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Broken Trailers

I have a story to tell.

On September 27th of 2017 I was again alone in the village. When I say ‘alone’ I mean I was the only white man and the only representative of Outreach International; but sometimes it also means I was the only problem solver. Or at least it felt that way.

Our story begins in the afternoon of the day in question. I’d spent the morning doing naught much more than waiting, finally my waiting was put to an end by a shout from below my window; my boat had come in. Within ten minutes I was on ye olde Massey-Fergussen tracor heading down to the water. Behind me, Alus- OIPNG’s proverbial right hand man- was following on the atv. Between the two of us we hoped to get both the cargo and the boat back to the base in one trip. Alas it was not to be.

During rainy season, the water’s high enough that the boat can stop within a twenty minute tractor drive of the our base. Now, because it was dry season I’d have to travel about an hour, past 2 other villages just to reach where the boat was beached. I wasn’t unduly worried by the drive or the distance or even the remaining daylight. But I did figure something would go wrong because… PNG.

Surprisingly, the drive down to the water was completed without incident. The boat was pulled up on (in) the mud just about a mile from the nearest village.

Once we reached the boat, we loaded the cargo onto the atv trailer, and the boat onto the trailer behind the tractor. As the tractor pulled the heavy boat and trailer out of the mud, the inner-tube inside of the right tire on the boat-trailer blew, leaving it completely flat.

I still wasn’t too worried, living in a swamp has the benefit of there being no sharp rocks or otherwise jagged objects. This meant that, even running flat, I shouldn’t have had any problem making it back. Though being an hour’s drive away from any tools or means of changing the flat did weigh in a little on the decision to drive back on the flat tire. We took everything we could out of the boat to make it as light as possible and headed back. Alus took off back towards the base with his load on the atv. I set about to follow (much more slowly) behind, pulling the boat/trailer with the tractor.

The road I was following had been more than two meters under water some four months ago. Normally, the tractor has no trouble pulling a load over the thick grass and mud and dirt that passes for a highway here in the swamp. Normally the tractor isn’t pulling a heavy load on a trailer with a flat tire. With loose tire flapping to the wind, the rim itself began to dig into the ground; piling up an impressive mountain of mud, weeds and debris in front of the wheel after only a short distance. I became afraid that the trailer would dig in far enough to tip the trailer and break something. An hour away from my nice little house full of tools, I really didn’t want to take that chance.

So we took a break while I sent one of our employees up a tree. I wanted him to cut me a good sized limb, only problem being that none of us had thought to grab a machete. Now the cargo I had come all this way to get was all items to be sold at our local trade store. It was an itinerary that contained, among other things, machetes. So after staring at each other stupidly for several seconds, we broke into the cargo, liberated a machete and in no time at all had a tree branch about the size of my leg.

Using local manpower and a little finesse from the tractor, I shoved the tree branch under the trailer’s axle. I then used a ratchet strap to lift up on the front and secure it tightly to the trailer itself. Now we had a trailer with one wheel; and one runner all credit for this idea going to Bush Mechanics. It worked fine as far as saving the tire and rim went, much less so in the not digging ditches department. But we were on our way, with our new made runner, serving dual function as a ditch-witch.

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It didn’t take us long to arrive in the first village on our route, a place called Raten which just happens to be where almost all of our clinic staff live. So I pulled up at the house of one of the nurse’s and took a break to check on my new, improved, transport system. As I dismounted the tractor decided to display one of it’s quirks and immediately shut off. After three attempts at starting it I gave up and began to plan alternatives.

By this time Alus and the atv were well out of sight, probably almost back at the base already. With the tractor dead, and no tools, there wasn’t much for us to do but wait. Alus would have to come back eventually in order to get everything we’d taken out of the boat earlier. As our wait stretched on, I realized that Alus, go-getter that he is, probably was grabbing the necessary tools and supplies to swap out the flat tire. Fair enough, if the tractor was working that would definitely be worth the extra wait.

Sure enough, when he came blazing back, he brought with him a jack, some wrenches and a tire! I thanked him, informed him of the tractor situation and sent him back down to the water to get the rest of the load we had left there. Even with the tractor inexplicable refusing to turn on, I had nothing else to do while we waited, so I set about changing out the flat tire with the spare Alus had brought. With what seemed to be a hundred bystanders providing muscle, it didn’t take long to get the old tire off. It would have taken much longer to get the new tire on as neither I nor Alus had noticed that the spare he had grabbed was a 5 lug in a 4 lug world. That is to say that he’d grabbed a tire with 5 holes in the rim for studs and the spindle only had 4 studs. It would have been nice to have noticed before I’d done all that work getting the old one off… oh well.

