Planning for resilient island communities
After the crisis – more of the same?

Remote business never easy in PNG

Map of the Sepik region by Bill Brown


BRISBANE - In 1970 we sold our Vanimo stores and bulk fuel depot to Steamships Trading Company.

Mr Lee, the manager of Steamships Madang, had approached us to negotiate the transaction. He was such a fine person to deal with.

Then, 36 years later, Steamships, by now owned by the British multinational Swire Group of Hong Kong, also purchased our stores at Aitape.

This was a slow and laborious process as any decisions had to be made through head office and they also found it difficult to find a manager who could run our business which was diversified into many small parts.

To make it a simpler operation they got rid of the hardware department, which now had to be shipped from their branches in Madang or Lae.

This was tough for Aitape people as they had nowhere close and convenient to buy building materials and other hardware.

Our Parer organisation had kept a full range of materials for anyone wanting to build a house and we were the agent for all the factories in Lae.

Next, to the amazement of hundreds of customers, the new owners closed the bulk fuel depot and service station.

So Aitape people had nowhere to purchase diesel, petrol, kerosene and oils as there was no other distributor of petroleum products in this important part of the Sepik region.

Admittedly there was no profit in the fuel business as it was price controlled and freight rates had doubled which the price controllers had failed to take into account.

In the major towns where Mobil and Shell had depots there was an agreement whereby one or the other would work out the pricing and present to the price controller.

Then whenever the import price went up or down the new price for every town would appear in the Government Gazette.

Even though Shell had no agent at Aitape, they had been allocated the job of presenting the costs of landing fuel at the town.

They were totally uninterested in getting a fair price for us.

Steamships had had enough clout to force a fair pricing regime. Shell didn’t care.

Life could be tough in those remote PNG rowns.


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Arthur Williams

Rob - I worked in most of the south Fly area of Western Province for Pasuwe Ltd. My role covered managing the largest of our stores at Balimo with 12 tiny stores as far west as Arufe.

This was in 1977. At our head office in Gordon’s Dudley Deasey an ex-pioneer missionary for UFM, by then APCM, sole job was calculating the Freight Fuel Subsidy Scheme set up by the government.

I normally received around over 100 assorted fuel drums a month to sell at my branches then there were fuel depots at Kiunga and Mt Hagen too, both trading in fuel.

It meant that we could supply the 3 fuels: benzene, kero and diesel to all of our rural stores where it could be sold at a subsidised price that was the same as in Moresby, Hagen or Kiunga.

MAF was our main method of moving the 200L drums. The little Cessna 208s did wonderful work getting them into the short grass strips of our remote communities.

Dudley was very much on top of his very paperwork intensive jobs and he had to regularly submit claims for rebate of true freight costs to Treasury.

With nearly 25 rural stores throughout Western & Southern Highlands Provinces of PNG you can imagine the task he had of correctly claiming mileage costs for each flight that supplied the drums.

He always kept abreast of the fuel price rises which I seem to recall were gazetted on Thursdays. He then had to correctly factor the new subsidy into the subsequent claims.

Sometimes they went up one week and down again shortly after. The lower prices were appreciated not only by the lonely lowly paid aid post orderlies & teachers but by the villagers too.

One facet of life just like the current robberies of toilet paper, fake sanitisers or possibly useless testing machines for the virus on Amazon etc is that there are the clever spivs that will always scam the system.

MAF had a role in returning the empty drums to us in Kawito for back loading on Steamship’s coastal ships back to Mobil.

One day I heard from a Mobil boss that there was a discrepancy in the number of drums sold to the remote west and the number of drums returned for refund of the then refundable K10 deposits.

I thought he meant the drums kept by villagers to make drum ovens or lost overboard from canoes or dinghies.

“No,” he said, “There are not less but in fact too many being returned to us!”

Mobil eventually solved the riddle. Some entrepreneurial Western folks were getting their empties from the nearby Australian islands and sending them back for refunds to Moresby.

Apparently the Torres Strait drums did not then have a refundable value if returned to the Thursday Island drum depot.

Mind it is not the little men that can see bucks in almost any situation. There was the guy who once cornered the avocado market and scammed the unknowing EU which had some agro scheme for rebates on cross border imports and/or exports of scarce fruit.

I can only imagine the billions of profit that the very richest guys have reaped by buying very low during the recent record stock markets slump in prices but now rewarded by huge gains as stocks resurrect in just 2 days trading.

Normally it is only the very rich that can profit from such clever dealings of stock exchanges.

Abba sang about it, ‘Money Money it’s a rich man’s world…’ The daily volume of gold and silver cleared at the London Metal auctions in January 2020 was almost equal to the value of gold produced annually.

On my first patrol around the Lavongai Island in 1971 I accompanied Peter Passingan Councillor for Baungung in the Lavongai LLG.

He was giving a speech at each village we visited about the Panguna mining operations that he had seen on a promotional tour arranged I guess by DLGO with BCA.

I had to clarify that the 'kopa' peter talked about was not roofing iron but 'kopa tru' and inform them about usage of copper.

Also several villagers especially asked me what happened to the gold PNG was digging out of the ground. I had to somehow explain that most of it would be put back into underground vaults in banks all over the world.

They looked bewildered and I guess said to themselves, ‘Yumi no inap savi long samting bilong masta!’

Martin Kaalund

You had me remember that your house was entirely kwila.

Tasisius Tatau told me they had to dip the nails in oil to start them. Hope it lasted.

Just think what better it would have been if Zincalume was 1960 instead of 1980.

Were you active till 2006 at Aitape? Frank was going to be a manager but I don’t know if he stuck to it. Good to hear from you.

Richard Jones

In 1970, Rob, I was stationed in the farthest eastern corner of the then Central District --- Amazon Bay.

Our only "retail" outlet was a trade store just off the far end of the airstrip. It was run by a gentleman of Italian descent and he had a Papuan wife. Can't remember names.

No fancy goods such as hardware in our little store. Plenty of rice and SP beer, but with the latter it was cheaper to get it in by the carton (or 3 or 4) via the fortnightly Steamies' coastal boat drops.

But what the trade store was vital for was the radio connection with Moresby. Plenty of the old Alpha-Bravo-Charlie-Delta-Echo-Foxtrot toktok over the 2-way radio.

And then the Steamies' freezer goods would arrive on one of the twice weekly StolAir drops at the station's grassy airstrip. Highlights of the week were the little StolAir plane's arrival and the sadness we felt (or at least I felt) when the plane disappeared into the air, bound either for Milne Bay or Moresby.

As a city boy I had no affinity with the outstation life let alone a sample of tramping through the nearby inland bush.

StolAir was vital, of course, when we could shake off the out-station shackles and head into the 'big smoke' in Moresby. We were back in POM by late January 1971 after a bit of leave and marriage in Melbourne.

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