Danger Zone: Lured by money and adventure

By Celeste Gorrell Anstiss

The promise of big money and adventure has long lured talented young Kiwis to faraway places.
Photo / James Featherstone
The promise of big money and adventure has long lured talented young Kiwis to faraway places. Photo / James Featherstone

Lawlessness, riots, looting, armed carjackings, tribal tensions, unexploded mines, flash flooding, landslides - the New Zealand Government paints a bleak picture of Papua New Guinea on its Travel Smart website.

There are those who say you'd have to be stupid to go there. But below the ground is Oceania's very own Aladdin's Cave containing vast deposits of copper, gold and oil, treasures which are gathered by foreign companies.

It is these companies that offer employment opportunities for fearless Kiwis, lured by a sense of adventure and pay packets they could never dream of earning at home.

Pilots, in particular, flock to this rugged and mountainous nation to transport equipment and passengers into regions impassable by land. They earn around US$120,000 ($154,000) a year and work month on, month off.

But what the fine print in their employment contracts probably doesn't tell them is that just because the employing company might have an office in Auckland or Sydney, employees are not necessarily protected by the same health and safety regulations they are used to at home.

Working in a Third World country often means safety standards are compromised and if something does go wrong, search-and-rescue resources are likely to be limited. Added to that, grieving relatives might never find out the real cause of their loved one's death.

PNG has a particularly bleak aviation safety record and Kiwi and Australian expats have been caught up in that. Last month, all 28 passengers on a plane bound for the resort town Madang died when it crashed in bad weather. Rumours are flying about the possibility of contaminated fuel.

The plane's Kiwi first officer Campbell Wagstaff and the Australian pilot Bill Spencer survived and were airlifted to hospital in Australia. Allan Tull, a New Zealander living in PNG, told the Herald on Sunday that their speedy evacuation was just as well.

"The locals will want payback [for the lives lost]. Their lives will be at risk now."

Last month's accident was the 20th fatal crash in PNG in nine years. Nine Australians died near the Kokoda Trail two years ago and last September, three Australians and a New Zealander perished in the flames of a plane that crash-landed on Misima Island.

Dunedin-born Kelby Cheyne, 26, survived that accident, but his father Geoff Cheyne says it left him too emotionally scarred to ever discuss with his family.

"He survived and four didn't - that's a huge thing to deal with," Geoff Cheyne says. "He doesn't call it luck, he says the others were unlucky."

Kelby is now a flying instructor in Queensland.

"He's back flying in Australia but he's never going to forget it. He enjoyed himself and it was interesting but life was dangerous there. I think you'd have to have rocks in your head [to live in PNG].

"I got to keep my son, but there's four others that are suffering. I look at him and think 'why are you still alive, you shouldn't be?'"

It was the absence of a genuine investigation that shocked the family of Richard Crook after his helicopter crashed in PNG in 2008. The 33-year-old helicopter pilot, from Auckland's Torbay, was killed when the helicopter he was flying dropped from the sky.

Contaminated fuel is thought to have caused the engine to fail, but the investigation stalled without the source of the contamination being pinpointed.

Crook's father Paul says the New Zealand government appeared to be powerless to do anything.

"If it was Samoa or Tonga maybe our Government would be in a position to influence, but the New Zealand Government can't be seen to be interfering with another country's jurisdiction. They can't just march in," he says.

"They [expats working in PNG] have got to be aware it's not like here, or anywhere else. If you run foul, you can be in great difficulties."

Christine Crook says she does not want the same tragedy to happen to anyone else's son or daughter.

"We felt, in our naivete, contaminated fuel was a big issue. The real shocker was when six months after the accident we found out the fuel samples were still sitting in the investigator's office because he had not got permission or the funds to send them off for testing. We were horrified."

When the samples were eventually sent to Australia for analysis, the containers arrived broken and the evidence was lost forever. Richard's death was a second blow to Paul and Christine, who lost their 25-year-old daughter, Michelle, to complications of diabetes five years before their son died.

"It's a bit of a mind thing, like we're neglecting her memory to think of him, but what can you do," Paul says.

Meanwhile, the family say they have never heard from Rift Oil, the British company Richard was contracted to work for.

"I looked on their website just a few months after he died to look for a contact number," Christine says.

"It had big headlines right across the page saying, Our best year ever in Papua New Guinea'. That's as far as I looked."

A year after Richard's death, the company sold for £115 million ($236 million).

Kiwis are inevitably drawn to exotic, foreign lands and some don't make it home. Last year 146 died on foreign soil although the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade don't have a breakdown on how many of those deaths were in accidents.

So far this year, 112 Kiwis have died in foreign countries. Last year MFAT was notified of 13 deaths in Thailand but say more could have gone unreported.

The family of Christchurch English teacher Karl Warhurst feared the worst when he dropped out of contact in May last year, during the bloodshed of the Red Shirts protests. After a sleepless week, the family found him in a Thai hospital, injured and disoriented. The family of Sarah Carter were not so fortunate.

The 23-year-old and two of her friends became seriously ill in Chiang Mai and Sarah died the next day. Her death has been linked to a toxic chemical or pesticide from her hotel room. And Aucklander Liz Hardwick-Smith, 42, died in a horror truck smash in Mexico, a country with road safety problems on a par with Papua New Guinea's skies.

