Disaster awaits if we don’t plan
The story of George Oakes, kiap

Was it all a mistake?

Graham King
Graham King


YUNGABURRA, Far North Queensland - Over the years I have heard and read many different versions of ‘how [the storyteller] came to live and work in Papua New Guinea’.

I have told my own story many times with a bottle of SP Brown in hand, but today is the day I write it down.

The Department of Agriculture Stock and Fisheries (DASF) underwent a review after PNG independence in 1975 and, in 1978, changed its name to Department of Primary Industry.

The review recommended that a horticulture section be established within the agronomy division to undertake food crop research and extension. 

The chief horticulturalist, Ken Newton, advertised for horticulturalists in 1979 and I was one of the applicants.

At the time I was a final year student at the Queensland Agricultural College at Gatton in Queensland where I was completing a bachelor’s degree in horticultural technology.

That October I was called for an interview with Ken Newton at the PNG Consulate in Brisbane. In those days there was no coaching in interview skills and I think I performed very badly.

The only question I recall was, “Do you know how to set up a three-point linkage disc plough?” Fortunately that was something I could do and I answered confidently.

But I was more interested in salary and conditions of service as, after four years as a student living on very little income, I was looking forward to having some money in my pocket.

The only other job possibility before me was a position in Tasmania (my mother had spent 1979 knitting jumpers for me to take there). But in the end I didn't get the job and the jumpers remained in the cupboard at home in Ipswich. There was little use for them where I was to end up living for the next 39 years.

Sometime in early December 1979 I finished my last examination, handed in my fourth year thesis and looked for cash to fund a party that night.

After 16 years, student life was finally over and I wasn’t thinking about future employment.  My only thought was to get back the $10 deposit for a mail box key so I had some cash for the coming celebrations.

I didn't bother checking the mailbox because there was never anything for me, but the woman at the college post office checked anyway and returned with a brown A4 envelope along with my $10 key deposit.

Cover page original contract dated 4 December 1979
Cover page  of Graham's original contract  for his job in PNG, dated 4 December 1979

Opening the envelope, I discovered a contract for employment as Scientific Officer Class 1 with the Department of Primary Industry in Papua New Guinea.

“Wow,” I said to myself.  “Now I can really go out and celebrate.”

A few days later I got home to Ipswich and applied for a passport and visa. By early January 1980 a ticket had turned up in the mail which enabled me to travel from Brisbane to Port Moresby.

So, on Friday 18 January, with a suitcase full of short sleeved shirts, shorts and three pairs of long socks, I checked in at the airport.

I departed Brisbane on QF95 (a Qantas 747 jumbo) and three hours later touched down at Jacksons airport.  I was seated on the right side of the plane and had a great view of the coast from Hula and the other villages all the way to Bootless Bay.

The Variarata escarpment and Mt Victoria were also  clearly visible. I had never seen mountains like that before.

The old terminal at Jacksons was not designed to cater for the large number of passengers on a 747 and only a few people could enter the terminal at a time.

The rest of us lined in the hot sun waiting to enter and be checked by Customs and Immigration.

The arrival form required an address and I had no idea where I was going to be living. When the immigration official asked, I said ‘”Department of Primary Industry” and he wrote ‘Konedobu’ on the form, stamped my entry card and passport and told me to pass through. 

“Where the hell is Konedobu?” I thought.

As I entered the baggage area there was a blackout and the ceiling fans stopped.  The heat and humidity that embraced me were unbelievable. With the baggage belt motionless, all the baggage handlers sat in the shade of the trolleys waiting for the blackout to finish.

Some passengers, impatient at the delay, jumped through the small access door and soon the bags were coming through manually.  My suitcase finally arrived and I went through Customs with nothing to declare and looked around a crowded arrival lounge wondering what would happen next.

I was on the verge of panicking when I saw the familiar face of Ken Newton and went over to him and said hello. 

He replied, “Hello Ashley” ,to which I responded, “Sorry, I am Graham King.”

It was a bit disconcerting but Ken took me to his car and drove me to the Civic Guesthouse in Boroko and advised I would be staying there for the weekend. 

At the reception desk, Ken crossed out Ashley Rogers’ name in the guest register and wrote mine.  He introduced me to two other new recruits also staying at the Civic. Geoff Wright and Grant Munro were Australian volunteers who had arrived on the Air Niugini 707 from Sydney earlier the same day.

On Monday morning, Ken collected us and took us to the department offices at Konedobu and we began signing the paperwork to get on the payroll. 

On Tuesday morning we were taken out to the Laloki Plant Quarantine and Horticultural Research Station and shown the house which had been allocated to the three of us.  We were provided with a patrol box with basic kitchen items all of which had been requisitioned from the Government Stores at Badili.

We were also dispatched to Burns Philp in Boroko to buy food and other essentials with our settling in allowances. And so started our careers in PNG.

Grant was first posted to Kiunga and then to Tambul but only stayed a few months before returning to Australia.  Geoff went on to work with South Pacific Machinery where he put his agricultural engineering skills into practice. I became a didiman and stayed with the department until 1989.

A couple of weeks later, Ashley Rogers arrived.  He was a plant nursery specialist from New Zealand and was tasked to set up a fruit tree nursery to establish commercial fruit production for the Port Moresby market.

