Travelling through the islands (part 2)

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  1. Travelling through the islands part 2

    However, back to marine engines, which was the reason for my trip to Irian Jaya in an attempt to salvage a sunken supply vessels running gear. The company was operating out of Singapore and had purchased a second hand ocean going trawler as the crew supply ship, the logistics of this exercise took some contemplation when you consider Irian Jaya is only 400 miles from Darwin. Regardless of this the operation commenced and the supply ship departed from Singapore only to loose the starboard engine reduction box a few days out and the Dutch Captain continued at half speed with one engine in the monsoon season. It was quite a feat of seamanship as the South China Sea can become extremely rough with violent tropical storms.
    On arrival at the base camp on the Fly River, which forms part of the border between Papua New Guinea and Iran Jaya. A place where reputedly Rockefeller’s son was taken by a crocodile in the early sixties while on an anthropological survey? The Dutch trawler captain and the young crew party manager, fresh out of university, went head to head because the supply ship arrived three months late. That, notwithstanding the fact that it had arrived at all was little short of a miracle but our Young Turk could not see the skill and seamanship involved and in a bout of alcohol fueled revenge the Captain opened the sea cocks and sank the vessel.
    My return to Singapore, where I had spent time in the army on training courses, after some five years was a total culture shock: the city I knew had been virtually run by the military and had consisted of a sprawling hotch potch of two story shop houses interspersed with a couple of good hotels. It boasted several palatial government buildings, then mile after mile of barracks or naval establishments. Following independence from Britain and subsequently from Malaysia the Premier Lee Kuan Yew had transformed the city, draining the malarial swamps in massive land reclamation protect that provided space for low cost high rise housing. Industrialization had provided the wherewithal to increase the standard of living and education to one of the highest in Asia . They had constructed a network of motorways and flyovers that eliminated the traffic chaos which had existed previously under colonial rule. Tourism was the new watchword along with a sanitization policy that eliminated one of my old haunts Bugis street and most of the brothels that had proliferated in the previous decade. The vigilance of the police probably went too far as a couple of our surveyors were apprehended for having long hair and when they refused to be shorn were made to report to a local police station every twenty four hours.
    My fleeting visit was merely a stopover and then on to Jakarta which was totally and utterly reminiscent of everything Singapore had been previously. It still had Sukarno’s stamp of megalomania on it, in the form of the architecture and monuments scattered around a city that was at that time probably forty percent slum: in the middle of which were huge statues of workers proclaiming their freedom from colonial rule.
    Journeying down through the islands of the Indonesian archipelago was an eye opening very fraught and sometimes downright dangerous experience. On a Mandela airways flight from Jakarta to Ambon the DC6 never gained altitude, the lights and air-conditioning did not work in a sweltering 95 degree Fahrenheit. The ancient machine was dangerously overloaded as we skimmed over the jungle with the engines alternatively roaring like a bunch of unchained banshees or fading to a gentle murmur that seemed only a few revolutions above tick over. Landing was more like a controlled crash and I almost got trampled to death in the rush to disembark. After a night to recover in the company staff house we returned to the airstrip the next morning replete with the traditional breakfast of cold rice and two equally as cold fried eggs washed down with coconut milk .Sitting next to the statutory Russian helicopter that seem to adorn every airstrip in the country looking very forlorn with its moldering rotors touching the ground was our next transport. It was a four seater Cherokee Piper that had obviously seen better days along with its equally dilapidated pilot who turned out to be American.
    His had a local co-pilot that seemed to have no English or any other saving graces, after a half hearted attempt at cranking the engine the battery died, completely nonplussed the pilot called over the pick up truck and hooked up a set of jumper cables. He then proceeded to disconnect each fuel line on the Lycoming flat six engine and prime the fuel injectors. Some time later we were airborne but once again my attention was drawn to the paucity of servicing when the transfer fuel pump cratered and the co pilot began hand cranking fuel from one wing tank to the other at a furious rate. We arrived at a bush strip on the main island of Irian Jaya just before dusk or the fuel ran out, to another rough landing that had my head making dents in the roof or being slammed to the bottom of the seat. Any thought that I might have been contemplating of finding a cozy billet was sadly dashed as we trekked through the jungle in pitch darkness to a nearby creek. There we were met by personnel from the base camp who guided me to a waiting dinghy. Once seated, the two forty horse power Johnson outboards that had been idling over in a cloud of two stoke exhaust fumes roared to life. I was thrown back in the seat as the aluminum Frazier dinghy took off like a gut shot rat into the night and was planning a few yards from the shore. We traveled down the creek at breakneck speed following the glimmer of light from another dinghy in front, the only other illumination on that moonless night being the contrast between the thick vegetation on either bank and the lighter shade offered by the starlight in a cloudless sky. From previous experience in West Africa I was fearful of partially submerged logs or the debris that accumulates where the freshwater creeks meets the sea water and sure enough as we reached the transition zone there was an almighty bang from the starboard engine. It bucked up against the transom with the engine screaming at full throttle as the propeller chewed fresh air, the driver slewed into a half turn that had the gunnels shipping water and throttled back the second engine. Debris hitting the prop had broken the shear pin but in a matter of minutes we were on our way again only this time the ride was much rougher as the dinghies traveled parallel to the coast bouncing and crashing across the incoming tidal swell. After an interminable time we arrived at our destination and I staggered ashore in the dead of night unable to see where I was going tripping over rickety bridging constructed from branches.
    The following morning I met the party manager who was the epitome of every cocky little second lieutenant I had ever encountered and introduced himself as having obtained a first at Manchester. I informed him that I had two “O” levels and a budgerigar and from there on it was all downhill. A survey of the 50 ft trawler or rather what could be seen of it at low tide revealed both engines and reduction boxes to be seized solid, as it had been submerged for three months in a salt water creek there was little that could be salvaged. Re-floating the hulk was a lost cause due to the bilge planking and hull rubbing strip having become detached which led me to believe the vessel may well have hit a fish trap on the way and opening the sea cocks had been an exercise in bravado on the part of the Dutch captain as the vessel would have sunk anyway. This devastating news was a major blow to the crew operational supply situation which the young party manager had no experience with and was rapidly replaced.