Jake and I were sitting around playing with a baby eagle that someone had rescued. It was becoming more tame each day and would sit upon its perch all day and then go into its box at night to sleep. It would flinch every time you tried to stroke it until eventually it would let you close until next time when you had to earn its trust back again. All of a sudden Archie called everyone into the mess tent and told the section that we had to get our gear ready and jump on a chopper as we were being sent somewhere. We were being sent to protect a remote signals outpost known as ‘retrans’. It was a radio retransmission station on top of one of the highest mountains in the area. The signals infrastructure there would relay radio transmissions from the rest of the country to battle group headquarters in the capital, Dili. We didn’t know how long we were going for or what to expect which was the norm on this deployment.
We left Forward Operating Base Gleno and patrolled a few blocks down to a clearing which was used as a helicopter landing zone. About 15 minutes later we could hear the rotor blades of a Blackhawk chopping through the air as it approached in the distance and came in to land. Being fully loaded with packs, webbing and weapons some of us had to sit on the side with our legs dangling below the fuselage. Amazingly you were only held in by a ratchet strap that went across your waist like you were some kind of cargo on the back of a truck. Depending on what kind of mood the pilots were in they would sometimes fly as if they were in an aerial police chase, banking left and right which is the aerial equivalent to drifting a car around a corner. It was moments like these that you joined the Army for and would remember for the rest of your life.
We climbed higher and approached a mountainous area and flew slowly above a ridgeline until we circled above the peak where the signals outpost was located. The Blackhawk started descending and we noticed the section we were relieving getting ready to take our place on the chopper. There was no proper flat clearing for the pilot to land and you could see the loadmasters scanning the ground and advising the pilots of what the immediate terrain below was like. We noticed someone emerge from one of the tents. He was unshaven and wearing only a pair of shorts and squinted as if he hadn’t seen light for a while. He was grasping a large radio with a long antenna which he was talking into, it being the type of radio that could communicate with aircraft. He certainly didn’t look like any other soldier we had seen on this deployment, where strict rules on wearing well-maintained uniforms and shaving were constantly enforced as if we were back at basic training.
We finally touched down, and as always there was an immediate rush to get everyone off. As I stepped off the chopper I was smashed in the face by a fierce blast of hot air coming down from the rotors. It felt like the air was being sucked out of my lungs, a sensation unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Once we were all off the other section darted onto the Blackhawk. We watched them take off and then started to take in our surroundings. The bloke wearing the shorts was still talking into the radio and must have been telling someone that the chopper had just left. We realised he was the signalman in charge of the outpost and the only one up here. He started showing us around. Archie was a top soldier and alright bloke but was one of those rare types you would meet who was a real stickler for all the ridiculous army rules that would usually go out the window in a situation like this. I could see that he was dying to pull the sig up on his lack of military attire and unshaven state. However no-one knew what rank the guy was, and as he was most likely the same rank as Archie any comments would mean nothing.
It felt like we were on a remote weather station in Antarctica as the place consisted of two tents surrounded by tall radio antennas and some drums of diesel for the generator. The sig showed us around for a while constantly pointing out good places to stand while urinating. He would randomly laugh at odd moments, and when asked a question would change the subject before giving an answer. A few minutes into his unfinished tour he walked away while muttering something and pointing off into the distance. He then grabbed some of the supplies we had brought with us and disappeared back into his cave. I have no idea how long he’d been up there for but I got the impression it had been quite a while. Being on your own up there would be cool for a week or so but after that I think you’d start to go a bit funny. We carried our gear to our tent and each claimed a stretcher. I chose the one in the corner which was usually the best but backfired when the wind picked up at night and the canvas would flap about in your face.
By late afternoon the temperature began dropping and the wind had grown quite fierce, the howling sound eventually drowning out the spluttering generator. We were to stay up there for 10 days and there was literally nothing to do except make your own fun childhood style. One person always had to be armed and stand on top of the highest point of the peak which had a commanding view of the outpost. The area was dotted with old trenches which someone told us were left over from when the Indonesians invaded and had probably used the place for the same thing that we were. There were two tin portaloo style toilets that were absolutely putrid and unusable. Instead a frame had been set up over a hole out in the open that was in full view of the person standing guard. Once the hole was full you would just move the frame to the left or right a little bit and dig another hole. It was still better than trying to use one of the portaloos.
We mostly ate biscuits and tinned food from our ration packs as well as some bread and other assorted goods that had come on the chopper with us. At night it was freezing and no-one had proper winter clothing apart from normal army issue jumpers. Archie let us run the guard from inside the tent instead of up on top of the peak at night. You would be there for an hour or so with someone else and it would rotate through the entire section. You would just sit there wrapped in your sleeping bag staring into the darkness for the entire shift. Occasionally you would hear a really loud message blurting out from the sig’s radio tent, then all of sudden the volume would be turned down. I think he must have been asleep during the periods that he was supposed to be awake and would just turn the volume up hoping that it would wake him up if he had to do something.
There was limited water but we had enough to have a shower each, the shower being a canvas bag of water on some rope on the edge of the mountain. It was probably the best view I’ve ever had while having a shower. There were houses dotted around the surrounding hills but none of the locals ever approached us. I’m not even sure how they made a living as I didn’t see any farmland nearby. You would burn all of your rubbish and anything else you felt like burning in a fire which was behind the tent. There was also a makeshift gym that had been built through sheer boredom which we would try and use to break up the day. Clouds would collide with the peak and we would be surrounded by a heavy fog which made it even colder. A massive deck chair had been made from two poles and some tent canvas, and it was where we would all usually sit while listening to Tiny telling us about the various bar fights he had been in.
One of the rare moments we saw the sig was when the generator broke down and an electrician was flown up by helicopter from the New Zealand Army. We heard that helicopter approaching and saw the sig standing there staring off into the distance speaking into the radio to the pilots, blocking his eyes from the sun with his other hand. The sig and electrician were in the generator pit for about an hour trying to get it going again. It was soon alive and the chopper returned. I could see that the electrician was happy to be leaving, and whether it was the sig that scared him or the fact that the place was a real no man’s land I am unsure. Our stint eventually ended, and thought it seemed like forever and was incredibly boring it was still good to get away from the rank and routine that we had to put up with at a proper base. We departed via a New Zealand Army chopper and watched as the sig waved goodbye and stumbled shirtless toward the next section that were about to enjoy his tour.
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