From Bali to Timor — a Memorable Flight
With the 50th anniversary of mankind’s first landing on the moon just days away, I’m reminded of a somewhat more down-to-earth flight that I experienced only a year or so after Apollo 11. It was on my trip home to the United States from India, where I’d been serving in the Peace Corps. Traveling eastward, I spent a few days in practically every country between India and the USA. (I skipped Vietnam and Cambodia because there was a war on, and China because the U.S. had no diplomatic relations with the government in Beijing in those days.)
When I got to Indonesia, after a couple of days in Jakarta, I headed for Bali, where I spent a delightful week. My next stop was the island of Timor, whose eastern half was then still a colonial outpost of Portugal — a relic of that small country’s large role in opening up trade with the “Spice Islands” and the Far East in the 15th and 16th centuries. (Today, East Timor/Timor Leste is an independent country.) Timor was to be my jumping-off point for the next leg of my homeward journey — actually something of a detour — across much of Australia.
A portion of Indonesia. Bali is the smallish island just east of Java (location of Jakarta, the nation’s capital). Timor is at the right-hand edge of this map.
The down-to-earth flight I’m about to describe took off from Bali and headed east across several of the midsize islands in the nearly 18,000-island Indonesian archipelago. This was not exactly a luxury airliner. It was an old DC-3, a two-engine propeller job that had revolutionized passenger air travel in the 1930s and 40s, but which went out of production in 1943. It was operated by a domestic carrier (not Garuda, Indonesia’s international flag airline) whose name I have mercifully forgotten.
As best I recall, I’d never before flown on a DC-3. My only previous encounter with one of these venerable aircraft took place a couple of years earlier in India, where Indian Airlines (that nation’s domestic carrier) used them in 1968 to begin daily air service to Khajuraho, the site of a number of thousand-year-old temples whose exteriors feature, among much else, some extraordinarily erotic carvings, as explicit as anything you’ll find online today. Khajuraho is just three miles south of Rajnagar, the village where I was living and working. By the time I left Rajnagar, the airline was flying modern 737 jets to Khajuraho, but for several months at the beginning of its Kahjuraho service it flew in passengers from New Delhi on a DC-3 in the morning and flew them back in the afternoon. For several hours in the middle of the day, the plane sat idle on the tarmac. It occurred to me that it would be a great experience for the local school children to visit the airport and get an up-close look at an airplane. So I took advantage of my unique status as a Hindi-speaking foreigner and convinced the right people — at the school in Rajnagar and the Khajuraho Airport — to allow this. And one fine day, I led about 20 kids on a “class trip” to see the DC-3.
We didn’t fly anywhere, of course, but the kids climbed into the plane, checked out the seats and peered into the cockpit. I remember that our host, the pilot, was a bearded Sikh in a light-blue shirt and dark-blue turban. One other thing about the experience stands out in my memory. As we approached the plane, I reached out and lightly touched an aileron at the trailing edge of the port wing. To my surprise, the surface, although painted as silvery as the rest of the plane, was not made of metal. It felt like canvas, stretched tight over an internal framework.
The DC-3 on which I flew in Indonesia presented a striking contrast to the one I’d seen at Khajuraho. Its seats were not like anything I’ve seen before or since in an airplane. They appeared to be ordinary green bench seats transplanted from a well-used school bus. And some of them were a bit loosely bolted down and wobbly. The pilot was no local man, but a gum-chewing American in a baseball cap and no discernable uniform. When we stopped to drop off and pick up passengers at an island part way between Bali and Timor, at least one of the new passengers boarded with a kid. No, not a child, but a young goat. Meanwhile, our pilot was out on the wing, poking what looked like a yardstick into the fuel tank to gauge how much farther we could fly. I also remember we departed that airport as hastily as possible in order to get airborne before a big, dark, rain-laden cloud advancing rapidly toward us over the sea made landfall.
Our next stop was Kupang, at the western (Indonesian) end of Timor. There the rainstorm caught up with us as dusk approached, and we were told we’d have to stay there overnight. The only available accommodation, however, was a building where, without dinner (or breakfast the next morning), we spent the night lying on what looked like cafeteria tables and benches, without bedding of any kind. Between the hard surfaces on which we lay, the pounding of a heavy rainfall and the periodic — between cloudbursts — bombardment of our tin roof with small stones thrown by local mischief makers, it was impossible to get much sleep.
