How one town in Papua New Guinea found life after the gold rush


Sustainability and value-adding are repeatedly stated as the goals for Papua New Guinea’s forestry sector. Ian Neubauer visits Bulolo in Morobe Province, an old gold-mining town that has re-invented itself with a sustainable timber industry.

PNG Forest Products in Buololo. Credit: Ian Neubauer

PNG Forest Products in Buololo. Credit: Ian Neubauer

In 1932, the Bulolo Gold Dredging Company airlifted a 110- tonne dredge piece by piece from the port city of Lae to the Bulolo River Valley.

The largest single part, the main tumbler shaft, was four-metres long and weighed more than three tonnes.

The operation pioneered large-scale air transport in PNG.

It also turned Bulolo, a tributary of the Markham River in Morobe Province, about 30 kilometres northwest of Wau, into the epicentre of gold production in the former Territory of New Guinea.

After the installation of seven other dredges flown in from Lae during the 1930s, gold production in Bulolo reached a peak of 8.5 tonnes in 1942. Production was interrupted during World War 2, when the Allies strafed Bulolo to prevent its infrastructure falling into Japanese hands under the scorched-earth policy.

Dredging resumed in 1946, with another 47 tonnes of gold removed from the river until reserves petered out in 1965.

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When the dredges went silent in Bulolo, the timber industry took its place.

PNG Forest Products' Ian Cobb

PNG Forest Products’ Ian Cobb. Credit: Ian Neubauer.

But unlike the controversial deforestation practices the World Wildlife Fund blames for the loss of biodiversity across some parts of PNG, Bulolo harvests hoop and klinki pine from a 100,000-hectare plantation that was seeded by the Gold Dredging Company in the 1930s to provide timber to build houses for its workers.

‘I’ve seen deforestation in parts of the country and I am not an advocate of that. Our timber supplies are 100 per cent sustainable,’ says Ian Cobb, the Australian-born General Manager of PNG Forest Products in Bulolo.


PNG Forest Products’ operations in Bulolo are not only sustainable but self-sufficient as well.

During a recent tour of the mill with purchasing and logistics manager Kevin Fauth, Business Advantage PNG was shown in-house workshops for signwriting, auto mechanics, plumbing, overhead power lines, carpentry, research and development, engineering and more.

The mill even has a small cattle farm and abattoir that butchers thick T-bone steaks and succulent rib-eye medallions for the Bulolo Country Club, a licensed venue overlooking the Bulolo Golf Club – the oldest golf course in PNG.

‘We have all the trades covered here,’ says Fauth. ‘We even generate our own water and power.’

Power play

Until two years ago, PNG Forest Products produced a modest 5.5 megawatts of electricity from two hydroelectric stations—just enough to power the mill and homes of 1500 employees and their families who live in the bucolic gated community surrounding the mill.

The addition of a third hydroelectric station in 2013 upped power production to 14 megawatts – and created a new income stream for the company.

‘The third power station was built purely and deliberately as a commercial enterprise,’ Cobb says. ‘We have an agreement with PNG Power Limited to sell them the power and direct all of it back into the grid.

‘Hydroelectric is one opportunity that has never properly been exploited in this country, so I see us as a model to show the rest of the country how both forestry and power production can be executed sustainably.’

He adds: ‘We don’t rely on the government for too much—only to keep the road open between here and Lae.’

Adding value

A carpenter at PNG Forest Products in Bulolo. Credit: Ian Neubauer

A carpenter at PNG Forest Products in Bulolo. Credit: Ian Neubauer

PNG Forest Products can’t compete on price against the run-of-the-mill structural type plywoods produced cheaply in Indonesia. So it specialises in niche high-end plywood products instead.

Cobb says the company excels at marine-grade ply, form ply and all sorts of specialty ply treated with veneers and overlaid with products like coach floor and train floor. “It’s all about adding value,” he says.

Further value is added at PNG Forest Products’ voluminous factory floor, where carpenters, joiners and furniture makers – both male and female – manufacture a vast range of timber products for domestic consumption: everything from school desks, to coffins, bed frames, flat-pack kitchens, doors and kit homes to suit various budgets.

‘This is a house we are experimenting with in the Highlands,’ Fauth says, pointing out a small plywood roundhouse with a conical roof inset with a chimney. ‘You can knock it up or down in a day and you can even light a fire inside of it.’

Bridge to Australia

PNG Forest Products’ newest value-added item is a wooden bridge that’s seeing healthy demand in rural parts of the Australian state of New South Wales, with sales averaging one unit per month since the bridge was launched in 2014.

‘They are small bridges but that’s what we are all about,’ Cobb says. ‘We’re building another one right now in Tenterfield that’s 20-metres long and breaks down to nine sections. The installation time is minimal—once you have your abutments in place you can install one in a day or two.

‘That’s a big advantage for Australia, where the cost of labour is so high.’


