By MALUM NALU
AMID the election madness, we forgot that Sunday July 2, 2017, was the 80th anniversary of the departure into history of the still-missing American pilot Amelia Earhart from the Lae airfield.
It saddens me to see the park named in her memory stolen by unscrupulous landgrabbers.
Lae must never forget Amelia Earhart.
She is part of our history.
The mystery – that of Earhart – intimately involves our rainy Lae which was her last port of call before she disappeared somewhere over the vast Pacific Ocean.
Earhart, darling of American aviation, went missing in July 1937, after leaving Lae for the longest stretch of her around-the-world flight.
The mystery and a long fruitless search cost many millions of US dollars.
Today, 80 years after her final take-off from Lae, the mystery is still to be solved.
World attention was focused on Lae in 1937, and continues to this day, when it was the last port of call for the aviatrix before she disappeared.
Old Lae residents used to recall entertaining Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan in the Hotel Cecil the night before their departure, and then seeing them off the next morning.
Their plane was so overloaded with eight tonnes of fuel that it was still barely clearing the waves as it disappeared from sight, flying east along the Huon Gulf coast on its way to Howland Island, 4600km to the north.
On such occasions Lae-ites, regardless of class or social position, felt they were part of history.
Today, a plaque to her memory stands at the Amelia Earhart Park, opposite the famous Old Lae Airport.
Most of the park land has been grabbed.
Up the hill from the park, at the now being renovated Melanesian Hotel, the bar is named Amelia’s.
The point of this Earhart yarn is the fact that Lae has so much history behind it.
However, we don’t respect our history, as proven in the case of the Amelia Earthart Park where we have desecrated the memory of this great woman.
Hundreds of tourists from all over the world could come here if we promote Lae as Amelia’s last stop – an idea for Morobe tourism developers if there are any.
I was born at Angau Memorial Hospital on Aug 9, 1967, a born-and-bred Lae boy, and have watched the place deteriorate over the past 42 years since Independence.
My dad is from Butibam, in Lae, and my mum is from Laukanu in Salamaua so I have had the best of both worlds.
Sometime ago, I took my Moresby raised kids to Lae, and they asked me to stop a taxi for us to go home but, alas, I had to explain to them that taxis – which abounded in Lae in the 1970s and 1980s (remember the famous Jumi Cabcos and the big blue Lae Buses?) – are as rare as hen’s teeth, or better still, as extinct as dinosaurs.
Potholes – some big enough to house the Loch Ness monster – were a feature of Lae until the roads were cemented over the last five years.
The streets are notoriously dangerous as zombie-like youths, fueled by marijuana and home brew, wait with knives for their next victim.
There are few recreational facilities for them to engage in other than sports
The once-famous Botanical Gardens – in my memory a beautiful ‘Garden of Eden’ – is covered in bush.
Likewise are other public parks and sporting facilities.
Fighting and conflicts are prevalent.
Students from different schools are constantly fighting each other with sticks, stones, knives and even guns. A frightening picture.
Health and education services – society’s basic building blocks – need to be improved.
These and the huge litany of wrongs in Lae epitomise how Papua New Guinea has gone over the last 42 years. Backwards.
The people of Lae have just about lost all faith in politicians, public servants and any semblance of government, if any.
What is keeping the place running is the private sector as well as the church, particularly the Evangelical Lutheran Church, although the churches can do a lot more work in spreading the Mitic (Word of God) in these troubled times.
On September 16, 1975, the massive stone set up before the Area Authority (now Morobe provincial government) offices was unveiled by Butibam village elder Kissing Tikandu.
The ‘Papua New Guinea Independence Rock’ has a plaque on it, inscribed with Psalms 118:1, “Oh give thanks to the Lord for He is good, His steadfast love endures forever”.
The Germans, and later the Australians and Chinese, built Lae – with its colourful history and characters – into a thriving multi-racial town destined to become one of the best.
A bustling airport, famed as the last port of call for Earhart in 1937, was the point from which Lae developed as a city.
It was this same airstrip that opened up the Wau-Bulolo goldfields to the world, handling some of the heaviest air traffic in this part of the world at that time.
Something of its business can be seen in this 1935 report in the Pacific Islands Monthly: “Lae is now a township ranking high in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea. It is a centre of great activity and one of the biggest, if not the biggest, aircraft centres in the southern hemisphere.”
The airport was unfortunately closed down in 1987, after much politicking, ending a colourful era in Papua New Guinea and world aviation history.
World War II devastated Lae.
Only a few buildings were intact at its end, including the Ampo Lutheran Church and the Guinea Airways hangar.
It also ravaged the local villages and made refugees of the people, who were forced to lead a miserable nomadic existence for four years in order to keep away from the savage bombing and shooting which tore up their homelands as the fighting see-sawed between the Japanese and the allies.
Post-war Lae developed facilities that the old town had lacked – churches, shops, cinemas, bus and taxi services, a hospital, a school for European children – and became a garden city of scenic shaded avenues and neat bungalows.
Port Moresby, hemmed in by arid hills and roads leading nowhere, was the worst possible site for a capital.
But the Australian government had poured in so many millions into the place that a change to the obvious location of Lae – with its road links to Madang and the Highlands – was out of the question.
Lae’s main attractions were its spacious parks and reserves, the most notable of which were the Botanical Gardens and the War Cemetery; a visit to these became a feature of the itinerary of tourist excursions to New Guinea.
With the growth of the town, inevitably, came wave after wave of immigrants from rural areas – in search of the bright lights.
As more migrants arrived, Lae experienced many of the growth pains felt by other developing nations: the growth of squalid, unplanned migrant settlements, problems with unskilled and unemployed urban drifters, a rise in petty crime, failure to keep up the supply of essential services – such as roads, water, sewerage, power and transport – housing and land shortages, and great pressure on health and education services.
In the period just before Independence, numerous prophets of doom warned of impending disaster in Lae, given the dislocation and transitional period Papua New Guinea would go through.
In retrospect, they were right in many ways.
For, in just one generation, Lae started going backwards that it hurt those of us – expatriates, non Morobeans and Morobeans – who were born and raised here.
Political instability and infighting became the hallmarks of Morobe since the province attained provincial government status in 1978.
Sadly, all these at the expense of once-beautiful Lae becoming the pothole capital of Papua New Guinea, and at the same time losing its innocence to become a major hotspot of crime.
Not a day goes by without some controversy, and oddly enough, long suffering Lae-ites and Morobeans have come to accept it as part of life.
It will take, perhaps more so than anything, a complete change of attitude from every Morobean and Papua New Guinean living in the city and province if we want to open a new chapter.
I’m not a harbinger of doom.
As I look at the beautiful pictures of Lae by my photographer mate, Milen Stiliyanov, I am reminded that Lae and Morobe are more than we mere mortals and our parochial politics. And the rain comes down and washes away my tears.
By MALUM NALU