Chapter 11.


There was an abundance of islands of all sizes, some only a few yards square and only a few feet apart, and they were mostly covered with grass and small shrubby trees.  The water looked to be fairly shallow and we thought we may be able to hop and wade from island to island to the shore and, with that idea in mind, Bob picked one of the larger islands and jumped from the blister of the Cat, fully laden, pack and all, expecting to land on firm ground.  But, to his dismay, he met with very little resistance, to his not inconsiderable weight, and quickly sank to his shoulders and was in danger of disappearing altogether but luckily was close enough to be quickly dragged back into the aircraft along with many gallons of water and grass!  This, our first setback, was one of many more to come, and certainly something we had not been led to expect!

It soon became apparent that, although the islands looked solid and substantial, appearances were very deceptive for they proved to be nothing but matted grass and small trees growing on top of the water and were light enough to be moved around aimlessly by every little wind shift.  The grass had a rather large hollow stem and resembled the papyrus reed that grew in the Nile River in Egypt.  The portion above water was quite dried out and it extended below the waterline to the roots for a couple of feet and was particularly buoyant.  When pushed below the surface it bobbed up immediately.  They were similar to floating islands we had encountered, during the previous operation, in the Sepik River area, though somewhat smaller.

A number of other islands were tried, very carefully this time, but without success, and by doing so we made our next problem.  The draft from the Cat's propellers caused many of the smaller islands to close up round the aircraft effectively blocking further movement!  Try as he might the pilot couldn't get the aircraft free.  His evasive tactics only served to pack the islands in more closely!

Lt. Bruin, not to mention the rest of us, was becoming increasingly worried that the aircraft could be permanently trapped if he continued and as a last resort the engines were shut down in the hope the islands would float away.  But of course they didn't!  We sat there now completely packed in by trees and grass and before long it became patently obvious there was only one solution and that was for us to get into the water and push and pull the aircraft until it was free — not an easy task in the deep water — and very exhausting and frustrating as well!

Even when freed, and in clear water, the pilot was not prepared to restart the engines for fear the Cat became trapped once more.  He asked us to turn the aircraft around and push it out toward the open water — again not an easy task with a heavy aircraft as the water was now much deeper — but we eventually managed to manoeuvre it into the clear.

We could see the pilot (Lt. Bruin) had had enough, and who could blame him for being worried?  He said he was sorry but was unwilling to further risk his aircraft and, as it did not seem possible to get any closer to shore, we would have to use the aircraft's rubber dinghy and get ashore as best we could.

His suggestion appeared to be the only possible solution to our predicament and we surely would manage comfortably with the large dinghy these aircraft carried.  With a normal crew of eight one would expect to see a rather large inflatable.  But, once more we had another set back!  When the crew produced the bulky red pack and tossed it into the water, where it rapidly inflated, we were expecting to see a large rubber boat unfold but were very much dismayed to see only a smallish red dinghy materialise.  It certainly was not the regulation-sized dinghy.  The pilot was quick to explain that they had, a few weeks before, been forced to use their dinghy in a somewhat similar situation and had been unable to replace it.  It was all they had and we would have to do the best we could with what was available.

Not half as sorry as we were; that's for sure!  As the dinghy was far too small to carry all the members of the party, plus the gear, we would have to make other plans.

Perhaps, as the islands were already floating, we could use two or three smaller ones to carry the gear and push them ahead of us.  We developed this idea a little more by planning to spread the constable's collection of groundsheets over the grass with the gear placed thinly on top.  It was certainly worth trying.  So we put the idea to the test and tried to move a small island a short distance through the water and failed miserably.  It was easy enough work to move the thing without much trouble but it would only move in every direction except the right one.  It proved to have a mind of its own and a mulish objection to travelling in the direction we needed.

Back to square one we moved and decided the best and safest plan would be to use the dinghy in stages and ferry as many of the party as possible, with their packs, to shallow water, leave them there, and then one could bring the dinghy back for the gear and the other members.  This appeared to be the safest plan and one calculated to keep the important gear dry.  It would be far too risky to try and carry all the party and gear in one load.  Some would have to swim alongside and, as the water was deep, this was asking too much of some of the party.

Time was getting on and we wanted to reach firm ground during daylight so the six policemen with their packs were loaded in the dinghy and Neville volunteered to do the rowing by using just a stern oar.  He said he would be able to handle it on his own.  Off they went, all crowded in a heap with Neville using the oar at the stern, looking anything but safe, and we watched, praying the water would become shallow enough in the next few hundred yards.  Every so often we could see Anis checking the water depth with the spare oar until finally the dinghy disappeared from sight.  Almost immediately we heard Neville shouting that the water was a little under three feet deep where they were and he was going to disembark the policemen and return.  This was good news and we then got busy and readied the rest of the gear to be loaded from the port blister of the Cat.  There was still a goodish amount of equipment, arms and ammo, radio and battery, and our packs, for the dinghy to carry.

Shortly, Neville came into view and we were pleased to see him making such a good fist of moving the dinghy, even though a couple of times he became entangled with an island.

Back alongside the Cat, once more, he manoeuvred into position and we quickly loaded the rest of the gear. This time there was enough room for two to ride in the dinghy and row and Bob and I would swim alongside hanging to the rope loops provided while Sam would use the other paddle.  I, ever mindful of the radio, suggested, to be on the safe side, that we wrap the radio, battery and spares in a couple of the nylon hammocks in case of accidents.

Our prospects of clearing the swamp were improving with this plan, though we were feeling anything but happy with the situation and were particularly worried that we may be caught in deeper water when night fell.  Our careful planning had not foreseen us having this difficulty reaching the shore.  The operation, so far, had got off to a very bad start, and we were feeling pretty low but, we had trained long and hard for this occasion and hadn't come all this way for nothing and were certainly not returning to base.  Anything but that!

Bob asked the pilot if he would, after take off, fly a little to the north and try to pick the shortest distance to dry land and to fly in that direction and waggle his wings as an indication.  He agreed and we were ready to go.  We waved farewell to the crew of the Cat, knowing that in a short while they would be back in their camp and tonight would be sleeping in comfortable beds with never a care!  Goodness only knows where we would be, but at a guess we would still be stuck in this cursed swamp!

We watched the take off.  The plane turned, taxied, and after a longish run took off.  It swung to the north and flew in a half circle, hunting for the best route, then back over us and again set course straight northwards and waggled the wings and Bob took a compass sighting of the direction. The plane turned, this time to the south, flew over us, dipped its wings in farewell and headed for home.

To Chapter 12 ->