Walking off Mount Otto: Phil Latz

In January 1964, as a licenced helicopter maintenance engineer, I was sent to PNG for the first time. One of the first tasks I remember took place in the Western Highlands when we flew Government Officials into Lake Copiago, to celebrate the area being de-restricted. This meant white people were allowed in without a permit or police escort. Basically, the locals promised not to kill or eat visitors. Long pig (people), it seemed, were off the menu.

At the welcoming ceremony the Chief greeting us was dressed in modern gear instead of traditional arse grass. Instead, he only wore three red, used, shotgun shells: one screwed onto the end of his penis and one stuck in each ear. An up-market fashion statement to show he was “with it”.

My next stint saw the pilot, John Hurrell, and I working on a Government contract in the northern part of the country, staying at the Madang Hotel. One morning, John was summoned to the phone, interrupting our breakfast.

“Bad news?” I asked when he returned.

“Afraid so. George Triatt (Nature Boy) and Wally Rivers are upside down on top of Mt Otto. We have to leave immediately and get them off before the weather closes in. Seems George was doing a high altitude check on Wally, without dual controls mind you, and Wal blew it. Fortunately the radio still worked so they were able to contact Madang immediately.”

“Are they hurt?”

“Not sure, lets go.”

We grabbed our bags, and headed for the airport.

Fortunately, the 12,000 foot (3,660 m) high Mt Otto was still clear of cloud when John arrived. He rescued the pilots and took them to Goroka, the nearest town. George had cut his right calf but otherwise both pilots were OK. Due to the crash we now had only one working helicopter in PNG, so John was kept busy. I’m sure he flew extra carefully, knowing that if he bent his machine he’d have to walk out.

The problem George encountered with Wally arose because few pilots were trained on high altitude mountain top operations. The helicopters capable of safely doing so had only just become available and were in short supply. These new turbo-charged machines were able to carry a reasonable payload to landings above 10,000 feet (3,000 metres). They were being used to set up telephone relay towers on mountaintops.

George was under extreme pressure to show an otherwise experienced pilot how to handle this work. He must have thought it could be done safely without dual controls. George had exceptional skills, perhaps he thought others were of the same standard. After a demonstration and coaching, George changed seats on top of Mt Otto, leaving Wally with the only set of controls. Before becoming properly airborne, Wally managed to roll the machine over resulting in expensive metal being badly bent, in a very inaccessible location.

The wreck was salvageable so early next morning John dropped me off on the mountaintop. Moving from sea level to 3,660 metres in the thin tropical air, I moved slowly to avoid breathlessness while unloading my gear off the chopper.

“I’ll be back in 20 minutes with your two helpers,” shouted John before departing on a rapid descent of 1,800 metres to Goroka, deep in the valley below.

I surveyed my new habitat. It was a bald mountaintop, about a thirty metre square of soggy, decaying, undulating grass, that fell away on the northern side. Cautiously approaching the edge I looked down and saw bare rock plunging almost vertically for hundreds of meters before it met the jungle where it tapered to meet the base of the Ramu Valley 3,000 m below. I shuddered, thinking that this was no place for sleepwalkers. My view extended for fifty to a hundred kilometres to the Finnistere Ranges and the Pacific Ocean beyond. I noted that the southwest part of my new home sloped away gently before reaching jungle in the distance. Beyond that sat the town of Goroka, hidden from view by intervening ridges. The only sounds I could hear were my boots squelching in soggy moss, releasing a smell of decay.

After another glance at the inverted chopper lying beside the central level area, I selected a patch of high ground on which to pitch my two-man tent. Testing the spot with my boots, it felt secure. I’d heard these mountains received over five and a half metres of rainfall per annum so camping in a sheltered hollow was not wise. While erecting the tent I was dismayed to see clouds forming around me. There was no sound of a chopper, so it seemed I’d be on my own. John mentioned that these mountaintops could remain shrouded for days, sometimes weeks. He didn’t return, but I was not concerned. I had shelter and plenty of tinned food. Rain was common and my aboriginal friends had taught me that I could survive on water for over three weeks. Dismantling the wreck without help would be difficult, but I was determined to try. On this damp, bleak and cold location, sitting in the middle of clouds, there was nothing else to do.

I concentrated on establishing my campsite. I had only been in New Guinea for three weeks and was not experienced in tropical rainforest survival, but basic bush camping skills apply anywhere. The tent must be secure as thunderstorms can produce strong winds and torrential rain. I set up the inside of my domicile by unfolding the bed frame and arranging my sleeping bag, blankets and waterproof cover. The Primus™ went inside the tent fly so I could heat food and water regardless of the weather. Food cartons formed a table and the bed doubled as a seat. By 7.30 am I was ready for work and carried my toolbox to the wreck.

