An Australian volunteer who was doing whatever volunteers do in PNG.
I was there for 2 years until Dec 2005 .. I hope I made the most of it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Island Paradise / Working Headache

A weeks jaunt to a tropical island for work? How could you say no to that. Well as luck may have it that is what I have done during the last week. Jetting in to Manus, the northern island province of PNG to retrieve Unitech owned equipment. Appropriately for the distance learning department the equipment was all over the place in the remotest parts of the islands. Adventured beckoned, and adventure is what I got. Well sort of. It was a good experience all the same especially considering it was my first time on a tropical island paradise.

A bit of background info for you. About six years ago the provincial government of Manus had the fantastic idea of using radio equipment to have a school-of-the-air style system which would be connected back to Unitech. It was supposed to allow lecturers in Lae chat to the students in the remote sites of Manus and have a real-time class. Well to cut a long story short it did not work - or it worked once at the main site in the capital Lorengau but didn't work at the three other remote sites. Sounds just like a typical 3rd world project.

Anyway I turned out to be one of the lucky people who got the job to go there, collect the stuff from all the sites they were scattered to, throw them into a little 4m² shipping container and send them back to Lae. Here is how it panned out.

Monday 23rd of August

The team consisted of me, John my colleague from DODL, and Robert from another department in the Uni who was supplying the local knowledge as he was a Manusarian (I just made up that collective term, I have no idea if it is correct - sounds good though, like a race found in a Star Trek episode).

We all took off to Nadzab airport and checked in the 80 odd kilos of stuff that we were taking. If that sounds like a lot it is because it is. The weight was mainly taken up by two computers and a load a books that we were donating to various schools while we were there. In PNG if you go in to a site to remove something it is expected that you give something in return (this is something that I found out first hand later in the trip).

Manus is part of the Admiralty islands and they are well and truly in the tropics being in fact only 2° south of the equator. If I was a holiday brochure writer I would put down something like this - "A chain of jewel islands, dangling like a necklace around the neck of the equator. In the middle the centre-piece, Manus, being an emerald set in sea of turquoise ... yada yada yada".

Anyway the furthest island to the south of Manus but still part of the province is Baluan. Here was our first destination where we had to retrieve an antenna, a radio control terminator and some microphones, pretty much the same stuff that lay around at the other sites we had to go to.

Baluan from the air

Touch down on Los Negros island where the only airport for the province is located and we piled all our stuff in to the waiting car that Robert had organised for us and headed off to the capital Lorengau to check in at the lodge there. Straight away I knew that I was going to enjoy this trip, the sun was shining and the view out the window of the ute of the waves from the pacific crashing onto the reefs dividing the deep blue with the shallow sky coloured water close to shore was fantastic.

At Lorengau we checked our surplus equipment into a room at the Kowai Lodge and then waited while Robert organised the purchasing of marine fuel for our three-hour banana boat trip down to Baluan. He came and collected me and John and we head off down to the "Marina" at the Lonio passage that separates Los Negros and Manus and loaded up the pre-arranged 25ft banana boat.

Once on board we pushed off and headed down the passage, through the channel cut in to the reef and onto the mighty Pacific. We had about 30km of open see to cross in our little boat and I was glad that they had handed me a yellow rain jacket as I would have been soaked in no time from the spray with out it. Pity it was not a life-jacket though. Those things have not made it seems to this part of the world yet.

In the weeks before we had headed up to Manus, John had talked about getting himself a life-jacket to take, as he was pretty worried about this part of the trip. Being a man from the highlands of PNG, where the largest body of water is found in the local river, I found this angst is understandable. I myself was having thoughts about emergency situations, if they occurred and what would happen. Swim or stay with the boat - if it floats.

In the end the only thing that John had to worry about was getting sea sick from the constant up and down and ploughing through the endless swell, as we made it safe to Baluan after a three hour trip. The trip itself was not that eventful, though I did get to see plenty of flying fish leap out of the ocean and skim across the surface for about 10 seconds, before plunging splashless back in.

Stepping ashore on to Baluan, there was the usual handshake all round as the locals came out and greeted their returned son Robert and met the new white guy, with wide open stares from the pikinis, I also found out why the locals call it the "rocky island". Basically it is devoid of any beach and volcanic rocks dominate the landscape. Baluan is an extinct volcano so they said, but between it and the nearby island of Lou which we had passed on the way over, is a sunken caldera of a volcano which had erupted in 1954.

