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My Life

Chapter V: Arrival in Sydney

Chapter V: Arrival in Sydney

When we arrived at the aero-drome next morning it was to find a thick layer of fog covering the ground. I despaired of being able to take off until the sun had dispersed the fog later in the morning. Mr Smet, however, declared that although it was so dense the fog was not very thick through. "I shall drive my car at full speed up and down a section several times and clear a pathway through the fog," he said. "Then if you are quick you can take off down the path before the sides close together."

The scene assumed an air of unreality. There we were standing beside the aeroplane, which looked ghostly in the poor light, and hardly able to see each other when wisps of fog drifted across the vision like smoke—there we were, talking about clearing a pathway through the fog. Alice in Wonderland would not have been more surprised at the idea than I. Mr Smet, who was most enthusiastic, however, and eager to try his scheme, drove the car alongside my aeroplane. I shook hands with him, and climbing into the cockpit ran the engine up.

Arranging everything for the take-off and strappage 69ping myself in securely I called to him that all was ready. The fog was so thick that I could only just distinguish the dark blur of Mr Smet's car as it raced forward and disappeared into the fog. I had visions of Mr Smet driving blindly along at full speed, becoming lost somewhere in the middle of the aerodrome, but suddenly the car reappeared, turned, and raced back again. It seemed hopeless, and yet after many similar dashes the fog thinned out in the path of the car, and gradually began to look as if some one had sliced it with a knife. The effect was really extraordinary, with the high walls of fog on each side, and reminded me of a Biblical picture I had seen as a child depicting the crossing of the Red Sea. Mr Smet shouted to me to get ready as he made a final dash down the rift he had cleared. Although he had insisted that the fog did not extend up to any appreciable height, it was with a certain amount of misgiving that I pushed the throttle lever forward and guided the aeroplane through the rift. Just as I neared the end of the pathway the machine left the ground and the walls closed together. The fog enveloped everything in a dense whiteness.

Climbing the machine gently, for there was a heavy load of petrol aboard, I wished desperately that I had not attempted to take off. Suddenly I was almost blinded by a strong glare as the machine penetrated the fog layers and emerged into the brilliant sunlight and a blue sky. Beneath me stretched the white carpet of fog, completely covering the ground, and, knowing that Mr Smet would hear the roar of my engine and realize all was well, I set a course for Soerabaya. Inland greatpage 70volcanic peaks towered to unbelievable heights, and the mist cleared to reveal miles of green fields intensely cultivated. Aerodromes were numerous, and every town of any size seemed to possess one. All the landing-grounds were marked with a white cross, and the majority were the shape of a Maltese cross with wide runways. I frequently flew over emergency landing-grounds, consisting of two-way strips marked with the inevitable white cross. Quaint Javanese villages and prosperous towns passed beneath my wings, until, eight hours out from Batavia, I landed at Soerabaya.

While we were refuelling the aeroplane two Englishmen arrived. One of them explained to me that they were playing golf and had seen my aeroplane land. Leaving their game unfinished they had driven over to ask if I needed any help. They were both very hospitable, and insisted on taking me to Soerabaya to lunch at their very beautiful home. Much as I should have liked to stay in Soerabaya I decided to keep to my schedule, and an hour later took off for Rambang. Flying on towards the eastern end of Java I passed Mount Merapi, over 8000 feet high and the most easterly of the great chain of volcanic mountains which extends from one end of the island to the other. A strong southeasterly wind was blowing, and as I left Java and crossed the open sea to the island of Bali I experienced some terrific bumps. In a down-draught from a mountain towering over 9000 feet high on that island the aeroplane dropped 1000 feet within a few seconds.

A chain of smaller islands extends from Java topage 71Timor, and on some of them volcanic peaks rise to a height of over 9000 feet. Flying from one to the other I was exposed to the full force of the boisterous wind, which tossed the aeroplane about as if it were a cork in a rough sea. Three hours after leaving Soerabaya I flew over the island of Lombok. On the north-east side of the island a great mountain reared itself to a height of nearly 10,000 feet and hid its peak in the clouds. The southern part of the island, however, was flat and intensively cultivated. I flew over miles of neat little rice-fields and quaint native villages.

The wind was blowing fairly strongly when I arrived at Rambang, and I felt hot and tired after the rough trip from Soerabaya and in no mood for a cross-wind landing on a strange aerodrome. There was no alternative, however, and after circling a few times I gently slipped the machine over the palm-trees and landed.

