Lae is the capital of Morobe Province and the second largest city in Papua New Guinea (PNG). It is close to the Markham River delta on the northern coast of PNG in the Huon Gulf Peninsula and is the gateway into the Highlands region, through the 700km Highlands Highway.
The city’s official population according to the PNG National Statistical Office is 148,934. It comprises 11 suburbs: Bumayong, Bugandi, Chinatown, Dowsett, Eriku, Malahang, Taraka, Tent City, Voco Point, 3 Mile and 6 Mile.
The Butibam and Kamkumung villages are the traditional landowners of Lae, though the issue of the legitimate owners of the land has been a long and protracted battle going back to the colonial days.
Lae was built on the back of the Wau-Bulolo gold rush with prospectors and miners using Lae airstrip as the transport hub to fly equipment to the fields in the 1920s. The town grew as miners flew in from around the world with the Morobe Goldfield at one time hosting 700 expatriate and over 6000 local miners.
The city has the largest cargo port in PNG and a large manufacturing base with close to 20 foreign and locally-owned companies. In order to increase the capacity of the Lae wharf the Asian Development Bank (ADB) agreed to fund a $390 million Lae Port Development Project, which was completed in 2014. Upon project completion the wharf had an additional 250 meters on top of the existing 600 meters to ease shipping congestion.
As the industrial hub of PNG and the gateway to the Highlands region, the Lae economy has thrived due to the growth in its distribution, manufacturing, fisheries, mining and agriculture sectors.
The city of Lae currently sits on land that is owned by the Butibam and Kamkumung villagers. Its ownership has been a thorny issue with the National Court ruling in 2010 that both clans had equal rights as traditional landowners.
Lae was established as a township in 1900 when German traders set up a branch of the New Guinea Company in Lae. German missionaries arrived in 1915 and in 1919 the Territory of New Guinea under the German administration was handed over to Australia, following the defeat of Germany in World War I.
Missionaries from the Lutheran Church later settled in Lae and have had a profound effect on the lives of Lae residents and the province’s population to this day. The town came under the administration of the Australian colonial administration after World War I, but it did not develop except for a police and administration center until the Wau-Bulolo gold rush in 1926.
In 1941 the Australian government chose Lae as the new capital of the territory of New Guinea following the 1937 volcanic eruption in Rabaul. But that relocation did not occur as the region got caught up in the throes of World War II. During the war Japanese Imperial Forces occupied the township together with Salamaua, both becoming major Japanese bases on the island of New Guinea. Following defeats at Kokoda Track, Guna and Wau, the Japanese retreated to Lae and Salamaua and made a last stand in weeks of fierce fighting, before succumbing to defeat in September 1943.
The Australian colonial administration set up Lae’s local government in 1971 with the town getting proclaimed as a city a year later. In 1978-79 – following the establishment of the Morobe provincial government – the Lae City Interim Authority was created under the Development Authority Act 1981. The city authority became the Lae Urban Local-Level Government Council in 1997 following the National Government’s provincial and local-level government reforms.
Lae has thriving distribution, manufacturing, fisheries, mining and agriculture sectors, thanks to its strategic location as the gateway to the Highlands region and establishment on the northern coast of PNG, which links it by sea to provinces in the Mamose and New Guinea Islands regions.
The completion of the ADB-funded project, the National Government’s investment of K250 million to rehabilitate Lae’s roads between 2013-2016, and the construction of a four-lane highway from Lae to Nadzab has breath new life into the city’s private sector. The redevelopment of the Nadzab airport this year, in a K600 million project to be funded by a loan from the Japanese government, will increase air traffic to Lae and Morobe Province following its commissioning. Some of the large businesses currently based in Lae include: Paradise Foods Limited, Halla Cement, HBS PNG Limited, iPi Group, Trukai Rice, SP Brewery, Bismark Maritime, South Pacific Steel, Papindo Group of Companies, Prima Small Goods, Lae Biscuit Company, Citylink Motel, MMK Transport, Barlow Industries Ltd, Mapai Transport, PNG Metal Fabricators and Homestate Cooperation.
Having already benefited from the construction phase of the $19 billion ExxonMobil-led PNG LNG project, as the city that produced and transported thousands of tons of goods to service the project site in the Highlands, Lae is now in the box seat to capitalize again on the extractive industry. The Wafi-Golpu gold and copper project, which is located approximately 65km south-west of Lae, is being developed by Newcrest Mining Limited in a K12.7 billion investment.
Lae has 137km of road which the National Government is responsible for maintaining. These include Independence Drive, the Markham Road and the Milford Haven Road while the rest are the responsibility of the Lae City Council.
The National Government invested K250 million between 2013-2016 to rehabilitate the city’s road infrastructure with most of them getting sealed with concrete. A four-lane highway is currently being constructed to ease the traffic congestion between Lae and Nadzab airport. Work is set to start this year to redevelop and upgrade the Nadzab airport to receive international flights in a project funded by a loan given by the Japanese government.
Government-owned utility company Water PNG Ltd is the provider of water and sanitation services to residential and commercial properties in Lae. The water quality is guided by World Health Organization (WHO) Drinking Water Quality Guidelines.
Lae today is well serviced by department stores, banks, travel agencies and a plethora of small shops and business owners. Its major department shops include the Papindo Group of Companies-owned shopping mall at Eriku and Town.
The Papua New Guinea University of Technology (UNITECH) leads education service providers in Lae and offers both undergraduate and postgraduate programs to both local and international students. Other tertiary education institutions include the Lae Technical College, one of the largest in the country that offers polytechnic certificate and diploma courses. Other schools include The International School of Lae, Busu Secondary School and Coronation College.
The Angau Memorial Hospital is a publicly-funded health institution that also provides a 24-hour emergency service as well as houses the National Cancer Center. Other healthcare providers include the Lae International Hospital, Eriku Medical Center and Dr Garap’s Clinic.
Nadzab airport is a 30-40 minute drive from Lae and is Morobe Province’s main air link to Port Moresby and other provincial centers. The national carrier Air Niugini flies daily services between Port Moresby and Nadzab. Third level airline company PNG Air (previously Airlines PNG) also operate daily services to Nadzab from Port Moresby.
The police in Lae are considered PNG’s most proactive and community-focused. They partnered with local mobile phone operator Digicel and launched an emergency toll free Digicel number: 70903300. Police emergency can still be contacted on the landline number 4735401.