Skull Island

One of the perks in my line of work is that I occasionally get to visit some pretty interesting places where an airport needs constructing, expanding or fixing. I’ve now been to more countries on the African continent than many other South Africans, including my wife – although she’ll probably agree that this doesn’t speak volumes.

One of my favourite locations to date is Skull Island – a fictional name for the actual island which I concocted in order to protect its location and our client’s identity (it would be a sin if it mutated into another Lanzarote or Zakynthos because of my post :)). The island could quite feasibly have been a filming location in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong movie, but alas I see from IMDB that Jackson used some poxy excuse of an island off the coast of Wellington, New Zealand. I suppose I can’t blame him for missed opportunities; he makes some good films and very few people have heard of, let alone visited the Skull Island to which this post refers.

The journey to the island was a perilous one, with the exception of the initial SAA flight leg from Johannesburg. We landed at a transit destination where our party had a 2 day layover before catching a connecting flight to Skull Island. Due to the innate nature of many African countries, where fortune favours the dirty rotten scoundrel, an escort was organised to assist us getting out of the airport with passports, personal effects and limbs intact and to arrange transportation to and from the airport and our hotel without being hustled. Our troop transport had seen better days – I felt like dialling up duct-tape headquarters to let them know that I had found their perfect marketing tool. The shocks were AWOL, one of the balding wheels on the car I was riding in had three nuts securing it to the hub and judging by driving styles, I’m almost certain that our chauffeurs were part-time African stock car racers. Tear-arsing down the wrong side of a street in order that they could offer a ‘tout suite’ service was second nature to these boys. Seat belts (when working) were a must.

I’d done a little research before leaving SA and discovered that we could dilute the boredom of the layover with a visit to a wildlife sanctuary for gorillas up in the mountains, as well as climbing an old lava flow from an active volcano – at least it was something! There were a finite number of hours one could spend cooped up in a hotel oasis eating pizza and drinking sparkling water by the pool. We organised with our escort, money exchanged hands and the trip was on.

The drive to the sanctuary was arduous; the roads had seen better days, with potholes to navigate which could sink the Titanic (again) and bad drivers aplenty (including ours). The scenery on the way however was spectacular; plantations, rainforest jungle and people going about their lives passed by from outside the backseat window.

The wildlife sanctuary was slightly ‘rustic’ and not surprisingly, there were differing entrance prices for locals and tourists. My disguise had failed to fool yet again! To keep us on our toes, our guide warned us that the inmates were master escape artists, able to determine when the electric fences encircling their pens were no longer able to satisfy their power trip addiction. There were also signs alerting us to a very different sort of public stoning, where we (the paying public), could be stoned by the monkeys. You can’t blame these guys for their want of some good entertainment.

Gorilla Sanctuary

Our group wandered around the sanctuary checking out the various enclosures; witnessed some stealthy, but accurately-aimed rocks being lobbed and feeding time in the chimpanzee enclosure. I was stood looking down into the gorilla pen when one of the team shouted that there had been an escape. My immediate thought was that he was winding me up, but when I saw the whites of his eyes and the exodus of staff and visitors behind him, this was my cue to make haste. We sprinted around the park and slid out the side gate as a large and very free chimp rounded the corner – nothing like a bit of adrenalin to liven up one’s day!

Journey to the Gorilla Sanctuary and Atop the Lava Flow

Word of the breakout spread to the local community whilst everyone was stood outside exchanging near-death experiences. Said chimp was still inside exploring his new territory whilst his doting audience peered in. It would only be a matter of time before he put two and two together and figured out there was an entire world awaiting him outside the sanctuary’s walls. A split second later that light bulb sparked and the chimp attempted to bust though the main entrance. Marius from our team assisted staff by pushing against the gate, oblivious to the fact that the chimp had now changed his game plan and opted to climb over. Hilarious! People banged on the gate in a hope that this would frighten the chimp enough to prevent him from escaping into the street. To cut a long story short, escaped chimp was darted, peace returned to the sanctuary and everyone lived happily ever after.

Next stop, the lava flow. We were faced with a small hike up onto an old flow, which had necessitated the realignment of the coastal road following a previous eruption some years earlier. From our vantage point we could see the full size of the solidified lava river (approximately 500m at the widest point) and in the distance rising from the jungle and surrounded by a heavy mist, the volcano’s cinder cone. It was a 4 day hike from where we standing to the top of the crater. Impressive; and even more so if you could imagine what it must have been like when the lava flow was in its molten state.

Crowds at the Beach

Our last stop of the day was a nearby beach resort, for a quick drink and snack before our drag race back to the hotel. The sky was overcast (definitely not sunbathing weather) however the volcanic black sand beach was pretty busy with locals all the same.

The next day we headed back to the airport for our onward flight to Skull Island. Our carrier had been recently blacklisted (political reasons and thankfully not for a bad safety record) so it was a case of arriving at the airport, handing over cash for the flight and hoping that the aircraft (and crew) would be there to take us to our destination. Luckily for us the pilots were on the apron in the airline’s Dornier 228 – a 19-seater twin prop. For any of you who know airplanes, this is contender for one of the ugliest planes in the skies – here’s a photo of one.