My first task was to disconnect the battery to avoid a spark igniting fuel or other combustible material. Then I checked for fuel leaks. None were apparent but a little fuel remained in the tanks, which I saved for lighting fires. While assessing my battle plan I saw deep gouges in the damp ground and surmised that the main rotor blades cut these. The chopper probably drifted sideways, settled, and when the skids contacted the ground, the machine tipped enough for the blades to hit the ground. When a rotor blade hits a solid object at over 400 kilometres per hour, it invariably flips a helicopter. In this case it came to rest almost completely upside down.

As I began to strip the wreck light rain started to fall. It continued all day. Soon I was standing in ankle deep mud. It was necessary to limit the maximum weight of individual pieces or bundles of parts to around 200 kg, the maximum John could lift in the thin air.

My lunch of tinned ham, cheese, butter and pickles on fresh bread was a welcome break. It would take time to boil water, so I settled for a drink from the container collecting rain from the tent fly.

Well before dark I prepared for the night. My torch and spare batteries would be saved for contingencies. Lighting the Primus stove for warmth, I exchanged wet clothing for dry woollies and warmed my hands. Being isolated and alone on this cold, wet night in the middle of the sky without any means of contacting the world did not bother me. I was being paid for this adventure. I had previously spent many nights alone, miles from habitation, albeit in familiar territory. While waiting for my stew to heat I tuned my transistor to Radio Australia. My after dinner coffee could be drunk just off the boil. Water boiled at much lower temperatures due to the low atmospheric pressure at this altitude. It was still raining as I drifted off to sleep, warm and cozy in my cocoon.

Dawn revealed another overcast sky. John wouldn’t try flying up today, so I’d get no help. It rained all day but I managed to shake the 150 kilogram engine out of its twisted mounting frame. It took a few choice swear words, rests between heavy exertion, and many hammer blows before I succeeded. With that done, I soon finished the remaining work and all the pieces of helicopter were ready to be lifted out to Goroka. My promised helpers were unnecessary.

After dinner that evening a storm raged around me. I attempted to listen to Australia playing a cricket test match against England in the UK. The thunder and pounding of heavy rain on my tent made it pointless attempting sleep. It felt like I was inside the bowels of a monster with a violent stomach problem. Peering out of the tent fly between bouts of torrential rain I saw shaft lightening shooting by, striking the ranges below. I thought that with any luck the metal frame of the chopper would attract a strike if we were to be hit. The lightening did hit my mountaintop, causing my hair to almost stand on end and my ears to suffer. I was very thankful when the sound and fury subsided and I slept. I didn’t ever want to be so far inside the middle of a storm again.

Next morning the view amazed me. It seemed I could see the whole country spread out below. The storm had swept all before it and brilliant sunshine burned my eyes. I packed up and prepared for John’s appearance, my first task complete. All I had left to do was load the chopper when John appeared. The heavy items would be slung out.

As the sun climbed I realised it would not be today. John was probably busy elsewhere. The inactivity was boring and I looked again to the southwest. A path from the summit led in that direction and I knew Goroka was only about ten kilometres away as the crow flies. It should be a simple downhill stroll through the bush. I could be there for lunch, saving John a trip to get me. The wreckage could be retrieved later, when convenient, without upsetting our customers.

Before leaving I chose a piece of wrecked aluminium tubing as a staff. This decision would save my life. The sun was shining as I walked off the top of my mountain, along a path fringed with grassy tussocks. After a half-kilometre the path led into jungle and I happily continued on downhill. Further on, the trail forked. I had a decision to make. Tall jungle trees and clouds obscured the sun so I couldn’t judge direction. Stupidly I had left the chopper’s small compass behind. I decided to keep heading downhill. Soon the downhill grade increased, followed by a steep uphill climb and more forks in the trail. These climbs and descents were repeated continuously while the wet mud underfoot had me constantly slipping and falling.

After several hours, I seriously considered retracing my steps to the mountaintop but wasn’t sure of finding it. I was completely lost. My bush walking in Australia had always allowed me to see for some distance and walk in straight lines if necessary. In this secondary jungle, with dense undergrowth from ground level up to the limit of my vision I was confined to a foliage tunnel that snaked up and down to some unknown destination. Had I crawled a metre to the side and been able to stand, the tunnel would be lost to view. When stopping to catch my breath, the silence around me was frightening. I continued, fighting the terrain. Hearing a roaring sound, I came to a torrent of water cascading down a swollen stream. I was dismayed at the thought of having to cross but there was no option. A solid green wall faced me on the other side.

