In August 2012, a very significant ceremony happened in what is a small and very remote village called Niksek in the lowlands of the Sepik River basin in PNG.
The ceremony was celebrating the opening of an airstrip they called “April River”.
The local pastor, in a speech given at the celebration, summed up what this event meant for the Niksek people: “We are not here just to celebrate the opening of the airstrip or to eat some pig, but we are here to worship God (that’s the first thing), to give thanks to MAF, and then to re-open and celebrate the connection we have now with other places.”
To understand just how significant this moment was for this tribe we need to take you back – about 30 years!
Building the airstrip
In the late 1970s an Austrian missionary called Fritz Urschitz travelled to the Sepik region (the first European to do so) and established a series of airstrips in the area. During a visit to the village of Niksek in 1977, he supplied the local people with spades, axes and bush knives and began the building of an airstrip that they would later name “April River” (below left).
Just two years later in October 1979, MAF’s Max Chapman did the first test landing (below right).
However, what had become a lifeline for these people was tragically destroyed in a flood that swept through the Niksek village in 1988. Although spending almost two years removing the soft silt from the airstrip, the runway soon fell into disrepair, being frequently closed over the following 20 years.
It is important to realise that the nearest hospital was at Ambunti which is a two-day canoe trip using a prohibitive 400 litres of petrol mix. Consequently, many of the sick and dying could not reach a hospital in this time and many needlessly died.
In 2011 Firtz Urschitz’s son Friedemann (right) came to PNG and purchased spades, bush knives, a wheelbarrow, iron bars, grass knives and 30 strong sand bags to help the Niksek people repair the airstrip. It was not an easy job, but the people had realised that the only way to get the much-needed service and transport again was to do this maintenance.
Finally, in August 2012, MAF pilots Martin Koehler and Mathias Glass (along with their wives Claudia and Mandy) landed the Airvan P2-MFK on the newly opened “April River”. They were welcomed by an enthusiastic village who had prepared a ceremony to mark the event that would change their lives.
Martin had brought a special gift of a Bible with him. “I thought that would be a nice gift to renew the relationship again between MAF and the village of Niksek, to show them that MAF is here to support the missions and the churches. So the Bible was a symbolic gift to the community and all the Wewak staff had signed it. We wrote a Bible verse in the front too – Mark 16:16.” He stressed in his speech that it is a Bible for the whole community to be in the church and available to everyone.
The Glasses and Koehlers were happy to accept the first flight requests, on the re-opening day, for the leadership team of the congregation to attend their church regional conference at Brugam.
The impact has affected the whole village. Basic needs are being met, teaching has returned bringing light and growth, and timely transport is available for the sick. We can never underestimate the impact that MAF brings to these remote communities and we are thankful that God has opened up yet another airstrip for his work.
The villagers say goodbye to the Glasses and Koehlers