'It was in the afternoon when we took off with a fully loaded Cessna Caravan. The flight was loaded with plastic bottles of drinking water, several bags of rice, tinned meat and fish, four rain collection units and four bush toilets.'
Story by Mathias Glass. Photos by Mandy Glass
The supplies were desperately needed because the earthquake had destroyed gardens, contaminated rivers normally used for fresh drinking water and landslides had washed away the original bush toilets.
We departed Mt Hagen in good weather and visibility. We passed PNG’s second highest mountain, Mt. Giluwe, and then the village of Mendi on the northern side. We then flew as directly as possible to our first destination, Muluma.
The usual afternoon clouds were already forming on the ridges of the southern Highlands, making navigation difficult. The radio was constantly chattering with the voices of pilots from several relief aircraft and helicopters flying in and out of Moro. Moro is an airfield being used as a hub for larger aircraft bringing in supplies. Smaller aircraft and helicopters then depart taking the supplies out to the earthquake-shaken villages.
'We could see several people waving at us and it looked as if they had prepared a helicopter landing site'
Because of time constraints, we were not able to survey a lake which was forming in the Hegigio River valley as a result of being blocked by a landslide. The biggest fear is that the dam created by dirt, rocks and logs will eventually give way, causing a big flood which will wash away everything close to the river banks. We needed to find a village that was reported as being close to the river and in possible danger of such a flood.
I spotted a very small village close to the river with two major landslides that could possibly mean a loss of houses and lives. I made a mental note of its position. On our way back to Hagen, we would fly at low level to get the coordinates of that village and then set up a helicopter rescue mission.
Landing at Muluma was challenging because the afternoon westerly winds had picked up dramatically, causing turbulence and wind shear on the short final approach. The people in Muluma greeted us with an obvious sense of thankfulness. While Mandy Glass, MAF PNG’s Communications Officer, was interviewing the village people, Luke and I unloaded the first half of the relief supplies.
I realised that the villagers would need training in order to set up the rain collection units and bush toilets. While the system is simple, it does require some work and knowledge. Using the Melanesian way of explaining important things at least three times, I made sure that the people standing close and watching understood how the setup works.
The rain collection unit consists of a small round tank with a tarpaulin attached to its lid. The tarpaulin is held up by wooden sticks at the four corners and catches the rain. A strainer in the middle of the tarpaulin releases the water into the tank. A tap at the bottom of the tank is used to fill buckets or other containers.
The bush toilets are made out of a steel drum with no ends. A hole is dug and a steel drum is placed vertically in the hole. A toilet seat is then attached to the top of the drum. Walls for privacy and a roof are then fabricated out of banana leaves and bush materials.
Bosavi and the surrounding area
After just an 11 minute flight from Muluma we arrived overhead of Bosavi. Because of the strong crosswinds we were not sure if a landing could be attempted. We started an approach to check the lower winds and determined that it was safe to land.
The people in Bosavi shared similar stories to the people in Muluma. They were afraid that the old extinguished volcano, Mt Bosavi, would explode and so they wanted to flee to the north, right into the unstable area of the previous major earthquake. We urged them to stay where they were. We unloaded the food, water, rain collection units and bush toilets, providing another lesson in how to set things up.
'The radio was constantly chattering with the voices of pilots from several relief aircraft'
Time was running out and we needed to fly back to Mt Hagen before the afternoon thunderstorms developed, making a flight under Visual Flight Rules very challenging. We took off from Bosavi and attempted to find the village close to the Hegigio river, which we had seen on the way to Muluma. This time we flew low level and made a low pass over the village.
We could see several people waving at us and it looked as if they had prepared a helicopter landing site. There was no clearing large enough for an airstrip so we circled again while Mandy took as many pictures as possible for later investigation.
The village had experienced two major landslides close to the village houses. It was impossible to tell if houses had been knocked down by the landslides. We quickly determined the village’s coordinates and departed for Mt Hagen. Flying through the area while several relief helicopters were flying low level was quite demanding. Huge cloud build-ups made navigation challenging and the rain forced us to turn south of the ranges as we returned to Hagen.