The next morning was clear, but when I looked at our plane, the wheels had sunk halfway into the sodden ground, and I wondered if the pilot would be able to free it from the mire. Fortunately, he got us not only unstuck but aloft, and soon enough — thanks to that venerable, much-abused DC-3 — I found myself in one of Portugal’s most remote outposts, enjoying European wine, bread and pastries that seemed quite out of place in this distant Asian archipelago.
Three cheers for that reliable prop-powered workhorse, a stark contrast to the technology that got Apollo 11 to the moon and back!
A friend and myself were talking about airplanes in general and I mentioned that I had flown on an elderly DC 3 way back in 1974. But I couldn’t remember the name of the airline so I carried out some research on Google. It was 1974 and I had been travelling around Australia for the last 6 months and found myself in Darwin, the capital city of Australia’s Northern Territory and a good place from which to travel to Bali, Indonesia.
Ansett Airlines flew a regular service from Darwin to Dili in Portuguese Timor; the fare was only $40.It was a relatively short flight, maybe 3 hours from memory. The “Dili Airport” was on a plateau half-way up a small mountain and its rough concrete surface made me think it was probably a wartime construction. The airport building was a small tin shed which was unmanned except when a flight was due. But what staggered me the most was being told that Dili was several hours drive from the airport and the access “road” was a rock-strewn track through the jungle which crossed the river several times. Obviously no ordinary taxi could make the journey to or from the airport so transport was an open top Bedford tipper truck that had been fitted with benches in the back. At least the truck was new! We appreciated the need for a vehicle that was high off the ground as we ploughed through river crossings around four feet deep! Several hours later we arrived in Dili, a pleasant city modelled on Portuguese Colonial architecture.
The locals were fearful of invasion by Indonesian troops which did happen some months later. The situation had encouraged a strong black market in foreign currency. The local escudo was crashing in value against any other worthwhile foreign currency and I changed all my Australian dollars at one of the local Chinese grocer’s shops and bought a ticket in local currency to Denpasar, Bali via Kupang then returning to Darwin at a later stage. I forget what the ticket cost but it was next to nothing!
On the allotted day I went to the airport and checked-in for the flight along with about 20 others. I only had a back-pack as baggage was restricted due to space problems. That seemed a bit odd until I saw the plane, which turned out to be a very old DC 3. The steward was greeting passengers at the door which was near the tail; I asked him where I should put my back-pack and he said just to toss it down on the floor towards the tail-plane. Once we were seated the Pilot came out of the cock-pit to welcome us aboard. He was a big guy with an American accent and a baseball cap and he was chewing gum. He said his name was Chuck and that he was a Vietnam veteran. The plane was built in 1944 and he owned it himself having bought it in ‘Nam and was subcontracted to Merpati Nusantura Indonesian Airlines. Our flight time was around 6 hours and we would be stopping at Kupang, then we had to make an unscheduled stop at Sumba Island. Once we were in the air the steward produced a camping stove which he set up on the floor down by the access door. There were anxious moments as he fired up the stove with naked flames to boil the water! Everyone was glad to have their coffee in hand as the stove was packed away!
Some passengers left us at Kupang and some others came aboard. A couple of hours later we landed on a grass runway at Sumba Island. It seemed to be thick jungle apart from the well kept runway. As we taxied to a halt a local man came out of the jungle pushing a barrow. He approached the plane and Chuck opened the door. Several boxes came on board clearly marked “Johnny Walker Scotch Whisky” and several other boxes were unloaded off the plane. Chuck said these were soap but they could have been anything! Then we continued to Denpasar, Bali………………
That trip was the highlight of my trip to Bali, and was almost exactly the same experience as your previous contributor, except my trip was in the reverse direction!
Thank you, Dave, for recounting your trip in the reverse direction a few years later. I wonder if we had the same gun-chewing pilot in a baseball cap! Thanks for sharing.