The Jour­ney

The vet­eran re­porter, com­men­ta­tor and au­thor’s first trip abroad came with in­flight re­wards: smoked salmon, caviar and the birth of a stel­lar ca­reer.

Qantas - - CONTENTS -

Mike Carl­ton on his flight into a war zone as a cub re­porter

My wid­owed mother took a photo of the plane that car­ried me away from Aus­tralia for the first time. It was a smoky old Boe­ing 707 parked on the tar­mac at Mas­cot, as ev­ery­one called Syd­ney Air­port back in 1966. Those were the days be­fore air bridges, when you strolled across the con­crete and climbed the stairs to go on board. The 707 was the lat­est word in air travel, an avi­a­tion mar­vel.

“Qan­tas jet on which Michael left for Sin­ga­pore,” my mother wrote on the back of the photo. I re­mem­ber that she tried to sup­press her tears as I dis­ap­peared into the de­par­ture area, tears of pride for her first­born son who was about to soar sky­wards and tears of sad­ness for the chick fly­ing the nest.

I was 20 years old. As im­prob­a­ble as it sounds, I was off to be­come a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent in South-East Asia for the ABC – the Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Com­mis­sion as it was then. Look­ing back, I haven’t a clue why they chose me for the job. I’d left school at 16 and had four years of jour­nal­ism un­der my belt but I was still wet be­hind the ears, a boy go­ing on a man’s as­sign­ment.

No mat­ter. There I was up the pointy end in First Class, seat 1A. That’s how the ABC flew its jour­nal­ists years ago.

“More cham­pagne, Mr Carl­ton? Will you have the smoked salmon or the caviar?” I didn’t know; I’d never tasted ei­ther. “Both, please,” I said as James Bondishly as I could man­age. The stew­ard flour­ished the sil­ver servers, spoon­ing out a splodge of Bel­uga and curls of pink fish onto the fine bone china. There were lit­tle mounds of chopped onion, tis­sue-thin slices of lemon, crum­bled hard-boiled eggs and a del­i­cate sprig of pars­ley. I had never imag­ined such lux­ury, such el­e­gance. “The cap­tain would like to in­vite you to the flight deck… ”

Sin­ga­pore was an as­sault on all the senses. It was like div­ing head­long into a curry. A col­league drove me into the city at twi­light on streets steam­ing from the mon­soon rain, weav­ing through a teem­ing, honk­ing tan­gle of cars, mo­tor­bikes, buses and taxis, past the Chi­nese shop­houses ablaze with lurid neon signs and food stalls lit by bright white pres­sure lamps, along dark, curv­ing av­enues fringed with palms. The night air was hot and sweet and sour, cloy­ing and cling­ing. In­tox­i­cat­ing aro­mas floated on the breeze: the per­fumes of mys­te­ri­ous fruits and spices and meats cooked on char­coal blended with the sharp whiff of two-stroke ex­haust and trop­i­cal de­cay. It was am­brosia.

I did five years as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent. I went twice to the Viet­nam War and for three years I was the ABC’s bureau chief in Jakarta. I worked in Lon­don, New York, Wash­ing­ton, Tokyo, New Delhi and Lusaka. And in the 52 years since, I’ve trav­elled the world I don’t know how many times.

But there has been noth­ing to match that first glo­ri­ous flight in the 707.

Mike Carl­ton with his mother, Enid, in Sin­ga­pore in 1968

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