Friday, September 16, 2011

Where the sun goes down in PNG

Some of you may have heard that I, Brian, got to have a little adventure this past week.  The adventure included trips in both an airplane and a helicopter and took me to some of the most remote parts of PNG and to places I had never been before.  What was I doing?  Well a translation team who works in the Sandaun Province of PNG had an airstrip lawnmower that was no longer working and they needed a mechanic to go and diagnose and repair the machine where it was.  The province is called Sandaun (i.e. “sun down”, or “sunset”) because it is on the far Western edge of the country, right next to the Indonesian border.  Since our normal small engine guy is away at the current time I was selected as a good candidate to go.  I must say that I didn’t complain about a trip across PNG when someone else was footing the bill!  So I HF emailed (that is, sent email messages over the HF radio) to the translators in the village to try and figure out what was wrong, then gathered some parts and tools.

I left on a beautiful Monday morning and flew about an hour by airplane, sharing the ride with a single translator lady to a bush strip halfway between Ukarumpa and the town of Wewak in the Sepik.  There we met up with our helicopter (well actually it is another mission’s helicopter that we were borrowing while ours is in the shop for some repairs, ours is blue and white instead of red and white) for the half hour ride to Wewak.  We refueled and added some more of the translator’s cargo to the chopper and headed out to her village another half hour away. We dropped her off and flew to yet another airstrip to refuel again.  By this point I was getting really good at jumping out of the chopper with the rotors turning, grabbing the hand fuel pump and hose out of the rear compartment on the chopper while the pilot went to find a drum of fuel.

This is the Wewak coastline.

This is part of the mighty Sepik River of PNG.

After this last refuel we finally made it to the Yanebi airstrip which was our final destination for the day.  So I left Ukarumpa at about 7:30am and we arrived at Yanebi at around 2:00pm.  We had a bite to eat and then I starting working on the mower while the pilot left to sling load (that is to have cargo carried under the helicopter by a long rope) some drums of fuel from the translator’s house with the helicopter.  From the airstrip, the translator’s house is about an hour and twenty minute walk through the sago swamp - or about a five minute chopper ride over the trees.  It took me a couple of hours to figure out and repair the problems with the mower.  Basically the carburetor main jet had become plugged with crud and needed to be cleaned and they were using the wrong spark plug.  However, before I point too many fingers I have to tell you that I didn’t help the situation because I just brought more of the wrong spark plug instead doubling checking with the book and bringing the right one.  So after I got the mower running and the belts all adjusted the mower worked good except for a small constant backfire from having a too-short of spark plug.  However, we have new plugs scheduled for a flight this next week and the team on the ground there can change it out quickly and easily.

After the mower was running and the locals were cutting the grass for an hour it was time to fly over to the translator’s house for the night.  This was probably one of the most fun parts of the whole trip.  When the pilot was sling loading the drums of fuel he had also taken the front doors off to make the chopper a bit lighter.  So with the pilot and I in the front and the translator and a few of the Papua New Guineans in the back we took off and did some fun maneuvers right over the water of the river that flows through that area.  The pilot loves to do this whenever he gets a chance, so with a light load and a short trip we zipped through a few oxbows before popping up over the trees.   Even with the noise canceling headphones on I could still hear the cries of the nationals as we did 60 degree banking turns as we followed the river.  The pilot and I just grinned.

Parked for the night.

The village where we stayed the night.

After a nights sleep we took off for the trip back to Ukarumpa.  We stopped off in Wewak to drop off the translation couple after their village stay and I continued on in the helicopter.  We went to a couple of air strips that are in progress of being built to do some survey work and take pictures.  Then we also stopped off in a village to pick up school materials that needed to be delivered across a mountain to another location that didn’t have an airstrip.  I stayed behind while the pilot made the shuttle.  Then we got back in the chopper for the final flight home.  On the second day we left the village at 7:00am and returned to Ukarumpa at around 4:30pm.  

Loading up school supplies.

Recipients of the school supplies

At one of the airstrips we surveyed there was this old Ford tractor (along with a bunch of implements) off in the weeds.  The government had flown it in some years ago by helicopter to build the airstrip, but it had broken down (they told me it was the clutch). Now the people are finishing the airstrip by hand.  I'm sorry to say that I don't think that this tractor will ever run again without some serious parts.  The engine oil and transmission fill plugs were both long gone and I think both systems are probably full of water.  I have to admit though that I kept thinking about the identical tractor that I have in Ukarumpa, and how this one would sure be nice for parts!

It was two full days and I was ready for my own bed, but it was a great experience and it is so amazing to see how much tools like lawnmowers and helicopters make a difference to people who live in the remote regions of Papua New Guinea.

The pilot with some village kids.


Anonymous said...

Great story - thanks for sharing!

Anonymous said...

I know it's work, Brian, but it looks like you are having fun (-:

mmloewen said...

I helped deliver that mower in April 09 while visiting our kids, Andrew & Lisa Vandenberg, working with WA in Ukarumpa. The strip had been flooded days before. Interesting landing, skid marks all the way. After training session a 2 hr walk to translators village. Honsbergers. Memorable trip. Craziest thing I've ever done. Marvin Loewen Winkler MB,

Emman said...

Wow! Thanks for letting us know your story. I like it. This makes me feel energized on visiting this papua new guinea destinations.