AFTER World War II, Wilfred (Bob) Parer, his brother Bernard and cousin Cyril formed a syndicate to buy the salvage rights at Torokina in Bougainville, which had been a huge base for the Americans.
Bob was the main organiser of this difficult operation. As there was no coastal shipping two large barges would ply between Torokina and Rabaul where the large P & O ships would pick up the old equipment from an array of smaller barges.
It was a two-year project which involved taking out high interest loans and it did not give the men much return. Some of the equipment was sold in Brisbane and the rest in Sydney. Thiess Bros which was to become a powerhouse in Australian construction purchased a lot of the heavy machinery including cranes, bulldozers and graders.
In June 1954, Bob took over the lease of three Wewak Catholic Mission coconut plantations in and around Aitape: Tadji, St Anna and Tepier.
The Divine Word (SVD) missionaries had arrived in 1896 and set up plantations to provide financial backing for their endeavours. However the SVD sustained heavy losses during the war and was unable to provide personnel for all the mission stations.
As a result, the Franciscans took over the Aitape area and Monsignor Doggett brought a group of missionaries there in 1946. The group included Bob’s cousin, Fr Ferdy Parer, who was posted first to Warapu, then Lumi and Wati-Nuku.
Ferdy was to stay in New Guinea until 1967 and it was wonderful for him to have members of his family nearby in Aitape.
His first station, Warapu, was situated between the coast and Sissano Lagoon. There were quite a few villages nestling under the coconuts along the coast - Sissano, Warapu, Arop and Malol. Some of the houses were built over the water between swaying coconut palms.
Fr Ferdy, ever the romantic, enjoyed the scenery and the sight of the happy children as he attended to the people’s spiritual and material needs. The people's lives seemed to be at one with nature and there was much that Fr Ferdy could learn from them. Each Sunday, the villagers crowded into the church to hear him preach. Later he was to work in Lumi and Wati.
Rob Parer, Bob’s son, remembers Fr Ferdy:
In 1954, I was in Aitape living on a Tadji Coconut Plantation five kilometres east of Aitape and Ferdy was at Wati-Nuku . When he walked over the mountains into town he would have many sick people with him to go to the hospital in Aitape.
Ferdy used to get some medical things there also. Amongst the group arriving would be lots of villagers with their leaf tobacco (brus). We used to buy this brus and give it to our plantation workers who were on contracts. We had to provide food and tobacco once a week.
It was very handy; we would put this tobacco leaf in a 44 gallon drum and press it down with a jack and we could keep it for many months. The plantation workers always considered the tobacco from Nuku the best. We would have salt ready in beer bottles left over from the war for them to buy and take back home as there were no trade stores at Nuku.
Ferdy would stay with us and then we would drive the old wartime army jeep and take him to Raihu River. There was no bridge across the river so we would cross in the canoe. Then we had another jeep on the other side and we would take him to the mission at St Anna’s Station near Aitape.
In 1954, when he was 17 years old, Rob had been studying at the Gatton Agricultural College with his cousin, Kevin Parer. They had completed one year when both were offered employment on the Aitape plantations.
Rob flew up first and lived in a house made of bush materials with his father. Kevin soon joined them. When Rob, supervised by his Dad, built a house at St Anna Plantation, Kevin was left in charge of Tadji Plantation.
After he had become experienced in plantation work, his uncles Bernard and Cyril wrote asking him to manage Toriu Plantation in West New Britain, which they had purchased.
Before he left, Kevin Parer noted the happy atmosphere he had found in Aitape with the mission, government and local village people mixing well. He credited this to “the fine calibre of the leading members of the community: Bill Brown followed by Len Aisbett of the government, Monsignor Doggett, the mission; the unique Bere Awol MBE, the indigenous leader, and Uncle Bob, of private enterprise.”
Kevin was able to visit his father’s grave at Salamaua and in Rabaul he met his father’s old friends including Jack Thurston, who was now a wealthy plantation owner. He was still very young to be a manager of a plantation.
He wrote, “Here I was at 19 years old in one of the most isolated places in New Guinea.” He did a great job in the difficult circumstances bravely facing rebellious staff or fierce crocodiles. In 1958, he decided to study for his matriculation and then do medicine at the University of Queensland. Eventually he had a medical practice in Lae for many years.
