachute dog”. The dog and his military master jumped out of an aeroplane behind the enemy lines in separate parachutes. The dog wobbled in the parachute. It was patently obvious that it was made from some solid substance, probably wood. In a later scene its master was ambushed and shot dead, only to reappear later in the film as though that incident had never happened. It was hilarious. The second film was “American disco”, about an Italian teenager whose entire dream was focused on going to America to become a DJ in an American disco. How could a viewer avoid being swept along in the excitement of someone chasing such an exotic dream?

Having fully explored the cultural offerings of the cinemas and having become bored of the menus at the only two restaurants in town, we started socialising in the evenings, playing bridge and backgammon and the like. At work the males of our motley crew of expatriates tried to outdo each other with colourful shirts on Fridays, the day on which the Papua New Guinean staff usually wore their traditional lap laps. My piece de resistance was a splotchy red batik shirt that I had bought in Cairns, but the competition petered out once an American colleague, Fraiser, came in to work sporting a shirt that he had bought in Hawaii whilst on holiday. The design comprised a combination of yachts and red lobsters. The rest of us lost heart for the Friday dress-ups after that.

The National Library staff played a series of cricket matches against the staff and students of the Library Diploma Course at the Administrative College. Our games started at 4.30 pm on Fridays and were invariably of quite brief duration, as it was very rare for a player on either side to get to double figures. We would hurry through the overs as the storm clouds gathered every afternoon in the rainy season, exploding in a deafening thunderstorm at around 6 pm.

Our best player was Rosa Memafu, a tall lady from the Gulf province, whose fast bowling was feared by all the players of the College team.



Rosa Memafu (second from right) lets fly with a fast ball

Few of us wore shoes to work and none of us wore ties, as it was just too hot and humid to wear such items. The pair of black shoes that I took along from Australia soon turned green with rot in my cupboard, while large cockroaches chewed holes in the leather. I went about my business in a pair of cheap rubber thongs. However, I had a pair of leather thongs in my office to wear on special occasions, such as to meetings with the Director of Education or with the Minister for Education.

During my time in Papua New Guinea I wore a tie on one occasion only, and that was for the Queen’s visit. I also wore my leather thongs. The National Librarian, Sir John Yocklunn, was responsible for arranging the visit by the Queen and Prince Philip and he had arranged good seats for us for the event.


Tim and a colleague with bilums (string bags), dressed up for the Queen’s visit

It was a spectacular affair. We watched from the sports pavilion, sitting within a stone’s throw from the Queen and Prince, while many different indigenous groups were dressed up in their traditional finery in honour of the royal visit.


The Queen and Prince Philip wave to the Highlanders

The condition of the dogs in Port Moresby was a constant source of distress to me. The vast majority of dogs were underfed or were fed a poor diet consisting mostly of leftover rice or stale pieces of bread. A lot of the dogs had lost most of their hair and were covered in sores.

When I eventually returned to Australia I had to stop overnight in Sydney. A few of the passengers from my Air Niugini flight shared a small bus which transported us from the airport to the city hotels. An Australian missionary who had been in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years introduced himself to me. When our bus stopped at a red traffic light we noticed a big Alsatian dog sitting on the rear seat in the car next to us. We stared at its glossy fur in wonder. The missionary took the words out of my mouth. “Just look at that,” he said, pointing at the dog. “That dog looks good enough to eat!”

The next day when I arrived at Melbourne’s airport I looked around forlornly for a bright, colourful lap lap or bilum bag, but I found myself afloat in a sea of drab clothing.

Day trip to Catembe

My friends Genimaree, Jo, and Ron travelled to Mozambique with me where we spent a few days in the capital, Maputo. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, with a GDP of US$605 per capita, as compared to Australia’s US$54,717. Everywhere in the city we were confronted by crumbling infrastructure, with a great many potholes in the roads and with the once luxurious buildings from the Portuguese colonial era looking like badly faded photographs of their former glory.