There was a small grass hut in the corner of the aerodrome, and a native surrounded by a number of small children stood in the doorway. Taxying the aeroplane over, I turned it into the wind and switched off the engine. The native regarded me with faint surprise, but could not speak English, so all my questions fell on deaf ears. I felt like a person from another world; in fact, I might have landed from Mars, for none of the small crowds of natives who were gathering understood a word I spoke. The only thing to do was to sit down and wait for some one to arrive, for I had flown over the village, and the fuel agent must have heard the aeroplane. Eventually a truck loaded with four-gallon drums of petrol and crowded with nativespage 72drove up. One of the natives greeted me and proudly pointed to a red gilt badge on his breast and bearing the name of the Shell company, which he represented. The language problem seemed an insurmountable obstacle until the agent produced an effective solution. He walked over to the truck, and returned with a notebook in which a number of questions and answers were written in Javanese with English translations. Very soon we were carrying on a silent conversation. I would point to a question written in English and the agent would read the Javanese translation, then delightedly point to the answer. Unfortunately, however, the list was all too short and soon exhausted.

Refuelling was soon being carried out by the natives, while I perched on top of the engine adjusting the tappets, magneto points, and attending to the numerous other items of the schedule. The sun slipped down, leaving us to complete the task of pegging the machine down in the darkness. As the only means of communication seemed to be the list of questions and answers I took charge of the precious book. Scanning the list by torchlight I pointed to a line reading, "I want a watchman to guard my aeroplane for the night." The agent read the question and entered the grass hut in the corner of the aerodrome, emerging almost immediately accompanied by a native, whom he sat down beside the aeroplane. I explained to the watchman by sign language what would happen if he whiled away the hours by smoking, and stressed the importance of my instructions by using phrases which were not in the agent's book, but which nevertheless seemed to be perfectlypage 73understood by all present. Taking my bag from the aeroplane, and also the upholstery and movable equipment from the cockpit, I boarded the truck, and we set off for the village of Selong, seven miles distant.

There was a pasangrahan, or rest-house, in the village, and I was impressed by the cleanliness of the room to which I was shown. The floor was bare, and there was little furniture. An oil-lamp on the wall provided the only light. In the centre of the room stood a large bed draped with a mosquito net. The bathroom was similar to the one in Mr Smet's house, and after I had bathed and changed into my white silk frock I felt decidedly refreshed. The faithful agent was waiting on the veranda to receive final instructions for the morning. He seemed mildly surprised when I managed to make him understand that I was hungry and wanted my dinner. Calling the natives in charge, he was soon in deep conversation with them. It was quickly apparent, and the proprietor made it quite clear, that there was no food to be had in the pasangrahan. My spirits sank as I thought of the few dried-up sandwiches I had brought with me from Batavia, and the thermos flask, half full of cold black coffee. The milk tablets, raisins, barley sugar, concentrated meat tablets, and the rest of my rations had been left in the aeroplane. Not that I regretted the fact particularly. During the flight when breakfast or lunch-time came round I would place a meat tablet in my mouth and try hard not to think of roast chicken or a porterhouse steak, and attempt to console myself with the thought that each tablet contained the equivalent nourishment.

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I was never quite able to convince myself that the milk tablets with which I rounded off the meal were really the equivalent of the large glass of iced milk I visioned as I sucked the tablets. That was all very well in the air, but I had no intention of dining off tablets when on the ground.

"Are you sure there isn't any food at all?" I asked the dusky Mother Hubbard. Before he had time to reply we heard steps on the path and voices. Two white-clad figures approached, and as they stepped on to the veranda the lamplight caught the gold buttons and epaulettes on their uniforms. "I am so sorry that we were not at the aerodrome to meet you, but we did not know you had arrived," said one of the visitors, who proved to be the Dutch Superintendent of the island, as he shook my hand and introduced his companion. Their blue eyes twinkled as I told my woeful tale of the total lack of food in the pasangrahan. The Superintendent was not at all surprised, and explained that it was the custom for travellers to bring provisions with them or send the proprietor of the pasangrahan to the market to purchase food. "We have brought some ' flesh and fowel' for you," he said.

In answer to a command from my Dutch friend, and almost as if by magic, a native servant appeared with a hamper, which when opened disclosed all manner of good things. The table was set, and I was soon enjoying what the Superintendent had called "flesh and fowel" and the delicious fruits which, I learned, grew in abundance on the island. After giving the proprietor orders for my breakfast and arranging to drive me topage 75the aerodrome the tall, fair Superintendent and his friend departed.