The rocks make it hard work for the villages living on the coast, as it is nearly impossible to dig any distance into the ground. There was a good story about a team of Australian army engineers who came in all gung-ho after the war with their bulldozers dynamite to build a "road" (or in PNG this will usually translate into walking track), and got beaten back at the attempt of it. Fifty years later and the villagers talk about this with mirth as if it was yesterday.

We took a walk around in the diminishing light, as sun went down, and I noticed all the little shacks built out over the water. I was informed that these were the toilets, one for the males and one for the females. Because of the ground being so hard pit toilets cannot be made, so they just let the ocean take it away. I took note to remember if I decide to take a swim that I would avoid these spots.

After the stroll we all had a shower from a bucket to wash the dried saltwater spray off our bodies and sat down to a kai kai feast of taro, sweat potato, bully beef and the other usual village food, which was laid on by Roberts sister, who we were also staying with. I learnt that Robert was the local big man for the village. He was sent off to school years ago because his father was the village lapun (chief) which the title has now passed on him.

After dinner we met Michael, who was the local guy looking after the equipment that we had come to collect. Michael is also on the books for Unitech and he would accompany us around Manus during the rest of the week to collect the rest of the stuff.

Later we had a bit of a trip to see the bright stars in this part of the world and then I headed off to get some shut eye.

Tuesday 24th of August

Getting up is not an issue in village life, especially when the house we were staying in was right next to the local SDA church and the pastor with a steel pipe in hand decides at 5:30 to use the rusting gas cylinder hanging from the nearby tree as an anger management device. Either that or he was calling the villages to a morning mass. Not surprisingly it turned out that it was the latter, I guess they think there is no spiritual rest for the villagers, even on a Tuesday morning.

Before that though the roosters try to out-do each other on the vocal scales and get in early to let everyone know dawn is here. Or in the case of one it is coming - I checked my watch when I heard him go off in the pitch black to see that it was 3:30.

Rising early I remembered that this time of day is absolutely fantastic for photography. So whipping out the camera I got a few snaps of the sun breaking the sky over the still waters. It also gave me the opportunity to test out the loos, as I wasn't game to walk out on the log connecting it to the bank in the pitch black. I must say it is a bit weird having a piss and watching tropical fish circle around at the same time.

Dawn breaking over Baluan

After a fabulous breakfast complete with freshly caught fish from that night, we walked down to the school where our equipment was, got it all together and boxed it up. We did a presentation and handed over the school text books that we had bought for the school and then set about preparing for the return trip.

The trip back was pretty much the same as the one coming down. Three hours of up and down over the big blue, getting splashed a lot and watching flying fish. The skill of the banana boat captains is pretty impressive, it would not be particularly hard to capsize the boat by plunging into an up-swell just after coming down a down-swell. We all made it back though, safe but soggy.

We got a lift back into town with our equipment and stashed it at the lodge. From here we headed into town on foot for my first look around Lorengau. A decidedly pleasant and sleepy sort of a place I concluded. Better looking as well than Madang I thought, considering there is a beach in town, and this goes a long way in my books.

Not much else was done in the afternoon apart from have a few SP's at the lodge, and discuss Unitech politics which is always a big topic with Unitech staff.

Wednesday 25th of August

Today the story drops off a bit and routine work was the order of the day (there is nothing like work to get in way of a good story), so I wont bore you with the too many details. Lets just say that in the morning we did a bit of equipment dismantling and Michael our resident Baluarian (did they battle with the Klingons?) climbed a few 30m high Telikom towers. We also arranged to collect a hire car on Thursday from the local "Travel-Car" dealer to enable us to drive up to the villages of Buyang and Kari, where more of our stuff was located. Both of these villages lie along the "Manus Highway", an east-west road link, which apparently was a little bit "worse for wear".

We had to find out exactly how bad this meant in relative terms (i.e. could you cruise along at 110kph, with your arm resting on the door and thumb hooked over the wheel and use your other hand to take sips out of a coffee filled Styrofoam cup, or would it be more like a four wheel drive enthusiasts wet dream). So we asked everyone we could find and the results ranged from completely impassable to "yeah, no worries". To be on the safe side I organised that we hire a trusty Toyota Land Cruiser, a go anywhere style of choice.

Thursday 26th of August

John, Michael and me picked it up first thing in the morning and heading off up the road. To start off, my choice of vehicle seemed like it could be possible overkill as the road meandered along a little bit bumpy but altogether not that bad. As we continued though it began to go through a few phases. At the start it was a wide graded gravel road, then it turned in to wide dirt road, then the dirt became mainly red clay and then it narrowed dramatically as the grader was forgotten about and became more like a walking track. It then also became evident that hardly any vehicle passes through on the road, as villagers watched slack-jaw as we passed.

