1979 A Close Shave – Kar Kar Island

Kar Kar Island is nothing more than a huge active volcano thrusting out of the ocean about 100 kilometres north of Madang, part of an extensive chain of volcanic islands extending from Indonesia to the Solomons. Several minor eruptions have occurred in recent years and there has not been a time in living memory when smoke could not be seen rising from the huge crater. In the early seventies it was customary to do a quick lap around the cauldron, right down inside the crater, if we were passing the island in our Army Pilatus Porter aircraft. We confidently considered the chance of the volcano exploding at the exact moment the aircraft was flying inside the crater to be minute.

By 1980 the situation had changed with regular eruptions, one quite large, killing members of a seismic team camped on the rim to monitor tremors. The volcano was surrounded by a very narrow strip of reasonably flat land, before reaching the sea, and the coastline was completely circled by a very pretty coral reef. The strip of flat coastline had been developed just after World War One and was one of the most productive areas in New Guinea.

This fertile land had produced several commercial empires and, while they were normally part of a larger operation such as those of Burns Philp, Steamships or Levers, a number of individual families did extremely well. One such family were the Middletons, whose enterprise and hard work had resulted in very acceptable rewards over a 70 year period. With independence in Papua New Guinea many of the old plantations failed to adapt to the changing times and the majority passed to native shareholding where most commenced a steady decline in profitability. Roger Middleton, the current patriarch of the family empire, had adapted well to the changing world and consulted with and worked closely beside the local people until he was considered something of an elder statesman on the island (despite only being in his forties). It was Roger’s prominent position that brought me into contact with him.

In the late seventies the Kar Kar rumblings became very threatening and the Papua New Guinea government developed an evacuation plan for the island in case of a major eruption. Roger Middleton was the ideal man to co-ordinate the whole program and, as aircraft would play a major role in any evacuation, I was there regularly in a PNG Defence Force twin engine Nomad to liaise with the local co-ordinator. Roger, while moving with the times, did not lose any of the old world traditions in his daily lifestyle and I would love to stay at his house whenever passing close to Kar Kar Island.

Roger’s enthusiasm for aircraft, particularly military, had Kar Kar as a priority stop for any Army of Air Force planes in the area. Even the giant RAAF Hercules would go there and land on the very steep, one-way grass strip which was built running up the side of the volcano. While they were training for a possible evacuation of the island one suspects Roger’s hospitality was the real draw-card, after all, the aircrews could have been back at a Madang hotel in thirty minutes instead of staying at Kar Kar overnight.

One morning, after spending the night with Roger, Geoff Wood, my OC, and I were having breakfast on the veranda watching the native kids in their outrigger canoes as they played on the coral reef not 100 metres away across the sweeping, manicured lawns, beneath coconuts and brilliant bougainvillaea when a plantation worker came racing through the coconuts on a tiny motor cycle. Throwing the bike down, he ran up to Roger and started hysterically talking in pidgin English. It appeared that the night before, a fight had taken place at the plantation worker’s club and a local villager had been beaten by an immigrant worker (it is common practice for plantations to import their workers from other areas of the country, particularly the highlands, and indenture them for two years. Tribal demarcation is very distinct in PNG and these workers were looked upon as foreigners by the locals). The two policemen – both over 60 years old, as nothing ever happened on Kar Kar – had taken the culprit into custody but word had just circulated that the victim had died.

At this very moment, hundreds of enraged tribesmen were surrounding the one-cell lock up, waving axes, machetes, spears and arrows while working themselves into sufficient frenzy to tear the jail down and see justice was done to the terrified prisoner. Roger yelled to one of his servants to get the Range Rover out and Geoff and I leapt aboard with the excited messenger. Unfortunately Roger had a broken arm in plaster at this time and Geoff and I became in fear of our very lives as the Range Rover rocketed along the dirt track between coconut trees, becoming airborne at every stony creek crossing. Roger, like a man possessed, was flinging the wheel back and forward with his good hand and regularly letting go as he changed gears – a one armed paper-hanger had nothing on this madman. I looked back and saw Geoff had fastened his seat belt and was pinned into the corner of the rear seat while beside him the messenger was bouncing around with his eyes rolled back in his head making a terrible moaning sound.

