Christmas is traditionally a time for ghost stories, but I could write about these elusive beings with little or no prompting and I frequently do just this. Instead, I have two other tales to present for the enjoyment of visitors to this site, and while they also concern highly elusive beings, they are most certainly not spectres, but flesh and blood.
Earlier this year, I wrote a piece about North Sentinel Island, for reasons I explained in detail in the post. Not long afterwards, I heard from Captain Robert Fore, one of the helicopter pilots who helped to rescue the crew of the Primrose after it had run aground on a reef off North Sentinel in 1981. My initial reply somehow went astray, but I was delighted to hear from Bob again a few days ago.
He repeated his generous offer to send me previously unseen photographs taken by him during the rescue of the crew of the Primrose, the only condition being that I treated the subject matter with respect. I am of course happy to oblige, so it seems that this would be best achieved by reproducing Bob’s own words from another site that dealt with the matter, while publishing Bob’s own words once more will also allow me to intersperse them with the photographs in question.
To my mind, all this is fascinating enough, but Bob also supplied another story which I’ll publish – along with some photos – immediately after his account of the rescue of the crew of the Primrose, which begins here:
It was with no small amount of interest that I read the article (while surfing the internet) that you wrote on the 9th of February, 2006 concerning a helicopter rescue in the Andaman Islands located in the Bay of Bengal. You see, I was one of the helicopter pilots that flew the three trips to the M.V. Primrose to rescue the crew after it ran aground off the north shore of North Sentinel Island.
For the most part, [the] description of the incident was correct, thought there were several points that were in error, almost certainly because they were of no major import. One of the inconsistencies was that the helicopter which performed the rescue was in fact a civilian helicopter belonging to P.T. Airfast Services, Indonesia, which we worked for. We were supporting an Oil And Natural Gas Commission (ONGC- Indian Govt. Agency) contract, which provided off-shore helicopter support to an oil exploration rig (if memory serves, it was the Gettysburg) located off the northwest shore of Andaman Island. Robert Fore (myself) and Vic Wiersba) were the two pilots which flew the mission on August the 2nd, 1981.
We had a developed a friendship with Admiral Sawnhi, the Indian Naval District Commander, during our stay at Port Blair. We were approached by his office on the morning of the rescue with the information concerning a grounded ship with crew still aboard on North Sentinel Island. There had been a typhoon which forced the ship aground on the island in the preceding week. We were asked if we could provide rescue services for the crew, since the Indian Navy had no ships or helicopters in the immediate area, and it would take several days for them to arrive.
We agreed to attempt the rescue, but had little in the way of concrete information to work with in the preparations for the attempt. We did construct a rudimentary rope ladder in the event we would not be able to land the helicopter on the Primrose’s deck. Also, an Indian Naval aviator (fixed-wing) Lt. Gadhok, who was assigned to the Naval District Command, volunteered to accompany us. It was hoped he might provide valuable support for organizing the crew for rescue, once he was on-board the ship.
The aircraft was an S-58T Sikorsky, a modified twin-turbine design helicopter, which could hold a max of 16 passengers and 2 pilots. We flew to the site of the shipwreck, and saw that the vessel had been driven far up on the reef, more than a 1/4 mile, and that while there was still large 15 or 20 foot waves pounding the vessel, there was no chance that it would sink, or for that matter ever see service again.
The deck had several cranes spaced approximately 50 feet apart, with cargo hatches in between. It was felt that we would be able to land the helicopter with a couple feet of clearance on both sides of the rotor system to the sides of the helicopter.
We accomplished the first landing with 30 plus knot crosswinds, and touched down our wheels on the hatch covers. Due to loading, and weather conditions, it was decided to take off equal numbers of crewmen on each of 3 trips. I believe the total was 33 crew, and the mascot dog. We did not take any personal gear, because that would have meant extra trips, and under the poor weather conditions we did not have any desire to push our luck any more than was necessary for the saving of lives.
It was well known that the ship was aground on a very dangerous island, and that they had come under the threat of attack from the native tribe. Their first attempt to reach the Primrose had failed when the rudimentary boats they had tried to construct had foundered in the heavy surf. But the situation was becoming more dangerous because of gradually improving weather conditions.
This could allow the natives to get much closer to the ship. As it was, the natives had not even learned the art of placing feathers on the several foot long arrows they had, which only allowed a practical effective range of perhaps 30 or 40 meters. The ship was more like 100 meters from shore.
A previous attempt to reach the crew of the Primrose was attempted by a Indian Navy (Cutter) which had no helicopter. The ship’s doctor and a crewman had attempted to reach the ship from just beyond the drop-off offshore, but the inflatable nearly foundered, and they were lucky to get back to their vessel. I assume they were the ones that called for assistance once they realized they could not do anything. When we made our approach for the first landing with heavy cross-winds, it was very difficult to determine clearance on the rotor blades from the derricks.
After the first landing we found we had about 2 feet of clearance on each side of the aircraft. On the subsequent approaches, Lt. Gadhok provided ground assistance for clearance of our rotors from the obstructions. The rope ladder idea was discarded as unnecessary, even though the weather conditions were not ideal.
The thought of hovering for extended periods above deck, with people climbing a rope ladder, did not appeal to us. We did not at any time during the morning see any island natives. They were almost certainly there observing, but whether from fear of the helicopter, or whatever other reason, they did not make themselves known to us. After the third trip, all aboard were rescued, and our part in the mission was concluded. A couple days later, a Indian Navy cruiser, with a Alouette helicopter arrived, and the helicopter evacuated the personal effects of the crew, I believe by using a rescue hoist.
I just thought you might find the account of interest, since you had been intrigued enough to write about this event. I do have some photographs of the ship run aground taken from the air, and during our approach to the ship, as well as some taken on-deck after our first landing. But the photos are in storage in my household goods in the Philippines, and it will not be until later next year before I could get access to them.
I was fascinated to see these photographs, because while I’d read as much as I could about North Sentinel Island and its people, the photographs brought the story of the rescue of the crew of the Primrose to vivid life. We can now see these fortunate mariners for ourselves, while we can also see Bob Fore, one of the men who rescued them from what would certainly have been a violent death, had the North Sentinelese reached them first.
The photographs also bring the weather conditions to life, while we can now see, from an elevated angle, just how close to shore the Primrose ran aground. We can also see for ourselves just how perilous this rescue was for the helicopter crew, and while I’m not an aviator myself, I think Bob is being extremely modest in the way he describes the conditions that faced him in landing on such a restricted space under such conditions.
I’ve seen photographs and even video of North Sentinel, but some of Bob’s photographs give a perfect sense of the scale of island, as we can judge from the size of the trees on the shore, the convoluted coastline disappearing out of shot, the waves, the cargo ship, the stranded and frightened crew, and the elevated parts of the island covered with dense forest.
Other than this, I’ve been in more than my fair share of threatening situations over the years. I’ve had encounters with violent men in Britain, Europe, Scandinavia and Russia, I’ve been bitten by a number of venomous creatures and I’ve been attacked by cattle, horses, dogs and others creatures. I’ve found myself in numerous physical circumstances that made my heart pound, on water, in motor vehicles, in mist, snow, ice and darkness, and in places like the voids of Silbury Hill. I’ve also chosen to visit some truly forbidding locations in Britain and Europe that were notorious for their grim atmosphere, but none of these compares to the story that Bob has to tell of his encounter with the brooding menace of North Sentinel.
To my mind, it’s a modern version of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, even if what happened with the Primrose just 30 years ago took place over the course of hours and days, rather than months. It seems to me that, had the weather been more clement on August 2nd 1981, then Bob’s fascinating account might have been very different.
We do not know why the North Sentinelese behave as they do towards outsiders. They might be the ultimate xenophobes, fearing any and all strangers, or they may just be incredibly hostile by nature. Their gods might urge them towards such actions, while I suppose it’s not completely unthinkable that they might believe they’re doing interlopers a favour by killing them. Whatever the explanation might be, we know next to nothing about these people, other than they have always sought to kill intruders into their island domain, which is the main reason they retain their isolation. Bob Fore has ventured closer to one of this planet’s truly great mysteries than any of us will ever do, so I’m enormously grateful to him for sharing not only his recollections, but also his photographs of this day, when he and others found themselves so close to what is in so many ways a Heart of Darkness.
In addition to Bob’s photos and memories of North Sentinel, he was also good enough to send me the following account of his time as a pilot in Indonesia, which I’m reproducing below:
I was working for a company called P.T. Airfast Services, Indonesia. It was a Indonesian/Australian Aviation Company based in Jakarta, and our primary home base was located at Seletar Airbase in Singapore. Primarily, Airfast provided aerial support, both airplane and helicopter for the oil exploration industry throughout Indonesia, but when I was initially hired to fly on an Indian Government contract with the Oil And Natural Gas Commission (ONGC) in the Andaman Islands.
I was based out of Port Blair, and was fortunate enough to have a part in the Air/Sea rescue of the crew of the Primrose which ran aground on 2 August, 1981 on the Northwest shore of North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Islands, Bay of Bengal. The island was inhabited by one of the most mysterious, violent and least known tribal groups left on the planet. The account of that episode is available on the internet, so I will concentrate instead on an account of my experience after leaving the Andaman Islands at the end of the ONGC contract in India.
After leaving India, I was reassigned to a number of locations working for P.T. Airfast throughout Indonesia. We were flying the Sikorsky S-58T helicopter, with twin-turbine engines, and capable of carry up to 16 passengers and substantial loads of up to 4,000 lbs. either internally or by sling-load. (I am including a few photos for your use from that time period). I was one of only 4 instrument rated helicopter pilots in all of Indonesia at the time, and we all worked for the same company. Our primary responsibility was supporting oil exploration by the major oil companies, so inevitably, it took us to many very remote jungle locations in Indonesia, including Sumatra, Sulawesi, Irian Jaya and Borneo.
While in Borneo, we were based out of Balikpapan on the East coast of the island. We flew personnel and equipment to an oil exploration rig located some 120 miles west of Balikpapan. The rig site and the staging area on a river which allowed barges to be brought up-river to the closest location to the rig site with the majority of heavier supplies. It was then sling loaded to the rig site by helicopter. The majority of the inner island of Borneo is covered in extremely dense jungle. Trees run around 200 feet high with triple-canopies, and there are no virtually no villages except along rivers which allow a marine highway system for natives. The staging area for our rig-site was the last civilization, before you continued into the interior. It was said that numbers of explorers had passed by, headed into the unexplored areas, not to be seen again.
In our helicopters, we had Omega navigation equipment, a kind of rudimentary electronic locating system, the predecessor of more modern LORAN or GPS systems of today. The accuracy of the Omega system was limited to perhaps 1/2 mile, poor compared to today’s GPS, but still good enough to get you into the ballpark area you were looking for, anywhere on the planet.
When we would takeoff heading west towards our staging area, we first encountered a mountain range running North and South. The 4,000 to 5,000 foot tall mountains had a 2 mile wide pass which we used to get past the range and out onto the more flat area of the inner island. The trees as stated before were in the area of 200 feet tall and for the next couple hundred miles would have virtually no openings or clearings. On our aviation maps, there was just a huge white area, accompanied by the notation that the central part of the island had never been explored, and the highest believed elevation.
We pilots had noticed that there was a hill about 400 feet tall located at a certain point along our route of flight. We could easily locate the location with our mileage reading on the Omega system, so there was no chance of being in the wrong location each time. The interesting thing for us was that the hill, which was almost totally covered in the same tree cover, had a limestone cliff which had been exposed after the limestone side of the hill had sheared away.
What was rather disconcerting to us was that even though we flew virtually every day past this location, often more than once, the hill would be there with its white cliff exposed for us to easily see, yet on the next flight, it had disappeared totally, and despite looking for it specifically, it was as if the entire hill had disappeared.
Now, we pilots are not a particularly superstitious lot, and we knew that the phenomenon was nothing more than an optical illusion caused by the light, and the fact that the tree-covered hill simply was blending in with the trees surrounding the hill to make it virtually invisible form our aerial vantage point. If we had descended below the level of the hill top, we would have seen it immediately.
So naturally, we began to refer (tongue in cheek) to the location as “Magic Mountain”. It was a matter of mild curiosity to us for some time, before I was able on one of the flights, when I was not under a time restraint, to go down and circle the hill for a better investigation. I did not really expect to find anything of significance, and at first that seemed to be the case. But after circling on my second pass, I noticed a small stream that seemed to be coming out of the base of the mountain. That is not an uncommon thing to find in nature, but what I saw in the clearing next to the stream caused me to take a even closer look. Next to where the stream came out of the wall of the hill, there were what appeared to be man-made rudimentary steps carved up into the side of the hill.
Since there was no known village or native camp anywhere within probably at least 30 miles through impenetrable jungle, I could only speculate that it must be someone indigenous to the location that had accomplished the feat. I was aware that it could have been a possible natural phenomenon, except for the fact that also visible in the clearing was what appeared to be an upright rectangular (2 feet by 3 feet approx.) frame made of tree branches, and braced in the upright position. It took me perhaps 30 seconds, before I realized that it was most likely a frame used to stretch animal hides while they cured. There was no doubt that this was a man made device, and the fact that it was still standing upright, and not fallen over, indicated rather recent use.
I have chosen to mention this for the first time in a public forum, but I am keeping the details of the exact location to myself. On the off chance that there is a indigenous group that has no previous outside world contact in this area, I would not like to bear any responsibility for exposing them to something such as contact with a world that could lead to causing them harm, or their destruction.
Again, I am not certain if this account will be of interest to you, but I have detailed as best I can. There are no photos of this location, and any speculation generated by this experience will be nothing more than just that, speculation.
Bob Fore may not be a superstitious man, but it’s a failing I would readily admit to, because I often wonder about the unseen forces that shape our destinies. Whichever way you look at it, my study of Stonehenge and of the people that built it led me in turn to write about the enigmatic people of North Sentinel, a place that’s arguably the most mysterious island on Earth. Now, as a direct result, we have all been rewarded by being able to see pictures of the rescue of the crew of the Primrose in 1981, while we also have a fascinating account of perhaps another uncontacted tribe, put into the public domain for the first time ever, along with details of a “Magic Mountain”.
As Bob made clear, this was doubtless due to an optical illusion, but this is no less intriguing, while I’d say it’s also entirely relevant to those of us with an interest in the many tantalising details of Stonehenge and its landscape. I could of course continue writing for hours to come, but I’ll conclude by thanking Bob once more – not only from myself – but on behalf of every visitor to Eternal Idol who will doubtless be enthralled by what this observant and generous-spirited man has had to tell us and show us all.
Update, February 1st 2013: Over the last few days, this post has had a huge amount of visitors, presumably on account of a link to it being posted elsewhere.
If you wish to read more about North Sentinel Island and the rescue mission carried out there in 1981 by Captain Robert Fore, the first post I wrote and published that mentioned this strange island was called North Sentinel – The Undiscovered Country, almost exactly three years ago.
This was followed in late December of the same year with the post you’ve just read, then I published another in late September 2011 entitled North Sentinel – World Exclusive Interview with Captain Robert Fore.
Both the aforementioned posts, to which I’ve provided links, contain other links and other information about North Sentinel Island, for the benefit of those of you who are interested in reading further.
Late last year, I was honoured to receive a visit from Captain Robert Fore when he travelled to Britain, and I spent a highly enjoyable two days discussing the island with him. He and I stay in regular touch, while our shared fascination with this strangest of island realms remains undiminished. We continue to look into the matter to the best of our shared abilities and it is virtually certain that we will one day present more information of various kinds on North Sentinel Island and its enigmatic inhabitants. More than that I cannot say for now, but the day will hopefully come when we’re able to make more known, while we’re naturally hoping that it will be sooner rather than later.