The challenge of actually driving the road now came into focus and this is where John's experience of years driving Highlands roads came into play. The road had basically turned into a goat-track and had not been maintained or upgraded since it was built 30 years before. Things grow fast in the tropics and it does not take a scientist to realise that if you don't look after it here, the jungle will reclaim it.

The goat track we had to drive up

After fighting the wheel (getting a knock on the funny bone in the process), tackling the track, sweating in the steamy humidity, using the High Four gears, Low Four gears and general all round high fives, John cruised us into Buyang village two hours (40km worth) of driving later.

My part now came into action. Michael pointed out the pole on top of the nearby hill with three of our antennas attached and I set off up with tool box in hand, looking like a man with a mission. If we wanted to get to Kari village which was another two hours down the track and return before dark we needed to be swift.

John and Michael followed me, as well a local guy who came out to see what was happening. Village huts surrounded the equipment hut at the top and a old local guy came out as well to see what was going on. He turned out to be the lapun and he wasn't happy.

Michael who had been here before a couple of years previously went over and introduced us all to the old guy. Then we all sat down underneath some shelter as the heavens opened up and rain started to sheet down, this was a bad sign (and also not good for the track). What the old guy had to say made me positively gloomy, to match the light of the day at that time. He wanted that dreaded C word, used all over PNG, and now one of the most hated. Compensation.

To be fair though the old guy had a valid point. The aerial pole and equipment hut had been plonked on his land that had been in his family for generations by the provincial government and Telikom and after an initial payment he had not been paid a thing to look after it. Then a couple of years after anyone had bothered to check that it was still there we rock up expecting to just collect.

Of course we tried to explain that we were not taking the whole thing away and just wanted the bits that belonged to us, but he wouldn't have a bar of it and expressed this through some aggressive and rapid pidgin. I managed to pick up one word in five that her was saying due to his speed, but it didn't take genius to work it out. We told him that we would check with the provincial government and get some money for him, we even tried to find out how much would he wanted, but he didn't tell us that. We pretty much just tried to smooth and quiet the guy down before they decided to get the bush knives out.

Before we headed off with tails between our legs, I asked the old guy if he could show me the equipment hut so I could take photos. The beauty of digital cameras these days is the ability to show the person you are photographing their tiny image seconds after you have taken their photo. It turns out to be a fantastic icebreaker as well. The old guy was pretty impressed and had a good laugh looking at the two-inch high version of himself.

The old guy not looking so angry

Kari it seemed was now out of the question, as the rain was really quite set in. On this type of €œroad€� there is a good chance getting bogged. We had had a good run up to Buyang due to the combination of the track being dry from weeks of no rain and John's skill in driving. But if the rain continued for any length of time we could be in trouble.

So we headed off on the two hour trip to Lorengau with John again at the wheel. On the way we decided to do the honourable thing, in this part of the world, and give the people walking into town a lift in the back. Of course we had an ulterior motive. If we got bogged, they could push.

We made it back without getting bogged but with a few tight spots here and there. The guys who got a lift were very grateful for the fact we had saved them a days worth of walking. John seemed like he had gone a few a rounds with Iron Mike though, with blood shot eyes from all the concentration and injured elbows from banging in to the door and me in the middle.

In town the adventure was easing off again. I was still pissed off that we didn't get the equipment that I had come all this way to collect. So I took out my frustration by climbing up the Telikom tower at their repeater station and helping Michael to retrieve the two antennas that were located at the top. I must say that I was a little bit ginger looking down from 20 metres up, with mud still stuck on my shoes. So I was glad when I attached the harness belt I was wearing and concentrated on undoing bolts rather than the climbing up the ladder.

At the end of the day we had got all the stuff we wanted and we all had a few beers at the lodge to discuss the events, and then retired to our rooms to have a deserved sleep.

Friday 27th of August

Like Wednesday, Friday morning was a bit on the boring side adventure wise. We collected all the stuff while we still had the vehicle and organised a container down at the wharf to ship it back in. I found a giant clam shell that nobody wanted and threw that in as well. It will look good on my sideboard, and I thought I may as well use the container while I have the chance as the thing weighs about 20kg.

I also kept busy going along to our study centre high school and installed the two PC's that we had brought over for them. As you can see the events were not that exciting.

