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SILENT WORLD: HOW WE LOST CONTACT

In many ways, we do live off the grid. The nearest “road” is only 7 miles away, but one has to cross two mountains and a river to get there. I put the word “road” in quotes because it is a path which can only be navigated if one has a tractor, and it is virtually unusable for 10 months out of the year due to heavy rains and raging rivers, which even tractors cannot safely traverse. During raining season, the only way to get out of these mountains is taking a dinghy across the Astrolabe Bay to Madang, which is about 60 miles away from Mawerero as the crow flies.

There are no power lines where we live. No lights to block out the stars on clear nights. No televisions or stereos to drown out the sounds of the jungle.

There are no coffee shops providing free wifi. In fact, there are no coffee shops. No shops at all really. But there is coffee here, since this is where it grows. Though no one here drinks it.

But despite all the distances and absences, we do have two small connections to the outside world. On a mountain top not too far away from our small ridge stands a cell tower. It is a small tower that repeats a signal coming from a larger tower at the coast, but it’s enough to provide a strong cellular signal to the village here. It’s not 5G, or 4G, or 3G… in fact it’s not G at all. But we are able to make calls to anywhere in the world for about $1.30 per minute (about $0.50 per minute if calling within PNG). The tower works from about 8 A.M. to 8 P.M. most days. It is solar-powered and does not have an adequate battery bank, so we only have cell service during daylight hours, and sometimes not even that if we have heavy clouds (which is often).

Our other connection is through a satellite dish that we installed when we arrived. This satellite dish provides us with internet speeds reminiscent of dial-up connections, but it’s enough to stay in touch with friends and family back home through email and this blog.

Both these connections are a blessing. Neither of these technologies were available in this part of the world until recently and we grateful for the connectivity they provide. However, our setup here is fragile and such connections are easily lost.

On January 19th, our first system went out. The satellite internet (V-Sat) bit the dust first. We tried resetting the system and checking all the connections, but we could not get the internet to come online. Thankfully, the cell tower was still working, so we called our V-Sat provider. After two days of trouble-shooting, we figured out it was a faulty LAN port on the modem. We needed a new modem, but modems for this kind of system are not easy to come by. They had a spare, but it was in Port Moresby. The modem would have to be flown to Madang by plane and then shuttled up to us via helicopter, but our next supply run isn’t scheduled until April 6th.

So we had to come up with a new plan. We decided I would hike out of Mawerero, take a dinghy to Madang, get the modem, and then head back the way I came. The plan was to do it in six days. It’s rainy season, so the trails are muddy and slippery, and torrential rains often bring hiking to an end around noon each day. So I would try to make it out of the mountains to a beach town called Biliau, take a dinghy to Madang the following morning, stay with Jeremy and Lorie Lehman in Madang for a full day of rest, get a dinghy back to Biliau the following day, and then split my up-hill hike into two days. We had a plan. Now we just needed the new modem to arrive.

By the time the new modem made it to Madang, January was over. On Monday, February 6th I started the journey to Madang and back. I had excellent hiking weather and managed to make it to Biliau in just under 10 hours. A storm came that night and made for a nice, cool sleep in a hut by the beach.

The next morning, I found a dinghy headed to Madang, paid the 50 Kina ($20 USD) fare, and we started out. We got halfway across Astrolabe Bay when the motor sputtered to a stop. This happened at about 10 A.M. (two hours after we left Biliau). The skipper thought it was a faulty spark plug, but there were no tools or spare spark plugs to replace it. The three crew tried again and again to get the engine running, but to no avail. The engine was dead. Someone suggested that we try to row to shore, but there was only one paddle on board and it was not enough to keep us from drifting out to sea with the tide.

After about an hour, it seemed to me that I was the only one worried about our situation. Everyone else just seemed to be sitting there waiting for something to happen. So I checked my phone and realized I still had one small bar of service. I called Jeremy. “Hey Jeremy, it’s Zach. So yeah, I’m kinda lost at sea. Can you help me?” And he did.

Jeremy put two plans into action. First, he went down to the docks in Madang to notify the other dinghy skippers that one of their own was adrift at sea. Second, Jeremy started organizing a rescue operation should another dinghy fail to find us. He called SIL aviation to arrange a helicopter and talked to a friend with another mission who has a boat. Together, the plan was to locate us with the heli and rescue us with the boat before nightfall.

The skippers at the Madang docks ended up calling me and giving me the number of a man in Biliau. We called him and he contacted a mechanic in Madang. The mechanic in Madang has a friend with a dinghy and the two of them set out with some friends to look for us.

