Planning for a Megapode Landing
Guadalcanal is one of those impressive high Pacific islands which boasts a mountain
range higher than any in Australia. It has a southern coast without harbours on to
which the SE trade winds roll large seas six to nine months of the year and dump over
300 inches (7500 mm) of rain which is taken back to the sea by a large number of short
and almost vertical rivers. The local people refer to this coast as the "tasi mauri" (the live
sea) as compared to the comparatively sheltered north coast known as the "tasi mata''
(the dead sea). For anyone wanting to visit the south coast (the weather coast) the
journey was a hazard which even the local inhabitants acknowledged. And of course
when there were serious medical cases which could not be evacuated due to heavy surf
or flooding rivers, it was a concern to the administrator, even if local residents usually
shrugged their shoulders and said well it was bad luck the patient died but it was obviously
"time belong him".
The headmaster of a school had other problems because if a child died then there were
problems with the parents and things could become more difficult than usual. So all in
all there were good reasons to try and improve the communications to this area, but how
was the question.
It took six days to walk from safe anchorages at either end and it took three days to
walk across the island from the administrative headquarters at Honiara. Naturally all this
walking could only be done if the weather was normal. That meant that there were only
five or ten inches of rain that week and the rivers could be forded. If the rivers were
swollen then one was marooned on a short length of the narrow coastal strip until the
worse of the floods receded. Crossing the rivers in normal weather was never very easy
as they were swift and the bottoms were usually round, polished and very slippery boulders.
Even when there were no boulders the fine grit carried by the stream penetrated into
one's boots or sand-shoes and socks and made the walking just that much more
If, as the District Commissioner, one had use of the district ship the difficulties were of
a different nature. Marau Sound on the eastern tip of the island provided a very sheltered
anchorage. A dawn departure through the reefs revealed why the roar of the surf during
the night had sounded so loud. The swell was up and if you were not a good sailor breakfast
soon followed. One depended upon the ship's captain, usually a grey head, and often
from that coast, to judge whether he would be able to land you at the villages you wished
to visit. If not then it was a waste of time and fuel and it was better to cancel and alter
touring plans. Some places did allow a landing if the swell was not too large but these
were few and not usually near the place where you had business to conduct. The coast
was so 'steep to' that the surf on the beach was equally so, dumping heavily onto the
black sand or more frequently, the boulder beach.
The technique to land, was for the ship's boat to approach the beach as close as possible
and wait for a lull in the swell. This lull was seen from different angles by different
The villagers who had assembled on the beach to greet relatives (not necessarily the
District Commissioner) would signal the coxswain that now was the time to row, but the crew on the ship also had their ideas of the lull and they were shouting instructions to the
cox. The passengers in the boat, some of whom were coming home and were well aware
of the perils involved, nervously suggesting to the cox that their judgment was to be
followed. Meanwhile the cox kept his own judgment and, with the boat waiting on the
back of a swell, would give the order to pull hard. Away went the boat on the back of the
breaking wave - not the front - and if all went to plan the boat would be beached on the
steep shore. Then there was organised chaos. Passengers, or the more agile ones grabbed
their valuables and leapt over the side into the withdrawing wave, hitching up their sulu
or dress and making for the dry land. Villagers would grab the boat with the boat's crew
and hold the boat against the out-rushing wave braving the fist-sized boulders being
pulled back by the wave against their ankles. Some would begin unloading the cargo
others would pull the boat further up the beach as the next wave crashed on the beach.
It was always a miracle that so many landings were successful. It was never certain
the signal to pull would be given at the right time. In such a democratic society as the
Solomons nearly everyone on the beach, in the boat and on the ship could voice a different
opinion. If there was a mistake and the boat was swamped it was not a pretty sight. The
boat full of water being pushed up the beach, nervous passengers leaping over board,
sailors' hats afloat, oars washing up the beach, boat's crew up to their chests in water trying
to right the boat. But that is where the villagers excelled. They were into the water in a
flash and often bodily lifted the heavy boat full of water, cargo and a few of the nervous
passengers who hadn't jumped or, like the District Commissioner, tried to maintain their
dignity, up the beach above the waves.
