Unmet in the Tropics by Stephen Thair


Towards the end of 1974 I obtained a job with the PNG Government Legal Department. We travelled to the capital Port Moresby in April 1975 – a journey from the UK of about 33 hours, with two changes of plane (at Singapore and Brisbane). I was sent some information with the plane tickets before we left, which informed us that when we arrived at the airport we would be met by someone from the recruiting department.

The Qantas flight from Brisbane arrived at Port Moresby at lunch time. We emerged from the aircraft somewhat bleary-eyed into the tropical heat and humidity, and successfully navigated our way through immigration and customs, and then out into the airport concourse. This was much like any other airport – although the ceiling fans were something of a novelty to us, with a lot of people milling around – both PNG nationals and expatriates. We looked around hopefully for someone to take an interest in us but we were completely ignored by the throng.

After a while, I noticed that a couple of British men who I had seen on our flight were talking to an Australian man who had evidently gone to meet them at the airport. (He, as I recollect, was from the Department of Agriculture). I went over and asked him if he recognised anyone in the concourse from the Department of Law, which he didn’t. However, he must have taken pity on us and said he would go off to a pay phone and let them know that we had arrived (no mobile phones in those far-off days!).

He reappeared a few minutes later and said that he had spoken to the Department of Law and that someone was on the way out to meet us.

We found some seats and sat down to wait, and to try and stay awake. After about 30 minutes, two Australians showed up – little and large  – and they turned out to be the admin. officers for the Department of Law who should have been there to meet us. Their first words to us – which I still remember – were “That plane’s always late!” Well, it wasn’t today we thought. In the best Australian tradition we were taken off to a bar for a beer – luckily we had managed to dissuade them from taking us on a tour of Port Moresby! We had to endeavour to make polite conversation, when all we really wanted to do was have a shower and a sleep. After that they took us to an hotel, where we finally achieved the much-needed shower and a sleep.

When I started work, the reason why we had not been met became clear. At lunch time in the Department, a group of people met up to play cards. Two of the leading lights in this card game were the admin. officers. They were evidently not prepared to interrupt their lunch hour and give up their card game to meet a couple of Poms off a plane! Looking at it positively, it was good training to expect the unexpected for the next three years.

Margaret and our cat Timmy in our kitchen in Port Moresby

Margaret (in hat and green T-shirt) and our dog Keemah at WW2 anti-aircraft gun emplacement at Boera – along the coast from Port Moresby
Me in the wreck of a P-38 Lighting in the Waigani Swamp near Port Moresby
(the lady in the picture is not Margaret)
Me at an uplifted coral cliff overhang near Sialum on the Huon Peninsula


We had some friends in the New Guinea Bird Society who had a licence to ring birds, which they caught in mist-nets. Having been ringed, weighed and measured, the birds were then released to go about their business. Occasionally birds died in the nets – probably of a heart attack due to stress. This was clearly unfortunate and somewhat embarrassing.

Some months before my contract came to an end, our friends had been on a bird-ringing trip to the New Guinea highlands, where the day before they were due to return to Port Moresby, a Fairy Lory (now apparently known as the Papuan Lorikeet) – a type of small parrot with a long tail – died in the net. In the hope that some good might come of this unfortunate event, they put the parrot in a plastic bag and brought it home, and put it in their freezer, with the intention of taking it to the University of Papua New Guinea Zoology Department as the bird might be of interest to them.

A Papuan Lorikeet

Inevitably the parrot worked its way to the back of the freezer, and was forgotten. Our friends were due to return to Australia a few months before my contract ended, and when they cleared out their freezer, they found the parrot. Not wishing for it go to waste, they called us and asked us if we would have custody of the bird, and when we were next in the direction of the University, to give it to the Zoology Department.

We were happy to help out, and so the unfortunate parrot was delivered to us and deposited in our freezer, where it languished at the back, and was duly forgotten.

When my contract came to an end, it was arranged that the Australian lawyer who was to take over my job, would also take over our flat. I had known him from when I first joined the Department of Law as he was employed there until his contract ended and he returned to Australia. It was quite hard to return to what may be termed normal life after the “PNG experience”, and when my job was advertised, he must have seen the opportunity to return, and applied and was appointed. He arrived a couple of weeks before my contract ended, so that there was a hand-over period, and he told us not to bother to clear out the fridge and freezer as he would eat his way through what we had left.

Thus we departed leaving him a freezer containing unknown excitements.

A couple of weeks later we were travelling in the Philippines, and it occurred to me that the deceased parrot must have been in our freezer when my successor took over our flat. Quite what he made of it we shall never know – I suspect it was something of a disappointment if he had arrived home from work and was looking through the freezer for something to cook for dinner. The Fairy Lory was unplucked and would not have had much meat on it anyway! Probably it just confirmed whatever doubts he may have had about me.