By noon, we’d been adrift for two hours. In the strong tropical sun, I was already dehydrated and sunburnt. We a saw a tugboat chugging away about a two miles north of us. A few of us grabbed shirts and other bright colored fabric and tried to wave him down, but he didn’t stop. Then we saw some other dinghies traveling just south of us, but they were just too far away to notice us.

By 2 P.M. I called Jeremy again, and we agreed that if no one had found us by 4 P.M., he would put plan two into action to try and find us before nightfall. I was able to get enough of a signal to get some GPS coordinates on my phone and send them to Jeremy. The following is a picture of the compass from my phone (showing our coordinates and the direction our boat was facing) and the map that Jeremy plotted when he received the coordinates.

12 miles out to sea

We were a good 12 miles from shore. We were close enough to see the mountains and the coastline, but we were too far away to paddle or swim with the tide going out. So all we could do was wait and try to keep covered in the blazing sun. Not easy to do in these roofless banana boats.

Baking in the sun next to my friend, Eki, who was along for the ride to Madang. The concerned crew are behind us.

At 2:30 P.M. we got a call from the mechanic. Without GPS, they had to rely on our best description of our location:”Well, there is water all around us. Does that help?” But then, just 15 minutes later, they spotted us. I took this short video of their dinghy coming on the horizon:

The beautiful sight of rescue! My phone was almost dead, so this was the last picture I got of our ordeal.

The mechanic changed our spark plug, but that turned out to be a non-issue. Evidently, our fuel tanks had gotten some water in them, and since water, gasoline, and oil do not work well together, the engine had failed completely. We had to be towed back to Madang. It took about an hour. The ordeal ended at 3:45 P.M. and Jeremy met me at the docks with cold water and food. It was good to be back on solid ground. And thankfully, Jeremy never had to enact his brilliant-yet-massively-expensive rescue operation.

I got the modem and spent the whole next day resting with the Lehmans and nursing my sunburnt face. It was the only part of me that I did not keep covered, and the glare off the water cooked me pretty bad.

On Thursday, I had to get back on a dinghy to start the journey home. I really did not want to it. Being lost at sea (even for just four hours) had shaken me up a bit. I guess it did not help that I had read a story about German U-Boats during WWII recently. Between the book and my experience at sea, I could finally understand why God promises there will be no sea in the new heavens and new earth (Revelation 21:1). It’s a hostile, unforgiving place. It took a lot of prayer for me to step foot on another dinghy, but I went. And the Lord allowed us to make amazing time. We went from Madang to Biliau in just over two hours.

The next day, I got up before dawn and started hiking back into the Finisterre Mountains. I expected to be halted by the rain, but it never came. After 10 hours and 45 minutes of hiking, I made it back to Mawerero, a whole day ahead of schedule.

On Saturday, February 11th, I hooked up the new modem and called our V-Sat provider to turn on the system. But it didn’t work. Once again, I spent the better part of three days on the phone with customer support trying to figure out what was wrong this time. The staff taught be how to connect the modem to a computer to give it commands, how to test the transmitter and receiver on the satellite dish, and how to test voltage on various components of the system. In the end, we discovered that the transmitter port was not providing enough voltage to power the antenna on the dish. So once again, I had to figure out how to get another modem from Port Moresby to Mawerero.

Trying to diagnose the problem with the new modem, which is the black box on the table.
My voltage meter broke, and since a new one is thousands of miles away, I improvised.

I told my friends in the village that I had to hike back to Madang again the following week, but they refused to let me go. Several volunteered to make the trip for me. I gladly accepted their help.

Things were moving forward with getting the new modem when another storm passed through our area and knocked out our cell tower. Now we were totally disconnected from the outside world. There was no way to reach anyone. But I had to figure out logistics with Jeremy to get the modem, so I hiked up the mountain behind our village. It’s about a 40 minute hike. At the top, we can sometimes catch a faint signal coming from the main tower by the beach. It worked. I made plans to send someone to get the modem from Jeremy on February 22nd, with the hopes they would be able to make it back to Mawerero on the 23rd.

While Jeremy waited for my currier to arrive, he contacted Digicel, the cell phone carrier who runs the towers in our region. The last time our network went down it took 4 months for Digicel to fix it. But this time, they had the network up and running again in just 3 days.

My friend, Guitine, arrived in Mawerero right on time. He’s got some training in electrical systems, so he also helped me check the wires on everything as we connected the new modem. It was a painful few minutes as we waited for the modem to come online, but it finally did! With our network working again, I was able to call and get our V-Sat service running again, and we had working internet that night. I couldn’t stop smiling as we ate dinner.

It had taken 36 days to find a solution to something that can be fixed stateside with a quick trip to Radio Shack. But we’re officially back… for as long as God wills. Thanks to the many of you who prayed for us during all the radio silence.

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