Patrick shouts, loud enough to encourage the pilots in the open cockpit.
"They say if you can fly here, you can fly anywhere!!"
It's not so much the flying that bothers me. It's the crashing. Into 'Mt. Big-Un', or 'Mt. Tallest', or whatever the locals call the unforgiving wall of rock that inevitably lies in wait for us, in the middle of this ginormous angry cloud. I can see it now, Post Courier, bottom of page five, under the item about a stolen dumper truck;
"Two crew, and three passengers; a couple from Australia. And one Briton."
Why the outbound flight? Why not the return? Why can't I at least get to Tufi, have the dive on my life, then go out on a high, with my dirty laundry scattered over the mountain side?
Patrick shares his safety card with partner Mario. I might be the one Briton, but I don't want to be the only idiot, so I surreptitiously grope under my seat to check I actually have a lifejacket. It won't save me on impact at two thousand feet, but will annoy the climate change soothsayers when they find my skeleton a thousand years from now.
And if by some miracle we dodge the peaks, we're bound to end up in the drink anyway. I nonchalantly review my safety card, as if that will help.
But it does. There's an amusing graphic of a bearded Papuan, his red sputum crossed out, (the chewing of betel nut prohibited onboard the aircraft), and another showing the lopsided plane, (having crash-landed on water), advising a sharp exit through the door illustrated above the waterline, rather than the door below it. The three of us find this highly amusing, and before you know it the sun is shining, and they're even sharing Tic-Tacs in the cockpit.
The muddy ribbon of the Oro river puzzles its way to the sea as we descend over spectacular equatorial fjords, to a landing strip just long enough for a lawnmower. But a skip, a trundle, the roar of the engines, and there's at least twenty feet before the solid treeline.
published in Nuigini Blue
published in Sport Diver
Out on the strip I give thanks to the diving gods, not so much for our deliverance, but because I'm standing on the spot on the map I've been dreaming about for the past seven years.
Luggage is portaged into the boutique resort, leaving a leisurely stroll from the strip. There's the welcome sundowner on the deck to accompany a simply gob smacking panorama over the fiord, with the Trafalgar range in the background.
It's the Land That Time Forgot, Jurassic Park, and the Lord of the Rings all rolled into one. The trees climb towards you, sea eagles wheel above. From your balcony on top of the world with a glass in your hand, You Truly Rule. Get your camera out.
The resort can accommodate 38 guests between deluxe bungalows, standard rooms, and some singles for those on a limited budget.
There's en suite with hot shower, a quality bed, a pool, manicured gardens, bar, tea, coffee and afternoon cake, even a TV to remind you, like you care, that there's another world out there.
A former colonial outpost for the British, Tufi is physically isolated from the rest of PNG. There are no roads, so other than the three flights a week, the only access is by sea. Consequently the area is sparsely populated and relatively untouched, even by PNG standards.
The reason there are no roads is because the peninsular is surrounded by a swamp, full of mosquitos. Although the staff lay out smoking coils, it's advisable to wear socks, long trousers and long sleeve top, and a closed shoe from late afternoon.
The dinner bell is eagerly awaited. Meals are served either on the veranda of the main roundhouse, or down on the deck. Cuisine is a blend of local, Western and Japanese dishes, beautifully presented on square plates with drizzled sauces, complimented with reassuringly heavy cutlery.
A spacious dive shop lies at the bottom of the very steep hill. Divemaster Glen sorts out the paperwork and a crate for my kit. I take the boat for a couple of dives to check my gear before The Big One. All resorts talk up their reefs online, and Tufi is no exception, and yes, it's good diving, but 'unsurpassed'? I'd send you to Tufi in a heartbeat, but not for their reefs.
I would have come for the wrecks of the P38 Lightning fighter, the B25 Mitchell bomber, or the much acclaimed yet seldom dived wreck of the merchant ship S'Jacob, but they're either out of season, out of range, or seemingly tied up in 'kustom fee' disputes. None of this really matters, because what I've really come for is the B-17.
The Flying Fortress B-17F-20-BO was assigned to the 5th Airforce, 43rd Bombardment Group, 63rd Bombardment Squadron on 7th September 1942, under the command of Capt. Ken McCullar, a keen gambler, who nicknamed the bomber 'Black Jack', after the last two digits of the serial number (124521) A playing card motif of Jack and Ace of Spades was painted on the starboard side of the nose.
But after McCullar was lost in another aircraft, it was Lt. Ralph De Loach who took the controls for take off from 7 Mile, (now Moresby's Jackson International airport), with an ad hoc crew for the bombing mission on the night of 10th - 11th July 1943.
Thirty minutes from the target they started to suffer severe engine problems, but pushed on to bomb Buna Canal, the largest Japanese airfield in Rabaul. On the return leg the starboard engine started to vibrate to the point where the crew thought it would detach itself from the wing, the second starboard engine only had limited power, and then they flew into a tropical storm, and became lost.
De Loach said everyone of the ten man crew had written themselves off. So many planes took off and never returned, the fate of their crews unknown, lost to sharks, the Japanese, the cannibals in the Highlands, or the jungle,
Then they broke through the clouds, and attempted to ditch on a shallow reef, but skipped over. The crew, braced for the impact in the radio room, escaped through the overhead hatch, while De Loach went out through the cockpit window. Three injured crewmen were placed in the life raft and the locals from nearby Boga Boga village, who had been on their way to church when the plane crashed, paddled out in their canoes to rescue them from the current. Black Jack sank in less than a minute.
It would be forty three years before she'd be seen again.