A Night - Make That Two - to Remember
16 March 2011 | Kokopo, New Britain, Papua New Guinea
On the ash plain in front of Mt. Tavurvur that wiped out the city
of Rabaul in 1994 and continues to grumble and rumble today
There is an old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times," that we remain convinced someone lobbed at us when we lived in Taiwan back in the '70s. We have definitely had a very interesting time since arriving in Papua New Guinea a week and a half ago. Normally I would have marked our arrival here with a "Welcome to PNG" blog, and I will come back to that later. But first, a quick update on the interesting (!?!) events of the last week.
On Thursday night, March 10, our fourth in PNG, anchored off the town of Kokopo, next to Rabaul, we were awakened at about 11:30 when 2 men armed with bush knives broke through the screened hatch over our bed, dropping quite literally on top of us. They woke us from a sound sleep and were there before we had a chance to reach for the large can of pepper spray that sits beside the bed. They said they wanted "laptops and guns." One stayed in the bed with us while the other rifled the boat looking for loot. They were on board for at least an hour.
They weren't the most adept thieves on the circuit, unable to find and turn on lights, open cabinets, etc. We managed to convince them (truthfully) that we don't carry guns and, amazingly, we managed to talk them out of taking our main laptop, which was sitting in plain sight on the navigation station desk. I whined at them that if they took that computer, they'd take all our navigation information and we wouldn't be able to leave. We offered them instead an old, back-up laptop, in a case. They seemed happy with that. They also wanted cell phones, which, of course we had just activated upon arrival. We were hoping they wouldn't find our fancy 3G phone from the States that was internet capable, but of course they did. While the one guy continued to root around the boat looking for stuff, the guy in bed with us twice called to him by name, nervously telling him to "hurryup" and "go fas." The guy rooting around the boat kept asking us questions and then telling us to "stop talking!" In addition to dissuading them from taking our main laptop, I also talked the guy in the bed out of taking my old (not-at-all valuable) watch. When he picked it up from among some cheap jewelry that sits by the bed, I said to him, "Please don't take that. It's a cheap old watch but it was a gift from my husband." Amazingly, he put it back.
In the end, in addition to the laptop, they got away with a wad of cash (we had just been to the ATM that day), but left everything else in Jim's wallet; the 2 cell phones; our Palm Pilot with everyone's addresses, lists of passwords, etc.; 4 flash drives; Jim's good dive watch; calculators, fishing rods/lures, and a few other small things, before tying us up and gagging us with a couple of my dresses and wires and making their escape. Jim was bound firmly, hands and feet, with hands tied behind. I was bound hands and feet as well, but with my hands tied in front and a dirty dish towel tied loosely around my mouth. They left saying they would send "rescuers" in 10 minutes (which of course they didn't), but as soon as they had gone, I managed to untie Jim's hands and he was then able to release the other bonds. Fortunately, they didn't take our satellite phone, and we used that to call the local police, who promptly came out to the boat and took the report.
The robbers were extremely quiet; we never heard any engine noise and assume they paddled out in a canoe. I only wish that earlier I'd paid attention to my nose! I had been reading in bed, and before turning off the light I sensed a really strong smell of body odor (which can be pretty pungent here). I actually wondered if someone might be near the boat (a fisherman?) but dismissed the idea and assumed it was just a wind shift carrying new smells from land. It turned out that I had, indeed, smelled their body odor. We're quite certain they were on the boat, waiting for lights to go off and us to go to sleep to make their surprise entry.
The police who came to the boat said they'd check the local bars when they got back to town, assuring us that the guys would be out drinking their way through the cash they'd stolen. Our first stop Friday morning was the police station to see if they'd found anything. They hadn't. The rest of the morning was spent replacing our cash and cell phones and notifying everyone we could about what happened to get the word out on the street. We re-visited Customs, the Mobile Phone store, and the local Tourism office, all of whom were stunned that this had happened in Kokopo ("Never before!") and graciously apologetic. The father/son owners of the phone shop said they'd put the word out on the street and gave us their numbers to call if we needed anything. Earlier in the week we had met a young Aus-AID volunteer (sort of like Australian Peace Corps), Liz, who made some calls, including one to a friend who owns a security firm. A local woman in the office put out the word to her uncles to mobilize them to get the buzz on the street. Liz also called the Provincial Police Commander, who met with us immediately, and then had a car take us back to the local police office to make a formal statement to their CID.
