The day the horizon disappeared: Graham Egan
In 1976 I was teaching at Mt Hagen Technical College. My three years at Kerema had ended in December 1969 and I was curious to see what the old town looked like.
So, during the May school holidays, I set off from Moresby, in a single engined Cessna and arrived in Kerema, after an hour and a half and a brief stop at Yule Island. The town seemed small and cluttered after the bustling big smoke of Mt Hagen. There were more buildings and a couple of the roads were now paved with bitumen, that the regular heavy rainfall had not yet potholed. I met a few people I remembered and soon I felt more at home as the town’s familiarity settled upon me.
I stayed at the Kerema Hotel, built in 1969 and still presentable, though a little mouldy and faded.
The food was fair and I slept well enough in the warm, humid night. My trip had been a good one. Or so I thought.
The return flight left Kerema at about 2.00pm and the pilot mentioned, almost in passing, that bad weather at Moresby had closed the airport there, but he hoped it would be open again by the time we arrived. All five passengers, after looking nervously at each other, hoped so too.
The south easterly laurabada winds were blowing strongly and the trip was a bumpy one. We reached the halfway point of Bereina and, learning that Moresby was still closed, the pilot decided to land and wait until it opened. An hour later we were joined by a Defence Force DC3. Not long after 5.00pm, the pilot heard that Moresby had opened again, so he gunned our little Cessna 206 and we were soon in the air again. Ominously, the Defence Force DC3 decided to stay at Bereina.
As we headed towards Moresby, the winds seemed to drop, giving us a smoother flight, but the sky was very grey and getting darker. I was nervous and stared ahead, willing the sky to clear. At last the hills of Moresby came into view, through the increasing rain squalls. We were almost there. Then we heard that the airport had closed again. What were we to do now? Suddenly, the pilot turned the plane right and appeared to me to be heading out to sea. There was nothing to be seen, no up no down, no right no left, just grey. My mouth dried and I felt rising panic. For one mad moment I contemplated wrenching the stick out of the pilot’s hand and heading back to land.
Visions of a hero’s welcome for the passenger who single handedly saved a plane from its mad pilot rushed through my mind, as did a moment’s regret for the impure thought I forgot to mention at confession the previous Saturday. Blessed Salvation! Fisherman’s Island and its emergency airstrip appeared and we zoomed down to land on it, as did three other small planes. Night was falling and with it the prospect of not reaching Moresby. We listened, on the plane’s radio, to the drama of a slightly panicky Fokker Friendship pilot being directed to divert to Lae.
Last light passed and we were still there, six of us squashed into a small plane, thinking glumly of the long, uncomfortable night ahead. No-one said much.
Two hours later, hungry, cramped and mosquito-bitten, we heard a commotion at the nearby beach. People on a cabin cruiser had seen the planes land and offered us a ride back to Moresby. I joined the rush, leaving the pilots to sit in their now roomier aircraft until first light.
We clambered aboard (about 12 people) to be greeted by drunken buck’s night revellers, who had hired the cruiser for their party. One of the other rescued passengers turned to me and said: “Oh God, out of the frying pan into the fire.”
Despite coming perilously close to several large, dark shapes in the harbour we finally reached the locked, deserted docks, in teeming rain, at about 11 pm. I clambered over an arc mesh fence on one of the wharves (oh, how young and bendy I was then). As I stood with a couple of others in the downpour wondering how to get home, amazingly a police paddy wagon stopped and offered us a lift in the back. Home in a prison van. Why not?
They drove it fast and we bounced around inside like lotto balls at a draw. There were no hand holds inside. Mental note to self: don’t ever get arrested in Port Moresby.
I finally thanked them at Korobosea, where I was staying with a friend. I came in, wet, hungry and with a story to tell. My friend asked if I had had a good trip (the 11pm arrival not having registered with him). Yeah, not bad I replied.