Monday, January 21, 2008

'Twas the Summer of Force Majeure

‘Twas the Summer of Force Majeure

So this is my first entry for 2008 and – as it turns out – my first entry in a little over six months. I’m sorry (and frankly a little embarrassed) for having dropped off the radar for such a long time. Although I hate excuses, I’ll offer these in my favour;

1) with national elections being held in both Australia and Papua New Guinea in the latter half of 2007, to continue blogging would have put me at risk of biting one of, if not both of, the hands that fed – and it was therefore better to avoid all risk and stay offline;
2) after six months living in Papua New Guinea, those things that I used to find side-splittingly amusing became routine, and therefore not worth writing about;
3) after six months living in Papua New Guinea I finally found a social life, and therefore had less time to write about things;
4) my (long awaited) self-contained accommodation came with satellite TV… therefore robbing me of about 20 hours of my life per week; and
5) I’d challenge Life-be-in-it’s Norm for title of laziest living Australian.

Of all points above, number five probably carries the most weight.

However… I return to PNG in 2008 a new (slightly fatter, thanks to Christmas indulgence) man, determined to once more be the blogger I could have been.

And so we begin for 2008…

After a particularly wet Christmas/New Years break – thanks largely to a ‘tropical low’ (read unnamed cyclone) that chose to holiday in Ballina at the same time I did – I flew out for Port Moresby on the morning of January 8th feeling as though I’d somehow wasted an opportunity for a month-long holiday. Whilst I’ve long said you can’t let the forces of nature stop you from having a good time, this is precisely what I managed to do.

Undeterred however, I vowed to return to PNG – surfboard and diving equipment in hand – ready to make the most of a year of fun and adventure. My new philosophy is to dedicate as much time as needed to working through the week, but to take each and every weekend as my own… we’ll see how it goes. Little did I know whilst boarding the plane that the tropical storm was only the beginning of nature’s buggering up of my travel plans.

The flight to Moresby was late departing… and therefore late arriving, and by the time I’d argued with Customs that my baggage had been checked right through to Rabaul… and then found out that I was wrong and it hadn’t, I was left with exactly four minutes to check in for my domestic leg. Thankfully air travel in PNG is not the anally retentive circus that it is in Australia, and they are happy to hold the plane over on the tarmac until all prospective passengers have boarded. Drenched in sweat from the 300m run from the international to domestic terminals, I finally bumbled onto the F100, happy to have made my flight and finally being on the way home. Exhausted and not particularly talkative, I put my ipod on and caught up with some much needed sleep.

The sleep was rudely interrupted about fifty minutes later when the plane began jolting and weaving in some sort of airborne interpretive dance on the entry into Hoskins airport (a brief stopover in West New Britain to disgorge about five passengers before the final leg to Rabaul). The First Officer informed us over the intercom that the 50 knot (it might have been kilometre-per-hour) tailwinds wouldn’t allow us to land from the preferred end of the runway, and that the other end was shrouded in a rain squall anyway, so we were just sort of killing time and waiting for the weather to break (much like I’d spent my summer holidays). After about twenty minutes of Fokker aerobatics they managed to land the plane in a terrifying, yet perfectly executed, manner and disgorge the five grateful passengers. Then they informed us that due to ‘severe volcanic activity’ in Rabaul we wouldn’t be continuing on to our second leg and would, in fact, be returning to Port Moresby. The audible groan from me alone would have drowned out the noise of the engines.

As a quick explanatory note before proceeding, ‘severe volcanic activity’ isn’t quite as bad as it sounds. Our volcano is a little bit like a moody friend; it’s slightly unpredictable and you don’t really know how it’s going to act on any given day, but it’s rarely murderous. On the odd day it throws out thick plumes of dust that are, granted, a pain in the arse, but pose no threat to life or property… unless of course that property is a five million dollar jet engine (NB: this is a guess, I’ve never been in the market for a jet engine, so I don’t know how much they cost. Sorry if I’m way off and have offended any aviation enthusiasts reading). So occasionally during the wet season, the wind and volcanic conditions combine and conspire to close the airport for a couple of days at a time. If it was happening to anyone else but me, I’d say it was no big deal.


