I remember being stuck in the wild terrain of Hela in the middle of nowhere with an elderly Canadian civil engineer doing survey for the LNG pipeline route between Hides and Homa.
We had been dropped off by chopper in the morning and were working for about an hour when it rained so we took refuge in a makeshift sunshade next to a fallen tree trunk. It rained for most of the morning and needless to say we spent the time making odd chatter and conversation. The shelter was, in fact, big enough for one adult person and I offered him the better of the space as I felt that being a local mi mas soim pasin ah… But the paps refused and said ‘Son don’t worry bout me, what’s a little getting wet in the rain, you make yourself comfortable’.
As the rain or rather the foggy drizzle wore on we realised that by 2pm the cloud and mist cover will have settled on the land and visibility for aircraft movement would be down to zero. The thought of spending a night in the wilds of Magarima sent chills up our spines as we had no tent, sleeping bags nor food. By 1pm we were frantically trying to call Moro base on my satellite phone. Sadly enough the Sat phone kept stalling so I reverted to good ‘ole Digicel and, by the grace of God, the call went through considering my now dying phone battery and the heavily descending fog cover to ground level.
When the call got through I found myself yelling at the young Motuan brother at Moro base to ‘send the f@#$ing chopper asap’ and gave him our GPS coordinates and helipad number hahaha…good thing I got his number the previous night (his room was next door to mine at B Camp).
After getting assurance that the machine was en route we went back to our ill-forsaken shelter and waited for the Bird to arrive. By this time (1pm), those familiar with Hela weather patterns would know, the fog had literally hit the ground and visibility even on the ground was only good for less than 5metres. We were now literally at the mercy of the Creator.
Within 10 minutes of placing the call for pickup we heard the chatter of human voices from the bushes behind where we were encamped. Stepping into the clearing we were greeted by a bunch of OilSearch chaps with their foreign contractors or what have you on their own work-mission of sorts in the bush. The track they had just exited from was knee-deep muddy, gruesome, and ugly, to say the least, coz it was the same pig track we were supposed to walk but decided otherwise. One of the main reasons being, I strongly believed, that the old man wouldn’t make it, let alone myself – with all the rich food we were being stuffed American style, and the state of physical fitness we were in as a result.
We exchanged greetings and stood around chatting in the middle of this densely fogged clearing when the unmistakable sound of whirring chopper blades in the distance distracted our little meeting and Bob and I (I think that was his name if I can recall correctly) looked at each other knowingly with a sigh of relief knowing that was our ride.
Within minutes the machine was screaming over us doing its approach manoeuvre by circling the helipad location. The fog was so thick that nobody even knew what the machine looked like until it actually sat on the makeshift helipad constructed out of split tree trunks by locals.
Bob and I scrambled down the slope to the bottom where the helipad was only to discover it was not one of our birds, the famous Bell 212 dual-engine Hevi-Lift machine, but rather a yellow single engine OilSearch chartered bird. We realised it wasn’t our ride but our visitors’.
Downhearted we slogged it back uphill with a couple of local boys in tow, labourers who had recently constructed the helipad and were now insistent on getting paid for their labour. With a rather concerned look on his face Bruce intimated to me that we’d be truly eff’d if that damned machine didn’t turn up on time…
With the departure of the Oil Search chopper and her human cargo, Bruce and I were now in a state of desperate anticipation as to the arrival of OUR transportation out of this seemingly God-forsaken strip of Huli wilderness.
The beautiful yet rugged and pristine environment was just glorious to behold with the white mist cascading down from the heavens above and settling on the trees and mountain grass. The slope overlooking the helipad was carpeted with a kind of greenish moss heavily moistened with the drizzle from the mist and fog all around us.
Feeling cold and wet from the battering of the elements we held onto the faith that we were employees of that ‘big American boy’ that never lets its own down, not even in zero visibility, TBH, that was the only strong belief that kept us from buckling to panic or loss of hope that dreary afternoon.
To add to our momentary woes, the young Huli labourers who had built the helipad came around and formed a circle around us to make small talk and enquire as to when they will be paid for the construction of the helipad. I tried my best in Tok Pisin to explain to them to present themselves at Moro to receive their payments as soon as possible and that the company would still pay them.
After like the passing of eternity, which was more like 5minutes, after the first chopper took off, there it was, the unmistakable sound of rotary blades in the vicinity. The only negative was that the sky was totally blanketed with fog and we were now even more anxious of whether or not the pilots would be able to safely land the machine.
Realising that the pilots were now making the descent through the thick fog, our spirits soared in celebration, knowing that we were finally getting out of this wilderness, middle-of-nowhere place alive. With haste we emptied our backpacks and gave away our lunch to the young labourers as a way of saying thank you for keeping us company and for building the helipad..