Chapter IV: Over Asia
Chapter IV: Over Asia
About sixty miles south-west of Baghdad I flew over the ancient city of Babylon. As one looks down on the rather pathetic ruins, none of them more than thirty feet in height, it is still possible to visualize from the foundations the immense scale on which the city must have been built. Being interested in archaeology and having read a great deal about these excavations, I longed to land and investigate at close quarters the gates with their beautiful ceramic work and the foundations of the Tower of Babel of Nebuchadnezzar's city. The winds of the desert lay wreaths on the ruins of dead Babylon, and the saying that "there is no dust-cloud in all Iraq but has in it substances that were once combined in the living person of some man or woman" must be true, for this part of the world is supposed to have been the cradle of the human race.
After a hot, dusty flight with more sand-storms I arrived at Basra, and landed at the Royal Air Force aerodrome at Shaibah. Gliding down from the comparatively cool atmosphere to land on the sandy aerodrome was like entering a furnace, the heat was sopage 52intense. Both the personnel of the Royal Air Force and the staff of Imperial Airways were most helpful. I felt content to leave the refuelling and engine schedule to the mechanics, confident that all my directions would be carried out satisfactorily.
Flying on towards Bushire, on the Persian Gulf, next morning, I passed just south of the city of Basra. Before leaving the wide Shatt al Arab river I flew over the huge oil-tanks on Abbadan island. I had read that these great tanks have a cubic capacity of two and a half million gallons, and that the diameter of each is 116 feet. The story of Abbadan is an interesting one. Every day approximately half a million gallons of crude oil are pumped along the pipe-line from Fields, a town about 150 miles away in the Khuzistan hills, where the oil-wells are situated. There is always great activity at the big oil refineries on Abbadan, for they never close, and shifts work day and night.
Landing on the aerodrome at Bushire I had a sample of Persian officialdom. As I wished to arrive at Jask before sunset it was necessary to refuel and fly on again without any undue delay. However, after I had paid the Persian aerodrome officer the ten rials (equivalent to twenty-five shillings) landing fee, produced my bill of health from Basra, my passport and permit to fly over Persia, he declared that I could not leave before the customs officer arrived to stamp my log-book. "Where is the customs officer?" I asked after the aeroplane had been refuelled. "He is in Bushire," the official replied. Taking the thermos flask and a packet of sandwiches from the cockpit I sat down under thepage 53shade of the wing and had my lunch, while waiting patiently as the precious time slipped by. After a rather heated conversation the official, who wore a red fez and a long striped tunic, departed, eventually returning with his friend. The customs officer made no excuse for his late arrival, but stamped my journey logbook, and we all parted good friends.
To regain the time I had lost at Bushire I decided to fly a direct course from Lingeh to Jask, which would take me across the Gulf of Oman and over the northern tip of Oman. The sun beat down relentlessly, and I was glad that I had discarded my heavy flying-suit at Damascus for my white tropical suit. A little shelter was afforded by the cork helmet which had been specially made for me in London so that I could wear it in the open cockpit without fear of its blowing off.
Hours slipped by as I continued my flight along the barren coast of Persia with its peculiar rock formations, and far inland rocky mountains rose to great heights. There was scarcely any vegetation to be seen except for a few date-palms and shrubs at an occasional tiny village tucked away in a valley. Just as the sun set in a red glow Jask came into view, and I landed on the long, narrow promontory where the aerodrome is located. There was a big Fokker aeroplane on the ground, and I learned from the picturesquely clad fuel agent, whose name was Mohammed Ali, that it belonged to the K.L.M. Royal Dutch Air Lines. Years ago the Imperial Airways liners used to call at Jask, and there were then proper facilities, but nowadays they fly along the southern part of the Persian Gulf, and although K.L.M. page 54 and Air France still use this route, they no longer stop overnight at Jask.
Mohammed Ali helped me to refuel and to picket the aeroplane down for the night; then we drove in his ancient car to the rest-house kept by a Dutchman and his wife. All accommodation in the tiny rest-house was taken, but the wife of the proprietor arranged for me to share her room. The Dutch lady was, I thought, very plucky to live in such a hot, lonely place as Jask. She spoke a little English, and I learned that every one in Jask including her husband had been ill with malaria, and that she was the only one who had fortunately escaped.
That evening at dinner I met the two pilots and the passengers of the air liner, who told me that they had heard my aeroplane and wondered who could be arriving at Jask.
I slept so deeply that night that I failed to hear the roar of the Fokker as it took off before dawn bound for Amsterdam. Continuing my flight to Karachi I was again filled with wonder at the amazing rock formations along the coast. Near Gwadar, there is a great mass of rock which because of its resemblance to a cathedral is called the Cathedral Rock. Towering up to an immense height, the huge rock stands like a sentinel. I flew inland a short distance, and on looking down into the centre of a group which formed a circle I saw the most delicately shaped white rocks decorating the inner walls and appearing like exquisite lace in contrast with the sombre grey of the outer walls.
The ordinary fuel system of my Gipsy I engine waspage 55by gravity feed from the main centre-section petrol-tank above my head. As the level in this tank became lower more petrol had to be pumped up from the auxiliary tanks situated in the front cockpit and the rear luggage locker. All the pumping had to be done by means of a lever-type hand-pump on the right side of my cockpit. The engine used five gallons of petrol per hour, so I had to work very hard pumping the petrol through at intervals. My time was fully occupied steering a compass course, checking my position on the map, making up the log, pumping the petrol, and endeavouring to have an occasional sandwich or cup of coffee.
Karachi was a welcome sight after the monotony of flying hour after hour along the barren Persian coast, and I landed there to stay the night.
At sunrise next morning I was on my way again, crossing the Sind Desert to Jodhpur. It was beautifully cool flying in the early morning, but as the sun rose higher and shone down with increasing fierceness the heat became almost unbearable. I crossed the big river Indus shortly after leaving Karachi, and until I neared Jodhpur there was nothing to relieve the parched and barren-looking Sind Desert except an occasional Indian village.
Flying over Jodhpur, reputed to be the home of polo, I soon located the large aerodrome near the beautiful palace of the Maharaja, who is a keen airman. The aerodrome, circular in shape, had a good surface and a runway of approximately a thousand yards. The instructor of the local flying club met me when I taxied up to the tarmac, and after a refreshing iced drink inpage 56the cool club-house I felt inclined to stay awhile in this interesting town instead of flying on to Allahabad in the midday heat. I was scheduled to arrive at Allahabad, 932 miles from Karachi, that evening, however, so I did not delay.
The sun burned fiercely from a cloudless sky as I flew on across Rajputana that afternoon. Altering course at Jhansi, with its British fort standing high up on the isolated rocky crag, I flew on over India. The country took on a greener look as I neared Allahabad, where the river Jumna joins the mighty Ganges. There was a thick dust-haze in the air, and the banks of the Ganges were only just visible when I flew low towards the aerodrome of Bamraoli at Allahabad.
There was the usual procedure after landing, and once again the Moth was pegged down in the open, for at that time the aerodrome boasted no hangar. I drove into Allahabad with the fuel agent, who told me that the country was badly in need of rain and every one would be thankful when the monsoon broke. "I only hope it doesn't commence before I cross India," I replied, blissfully unaware of the terrible weather I was later to encounter along the lonely Burmese coast.
On our drive to the aerodrome at dawn next morning I saw many natives padding along the road to the market. Some carried unbelievably heavy loads on their backs, and others were driving small carts filled with produce. We passed a cart heavily laden with bricks which a wretched water-bullock was striving to pull, and farther on a few blind and maimed mendicants crying for alms. I saw a sacred cow wanderingpage 57unmolested along the roadway by itself. It was very hot and dusty even at such an early hour, and I was glad when I took off to feel the crisp fresh air from the slipstream against my face.
Passing over the sacred city of Benares with its burning ghats I could see hundreds of pilgrims bathing in the holy water of the Ganges. Altering course at Buddh Gaya with its beautiful Indian temples I flew on towards Calcutta. The country became noticeably greener and more densely covered with vegetation the farther I flew eastward. It was when passing over hilly country thickly covered with timber, where a forced landing would have been almost impossible, that I discovered an oil leak. Watching the gauge for the inevitable drop in pressure, for I had no idea how much oil had leaked away, I flew on, hoping that the engine would not fail me before I reached the aerodrome. At last I sighted the wide Hooghly river, and six hours out from Allahabad landed at Calcutta. On climbing from the cockpit I discovered the side of the Moth covered with oil and less than two pints left in the engine sump.
The people at Calcutta were most hospitable, and I stayed overnight at the beautiful home of Mr Matthew, superintendent of the munitions factory and an enthusiastic member of the Bengal Flying Club.
By the time the oil leak had been rectified and the engine schedule and refuelling completed and arrangements made for a dawn take-off there was no time left for sightseeing. It was most refreshing, however, after a shower to change my flying-suit for a white silkpage 58frock. Tea was served by a silent-footed Indian servant on the cool veranda of my host's home overlooking the busy Hooghly. Although I enjoyed a long sleep, that night seemed to pass in a flash. It seemed only a few minutes after I had retired that the be-turbaned Indian servant brought my breakfast, murmuring that it was time for Mem-sahib to get up. I groped through the mosquito netting for my faithful alarum-clock and reluctantly donned my flying-suit.
My host was a private owner, and he flew his own machine, accompanied by two Moths flown by other members of the Bengal Flying Club, to escort me for a few miles on my way to Akyab. I felt decidedly lonely when the pilots waved good-bye and the three machines flashed back to Calcutta. My route lay over the Sundar-bans, a great stretch of innumerable islands formed by the Ganges and the Brahmaputra as they break up and flow in hundreds of tributaries into the Bay of Bengal. Crossing the Bay I altered course at Chittagong, and flew along the Burmese coastline to Akyab, where I landed for petrol. I was obliged to land cross-wind on the L-shaped aerodrome.
While I was directing refuelling operations some white residents drove up and greeted me. Among them were Mr Price and his daughter, who told me they were from my country, and laughed at my surprise, for I had not expected to meet New Zealanders in such an isolated place. They had brought some lunch for me, and as there were no buildings on the aerodrome at that time I sat under the shade of the trees with my newfound friends and enjoyed a hasty lunch.page break page break page 59
Continuing my flight southward that afternoon, I noticed high cumulus clouds banking up inland, although out to sea the sky was fairly clear. When I arrived at the point where I had planned to cross the lofty Arakan Yoma Mountains for Rangoon it was to find them completely obscured by great banks of cloud. I climbed up to 8000 feet before attempting to cross the range, and at that height I flew high above the clouds. When I had allowed sufficient time for the Moth to cross I experienced the awful sensation of gliding down through the cloud layers to 500 feet. At this low altitude I suddenly emerged from the hot, damp cloud to see the blurred outline of the town of Bassein.
The country over which I was flying was broken by the hundreds of tributaries which form the mouths of the Irrawaddy river. In the distance I could see the golden Shwe Dagon Pagoda, and arriving over Rangoon was able to appreciate the rare beauty of the lovely temple, which, standing on a prominence, is completely covered with gold-leaf and crowned with precious jewels.
On landing I heard the disconcerting news that the monsoon was expected to break sooner than usual. That evening I spent a delightful hour at the British Club sitting on the cool terrace sipping an iced drink and listening to the military orchestra playing on the wide lawn. Later I drove round Rangoon to see the magic beauty of the golden Shwe Dagon Pagoda floodlit, and looking at the clear, starlit sky it was difficult to believe there was bad weather ahead.
The sky was overcast when I took off from Rangoon,page 60and crossing the Gulf of Martaban to Moulmein flew very low to avoid the dull, leaden-looking nimbus clouds which gave the sky an ominous appearance. Instead of crossing the mountains to Bangkok I intended to fly down the western side of the peninsula and refuel at Victoria Point, a British outpost and the most southerly point of Burma. Rain commenced to fall steadily as I flew over the township of Ye, the terminus of the light railway from Moulmein. Flying through several severe squalls I continued southward over the thousands of tiny islands of the Mergui Archipelago. This line extends for hundreds of miles down the coast of Burma and Lower Siam. The islands are mostly sugar-loaf in shape and covered with dark green jungle which grows right down to the water's edge. The effect is amazing, and quite unlike anything I had previously seen. It was not until I flew back from Australia to England and had reasonably good weather on this section that I appreciated the full beauty and glorious colour of this panorama. The peaks of most of the large islands were shrouded in wispy nimbus cloud, and the high mountain ranges inland were completely covered.
Hoping that the weather conditions might improve I flew on, but the weather became steadily worse. Ahead of me, and completely blotting out the horizon, was a great bank of dark cloud, stretching like a wall far out to sea and blending with the big banks of treacherous-looking cloud covering the mountains inland. The air became rough and turbulent. I knew I was entering an intensely bad storm area. "Should I go back to Rangoon?" I thought, quickly checking uppage 61on the remaining petrol. I was five hours out from Rangoon, and there was not sufficient petrol left to return even to Moulmein. Vainly I flew on, searching for a break inland or out to sea so that I might fly round the storm, but the rain-clouds ahead were like great dark curtains screening all from view. Victoria Point was another two hundred miles farther on, and there was no alternative but to fly through the storm, hoping that it would not extend over a very wide area.
The rain thundered down on to the wings of my aeroplane like millions of tiny pellets, and visibility was so bad that the wing-tips were not visible and the coastline was completely blotted out. It was like flying from day into night, and in the semi-darkness the luminous instruments glowed an eerie green from the dashboard. Very soon the open cockpit was almost flooded, and my tropical flying-suit wet through. The rain was blinding, and it was distinctly unpleasant flying blind at such a low altitude. The engine gave an occasional splutter, then regained its steady roar, and I marvelled how it kept going in the deluge. Through a break I suddenly saw the dark blur of the jungle beneath me, and flying lower picked up the coastline.
It was good to see something after the strain of blind flying, but I wondered if I had overshot Victoria Point in the rain. According to my watch I should be over Victoria Point in five minutes if the wind had not altered since I had last checked my position. Only the dark, blurred line of the jungle and the giant white rollers breaking on the shore were visible immediately beneath the aeroplane, and it was impossible to flypage 62inland. Nine hours had passed since I had left Rangoon, so I decided to fly up and down that section of the coast in the hope that the rain would clear sufficiently for me to see inland. Five minutes up and five back: there was sufficient petrol left for one and a half hours' flying.
After thirty-five minutes of anxious cruising the curtain of rain lifted temporarily, disclosing the bases of the mountains. I located a clearing in the jungle which was the aerodrome, although it resembled a lake, and landed just as the rain closed in again. Great sprays of water rose on each side of the machine as it taxied to where a group of natives were sheltering under umbrellas and grass mats. A white-clad figure waded out to meet me, and I stopped the 'plane as he neared the cockpit. A big smile and two honest blue eyes looked out at me from beneath a white topee, and a big hand grasped mine in a welcome handshake. "Better take the machine over to the dry patch," he said, pointing to where the natives were huddled together. "The dry patch" was only a mere few inches deep, and I stepped out of the cockpit up to my ankles in water. Although the rain continued to teem down, we managed to picket the aeroplane and tie the canvas cover over engine and cockpit.
I learned that my new-found friend's name was Russell, and that he was in charge of a rubber plantation and was the only white man in Victoria Point. Although it was still raining it was extremely hot, and my friend removed his topee, down the brim of which the rain streamed like a veil, and mopped his browpage 63every few minutes. I donned my raincoat, although it was not of much use, as I had been wet through for hours. Refuelling was not possible, so we drove to Mr Russell's home near the aerodrome. It seemed to be the only house there, and was built high up off the ground on supports, as is the custom in the East. After changing into dry clothes I felt decidedly happier, and gave my wet flying-suit to the native servant to dry, as anything damp becomes covered with mildew in a short time in that climate. The big living-room was most comfortable, and I enjoyed a welcome cup of tea and the most delicious egg sandwiches I had ever tasted. There was a wireless station some miles away, and I learned that Mr Russell had gone to fetch the wife of the wireless operator to keep me company.
While waiting for my host to return I looked over the great pile of English magazines that I concluded he had reserved to pass away the time during the incessant rains of the monsoon season. I walked out on to the veranda and surveyed the scene. The rain had lifted, to reveal the panorama of the thick tropical foliage. Near the house great drops of water slid down from the glistening leaves of the tall palm-trees and flopped to the wet earth beneath with thudding precision. Wispy grey cloud still hid the tops of the mountains from view, and thin columns of steam rose here and there from the thick jungle.
Mr Russell returned with the shy little dark-eyed wife of the wireless operator, and as the rain had stopped we went on to the aerodrome. Refuelling was a lengthy procedure from two-gallon tins of petrol, and owing topage 64the state of the ground I decided to take a very light load—just sufficient with a slight margin to enable me to fly to Alor Star, where I could refuel and proceed to Singapore.
During the night I awoke to hear the rain thundering down on to the roof, and despaired of ever being able to take off from Victoria Point. Next morning, however, the rain stopped, and although the aeroplane had been out in the open and exposed to the full force of the deluge, we were able to coax the engine to life. The cockpit was flooded, but at least the upholstery was dry, as I had taken the cushions to Mr Russell's house the previous evening.
