British Empire Article

Courtesy of OSPA

by James L.O. Tedder

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".

Airstrip at Avu Avu
The Weather Coast
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 uncomfortable.

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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Guadalcanal Elevation Map
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 parties.

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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Government Launch
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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Megapodus Freycinet
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.
Airstrip at Avu Avu
Megapode Airways
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 river mouth.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Catholic Mission at Avu Avu
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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Avu Avu Approach
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 Monday.

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 megapode.
Airstrip at Avu Avu
Avu Avu Clearing Trees

Successful Accomplishment

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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
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 trees.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Avu Avu Airstrip
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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
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 weekends.

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?

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Crowds to Avu Avu
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 goodness.

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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
The Completed Airstrip
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 stop".

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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
First Plane to Avu Avu
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 ran:
Airstrip at Avu Avu
The Opening Ceremony

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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
The Opening Ceremony
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 taro.

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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Dominic Alebua at Opening of Airstrip
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.

Airstrip at Avu Avu
Avu Avu Airstrip Today
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 moot point...

Guadalcanal Map
Guadalcanal 1937 Map
Colony Profile
Solomon Islands
Originally Published
OSPA Journal 70: October 1995


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