After enduring two years of the perils/thrills of touring this coast I decided there must
be a better way which would benefit the sick and the residents and, incidentally, the visiting
administrative officer. There would certainly be cost savings in terms of ship's fuel and
running costs let alone that of the officers themselves.
There had recently been established an internal airline called Megapode Airways. The
name was considered apt by the owner who named it after that strange bird found from
SE Asia into the Pacific (Megapodus freycinet) which lays its eggs into hot sand, often
but not always volcanic, and then never knowingly sees her offspring which are left to
hatch, dig themselves out of the sand and then fly off into the scrub.
Flying from the day it was born, said Laurie, was the way his airline worked. Some
sceptics, who were not familiar with all the birds habits but only those such as flying
blindly into houses at Honiara in the night, thought the name rather unlucky.
The chief and only pilot was Harry Moss, a veteran, who for years flew in Northern
Territory of Australia delivering mail, groceries and passengers to station properties and
small towns. He said he would be happy to take a plane to the weather coast if we could
build a strip and Laurie, the owner who had another airline in Papua-New Guinea, pointed
out that airstrips were built in worse places than the weather coast in that country and
most were built by hand labour.
The Catholic Mission staff at Avu Avu thought that having an airstrip next door to
their large school would make their job of looking after the children much easier and it
would enable Education staff to visit more regularly.
Eddie Nielsen, who was the officer responsible for civil aviation, calculated the length
of flat land we required and not only showed great interest but said he would willingly
walk the coast with me to look at possible sites.
There seemed on the surface a lot of support for an airstrip but I had been in the
Service long enough not to seek the Secretariat's viewpoint nor, I hasten to add, that of
Public Works at this critical time. It just seemed prudent at the time to play one's cards
close to one's chest. Time enough to involve the more cautious of this world.
Guadalcanal Local Government Council heard me in silence, which was often the
case by midday when the heat and the humidity made it easy to sleep sitting up with eyes
open. But the message had been absorbed and there was some lively discussion about the
'one upmanship' of being the first Council in the Solomons to build an airstrip. The
members from the weather coast were of course the most enthusiastic and were all for
mustering villagers as soon as they returned home. The need for site selection and
approval was mentioned. Matters of land ownership had to be solved and naturally the
matter of finance and cost estimates. However the members near Avu Avu and
Wanderers Bay said they could think of possible sites so I agreed to tour the following
week and inspect these few sites.
And there were only a few sites. In some places there were hills reaching 1500 metres
within 1000 metres of the sea and any flat area seemed to be occupied by a villager or a
During the five day walk I looked at three sites. One was in the south west corner of
the island at Babanikira, where later the Council built a one-way strip. There was a good
site at Marau Sound, where there was a harbour, and here the Government Public Works
built an airstrip later. But the most important site to help the bulk of the weather coast
people was the site just east of the Catholic Mission at Avu Avu. There was a large old
delta of the Tangiata river and if the strip was built on the western side it would have a
NW/SE orientation, ideal for the wind in that part of the world.
Eddie Nielsen always enjoyed a walk and he and I returned a few weeks later and
agreed that the site was good, with approaches possible from both directions.
Unfortunately it hadn't been used for gardens for years and was covered in quite old
growth forest and it also appeared it might be swampy at times, though Headman
Dominic Alebua whose village was on the beach front immediately in front of the site
assured us it really didn't flood and could he organise some labourers to start on
With such enthusiasm it was not possible to slow down the move for an airstrip at
Avu Avu and at the next Council meeting, one thousand dollars were voted.
Attempting to obtain a Colonial Development and Welfare grant was going to take a
little longer. The Secretariat quite naturally had to provide answers as to who was the
engineer, what equipment was to be purchased, what contracts were to be let, who was
preparing the engineering drawings, how was it to be supervised, how were the recurrent
costs to be met, what was the estimate to complete the project.
