Getting to Bougainville

The flight from Brisbane, Australia, to Port Moresby, New Guinea, took all night on a DC-6.  These old propeller-driven airliners didn’t get anywhere very fast.  They were noisy and the big radial engines shook the whole  plane.  Somehow I managed to catch some restless sleep.  Sitting next to me was a husky gentleman who said he was a missionary.

It was dawn when we landed at Port Moresby.  It was like entering another world: it was overcast, warm, and humid.  As I deplaned, the missionary had already gathered a few New Guineans and was preaching to them.  The New Guineans, some with red skins and some jet black, dressed in T-shirts and shorts, or lap-laps (a wrap-around skirt), and barefoot, listened curiously.  Their feet were broad, with widely spaced toes, and soles that looked like crepe rubber — the result of a lifetime going barefoot.  They bore the scars of tribal ceremonies: cuts on their faces and chests, and round scars that looked as though a stick or hot iron was used to brand them.  Some had ugly scars on their legs, the results of untreated tropical ulcers.

Parked at the end of the tarmac was an American B-17 bomber, the first of many World War II relics we would see in the islands.

A change of planes and I was airborne again, heading for Lae, on the north coast of New Guinea island.  The airplane climbed steeply to clear the spectacular Owen Stanley Mountains; sheer, vertical cliffs, over thirteen thousand  feet (4 000 meters) high; the backbone of this large island.  At Lae airport, pointing skyward in the harbor beyond the end of the runway, was the bow of a sunken warship, covered in red rust.

Soon I was on my way to Rabaul, on New Britain Island, in a DC-3.

Final approach to Rabaul airport - runway ahead, active volcano in foreground

Rabaul is in a caldera–a huge volcanic crater that formed Rabaul’s large harbor that the Japanese had used as a navy base during World War II.  The main (and only) runway ended at an active volcano.  (The Rabaul that I visited was since destroyed by an eruption that continues as I write this.  The city was rebuilt nearby.)

My schedule included a night in the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Rabaul, to get some needed rest, and a flight by DC-3 to Bougainville Island in the morning.

It didn’t happen.

As I stood, dead tired, waiting to get cleared through immigration, a call came over the loudspeaker system:

” Tom Johnson, please report to the information desk.”

It was Frank Hughes, chief geologist for CRAE:  “Tom, Grab your gear and come on.  We’re ready to go.”

I threw my luggage and magnetometer aboard the Piper Aztec and climbed in. Soon the Aztec was racing down the runway, bound for Kieta, Bougainville.

As the Aztec climbed, the air grew cooler, more comfortable.  Most of the flight was an air tour of a tropical paradise.  We followed the north coast of Bougainville Island; beneath us were the clear Pacific ocean water, coral reefs, and black sand beaches.  Mount Bagana volcano, shrouded in smoke and steam, was off the right wingtip.  Overhead, equatorial haze obscured the sun.  Inland from the palm-lined beaches was dense jungle.

CRAE chief geologist Frank Hughes (foreground) and Aztec pilot. (Sorry, Frank, it's the only photo I have of you.)

About an hour later we approached a steep ridge of rock jutting out from the island.  Kieta village was nestled on a coral lagoon just behind the ridge.

Passing over the ridge, the pilot suddenly dropped the nose and right wing, throwing the Aztec into a screaming sideslip.  The plane fell like a rock.  I fell against Frank.

About twenty feet above the water, the pilot leveled the plane, skimming the lagoon. Along the shore just off the right wingtip were a line of palm trees obscuring the houses and sheds.  The pilot said, “There, they should know we’re here now!”

The pilot was right.  On the beach sat a helicopter with its rotor beginning to turn.

Aropa airfield is about ten miles down the coast from Kieta.  The Aztec skimmed the water and made a steep right turn.  Fronds of palm trees outlined the sky, dead ahead.  The Aztec climbed slightly to clear them.  Another steep turn, almost a complete circle a few feet above the ground, and the plane landed.  The helicopter also landed, ready to give us an airlift to the office in Kieta.

Nobody said anything.

I felt a little shaky.

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