As I was already by now living in the house designated for him, he ended up in a hostel at Ela Beach and travelled to Laloki every day until a new house could be found.

These days there are proper induction processes for new employees but back then, even after a few weeks, I had not been given any direction as to what I was supposed to be doing. I asked for some guidance.

I was finally given a duty instruction and the only part that was relevant was the final clause, “Other duties as directed”. I thus became the paymaster for 80 PNG public servants and labourers and had a purchase order book and a stores requisition book to ensure the station had the fuel and other stores necessary to run the research program.

I started screening sweet potato varieties to see if they would be suitable for commercial production and transferred the PNG banana collection from the university farm to Laloki Research Station. My PNG career slowly gathered pace.

Memorial plaque for Ken Newton at Gatton College. He graduated with a Diploma in Horticulture in 1952
Memorial plaque for Ken Newton at Gatton College. He graduated with a Diploma in Horticulture in 1952 and became a PNG didiman

In the years since, I have often wondered how my application came to be successful. Ken Newton retired in 1981 and unfortunately was killed in a light plane crash a few years later so I never found out the details behind my recruitment.

But I recall a comment by Ken that “someone in the Public Service Commission in Waigani had put my file in the accepted rather than the rejected tray”.

Ken was also a Gatton graduate and had been in the New Guinea Volunteer Rifles and I’d been in the Gatton Citizens’ Military Force (CMF) unit. I was also aware that Ken had contacted Locky Rule, one of my lecturers at Gatton. But from his reception of me at Jacksons, I am sure my arrival was a surprise. 

After PNG independence there was an accelerated training and localisation requirement for all expatriates. I had no experience and had not even graduated when my contract was issued , and I had no practical experience in training anyone.

That said, over the next 10 years I became a researcher of subsistence farming systems in lowland PNG and published papers on sweet potato, yams, taro, cassava and bananas. In 1985 I was promoted to Scientific Officer Class 5 and put in charge of a team of PNG and expatriate scientists at Bubia Agricultural Research Centre near Lae.

In the early 1990s when I was working on an Australian aid project in West New Britain, I discussed this matter with Mike Bourke, who advised my recruitment surprised many people in the department as there were not supposed to be any expatriates recruited at that time without the required qualifications and experience.

That original contract was for three years but I stayed with the department until my first go finish in 1989. Then I returned to PNG in 1993 and stayed until June 2019.

Looking back at my recruitment 40 years ago, I can only conclude that it was all a mistake.


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Yvonne Sapuri

Great story Graham, looking forward to reading more of your memoirs of your time in PNG.

Sopa Caleb | Training & Staff Development Manager, Higaturu Oil Palm

Wow! Am sure you will keep more pieces coming out. Your contribution to agriculture especially oil palm is immense.

Carole Cholai

Wow! I feel this story should be extended. And so looking forward to reading more of the 40 years.

A "mistake" that became truly a blessing especially to PNG agriculture and the oil palm industry. ☺️

Thanks for sharing this.

Sophie Gett

Even though I have heard most of this, am so happy that you finally written it for everyone else to enjoy your PNG adventure. Look forward to reading more stories 😊

Graham King

Hi Carol, I am glad you enjoyed the story again. I tried to publish as much as possible in international journals and these are all available in libraries or on line.

If you search for 'Yams in Central Province' you will get a hit on a paper published in Agricultural Systems. Unfortunately, the paper is not free.

The Department of Agriculture and Livestock Central Library did have copies of my papers. NARI should have all my food crop papers and reports. All of my oil palm reports and papers are available at PNG Oil Palm Research Association.

Carol Aigilo

As one of many analogies of life, "mistakes may turn out to be the one thing necessary for a worthwhile achievement".

I've heard this story at least three times before but the humour sounds better reading it.

It's good to read about the history of agriculture in PNG through the experiences of the early didimans. I wonder if your scientific papers are accessible in any library or research Institutions in PNG today?

Look forward to reading more of your tales Mr King.

Graham King

Hi Ian, I have lots more stories in my head. You should see some of them over the next year.

Ian Ritchie

What an amusing and uplifting anecdote, but surely your appointment was no mistake. It was simply another example of the fabled and fantastic "Land of the Unexpected".

I have the feeling Graham that you have a few more tales tucked away. This old Withcott wantok (from the same era) would appreciate reading them.

Graham King

By all accounts Ken was a very good didman. Unfortunately I have no further details of his career. He was one of the many didimen who left PNG soon after Independence. It was impossible to replace all that experience.

Robert L Parer

Nice to see the memorial plaque for Ken Newton who was a didiman in Aitape for a while in the 1950s. When he left we were sorry as we had no idea where he went to as communications were not good in those days.

Dave Carey who was also a Gatton Ag College man and was in charge of agriculture for Sepik District and did wonders pushing the local people to plant more coconuts.

He purchased many thousands of nuts from us and had the Government boat three times take them up the Sepik River and had them dropped at every village. I suppose the people today would have no idea why so many coconuts are all along the Sepik River.

He was devoted and dedicated to getting coconuts planted also right along the coast and had his men checking the numbers planted in every village.

Later he did the same with cacao plantings, driving the local people mad wanting to know why they hadn't planted more.

Hugh Tavonavona

A good mistake!

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