We drive to the private terminal at the airport as we are taking a charter flight to Ambua. The airplane is tiny and the pilot tinier. It is an eight seater, but looks new and in good condition. We are feeling confident about the flight until a wizened elderly man enters the shed that is pretending to be a terminal and introduces himself as Kevin. Colette asks if he is flying with us. He says “In a way. I am your pilot” We try to cover our looks of shock and horror. He is way too old to be entrusted with our lives, not to mention thin and frail. We worry if he will be able to see over the windscreen: As if reading our minds, he announces that he has been flying for fifty years. I suppose he thinks that will ease our minds but it does the opposite.We all climb into the plane and Kevin gives us a safety talk. While he is doing that I notice that his seat has a label on the back of it saying “Pilot Here”. I presume that is in case he forgets where he is supposed to sit. He reads the sign and climbs into the appropriate seat. He does his safety check, checking each instrument, all the while talking to himself. We can’t hear what he is saying but I suspect that he is reminding himself of what he is supposed to do next. “ Look for passengers, Sit in seat. Get up and put large cushion on seat so I can see. Turn engine on” The take off goes beautifully and we soar into the sky without a hitch. Periodically Kevin’s head drops onto his chest and we are all concerned that he has fallen asleep or worse yet, had a heart attack.From that moment on, for the rest of the holiday, when anyone nods off, we refer to it as “doing the Kevin” After 40 minutes we start to descend to what Kevin tells us is a landing strip. We are not convinced. It seems to be just a gravel track up a steep hill. He tells us that this is a very unusual runway. We had already worked that out for ourselves. But his point is that it is quite a gradient. He explains that in order to land he has to put the airplane into a controlled stall just before we hit the ground. I have no idea why he feels it necessary to tell us this, but it is not helping . There is no building of any description, just a half dozen people standing at the far end of the runway. As we come to a stop, they all gather round and help unload the luggage and cartons of freight.Kevin tells us he is also delivering the “Royal Mail.’ For a moment I think he is referring to me, but then I realise that he is saying “mail” not “male” Our Hotel is the Ambua Lodge and it is just a few minutes drive away. We have been looking forward to this as it is listed as a ‘Wilderness Hotel” and in 2002 and 2003 it was voted one of the ten best wilderness hotels. It is a beautiful place but ten years have passed since its days of glory, and it shows.
Construction has started nearby on a huge natural gas project. Because of this the small road that passes the hotel has been widened considerably and enormous trucks thunder by both day and night. There are also helicopters landing nearby fairly regularly. So not only is it no longer an award winner, but it is definitely not a wilderness lodge. But to be fair the surrounding country is definitely a wilderness, and that afternoon we go on a trek through the rain forest that surrounds the hotel. The five of us have two guides, and we are given large walking sticks. I like to be pampered, as you well know, but two guides seems a little excessive, and I refuse the walking stick. However I soon realise that we need both guides, and I should have taken the stick. The path through the rain forest is extremely narrow and very muddy. It descends steeply down the side of the mountain and is slippery and treacherous. It soon separates the men from the women. Roger is only forty three (young for this group) and strides ahead of us with one guide. Gordon and I are in the middle of the pack. Nellie is clearly one of the boys and sticks with us. But Colette finds it hard work and drops back. The second guide stays with her.
It is strung precariously between the trees on either side of the river. Our guide tells us that it only lasts about a year before it rots and disintegrates and has to be replaced. I would like to ask how far along in that year’s lifecycle the bridge is, but decide it may be better not to know. Colette announces that if she had been told she had to cross a bridge like this she wouldn’t have come. The guide, in an effort to make full disclosure, tells us there are two more bridges on our walk. It is too little too late for Colette. But she is game for the challenge and we continue on. As we ascend the other other side of the valley the path gets steeper and narrower, and the forest gets denser.
Suddenly we can see across the narrow valley a crashed helicopter perched in the trees.It is a strange and frightening sight. It could be a set for the movie Jurassic Park. Somehow it reduces our trek to a Disneyland ride, albeit, one that needs an E ticket. Our guide tells us it happened a month ago. The tree that it is perched in saved the crash from being worse and all five passengers survived
The trek takes us through some wonderful scenery. We see more waterfalls, but no birds. In fact the jungle is amazingly quiet, even if Nellie isn’t. But at least she isn’t sssshhhhing us. The guide explains that a fire destroyed the area a few years ago, and although the jungle has recovered very few birds have returned. But tomorrow, he says, we will go in search of the illusive Bird of Paradise. I hope we will have more success than yesterday.