My Dutch friends arrived punctually next morning, and we drove to the aerodrome, to find that the fuel agent had already removed the screw pickets. A little crowd of admiring natives watched me turn the propeller over, and fortunately the engine fired the first time I swung it on contact. While the engine was warming up I bade farewell to the faithful fuel agent, paid the native watchman, and thanked my Dutch friend for his hospitality. The two beautiful little coloured native baskets containing sandwiches and some mandarins which the Superintendent had, given me were packed in the cockpit, together with the flask of coffee and maps for the day's flight. Climbing into the machine, I tested the engine, and waving a farewell to the little group took off for Timor island.

Crossing the Alas Strait I flew along the southern coast of Soembawa island, meeting occasional rain-squalls of varying intensity. The weather cleared as I passed over the little island of Komodo, where huge lizards resembling dragons are reputed to live. Mr Smet had told me of one captured for the Batavia Zoo, and a photo of it showed its remarkable resemblance to a prehistoric animal. A low flight over the island, however, failed to reveal any trace of the Komodo dragons, so I continued my flight over Flores island.

At Ende the magnificent spectacle of a volcano in eruption met my eyes. The sea reflected the crimson glow which tinted the sky, and great clouds of smoke rose from the crater. I flew near the mountain to getpage 76a better view of this awe-inspiring sight, but when a cloud of smoke and fine ash temporarily obscured my view I decided I had seen enough and headed out to sea on a direct course for Kupang. There was a fresh south-east wind blowing, and the sea crossing from Flores to Kupang took a little over two hours. Visibility was good, and some distance away I sighted the mountainous island of Timor. As I drew near I saw an occasional native fishing-boat. I was soon flying over tiny Semaoe island, just off Kupang. The smooth water of Kupang Harbour was an indescribable shade of green and wonderfully transparent. As I looked down, admiring the beauty of the scene, I saw a black dorsal fin cleave the water, and near the shore shadowy forms of several sharks moving slowly beneath the surface. The charming Dutchman who met me at the aerodrome when I landed seemed mildly surprised that I should mention the sharks in Kupang Harbour. This surprise was not to be wondered at really, for there was nothing particularly remarkable about sharks in tropical waters. Moreover, some of the largest sharks ever captured, and weighing over 800 lbs., have been caught off the coast of my own country, New Zealand. The coast of Australia, as I later saw for myself, is infested with these loathsome monsters, and in Sydney an efficient aerial shark patrol of the beaches is maintained every week-end during the summer.

We refuelled the aeroplane, and I worked until sundown carrying out the engine schedule and a detailed inspection. When the aeroplane was securely picketed down and a native appointed to guard it I drove to thepage 77rest-house at Kupang. The pasangrahan was most comfortable, and every one very hospitable. When I entered up my log-book that night I found it difficult to contain my joy at the knowledge that Australia was now only 530 miles away and a record almost achieved.

Dawn next morning found me at the aerodrome making final preparations for the flight to Darwin. The weather report was handed to me, and I saw that apart from head winds the weather would be mainly fair, with dust-haze near the coast of Australia. Drafting out a telegram stating my estimated time of arrival and the course I intended steering, I handed it to the agent to send to the authorities at Darwin. The aerodrome was L-shaped, and the rough surface covered with fairly high grass. Nevertheless the aeroplane rose easily despite the heavy load of petrol. Circling to gain height before crossing the mountains, I looked down and saw the little group of people waving farewell. I did not know then the utter loneliness I was to endure for almost eight hours steering my frail low-powered aircraft into the teeth of a strong southeasterly wind over the Timor Sea.

As I left the coast and headed out over the open sea I looked back and tried to check the drift of the fast-receding land. The magnetic course was 104º, and I flew very low so that I could gauge the direction and strength of the surface wind, and make adjustments to the compass course to compensate for drift. Hour after hour slipped by, and I began to long for the sight of land. I seemed to be in a world of my own. As far as my eye could see there stretched the blue expanse ofpage 78the Timor Sea, and overhead the sun burned fiercely down from a clear sky. Six hours passed, and I broke the monotony by having lunch. I took as long as possible over the meal, and finished with a cup of coffee and an orange. I had been so occupied trying to peel the orange that I had not noticed the sky become overcast and a dust-haze gradually obscure the horizon. Seven hours out from Kupang I pumped the remaining petrol into the main tank and strained my eyes ahead for some sight of land. Time dragged on, and every minute now seemed more like an hour. The haze lifted slightly, and a dark smudge on the horizon seemed to become more definite as I flew on. Land! It was really land ahead this time, I assured myself, not just another misleading cloud-bank.