After a few days we were all yearning to see a place that was modern and well-maintained. Genimaree, the only one of us who had bothered to take a travel guide on our trip, told us excitedly one morning that there was a four star hotel in Catembe, on the other side of the bay, that we could go to for the day. It all sounded very pleasant and civilised and we were hooked.

We walked down to the wharf, where the guide book had said we could catch a water taxi to Catembe. When we arrived there we queued for a long time in the blazing sun for our turn to buy our tickets at a small, ramshackle ticket office that was well past its prime. Ours were the only European faces in the queue. The cost of a return ticket was only 60c per person. The old saying that you get what you pay for did cross my mind at the time.



The water taxi, named Mapapai II, was small and overloaded and we were more than a little relieved when we made it safely across the bay to Catembe.

Upon arrival at Catembe we could see no sign of a taxi or any form of public transport. The prospect of a 4 km walk to the hotel along the dusty road in the searing tropical heat did not appeal to us.



Much to our relief a Mozambican man approached us and offered to take us to the hotel in his “small car” for a fee. We accepted his offer and he walked us to his car, which turned out to be an old ute. Beggars can’t be choosers, we thought, so we all hopped happily onto the back of the ute, where we sat on some old tyres. But the engine would not start.

The driver called over some boys who were lounging about and asked them to push-start the ute. Twice they pushed the vehicle and twice the engine refused to start. They all started wandering off. The driver jumped out and enticed them to have another go. This time the ute took off with a spluttering engine. Some of the boys jumped onto the back with us, beaming with happiness at the opportunity to go along for the ride.


 Photo courtesy of Ron Exiner

The hotel was nice and had a pool, but to our dismay we found that it was closed for renovations. We talked to the fellow in charge of the renovation work and asked him if we could use the pool, having travelled all the way to the hotel in the heat. Not only did he offer us use of the pool for as long as we wished, but he also arranged for one of his assistants to cook lunch for us at a very reasonable price. The fish dish was to die for.

We lounged around the pool until the late afternoon, when the fellow with the ute returned at the agreed time to pick us up and drive us back to the wharf. The young boys were also on the back with us again.



During the afternoon the sea had become quite rough and we boarded the water taxi with trepidation.



Ignoring a sign that stipulated a maximum of 14 passengers in rough weather, the pilot piled 32 people on to the boat. As soon as all the passengers were on board, the boat started to list to the port side. The pilot barked out urgent orders to rearrange some of the passengers so that the boat would remain upright.



Somewhat to our surprise the water taxi made it safely back across the bay to Maputo. As we stepped off onto the quay Ron said to me quietly, so that Genimaree or Jo would not hear, “Hey, Tim, I take you any bet that water taxi’s predecessor, the Mapapai 1, is lying somewhere on the bottom of the drink out there.”


When I travelled to Vietnam with my Australian friends Genimaree, Jo and Barbara some years ago we had no fixed plan apart from starting our trip in Hanoi in North Vietnam. We had booked accommodation in a cheap hotel for one night and we would play the rest by ear.

After looking around Hanoi for a few days we decided to take the train to Sapa on Vietnam’s northern border with China. I have a great fondness for train travel. However, this particular train journey was pretty hard going. I normally sleep like a baby on trains, but the overnight train to Sapa swung wildly from side to side as it slithered around endless bends and struggled up into mountainous areas. Sleep was out of the question. I had to hang on to the side of my upper bunk for dear life all night to avoid being hurled out of it.

Bleary-eyed we arrived at the closest railway station to Sapa the next morning. To get to the town itself we had to travel by bus further up into the mountains for another hour. Through a grey mist we could see lush green rice paddies that had been laid out against impossibly steep mountain sides and down in the valleys.

Arriving at our hotel we asked the receptionist how we would go about getting around the area. She suggested that we employ a local guide. The rate that she quoted for a guide was very cheap by Australian standards and we accepted without hesitation. She called over a young woman who was standing in the foyer chatting to some of the other guides. They were all dressed in the distinctive traditional clothes of the Hmong people.

