I’m sitting in the cockpit, rapt in anticipation, lost in my total non-pilot-ness.
Gone is my stark, white desk, tucked into a corner of a busy office and suitably sprawled with keyboard, pens, papers and the odd forgotten cup of cold coffee. Instead, I shake my head in awe, staring at the dazzling array of blinking lights, knobs and dials, digital screens and codes that may as well be coordinates to Mars for all I know.
The sky is cool and cloudy, but the morning fog has slunk away with enough bashfulness that our plane can start its day. I wriggle in my seat, check my seat belt and watch as the pilot unhurriedly works through his checklist. He is methodical and decisive as he flicks switches, peruses charts, then finally drops his flight plan into its slot and starts up the engine. I watch the prop spin itself into a blur, and the aircraft slowly eases out onto the runway.
The tarmac of the Hagen Domestic Airport stretches out before us like a wide swath of grey cloth. The morning air is cool but thick with the aftertastes of rubbish, smoke and acrid grease that crawl all over this up-and-coming, wobbly, overcrowded town. This tepid air, this cracking concrete, this maze of streets stained with crimson betel-nut spit and dotted with clumps of carelessly dropped rubbish… it is a strange place that never quite settles in the soul. But now, seated in the plane, the air hums with the hint of something different, something gentler and yet somehow more vivid that is to come.
The world holds it breath, pauses, watches in awe and some jealousy as the engines roars into full power, the wheels begin to lift, and suddenly we leave the ground with an almost audible sucking sound, breaking away from the surface of the globe.
And we’re flying! Climbing higher and higher, turning and angling in a wide, lazy arc until the plane levels out, the world below shrinks away and we burst up into the whimsical world of the clouds.
The transition is startling, and I cling to the blind faith that there is indeed a grey world below the snowy mountains of crystal vapour. The white billowing folds etch sharply against the shadows of their misty friends, but whenever the little aircraft draws near, they fade and blur into indiscriminate puffs and swirls, as though shy of revealing their true forms.
Here and there, a powerful mountain breaks through the wispy, rolling sea of white, and the solid black peaks stand firm in defiance as we bank and climb to pass them by from a respectful distance. Behind their hoary heads, white streaks of cloud bleach the distant horizon; the dawn has put on fresh face cream but it has not yet soaked into the skin of the sky.
I feel the sun warm on my face; above us, the cloud cover is much less dense and thick. The bubbling foam that flows overhead makes it feel like we’re sailing beneath the surface of the ocean in a winged submarine.
Then all too soon we are dropping, and I spread my fingers wide against the glass, imagining them trailing down through the dusky cotton as we swirl ever lower into the depths below. The ethereal white fades into hues of green and blue, and we find ourselves gazing down into the bowl of a deep valley, blanketed with a thick cover of green undergrowth.
The airstrip is invisible, sleepily tucked away behind the rounded slopes of the rolls and ridges, until – suddenly – we push through the pass and it slams into view below; a rough brown smudge, like someone scraped their finger through the green, bubbled frosting on a chocolate cake.
The base of the bowl seems impossibly deep, and the pilot guides us down in slow, gradually descending circles, as we wind our way around and around the valley and slowly drop into the centre of this giant green bathtub. The trees shake their heads in excitement as we blur by, the jungle rushes up to meet us, and we shoot across the silver curve of a wide river and drop onto the rough gravel and grass of the homemade, handmade airstrip. Touchdown.
The difference from the cold, sharp atmosphere of the Highlands is immediately apparent, as the air wraps humid fingers around my neck, my nose catching with the smell of earth and soil and the tang of rain-fresh mud. The flies drone lazily in the heat, glistening in the damp air like fat black currants with wings. Rippling coloured waves pulse all around us as the thick jungle bends and sways in the breeze, displaying more shades and varieties of green than an artist’s palette.
The plane does not come here often, and this airstrip has only been open for mere months. We climb out to greet the gathered community and find ourselves surrounded by a smiling throng of unwashed bodies pressing close. Their white teeth flash in acknowledgement, and handshakes are accompanied by quick, shy glances from the many pairs of liquid brown eyes. But the aircraft is the real novelty here, and eager hands reach out to touch the smooth, metal sides, while the more curious bodies shift around to gaze at the proud nose of the plane which silently peers back with wide glass eyes.
The MAF agent hurries forward, full of importance and responsibility. He proudly flourishes the paperwork and hands it to the pilot. The sheets are blank, for he has not grasped that he must write anything on the crumpled white sheets. Simply producing the necessary documents proves to him that his airstrip is well and healthy and in perfect working order. The pilot sighs, smiles, takes the papers and begins to fill in the empty spaces with the necessary notations.
Just another day in his lofty office. Just another adventure soaring among the skies, striding across the mud, speeding a connection from one world to another through the dancing clouds.
Just another ordinary, extraordinary day in the pilot’s world.
© Emma McGeorge 2016