And so we waited, again, munching on coconuts and fried sago loaves. By the time Alus arrived back in Raten darkness had descended. He paused while I explained the situation and we decided to leave the boat with at the nurse’s house for the night and work on it again in the morning. The tractor would either go or stay depending on whether or not we could get it started. Typically, all Alus had to do to get it started was: walk over, reach up and turn the key. The tractor started with barely a murmur after I hadn’t been able to get it going no matter how hard I tried only a half hour before.

After that, we loaded up the ATV trailer and the tractor bucket with what we could and headed home. As I was leaving Raten I was waved down by two women. Another of our nurses informed me that she was attending a pregnant woman who was having complications with delivery. We needed to move her down river to where she could be transported by car to the nearest operating hospital. That meant I had to get another boat into the water with fuel and a driver. I signalled my acknowledgement and we headed out into the night.

The rest of the trip back up to our village passed uneventfully. The road that I was following into the village comes in exactly opposite the primary school. Someone had set fire to three large rainforest trees right behind the school that night. As we came into the village they stretched glowing hands up into the night sky. Red embers glowing against a background of pitch black, like a row of infernal christmas trees. It wouldn’t be the last time they would greet me that night.

Back at the base I was greeted by the squealing of pigs, I hadn’t had time to feed them dinner before I’d left and they were vociferating their displeasure. But they weren’t high on my list of priorities at the moment. I needed to move this patient immediately and didn’t have time to waste taking care of pigs. Ignoring their squeals, I set out down the village to find the clinic boat driver, and inform him of our emergency. He was willing as always, so I went back to the base to get the boat ready and scale out fuel. The last thing I did before hitting the road again was make a trip to my neighbors house to ask him a favor. My pigs were hungry and loud and needed to be dealt with. He agreed immediately so we left him behind to feed them and headed back to the water.

I seemed to me, tired and hungry as I was becoming, that the road was just a little longer and a little bumpier every time I drove it. Surely just my imagination. As I had left Raten earlier, the nurse had asked me to grab a referral letter for the patient we were about to transport. In the bustle and the hurry I had completely forgotten. When we got back down to the nurse’s house, I borrowed a pen and a piece of paper and scribbled up a poor imitation of a referral letter that could only ever work in Papua New Guinea.

We made it safely to the water in just about an hour or so. By now it was ten o’clock at night. As I was backing the trailer into the water to unload the boat, I heard a loud bang and the trailer hitch leaped off the back of the tractor. Luckily, the weight of the boat was already in the water so we didn’t have any trouble unloading it or re-attaching the trailer afterwards. What had happened was the the trailer had actually broken between the hitch and the body where the boat sits, but because of my tiredness or the darkness or the busyness all around me, I didn’t even notice. I actually ended up towing the trailer all the way back with it hanging on by only a thin ribbon of twisted metal.

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After the boat left, the crowds dispersed leaving me and one other other guy to make the long, dark and weary trip back to the village. The throaty roar of the tractor engine discouraged conversation So we followed the long, potholed road mostly in silence. I felt almost peaceful driving a tractor pulling an empty trailer back towards home.

Once we got back to the base I parked the tractor in the front yard and shut it off. Dismounting I took a look at the trailer and only then noticed that it was broken and dragging on the ground. I asked my last companion when it had happened and he was unsure. I didn’t remember hearing it break and it was so light (the trailer that is, the night was quite dark), I hadn’t noticed it dragging, so I concluded it must have somehow broken just at that moment. Determined to worry about it on the morrow, I headed back to the house.

At the time it seemed like a whole big ordeal to me. But in retrospect, it’s just the kind of thing people do out here. And have been doing as long as there’ve been missions and frontiers. Most people just don’t make a big deal out of how much work it is just to get groceries sometimes. And the patient? She traveled by boat for another three hours and then four more by car over the worst road I’ve ever driven. Chris Cooke, the expat nurse who’d picked her up, didn’t even check her in at the hospital, instead he drove to the back and transported her directly to the maternity ward, only afterward sending someone to formally admit her. At eight in the morning, the doctors arrived and performed an emergency Caesarean section. Both mother and child are living and healthy. Chris told me that the baby would have definitely died if we hadn’t gotten them out and the mother’s life would have been in grave peril. So I guess it wasn’t all effort in vain. I just wish people could have emergencies before 8 o’clock at night. Oh, well, so is the life.

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