The afternoon though, which we gave ourselves off, was spent making use of the vehicle to go and find a good spot for a swim and snorkel. Martin (my next-door neighbour) had lent me his flippers, mask and snorkel and I was keen to test them out and check out the reefs for the first time.

We found a spot out on the road to the airport and we all had a swim around. I was blown away from snorkelling over the top of the reef, I can now see what the fuss is all about. It was absolutely amazing. I wasn't too fussed though, in fact it freaked me out when I swam out over deep water all of a sudden and looked straight down in to the pitch black. I made it back to the reef in no time flat.

Saturday 27th of August

Market day and we had to go and visit the towns market due to the instructions people had told me before I had came. Maria wanted octopus, Dr Nyondo wanted smoked fish and I wanted to check it all out. I got a lot of fish and a lot of octopus to keep the others happy and bought myself some mud crabs.

I was a bit disturbed though to see a lot of cuscus' in cages not much bigger than their bodies. One in particular was a rare all white one inside a woven cane cage. The down-set eyes made my heart bleed. Here was a passive little animal not doing any harm, locked in a cage in which it could not possibly move, ready for someone to buy it so they could knock it on the head and cook it in a pot or over a fire. I just couldn't let him suffer like that, especially considering that right next to him was pre-cooked version, skinned, splayed and roasted, so I paid the woman 20 Kina and bought myself a cuscus.

I know foreigners get excited when they visit Australia and see kangaroo's get blasted and their meat and skins sold. I don't really have too much of an issue with this. But then again I grew up in country New South Wales and saw plenty of Kangaroos and know there are millions hopping around. Somehow I don't think though that there are millions of cuscus' roaming around Manus, so when I saw the rare white cuscus I just knew that I had to save the little fella.

My only problem now was what was I going to do with a cuscus. I entertained the idea of keeping him as a pet, taking him back to Lae, and taming him and let him wander around the house eating the paw paw and banana scraps I leave for him. This was a tempting idea and my heart said yes. But my brain said no. What would I to do when I went away on trips? And what right have I got to take a wild animal and try to tame it just for my amusement? I would also have to keep it in the tiny cage for over 24 hours because I had nothing else to keep it in.

The cuscus not going anywhere

In the end the brain won, so on the way out to the airport we found a quiet spot that was away from the villages as far as possible and I set the little fella free. I had no qualms about spending the cash on doing this and thought it was a worthy investment, even though a sister of Robert's thought I was a bit crazy to spend that kind of money, to just throw it away.

In the evening we found a cool bar that had just been recently set up by an Australian local (probably the only one in town). It was set over Lorengau harbour on a couple of old war pontoons that they had dragged close into shore. It was a pity we didn't find it earlier as it was a great place. If you ever go to Lorengau, make sure you check out Ronny Knight's place.

Sunday 27th of August

We packed our smoked fish and octopus' etc into plastic bags and boxes and headed out again to the airport for our flight back. Breakfast was at the nearby market to the terminal, where we ate roasted sak sak (sago), mussels, scones and kulau's (green coconut to drink). I noticed there were a few cuscus' in pots amongst the stalls. Ahh well.

Three flights back instead of the direct flight like we came up on and it was again good to be home. My longest trip yet and probably the most adventurous. Fortunately there will be more adventures travelling in a couple of weeks when I take mum up to Goroka. Keep your eye's peeled.

Friday, August 20, 2004

Mystical Infrastructure Inverse Relationship

The thought has just occurred to me that it seems PNG, or Lae in particular, runs on some kind of infrastructure share arrangement. A kind of inverse relationship is happening between the potholes in the road and the number of blackouts we have.

Touch wood, but it has been a little while since we have had significant power outages. When I first arrived it seemed that every second day the power would go off. In fact on the first morning of starting this job, I had not been in the office for 20 minutes before the power went off.

Yet the roads I remember were not in a bad shape. The road from Nadzab to town was great in fact. Apparently it used to have a massive reputation for being absolutely shocking. Around town they were in a state of repair, but after a month of being here the roads throughout the place were great.

Now though it is a different story. Driving into town is a test of skill - though this has to do mainly with the pipe line being laid from Unitech to town and all the mess they have left behind. On Tuesday I went down past the SP Brewery and some of the holes there were bigger than the Land Cruiser we were in and almost as deep. Coming back from Nadzab after Mt Wilhelm and I remember noticing for the first time that holes were appearing in the road.

The worst part is that all these are going to get worse as the rainy season we are in continues. Hopefully the power will continue to stay good.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Anti-Malarial Drug

The boffins around the world working on creating an anti-malarial drug have managed to mimic the same compound found in the drug Artemether (the one I used when I got Malaria). This is pretty good news, as it will be a cheap method to combat the parasite.