Take-off was somewhat worrying as I thought that the captain had rotated prematurely when the aircraft had ‘bounced’ over a hump in the runway. This caused the plane to ‘hang’ for a split second and then dip before gaining some altitude. Once we were safely airborne, I relaxed and looked down out of the window at the vast expanse of jungle below, transforming quickly to ocean as we headed out to sea. For the remainder of the flight I watched the aircraft’s weather monitor (colour coded red, yellow and green). There was an awful lot of ‘red’ on the screen and you can probably imagine what the flight to the island felt like (I wasn’t lying earlier – the journey was perilous!).

Skull Island was surrounded by mist (just like in the film) and runway visibility was non-existent. We landed without incident and performed an about turn before coming to a stop on the small apron. I had a chance to chat with the pilots about the airport, approaches and also our flight as they rotated the prop shafts. I could see that both pilots had sweat stains under their shirt sleeves so I jokingly asked if it had been a tough approach. They explained that they were close to aborting due to the low cloud ceiling and poor runway visibility (why did I bother?).

After completing immigration formalities, we were taken by 4×4 to the island’s luxury resort. The hotel was built on a private beachfront with chalets set amongst the palms and natural surroundings. These were comfortable and all had en-suite facilities, hot running water, aircon and satellite TV included. The view from my hillside chalet’s private balcony through the palm fronds onto the beachfront was awesome (and not a lobster-skinned chav in sight).

Our arrival had practically doubled the number of guests at the resort and we were quick to check out the surroundings and take a quick afternoon swim in the warm, crystal-clear waters off the beach before dinner. A wooden walkway connected the island to the resort’s restaurant and bar which had been built on a small islet. I couldn’t wipe the smile from my face – this was paradise and all on the company’s account. My wife would be exceedingly jealous.

Skull Island resort’s restaurant had its own gourmet chef who personally came to introduce the menu to his diners. Food for the week was 5-star and more often than not incorporated the catch of the day. On our first night we ate barracuda steaks – yum! We jokingly told him that we were missing good ole’ South African fillet steak; I added that I was also suffering from chocolate withdrawal having not seen a chocolate bar since our adventure began. The next evening we were surprised with fillet steak, followed by chocolate cake for dessert. Too good to be true? I think so!

The following day I had to remind myself that I had come to the island to work. We awoke early and had a quick breakfast before taking the hotel’s quads up to the airport to survey and stakeout the alignment for the new and longer runway. Luckily we had an iPad equipped with GPS and a design overlay as it was nearly impossible to orientate yourself when immersed in the thick jungle. At our disposal, several locals armed with machetes to cut through the bush. This was tough going and there was no telling what manner of species was living in the thick underbrush – I began to regret wearing shorts. A previous survey of the site had indicated that the airport was built on a plateau with two ‘depressions’ at either end of the existing runway, i.e. the main reason behind the reorientation. These had been mislabelled and were in fact ‘chasms’ – their true extent disguised by the gigantic trees which grew out of them. To the south, fort-like peaks towered above the jungle floor; legacies of long-extinct volcanoes and another element which we had to consider in our design. Aircraft and mountains don’t play well together.

We returned to the hotel for a late lunch and decided to see if we could rent diving equipment to explore the coral reefs close to shore. Unfortunately the dive master had had a recent falling out with management so this was no longer an option. I’d bought snorkelling gear along and the other team members were able to borrow kit from the resort. The remainder of the afternoon was spent in the sea, exploring the reefs where there was a multitude of fish in relatively shallow water. We heard there were some Moray eels about but we couldn’t find any. Instead we had a diving competition where the aim was to swim beneath an underwater bridge (about 5m down) – loser bought the drinks later. I saw a live octopus – one had appeared on my lunch plate earlier in a very much dead state.

The following day we set out to explore the island in the vicinity of the airport on quads and then later (and further afield) we stood/semi-squatted in the back of a single-cab Hilux. We drove through Skull Island’s main town to view possible locations where machinery could be offloaded on the island. The locals waved as we bounced our way through the streets, my one hand securing me to the roll-bar whilst the other gripped my camera and attempted to take some decent photos – I struggled to wave back but I think they understood my predicament.

In the afternoon we retired to our beach dwellings, pretty exhausted from working in the high heat and humidity and were asked by the resort manager if we fancied tagging along on a fishing trip to hook the ‘catch of the day’ for the restaurant. Usually an excursion like this would have cost something in the region of €700 (not sure if this was per person) however in our case it was free. As if someone would turn this down?! The fishing trip was a double entendre; 1) view the coastline of the island and mountains (we were still working, naturally) and 2) catch food to feed the troops (survival). We could have snagged anything on the multitude of lines/lures in the water behind the boat, from Blue Marlin, tuna and Barracuda, to Dorado, Wahoo and shark. As we sped along the coast, flying fish followed in the boats wake (it’s amazing the ‘air time’ these fish managed). Shortly afterwards a barracuda jumped out of the water, lure in its mouth before its violent thrashings and sharp teeth severed the line and our chances of a meal.

This island’s mountains were again shrouded in heavy mist and rain as we passed by. They were some seriously impressive rocks and would have made stunning backdrops for Jackson’s movie. We rounded the southern end of the island and trawled northwards past a lighthouse. Having not landed a fish in deeper water, the captain moved into one of shallower bays were we hooked a decent sized Wahoo [peixe fumo (smoking fish – for its lightning bursts of speed].

The following day we packed our bags and reluctantly left our island paradise. With a short stop in our previous African transit destination, it was homeward bound to South Africa.

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