Friday, 3 May 2013

Flight to New Ireland

Yonki Dam overflowing

Aviation had had a challenging week. A MedEvac and waiting for a spare part from the US reduced the fleet of planes from three to one. The extra hours of flying to cover the schedule then pushed that one to its 100hr service sooner than planned, the same happening to the MedEvac plane, meaning a completely rewritten schedule and no planes at all on the Tuesday. By the time our flight was due Wednesday morning, we were pleased to have a plane and still be on the schedule.

Morning Clouds
My 6am pick up arrived at 5.30am, so I rushed about the house putting my last things together and feeding a surprised cat. I expect she tried the neighbours for second breakfast at her more usual feeding time. Out at aviation we weighed our cargo and ourselves, so that the pilot knew his loading and administration knew what to charge us. Also at aviation were those catching the flight to Port Moresby and connecting home to Australia for grandchildren and a conference, or home to the US for a few years to complete a Masters degree.

Morning Shadows
The others on my flight were my other neighbours (not the cat feeders) going out to their remote island to work on translation for six weeks. It looked like I might get to see their airstrip, as the loading was light enough for us to fly direct, depending on wind conditions. Once they land, they still have to find a dinghy to take them across to their actual village, but this is much more direct than the 12 hours on a boat from Kavieng that is the alternative.
We were surprised when the pilot-who lives across the road, a truly local flight- asked us to board early. There was a last minute rush on the toilets, as you just have to hold on after that. As we were flying over water we had the ditch-at-sea safety briefing, put our inflatable life jackets on and got settled into our seats. By this time the fog had settled again, not burnt off as the pilot earlier expected, so we waited another half hour before take off.

River beds old and new
Rising out of the valley the gardens grow smaller and smaller until they are just a wobbly checkerboard on the hillside. Ukarumpa stands out for being a western style town surrounded by villages. Neat roads and gardens, tin rooves all around. It rained heavily the night before we flew and this was evident in the rivers we flew over. They rushed along, white water capping the muddy brown, grasses on the banks bent with the flow. Yonki Dam in the next valley was so full that the overflow was white with water rushing down.

As the morning was still early, the low sun made the clouds shine and glimmer where they fringed the ridges and look like snow where they filled the valleys. Where the sun broke through to the ground, sharp shadows were cast along ridges and gulleys, making an already bold landscape even stronger.

Spot the villages
Deep gulllies and rippling canopies
Landslide scar

It did not take long and we were out of the Owen Stanley Range and above the Ramu valley. This strip of flat land seems so thin with ranges towering on either side. Looking to port I could see the neat grid of oil palm plantations. To starboard the clouds formed banks and waves. As we crossed the river it was clear that there had not been much rain on the Finisterre side of the valley as the rivers ran slowly, weaving a path through a wide but empty bed. Erosion along the riverbank showed where previous floods had worn away at the landscape. The volume of water that must flow at those times is fearsome. Such a flood recently took out a significant bridge with the boulders it pushed along so easily.

Pilot paperwork
Eye to eye with a mountain top
Over the Finisterre Range and the landscape is steep and dramatic once more. The windward slope of a mountain can be bare and eroding while the lee is thick with jungle. The ridge between the two is sharp. Although you cannot see the ground below, where locals know the hidden paths, the topography is revealed by the canopy, which reflects the gullies and rises. Villages perch in precarious locations, with deep gullies between neighbouring settlements.
Suddenly, the coast

On a plateau there is a bigger village, an airstrip, probably a school, maybe an aidpost. The plateau finishes in a cliff with a river far below. This is a changing landscape. Torrential rain, earthquakes and volcanoes are forever reshaping it. Water carves out deep gullies with waterfalls disappearing into their depths. I later see an enormous landslide, probably triggered by one of the many earthquakes in this region.
Nearing 11,000 ft above sea level, we look eye to eye with the top of a mountain that we pass. The pilot glances at his gauges and displays and returns to this paperwork. We are on track and the mountain is not a concern.
Changing coastlines

Cumulus Tower
Giant seaweed creek
Suddenly we have cleared the Finisterre Ranges and are over the Rai Coast, flat land forming a border between mountain and sea. Most of this is grassland, but in the gullies there is darker growth. From on high these streams leading to the sea look like enormous pieces of seaweed beached on the shore. The flatland shows where ancient coastlines lay. Whether falling seas or rising tectonic plates have caused the move I do not know. Both are possible.
Fluffy Icing
Smooth icing
Volcanic Icing
Over the water now we can see several small islands, probably volcanic. We go around a cumulus tower and find a small amount of turbulence, otherwise it is a smooth flight. The pilot has completed his calculations and tells us that we will go first to Kavieng, then he’ll take the Brownies on to their strip. I has hoped to see their area, but am not disappointed at less flying time.

Clouds gather around island mountain tops. Sometimes they are a smooth icing, other times a decorative fluff. One I thought was like a delicate veil was actually coming from the mountain, as a closer look revealed a volcano beneath. From this height, one of the volcanoes looked like an ant mound.
We are now properly over the water, with islands in sight, but not close enough to enjoy. We’ve also risen above 11,000ft and the pilot has put on his oxygen to ensure he stays alert. Passengers  don’t get extra oxygen, making this a good time to snuggle into my pillow and catch up on sleep from the early start. I wake when I feel the plane banking; I can see on the chart we’ve made the turn for New Ireland, so go back to snoozing.

Kavieng blue
Coral trim
I next wake when I feel the plan starting to descend. New Ireland lies long, low and skinny on the horizon. Islands below are trimmed with coral reefs; this is a known dive location. We circle Kavieng, fringed around the airport and the coast. The plane feels small, landing on a big tarmac and stopping across from the Air Niugini plane, but it has got us here, and that is big enough for me.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a flight! Glad you arrived safely, and had the chance to take some cool photos!