  1. Jeff Lawson says

    Hello Paul, my name is Jeff Lawson, my mum & her husband Don Edwards lived in Bulolo. I remember you with Geoff Godwin (?) I worked for BGD for about 2 years as an apprentice fitter machinest. Long time ago! J

    • Diane Graham says

      Hi Jeff
      Just stumbled on your reply to Paul Lesmond. I’m Diane Graham (Dhu). Remember you well

  2. Just discovered your post after all these years.
    I was raised in Bulolo from 1947 until 1960 when I went to boarding school in Sydney.
    I have many, many fond memories of my youth in Bulolo.
    My parents arrived in Bulolo in 1937, dad involved in the dredging and afterwards the Ply Mill, their names Fred & Maud Lesmond, and me being Paul Lesmond

  3. Michele mcdonald says

    Hi, I’m Micky McDonald, i remember lots those mames, Mark Cooper you and i were friends, I have photos from one of your birthday parties.. didn’t you live in Huxley. We lived golf course rd. Mum and dad were roly and jo mcdonald. Dad worked at the timber mill they were rifle shooters. Dad represented PNG at commonwealth games 1962 in shooting. We left in 71 I think. Never been back. Stayed in contact with the mackies. Greg, Graham and Patricia, they’re Dad worked et rhe timber mill. Jim Mavkie and I believe stayed there for years

  4. Branley Enios says

    Thankyou all & Love you all for your wonderful stories of Bulolo. I am Branley from Bulolo and currently living in Bulolo town. Please can anyone assist me with any photos or a copy of history book of local Bulolo people in 1930s or earlier. I would greatly appreciate it. If you are willing to assist me, please email me on my gmail ( Much love.

  5. Lina Bonga says

    PNG Forests, Trees are planted on my grand pa’s land. We are still waiting for Loyalty payment. Huge money have been coming out of my land but we are not benefiting. Meri Watut. Nepeini village.

  6. Sue Thompson says

    Huxley Street….. We could see the full length of it from where we lived behind the Pine Lodge Hotel, (access past the Police station ) when my mother & father John & Valerie Thompson worked for the Forestry College. Roslyn Brackley, Lyn Avery, Helen & Leo Stalker ( Dutch), Peter Smith ( Canadian), were some of the residents; you may be able to locate them North ofBrisbane now. Bribie Island? Dad built Mum a scout hall and alot of the Huxley Street boys were cubs…. Ian Decker, David Collins-Ruby, Greg Mackay. From the forestry section, the 3 Woolcott brothers ( father was Dr Peter Woolcott) Michael Gloynes, Darryl Nissen, Greg Collis. Lance Lung from the Chinese trade store near the market.
    My sister Royale Thompson is the only one of the four of we children, ( David, Sue & Bruce) whose still working in PNG…. a judge in Port Moresby. We all boarded at TSS & St Hilda’s on the Gold Coast for 6 yrs returning to idyllic life in Bulolo via Gov paid Christmas flights home. ( There were no high schools). Hope you can draw something from any of these names.

    • Ruth Britton says

      Some of these names very familiar from my childhood – Averys, Collins-Ruby especially. My dad was Peter Britton, managed the sawmill from about ’62 to ’66. we lived at 4 Phillips Rd, just across the road from the school. Asolutely an idyllic time for us kids, 8 of us Brittons (Ann, Jack, Ruth, Nell,Grace,Kate,Faith & Beth). My mum Pat Britton painted a huge mural in the catholic church and fondly remembered creating amazing costumes for us kids I think for Christmas parties. Our dad went back in the nineties and shared great photos but none of us have gone back. Now all based in NSW.

    • Sandra Bourne says

      Hello Ruth.
      I remember so many of those names, also.
      My dad was Alan Bourne and he worked at the Mill… If your dad is still alive, ask him if he remembers Alan Bourne because they would have worked together. Dad died nearly 18 years ago.
      I remember having fun all the time, living in Bulolo – some of my most vivid lifelong memories: the fabulous Xmas parties that our parents held, Boxing Day visits, the Chinese grocery store where I would ask for salted plums every time Mum and I shopped, all of us lining up for smallpox vaccinations, the freshly painted concrete swimming pool and the springboard, the backside burning slippery dip near the pool and the round-a-bout that held about 10 kids, the snakes that seemed to live everywhere, the cucus that lived in the tree at school, the fires that roared up the gully, the gurreas that shook our homes, the native ladies that would bring fresh chokos, kau kau and different fruits and lay them on the lawn of your home to buy, the sweet babies asleep in their billums hanging from their mum’s heads, the air strip where many of us learned to ride our bikes flat out, the kunai grass that always made tiny cuts that itched my skin, visiting the Watut and the many friends that came and went because of the need for further education. Living in Bulolo was a wonderful experience.

  7. Sandra Bourne says

    Hello all of those Bulolo people
    This is a stab in the dark but I lived in Huxley Street – number 57 from the late 50s to the late 60s. My name is Sandra Bourne, my father was Alan Bourne and mum was Rita Bourne.
    I grew up in Bulolo but we left in 1969 when mum got very sick. Dad originally worked on the dredges, after WW2 but I only remember him working at the mill.
    Does anyone remember my mum and dad? They have both passed away and I’d love to hear any stories.
    I remember ‘Uncle’ Bill Hunter and Tom Pembroke. My father kept in touch with Uncle Bill in Sydney and I remember him visiting us many times.

