Saturday, November 17, 2007

Flying to Kundiawa

I had arrived at the airport in good time, or so I thought. The big and very dark Papuan woman standing behind the counter and wearing an Air Niugini uniform was telling me otherwise. She had to shout in her strongly Pidgin accented English to get the message through to me, partly because of the tropical downpour beating on the corrugated iron roof making it sound as if we were inside a huge old fashioned typewriter; partly because of the general commotion in the departure hall where hundreds of people lugging bundles of luggage and wet children were lobbying for the limited seats on the few flights off of Port Moresby, the capital city of Papua New Guinea. Yet partly, I realized, it was because I really didn’t want to hear what she was saying. I had to be in Kundiawa in the central highlands by today, otherwise my contact would leave for the bush tomorrow morning as scheduled and my trip all the way to this vast tropical island in between Australia and Indonesia would have been in vain. There was no way on earth I could ever hook up with the team if they were to move onto the still uncharted inland without me. And this was the first such trip – mission, as it was called in the somewhat arcane UN language – that my employers at the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) had allowed me to take alone. A more senior officer could afford to screw up occasionally, but for a newbie like me it could be fatal. But here I was standing in the overcrowded shelter claiming to be a capital city airport departure hall and the only Air Niugini flight to Kundiawa today had been overbooked and I had been bumped.

Rejected, I stepped out of the terminal building, determined to find another way to travel up-country. By now, the rain had slowed to a light drizzle. A red banner declaring “Ten Years In Dependence” above the street that led to the terminal hung soaked in the grey mist. It referred to the country’s independence from Australia achieved ten years earlier, in 1975. The misconstrued sentence unwittingly testified to the still limited indigenous capacity in the country. I walked determinedly around the perimeter of the airport and found a small wooden shed that served as the terminal building for several privately owned flight operators competing with the state-owned Air Niugini. Here too, I was out of luck. I was told that nobody was scheduled to fly to the highlands today. The downpour was picking up strength again and the air was saturated with humidity in the tropical heat.

I must have looked dejected to the young dark-skinned boy leaning against the chicken wire fence separating the street from the runway as I exited the shed. He’d seen that there was a pilot in the hangar, he informed me helpfully. Perhaps he could be of help. Thanking the boy for his advice, I entered through a gate in the wire fence and walked to the hangar across the rain-soaked tarmac and found a bony blond middle-aged man sporting a thin Clark Gable –style moustache and a white short-sleeved shirt with epaulets indicating the rank of captain. He stood there inspecting a Brazilian-made twin-engine Bandeirante. Seeing me enter, he looked up with little curiosity. I approached him and explained the quandary I was in. His first reaction was outright negative: he was going to fly today, but not to Kundiawa. His job was to fly freight to Lae on the north coast of the island and today there was a party of foreign golfers that was awaiting its supplies. The flight path would go straight up north from the southern coast where we now were, in Port Moresby, and he would drop off some mail en route in Mt. Hagen. But no Kundiawa. After a brief negotiation, however, we finally were able to agree on a slight change in the scheduled route. After all, dropping me off in Kundiawa wouldn’t make a major detour and I would gladly hand over my unused Air Niugini ticket for the service. Relenting finally, the pilot admitted that he would actually welcome some company on the long and monotonous flight. He introduced himself as Dave and we shook hands.

Soon we were seated in the small plane’s cockpit, I firmly lodged in the co-pilot’s seat. By then, the weather had improved significantly and the cockpit was bright and hot. The storm clouds still looked dramatic on the western sky, but here the tropical sun was heating up the ground. The tarmac was steaming with evaporating puddles of rainwater. Dave put on his aviator glassed, opened the cockpit window on the pilot’s side, and warned me in his broad Australian accent that we would otherwise suffocate and die. It was against the regulations to fly the Bandeirante with a single pilot only, but it was difficult to find a qualified co-pilot so Dave was normally doing this trip all by himself. It was unlikely that anybody would check and ever enforce such laws here. Besides, it was more economical for the company to pay for only one pilot. The only other person flying with us was a Papuan airhostess who stayed for the entire flight alone in the dark cargo section sitting on crates of golf equipment on their way to the exclusive club in Lae.

The twin engines of the plane were roaring as Dave revved the controls. The puny control tower and the miserable airport building where I had been refused just a couple of hours earlier stood to the left of us. Dave was solemnly going through the pre-flight checklist. When he was ready, we rolled down the runway without hesitation and took off. There was no line of aircraft waiting for their turn to depart. The rapid acceleration pushed my back into the seat and the excitement made my body tingle.

We left the coast as soon as we had departed from Port Moresby and flew directly north. Within minutes, we were flying over an impenetrable rainforest with its shades of dark green reaching as far as the eye could see. Mighty rivers in deep gorges crossed the landscape, transporting billions of cubic metres of water, brown with sediments towards the ocean. Papua New Guinea – or PNG, as it is known to people who live there – was still quite pristine, its interior mountainous and covered with dense forest. At the time, the entire country - slightly larger than California - had only 3 million people, mostly living in scattered settlements across the island. Many of the villages were so isolated that even neighbouring tribes had nothing to do with each other. The rugged topography and rapidly flowing streams had helped to preserve the nature, as much of the country is too hilly to allow for extensive logging on the steep slopes and the transportation costs of getting the wood out are relatively high. As is almost always the case, though, the natural riches of PNG have tempted foreign interests from wealthier countries like Australia, Japan and the neighbouring Indonesia that occupies the eastern half of the island as its Irian Jaya province, and the following two plus decades since my visit have seen more of the natural resources extracted with resultant damage to the environment. Also, in the intervening years the country’s own population numbers have almost doubled to close to 6 million in 2007 due to high birth rates and falling mortality. All of this places an increasing pressure on the unique environment in this biodiversity laden country.

The Bandeirante was flying steadily north at a safe altitude to avoid mountain peaks. The weather was now clear, which allowed me to observe the green vastness below us. Dave praised the Brasilian plane as being the best one to fly. When a few years earlier the company had bought two of these planes, Dave had been the one to fly one of them from the factory in Brazil all the way to its new owners in PNG. He said that the trip, which included stopovers in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia, was the best he had ever taken.

After a couple of hours of flight Dave pointed to a high plateau at a distance in front of us. A darker treeless patch which I gathered was the runway ran through the flat green of the forested hilltop. Papua New Guinea has the highest airstrip density of any country in the world owing to the legacy of the World War II. The network was built organically, step by step, as the Japanese troops expanded southward from the north, while the Allied forces raced to meet them having landed in the south from Australia. Each side built small airstrips as they advanced. As we approached the landing strip, I could see the slopes of the steep hills dropping hundreds of metres on all sides. The runway itself started at an edge of a cliff that dropped straight into a gorge. Noticing my concern, Dave consoled me: “Don’t worry, PNG pilots are the best in the world. Those who were not, are dead.” There was no margin to miss the approach, but Dave brought the plane to a perfect landing on the amazingly narrow strip in Mt. Hagen.

After the mail had been unloaded and Dave had a cigarette or two, we took off again. The next stop was the unscheduled one in Kundiawa where I would get off. The airstrip was, if possible, even smaller, jungle encroaching from all sides. I thanked Dave profusely for dropping me off here. “No worries, mate”, he intoned, already preparing to roll off to the grassy runway.
What now, then? I wondered whether I had actually been so lucky to get to this lonely place in the middle of the third largest island of the world just to be stranded without even a compass. Then I noticed a small but tough looking man approaching me from a four-wheel drive. Without any introduction, he said in an Australian accent that he’d been worried that I might not show up after all. Would I care for a beer?

No comments: