The journey home: Rod Noble
One day you’re walking down George Street in Sydney. Next day you’re stranded with a landslide on Daulo Pass on the way to Kundiawa. The stark and sudden contrast is never easy to reconcile. This is the story of one of those twenty-four hours that many of us have experienced.
For most people, going home is a necessary task rather than the adventure of leaving home. When we lived in New Guinea, getting home was more of an adventure. We lived in a little weatherboard house only 300 kilometres north of Cape York but that closeness was deceptive. Ihu on the Vailala River is still only known by less than a hundred people fifty years on from when I talk. Let me take you with us on that journey.
We start on a rainy Tuesday evening in January. Unfortunately the plane has been delayed two hours and the travel sickness pills are fully effective. We are assisted on to the plane like a couple of drunks and resume our helplessness. Our seats are just behind the wing so we can vaguely witness the starting procedure. There is a fire engine beside the plane with white overalled men operating a huge battery machine. One by one the DC6 engines splutter into life. Firstly there is a splutter, a cloud of smoke and a spurt of flame. One of the men below gives the thumbs up to the pilot so it must be all right. The plane just sits there shaking with the wings vibrating. Taking off was another contrast to today’s fluid drives. The DC6 stands there with brakes jammed on, working its engines up to a full throated roar that only four Rolls Royce engines can manage. Brakes released, the plane struggles up to take off speed along a flare lit path.
On the two-hour flight to Brisbane, there is none of that rushed plastic meal you get nowadays. You got to use real knives and forks and eat real roasts with fresh gravy. The four hostesses (never flight attendants) are there to respond to the buzzers. An extra cushion, a magazine ranging from Walkabout to Pix. There are only seventy-six passengers but they keep them running. A seat full of Americans keep those buzzers going but most of us are too polite to inconvenience the hostesses too much. At Brisbane there is lightning playing on the horizon far out to sea. At Eagle Farm the air is steamy from a thunderstorm with pools of water everywhere. We wait for an hour in the “Reception Lounge” which is actually a hangar with canite walls forming rooms. The illusion is lost when the walls shake on closing a door. If you look up, there is no ceiling, just steel roofing twenty feet up. I have time to take delivery of 100 day old chickens from Wynnum. I hopefully consign them to the unpressurised baggage compartment with the rest of the Brisbane cargo.
At 11 pm we’re off again on the all night flight to Port Moresby. It seems incredible to us when five years later we fly direct from Moresby to Sydney in a jet airliner but we are still in 1962 as we drone on in full moonlight above the Coral Sea.
By 3 am all lights are out and most of us are dozing. We hit one of those huge air voids that the trade quaintly dismiss as “air pockets”. Some passengers hit the roof as the aircraft drops several hundred metres. As we hit the brick wall of solid air again I see the trusty Douglas wings flex like hack saw blades while the engines drone on without a break.
For the next fifty years I never fly without my seat belt fastened. We bump onto Jackson Field strip at 6 am at first light. As the door swings open that familiar wave of Moresby smells hits you: a combination of heat, vegetation and Koki market. At the terminal we have to stand up sandwiches while they locate our cases and chickens. This is my first bite since last night as I am a notorious bag clutcher in the air (and on the sea).
By 7.30 am we’re on the harbour launch heading out to the Catalina flying boat. We climb in through the bubble and strap ourselves along the walls like WW2 paratroopers. Down the centre of the floor between the passengers are strapped down cases, boxes, bundles of sugar cane, a piglet in a crate and our chickens. The Catalina starts its whirling around on single engines and lines up across Fairfax Harbour. We’re off! More or less. The deafening Pratt and Whitney engines thunder on with the spray blanking out the glass bubbles. Up above you the exposed control wires move along the roof. Up front you can see the bare legs of the pilots on a higher level; (where are you now FO Semmler). Once airborne, a dusky attendant climbs over the cargo serving out black coffee in plastic cups.
We land on Kerema Bay with only 6 mm of aluminium between our feet and the water. It’s like being towed over concrete on a sheet of iron. Ack Verran arrives in the bomb scow to top up the aircraft for Kikori and Lake Murray. Ten of us are squeezed down one end of the scow while the other passengers swelter inside. Ack and his crew pump madly out of 44s. In accordance with DCA regulations, Ack issues a formal warning: “Now don’t any of you buggers light up or we’ll all go up.” With benzene and water slushing around our feet it was a timely warning. After we chugged ashore the Kerema mob made their way up to the station while we waited on the beach with our gear. The communication system swung into action. A fire is lit on the sand and smoke is made with coconut fronds. As always the ferryman is across the bay but he gets the message and is soon ferrying us across in the canoe with his trusty Archimedes outboard (remember them!)
Bert Cousel’s tractor and trailer is waiting for us and we scramble aboard. We’ve got to beat the tide to the Vailala River.
By 4 pm we reach the village of Vailala East. We are triumphantly informed that the ferryman has gone up river with his father to float down a canoe log so we’re stuck in the village for the night. We bunk down on copra bags in the Coop store and feast on Sao biscuits and lolly water. Sydney is only twenty hours behind us but a million miles away.
Kaivamore the ferryman is there beaming at us at 8 am and promptly paddles across to Vailala West. I walk the six miles to Ihu station to fetch the Landrover.
“I thought you were coming today on the K boat,” was left unanswered.
Soon we were safely under our house peering with wonder at the two-day-old Australorps feeding on Uncle Toby’s Oats and tearing around their enclosure. Only two chicks had died and the other ninety-eight little miracles were enjoying their new-found freedom. They’d never understand the forty-hour odyssey that they had just experienced in the simple task of “Going Home”.