Cultural differences in strict Muslim countries pose a different sort of challenge for Kiwi expatriates living and working there. Toby Carroll, 32, spent two months in a Dubai jail for having sex outside of marriage, dobbed in by a jilted lover. Carroll spent $50,000 on legal fees for himself, his girlfriend and the ex-lover.

He was released and deported in August, and is now back in New Zealand. Auckland-based recruitment specialist Paul Brophy says there are no shortages of Kiwis with a taste for adventure, but he is "up front" with recruits about the potential dangers overseas.

He currently looking for someone to take up a post in Port Moresby as chief operations officer for Papua New Guinea's biggest telco. As well as the right level of experience, Brophy's looking for an applicant with the taste for adventure - a keen deep-sea diver or yachtie, for example.

"When you find yourself working in a country like PNG you really have to embrace it. You have to put your heart and soul into it."

The salary is around 75 per cent more than its New Zealand equivalent and Brophy, with Frog Recruitment, says the job comes with a chance to transfer anywhere in the world once the applicant has a proven track record.

And there have been no shortage of Kiwis jumping at the opportunity. For a local role of this calibre, Brophy says he expects to get a dozen quality applications. He's already received 20. But it comes with a catch, and that's safety.

"It is what it is, you have to be pretty up front with people," he says.

"Over the years there's been a criminal undercurrent."

One IT consultant lasted 12 months in Port Moresby before returning to New Zealand last month showing signs of post-traumatic stress.

The consultant, who does not want to be named in case it affects his ability to find work in New Zealand, says two guards at his residential complex were murdered during his time there.

Day-to-day life was frightening enough to justify keeping a bush knife with him at all times. The father-of-two recalled a recent incident where, while getting cash out of an ATM, the hairs on the back of his neck prickled as he sensed someone loitering behind him. He reached for his knife but found it wasn't there. Suddenly he flashed back to reality. He was standing in suburban Auckland, far away from PNG's notorious capital. The person behind him was not about to attack him. She was a middle-aged woman waiting to get money out of the machine.

No fear of flying

Helicopter pilot Alan Tull, 53, has ticked off nearly every dangerous job on offer in his industry - from fighting Australian wild fires from the air to flying through remote, high-altitude parts of inner Mongolia.

He drew the line when he was offered a $US1500-a-day gig in Baghdad. For the past few years Tull has been happy flying in Papua New Guinea, extra work left open when Kiwi pilot Richard Crook died after his helicopter crashed three years ago. The two were great mates.

"I always said I'd do three years in PNG and get out of there, Tull says.

"It's been 4½ and I'm not quite ready to come home yet.

"I've been fighting fires in Australia for 14 years and they have a lot of accidents there, it's dangerous, hot work. But you can't think of any of that stuff, else you wouldn't be able to do it. I just think that when your number is up, it's up."

Tull reckons the most dangerous of all was Alaska, where he mustered reindeer in the Aleutian Islands and flew between tuna boats miles out at sea.

"I'd be flying through thick fog over the water for hours and hours. If you go down out there they'll never find you," he says.

"My boy thought I was helping Santa."

Tull says while he enjoys the adventure and challenge of his work he would take a regular job back in New Zealand, if the pay was better.

"There's a lot of undercutting on prices, which makes the wages low. There aren't many pilots earning six figures in New Zealand but overseas, the money is brilliant."

In Papua New Guinea he earns around three times more than he would at home. The biggest challenge, he says, is personal security.

He tells of a woman friend who flew helicopters in the Highlands for 10 years and lived to tell the tale, only to be murdered by a couple who came to buy the car she was selling before she moved home to Australia.

"They took it for a test drive, so she was sitting in the passenger seat and the wife of the guy was in the back. She [the pilot] was strangled with the seat belt."

Young Kiwi builds up experience in Africa

With jobs for pilots scarce on the ground, and in the air, in New Zealand, Auckland pilot James Featherstone looked offshore for work.

Now the 22-year-old flies well-heeled tourists between African safari parks in a six-seater Cessna 210. The salary won't make him rich - it's about half what he would earn back home - but, he says, the lifestyle couldn't be better.

"We fly in and are away six to 10 days at a time. The lodges are quite exclusive and expensive and we stay there with the guests, eating three- course meals and all of that. There's three Kiwis in the company too, which is great."

Featherstone is based in Namibia but flies to Botswana, Zambia and Angola, a country reeling after decades of unrest.

"Learning to behave there was a learning curve, you can't just take your camera out, they think you're spying and exposing the weaknesses in their military. Botswana and Zambia are very easy, still Third World countries but the people are very friendly."

Featherstone hopes to build up his flying hours and experience with the aim of landing a job back home in the next six months. Unlike Papua New Guinea, the southern nations of Africa have a reasonably good history of aviation safety, with the biggest risks posed by the large wild animals that frequently wander onto the runway.

"Springboks, ostriches, I heard of an elephant walking onto the runway during a take-off once, the guy had to swerve right around it," Featherstone says.

"We've been talking to the airport operators about putting up fences. An elephant would definitely win a fight with a plane."

- Herald on Sunday

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