By Tim Foster.
In the 1976–1977 hot season two cyclones struck the New Hebrides group. One result was that the airstrip at Lamen Bay was damaged and put out of use. Luckily, Geoff Holman, a British engineer working in the PWD design office, was putting together a heavy works team to send north, to Malekula I think, to do some road building. It was decided to offload the team at Lamen Bay, carry out the repairs then reload and continue to the original destination.
The workforce and engineering plant, which included a road grader, a road roller, a front end loader and a Toyota pickup truck were to be transported on the landing barge Veroniqua. I was asked to travel up with the crew to supervise the work and when it was finished, I was to fly back from Valesdir airfield while the crew carried on to Malekula to be joined by Paul Vantier.
I boarded the Veroniqua at about 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon and we set off north. The barge was captained by a Frenchman, whose name to my shame I can’t recall, and the crew were well-muscled, shoeless NH boys who scampered about the vessel hauling this and belaying that with great agility. The sea state was a gentle swell and the weather was dry and sunny. We saw shoals of flying fish skittering alongside – the first time I had seen any – and as darkness fell the barge wake sparkled with bioluminescence.
My wife had provisioned me for my evening meal but at “kakae” time the barge crew invited me to join them (typical NH kindness). Well! You can keep your luxury cruises. Sitting on the deck dining on corned beef hash and rice under a clear starry sky with the Pacific Ocean gurgling past as Veronique chugged steadily northwards, and in good company, takes some beating.
When it was time to turn in, the captain insisted I take his cabin; he would spend the night on the bridge, catnapping occasionally. Around 1.00am I woke up to silence; the engine had stopped and we were drifting gently. The silence was broken by intermittent knockings in the bowels of the barge which the captain told me was the engineer carrying out repairs. After about half an hour the diesel grumbled into life and we were on our way. I slept only fitfully for the rest of the journey.
At 05.30 we arrived in Lamen Bay and shortly afterwards the captain ran us up to the beach near to Epi School and we began to unload. I called on the headmaster, a young Kiwi, as we were to be put up in the dormitories at his school. He treated me to a tea and toast breakfast prepared by his pupils (NH hospitality again).
Accommodation sorted, back at the barge the captain said he was going straight back to Vila to get the engine problems fixed as he didn’t want to risk a breakdown further up the group and he would be back in a day or so.
The work crew drove the various bits of plant along the beach up to the southern end of the air strip where we got our first sight of the damage. It wasn’t as bad as I had expected, the main problem being the dead tree trunks and other wood debris scattered about; the coral base had been disturbed in a few places but would not take much to put right. The pieces of wood had obviously been washed on to the strip from the sea so I guessed that when the bush had originally been stripped it was pushed into the water and the storm had pushed it back.
We had no two-way radio with us so while the crew got on with the clearing I took the pickup truck and set off up the hill to Vaemali clinic where I could take advantage of the radio telephone link there. On the way I picked up a young NH boy limping along with a badly swollen foot. He said he was on his way to the clinic for some “stik meresin”. I had no idea what he meant. A bit further up the track, which was in a very poor state, we caught up with a group of people who turned out to be the boy’s family so I arrived at the clinic with a full load. It was then that I found out from the New Zealand Sister in charge, Patricia Hewitt, what the “stik meresin” was; – an injection. I was mightily impressed with the work Sister Hewitt was doing. There were no other ex-pat staff there so she was assisted by NH nurses.
After several attempts, Sister Hewitt managed to get in touch with PWD Vila and I reported on the state of the airstrip and that we would probably be able to bring it back into use in about one and a half days. The state of the road up to the clinic had been mentioned back in Vila before we set off and requests had been made for it to be improved while the plant and labour were there but it seemed there was no funding for it. But more of this later.
Back at the strip the gang had been getting on really well and when we finished for the day at 3pm (the weather was very hot and they’d been working non-stop) the bulk of the work was done. All we had to do now was “kakae” and sit in the shade whilst I practised my French on Hector Tehihiria, our Tahitian foreman.
Next morning (Friday) we finished off the work and I drove back up to Vaemali to report back to Geoff Holman at Vila who had some unwelcome news, not so much for me but for the gang. The repairs to the Veroniqua were going to take several days so she would not be back to Epi as soon as we expected. I would still be flying back to Vila from Valesdir on Saturday but the boys would be left kicking their heels. Hector was not at all happy and asked to return to Vila too, but he eventually calmed down and agreed to stay.
On Saturday morning Hector drove me down to Valesdir and I caught the flight back to Vila via Tongoa. South of Tongoa the pilot pointed out an active undersea volcano.
Back at Bauerfield there was no transport for me, there were no taxis available and for some unknown reason my wife was unaware of my return so I set off to walk into Vila. NH kindness soon manifested itself in the shape of two young NH men who stopped and offered me a lift in their Toyota.
On Monday morning, Geoff popped into my office and said that a proving flight in an Islander had been arranged by the Chief of Civil Aviation to check out the airstrip and that we were invited along. I supposed the Chief thought that if anything was wrong the people responsible should be part of the disaster; but then again, perhaps it was his way of saying thanks.
The flight went off o.k. apart from the pilot turning back off the runway before we took off from Bauerfield due to a passenger door not closing properly. At Lamen Bay the pilot made one low pass, South to North along the strip, turned back and landed without incident.
Repairs to Veroniqua’s engine took much longer than expected so someone took the sensible decision to use the work crew to repair the road to Vaemali. After all they were costing money just being there doing nothing; the only extra cost was a bit of diesel fuel.
I understand that Veroniqua was eventually scuttled somewhere in Vila Bay to provide a dive site for tourists.
Copyright Tim Foster 2017. All rights reserved.