Being young and enthusiastic and not very skilled in Secretariat methods my glib
answers tended to delay the process but with the steady lobbying of Eddie and the obvious
desires of the Guadalcanal Council a small CDandW grant was eventually received. We
were now ready to start in earnest to provide a landing strip for a different kind of
The planning of an airstrip to be built by the local government
council on the south coast of Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands, had revealed a few
stumbling blocks but the enthusiasm of all involved in the project did not deter an early
start. But the enthusiasm of youth knows no bounds and usually causes some troubles
further down the track.
One of the main problems was that District could not spare anyone to help supervise.
But then it was a Council project and they would be responsible or so went the logic.
However there were a few personal reputations at stake and though there were the usual
audit queries still to be answered I considered it necessary to pay frequent visits to the
site in the name of "maintaining contact" with the residents. Then there was some good
news in the form of a Voluntary Service Overseas lad. He had a wealth of experience
having left school only three months ago but I had great faith in the ability of British
schoolboys to rise to any situation. The Haimarao villagers were delighted to be able to
house a European. It was certainly a mark of the social standing of the village. He in turn
soon settled down in a very equal partnership with the villagers and provided not only
inspiration to the builders of the airstrip but lots of games and fun to the villagers. This
partnership was to continue through two VSOs. In fact the second lad stayed on until the
first plane landed.
Alebua, the Government Headman for that part of the coast, lived in the village.
Alebua was politically astute and he would be able to extend his influence with an airfield
at his back door. The need was to see that such influence did not deteriorate into graft
and corruption, but Alebua was, as far as one could judge, honest and at no times were
there complaints. Nor were there stories that some people couldn't get work on the strip
or that there were problems with wages. Alebua was a lugubrious man which went with
his rather "hang dog" look and his very bloodshot eyes. He had lots of problems the
moment you stepped ashore but after these were sorted out there would be jokes and he
would laugh as much as anyone else.
The Guadalcanal Council had shipped around hand tools in the form of mattocks,
shovels, axes, and soon after the Council Clerk arrived to recruit the first gang of labourers.
It had been decided that women should be engaged as well as men if some offered - and
they did. The first part of the operation suited them very well as it was just a repeat of
their garden work which was clearing up the debris after the men had cut down the larger
The first phase of the operation went without problems as it was just creating a large
garden. Then came the difficult part which was to remove the tree stumps. One of the
tools that the Council had bought was a winch which was anchored to two stumps and a
steel cable attached to a tree. The cable was then wound in on the drum and the theory
was that the tree came down roots and all. Of course the anchor stumps could come out
too but that was a plus with two for the price of one.
But the larger stumps did not respond. Dynamite was a possibility and though I had
used it elsewhere conditions now were more strict and I couldn't find an excuse to spend days away from administrative duties blowing up stumps. But as a boy I remembered
helping to clear bush for farming and, as it was before the use of dozers, farmers had to
devise other tools. One of these tools was the most ancient of all - fire. If you had a large
stump a fire was lit on it and kept burning day and night until it had destroyed the stump
and even burnt down into the roots.
So part of the workforce was detailed off by the foreman to work nights as it was necessary
to keep the fires going as vigorously as possible. The system worked and gradually
the area was cleared of stumps.
Every few weeks the labour force was changed around as people came from the bush
villages or from along the coast to work on the strip. There was no problem about rate
collection that year as the cash began circulating around the community and it also
meant that there was a source of cash on their own island and many could go home at
But on every visit there would be people who wanted to know why the "Govment"
didn't send a bulldozer so the hard work could be done quickly and we don't "have to
sweat with pick and shovel". This was then followed with my rhetorical questions as to
whether they wanted the cash or whether it should go to the workers in the factory in the
USA making the dozers. In any case your Melanesian brothers in New Guinea make
many of their strips by hand so why can't you?