“This is Chai,” the receptionist said. “She will be your local guide.”

Chai looked to be about eighteen years old and communicated with us in broken English. It didn’t take us long to discover that she was a cheerful and smart young person with a strong sense of humour. Over the next few days, as we visited different places of interest and trudged up and down muddy mountains in the drizzle to spend a night in a remote Hmong village, we found out a little bit about her life.

She had numerous siblings and her father, a rice farmer on a smallholding, used to have a single mature water buffalo and a calf, but the calf had died from some disease. This would leave him with no animal to plough with if anything were to go wrong with the remaining buffalo. The price of rice seeds had sky-rocketed, placing a great strain on the finances of the local rice farmers. Her family’s livelihood as rice farmers appeared to be quite precarious.


Chai had left school at an early age, as her family could not afford the costs of her ongoing education. She must have been a very good student because she had good numeracy skills and could read and write in Vietnamese, despite her limited years of formal schooling.

“Where did you learn to speak English?” I asked her one day.

“Oh, I just picked it up from tourists who passed by our area,” she answered nonchalantly. “I also speak bits of some other languages – German and French and such like,” she added.

There had been no future for her in the rice paddies, so she had walked to Sapa, where she had asked at a hotel whether she could become one of their local tour guides. Even though her English was nowhere near perfect, the hotel manager agreed to try her out as a guide. Chai is very personable and the enthusiastic feedback from the tourists whom she had shown around quickly ensured her future as a local guide.

I worked out how Chai went about expanding her English vocabulary. When one of us had used a word that she was not familiar with, she would ask what it meant and afterwards she would weave it into her own conversation a few times to embed it into her vocabulary. For instance, she overheard one of us referring to a helicopter and she asked, “What is a ‘helicoppa’?”

“It’s a ‘helicopter’, Chai.”

Then we would explain what a helicopter looked like and how it could hover and pick things up from difficult terrains. She had never seen a helicopter nor ever heard of one. She asked us to repeat the word and practised until she could pronounce it properly. A little while later, as we were trudging along a muddy path along the side of a steep mountain slope, Chai warned me, “You must be careful not to slip, Tim, otherwise you will slide all the way down there and a helicopter would have to come and pick you up.”

Wherever you travel in Hmong country, the assertive Hmong women will hound you to buy their local wares. They will follow you relentlessly up and down steep hills for long distances, insisting, “You buy from me! You buy from me!” Once, when no-one else was around, Chai sidled up to Genimaree and suddenly barked at her, “You buy from me! You buy from me!” before breaking up in uproarious laughter.

On the minibus back to Sapa on our last day there Chai suddenly started singing a Beatles song. I was astounded. “Where have you heard Beatles music Chai?” I asked

She rolled her eyes. “On the Internet of course, Tim, on YouTube.” Then she explained that in the town, where she shared a room with one of the other female guides, there is an Internet café where she had learnt how to use the Internet.

I have boundless admiration for someone like Chai who, deprived of the opportunities that young people in Australia take for granted, has nevertheless managed to improve her prospects through gritty determination and against all the odds. I can only wonder what she might have achieved if she had grown up in Australia, with her formidable intellect and her eagerness to learn. No doubt she would have achieved an impressive career in some field far beyond that of a local tour guide in the remote, muddy little town of Sapa, high up in the mountains of Vietnam.


 Tim and Chai

 (Photo by Genimaree Panozzo)


In search of the elusive Panthera pardus pardus

I like the scientific name for the African leopard, Panthera pardus pardus. I have no idea what ‘pardus’ means, but in my imagination ‘pardus pardus’ somehow perfectly represents this elusive animal as it moves stealthily through the bush on padded paws.

My interest in leopards started when I was a little boy. My grandmother had a number of albums containing her black and white photos, taken with a Brownie box camera in the 1930s, mounted on black pages. Underneath the photos she had written her comments in white ink. One of her albums, my favourite one, was devoted entirely to her family’s visits to the Kruger National Park. Amongst its contents there was a photo of my grandfather, the professor, with his back to the camera, urinating into a bush. The comment underneath was “What animal has Ems spotted over there, I wonder?”

