In the Hands of the Clouds

In the Hands of the Clouds

Bob and I were drinking. This was when he was alive. Of course we were drinking—heavily—back when he was alive (although I still drink with him now)—and I’m not going to dismiss the possibility that he’s playing records on his own jukebox on a back island in the Philippines or cooking up some decadent French coconut cream dish on a crumbling vanilla plantation in Mauritius. Body never found—man abroad, I say.

But Bob and I were drinking, and we were alive. We had nothing in common on the surface other than liking to drink. He was twenty years older, twice my size, and had resources I could only imagine—then, and now. Four planes, a helicopter, an arsenal, and a Thai wife. But we both had theories. We didn’t just solve the problems of the world while drinking, we created new ones, to keep things interesting.

“If you’re not up to mischief, then why the hell are you here?” he’d say.

On behalf of my theoretically dead friend, let me recommend that concept to you.

He’d have added to that advice—“If you’re here to help people, make sure you do—and that they’re the right people—and a good portion of those are animals.”

Not what you’d expect to hear from a guy who could fish for marlin from an airplane.

Think about that notion for a moment. Marlin fishing from a single-engine aircraft.

Do you know how low to the water (and we’re talking the open ocean like the Coral Sea) you have to fly to do that? How slow? And how quickly slow can become stall and crash?

There are also only certain ways to learn how to disassemble and reassemble an M-16 at sipping speed—or how to land a Bell JetRanger on top of an outhouse. Fortunately, there is a select group who can do the former. Very, very few can do the latter. And only a disturbingly elite set can do both. I’m also just naturally suspicious about people who speak Vietnamese, Spanish and have spent a lot of time in Africa.

But it wasn’t Bob’s fault about the buffalo. That idea came to me in what I feel now was a flash of genuine inspiration—although of course it’s always possible the drink had something to do with it. I once asked my pit boss friend in Macau if he could spot a loser at a glance, and he said, “Anyone in here twice.” That’s sort of the way I feel now about people who drink rum, and Auckland Bob and I drank a lot of rum.

We particularly liked drinking at the Smuggler’s Inn in Madang in Papua New Guinea. I’d been trying to be an anthropologist in Vanuatu—and then either had a profound revelation or a psychotic episode on the black volcanic sand of Sulphur Bay on the island of Tanna, which then precipitated a strategic retreat to the Solomon Islands and an acute outbreak of debauchery involving a stacked but slovenly wife of an Air Pacific pilot. Naturally that had to end and I headed back to PNG, where I remembered I’d left my magic typewriter. Most would say it wasn’t really magical, but it’s what I’d typed the book that almost got me committed on and I wanted it back. Auckland Bob happened to be one who flew me, and that would be the beginning of our conspiracy. You don’t really have friendships with people like Bob.



For reasons that aren’t clear to me now, before I went really tribal and tried to learn the local version of sorcery, I’d decided that in addition to bartending, I had a future leading dive tours into the butterfly fish swarming bellies of sunken World War II fighter planes, and Bob proved to be one of the few pilots I could find who was willing and able to fly low enough on island hopping ventures to not upset the blood nitrogen levels of my clients, and to give them the value for money that my bar bills and vagrancies with native women entailed.

Auckland Bob wasn’t called Auckland Bob because he was from there. He was actually from the South Island of New Zealand and had some Maori in him—a big rugby player frame. He called me The Worrier and Doktor Anxiety because I once expressed some mild concern about a palm plantation we were about to experience a little too directly for my taste on take-off from Wewak (where the typewriter had been left in the infested palm mat shack that passed for my residence then). Once you got a handle from Bob, nothing would shake it.

He got his because he missed his flight to Auckland one morning—as the senior pilot. Like most reputable airlines, Air New Zealand rather frowns on captains just not showing up. I don’t honestly think he minded much. He had a house in Sydney to sell and had done work of an unspecified kind in South Africa and Central America, following legitimately acknowledge military time in Vietnam, for which he’d been highly decorated. He was one of that tribe who simply don’t fit into suburban normality. The jungle is the right place for those folk—and Bob scored himself a rather nice section outside Lae, with just enough acreage to grow some coffee to hide his dope crop. A Thai wife, twenty guns (plus a flamethrower), planes and a helicopter—smoked Players international cut and had a basement full of scuba tanks—that sort of guy. He was pretty good with the spear gun on the bush rats too.

So, we were drinking in Madang. Bob liked the bar there. We’d fly in and land on the cricket pitch. I’d say, “Tree, Bob. Tree. Trees!” And he’d say, “You’re worrying. You’re a worrier.”

Of course there was no one to cut us off at the bar—and then when I got behind the bar, it was on for young and old. No rules except whether you could land on the field and clear the coconut palms on take off. “Tree, Bob.” In that intense tropical heat when locals would slink past with an arrow shot tree kangaroo over their shoulders, and given all the rum we consumed, many things seemed possible that probably shouldn’t have. So, the idea of airlifting a buffalo didn’t have that prudent level of difficulty and contraindication as it might’ve elsewhere.

