On World Malaria Day, MAF and Rotarians Against Malaria protect isolated Papua New Guineans from a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people globally every year. In 2022, MAF and RAM delivered 34,250 nets to 26 airstrips preventing thousands of deaths. MAF’s Siobhain and Ryan Cole have got what it takes to lead a complex operation…
MAF and Rotarians Against Malaria (RAM) – MAF’s biggest malaria partner in Papua New Guinea (PNG) - have been working together for over ten years.
RAM’s goal is to eradicate malaria from the face of the earth using proven interventions such as free mosquito nets, particularly long-lasting insecticidal nets or ‘LLINs’.
In remotest PNG, there are no roads or infrastructure and the only means of transport in mountainous areas is either walking or flying.
MAF serves some 200 bush airstrips across PNG’s vast, isolated areas. So great are the distances, it can take two days to walk to the nearest airstrip.
For RAM – who distribute lifesaving nets in PNG every three years - MAF are the most cost-effective, reliable, fastest and safest mode of transport to reach vulnerable, rural communities.
In February, RAM distributed over 28,000 nets out of MAF’s base in Telefomin, which serves hundreds of remote communities in Sandaun Province and the North Fly area of Western Province. Siobhain Cole from MAF PNG’s Ground Operations team says RAM’s work in this area of the country would be very difficult without MAF:
A complex operation
For Siobhain and the MAF PNG Ground Ops team at Telefomin, it has been an intense and complex operation. It has taken months of planning to transport thousands of nets and 18 RAM staff to 20 bush airstrips using three MAF planes and four pilots in just one week:
‘In order to move these nets as quickly as possible and fill the aircraft efficiently, I arrange all the details so that the pilots know what the plan is, where they’re flying to and how many nets will be loaded onto their aircraft.
‘I work with the ground staff who weigh the nets and any fuel drums that may be required to transport the nets further (ie. for motor-operated canoes). We also weigh the passengers and their luggage, so everything is prepared.’
In addition to thorough logistical planning, good weather is also key to a successful operation as MAF pilot (and Siobhain’s husband), Ryan Cole, testifies:
‘We may have a wonderful plan, but PNG has some of the most challenging flying in the world because of the weather, which adds to the complexity.
‘Poor weather is created by the mountains - there’s a lot of cloud on the ridge lines, which causes problems for us pilots. We need to find holes in that cloud to punch through to get to where we are going.
‘We have two options – either land at a jungle airstrip, stay overnight and wait for the weather to clear, or try and find a clear hole through the clouds. Excessive cloud can mean grounded aircraft and planned flights are unable to take off.
‘In hundreds of miles of cloud, there might be just one little clear hole I can go through. Sometimes it feels like God is giving me a window.’
MAF - a vital link in a very long chain
As integral as MAF’s part is in the distribution of essential nets to PNG’s most far-flung communities, MAF is just one leg in a very long journey.
For example, in February, MAF flew 152 bales (containing 50 nets each), two RAM staff and four drums of fuel from Telefomin to Edwaki – MAF’s furthest bush airstrip from its Telefomin base.
This thirty-minute flight is only a fraction of the overall journey from when the nets are despatched from Australia. For a bale of nets to reach the people served by Edwaki Airstrip, the entire journey could take up to two months by the time the cargo has cleared customs. Siobhain explains:
‘There’s a huge amount of logistics involved before the nets even get to us. They have travelled overseas by boat, barge and truck before MAF planes can pick them up. The nets have already travelled hundreds of miles by sea, river and road.
‘From one of Australia’s major ports, they are shipped to PNG’s capital, Port Moresby. From Port Moresby, they are trucked to a barge port, put on a small barge where they travel up the Fly River to Kiunga mid-country. From Kiunga, they travel by lorry for four hours to Tabubil where MAF has a base. MAF then fly the nets from Tabubil to Telefomin, then from Telefomin to Edwaki. From Edwaki they are walked or canoed to their final destination.’
If RAM didn’t fly the Telefomin to Edwaki leg, there would be huge implications in terms of logistics, time and cost says Ryan:
‘One day’s trek is around 5 minutes of flying. Without MAF, from Telefomin it would take four days on foot to reach the nearest river, another two days travel by canoe and another day of walking to finally reach Edwaki – a week of overland travel compared to a 30-minute flight!’
Just a 30-minute flight across PNG’s vast jungles, rivers and mountains makes all the difference to Tim Freeman - RAM’s Programme Manager:
‘Since 2011, MAF has been one of our leading partners in the distribution of LLINs in remote areas, particularly in Telefomin of Sandaun Province and North Fly of Western Province.
‘Without MAF’s vital services, RAM would be unable to reach the remote parts of PNG without huge difficulty. We would like to thank MAF for a very long-lasting partnership, which has greatly aided RAM’s ability to provide a service to the remote parts of PNG.’
Since February 2022, RAM – with MAF’s support – has distributed a further 6,250 mosquito nets to six remote airstrips across PNG’s Hela and Southern Highlands Provinces.
Thanks to this partnership, thousands of Papua New Guineans are protected from malaria, preventing unnecessary deaths.
Story by Claire Gilderson