Japan Hunting Trips

Flying north, I passed over Babuyan Island, and over Autau Su, the first Japanese island, which was 40 miles east of the south end of Formosa. The Japanese had forbidden me to come near the coast of Formosa for another 65 miles, and when I did reach my permitted bit of the Formosan coast I found rock cliffs sheer enough for a stone to be thrown into the sea from 2,000 feet up. The Japanese had marked a big area at the north end of the island where I was prohibited from flying. I had no map of the land, only a chart which showed nothing from coast to coast except a few spot heights. These were of 11,490 feet south-west of my route, 8,887 feet to the west of it, and another of 3,480 feet just to the north, but this one was in the prohibited area.

I thought that my only problem would be to climb high enough to slip over a saddle; I thought the Gipsy Moth would struggle up to 5,000 feet, possibly flounder up to 6,000 feet, but certainly no higher. I fastened my safety belt and climbed steadily. I crossed a saddle with plenty of height to spare, but instead of the plain I expected to find on the other side, I could see nothing but mountains and cloud in every direction. I was in a long, narrow-gutted ravine with a mountain torrent below, and ahead was a black-hearted rain-cloud, blocking my path. I hesitated but didn’t want to turn back. If I went round to the north of the prohibited area out to sea, I should have had to alight and get more petrol first. Under the cloud, I could see a stretch of the riverbed, with some rocky half forested sides, which looked a bright watery green. This showed, I thought, that it must be clear of cloud on the other side. I decided to risk sacrificing my height, closed the throttle and dived under the cloud. I came out on the other side in a precipitous gorge with a turbulent torrent below, and completely sealed off with cloud 2,000 feet above my head. What awaited me I could not tell, because the gorge made a sharp turn to the right and I could see only a bleak V-section of mountain facing me.

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The seaplane whizzed up and down as it was buffeted by different air currents. I turned the big bend to find myself in another reach of ravine, completely filled by a thunderstorm. I hated the implacable Japanese officialdom that had forced me into this. It was as dark as twilight, and the rocks were black, with wisps of steam rising here and there. Each flash of lightning lit everything brilliantly, but afterwards it seemed darker still. The black cloud was not raining, and I sacrificed yet more height and flew under it. I cleared the storm and flew round a bend to find myself in another gorge. This seemed completely blocked. Ahead of me a dense foggy white cloud, wedged between the sides near the bottom with an opaque curtain of rain, in which the river faded and disappeared. I felt paralysed with fright; I was trapped, because I had no hope of flying blind in a narrow gorge. I could not decide what to do; I began to turn, but hesitated because I was afraid, and I swung back on course again. But to go on seemed certain death; I had to turn, and I whirred round in a vertically banked turn. A picture of the whole ravine was sharply etched on my brain, with every tree standing out clearly, the falls and boulders in the river, the strange brighter green up the sides, the cloud ceiling overhead, and a little branch valley coming in from the north. That ‘little branch valley’, or side gully, seemed to offer chance, so I turned again vertically banked, and climbed at full throttle. When I reached the gully it was clear, but sloped up to the clouds. I kept the seaplane climbing as steeply as possible at full throttle. Then, close under the cloud ceiling stretched across the top, I got a clear view far to the north, as though looking through a narrow slit. It showed me my escape. It led straight through the middle of the forbidden area, but I felt ‘to hell with the Japanese and their forbidden area’, it seemed a minor hazard compared with the rocks of the gorge. But as I went on, a saddle opened up on my left, and through it I saw a flooded plain. I turned sharply again, and shot through. As soon as I was safe I felt exhausted. I flew straight over the middle of Taihoku, the capital, towards Tamsui, on one side of a wide river, full of mud-banks. I flew low down, and hundreds of Japanese children in school grounds stopped playing and stared up at me with a sea of brown faces.

I was astonished to see a lot of Japanese flags, spiky red suns on a white field, and flying along the stone-faced riverbank I saw that it was crowded with people. Then I spotted three launches in the river, each flying a Japanese flag and full of white-uniformed officials. Somehow the thought of a ceremonious Japanese welcome had never occurred to me. I circled the water, and alighted outside one of the launches. There was a strong current, and the seaplane at once began drifting seawards.

Remembering how fast the water had rushed into my float at Aparri I felt flustered. ‘I must anchor in shallow water,’ I shouted. The officials in the launches chattered among themselves, and when I repeated my shout, they seemed undecided. The current carried me over a mud-bank where the water seemed fairly shallow, and I thought that I had better anchor there in case the seaplane sank quickly. I extracted and rigged my anchor, which seemed to excite the officials. There were cries from them, and they talked rapidly among themselves. No one understood my need for shallow water, and although the sight of my anchor was obviously upsetting them, I let it go, and it held with a strong tide rip at the rope and floats. A launch of officials came up, and a man on board began introducing them to me one by one, as if I was holding a levee. One can lead a rational, orderly existence for month after month, but suddenly a fantastic ridiculous situation may occur which upsets all one’s values and seems simply incredible. This was it. While official after official stood up in the launch, was introduced in English I could not understand, and bowed three times with most punctilious ceremony, I was in a fever of impatience at the thought of my float filling under me. Already I could feel the float losing its buoyancy. To make the scene more farcical, the Japanese were all dressed in spotless whites with smart uniform caps, and I must have looked like a disreputable tramp; from head to foot I was filthy with smears of Aparri mud and grease. My kapok life jacket, which never had an elegant shape at the best of times, bulged with cord and rags in the pockets; my soft rubber shoes were dirty and shapeless; my shirt was dirty and without a collar; my hair and beard were tousled, and my fingernails showed rims of black mud. But once the introductions had started I could not interrupt: a nation trained to hara-kiri (I thought) would expect me to continue bowing if the float disappeared under my feet. I seethed with suppressed fret as a second launchful of introductions was completed. As soon as I could I shouted again that I must get the seaplane into shallow water before it sank.

Ovens was a tall Englishman in a tropical suit of yellow-tinted white and a pith helmet. He had a long chin, a clipped moustache and scanty hair. He had difficulty in raising his voice loud enough to be heard, and he looked self-conscious, even sheepish. Everything about me and my seaplane was very unfortunate for him, and he seemed quite unable to grasp that I needed help urgently. He said the Customs man wanted to inspect my seaplane, and that I had better let him. I said it was ridiculous to insist on this immediately when it could be done just as well after I had been towed into shallow water. This caused a long discussion, which ended in his saying he thought it would be advisable for me to let the Customs official board the seaplane there. I said, ‘Then they must send a sampan; that launch will only smash up the plane.’

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