Basically, Bob and I were alive and drinking… when I chanced to see an article in the Port Moresby paper about a dubious game reserve in the Northern Territory in Australia that had a buffalo that they could no longer afford to keep. Now that part of Australia has buffalo of its own, and they’re tourist attractions and also animals for hunting. But what I’m talking about here was a proper African water buffalo—only it was in Australia—and we were drinking.

We were drinking in the jungle on the north side of Papua New Guinea in fact. I said something simple like, “Your place could use a water buffalo.” (Bob did have something like a swamp on his property, a rifle shot down from the house—what was called a wallow.) It was just an offhand remark—but it had that luminosity of the impossible that instantly spoke to Bob, and so of course I got excited too. This buffalo was being given away. Free to good home. All it required was transport.

Technically speaking, flying into Australia (or any country for that matter) means filing an official flight plan, customs, quarantine. There are some annoying issues about air space and national sovereignty. There’s a lot of legal hoo-haw about smuggling, refugees, disease control. And there are more than a few military jets in and around Darwin, with some people who know how to fly them. Talk about me worrying. It’s a whole worrying wall of administration and defense.

But Bob didn’t get with that program. What he saw was whether he could clear the trees. What were the logistics of airlifting a buffalo? How much Av-gas would be needed? How low would we need to fly?

To even reach Port Moresby on the other side of the island of New Guinea from where we drinking meant crossing at least three of the most treacherous air traffic mountain ranges in the world. And we were still both alive then, so that added another level of danger. You’re constantly passing through cloud and rain in even the dry season. If you’ve ever gone skydiving, you may well know what heat rush is—and the turbulence it can cause. The wreckage of light aircraft litters the jungle in that part of the world and gets overgrown with vines. To then fuel up in Moresby for a run across some of the bluest water on the planet—so blue in fact it burns your eyes and makes you see fishing boats and war canoes that were there a hundred years ago—to breach all international law and risk arrest, confiscation of property, internment in some sweltering holding facility run by white people we despised, while corrupt lawyers get called—to land in a mess of mangroves east of Darwin in a blast furnace wind… thirsty again of course…

The next time you say to yourself, “It can’t be done,”—whatever you’re doing… I want you to picture a very large and needy water buffalo skimming along low over the Torres Strait. If you go to a map, it looks like it’s just over the water from New Guinea. It’s not in a small plane, believe me. And only someone who really knows what they’re doing can fly below the dive line the whole way.

Then how do you land with a buffalo suspended from your plane? People who can work that sort of stuff out need to be listened to and we need a hell of a lot more of them. That sad young mangy buffalo got a ride to never forget and lived happily in Bob’s wallow. Bob called him Woody and hand fed him flowers.

Think something can’t be done?

All you really need to do is clear the trees. You don’t in fact require permission for much of anything. Just some heart and skill—and maybe some rum. And if you find someone as crazy as you could be, that helps too.

You can bring a water buffalo safely across blue water. It’s the real worriers you have to worry about.



I think about that often, whenever I start to doubt what can be done. I’m not talking about what should be done—we worry about that too much of the time. I’m talking about brute green-eyed possibility. Of living beyond Cargo. Of turning the Cargo Magic of the West back upon itself. I’m talking about things like having a picnic in an active volcano.

One day after Woody’s airlift, Bob and I were drinking. He was still alive then, and he was talking. He liked to talk, especially when we were drinking and he was still alive. A gecko fell from the ceiling fan, and he did the right thing and ate it—that’s just what you do there—and then he did the more important right thing of ordering some more drink.

Then he said out of the blue, “Why don’t we do a barbecue in the volcano? Anyone can land a helicopter in there. I think I can set down the Otter. And I gotta be able to take off, or that’s it.”

The volcano he was referring to is in Raboul, the major town on the island of New Britain in the Bismarck Archipelago—one of two smoking, belching tits of pure deep earth magma violence. Its name is Tavurvur, and along with its twin cone Vulcan, a massive explosive blast killed 507 people in 1937 and buried the entire town and surrounding mangrove swamps in ash. (The volcano has since erupted as recently as 2009.) The idea of even flying through the huge sulphur plume is intense enough. What helicopter pilot would even think of setting down on what was only a little while ago molten lava? The rising heat would play havoc with a rotary blade aircraft even two hundred feet in. A twin-engine aircraft? Madness beyond measure. Ludicrous. Not possible.

But I have to admit, I was in a plane that Bob set down in seriously 150 feet in weeping rain outside Mt. Hagen in the Highlands when we flew in for the big Singsing. It didn’t feel good when we went in, but he got it done. He landed like you’d take a stolen car into a four-wheel slide (something I know a bit more about). No margin for error. I’d have been struggling to park a bulldozer (as in turn off the engine) on that slope we came to, and he just laid it down like a toy on a very wet hill. If every big man were that gentle, there’d be no woman wanting.

