A road less travelled

Published 16 December 2019
Rod beside a waterfall

RODNEY Ingersoll was once told by a careers adviser to get a truck driver’s licence but this almost dismissive assessment of his potential - and passion - could hardly have been more astray.

Rod with a group of people in PNG
Rod works with organisations to install water tanks across Hela province in health centres, churches and schools affected by the 2018 earthquake. Over 100 have been installed to date.

The truth is Rod was never destined to be belting down highways in the dead of the night as his life veered onto a twisted, often treacherous and remote road on a journey worthy of a Hollywood script.

As a sometimes-homeless undergrad at Southern Cross University in the 1990s, sleeping under a tarp in a Lismore Park, eating at a soup kitchen and showering in the campus gym, Rod was simply motivated to do his mother proud.

He had grown up estranged from his father since the age of nine, using teachers, doctors and other professionals as his role models for success.

When he switched schools for Year 12, only to have his Year 11 HSC assessment work somehow lost in the transfer, he was languishing at the 'back of the grid' in the race to secure a prized position at Southern Cross University.

Without the HSC mark required for a Bachelor degree, Rod began studying an Associate Degree and three years later he was embarking on an Honours degree in Environmental Resource Management.

“I couldn’t share accommodation with other students. I tried but they were busy partying – not that there’s anything wrong with that. I had no time to waste. I had to catch up,” Rod recalls.

“Occasionally I wandered into the union but most of the time I was alone, constantly studying.”

Inspired by the likes of David Attenborough a young Rod was determined to make an impact on the wider world.

“I was never going to be a truckie – I had a passion for the environment. I had a passion for helping other people.”

Indeed it was this ambition that landed him in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, a universe away from the highlands of his Scottish ancestry.

That was 1999, and the dense tropical ranges were raging with tribal warfare as he set out to work in the Baiyer River Wildlife Sanctuary.

“All my sun screen that I took to PNG was stolen – and I spent a week bed-ridden by the blisters of my sunburn,” he recalled.

But the discomfort of a blazing equatorial climate would become the least of his worries as he was forced, on no less than seven occasions, to stare down the gun-toting, machete-wielding warriors who terrorised those parts.

In the final confrontation, three young women came running for his protection, fearing for their lives. One of the terrified cousins would become his wife, Evelyn, and PNG has been their home ever since.

Some might say it was a case of ‘love at first fright’ but Rod would disagree.

“I got defiant and they yelled screamed and carried on, I had no idea what they were saying, I just knew the girls were petrified and thought they were going to be killed.

“The truth is I’m not afraid – not of people with guns. I believe I was doing something very powerful, and I was there at a higher level to make a difference so with that mentality I believed I would be looked after and I was every time. It was very dangerous but from the rest of the village I had support.”

“I was only 23 at the time and twenty years later we are still married. It was meant to be.”

Rod has become a fixture within these highland communities, using his knowledge of the environment and science to enhance the lives of thousands.

He built simple infrastructure for the gravity fed delivery of fresh water to 40 villages, sparing thousands the risk of illness from what would have otherwise been a contaminated supply.

“I’m all about sustainability so whatever I do it has to first of all suit the need in the village whether it be a chicken, or a duck project, water, sanitation and it’s got to actually last and function without me being there.

“It’s got to be long lasting and help the most people it possibly can. If it were a water tank for example I would set it up on the roof of a church as a community owned infrastructure and then everyone gets to use it.”

Working closely with non-profits, industry and government Rodney’s reputation as a compassionate and dedicated humanitarian has been recognised at the highest level.

“I use Australian aid a lot…I see it as my country’s money and want to make the most of it.”

That careers adviser from the early 1990s may be interested to learn Rod’s work in the fields of environmental management, sustainable development, climate change and community development has been recognised with an Order of the British Empire Medal (OBE) in 2017 and The Logohu Medal (ML) in 2019.

He has written a book about his adventures in PNG, titled Sanctuary: Saving Baiyer River.

”This is the story of how I faced that challenge. Of how a red-headed kid from an Australian country town overcame tribal wars and death-threats in a lonely fight to save the sanctuary’s iconic birds of paradise. It is also the story of how I became a fully-fledged member of a New Guinea highland tribe,” the synopsis states.

Rod is now Director of Sustainable Advice Pty Ltd and manages the Oil Search Foundations Hela Provincial Community Development program in PNG.

As a Southern Cross University mentor he has a simple message for today’s students, encouraging them to run with their emotions on their own adventures.

“I tell them to fight those social pressures that might be holding them back. You need a reason – a ‘why?’ to make you cry - and if you don’t have that powerful emotional connection to something you’ll never do it.”

Photo: Courtesy Rod Ingersoll

Media contact: Adam Walters scumedia@scu.edu.au