Some seconds elapsed before I grasped the fact that my eyes were not deceiving me. My feelings were indescribable as I sat watching the Australian coastline become more definite, until I could discern the actual contours and then the dark green of the bush. Very soon I was looking down on Darwin Harbour, and the little pearling luggers looked like toys on the calm, azure waters fringed with thick green tropical foliage that spread over the country like a great carpet and seemed to stretch into infinity. Circling the township I located the aerodrome, and when I shut off the engine to glide down to a landing I could still hear its full-throated roar, so accustomed had my ears become to its steady note.

I received a warm welcome from the Darwin residents who had assembled at the 'drome to see me landpage 79on that memorable day of May 23, 1934. I was deeply conscious of the joy of achievement when I realized that my time of 14 days 22 hours 30 minutes lowered by over four days the time established by Miss Amy Johnson. Although I always thought of Darwin as my goal, nevertheless it was by no means the end of my flight. The long journey of 2200 miles across the continent of Australia to Sydney lay ahead. Before leaving England I had realized that the final stage would be one of the most difficult, owing to the almost complete absence of landmarks. Great was my joy when I learned that Lord Wakefield had arranged for an escorting aeroplane to accompany me on the flight to Sydney. My machine was refuelled and pegged down, for at that time Darwin Aerodrome did not boast a hangar.

I sank into the comfortable seat of the car on the drive into Darwin, and experienced a feeling of deep contentment as I closed my tired eyes and felt the cool breeze against my face. On arrival at the hotel I was delighted to find a great sheaf of telegrams and cables of congratulation awaiting me.

At sunrise next morning I took off from Darwin followed by the escort machine. After the ten thousand lonely miles of my flight from England I greatly appreciated the company of the other aeroplane. Leaving Darwin we flew southward over thickly timbered country, keeping within sight of the ribbon-like clearing where the single-track railway line wound like a serpent through the bush. Gleaming white among the dark green of the tropical foliage, dozens of giganticpage 80anthills stood out like great cones. As we neared the township of Katherine the escort 'plane flew alongside mine, and the pilot signalled that he was going to land for petrol. We had been flying into a strong southeasterly wind since leaving Darwin, and this reduced ground speed considerably. My aeroplane, with its auxiliary petrol-tanks, did not require more fuel, but the escort 'plane, with its higher-powered engine and consequent greater fuel-consumption, had to land frequently for petrol.

The landing-ground at Katherine was very rough, and I had to watch carefully for anthills and guide the machine over a number of gum suckers before touching down on the rough surface. My annoyance at the unscheduled stop and subsequent delay gave way to pleasure at the cheery welcome I received from the willing helpers who carried the heavy tins of petrol to refuel the escort machine.

I met Dr Fenton, "the Flying Doctor," about whom I had heard so much. No distance, it seemed, was too great for "the Flying Doctor," who, piloting his own Moth, visited isolated stations in the Northern Territory to render aid. These people in the "Never Never" regard the aeroplane as a necessity, and it certainly is, for in the rainy season some of the stations are inaccessible by any other means. I found later that some children on the stations of Central Queensland, who were quite used to the arrival of the mail 'plane, had never seen a train or a boat.

As we flew southward I began to wonder how people ever managed to exist on the isolated ranches ofpage 81Northern and Central Queensland before the advent of the aeroplane. After another stop for petrol at Daly Waters, where we found a good aerodrome, we located the track, and followed it as it wound through the bush towards Newcastle Waters. The railway we had left at Birdum, where it terminated, 275 miles south of Darwin, and until we reached Cloncurry, 700 miles farther on, the only means of finding our way was by stock routes and water-bores. It is extremely unwise to steer by compass when flying across the featureless country comprising the greater part of the Central and Northern Territory of Australia if the aeroplane is not fitted with radio.

The arrival in Sydney was a triumph. I found several thousands of the warm-hearted Australian people waiting to greet me at the Mascot Aerodrome, and I shall always remember that particular reception, for it was a big milestone in my career: not only for the fact that I had made my first big solo flight, but I had gained valuable experience. On my arrival I had no idea that I should be asked to make a speech, having never before even attempted to speak in public. I listened with growing uneasiness to the various speakers, until at last a great roar went up from the crowd, and I found myself standing alone in front of the microphone being filmed making my maiden speech. That marked the beginning of a great series of receptions given in my honour at which I was to receive the warm hospitality of the Australian people.

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