    • Mary Etta Parkinson says

      Sandra, do you recall the name of Bill Hunter’s young daughter, would have been an infant/toddler when he died?

      • Sandra Bourne says

        Hello Mary Etta. I have just found your post after all these years! No, I don’t remember Uncle Bill Hunter’s daughter’s name, but I do remember talk of her. I note in another post that Uncle Bill died in PNG. The last time I saw him was in our home in Sydney in the late 60s when he and my father, Alan Bourne were eating oysters out of jars. It is a vivid memory – they were talking and laughing…

    • Margaret Folston says

      My word, it’s wonderful to hear that someone remembers my Uncle Billie. Can you share any memories for me. Did you know his wife Hazel? Was there a daughter? Can you remember her name? Just any little tidbit would be so important to me. It was my sister Mary Etta that placed the query, but as a family we are so excited that you answered her. Please keep in touch. My email is Hope to hear from you soon.

  8. Emmanuel Nasae says

    My son and his family live just 500 metres from what used to be the No:5 dredge. I grew up there but now work in Law city.

  9. mark couper says

    as i kid i used to help load the Dc3 my father jack couper was in charge of the work shop that transported all the ply wood to lae .yes it was a unbelievably great life for kids to grow up in bulolo so much to do and places to explore.i never went back there wanted to remember the town as it was

    • len price says

      yes I remember bill hunter a silver haired man and a keen bowler he was a lot older than me and I played rugby league tennis cricket but not bowls though I was there many times for social events. some of his bowling opponents wouls have bee bill Neale , tom Pembroke Arthur nuttall bill allum noel Patterson Bernie stormonth my father joe price, and many more if you need more names . I went to shoolin grade six at bulolo and boarded at Ipswich grammar in queensland.
      I worked 5 years securing my electrician and electrical contractors license . ithen worked in lae for about a year and moved to Canada where I became chief electrician at the woodfibre 800 tonnes per day pulp mill. my memories of bulolo are all good and hardly a day goes by I do not ponder the wonderful years keep in touch as I love everthing bulolo.
      leonard john price,,[len or Lennie price formally lived at 37 Huxley st bulolo

      • Mary Etta Parkinson says

        Len, do you recall the name of Bill Hunter’s young daughter, would have been an infant/toddler when he died?

      • Margaret Folston says

        Thanks for answering my sister Mary Etta’s post in regards to our Uncle Bill Hunter. It’s wonderful to know someone who knew him. Do you remember his wife Hazel. I believe they had a daug. born at the Lae Hospital in PNG. We understand Uncle Bill died while playing Bowlers in Bulolo. We are searching where he is buried. Maybe in Bulolo or Sidney. Do you have a clue. Hope to keep in touch with you. Email me at I live in St. George, Utah, USA. Cherio for now.

    • leonard john price says

      I used to live right next door to you . joe price was my father and joyce price my step mother. I am 76 but I remember when you were born .your mom was a lovely lady. your dad ran the transport dept on the main street and the electrical department was near the big yard crane that was just down from the swimming pool.. I am living in Canada but get to Australia for 3 months or so every two years. I like you have never been back since 1966 and for what I am told that was a good decision . I am in your camp when remembering the morobe district and in particular bulolo. I will not spoil those great times by seeing things go backwards with little or no light at the end of the tunnel
      keep in touch we can go over the good times.
      leonard john price [ len ]

      • Frank Reyes says

        The crane still stands however the swimming pool is no longer in use. Roots of the big trees cracked the concrete

  10. Mary Etta Parkinson says

    Anyone live in Bulolo, ca. 1959-1961? Remember William Preston Hunter, aka Bill Hunter of Lawn Bowling Club, etc.

  11. Anyone know a land for sale in town for business and how much been looking in realestate but couldn’t find anything so if anyone can give me an idea be great thanks guys. I myself from bulolo but living in Australia. Would like to come back and start a business. Cheers.

    • DAVID ARIBAN says

      Yes im one of the Bulolo born and raise and i can help you

      • AdrianPauley says

        Hi –my father Albert Pauley worked in Bulolo in the late 1930’s and fought against the JJapanese with the NGVR. He returned in 1956/7 to Bulolo but sadly died and is buried there.

        I would really appreciate a picture of his grave stone.

        Adrian Pauley

  12. sue greenwood says

    yes it was also great for children to grow up in..

  13. sue greenwood says

    yes i lived there in the late 60s i workd in stores and my then exhusband john greenwood workd for the chop stick factory .. amazing place to live in ..

  14. Ian Short says

    In the later part of 1970’s, what was then called Commonwealth New Guinea Timbers was feeding power into the Lae grid from the Baiune Hydro system.
    In the same period of time, a once a week flight by DC3 took a plane load of beef direct to the Supermarkets in Port Moresby. Even then, the beef was of a very high standard. Pity that it stopped some years back. There was even a chop stick factory where the finished product was shipped to the Japanese market along with a large volume of other dressed timbers. I know as I was working/living there in those days.

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