Expedition Leader &
After all tourists have left for recreation in Vamena, I had to resolve one major problem in Nabire. Since we made a rather large cash prepayment for helicopter transportation, while the date of the pilot’s arrival in Nabire was delayed unexpectedly, there was a probability that the pilot may not make it before our return back to Moscow. This is why I had to recover the entire prepayment just in case. The money had been already passed to a company that managed all helicopter transportation – its location and contacts were painstakingly concealed from us. This was natural - the helicopter company officially exported gold mined at a US mine and unofficially earned some cash by shuttling alpinists to and from the base camp of Carstensz Pyramid. This is why it is unlikely that they would want to expose their shady operations in any way. According to Bob, they bluntly refused to give us a refund, and I had to expend huge amounts of energy and use all my gift of persuasion to virtually wring from Bob the telephone number of his contact at the helicopter company. Since midday I tried to call in vain the number I’ve obtained: nobody would pick up at the other end, and all my attempts were answered with long ringing tones. At the same time, Bob was also honestly trying to have at least somebody contact me. By the evening our attempts succeeded – on my umpteenth call attempt the receiver was lifted at the other end, and a melodious female voice spoke in heavily accented English to arrange a meeting with me at nine o’clock that night. A car was to arrive to pick me up from my hotel and deliver me to the company office for a talk.
Around eight o’clock a horrible thunderstorm broke out in Nabire – thunderbolts and water gushing from the black sky did not add to my enthusiasm ahead of this meeting. A black car with impenetrably tinted windows was 15 minutes late. After that they would circle back and forth through the emptying city for along time – obviously to make sure I would not remember the route. It was all reminiscent of a plot of some gangster movie – an expensive car, a chauffer who did not speak a word during the entire trip. Still, nobody blindfolded me with a black silky ribbon, nor had I a gun shoved under my ribs. After about 20 minutes the car pulled up to a large fenced house. We were approached by a security guard, who opened the door and politely offered me an umbrella. Just as politely I was frisked in the lobby - I could not carry a photo camera or mobile phone into the building.
I was led into a large round office and asked to wait for the hostess. The room was tastefully furnished – expensive mahogany furniture, several video surveillance monitors apparently wired to cameras out on the street. On one of the walls I saw a large tableau with a flight schedule. The final departure date was today. There was a nameplate embossed in gold on the large table, with the name Ira and last name I could not remember (Bob would later tell me that Ira was a very popular name on Java). While I was letting my eyes to wander, a slender young Indonesian lady entered the room simultaneously with an aroma of expensive perfume. She was wearing clothing you could hardly find at a local supermarket. She welcomed me in accented English, saying her name was Ira. I retorted that my cousin is also named Ira, that my great grandmother was Indonesian, and that she could easily switch to her native tongue. We laughed, and another lady entered the room and offered me tea. Eventually she acted as an interpreter, since despite understanding English Ira, preferred to speak her native language. I explained the situation, saying that we feared a scenario where would not be able to depart for the base camp for some reasons and that it would make us all feel better if we could have our prepayment back. For our part, we made a commitment to return the money as soon as we were shown the pilot and had a date of departure for the base camp fixed. Ira listened to the interpreter, periodically nodding in understanding, while her massive earrings of white gold were bobbing in sync with her head. For some time they tried to persuade us that we should not worry, that the pilot would be there the following morning and on November six the first helicopter would be able to take us to the base camp, but I was adamant, and the tension circling in the air above the table was rising slowly. At one point Ira rose suddenly, shrugging her shoulders, and, sliding to the side one of the photos on the wall opened a safe door it was concealing. I received the money back. Notably, the money was definitely not ours – the bill denominations were different. They refunded almost four hundred million rupees (all our prepayment) – the bills were bound with rubber bands in large stacks and occupied much of the table. Ira inquired in English whether I was going to count everything. Weighing one of the largest packs in my hand, I said it was all correct. She smiled in return and asked me to teach her to count money just as quickly. The tension eased, and the conversation was channeled into a different vein – we returned to the interrupted tea party, and I was eventually even shown the photos of a mine apparently taken from a helicopter. The conversation ended rather abruptly, with Ira telling me she had to leave, pointing at one of the photos on the wall and referring to the man as "My big boss". The photograph showed a man, clearly an Indonesian, wearing some unusual uniform – probably a military one. I gathered the cash into a large bag, said goodbye to Ira, and the security guard led me to the car, holding the umbrella above my head, and returned my cell phone before I got in. Bob, who was waiting for me at the hotel, was very happy to see me return, and his first question was "what's the news?". The news was the following – both BELL pilots, according to Ira, would arrive tomorrow morning by a nine-hour flight from Biak. In the evening we would have a briefing with them at a cafe, and at 6 a.m. on November 6 the first helicopter should take off for the base camp.
Omitting numerous details, I will only say briefly that the following morning, immediately after the guys' arrival from Vamena, I met both pilots in Nabire. Both were fairly old Indonesians with good English. They also confirmed our departure the following day. We spent what remained of the night counting the money I got from Ira and attempting to fit all our personal and common gear into the 275-kilo limit per helicopter. The plan was for our team to fly there in two flights one day apart – Grigory and Olga were to leave for the base camp on November 6 accompanied by the local guide Deny, and on the 7th - Vladimir, Alexei and me. Notably, all common gear had to be transported by the first helicioter, since on the second flight the load limit would not allow fitting anything but the guys and myself. Of course, secretly we hoped that on the airfield we would somehow manage to smuggle a little more than the limit onboard the helicopter. Yet both pilots were adamant at the evening briefing – we only managed to have their consent on 10 extra kilos over the limit per each flight. After rising at 4 a.m. the next morning we were ready for our 6 a.m. flight. After undergoing the mandatory weighting procedure, during which we had one of the food boxes eliminated due to excess weight, Grigory, Olga and Deny occupied their seats heliborne and were airborne 10 minutes later. Forty minutes later Grigory sent me a text message from Enarotali, where the plane made a refueling stop, and an hour afterwards called me on the satellite phone from the base camp, reporting that everything was fine and that they were putting up the tent.
After that Bob and I returned to the hotel trying to work out how to transport the food and some of the utensils on tomorrow’s flight. As far as it appeared we would have to fly to the base camp in nothing short of our birthday suits and virtually without any possessions. While I am writing this report, the guys are still sleeping unaware that during they will spend this day stepping on the scales and going through their backpacks many times. Incidentally, they are promising flying weather for tomorrow (knocking on wood not to jinx it).
Reporting from Nabire, Kofanov