Praying for avgas & into the bush

Tuesday, September 24, 2013
Tari, Papua New Guinea
We break for the airport before breakfast in the hopes of making headway with our avgas dilemma. After packing up the plane, Patrick arrives and says he's called a friend "who knows how to get things" across the boarder in Indonesia. I should drive with him to pay this guy a visit at his house. Interesting. This was going to be good, so off I went. In the front seat of the car is a baseball bat. The whole last 24 hours were straight out of a movie.

Patrick’s friend lived in a nice house with plenty of pictures of his newborn daughter and an amazing view of the Pacific from a massive deck . He quickly tells me though that getting fuel across the border will take a few days and lots of hassle and expense, as everyone along the chain is going to want their cut. My assumption is he deals with other goods, but fuel and chemicals aren’t worth it for him. Another strike on the hunt for avgas. Back to the airport we go.

By this time some of the jet fuel crews were getting ready to depart. We decide that Johannes would take our collapsible fuel tank, Big Bertha, to Tari with the Brüning crew in their King Air. From there he could either get rumored avgas in Tari or in Wiwek, the town 150 NM east of Vanimo. Jan had said he would fly to Wiwek if need be, or even easier fly back to Vanimo from Tari if we were able to procure the avgas in Tari. It was my job to hang back in Vanimo and stay on the phone to find out where, and for what price, we could get avgas.

One by one the turboprops left until I was the only person left . It felt a bit like watching the life rafts depart the Titanic. There I was the lone white person for 100+ miles, making calls to try and find out how we could get avgas. After many calls to Patrick and his colleague with the MAP in Wiwek, we were able to get a drum in Tari! Unbelievable. As soon as Johannes arrived, I spoke with him and Jan and they found the MAP rep in Tari. Johannes was even able to get two drums, meaning that we wouldn’t need any more avgas until Australia! What a change of fortunes. Well, the fuel was costing a small fortune but at this stage that was beside the point. We really didn’t have a choice. We’d also have to pay for Jan’s jet fuel to taxi us from Tari back to Vanimo and back to Tari, but that too was beside the point.

It was early afternoon before Johannes and Jan arrived back with 55 gallons of avgas in Big Bertha. We transferred the fuel into jerry cans and then filtered it in to Maggie. It was a slow process in intense heat, and by the time we were done we were dripping with sweat . A non-workout shirt has never been seen so sweaty. Regardless, the job was done and we had more than enough fuel to get to Tari, and if need be to Wiwek should we not be able to land in Tari. Tari is reknown for daily afternoon storms, and without an instrument approach in to the gravel runway, we’d have to head back to the coast if we couldn’t descend or make out the runway in visual conditions.

With time of the essence we started Maggie with her now-faithful car batteries in the back seat and were off. There was a line of clouds we did the best we could to avoid and then continued for the 1,5 hour flight to Tari. 100 miles ahead we could already see a giant anvil thundercloud like out of a textbook. The stormscope was also showing lots of lightning at our 11 o’clock position about 100-150 miles out. That was just to the east of where we needed to land. This was going to get interesting ;-)

Jan, in the faster Cheyenne, took off after us but was a good 15 minutes ahead by the time we approached Tari . He said he was in rain en route, but found a hole in the clouds directly over the airport. We took his word for it. As best we could, we remained clear of clouds and kept the mountainous terrain in view. Fortunately Johannes had just been to the airport so remembered that it was in a valley at 5000’. We didn’t want to descend below 9500’ because then the mountain peaks to the left and right would be above us. We just hoped that the hole in the clouds would still be there. The miles to the airport ticked closer. First 8 miles and no hole, then 5.6 miles and still no hole, then 3 miles and still no hole. Finally, literally right over the runway we could make out the airport and down we went. We were too fast because of the descent on our first pass, but the clouds were spacious enough for us to stay in a tight pattern and come down on our second attempt. Amazingly the gravel runway was quite smooth.

We’d made it!

As soon as we parked along with the other 8 turboprops, we filled up with the second tank of avgas . Then the three of us quickly got in to the hotel car waiting for us as the rain started. On and off it rained for the 45 minute ride to Ambua Lodge. It was quite a trip out there. The local Huli people were along the road working, toiling, walking, and playing. This was a different world. Sometimes the people smiled, but other times it was as if they didn’t relate in our standard world of greetings. We’d come from Indonesia, a land of hand waving and smiles, and here there was barely a sign of that, particularly from the older generation. I don’t think it was meant to be unfriendly, just simply that it wasn’t a known form of congeniality.

We arrived at Ambua Lodge, literally in the middle of nowhere, smiling, proud, and ready for a cold beer. The others greeted us excitedly and were happy we’d made it. Some of them had just come back from a rain forest tour where they got drenched to the bone, so maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing that we were delayed.

I hadn’t felt that level of relief and accomplishment on this trip since Attu & our Pacific crossing. It was a crazy 24 hours filled with lots of angst and anxiety. Thanks to Jan’s willingness to help and our efforts to divide and conquer we’d made it out of Tari and to the relative (if not absurdly over-priced) comforts of the Ambua Lodge.
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