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The red hole of Ambullua airstrip – a story of self-reliance

Airstrip maintenance, Ambullua, Jimi Valley, circa 1974GARRY ROCHE

AMBULLUA is an isolated mission station in the upper Jimi valley in Jiwaka Province; about five hours walk from Kol, the nearest government station.  

And if you want to walk down to the Wahgi Valley from Ambullua, you should allow yourself two days.

Because of this isolation, the Catholic priest who established the mission at Ambullua, Fr Joe McDermott, built and maintained a bush airstrip.

The approach to the strip was not great, pilots had to manoeuvre their aircraft with skill to touch down safely on the not-too-long and uphill runway where, like many of PNG’s airstrips, they could only land from one direction.

At that time Divine Word Airways owned three Cessna aircraft and they usually flew from Madang to Ambullua and back; usually in the early morning to avoid crosswinds that arose later in the day and made landing even more dangerous.

Enthusiastic workers at AmbulluaThe airstrip was built on a ridge above the mission station. Around 1974 a section of the ridge collapsed leaving a dangerous subsidence near the middle of the strip.

There was a plentiful supply of red earth in the nearby ridge and Fr Joe decided to use this to fill in the hole.

There were of course no bulldozers or heavy equipment in Ambullua. So Fr Joe used manpower and childpower. He didn’t have many wheelbarrows or buckets but, at a trade store in Madang, he spotted a stack of gold-panning dishes going for cheap.

He bought theme and the mission plane flew them into Ambullua.

Since teachers at the Ambullua community school also depended on the airstrip, their students were recruited to help the rest of the community with the maintenance work.

Nowadays this might be considered child labour, but in those times, as in my own youth, helping out with work was considered part of growing up. 

Working on the airstripIn the photo alongside, teacher Cathy Yagump is supervising the students with their dishes full of red soil.  If I remember correctly, Cathy was the daughter of the Mundika Nengamp man Yagump, the same clan as Mundika Nengamp Ogil from Kurek in the Nebyler Valley.

With the help of men with spades, the students filled their dishes with the red earth, lined up and took off at a run to empty the earth into the hole in the airstrip. For them it seemed to be an enjoyable break from the classroom.

Lest anybody think that the students schooling suffered as a result of their participation, it can be recorded that a surprising number of students from Ambullua school went on to do very well and get good jobs.  Perhaps the prominent journalist Frank Senge Kolma was a student there at that time?

Anyway, the maintenance work was successful. The earth was firmly packed into the area where the subsidence had occurred and the airstrip could be used safely.  Visitors once again flew into Ambullua.

Terminal 1, AmbulluaAt Terminal 1, Ambullua, the motorbike transport awaited. It was, if I remember correctly, a New Zealand built frame with a Kawasaki engine. They were called Mountain Goats.

Without glorifying the past, this was a time – around the 1970s - when community endeavor built many roads and airstrips.

While the people received some technical advice and assistance from government and church agencies, there was no great reliance on outside aid.

And there was a great sense of achievement by the community which was benefitting from roads and airstrips they had built themselves.

Photographic note: I took the photographs and the year 1974 is stamped on the back. I do not remember getting reprints so I believe the year is accurate. If any Ambullua people can correct me on the date or on any other information, please do so – GR


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Francis Nguna

Haiyo, it really broke my heart when I read this. I'm the principal landowner of this Ambullua station. A 75% portion of this land belonged to my ancestors while others owned 25%.

This land is now owned by the Catholic mission but anyway I'm very thankful to the hardworking missionaries and my ancestors for developed Ambullua.

Camilla Loveridge  (née Darwin)

Ahh... Ambullua! I remember very fondly being there with Fr Jan and two religious sisters for a couple of months, back in 1986.

Fr Garry was also so very supportive. I remember an eventful flight and landing on the airstrip, and an amazing walk from Ambullua to Kol.

I would love to revisit the mission once again, some time.

Garry Roche

Andrew, you mentioned the years 1978 and 1979. Fr. Joe McDermott would have been gone by then and it may have been a bearded Fr Norman Davitt who was there at that time.

I remember being a passenger in the Cessna 180 many a time, and I remember pilots like Henry Hoff, Ben Seng and Larry Camilleri talking about the different skills needed to land a tail-wheel in comparison to a tricycle carriage like the 206.

The Catholic Church in Hagen or Madang no longer operates aircraft. However one must acknowledge Mission Aviation Fellowship, (MAF) which continues to do a great job in servicing so many remote airstrips throughout PNG.

Andrew Chislett

I worked for Divine Word in Hagen in 1978 and 1979 as a 20 year old. I flew their Cessna 180 DWB and had the terrifying experience of finding Ambullua and landing with no more than a quick chat from Fr Joe. My dim recollection was it was short and really slippery.

This became the norm with the job and I worked my way around the highlands, taking the old taildragger into many marginal and rarely used strips that serviced the mission outstations...what a time.

It is remembered fondly mostly because I survived without serious injury just some dodgy marks in my undies on the odd occasion.

Charlie Ngane Kale

This was very inspiring story to read. I am from Tabibuga, Middle Jimi, and proudly call the Jimi Valley my home.

Although I am partly from Mame, I have just travelled to that part of the world just once (in 1999), and it truly made me cry.

I travelled to Mame from Tabibuga on foot, left Tabi at 5 on a dry Thursday morning and arrived at 1pm at Kol Station, thanks to a Coca Cola pick-up ute which was driven by a Tolai bloke who was visiting his friend who happened to be teaching in Jimi High School back then.

Anyways, we left Kol at 2pm and arrived at Mame by 6pm. Despite the isolation, it was a blessing for me to truly come to accept the freshness touch of this part of the world and truly come to appreciate where my mom came from.

