Flying the Friendly Skies of Papua New Guinea

Because his readers demand it, the Captain will travel great lengths to uncover the latest news. This week he finds himself flying the airlines of Papua New Guinea. Why not ride next to him in economy? Air Niugini's domestic in-flight service consists of biscuits and juice...

It's a bit more like imprisonment than accommodation - and it's my room for the night.

The rattle of my air conditioner's fan breaks up the sound of the conversations of the locals coming and going outside the window of my room - a boxcar-shaped number with two long cinder block walls separating the bathroom from the front door. Every forty minutes or so the rusted refrigerator on the table kicks like a Pinto with a sticking clutch as it completes its cycle. The first time it did this I had incorrectly assumed that the large lizard I had earlier seen crawling near my two-channel TV finally got the strength to move it off the table and send it crashing to the floor.

Here I sit, taking in this all this activity and simultaneously contemplating the possible scenarios that might have led to the two large bloodstains on my bedspread. Actually, if the lovely flower patterns hadn't faded so badly, I probably would have never noticed the stains.

Though this may at first sound like any room available for hourly rental in an average downtown Los Angeles establishment, it is in actuality my accommodation for the night at the best hotel in Wewak, Papua New Guinea (PNG), a small town located on the north coast of this island nation of the South Pacific.

PNG, a Third World nation whose scenic beauty is often overshadowed by its reputation as a coffee exporter and location of frequent political turmoil, has an airline system that could vie for the title of being the world's most chaotic. For an explanation, allow me to rewind...

This morning I was in Vanimo, further west of Wewak and nearly bordering Indonesia. I managed to catch an Airlink flight here and was hoping get a connecting Air Niugini flight back to the capital city Port Moresby (Moresby) this afternoon. Early in the morning, I stood around the terminal (a little bigger than a tool shed) talking with some of the airline workers about the option of taking an earlier flight on MAF.

'No problem,' they said of the Airlink flight. And they were right; after a brief stop on the grass runway of an intermittent city for a few more passengers and some mail, we arrived on schedule. But the strategy proved futile when the supposedly more reliable Air Niugini - as heard through rumors that swirl around through the ex-pat community - threw a monkey wrench into the works by canceling the Moresby flight, stranding me and my travel companion, a local fellow, in Wewak.

Since air travel is the subject of a lot of what follows, I have compiled a handy quick reference card for PNG's domestic airline carriers:

In viewing the comments for MAF above, it might be interesting to note that as we were heading off to this hotel in a crowded local city bus from the airport, my travel companion proudly produced a copy of the Bible from his bag. He had stolen it from his hotel room. At least I assume that is from where he stole it. There is going to be more trouble than usual if one of the cockpits of an MAF plane sitting around the airport in Vanimo is short one Bible.

This wasn't the first time, nor will it be the last, that Air Niugini has stranded somebody through a hiccup of one its Fokker jets or Bombardier prop planes. But delays in the airline business are hardly unique; all airlines, the world over, have them. There's much more to flying the friendly skies of PNG...

I remember one visitor to the East Highlands Province town of Goroka telling me of the time he got held up by a pair of men brandishing shotguns while he waited for his flight - no doubt delayed - by watching a soccer match at a bar near the airport. After they left, all was not lost, he said, because he could continue watching the game. Perspective is indeed a necessity in PNG.

My departure from Goroka, the city that dominates PNG's coffee business, was much less dramatic, but interesting nonetheless. After moving onto the runway just before dusk, the plane stopped - a full dead stop. The pilot then announced that it was too dark to take off as Goroka's airport has no runway lights.

The next morning fog had engulfed the runway, causing a 3-hour delay of the rescheduled flight. Rather than take a gamble at that bar, I looked around the terminal (about the size of three tool sheds) and found a sign that read as follows:

"Air Niugini wishes to advise its passengers that carriage of more than 50 rounds of live ammunition in checked baggage is prohibited. Additional rounds must be sent separately and marked as dangerous cargo."

Fifty rounds seemed to be a decent number, I thought. Sounded like good walking around ammo anyway. But I was glad to see that in case I do need more than the minimum (like the need arises for me to bring down an elephant), they have a contingency plan in place.

While Goroka has coffee, Kiunga, in PNG's Western Province, has gold and copper, and a huge problem in the Ok Tedi mine, which dumps mining tailings into the Fly River and deforests large swaths of vegetation. And it was to here that I flew on an MBA flight a few days after returning from Goroka.

For my return to Moresby I stood at the check-in counter of the terminal (about the size of two tool sheds), having already checked my bag, when an Australian burst in the front door. He was screaming: "Who's in charge here! Who's in charge here!"

When the single employee continued to apply bag tags to luggage, ignoring him, he bolted back out the door. I followed.

"Hey!" He screamed and gestured with his right hand at a tall, thin guy standing next to a long row of empty airplane fuel drums. "Hey!"

The guy was smoking.

"Do you want to blow us all up?"

After he reluctantly snuffed out the smoke with little embarrassment, the Australian turned back for the terminal and said to me as he passed, "I don't want to die yet, you know."

His concern was legitimate, too, as I later found out. The flight from Kiunga stops for refueling in the city of Daru, right at the point where the Fly River empties into the Coral Sea. It was there that I saw that their terminal (roughly the size of a tool shed) had burnt to the ground. I am not sure why, but I can guess.

I gambled with MBA again soon after and flew to Kerema, in the southern Gulf Province, a sort of marshland area. Their airport had no fuel drums in sight.

In waiting for my return flight that same day, I made the mistake of walking into the airport bathroom.

Some form of liquid was flowing out of the entrance and that should have tipped me off of a potential problem. When I got inside, I immediately back-pedaled on out, trying to retrace my steps as best as possible.

Describing the magnitude of the horror would be difficult. Maybe a herd of cows had simultaneously released their bowels one recent afternoon? Maybe it wasn't a bathroom at all, and was instead an attempt by MBA to branch out its services into early stage fertilizer storage? In whatever case, I have since completed a 12-step program and am now able to enter public restrooms again without incident.

Since MBA was known for being less reliable than Air Niugini (see ranking position on chart provided) I was very worried that I might get stuck in Kerema for the night. This would not have been a pleasant scenario given that a brief tour of the town earlier had revealed a lack of a hotel, restaurant, or taxi service. Add to that the level of sanitation in their public facilities, and I found myself wanting to kiss the tarmac (really just some gravel) as I saw my plane circle above and make its final approach.

After landing the pilot walked directly behind the terminal (yet again, not much bigger than a tool shed) and begin to relieve himself in the grass outside the bathroom. He had obviously been to this airport before.

So, now I am here in a room of the hotel that must surely hold the world record for the greatest number of painted tribal masks for sale in any one gift shop.

But tomorrow is another day - and another roll of the dice with Air Niugini.

Coming next week: The adventures in PNG continue.

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