My favourite photo in that album was of two leopards right next to the car window and a ball belonging to one of her children that my grandmother had thrown out of the car to see if the two big cats would play with it. Having looked at this photo many times, I reasonably assumed that leopards were a dime a dozen, easily spotted next to one’s car in the Kruger Park. I have been to the Kruger Park many times now, but I have never been close enough to a leopard to take a photo of one. Some would call my search for a wild leopard something of an obsession. I can’t really argue with that.

I did see a leopard up close once, years ago, but that was in a zoo. It was pacing dispiritedly around and around the inside perimeter of its enclosure, its whole demeanour silently crying out its yearning for freedom. The sight of it haunted me for a long time afterwards. I bitterly regretted having seen it.

Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for leopards. The Baluba people of the Congo in Central Africa have a proverb: “The leopard’s skin is beautiful, but its heart evil.” I certainly would not like to come face to face with one in the open. In the Kruger Park’s Berg-en-Dal camp there is a memorial to a young ranger who had been killed by a leopard. He had taken a group of tourists out on a night drive. Stopping under a bridge, he had stepped out of the vehicle to smoke a cigarette. A leopard had jumped on him and had killed him in front of the horrified tourists.

KNP Memorial, Berg-en-Dal Camp

When you drive along at a leisurely crawl in the Kruger Park looking for animals and you come upon a traffic jam of stationery vehicles, you know that someone has spotted an exciting, less common species of animal, such as a lion or a cheetah or a leopard. You join the traffic jam and ask someone in another vehicle what everyone is looking at. “There is a lion just behind that shrub, to the left of that animal track, about twenty metres past that small rock,” they would explain and we would join the jostling for position as other vehicles moved on, to try and spot the animal. As soon as I see a traffic jam in the Park, I always fervently hope that I would see a leopard up close this time.

184 KNP Leopard jam

 Someone has spotted something exciting (possibly a leopard)

On one trip to the Park, while having a cup of coffee at an outdoor café, we got talking to a young man traveling by himself. I mentioned my leopard obsession to him. “They are around,” he told me. “You just have to keep looking. Look up into the big trees for a dark blob. That’s how you spot them.”

A few days later we accidentally came across the same fellow in one of the campsites. “Have you seen any leopards yet?” he asked me. “I saw two of them this morning, about a kilometre apart, both of them walking across the road right in front of my car,” he added. Had my neck not been so sore from peering fruitlessly into the tree canopies for days on end in search of a leopard, I might well have attempted to do him some physical harm.

The last time I visited the Kruger Park was in 2012. Once again I had scoured the bush and the trees fruitlessly for the sight of a leopard. We saw a group of four cheetahs. They are very impressive felines in their own right, but seeing them did not diminish my obsessive determination to find a leopard in the least. On that trip we spoke to a few people who had actually come across leopards, but our own leopard spotting cupboard remained bare.

Then, on our last day there, I found a leopard right under my nose, in the Skukuza campsite where we were staying overnight. I grabbed my camera, focussed furiously and quickly took a photo of the little toy leopard. It will just have to do for the time being, until my next trip to the Kruger Park in search of the elusive Panthera pardus pardus.

Skukuza - Leopard

 Tim’s one and only leopard photo

Tim/26 April 2013   


In August 2014 I once again visited the Kruger Park to continue my obsessive search for a leopard. One morning we came upon a traffic jam of cars blocking the road. As we approached I looked around and there, in a dead tree not far from the road, it was …

188 KNP Leopard

Photo of Panthera pardus pardus, taken by Tim in August 2014

A chance encounter with the Primrose Rugby Club

Primrose Rugby Club 2

On a blustery day in September 2012 my wife and I were relaxing in our seats in the rear of a plane on the tarmac at Cape Town’s international airport on our way back to Australia, when a babble of excited voices filled the aircraft and a group of young boys, accompanied by some adults, made their way to where we were sitting. We quietly braced ourselves for a long and noisy flight.