Bob and Rob formed an excellent team, setting up stores in Aitape and Vanimo. Their business was called W & R Parer Pty Ltd. They sold the Vanimo business in 1970 to Steamships Trading Ltd and concentrated on all manner of things at Aitape including stevedoring, wholesale, a supermarket, a hardware store, heavy equipment, bulk fuel depot and service station.
Rob worked alongside his Dad for many years on the Aitape plantations and businesses until Bob retired to Brisbane, where he passed away in 1977 at the age of 77 after a long illness. Mollie Parer did not live at Aitape as she stayed in Brisbane looking after the other five children but visited often.
After Bob passed away, she continued on for another 25 years. In her New Guinea days she had survived two bouts of black-water fever which usually proved fatal and lived on until she was 99: a strong vibrant person until the end.
The day before she died, Rob insisted on getting an ambulance for her, but she objected, “The neighbours will think I’m sick!” She had never been in an ambulance before.
Rob lived in Aitape for over 50 years, many of them shared with his wife Meg and their children, Anna Marie (RIP), Emma, Genevieve, Rebecca and Michael. Rob told how he met Meg:
Meg went through nursing at the Mater with my sister, Sheila and Mary-Pat Parer (Kevin's sister). They were close friends and Mary-Pat went overseas for two years with Meg travelling and working in Canada, the Bahamas and UK.
I caught up with Meg in May 1970 when she came back. She was Nurse Educator in Midwifery at the Mater and adored her job there. At times she would be in charge of the Mater Mothers. She said it was not like a job as she loved it so much. She said the same years later when she was teaching at St Ignatius High School at Aitape.
I won the jackpot when we were married in August. Meg was very game as she had never been to PNG and Aitape was a pretty rough bachelor settlement. The house built by me at 17 years of age and supervised by my Dad had no windows just flywire all around and very basic indeed. Below and above the flywire there was just sisalation or malthoid.
We did not lock the doors of our house and left the ignition keys in the car. The wartime jeeps of course had no keys anyway. She never complained. Poor thing On our way to Aitape we were in Lae and she saw a house with only shutters and no windows and she said "Look wouldn't it be funny to live in a house like that? " I said, "You will know in a few days." She changed the subject pretty fast.
A shocking time for them both when their first born Anna-Maree passed away suddenly at home in Aitape (cot death) on 30 August 1971 when she was barely three months old.
The love and support from every one for miles around was inspiring: villagers, public servants and especially the Catholic missionaries who were like family and helped ease the pain. Sr Angela of the Poor Clare sisters came out of enclosure as soon as she heard and was a great support for them.
Their next child, Emma, was born in 1972, Genevieve in 1974, Rebecca in 1976 and Michael in 1978. Meg took it upon herself to teach their kids by distance education from Brisbane. A rotten job for a mother and what an amazing feat she did of it and when they went to Australia for secondary and were as good as any of the other students.
She had a classroom set up in the house. In the afternoon they had permission to join the local children at St Anna Primary School so they got the best of both worlds - most of the time they were the only expat pupils there. Many of the beautiful ways of the PNG children rubbed off on them.
Meg would work in our office in the afternoons. Everything she did she would put her heart and soul into it. She adored teaching but didn't like business or computers etc and we could not have done without her diligence at our office.
When our kids went to High School in Australia - the girls to Stuartholme and Mike to Nudgee - Meg taught at St Ignatius High as a volunteer for the next 16 years. She and Frank Evans, the headmaster, did wonders looking after the health of the students: a great team in every way - a very lucky school indeed with these two dedicated people there.
Frank was there for 27 years and it was the only senior high school in the West Sepik Province. Judging by the results, he made it into one of the top schools in PNG. Meg tutored the students who were not doing well and, being a really gifted teacher, was able to see so many of her former students go on to be doctors, lawyers, nurses and other highly skilled workers.
Frank would embarrass her by always bringing up at graduations that she was the only unpaid member of the staff. (He and the religious brothers and sisters got local wages.)
Anyone who had the blessing of making Aitape, Nuku or Lumi their home for any length of time is part of the wonderful family of Aitapeans, now spread throughout the world. Maybe a lot of this had to do with the beautiful village people. Maybe it was contagious.
Even though there are so many different tribes and languages, they all have a very special something that cannot be described. Maybe it shows in the crazy acceptance of the shocking way the government has treated them as all services have virtually disappeared despite massive national budgets.
One interesting detail was the large propeller in the garden of Rob and Meg's house at St Anna Plantation in Aitape. It was from Ray Parer's Fairy Fighter which was in the Great England to Australia Air Race of 1934. Ray flew it to the Sepik and landed on Aitape Beach.