Taking a deep breath, I launched into the cataract and was immediately swept away as I lost my footing on unseen slippery rocks. By flailing my arms and jumping off rocks I made the crossing, but then faced the arduous task of finding my tunnel again or being stranded at the water’s edge. Careful not to be swept away, I repeatedly parted the green wall while moving upstream. If my search for the concealed tunnel was unsuccessful I realised I could be lost forever. It seemed hours, and my heart was pounding before my staff displaced a branch and revealed the escape route. I rejoined the tunnel and while leaning on a tree to regain my composure, was startled by an almighty crashing sound, followed by a piercing shriek. I spun around to face the unknown, staff upraised, nerves and muscles tense and ready for action. Not a leaf moved. I ran in a state of blind panic until exhaustion overtook me and I collapsed on the muddy path. My brain went into overdrive, telling me I might as well curl up and die, I would never find my way out of this nightmare. It seemed pointless to continue. It’s one of the hardest things I have ever done, fighting my way back to a semblance of sanity and logical thinking. I forced myself to believe the sound I heard came from a wild pig upsetting a native bird and not a man-eating crocodiles meal.

Back home I knew of people who had perished, naked in the sun, having thrown off their clothing for no apparent reason while a vehicle full of food and water was nearby. Tourists confronted with a simple dilemma such as getting bogged in sand, on a hot day, in the loneliness of the outback, can lose all reason when a problem arises in unfamiliar territory and help is not readily to hand

I lay in the mud until my breathing and pulse rates dropped. The locals live here and walk these trails, so I must eventually find a way out to a village I kept telling myself. Just keep going and don’t give in to panic or it will kill you. I have no idea of the number of times I was swept down various streams. I just had to keep going. My strength and determination were badly sapped when I reached a fast moving, wide, boulder-strewn stream. A tree had been dropped across the banks, so this crossing should have been easy. Fatigued, I slipped and fell into the turbulent water. I was bounced from one boulder to another while being driven downstream. Battered and winded I gave up. I had no fight left in me and didn’t care any more. Thoughts of my fraught drive to the Alice after leaving Pamela flashed through my head. Where would I end up this time: heaven or hell?

Then the staff, somehow still clenched in one fist, jammed between two boulders and the torture stopped. I had just enough strength to climb onto a rock above water level where I lay for a long time recovering. Amazingly, sunshine bathed me. Slowly I became aware of a thundering sound. Cautiously standing, I saw the torrent of water disappear from view some ten metres downstream. The raging sound must come from a waterfall. I shivered with the realisation that my guardian angel was still with me. I would be all right, it was not my judgement day yet! Luckily I had been carried almost to the far bank of the stream. Fascination compelled me to investigate. Carefully gaining the bank I maneuvered my way downstream. Soon, a picture perfect view greeted me. The waterfall dropped probably eighty metres, before exploding onto solid rock and boiling downstream. The surrounding spray and mist, sparkling with halo like rainbows in the sunshine was lovely to see. I shuddered; it could have been red
with my blood. I’d been spared but still had the difficult task of getting upstream to the log bridge.

Eventually I regained the path. The trail seemed all downhill now and was easy going. The jungle thinned and I walked into a semi-cleared area. Hooray, I must be nearing a village. A little further, a vegetable garden appeared. I had definitely made it. A native appeared, jabbering furiously in a strange language. He held a machete in his right hand and wore traditional arse grass. In moments he was joined by a dozen similarly attired adults and naked children of both sexes. They stood before me, chattering and showing excited body language. A command was issued. Silence fell and the whole group bowed to me. I smiled, said “Hello, Hello” and moved forward with my right arm extended. Shrieks followed and they all rushed to shake my hand. I could not understand a word they said but eventually asked “Goroka where?”

“Ha, Goroka,” with much furious pointing and follow me gestures. I trailed along with the mob as they danced, sang and chanted around me. We passed other villages and the mob swelled. I couldn’t understand the reason for their excitement; I just went with the flow. It seemed no time passed before we reached the outskirts of Goroka where I led the mob to the Talair hanger we used as a base. Soon, I was surrounded by expats.

“You walked off Mt Otto on your own?”

“Yep, can’t say I would do it again though.”

“You’re bloody crazy.”

Eventually I was told why the natives made such a fuss of me. An interpreter said they thought I was a God descending from the mountain as no normal white person would consider walking on patrol without a myriad of carriers, servants and police. The natives also strongly believed in a “Cargo Cult” whereby a “God or Big Man” would appear and dispense largesse to them. They were sure the whites had a secret that would be passed to them by this “God” and then aeroplanes full of cargo for natives would arrive. Perhaps they thought I was to be their saviour? Bad luck for them, after a shower I was off to the pub to celebrate my survival. I could not buy a beer in the hotel that night, everyone wanted to hear my story. It was a boozy, late night and it must have been exhaustion that caused me to stagger home.

John flew in a few days later and said “You stupid bugger, I was coming to get you. Then the office phoned and said you had walked off. Now you have to go up again anyway to sling up the loads for me to fly out.”

We achieved this early next morning, and I must admit to great relief as my camp and I left on the last trip. It took all of seven minutes to come down the mountain, compared to my eight-hour ordeal. Soon after this episode my tour of duty was completed and I caught a flight to Brisbane to begin my time off.

Read more of Phil’s worldwide adventures at www.phillatz.com

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