Welcome to Shangri-La!
So here I am in a little town called Wamena which is located at just over 5000ft elevation in what’s known as the Baliem Valley in the central Papuan highlands. It’s also vaguely known as Shangri-La which is what the press dubbed the area after a crash at the end of WWII involving a US C-47 and the ensuing rescue mission for the survivors. If you’ve not read the book Lost in Shangri-La yet, I strongly recommend you do so, as it’s an amazing story of survival and gives a nice history of the area before the outside world had made proper contact with the natives of the Baliem Valley.
But what am I doing here you might ask? Well, it’s with much sadness I have to announce that our Nabire base (my usual home) has been closed due to a lack of flying from there. It’s a little more complex than I can go into on this blog but suffice to say for the foreseeable future, I won’t be flying from Nabire any more. Hopefully that will change but who knows. In the meantime, I’m now set to fly from our most challenging base, Wamena. But not before I’ve had a bit more training to get familiar with the area. Just look at this shot from the Garmin G950 screen of the area to the south west of Wamena:
As you can see there’s quite a few landing sites out here. And it’s the same to the south-east and to the north. Basically, there are a lot of airstrips within a 50nm radius of Wamena and most of them are only accessible with a STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) aircraft such as the Porter. As anyone who knows me will know, I love going to new places so the last week has been some of the best flying I’ve ever done, going to over 20 or so new airstrips with my route check pilot, Brandt Gillard (he wanted me to mention him by the way, so there you go chap you’re on my blog now!).
For anyone who follows me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram (if not why not?), you’ll have already seen some of these photos of the fun looking airstrips I’ve been landing on during my training over the past week. Hopefully I’ll get to take plenty more of these sorts of photos and even get the Garmin VIRB action camera out now that I’ve been released to fly on my own. Sorry about that mum but there’s going to be plenty more photos and videos of scary looking runways – perhaps get dad to vet them before you look…
My training over the last week has mostly been focused on getting familiar with the area. Wamana airport is incredibly busy with flights coming and going every few minutes, so it’s vital to get to grips with the various joining reporting points surrounding the airport to avoid a close call with a another aircraft. And we’re not talking just bush planes either; there’s a number of 737s operating into the 2000m long runway too (imagine that with such a big jet!). You’ve only got to have a look at the accident statistics to see how hazardous Wamena is thanks mostly to the fickle mountain weather (it’s at 5100ft elevation remember).
I’ve really enjoyed flying with Brandt over the last week and it’s been great to get input on my flying from someone more experienced than myself. As someone once said to me, the moment you think you know everything out here in Papua is the moment you kill yourself. So I’m always happy to accept input from anyone with a better idea on how to do something I either thought I knew or was struggling with.
Aside from the flying, Wamena is surrounded by mountains and small Papuan villages, and so there’s lots of walking trails which are perfect for mountain biking and combined with the elevation changes make this a bit of a revelation compared with Timika and Nabire which are relatively flat by comparison. In-fact, after flying I’ve been spending quite a bit of time exploring the surrounding hillsides for fun looking trails. If you’ve on Strava, you can see my explorations here.
As for the future, hopefully I can spend more time up here in Wamana as the flying is incredible and varied but as always in my job, I’m never sure where I’ll be from one week to another. Fingers crossed!