I lock eyes with the vivacious, curly-haired air hostess sitting at the head of the rickety Dash 8 plane. Her legs are crossed and she gives me a polite smile as she ceases her study of the Solomon Star‘s classifieds section and lets it fall into her neat, navy lap.
The plane dips suddenly as it hits yet another turbulence bubble. I gasp nervously as my stomach bounces once again into my increasingly dry throat.
I’m starting to feel uneasy now and, if I’m not mistaken, the hostess’s brow is beginning to furrow. The turbulence is becoming just a little too frequent, and what started out as a nice, smooth flight from Honiara is quickly becoming rather uncomfortable.
Everything around me is creaking, moaning and rattling. It sounds more like an old bus speeding along a corrugated outback road than a plane suspended at several thousand feet — let alone one solid enough to do battle with a giant, angry, purple storm cloud.
I keep my gaze fixed on the hostess, trying hard to think rationally and ignoring my husband’s quiet pleas to remove my fingernails from his forearm. As my view out the window becomes entirely obscured by thick cloud, I’m quite certain that the hostess’s furrow has developed into a definite frown. She puts down her scotch finger biscuit and discards the classifieds altogether. Why is she looking for another job, anyway? And why is she peering out the window like that?
I try and prevent myself from thinking that, in the trusted annals of ‘How to Stay Calm when Experiencing Turbulence in what could become a Coffin with Wings’, a furrowed brow and an anxious peer out the window on behalf of the hostess is not a good sign. After all, if she looks happy, there’s nothing to worry about, right?
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The plane drops lower again, lilting violently from side to side as rain drops the size of marbles pound the windows and I get an uncomfortably close glimpse of the dense jungle below. Whilst peering into the green, I do my best to recall just how Bear Grylls made that life-saving log raft when marooned in the wilds of Venezuela.
Okay, this is serious now. The Coffin with Wings is bouncing around like, well, exactly what it is: a second-hand old plane from nearby Papua New Guinea (which doesn’t, I might add, have a sterling crash record) caught in a massive tropical storm cloud.
My husband has now lost circulation in his right arm. Just as he begins to pry my fingers away, the pilot’s New Zealand accent drifts into the cabin. Seemingly, like the rest of the plane, the PA system is dubious and I can’t quite hear what he is saying over the rumble of the engine and the continual chatter of the World Vision delegates (discussing just how many tropical diseases there are in this part of the world) seated in front of me. What was that? I strain to hear. “Abort landing”, “too windy” and “we’re all going to die”?
The hostess is most definitely frowning now and her scotch finger is all but forgotten as she shoulders open the door to the cockpit. Oh god. I glare at my husband. Why exactly did we (and by “we” I now mean “he”) think that coming to the Solomon Islands and flying out to the remote Western Province — where we have to land this flying metallic cigar on a tiny little island the length of a football field — was a good idea?
I strain to hear yet another muffled announcement as the plane suddenly u-turns and begins to climb higher into the Cloud of Doom. The hostess emerges from the cockpit, holding herself steady against the toilet door and giving us a flustered smile as she straightens her wire-rimmed glasses and tucks a stray curl behind her ear. She is, I’m sure, a distinct shade paler (though I admit this is hard to discern behind her mocha-coloured Solomon Islander skin).
“We are aborting the first landing,” she says, with typical Solomon Islander nonchalance. “It’s too windy, the storm is too ferocious. We’ll go straight on to Gizo and those who needed to get to Seghe will have to take a boat or catch the next plane back to Honiara. I apologise for any inconvenience.”
With that, she eases herself back into her seat, straps herself in and, within minutes, she’s once again thumbing the classifieds, munching on the remnants of her scotch finger and slurping on an orange cordial.
The World Vision guys are merrily discussing malaria — obviously used to such bumpy plane rides out into the provinces — and I slowly let go of Sam’s arm, relaxing the tension in my shoulders. To my relief, the hostess no longer looks concerned about plunging to a watery death (she does, however, certainly appear to be looking for another job).
The plane pulls higher and we move away from the island of Seghe, which — in a system where taking a plane is like catching a bus, with several pit stops taken en route to the final destination — was scheduled to be our first stop.
After a steady climb in which the bumps gradually lessen, we at last break free of the Cloud of Doom. The turbulence is only sporadic now and I begin to almost enjoy the ride as I follow the journey of plump tropical raindrops, much farther away now, cascading into the indigo sea a thousand feet below. It’s a spectacular sight.
Beneath us now is an endless ribbon of coral reefs and atolls, rimmed by untouched stretches of paper-white sand. Glorious sunshine accentuates piercingly aqua lagoons nestled within the myriad uninhabited islands which pepper the Pacific Ocean.
As we begin our descent into Gizo, I can see scattered villages made up of stilted huts, their palm-frond rooves protecting their inhabitants from passing storms. The faces of bare-chested fisherman and crayfish divers turn skywards as we pass overhead, their hand-carved canoes ready to take them into the deep.
As the plane glides lower, the water becomes clearer, the sand whiter and the palms greener. The hostess is analysing the sports section now, and we fly over our destination: Mbabanga Island. A timber pier juts out about 50 metres into the crystal clear coral reef. There appears to be a tavern at its end, with several tin boats moored at its side and two bright blue kayaks perched on the sand, waiting to be paddled.
Nearby, a handful of log cabins hide amongst swaying palms which dip towards the pristine sea. It’s Sanbis Resort. It looks like paradise. And that’s exactly where we’re headed.
The plane ditches lower still as we approach another tiny island, adjacent to Mbabanga, on which we are due to land. The hostess, with the paper now folded under her arm, smiles pleasantly as she tells us to fasten our seatbelts.
I can’t yet see the landing strip and it looks as though the wheels will, at any second, glance the surface of the waveless ocean. Suddenly, though, the water transforms from a deep indigo to a stunning, shallow aqua. Seconds later, there’s grass, bitumen and — amongst the trees — some non-plussed chickens going about their business.
The tyres screech as they hit the tarmac, sending up a torrent of recently gathered rain water. A small crowd of Solomon Islanders is gathered at a rundown, door-less shed which sits parallel to the landing strip. That, I suppose, is the airport.
We have landed in Gizo. Alive! And it is absolutely incredible.
This post first appeared on Claire’s blog.