Papua New Guinea – Chapter 11: Our Journey Ends as It Began

Wednesday & Thursday.  August 15-16, 2012.

We piled into the hotel van to go to the airport terminal, which we knew was close… but hadn’t realized it was right in town only three blocks away!  We checked in for our flight, and sat down to wait.  But of course, Air Niugini was about to strike again!  The incoming flight from Port Moresby failed to arrive on time.  As the hour got later and later, I explained to the duty manager that we had what had by then become a very tight connection in POM for Brisbane, and that we had to make the Brisbane flight in order to connect to our flight to Los Angeles the next morning.  He offered to keep our luggage to the side so that it would be loaded last and come off first.  He also contacted the operations headquarters in Port Moresby for us to arrange a quick connection.  Eventually, the plane arrived and we walked across the tarmac to climb the steps to the plane.  I spotted our luggage, which appeared they were about to load ahead of the other bags, so I walked over to the baggage handlers to explain.  The head man got really angry and told me in no uncertain terms that I was NOT to be in that area and had to immediately get back in line at the foot of the boarding steps.  I explained about our bags as fast as I could and quickly got back in line.  In PNG, some rules are ironclad.  At least the ones they want to enforce at the moment.

We landed in Moresby 30 minutes before our flight to Brisbane was to depart.  Our luggage indeed was first off the plane, but the Air Niugini ground staff who met us at the plane wouldn’t let us collect it then and there.  No no no. We had to go inside and collect it on the baggage conveyor.  Of course, that meant waiting for every other piece of baggage that came off the plane after ours, and which was loaded onto the carts on top of ours… so ours was the last to come out on the conveyor.  We grabbed the bags and ran out the door and down the street to the international terminal.  We got there with 15 minutes left before flight time.  But… were met by the duty manager who calmly explained that our flight had closed.  We explained our situation… the connection to Los Angeles in the morning… the plane was still there… we could take the bags to the gate… all to no avail.  Nothing could convince her to let us go to the gate.  She calmly insisted that our only option was to go again to the very same service desk that we had sat at for two hours getting “serviced” when we had arrived in PNG two weeks earlier.

Before giving up and going to the desk, we tried unsuccessfully to talk Virgin Australia into selling us tickets on their flight that would be leaving in 30 minutes, but they too insisted that it was too late and that the flight was already closed.  At least they called their manager in Australia, but to no avail.  We were stuck in Port Moresby… again.

At the service desk, we learned there were no more flights that day to Brisbane.  Of course.  Instead they wanted to put us on the next morning’s 6:30am flight which, if on schedule, would have put us into Brisbane 50 minutes before our flight to Los Angeles.  Obviously, that wasn’t going to work.  We pleaded for them to look for other alternatives.  One dead end after another.  They kept wanting to give up and just put us on the 6:30am flight.  We kept suggesting routes they could look for.  “Are there any flights from here today going anywhere in Australia with a connecting flight to Brisbane in the morning?”  Finally that hit pay dirt.  They found a flight at 5:30pm that evening from Moresby to Cairns, and the next morning we could get a flight at 6am from Cairns to Brisbane, which would give us plenty of time to connect to the States.  GREAT!  But in the time it took for them to enter the booking, one of the seats on the morning flight was purchased by someone else.  Now there were only four seats left.  “Are there any other morning flights to Brisbane?”  Yes, at 5:30am.  “Is there a seat on that one?”  Yes, one seat.  “Thank you.  Can you book that seat on the 5:30am flight and book the four remaining seats on the 6am flight?  Quickly please?”  Yes indeed.  A few minutes later we were all set… or so we thought.

In the waiting room for our Cairns flight, 5:30pm came and went.  No plane.  We asked the gate agent, “There is a 7:30pm Virgin flight to Cairns; can we switch to that flight?”  “No, that can’t be done because you’ve already gone through security.  Please be patient, sir.  All will be fine.”

Eventually, the Air Niugini ground staff hastily gathered our passports and boarding passes, and those of the other 15 or so passengers for the clearly undersold flight, and took the documents downstairs to rebook all of us on the Virgin flight.  With just a few minutes to spare, we made the Virgin flight, which they had actually held for us. Hallelujah!

Touching down in Australia was like walking into a world of the future.  The shock was palpable.  The terminal was clean.  Painted.  Furniture wasn’t broken.  The people were friendly and helpful.  We cleared through customs in no time, even though we unknowingly brought with us some illegal mud men effigies.  The customs inspector explained they could bring plant and animal diseases into the country, but seeing our tickets out of the country the next morning, he agreed to just seal them in a plastic garbage bag, and we promised not to open the bag till we were out of Australia.  What a country!

Air Niugini had arranged for a van to meet us and take us to our hotel.  It turned out that a convention in town meant that all the city hotels were filled.  Instead we are driven about twenty miles to a fantastic beach resort.  As we drove down the coast road past swank beach resort after restaurant after boutique we all swore we’d landed in Maui.  A little after 10pm, we checked in to the lovely Novotel Palm Court Resort.  Dinner, pre-arranged by Air Niugini was waiting for us in the dining room, which they had held open for us.  Air Niugini service is great… except for the part about getting you to your destination.  After eating, we walked past the inviting pool and back to our rooms for a quick four hours of sleep before our 3:30am wake-up call, and less than that for Nicole, Jon and Steven who had taken a long walk on the moonlit beach before nodding off for a few hours.

The rest of the journey went smoothly.

And we lived to tell the tale.

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