The tragic flight of Mary Madsen
20 March 2020
MELBOURNE - In the mid-1960s, Mary and her partner, ‘Mads’ Madsen – no-one used his given forename, ran a small trade store at the top end of Angoram’s infamous Tobacco Road, a few metres from the banks of the Sepik River.
Both were in their mid- to late forties, although no-one knew for sure, and kept mostly to themselves in a small house attached to the trade store which they shared, literally, with a collection of possums and cuscuses which, as you’d expect, provided the house with a none-too-pleasant odour.
A well-built man, Mads, as his name suggests, was of Baltic, probably Danish stock, spoke English with a noticeable accent and was generally taciturn by nature. He supplemented their trade store income via a range of trading ventures up and down the river.
Of Scottish stock, Mary was, by contrast, petite and, when the relatively few opportunities arose, was convivial and hospitable.
Compared to Mads, she could be downright talkative.
Both resisted the pressure prevalent on all outstations to engage actively in the expatriate social life of the station which, in Angoram, centred on Saturday night gatherings at the ‘club’.
These were deemed to be compulsory for expatriate government officers and ‘voluntary’ for private enterprise persons like Mary and Mads.
When I met them, Mary had not left Angoram, on leave or for any other reason, for some considerable time – and for a simple reason: she had a pathological fear of flying.
She could have taken a boat to Madang or Wewak and then a ship to Moresby and Australia or wherever. But that would have entailed an unbearable amount of time away from her store and her much-loved animal housemates. So she was quite content to enjoy her quiet life by the river.
Mads, on the other hand, had no fear of flying. Indeed, he could see the value in having a pilot’s licence and the convenience and efficiency it would afford him in his various trading activities.
So he undertook the necessary training and practice and, in early 1966, secured a licence.
That he managed to convince Mary to join him on a flight to Mt Hagen shortly thereafter was a complete shock to the Angoram expatriate community, most of whom, on the appointed day, gathered at the airstrip to bid them farewell.
Those of us who were there will never forget the look of terror on Mary’s face as she boarded the Cessna and how, once aboard, put her head in her hands, unable to acknowledge our waves of farewell and best wishes.
We heard, subsequently, that they landed safely in Hagen and, presumably, enjoyed a few days together in a different clime.
We also heard, in the same missive, that, shortly after take-off on their return flight, the Cessna plunged into the ground, killing both of them instantly.
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