A RECENT comment in PNG Attitude by Ed Brumby reminded me of the first time I went back to Papua New Guinea after an absence of over 20 years.
It was in the mid-1990s and I had been recruited as a camp manager by a petroleum exploration company operation near Fogamai’iu village on the Hegigio River in the Southern Highlands.
It didn’t sound like a very interesting job but it was a free ticket there and back and I was curious to see how things had changed.
My arrival in Port Moresby wasn’t especially unusual. The old terminal building was still in use and The Gateway Hotel was sitting in the same spot. The town had expanded somewhat but apart from the deterioration of many buildings and rubbish everywhere it was largely recognisable.
It was only when I tried to get on a flight to Mount Hagen that things got interesting.
The Indonesians had been particularly enthusiastic in torching their rain forests that year and there was a smoky pall over most of the highlands.
My flight duly arrived above the airstrip at Kagamuga and we circled through the haze looking for an opening before the pilot gave up and flew on to Madang where we refuelled and returned to Port Moresby.
Our second attempt got off to a good start. We boarded the Dash 8 only an hour or so late and everyone strapped themselves into their seats ready for take-off.
It was then that an irate highlander discovered that the aircraft had been overbooked and he didn’t have a seat. He had been trying to get home for several days and remonstrated with the cabin crew before several burly security guards came on board and frog marched him back to the terminal.
With that out of the way the plane took off. The attendants had just finished handing out biscuits and little tubs of orange juice when the pilot announced there was an electrical fault and said we were heading back to Jacksons.
Two days followed when I was dropped off at the airport in the morning on the off chance there would be a flight to Hagen. The company representative happily informed me that nearly everyone eventually got on a flight to where they were going in PNG. All that was required was patience.
Sitting in the old terminal for two long days waiting for a ghost flight was no picnic but I was befriended by a missionary and his family in the same situation. They had an endless supply of anecdotes and tasty snacks. And when the need arose we nipped up to The Gateway to use its toilets.
On the third day, those who had survived the two days were bundled out to a Dash 8 and we took off for another try.
Unfortunately Kagamuga was still sitting under a pall of smoke. Then our hopes were raised. There was an aeroplane sitting on the tarmac whose pilot reckoned he could talk our guy down over the radio.
It was a tricky manoeuvre but we were all past caring (including the rambunctious highlander who had been marched off the plane a few days ago and now had a seat).
I’m not sure what I was thinking as we dropped through the murk. There was no way of knowing whether there was an airfield below us or not. I hoped the pilot had a better idea.
As it turned out we were roughly in the right spot. The Dash 8 was shaking like a rock-filled bucket when we lobbed into relatively clear air – a lot closer to the ground than anticipated with the wheels just down and approximately at the midpoint of the runway.
We landed with one hell of a thump and bounced a couple of times before skewing to a halt.
When we reached the parking bay everyone heaved a sigh of relief and gave the grinning Buka pilot a standing ovation.
It used to be that the road between Kagamuga and Hagen town ran through open fields of kaukau and bananas but now it was lined with houses, shops and markets. Every 200 metres there was a dartboard surrounded by eager punters eyeing off the prize of a carton of SP.
Mt Hagen was unrecognisable and I couldn’t work out where I was; only the market seemed to be in the same place.
There were high fences and razor wire everywhere. It was a town under siege. A visit to the Hagen Country Club for dinner was like getting in and out of a high security gaol.
And the night we had Chinese takeaway we had to negotiate a 20 foot galvanised iron gate and place our order through a steel grill in the restaurant wall.
We drove to Mendi to get to where I was eventually going to work. We had two security guys in the back with pump action shotguns and machetes and we drove at maximum speed all the way without stopping.
At Mendi I jumped on a waiting chopper and was whisked through the Indonesian’s smoke to Fogamai’iu.
It was only then that the smoke thinned out a bit. The camp was open and unfenced and a few locals with bush knives were hanging about. There was a rumour that a gang of raskols was on its way from Waro to do our guys over on payday and our workers were going to stop them.
That afternoon the chopper pilot flew the short distance from the camp to the river to give his machine a wash; apparently this was advisable given all the crap in the air.
In the afternoon sun I sat in the river up to my armpits in clear water. A couple of noisy kokomos cruised overhead and there were some village kids laughing and splashing nearby.
I was back in PNG and I’ve been going back regularly ever since. The raskols never arrived.