So when someone like that says to you let’s fly into a volcano—and one of the most gorgeous and terrible volcanoes in the world—you actually find yourself listening. Bob always paid for more than his share of the drinks. His Thai wife made tom yum soup like you wouldn’t believe—if your balls were swollen with fever, she’d heal you up straight. She openly bowed to Bob, and yet would also tell him off like a chainsaw let loose. Paunchy, red faced, disgraced Air New Zealand pilot, hiding out in the islands. God only knows what he did to buy that property. He could take a helicopter straight up—no forward vector. He’d smuggled weapons I know in the Bougainville conflict. And he grew major dope in the back of his coffee fields. He’d wave back at Indonesian gunships.

You don’t ask someone you’re drinking with in the tropics where they get their money. You listen to their insane ideas.

That miserable fool did indeed get us all too close to that volcano. I talked him out of the Otter, that was just a lot of drink and nonsense of course—but he set down the Bell JetRanger in a place and in a way only someone with hardcore military intelligence training could possibly do. (Always keep some space to wonder why someone has a Bell JetRanger, and how they can possibly afford one.) I cooked red emperor, coral trout, turtle and squid, with some coconut curry his wife made. We made it happen on the edge of Hell itself. Volcanoes are female things, no matter what their names—and angry beautiful females at that. You need a very cold beer or ten just to look into their eyes.

Have a Google on that volcano and see for yourself—and know that PNG isn’t so free and easy that there isn’t a military presence to control air space and keep people from doing just what we did.

Some ideas should just stay ideas. But every once in a while, you need to listen to the volcano divers. Some have the goods, and if you’ve been around, you’ll know them. There’s a serious art to landing a helicopter on a fragile inclined slope—let alone in a volcanic crater with gas fumes rising. I’d spear fished some of our lunch myself and wisely applied his wife’s recipes. There will never be a meal like that one. And no praise will ever mean more than Bob’s simple, “I think you’ve lifted your game.”

You only get a very few volcano divers in your life. Suit up and load the rifle if they invite you. (Do you know why they call it the shotgun seat? Because not many are really very good with a rifle.)

You cook squid hot and fast by the way, and turtle barely at all.

The asshole later shoved me out of a plane at fifty feet over a reef in New Ireland. Said it would be good for me. He was right. Always a great confidence move when the pilot gets up and heaves the cargo out. Then flying in through heavy mist over the Finnistere Mountains, he once said, “You fly. You’ve watched me.”

Yes, I did, Bob. Dirty drunken father of fate. I did watch. I had to keep my eyes on you.

They say some people die. I’ve noticed that most are very big on this idea in the Cargo West. It’s a huge belief industry here. People die and things can’t be done.

Auckland Bob disappeared enroute from Lae to Honiara in the Solomon Islands in a brand new plane on a bright cloud-clear morning. No trace of wreckage. No Mayday.

A seasoned fixed wing and helicopter pilot who could teach many military fly boys a great deal. Do I think he died? In a blue sky? Bob had no respect for even full-on tropical cyclones. He just didn’t believe in them.

Do you know what a twin-engine plane looks like when it hits the water? Only into water—and still the sound is incredible, as the metal crumples like a paper bird. If the angle is hard enough, there’s not even an afterblast of fuel tank. Fiery explosions are for the movies. Planes don’t die that way. And I’m not sure people do at all. I renounce the Cargo West’s fixation on that in the forever presence of my friends.

Because you have to wonder how a pilot who could land a DC-10 on a high tide beach if he had to, could vanish without the slightest hint of ravaged fuselage or wing. Not one word to the authorities or any other planes. No distress call to yachts or the coast guard. It’s not like it’s empty open ocean there—there are people around on that water as there have been for 50,000 years. That’s how they live. I don’t think Bob intended for one minute to land in Honiara. He had another destination in mind, for reasons of his own—and I’ll bet you money he found it.

Give up your fear and the supposed certainty that isn’t yours to have.

Here’s to ya, Bob. And a round for the house, wherever the sunset gun finds you. You know your wife is safe in Singapore. And Woody is still happy in the wallow, in the care of your old friend Manus. Old now, but still eating flowers I believe.

And I want you to know that I still think of you every day—even in the sadness and electromagnetic confusion of Cargo America, where almost everyone believes in death and impossibility as their principal religion—and no one talks to lizards. I ceremony for you, and I go back in my mind to that time we were flying over the Owen Stanley Range and you remarked on how many young men had seemed to perish in explosions and blood down below us back during World War II. Some of the worst fighting in all the Pacific. Then you pointed to the dense, cool white cloud we flew into, the jungle island’s eternal answer back to the disbelieving West. You were the only white person who supported me when I got into trouble there.

And I remember how you turned to me and smiled like I’ve never seen before or since when both engines stalled in that cloud over those fierce mountains. A sudden silence like everything I’d ever feared. You said, “This is why we’re here.”

I think about that silence, Bob. That moment in the clouds. I think about that instant of deep personal change in me—when the terror turned into a place of shelter I could always return to, the second of my secret power points of refuge.

I wish you blue sky and flat water—or the cool healing of the cloud beyond time. Order me a drink, you bastard.


About the Author

Kris Saknussemm is the author of eleven books that have been translated into 22 languages. He has lived half his life overseas, in Australia, NZ, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands and Tonga. He now lives in Las Vegas.