For over 53 years, 1954 – 2007, Rob Parer helped develop Aitape from a small settlement to a town with two high schools, a hospital and a vocational centre and contributed immensely to the development of the district.
In 1961, he was appointed to the District Advisory Council and for 10 years represented the areas of Lumi, Nuku, Aitape and Vanimo at meetings. He served on the boards of Aitape Vocational Centre and St Ignatius Secondary High School for 33 years and Aitape High for 30 years.
Rob knew nothing about scouting but was talked into introducing scouting by his mate in Wewak, Snow O Shaughnessy, and eventually had groups spread throughout the province where he became Scout Commissioner.
He helped schools financially and with materials. His company employed up to 300 workers in supermarket and plantations. His business was the only one that bought copra and cocoa from the local people, so they depended on him.
When the government had no money to maintain the roads around Aitape, Rob did it all freely. He also maintained the airstrip when the government had no funds. The main sports oval in Aitape is called The Robert Parer Oval and there are many photographs of Aitape people enjoying the facilities.
One year Meg Parer did a better kick-off for the start of the football season than Robert.
The Margaret Parer Shield for Women & The Robert Parer Shield for Men was an Annual Event for ten years and attracted teams from all around the West Sepik. Some 800 registered players were involved and it attracted over 2,000 people.
In 1996, there was a great celebration of the centenary of the arrival of the SVD missionaries. Fr Ferdy Parer, then 86 years old, surprised everyone by arriving, despite the fact he was suffering from bone cancer. He stayed with the Parers and there were crowds of his ex-parishioners to welcome him. The Apostolic Nuncio and the Superior General of the SVD Order were in the official party.
On the day of the celebrations, Ferdy made it across to Tumleo Island despite the rough seas. Wearing a large hat and his knapsack containing a change of clothes, he was ready for the adventure. The official guests arrived in a traditional canoe.
It was a long hot day and Ferdy was happy to sit on the beach and chat to his old friends from Warapu Village. In the evening he managed to squeeze onto one of the last boats leaving Tumleo Island.
Rob Parer remembered: “I have a photograph of Ferdy arriving at our place with no shoes, muddy and sandy to his knees and a towel around his waist but with a broad triumphal smile. He had made it to the celebrations on the island!”
Meg and Rob had been at the forefront of helping to organise visitors and welcome parties. It was a special occasion for Aitape and for the Parer family in particular. The following year, Fr Ferdy died after a life of devotion to the poor and disadvantaged. (My book ‘Ferdy: The Story of Fr Ferdinand Parer OFM’ was published in 2003.)
On 17 July 1998 at 7 pm there was a big earthquake followed by a tsunami. The government had no funds, so the Parers and the Catholic Mission provided fuel for vehicles and petrol for outboard motors.
Rob wrote about this terrible time:
The night of the tsunami I was having a drink with our Bishop Austen Crapp OFM when the earthquake hit. It wasn't all that bad and not much stuff fell over in the house. Austen then went home and about 20 minutes later when darkness came as usual I heard a huge noise and immediately knew it was a tsunami as the lights went out and so, as I had always planned, headed out our back door and up the hill which is all thick bush.
I just stayed there pretty scared as I had no idea what had happened. When I called out to our many staff who lived in those houses on the shore I didn't get a reply. After a long time, I crept down to the house with my dog and got torch and stuff and back to the hill. When I aimed the torch to Tumleo Island I got a reply which amazed me.
I found out later as all the villages live on the east side of the island they were OK. Their reefs etc on the west side were a real mess. Massive hunks of coral tossed up on the beach.
When daylight came, I could not find anyone as everyone had gone up to Mission Hill which is very high. The staff houses were protected from the tsunami as it came slowly from the west and hit our hill and made a massive noise and everyone had time to run away from the beach. Dozens of bush material houses eastwards including a small trade store were wiped out. Two people east of our place lost their lives.
The full brunt of the tsunami with three 15 metre high waves hit the villages west of Aitape - Malol, Arop, Warapu and Sissano. There were 12,000 people living in those villages and all right on the sea shore. There would be few places in PNG or in the world that would have been as vulnerable as the 20 km lagoon follows the coast and only 200 metres away from the shore line. These villages stretch along a 35 km length of coast line.
The story of the tsunami has been well documented, especially by the very caring and capable Professor Hugh Davies of PNG University. One thing I must say is that the beautiful people of these villages accepted their enormous losses with dignity and thanked God that there was not more damage.
