IPSWICH - On arrival in Papua New Guinea in January 1980, I was posted to Laloki Plant Quarantine and Horticultural Research Station as horticulturalist with the then Department of Primary Industry.
It was about 20km from Tabari Place in Boroko which at that time was the main shopping centre for Port Moresby residents. Burns Philp, Steamships and Carpenters all had supermarkets there.
Recently, on a recent business trip to Port Moresby, I decided to drive to Laloki to see if my old house was still there. It was and a few of my old workers were there to greet me.
In the late 1970’s and 1980’s there was a big push to improve food supplies for Port Moresby.
My initial job was to identify suitable sweet potato varieties that could be grown on a commercial scale for the main institutions such as the university, hospital, prison and schools.
My colleagues were identifying suitable varieties of vegetables such as tomatoes, cabbage for commercial farming and we were also propagating fruit trees especially citrus and mangoes and avocadoes.
Another function of the research station was to distribute seeds and planting materials to schools and institutions all over PNG.
We had a fleet of tractors and irrigation pumps and could grow crops all year round using water from the Laloki River.
There was also a herd of Jersey dairy cows which were the remnants of the original dairy herd supplying milk to Tanobada Dairy Products at what is now the Pacific Adventist University.
To maintain the tractors and equipment we had a small workshop. Steven Oala, a wonderful gentleman from Hanuabada village, was in charge.
Steven had worked at Laloki since 1949 and could tell me the names of all the previous managers of the station. One of the longest serving had been Ray Montgomery, who had been my botany tutor at Queensland Agricultural College after retiring from PNG.
Steven travelled from Hanuabada to Laloki every day in his yellow Datsun 120Y and he would buy a Post Courier for the staff each day on his way to work.
I joined a hockey club and played each Saturday on the oval next to Hubert Murray stadium at Konedobu.
Steven invited me to go to the village and so after the game I would drive the short distance to Hanuabada to meet him and his family. Firstly it was just a cup of tea but later I would buy a six pack of SP and sit in his house and talk.
Later that year I joined Steamships Cricket Club and there were a lot of players also from Hanuabada. The six pack became a carton and many great evenings were held after the game.
Steven always insisted that I stay the night rather than drive all the way back to Laloki but I must admit trying to sleep with all the noise of the village was not always easy.
Steven told me that he had been recruited by the armed forces as a driver in World War II and had driven supplies from Port Moresby to Sogeri to support the Kokoda campaign. He was trained as a mechanic and after the war in 1949 recruited by DASF to work at Laloki.
In late 1980 he received a letter from the Public Service Commission that, as he was 60 years old, he would have to retire at the end of 1980. Steven was quite devastated as he was still fit and very active. However, he had no choice and accepted his retirement with grace. We gave him a great send off with the usual mumu and BBQ.
I continued to see him and in May 1981 took my parents to visit him in the village for afternoon tea. What a spread his family put on for us. I particularly remember the cucumber sandwiches.
My father had been an engineer on a steamship after the war taking war scrap from the Pacific to Japan. On a voyage back to Australia in 1948 or 1949 they had picked up a cargo of circus animals in Singapore and called into Port Moresby on the way back to Australia.
My father told Steven the story that the local villagers were allowed on board to see the animals and when there were too many on board the elephant handler would tickle the elephant behind the ear to make it trumpet and all the villagers would race down the gangplank or even jump overboard into the harbour.
While telling the story I could see Steven’s eyes light up and after my father completed it Steven said he remembered that ship as he had gone on board and was one of those who raced down the gangplank scared out of his wits when the elephant trumpeted.
Steven also showed us a stamp that was produced when he was a young boy. Many years later I inherited a stamp collection that had originally been my grandfather’s and then my uncle’s.
My uncle had collected PNG stamps from the time he was a boy up until 1988. Surprisingly, looking through the collection I found the 1932 stamp of Steve, Son of Oala.
In 1989 I decided to resign from the Department of Agriculture and Livestock and headed back to my home town of Ipswich, Queensland.
One day when walking around the neighbourhood I met a woman who was obviously Papuan and, on talking with her and her husband, discovered that she was the daughter of Steven Oala. Olive and Ron and their three children had ‘gone finish’ in 1979.
For the next couple of years while I tried (unsuccessfully) to settle back into suburban life we had many a backyard BBQ on a Friday night with a carton of beer in the Esky, naturally.
Sadly, Steven passed away in the late 1980s but I still remember him well as the person who gave me a great introduction to PNG life and was the first Papua New Guinean to welcome me into his home.