By this time we had obtained a small CDandW grant to purchase a farm tractor and
trailer. It was certainly a stroke of luck when the ship took the tractor around to the south
coast. There was hardly a ripple on the sea as the tractor was lifted off the ship onto a
barge, hastily built of empty fuel drums and bamboo, and floated ashore. There was
more a sigh of relief than a cheer when the tractor was driven off the makeshift raft and
up the beach. But such a machine had its limitations. Several large tree trunks defied the
tractor's attempt to pull them aside so it was back to the fires.
Three very large spreading fig trees were posing a problem. After a number of conferences
I suggested a large and wide trench be dug around the tree, cutting all the roots, and the
tree with its large superstructure intact would topple over. Having explained my theory
carefully to a rather sceptical group of bushmen and a bemused volunteer I rejoined the
ship and carried on to review the recent native court cases in Talise. I was confident that
the experts would be able to do the job. The confidence I had in the skill of the people to
escape from a large hole when the tree was about to fall was not misplaced - thank
As the last of the vegetation debris was consumed by the fires there only remained the
task of filling in the holes and knocking off a few ridges. It was beginning to look like an
airstrip so I went on leave.
It takes all types to run any organisation, and the Colonial Service was no exception.
My relief had quite a different background, different expectations and different priorities.
The new District Commissioner decided to see for himself what the Guadalcanal Council
was doing on the weather coast. And what is more decided to take along an engineer
from the Public Works Department. Need more be said? Various phrases were used in
the reports "disgraceful waste of public funds", "absolute mess", "need for expert
engineering advice"; bulldozers are essential"; and finally the worst of all "work must
Minutes were exchanged, CD & W funds were stopped (not that there were many),
the Council was advised to stop funding. However things move slowly and that applied
to the council staff and so when I returned from leave there was still some work going
on. Eddie, the Superintendent of Civil Aviation briefed me and tactics were discussed.
At Haimarao, villagers were worried and considered that they could finish the strip
themselves. The Council was cautious but declared that they would finish the strip come
what may. Backed by all these fine statements the Superintendent and I tackled the
Secretariat and the Public Works Department to change their minds and regain support
for the airstrip to be constructed by the Council with some help from CD & W funds.
Meanwhile back where the action was, the area had been cleared and most of the holes
had been filled and consolidated. But the area now had to be graded and this is where the
tractor proved its worth, but first a grader was required. So a bush grader was built of
heavy timber faced with angle iron and towed at such an angle behind the tractor that
debris was moved to the side. "Too lighf', said Dick, the VSO. "Put a log on it", said the
DC. But even with extra weight there were areas which wouldn't respond. Then I found
an old single furrow mould board plough. "Yes you may borrow it", said the
Agricultural Officer, "provided we can use the district ship next month to pick up a load
of coconuts from Bellona island." It seemed a lopsided bargain but the plough could now
be used behind the tractor to loosen the soil and then follow with the grader. The only
piece of equipment now lacking was a roller. A 44 gallon fuel drum with a pipe down
the middle to act as an axle and filled with concrete solved that problem.
Howard Dimmock the first VSO had by now returned to Britain and University. Dick
Feachem from Cheshire had been with the project five months and felt that he would
actually see a plane land before he left. At times Dick was a little impatient and perhaps
the forerunner of the "liberated, rebellious" youth of the late 60s. The interruption
caused by the experts had so incensed Dick that he had composed, in the meter of
"Horatius" with acknowledgement to Macaulay, an irreverent set of verses, one of which
they set to work with massive zeal,
the airstrip for to start.
Now Honiara heard of this
and folks were mighty sore
"If planes can go to the weather coast
then we shall have to tour"
And in the Secretariat
was tumult and affright.
Complimentary copies of the eight verses reached the Secretariat and the Public
Works and, though taken in good heart, VSOs were not always the most popular among
some of the more senior Government officers.