The only time they got very upset and there could have been some bad tribal fighting was when the hundreds of tons of goods came in and various guys grabbed stuff for their friends. This was solved when we provided a very large bulk store and everything went into that and a remarkable retired Police Commissioner, Pat Gains,a volunteer from New Zealand, was in charge.
He was tough but fair and at the time the people would not have trusted any government official or missionary so he was a gift from heaven and things calmed down.
Over the years, access to Aitape in the Sundaun Province was by sea, land or air. To get goods in from sea, vessels anchored offshore. The Parers relied on the traditional trading canoes to unload the vessels. The Parers built their own 15 metre canoes and if any were damaged they had permanent staff to repair them.
If the ship was still in, repairs would be done overnight by the light of kerosene lamps. It was a treacherous coast, particularly in the north-west season. The locals manned these canoes to unload up to two tons of cargo on each trip from the vessels and a team of women held the canoes while they were being unloaded at the beach. Many times the freight ended up in the sea, washed up along the shores.
At these times, the off-shore islands of Tumleo and Ali, provided shelter for vessels. In 1974, a wharf was built by PNG Harbours Board and Rob was made Harbour Master. As the wharf had little protection from the ocean swells it was still impossible to unload on some days during the North -West season from October to April.
To get produce in by land across the dozens of fast flowing creeks and un-bridged rivers which could flash flood unexpectedly was a difficult task. The flood could turn over fully laden seven ton trucks. The Parer Company had a trucking service to deal with this and travelled in convoy with heavy equipment available nearby:
When the whole family went in our Landcruiser, our kids loved being towed across the rivers by our 4 wheel drive Isuzu Truck. The Landcruiser would be floating some of the way. We had a house at Kaindi which is four Kilometres west of Wewak for us to stay when they were young.
In later years it became too dangerous to drive after dark from Kaindi to Wewak so would stay at one of the hotels. It was always safe on the drive from Aitape until the border of East Sepik, and then there could be troubles with armed hold ups.
That is what East Sepik has been for a long time now. Just imagine trying to get ordinary supplies from Wewak by road as there are no trucking services anymore.
Air transport was also important for the development of the (West Sepik) Sundaun Province. While Rob Parer was there they had six flights a week bringing newspapers and mail service. When the government ran out of funds to maintain Tadji Airstrip, the Parer family did it for free to keep up air service. In recent years, the administration has not maintained the airstrip, so planes have ceased coming.
Rob remembered the changes:
We would maintain the PNG Harbours Board wharf when there was a lack of funds and we had an excellent shipping service - both freight and passenger ships calling in on regular schedule. Now the wharf is closed and has not been maintained and there is no shipping service at all.
Steamship Trading Co took over the merchandising section of our business in 2002. Unfortunately, Steamships was not prepared to hold the comprehensive hardware stock we held as they considered it uneconomic as we only turned it over once a year. We could supply every item for a house including timber, plumbing, roofing, stoves, pumps etc. So they closed it up and so now the village people and the missions and government departments have a big problem obtaining their hardware supplies.
As fuel is under price control and the government had not increased the allowance to keep up with the higher freight costs, we had been losing money for many years and kept our service station and fuel depot running as a service. Steamships were not prepared to do this so just closed it up.
When we sold to Steamships in 2002, we had a staff party at the office/warehouse and with the staff and their families there were about 450 there. Five years later in 2007, we sold our home, staff houses, cocoa business, workshop and earthmoving business at St Anna Plantation, together with Raihu Plantation. We had another party for 450 people.
In 1996, Robert got a well-deserved MBE for his work.
Then in May 2006 he received a letter from the secretary of the Governor General informing him that Her Majesty the Queen had asked if he would accept being awarded "a Companion of the Most distinguished Order of St Michael and Saint George (CMG)".
He happily accepted the honour and was invested that same year.
In 2007, Robert Lenton Parer finally left Aitape after a lifetime of service. He was born there in Wau, evacuated during the war and lived there between 1954 and 2007, becoming a naturalised citizen in 1975.
The Aitape people were sad when he and his wife, Meg, decided to leave in 2007. They wanted him to stand for parliament as he had done so much for their Sandaun Province and was deservedly known as "The Father of Aitape."
But at 70 years of age, Robert decided it was time to retire to Brisbane as his children were there. Now in 2014 he and Meg continue to enjoy life. They were the last of the Parers to live in Papua New Guinea.