The small airplane banked low over the densely forested jungle as we came in for a landing, the ocean sparkling off to the east, reflecting the blinding sunlight. I closed my eyes as we bumped along the small, dirt runway, finally skidding to a stop next to a rusting, forlorn looking metal building sitting patiently off to the side. We stepped through the plane’s door and were immediately slammed by a wall of intense, shimmering heat that almost dropped us to our knees. We found ourselves gulping like a newly landed fish, taking small breaths to keep from setting our lungs on fire. Oh my God… we’ve landed in hell, I thought, seriously questioning our decision to move to the island of Bougainville in the Territory of Papua New Guinea.
A large, bearded man with wild hair, shirtless, wearing baggy shorts and flip-flops, enthusiastically greeted us “mates” with a welcoming grin and an Aussie accent, saying he was our ride up the mountain to the village where we would be living. I was struggling to draw in a breath in this searing heat and couldn’t coax any coherent words out of my mouth, but he didn’t seem to care or take notice, as he chattered non-stop like a tour guide, trying to encourage us not to jump back on the plane. He quickly tossed our duffle bag into the back of the Toyota truck before we could change our minds; crammed us in the front seat next to him, and immediately pealed off in a cloud of dust, heading down a pot holed road at what seemed an unnaturally and unwise high rate of speed.
It was 1969. We had hip hopped from boat to boat as crew from Hawaii down through the South Pacific, finally landing on the shores of Sydney. Hubby and I had secured resident visas and were ready for a big adventure. We were young, carefree, had some savings, and Australia was the new frontier. The help wanted section in the local newspaper was as fat as a phone book. Jobs were for the asking, especially for nurses and surveyors. Our plan had been to buy a VW bus and drive west across the continent to find jobs and seek our fortunes. However, the first ad that caught our eye was an Australian company that was looking for a surveyor to help with exploration work for a future copper mine on Bougainville Island, and a nurse to work at a little hospital taking care of the company’s employees and the natives that lived nearby. Well, how perfect was this, I thought. How romantic. Living in the tropics, a chance for me to work as a bush nurse in the jungles, almost like Albert Schweitzer. Sign us up!
Now, as we hurtled up a steep mountain road, with an apparently amiable, but insane driver behind the wheel, I was having big, fat, serious doubts about my sanity and future survival. Turning back did not seem to be an option. Shit. It seemed we were soon to find out what lie ahead. “We’re almost there, mates,” he shouted over the roar of the engine. “You’re going to love this place. Trust me. Just give it a few days.” Okay, I thought…here we go.