130,000 people live in city of Lae, a provincial and regional capital with the spacious feeling of a town that has been in existence for some time, without losing its connection to the land. Large tropical trees, their trunks covered in ferns, make occasional shady avenues and the open spaces between buildings are rich in vegetation. In the rainy season – July, August and September – heavy showers fall, providing the main reason for the abundant growth.
Nowhere is this growth more apparent than in Lae’s Botanical Gardens, Papua New Guinea’s largest botanical gardens and once reputed to be the best in the South Pacific, a magnificent area of land close to the centre of town which was first laid out by Andree Miller, the Australian botanist. The gardens have become somewhat run-down, but are still the location for serious botanical work. Every now and then the botanists at Lae discover a new species, most recently an orchid with nut-brown flowers which looks like carved wood. Vanda helvola was previously thought to be the same as the Burmese orchid of that name, but actually turns out to be different. PNG is of course famous for its orchids and Morobe Province has adopted one of the Dendrobium species as its emblem. The Morobe Shower is an orchid with a white blossom marked with mauve.
Once traders in PNG began to do more than exchange local produce, Lae was bound to prosper and become the sort of place that would end up having botanical gardens. Located near to the mouth of the Markham River, which winds down to the sea through the vast, wide Markham Valley, it began its 20th century existence as part of the German colony of New Guinea. In 1900 German traders set up a branch of the New Guinea Company there. They were soon followed by missionaries, but in 1919, after the German defeat in World War I, the territory was ceded to Britain and effectively delegated to Australia. The main activities in the early part of the century were whaling, fishing for pearl shell, trading, and missionizing. There was a persistent flow of gold prospectors. Lae, with its wharf and its access to the established trading posts in the islands, was a focal point. If Rabaul in East New Britain was the administrative centre for the islands, Lae performed the same function for mainland New Guinea. Banks, schools, shops and churches all developed. The discovery of gold inland at Wau and Bulolo in the 1930’s was a spur to further changes.
During the war Lae was occupied by the Japanese and there was intense fighting and many casualties in the immediate area before they were defeated by the Australian and American forces. The military cemetery can be found at the top of the road next to the Botanical Gardens. A t the end of the war in 1945 Lae was littered with the debris of military occupation, but at the same time another era of opportunity was beginning with the arrival of Australian settlers and administrators and the opening up of the Highlands. Lae began to prosper again. It was the main port for Highlands traffic and still is. In 1973 PNG’s second university was sited here. Known as the Unitec, it specialises in subjects such as mining and business studies and it contains PNG’s only Centre for Intermediate Technology.
Today Lae is having something of a struggle to maintain its commercial and administrative functions and its reputation as PNG’s second city, in the face of declining financial support from central government and from the same kind of urban problem that affects Port Moresby. Some degree of ‘raskol’ violence always brings its accompanying paranoia. This takes its toll on every activity, not least on the enjoyment of Andree Miller’s once-beautiful Botanical Gardens.