On our return journey, we left Mame at 6 on a Thursday morning, arrived at Kol station around 10am, and went on straight into Tabi at around 5pm again, thanks to a PTB pool car that was dropping off school materials at Jimi High and was returning to Hagen.

So we hopped on it and landed at Karap Junction at 3pm and walked to Tabi.

That is my little story I am sharing after reading your article. Jimi is truly geographically challenging to live in for some, but for me its home.

John Ezekiel

Fr.Garry ,The story was very touching.I can remember you when you first came to lecture us for constitutional studies and said ; can we introduce our selves? I said i am from Upper Jimi Ambullua Parish.After class we spent some minutes and you told me all the story .

And at last you retire and go.....We all will miss you.Thank you all SVD missionaries for developing our remote places and helping us to know God.We will miss you Professor.

Kiap Bomm

Lately I installed two cell phone towers in this part of the area and people have access to communication but still walk the long bush track to Kol and Kerowagi.

Thanks to the pioneers who discovered those people living in solitude. May God bless the heart of these missionaries.

Garry Roche

Jim and Ape, I have very happy memories of the Jimi. I was only based in the Jimi for 12 months, but I had several shorter visits there in later years, the last being around 1990.

My first trip into the Jimi was with Charlie Schaul in 1971, and shortly after that I took over from him at Karap. Charlie returned to Iowa in the USA.

My mission patrolling took me to Tsenga, Maekmul, Magin, Olna, Tabibuga, Kol, Ambullua etc and we even visited the Anglican mission at Koinambi and Togban.

The first time I went to Ambullua there was no road from Karap to Kol, that section took me a full day.

Jim, I do not think I would ever have attempted Tabibuga to Ambullua in one day. I hear that the road from Karap to Kol is no longer in use.

Jim Moore

I fondly remember Joe McDermott, a good man.

Clement Papa commented,

"Garry - it took me 7 hrs to reach Kol from Ambullua. Though I improved as I stayed on. But the walking has always been a huge challenge.."

I remember in my previous life as a kiap in the Jimi (1970) being on patrol at Ambullua, when for some unremembered reason, the need to return urgently to Tabibuga (the Patrol Post) arose.

So I left Ambullua before first light next morning, through Kol, down through Karap (Garry Roche would remember that, Charlie Schaul was priest there at the time) and onto Tabibuga, getting there at 9 o"clock at night. There must have been a moon that night, it would have been crazy to walk in the dark.

"Walk" was a euphemism, there is no flat ground in the Jimi. It's up 2,000 feet, down 3,000, up 3,000, and then repeat the pattern all over.

The Jimi was a special place for me, and for any expat who had the privilege of working there. I briefly went back once in 1998, what an experience it would be to go back again now.

Ape Goi

Garry, nothing has been done to change Ambullua. Most indigenous people are still struggling to survive. They completely cut off from basic government services.

Clement Papa

Thanks Garry. I have good memories of my time living in Ambullua between 2002 & 2003, another 3 months in 2010. The people still recount lots of stories about Fr. Joe McDermott's creative inventions.

I was told that when Fr. Norman Davitt, SVD was parish priest in Ambullua between 1984 & 1988; and (I also saw photos) that he, through the help of the Divine Word Airways helicopters towered an open back suzuki onto Ambullua station. The longest trip this vehicle made was between the airstrip and the school canteen at the foot of the hill.

These are like tumbuna stories. I saw one of the pieces of the metal remains of the vehicle under some bushes at the end of the airstrip.

Garry - it took me 7 hrs to reach Kol from Ambullua. Though I improved as I stayed on. But the walking has always been a huge challenge.

Still no road link to Kol, and the airstrip is the only means of modern transport.But thanks to Digicel. It has dramatically revolutionized the level of communication, and the links to the outside world. I was so amazed coming back in 2010 to see how that development has really changed the lives of the people.

The recent expansion and the modernization of the sub-health center at Ambullua by the Archdiocese of Mount Hagen has also improved the health sector.

In my pastoral visits in 2002-3 I passed through many primary schools across the upper Jimi region. I was told that there were about 7 primary schools in the upper Jimi region. It was so sad. Nearly all of them, the classrooms were like skeletons, no teachers, no students, nothing.

Rarely the Ambullua primary school had full staffing, just the head teacher and only two teachers. When I returned in 2010, there big talks of education reforms in the upper Jimi. But, basically nothing was functioning.

I do not know when will that ever change.

Arthur Williams

Good yarn Garry of life in rural PNG 40 or more years ago.

PNG had some amazing strips some of which were only open to certain companies. Flying one day up near Western-Sepik boundary saw one carved into side of mountain.

Apparently was only open to JAARS who have been in the skies for 60 years. I think they are essential partners with SIL.

Recently their director was happy to report: 'The aviation team in Papua New Guinea recently marked a significant milestone — 10,000 hours of safe, reliable flight in support of Bible translation with the Quest Kodiak. The first Kodiak aircraft arrived for service in 2009. The current fixed-wing fleet consists of four Kodiaks.'

I kept a small supply of fuel for fixed and helicopters when managing Steamships store in Baimuru.

Never forget day one of their pilots landed his chopper in the small open space between the shop and the wharf. Would have made a very hot end of life experience for us if he wasn't so skilled at his profession.

I think it was MAF who made a possibly national if not international record for number of movements in one day from Tari during a road closure period when it was the only lifeline to keep gen sets and vehicles moving in the valley.

My scariest experience of an airstrip would be Oksapmin especially with a new wreck sitting by the side of the runway. Mind my first up the hill landing on Pangoa was a bit hairy too; with the takeoff great fun.

Thanks to all those pilots who made and continue to make PNG's rural communities in touch with the nation beyond the cones.

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