The boys were all dark-skinned and clearly belonged to some sort of sporting club.

Whilst growing up in South Africa during the Apartheid era, I had never once played sport against, nor even sat next to anyone who was not white. Under the laws of the time everything relating to racial matters was separate or ‘apart’ – sport, public transport, park benches, churches, schools, toilets and even public parks.

Having been active in the Anti-Apartheid movement for many years, it was a novel and heart-warming experience for me to share the plane with these excited, dark-skinned youngsters.

Their coach’s seat was not far from mine, on the other side of the aisle. I could tell that he had an excellent rapport with the kids. One of the boys came past and ruffled his hair. When they became too excited and noisy, he called them to order and they quietened down immediately.`

“What is the name of your club?” I asked the coach.

“The Primrose Rugby Club. Our boys are going to compete in a rugby competition for Under 13s in New Zealand.”

I had never heard of the Primrose Rugby Club, so I asked him how long the club had been in existence. “It started in 1896,” he said. “It’s a community club. I used to play for them myself when I was young. We have at least one boy here who is going to play for South Africa one day,” he added confidently.

The separation or ‘apartheid’ between races when I grew up was so comprehensive that this rugby club, which had existed not far from where I had lived as a schoolboy, was unfamiliar to me.

“Do your teams sometimes fly to other parts of South Africa to compete?” I asked him.

“Oh no, very few of our players would ever have been in an aeroplane before.”

The excitement amongst the boys was palpable. One of them had taken more than a hundred photos on his digital camera in the plane even before take-off. Another exclaimed: “Look! They even have little televisions in here.” He turned to me. “Could you please show me how to switch this on?”

The plane started moving towards the runway. I asked the young fellow across the aisle from me if he had ever travelled in a plane before. “No, never,” he replied. “I’m very scared!”

As the plane gathered speed on the runway the boys’ voices grew louder and some of them cried out aloud in fright when it lifted off the ground. Suddenly, one of them started singing the post-Apartheid South African national anthem, “Nkosi Sikilel iAfrika” (“Lord Bless Africa”, in the Xhosa language) and all the others immediately joined in to sing their fear of flying away. It was an enthusiastic and beautiful impromptu performance.

Later, back in Melbourne, I googled the Primrose Rugby Club and found an amateur video of the boys on a New Zealand rugby field, standing in line and facing a long line of their young New Zealand opponents, who were performing the haka. I could imagine just how immensely the boys of the Primrose Rugby Club would have enjoyed that moment, and I was grateful that something like this had become possible in my lifetime.

Some months later I googled the Primrose Rugby Club again, curious to know how their tour of New Zealand had gone. One website informed me that they had made history as the first ever international team to have been invited to compete in the prestigious Annual New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival. Then I found a photo on another website that caused me to be overwhelmed with great emotion, as well as with a strange feeling of immense pride. There was the trophy for the Under 13 Champions of the New Zealand Junior Rugby Festival, perched on the shore of Table Bay, with Cape Town in the background.

Primrose Rugby Club trophy

Failed attempt at a cheerful poem

I look out at our garden
magpies warbling
the plum tree in white blossom
like a bridal dress
at Marianna Hardwick’s,
the ironbark trees
with their galah grey leaves
bordering the scene
My soul is at peace

Then my thoughts begin to wander
They skim across the ocean
to Guguletu, to Maputo

I see a woman
picking through rubbish
that has long been picked clean
by other scavengers
beast and human

I see a cemetery
acres of fresh graves
red soil bulging everywhere
cheap crosses
marking the lives
cut short by AIDS
a generation lost

I see the orphans
six, seven years old
in rags
crawling from under the shrubs,
their home for the night
hungry, shivering

I look out at our garden

Now it has
the unnatural tinge
of a delusion

 aa004 AIDS victims' graves - Empangeni1


                                      AIDS victims’ graves, Empangeni