My transfer to Townsville was for two years and after saying “yes” to the VIS manager Ken Stone, things started to move pretty quickly. There was not much time for goodbyes so it was rather an awkward situation when it came time to leave. I said goodbye to Tuhi and the gang, packed my things and headed north in the maxi.
Just south of Mackay I got a flat rear tyre. It took me some time to change the wheel so spent the night in Mackay arriving in Townsville the following day and booking into a motel until permanent digs could be found.
I drove out to Cape Pallarenda where the station was located, met the manager John Glendinning and a couple of the on duty operators. John gave me a tour of the station and I signed a few documents and was assigned my first shift.
A couple of days later I moved into a small unit close to the city and a little way up “The Hill”, which was Castle Hill overlooking and dominating the whole city. The first thing I noticed on arriving in Townsville was the humidity which was hovering around 75% and the temperature around the 30 degree mark so I definitely knew I was in the tropics.
I quickly discovered the difference between working at Sydney and Townsville was the fact that you were on your own operating all the services and had to be a “jack of all trades”. The phone, the telex, the Morse key, the radio telephone, automatic weather stations, weather broadcasts, receiving and sending telegrams, maintenance, logbook was all your responsibility. It took time to get the sequence right and get into an efficient routine but after a couple of weeks I was able to get everything more or less under control.
I was so engrossed in my work and learning new skills that I had completely forgotten about Tuhi and all the gang I had left behind in Sydney. Time slips by very quickly when your mind is on other matters.
One morning I received a surprise phone call from a Sydney hospital and the female voice on the other end was authoritarian, terse and business like. “I am here with Tuhirangi who is holding her baby boy and you are the father!”
Shock was an understatement and I was left speechless for a few seconds. “Well, what are you going to do about it?” came the commanding voice on the phone. “Ah, how do you know I’m the father?” I stuttered.
“Because she says so.” came the reply.
Oh right, I thought. My mind was racing as this was something I definitely hadn’t foreseen. A baby, my God!
A week later, Tuhi arrived with the baby, as yet unnamed and I met her at the airport. I hadn’t prepared anything so there was no baby bath, cot, pram or any of the baby paraphernalia a father was supposed to get ready. So the next morning I had to do a quick trip to the supermarket and buy a list of necessities.
Tuhi and I discussed names and I glanced at an LP record I had been playing. It was Beethoven’s 5th Symphony conducted by Daniel Barrenboim so I said, how about Daniel? We looked at the baby and he seemed to be a Daniel, so it was decided. Later, I changed Daniel’s surname to Hewitson by deed poll, because I thought he would feel different with Tuhi’s surname.
So Daniel began to grow and be a part of our lives, but there was an uneasiness as if something was niggling Tuhi. She was moody and irritable, sometimes happy, other times sad. Why do I attract this kind of woman? I thought.
We soon found the old wooden flat near Castle Hill inadequate so we found a lovely unit on The Strand, right across from the rock pool and just a walk across the road to the beach. Our neighbours were very friendly and we would get together in someone’s flat for morning tea or a few beers and it was great.
One day Tuhi mentioned that some of our friends had commented on Daniel’s colour and how he was darker than his mother and how could I be the father. The thought hadn’t crossed my mind but then I started to do an analysis in my head and I guess it was possible. But Tuhi dismissed it as a “throw-back” whatever that was, but I wondered if this was the reason for her moodiness.
Daniel was a chubby baby and got into lots of mischief but on the whole he was very easy to look after and had his routine. We would go for rides, swim in the river, at the beach, go to the park, drive up to the top of Castle Hill to the lookout and my free time was totally taken up with having fun together.
Christmas 1974 came along and unfortunately I was rostered on for night duty on Christmas Eve. It was around 2am when I heard the Mayday call from the trawler Mutual Enterprise. I asked for his position and he said Darwin Harbour. I wondered why Darwin Radio VID was not answering him so I immediately called Darwin who should have been listening on the same frequency.
Suddenly the telex machine started up and it was Darwin. The telex read, “We heard the Mayday call from Mutual Enterprise and also heard you but we cannot answer. All our antennas are on the ground. Cyclone Tracy is overhead.”
It took a few seconds to absorb this information, so I went back to the Mutual Enterprise and informed him that unfortunately Darwin was off the air and there was not much we could do until after the cyclone had passed. The Mutual Enterprise came back with a casual, “No worries mate” and closed down presumably to ride out the tempest out in the harbour.
That night I intercepted another two Mayday calls intended for Darwin all the while passing on the information to the Rescue Coordination Centre (RCC) in Canberra, which was part of the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA).
By morning we discovered the true enormity of cyclone Tracy and the devastation it had caused the population of Darwin. Two thirds of the population had to be evacuated. There was no power, water, sewage. Thousands of homes had been destroyed and around 85 people killed.
VID was off air for a week which meant the adjacent stations of Townsville and Thursday Island had to take over their operations. Weather and navigation broadcasts, traffic and position reporting were shared between us.
The M/V Nyanda had become VID2 and the VID operators had taken over the ships radios to communicate with Sydney VIS who had brought up a 10KW transmitter and a directional Rhombic antenna pointed at Darwin.
Major-General Allan Stretton, who was in charge of the Cyclone Tracy disaster recovery operations had made his headquarters onboard the Nyanda and all official communications came through this link via Morse code.
One evening a few days after the cyclone disaster, I was on the 1600-2400 evening duty and received a phone call from a local amateur radio operator. He said he’d had contact with an American amateur operator who was located in Irian Jaya, Indonesia at a mining site. Cyclone Tracy had ripped through the mining site a couple of days before it struck Darwin and all their communications had been knocked out. He wanted to set up a link between VIT to pass on urgent traffic.
I passed this on to John, the manager and by morning we had a roster set up to work Irian Jaya. It was Morse code only and all the received messages were re-transmitted by telex. These messages were sometimes over one thousand words long and were for destinations all over the world but mainly in the US. So this was an additional workload as well as handling all Darwin’s traffic and the normal VIT traffic.
During this time we had extra overtime rostered and I would come home just wanting to crash out. However Tuhi had other ideas and would keep me awake until she decided it was time to sleep so it was a double whammy.
It was 1975 and my term at Townsville was coming to an end and John asked me what I wanted to do. Stay at Townsville or return to Sydney. I decided to return to Sydney, regardless of what Tuhi wanted but as it turned out, she agreed to go back too.
But there was one thing to do before we left. Get married!