At Liz's suggestion, after all the meetings, we moved the boat to another anchorage about 2 miles away off a lovely resort owned by an Australian couple. We called to explain what happened and to confirm that it would be OK to come anchor there; they, too, were wonderfully welcoming and helpful, letting us pick up a mooring off the resort. After getting settled on the mooring, we waited for a squall to pass before hopping in the dinghy to go in to meet them. As we were telling our tale, the nightmare in Japan was just starting to unfold on the TV at the bar. The earthquake had quite literally happened while we waited for the squall to pass. Cell phones started ringing and those with fancy phones were quickly on line getting the latest updates as the magnitude of the tsunami was becoming clear. One of the calls that came in while we were sitting there, watching the tsunami footage with gaping jaws, was from the Australian High Commission (what we'd call an Embassy), informing all the coastal resorts with Australian owners and guests of the just-issued tsunami warning.
As we all sat fixated on the TV screen and what was happening in Japan, the tsunami warnings became more urgent and real. The estimated time of arrival in PNG varied from 8:30 to 10:30 p.m., with varying estimates as to its magnitude, but none was "insignificant." It was becoming increasingly clear, especially when one of the predictions was for a 7 meter wave to hit this area, that it wouldn't be safe to stay. Asylum was sitting in about 10 meters at that point, nowhere near enough to ride out a wave of that magnitude. One of the news tickers was saying that the wave was higher than some south Pacific islands! The resort owners were making plans to move their staff and guests to higher ground and we started talking about heading out to deep water. The captain of a small research-support vessel moored off the resort was also there, monitoring the predictions, and when we said "We're going to out to deep water," he said, "So are we."
At that point everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. We were still somewhat reeling and numb from the events of the previous night, while at the same time the horror in Japan was playing out before us and now we were planning to head out to sea. The predictions for the wave's arrival time were such that we actually had time for dinner in the resort's tropical outdoor dining room, complete with wicker furniture and lazily twirling ceiling fans--a sort of surreal moment while Japan was crumbling, we were still a bit shell-shocked, and a giant wave was on its way.
I will admit to being quite nervous as we made preparations to leave. We knew the theory of heading to deep water was right, and we were going to be traveling in company with the research boat, but we had no idea how a powerful wave like that would behave as it was being forced to curl around and between islands, even in wide channels and deep water. We put the dinghy on deck, buoyed the mooring line so we could find it again in the dark, and headed out at about 8 p.m. The seas were flat calm and we just motored north until we were in about 600 meters of water, presumably enough to make any wave just glide gently--even unnoticeably--under us.
We hadn't checked email all day and when I finally signed on there were at least 10 tsunami alert messages, with more coming in regularly, giving updated details on predicted arrival times (by country and city) and reported wave heights as it moved through various locations. The last message said it was due in Rabaul (the city nearest us) at 10:02 p.m. local time, which, when I read it, was just 17 minutes away! But in our area, the reported wave heights were only in the 1 meter range--not 7 meters--and the messages said that if you hadn't felt any effects within 2 hours of the predicted arrival, then it was "safe to assume the threat had passed." When 10:02 came and went without so much as a ripple, we decided to turn and start heading slowly back in, puttering along at about 1 knot, still hanging in deep water just in case. As the seas remained flat and calm, we decided to keep going in, and were back on the mooring by midnight--rounding out a full and eventful - interesting - 24 hours.
The broken screen was still hanging down over our bed and the sheets that the guys had crawled all over were still on it, but we were too tired to care. A little duct tape and Jack Daniels helped. Having had almost no sleep the night before, and now in a safe spot, we crashed, invoking what I call the Scarlet O'Hara Principle: Tomorrow is another day. We were just hoping it would be a tad less interesting.