PNGAA Library

Return to Nuku 2015: George Oakes

In September 2014, I saw a recent photo of Nuku on a Sepik group Facebook page and commented on the number of permanent buildings there were. I built the airstrip there in 1957.

My comment was seen by one of the Nuku leaders, John Sowei, who told the Honourable Joseph Sungi, MP for Nuku, that he had found the old man who built the Nuku airstrip nearly 58 years ago. Joseph eventually contacted me and asked if he could visit me here in the Blue Mountains as he was coming to Sydney for Gough Whitlam’s Memorial Service.

He had a video camera and interviewed us here. After he returned to PNG he invited me to Nuku for the 40th Anniversary of Independence on 16 September 2015.

Dr David Tierney and his mother, Margaret, whose late husband was kiap at Nuku in 1962-63, and Tony Try who was kiap at Nuku in 1964-65 accompanied me. My wife, Edna, could not go for health reasons so our daughter, Denise Tilly, came instead to keep an eye on me!

I warned John Sowei that, at 81, I doubted that I could handle the high humidity in the Sepik. It was agreed that we would not stay overnight at Nuku but at Wewak where there are air conditioned hotels. We would fly into Nuku in the morning and return to Wewak late afternoon on Independence Day. David, Tony and I sent John photos of our time at Nuku many years ago.

We were met at Port Moresby airport by Joseph and John. I was very impressed with these two Nuku men. Joe has two University degrees and John is finishing his PhD at ANU.

Early in the morning of Independence Day, Denise, David and Margaret flew to Nuku by helicopter. The helicopter later picked up Hon. Joe Sungi, MP, Rod Hilton (from the Australian High Commission), Tony and I from Wewak. We flew to a village near Nuku where the pilot fitted a long rope with the PNG flag under the helicopter. We then took off and circled Nuku carrying the flag below us and landed in a marked spot near the crowd.

We were met by a singsing group who were very good. After shaking many hands, I was handed a nicely folded PNG flag and told to take it to the flagpole where a lady raised it. As the flag went up the bamboo pole the people sang the National Anthem, led by over a thousand school children. The five of us from Australia and the Hon. Joe Sungi then had leis placed around our necks.

The official proceedings commenced with a blessing from a Catholic Father. I spoke about how we built the airstrip with a 120 spades and moved nearly 30,000 cubic yards of ground and compared this with the work they are now doing on the Nuku roads with bulldozers, rollers, and dump trucks.

I gave Hon. Joe a board on which I had marked two angles, one for across the airstrip and one for down the airstrip similar to the one I used in 1957. I also suggested to the people that they should establish a museum to contain all the items the people used traditionally and store all the village books which may be left in the area, before more are lost. I gave Hon. Joe a copy of my patrol report covering the construction of the Nuku Airstrip. Tony and David followed with speeches, then Rod Hilton spoke.

A PNG kiap from the early 1970s spoke warmly about the role of the expat kiaps and noted that Margaret Tierney had assisted at his wedding in Bougainville. The Hon. Joseph Sungi then gave an impressive biblically referenced speech imploring his constituents to celebrate their history, including the kiap time, and to work towards the further development of the Nuku district.

Following the speeches, our party was presented with gifts - each of us received a plaque and bilums, etc. I just could not get over the fact that since 1957 the population of the current Nuku District has grown from about 20,000 to 70,000. Nearly 15,000 people turned up to this function.

After this official function, Rod Hilton and David Tierney flew by helicopter to Wunali for a Sorry ceremony at the graveside of Neil Elliott, a Patrol Officer who was murdered in 1939. A plaque was unveiled.

By this time it was raining heavily.

When Rod and David returned and the rain had eased I was asked to unveil a plaque at the top of the Nuku airstrip. I knew nothing about this plaque until we were at Nuku. This completed the official functions for the day.

I do not know how many hands I shook, most of the time I was in fairyland. One thing I did realise was that there were probably no more than 10 people there who were at Nuku when the airstrip was built. Men working on the strip were at least 15, and as it was 58 years ago, they would now be 73. The average life expectancy in PNG is only 59. Words cannot describe what happened to us: you had to be there!

About 5 pm we returned to Wewak. Some went in the helicopter while I went with others in a small plane that carries about eight passengers.

About a week after the celebrations I received emails from Hon. Joe Sungi and John Sowei. Here is part of what they said.

From John Sowei:

We are privileged to have established contact with you and to bring you back to Nuku. I will propose to Tony to visit us again soon. Once we finish gravelling the road to Vei and Yimut, I want to drive Tony along the road he once surveyed, fell ill and was carried on a stretcher by the local people back to Nuku.

From Joe’s email:

After reading through the copies of your emails, I must admit that never in my entire civil service life had I felt so satisfied and confident like this moment in time. Needless to say, there is confirmation after confirmation by the entire population of Nuku District that those celebrations were never experienced in the past and will be remembered by this generation. People came to see me from all corners of Nuku just to say thank you for making PNG’s 40th Independence Anniversary in Nuku so meaningful and memorable ...

While the people of Nuku have celebrated in the true spirit of Independence and Unity, we all owe it to you for making the real difference. It was your attendance and presence on Wednesday that vibrated a joyful sense of realisation and appreciation of how Nuku is what it is today. In view of this I join my people to SALUTE you! Having said that, I convey my sincere appreciation to Denise for taking very good care of George and my heartfelt gratitude to Margaret for having the energy and courage to come back to Nuku with David. You all have had your parts to play towards the Nuku Celebrations which words cannot express.

I would like to conclude with these words from John Sowei:

It was a fulfilling experience to be able to connect with our past and bring Margaret and David, Tony and Denise and yourself to a Patrol Post you established and called Nuku.

On Wednesday afternoon, I stood at Nuku Airstrip with teary eyes, watching you lift off on the airstrip you built 58 years ago on a fixed wing aircraft, with a local Papua New Guinea pilot in the controls.

Nuku airstrip

George with PNG flag