As we came into the clearing (on two wheels) where the calaboose lay, I saw a huge crowd had gathered, chanting and leaping up and down. One white-haired old policeman stood bravely at the door of the jail, his World War One rifle clutched nervously in his hands. I could see two pairs of very wide eyes peering out the cell window, one the prisoner and the other the second policeman giving back-up to his partner. We had a quick discussion and soon decided the chance of negotiated settlement was non-existent.

Roger leapt from the vehicle and jumped on top of a fuel drum standing alongside the calaboose. Such was the respect he had in the community that the shouting died but, even so, the mob continued to dance rhythmically and hold up their weapons. As Roger commenced a tirade on the virtues of law and order in pidgin English I nonchalantly wandered to the back of the lock-up where the small police truck was parked and called for the two cell inmates to come out. Geoff moved quietly behind Roger’s podium and told the old policeman to come around the back of the lockup. While Roger held the crowd, the five of us piled into the little truck and prayed it would start immediately as it could not have been too long before an inquisitive tribesman stuck his head around the corner.

The youngest of our two geriatrics turned the key and the little band of fugitives burst out from behind the prison to be greeted by a huge roar from the mob. Off up the track to the airstrip we went with the crowd in hot pursuit. Roger’s drive from the plantation had been a relaxed Sunday outing compared with vigour the old policeman applied to the throttle of our little truck. Unfortunately my attention was drawn to the noise of an engine about to commit suicide as it passed beyond the realms of any possible rev barrier and I had to bring to the terrified driver’s notice the fact that we were still in first gear at what seemed to be 90 kilometres an hour.

As we arrived where the Nomad was parked at the top of the strip, after a ride more airborne than earthbound along the rough track, I leapt out of the truck and tore the safety straps from the propellers then sprang into the cockpit. As I did so, there was a steadily rising roar coming from the coconuts at the bottom of the short steep runway and, suddenly, a sea of black bodies swarmed from the trees. Seeing this, the prisoner who was shaking with fear, started yelling at the policemen to hurry up and, snatching the rifles out of their hands, raced to the aircraft and threw them into the door Geoff was holding open. He then ran back and, grasping one of the older boys under the armpits, literally carried him to the aircraft. By this time the mob was only about 300 metres away, reducing the distance by the second.

I had the left engine going and, while the right engine was winding up, I applied power to swing the aircraft so it faced down the hill towards the crowd. Geoff had dragged the other three in and they had fallen in a heap in the back of the aircraft and he was struggling to close the door. Disregarding such niceties as fastening seat belts or checking instruments, the power levers were applied as soon as the second engine wound up to operating speed and the aircraft, so painfully slowly, began to roll down the hill towards the onrushing crowd.

It was obvious there was insufficient space to get airborne before the mob and I was worried if I hit some of them the aircraft might be damaged. As we got to within 50 metres the crowd stopped and appeared to hold their ground but it was too late and I was committed to charging through the middle. In the few seconds it took to reach them I saw the expressions of those directly in the path of the aircraft change from defiance to eyes as big as rubbish bin lids as they threw themselves aside. With an action something akin to the bow wave of a speedboat the Nomad raced through the mob who flung themselves Olympic long-jump distances to one side or the other. A couple of objects flashed past the windscreen but nothing, not even a body, struck the aircraft as it lifted off and set course for Madang.

We returned the next day, with a good deal of apprehension, after talking to Roger on the telephone, to bring the old policemen home but, as so often happens in PNG, we were given a warm welcome by the locals whose entire rage was centred on the prisoner and as we were some form of uniformed authority our part in the escape was a completely separate issue.

Roger met us at the strip and even allowed me to sedately drive the Range Rover back to the plantation so we could finish the breakfast so hastily left the day before.