Philosophers and mariners alike will tell you that any port is a fair destination in a storm. I figured that a volcano would probably justify a similar course of action and sort harbourage in the company of a couple of expatriate mine workers who were on my plane and en route to various sites in the New Guinea Islands when their plans were also disrupted.

The benefit of this was that they were fundamentally decent blokes who – like me – didn’t mind a beer. The detriment in this was that they, unlike me, actually could drink… and drink they did. For four straight days the volcano did its thing and we that were left did ours. For four straight days we played out our charade of splitting our time between the airport and the hotel bar… for four straight days we drank.

It had been six long years since I’d left university, and in that time I’d forgotten what a proper bender actually felt like. After the first day time and place began to lose or meaning as 3am trips to the airport morphed into 9am trips to the bar, and morphed again into 2pm trips back to the airport. Standard meal and sleep times were forgotten as bar pizzas were consumed whenever hunger struck and sleep was grabbed in short intervals when needed. Sleep, when it did happen, was disrupted by fear of early morning starts and fear of later morning resumption of drinking. On the second day I awoke in terror, thinking that I was malarial, before realising I’d set the air conditioner to 14 degrees the night before and was lying spread-eagled on top of the bedclothes, more hypothermic than anything else. On the third day I was still unable to board a flight, but my bags somehow managed to find their way aboard a plane going who-knows-where; the ground staff had to radio the taxiing pilot and bring him back from the end of the runway so that I could have them back. On the fourth day, on the verge of mental and physical shutdown, I began to believe that the airport at Rabaul would never open again, and I began to panic. Somewhere in my beer fuelled lack of reason, it seemed entirely possible that I’d be left in Port Moresby forever and that this bender would consume the rest of my short life. It sounds like fun, but both the liver and wallet agreed that it was entirely unfeasible – so I began to explore alternative options, of which there are few.

And then… like a miracle straight from the Old Testament, my phone rang at about 9pm Friday night with news, through someone who new someone, that there was a top secret escape being planned by a few well connected people and that I, and my mine working / drinking companions could be part of the action. Sure… it would involve a 2am trip to the airport to catch a plane to an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (yet still within the territorial boundary of Papua New Guinea… a distinction that needs to be made in a story like this), and from there a charter flight back to Rabaul, but I was willing and able to make the journey. Well, willing certainly, but perhaps no so much able. Whether it was the four days of solid beer consumption, or something I’d eaten (my guess is the former), by the time the 2am wake-up call came I’d been up for an hour already and had read most of December’s Australian Planner in the bathroom, and was beginning to have some serious doubts about my ability to spend half of the next day travelling. These doubts however, were trumped by even more serious doubts about my ability to survive any more days in Port Moresby, so I rummaged through my luggage until I found a couple of Loperamide which didn’t look too out of date, swallowed them with a silent prayer, and made my way downstairs to catch a lift to the airport with Hotel Security.

The rest of the story is routine, and therefore doesn’t make for particularly interesting reading unfortunately; all the flights worked out as planned and I was back in my flat by 10am that morning. I spent the rest of the day lying on the floor watching TV and, you’ll no doubt be pleased to know, suffered no further health problems.

And so here I am back in Kokopo and back at work. As with all good holidays, I return from this one to a mountain of problems that I should have addressed before I left (hoping without much conviction that someone else would deal with them while I was away… they didn’t). And as with all good holidays, my first week back at work was spent in holiday mode and I wouldn’t have been much less productive if I was still back at the hotel bar in Moresby. This week I’m sure I’ll be back in serious Town Planner mode… lets see how long it lasts.

To all those I didn’t get a chance (or more accurately ‘bother’) to catch up with when I was back in Australia, I’m truly sorry. Despite using the weather as an excuse, it was inexcusable on my behalf (the phones were still working at least). I can’t offer much more than to say I promise that next time – whenever that may be – I’ll make a much more concerted effort.

Happy 2008 everyone.

Hope you are well wherever you are,


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