It was during the construction of the strip that Avu Avu recorded ten days of rain with
a total of 110 inches. If the Tangiata river decided to change course and remove the strip
or just flood it, this was the time. But it survived, though elsewhere along the coast sixteen
villages were buried in land slides and half the gardens of the population were destroyed.
By now the strip was almost complete, a windsock had been made, markers were
being built, and the prospects of a large feast for the opening ceremony kept the workers
at their keenest. The Guadalcanal Council decided to invite the Financial Secretary, Tom Russell, to open the strip. Eddie Neilsen and myself chartered the twin-engined Piper
Apache to make the first landing. Our pilot was Harry Moss, an old timer, who for many
years flew in the Australian outback. We felt we were in safe hands and of course I had
full confidence in the strip which Eddie had measured and inspected thoroughly. But
there was more than the customary sweat upon my brow and hands as we made our first
run over the strip - basically to frighten off the dogs. Though the Apache was perhaps
not the most suitable plane for these conditions the landing was perfect and Harry
expressed his pleasure with it. A series of undulations made the landing and takeoff feel
to me as though we were landing at sea, but Harry assured us that it was quite acceptable.
The villagers were quite subdued at the first landing, though the workers wore grins
from ear to ear. The villagers had more serious concerns, selecting pigs, deciding on the
dances, digging root crops and drawing up the programme for the official day.
Temporary shelters were being erected for the villagers, as many people from several
days walk away were expected. On the day before the opening hundreds of people begun
arriving leading pigs, carrying their finery, bearing baskets of sweet potatoes, yams and
There were social groups everywhere as stories and the latest gossip were exchanged.
Other groups worked hard to prepare ovens and kill and butcher the pigs. And everywhere
ran the children in their excitement helping and hindering, making footballs from
the bladders of the animals, swimming in the sea, playing with fire, or just minding their
younger brothers and sisters. The older people sat chewing betel nut and discussing current
affairs or the latest scandal.
The opening day was cloudy but no rain. At the appointed time all eyes scanned the
mountains to the north west between which the plane would appear. Stewards were busy
keeping the strip clear of children and dogs. Then the clear eyed children sighted the
plane and the cry went up - "sail ho". A once over-low approach caused gasps and giggles
then silence reigned as the plane made its approach and landed.
Dominic Alebua greeted the Council President, Michael Rapasia, and escorted Tom
Russell, the Financial Secretary, to the forum. Chris Taboua of the Information
Department dashed everywhere taking photographs and Robert McLeish, the broadcasting
officer, set up his equipment.
The formal part of the ceremonies was soon over and the dancing groups from all
over Guadalcanal started their programme. These were very popular and eclipsed the aircraft
in wonder. It was good to see that the people still had the right perspective on life.
One of the hardest workers and the oldest by a long way was Petero Cheni, who had as a
youth stowed away on a recruiting ship for Queensland. He thought the airstrip "would
have a role to play in weather coast life" and yes he was ready to make his first flight.
The Annual Report for the Protectorate 1970 showed that in 1966, the first year, there
were 116 aircraft movements, and in 1970 there were 348 movements. In 1990 there
were three scheduled services a week.
Nowadays tourists take a round trip to experience the thrill of flying up the steep valleys
and between the cloud capped mountains, then having the mountains fall away suddenly
as the south coast is approached with the coastal villages clinging to that narrow strip of
sand with its fringe of breaking sea and the strip of coconut palms dividing the coast
from the mountains.
But the primary users are the villagers themselves taking produce to the Honiara
markets, their schoolchildren returning for holidays, and people visiting sick relatives in
the base hospital. Medical emergencies do occur and people know that in the circumstances
they can be in the Honiara hospital within hours instead of days. I suppose that
Ministers do use the service to visit their electors and at one stage the Prime Minister
certainly did, as he was the son of Alebua. But the majority of passengers are the people,
or the sons and daughters of those, who built the strip. Whether it has helped destroy
village society by offering a quick way to the bright lights, or consolidated such a society
by showing how close their village is to the outside world without leaving it for ever, is a