6 March 2005
Sunday, 6 March
Today's first order of business was to meet at Neco with the guy who's stood us up three times previously. The plan was for us to go in Joe's Neco boat, and for our contact to lead us to his airplane-pieces place in his boat. When we arrived at Neco, the plan had changed. He had gone ahead to his island, they said, and we were to meet him there. Guess what?
Right. When we got there, the place was deserted.
But Part II of Plan A was already in action: we had also brought a local guide with us on Joe's boat, to try to find an aircraft that he saw on the side of a steep hill on the long island of Ngeruktabel - at the eastern end of which is the German lighthouse. So we blew off the first island, deciding not to wait around to see if the guy who'd stood us up four times now would show up. We headed over to Ngeruktabel.
Turns out that our guide had seen the aircraft on the hillside about 15 years ago, while he was hunting, but not really paying close attention to a hunk of wreckage that had nothing to do with his bird hunting. We cruised up and down a portion of the northwestern side of the island for awhile, while the guide tried to dredge up the location from his memories of that day 15 years ago. He really wanted to find that site, but the intervening years had drawn a hazy veil over the mental map that he'd been carrying with him..
We finally picked an entry point that involved climbing up from the boat onto a low-hanging tree branch and balance-walking across the branch to the island, which was the bottom of a crumbly-coral, poison-tree-infested, 60-degree-sloped ridge (Photo, right, © Reid Joyce 2005).
I've been keeping up with the young punks reasonably well so far, but the past several days have left both of my ankles in shambles, and a quick assessment of all my moving parts made it clear that I'd really slow the group down at best, and possibly blow out a weakened ankle at worst on this terrain, so I decided to stay with the boat. It had nothing to do with poison tree or dinner-plate-sized spiders, which I've encountered on this island before. Honest.
The plan was for the group to spread out up and down the slope below the ridge and sweep to the northeast for about a half-hour, then return. That's basically what happened. But no aircraft wreck. We totally understood about the guide's difficulty in remembering the exact location, but he felt badly that he hadn't been able to produce. We cruised some more, with everybody groaning and patching up cuts and scrapes, while the guide tried again to tease the location out of those distant memories. He picked another entry point, and the group went in again, this time with the group sweeping south, and the guide going over the hill to the north by himself, so he could roam around unencumbered by the group. We agreed to pick him up at the original entry point after the rest of the group returned to the boat.
Again, no aircraft. While they were gone, I snorkeled along the edge of the island, up roughly to the original entry point, then back south of the second one. Nothing.
After the group returned, we moved the boat up to the original entry and waited for the guide.
After a considerable time the guide had not returned. We began to cruise up and down, peering up into the dark jungle, trying to see if maybe he had emerged at another point. Joe seemed mildly concerned, but kept insisting that the guide would show up at the agreed place. The thought of trying to find a possibly injured hiker, by himself in this steep, dense jungle, was starting to make us all a little nervous. Joe eventually returned to the agreed place, tied the boat up, and said with conviction that this is where the guide would appear.
He was chagrined not to have found the wreck, despite our assurances that we're acutely aware of how hard it is to recall something significant after 15 years, and how much harder it would be to recall something incidental and irrelevant (as a pile of aluminum would have been to the guide, who at the time was engrossed in hunting). But the guide put forth a tremendous effort, and we appreciated it. He says he may have a chat with his brothers, who still occasionally hunt in this area, and with some luck might be able to locate the site at some point in the future. Whether that happens or not, we extend our heartfelt thanks to our guide for trying so hard to help us!
We finally had a late lunch and headed back to Neco.
After dropping the guide at the dock, we motored around the corner to make a quick dive at the Quintus Nelson Corsair crash site where JPAC did some unsuccessful dredging during last year's recovery mission. This was the first time Mike and Mark (Mark was newly certified yesterday, remember?) had seen the site. The rest of us had seen the site several times before, but this time we had a hard time getting oriented. The visibility wasn't very good in this shallow area of Malakal harbor, and although we found a number of the pieces of aluminum that comprise the debris field, we never did locate the catapult-hook section that had been at the center of JPAC's search area. Commercial diver Dennis Whalen assures us that he replaced it in its exact original location after the dredging, but the area just didn't feel the same this time.
After a short dive, we returned to Neco and called it a day. Even though it comes close to violating a BentProp rule that we try not to look at fish while we're diving, I did manage to take a picture of a nice triggerfish at the Nelson site. Enjoy:
Triggerfish - a denizen of Malakal Harbor. Photo © Reid Joyce 2005