Former diplomat Bruce Haigh spent years in some of the world’s hotspots where he saw and did some extraordinary things. In South Africa he befriended the legendary dissident Steve Biko. In Afghanistan he took pictures of Russian military installations. In Pakistan he flirted with Benazir Bhutto, or perhaps it was Benazir flirting with him.
Bruce loved his time as a jackaroo, but he wasn’t prepared for the Kimberleys. “[It was] like another country. Aboriginal Australians comprised the bulk of the population, and the countryside itself was completely different to anything in the south, spectacularly so.
But he soon got the hang of it. “After you’ve been mustering for a while you do get a sense of direction, even on a cloudy day. Just different things you pick up, sometimes without knowing them, like which way the birds are flying. You just get a feeling for what time of the day it is, none of us had watches, and the sort of direction you had to follow, that just came after a while.”
When he was working on an oil rig he met a German who told him something very important. ‘I had to carry to the rig two big bags of chemicals on my shoulders. They would have weighed about 40 kilograms each and I used to stagger. He watched me one day and he said ‘you’re only going to carry those bags if you use your head. You’ve got to believe you can do it.’ It was one of those lessons in life that you never forget. Just when you think you’re not going to be able to do something you pull yourself together, toughen up mentally.”
Going into the Foreign Affairs was something of a shock for the young idealist. “It was Dickensian! It was almost as if people were sitting on high stools writing with quill pens and that was frustrating.”
In South Africa he asked to meet with Steve Biko. “He was a natural leader. Tall, good looking, highly intelligent. He just had that indefinable and yet very strong presence of leadership. If he’d lived, I think he would have been the leader of South Africa.”
He won’t forget his first meeting in Pakistan with Benazir Bhutto. “She was then unmarried and very attractive. She said, ‘did they tell you what a naughty girl I was at Oxford?’ As it turned out she hadn’t been a naughty girl in any sense other than being outspoken and that sort of thing. We [ended up] becoming very good friends.”
Bruce Haigh is a patron of the Sri Lankan Human Rights Project, Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney.