With ten minutes to go before we land at Luganville on the Island of Santo I strike up a conversation with the man I’ve been sitting beside for the past two hours.
I’ve decided I need to find the toilet at the rear of the plane before we land. The beef casserole with mashed potato a la Air Vanuatu, accompanied by the requisite side dish of coleslaw, a bread roll, block of dry chocolate cake and a lukewarm cup of tea has arrived at its destination early forcing me to disturb my white haired and elderly companion in the aisle seat.
I squeeze past him then, five minutes later, squeeze back. Then Paul, whom I do know, decides to make the trip to the southern end of the flight deck and crawls over both me and the old bloke. We’ve only exchanged half a dozen words, mostly apologies, but this seems to open an opportunity for a question from me.
Where are you heading? I ask.
Malakula, he responds. It’s an island north of Efate and Port Vila.
I nod and notice that he sports a tiny stud in his left ear lobe. He’s also wearing a cream woollen scarf wrapped stylishly around his neck and shoulders. He has a slim build and is wearing pressed jeans and an expensive discreet long sleeved shirt. We’re landing in Vanuatu and though it was winter when we left Brisbane I can’t imagine what use he’ll get from a scarf here in the tropics.
What brings you to Vanuatu? I enquire wondering what on earth a man of this age and obvious wealth would be doing visiting this third world Pacific nation. And then his story flows.
I came here after the war with my young wife, he tells me, I’d been working in East Africa as an administrator and this job in the New Hebrides came up so I applied.
Born in Australia, he completed his law studies at Cambridge in the UK, where he met his wife, also an Australian and took the opportunity to take a posting closer to home.
He was close to home, it was true, but it took him another thirty five years to make it there, by then with four adult children. He had been the colonial administrator for the British for those years. He was judge, magistrate, mediator and administrator of three large islands in the archipelago. He was the arms and hands of British power all rolled into one. He had loved it and was returning for the first time in ten years, possibly for the last time, to catch up with old friends and see the place again.
How old are you? I asked rudely. I was fascinated. He’d retired in 1980 when the New Hebrides became the new nation of Vanuatu. It was perfect timing for him. That was thirty years ago.
Eighty nine he replied. I nearly fell off my seat. I was envious. Eighty nine and travelling alone to visit a remote island with few facilities.
The next day I mentioned his name to some of the Ni-Vanuatu facilitators I was working with. Have ever heard of Darville Wilkins? I asked. These middle aged men would have been less than ten when he retired.
Mr Wilkins they chorused. They used to say “Here comes the government”. That was his nick name “The Government”
He was good, said Christian. Tough he added.
I tried to imagine the eighty nine year old with a stud in his ear and designer jeans as tough. It was possible. It was there.
Good luck Mr Wilkins. Enjoy your last years.