The take-off was a most anxious one for me: the small aerodrome was fringed with trees, and a mountain overhung one end. The ground was very wet, and I was extremely doubtful if the aeroplane would lift in time to clear the high palm-trees. Two sprays of water rose on each side of the machine as I gave the engine full throttle, and the aeroplane lifted just in time to clear the trees. Circling the aerodrome to gain height I saw the white-clad figure of Mr Russell waving, and felt a tremendous admiration for him. I felt the same about all the white people I met at these outposts—shut off from the world yet going on with their jobs, and incidentally keeping the flag flying. Mr Russell would probably be cut off from the rest of the world until the rains ceased several months later. With the exception of the wireless operator and his wife and an occasional visitor to Victoria Point from the tin-mines on the islands farther up the coast, he would have no com-page 65pany save the natives. In addition to supervising the rubber plantation he was in charge of the aerodrome in a purely honorary capacity, and took it upon his good-natured self to attend to the needs of any aviators who landed there.
Hundreds of miles of jungle stretched ahead, and there was no sign of civilization to be seen except a stray native village. Over Lower Siam I met several severe squalls, but as I neared Malaya the weather improved. At Alor Star I refuelled, and when taxying out to take off the aeroplane became bogged in the wet ground. Stepping out of the cockpit I waded round to the front of the machine, and saw that,only the tops of the wheels were visible above the mud. Every one was most helpful, and the superintendent requisitioned a number of natives to pull the aeroplane out of the mud. The machine was eventually lifted on to a dry patch, and I took off for Singapore. Isolated storms loomed ahead, looking like giant mushrooms, but I was able to fly round them. Despite the fact that my shoes were covered with mud and my feet wet through, I felt very happy as I speeded towards Singapore. On this section I passed over great rubber plantations and saw many homesteads and small towns. Roads were a welcome sight too, and Malaya seemed to have many good highways. Just as I crossed the railway bridge which connects Singapore island with the mainland the sun sank in a golden glow, and a few minutes later I landed on the beautiful R.A.F. aerodrome at Seletar.
There were a large number of R.A.F. men in spotless white tropical suits waiting on the tarmac with cameraspage 66
as I taxied up to the hangars. I sat smiling from the cockpit until I hoped they had exhausted all their films, then climbed out to display my once white suit and shoes caked with Alor Star mud. Group Captain Sidney Smith, whom I had met in England, was in charge of the base, and I received a cordial invitation from him and Mrs Smith to stay at their bungalow. Very soon I was enjoying the luxury of a bath. I greatly appreciated the hospitality of my charming hosts, and felt thoroughly rested and refreshed next morning. The Air Force mechanics had carried out the engine schedule, and I felt grateful when I climbed into the cockpit and tested the engine, which also seemed to have gained vigour during our short stay. The aerodrome was circular in shape with a diameter of a thousand yards, so it was a pleasure to take off from its smooth surface.
Leaving the island of Singapore I flew over myriads of little islands forming the Rhio Archipelago on a course for Batavia. About sixty miles south-west of Singapore I crossed the equator and flew along the coast of Sumatra. The jungle looked particularly thick, and the trees so close together that I doubt if sunlight ever penetrated to the earth beneath. As I flew low over the jungle, occasionally great flocks of brightly coloured parakeets would rise up from the trees, evidently startled by the roar of my engine. On the muddy banks of the great rivers I saw many crocodiles sunning themselves. Upon the aeroplane's approach they would invariably slither off the bank into the river, down which floated debris of every description. The high moun-page 67tains of Java were visible some distance away, and as I crossed the strait from Sumatra to Java I thought how strange it was that of these two islands, so close together and both belonging to Holland, one should be almost completely claimed by the jungle and the other so intensely cultivated. Java has a population of 40,000,000 people, hundreds of miles of beautiful roads, large cities, and a general air of prosperity. Approaching Batavia I flew over miles of cultivated fields with elaborate irrigation canals, and when the capital itself came into view was surprised at its size. The aerodrome was very large, with modern-looking administrative buildings, and I found Mr Smet, the fuel agent, there to welcome me.
I stayed for the night at the home of Mr and Mrs Smet. These most hospitable Dutch people soon made me feel at home. The flight from Singapore had been very hot, and I welcomed the thought of a refreshing bath. Mrs Smet laughed at my surprise on seeing the bathroom, which I found later was typical of the Dutch East Indies. The floor was tiled, and along one side of the wall extended a deep stone container, filled with cold water. Alongside were two pitchers. The procedure was to stand beside the stone container and tip water on oneself with the pitchers. Although this required a certain amount of dexterity, nevertheless it was the next best thing to a shower and most refreshing.
Mr Smet proved himself a good friend by returning to the aerodrome that night to repair the cracked air-intake pipe on my engine.page 68