I will keep my spare box of Artemether handy for the time being though. Must also remember to take it over to Manus, they have a bit of problem there apparantly. First sign of headache now and I will be poping a couple of tabs.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Tough Work

I'm off to Manus for a week on Monday for "work". Now if you don't know where Manus is, it is the northern most province in PNG and the one with the least amount of land. Basically it consists of one big island, Manus, and a bunch of little islands surrounding it.

Anyway it means that I will be having a bit of a relaxing time for a bit. There is work to do, but it means travelling around the islands dismantling left over DODL equipment and then packaging them up and shipping them back here to Lae. On the flip side, there will be plenty of opportunity to relax on typical tropical beaches and do a bit of swimming and snorkelling. Tough work.

In my mind I am forming a picture with the aid of descriptions from other people that these islands will be like an elaborate necklace of precious emeralds set in turquoise dangling from the Equators neck. Or in other words the typical tropical islands that you would find spread over any front cover of any South Pacific holiday destinations brochure. The best thing though is that I know for certain that there will be no tourists and no gaudy resorts. It will all left just the way it should be. Bliss.

The other reason I am getting excited is that this will be the first time I have ventured off to a PNG island - any island, big or small. So it will be another feather in the cap of my experience here.

Will report in full afterwards.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Niupela Lonely Planet

First hand confirmation that Lonely Planet is coming out with a new guidebook was obtained when I met the actual coordinator and contributor for the Morobe section last night at the Lae International. Alex (probably the only person who reads this blog - so g'day mate) gave me a call and I arranged a lift with Roger to go in and have a few drinks and pizza at the "Inter".

Andrew Burke was the guys name and it was interesting to have a chat with him and see how they write these things and some background workings on Lonely Planet. I am pretty sure he was also grateful for all the local advise that we pouring out - best kai bar, which hotel still exists and what monuments are actually being looked after i.e. none.

In terms of guidebooks I personally think there is no alternative than getting your hands on LP. Since travelling around Europe, Jen and me between us bought over twenty of them. There was also the time that I met Tony Wheeler, the co-founder of LP, at a travel expo in London and got him to sign my newly purchased Ireland LP. Funnily but that book now resides on Jen's bookshelf in Sydney (I should really get that back).

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Mt Wilhelm Traverse

Another good hike that I can do, as I have discovered, is to climb from the Western Highlands side of Mt Wilhelm to the top and then down into the Simbu side to the lakes and huts from where we went up.

I have found a description of this on the web here. As you can see the website is absolutley horrible to look at (whoever put it together should be shot), but at least it has good information and pictures.

Friday, August 13, 2004

Peak Bagging

Since going up to the top of Mount Wilhelm, the idea of bagging more of Papua New Guinea's peaks has suddenly become an attractive prospect. With the aid of the Wantoks Communication site and the Peak Bagger site I have made a list of the peaks in PNG over 4000m. I also tried to use Lonely Planet's "Bushwalking in Papua New Guinea" but found that the list it had at the begining was just too unrealiable (well it was written in 1983).

To my surprise there is more mountains above 4000m than I thought. The list below is what I have come up with:

1 - Mount Wilhelm - 4509m - Bizmarck Range
2 - Mount Giluwe - 4368m - New Guinea Central Highlands
3 - Unnamed peak - 4254m - New Guinea Central Highlands
4 - Unnamed peak - 4175m - Finisterre Range
5 - Mount Ignutam - 4146m - Bizmarck Range
6 - Mount Sarawaket - 4121m - Sarawaket Range
7 - Mount Kabangama - 4104m - New Guinea Central Highlands
8 - Mount Victoria - 4036m - Owen Stanleys Range
9 - Mount Capella - 4015m - Star Mountains
10 - Mount Bangeta - 4005m - Sarawaket Range

You will note that a couple of them are not named which seems very odd considering they are 3rd and 4th on the list. The 4th highest for me seems the easiest to do next. It is located close to the Finisterre village of Teptep which has scheduled flights with MAF from Nadzab every Wednesday. There is a guest house there and by my accounts on the topographical map of the area it is only 20km to the peak. You could pack a tent, a sleeping bag and thermarest and probably do it over a couple of days.

I have already suggested it to George and I will just have to see if anyone else is interested. Who knows we might be the first people to ever scale it. Perhaps they will then let us name it?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

To the Top of PNG

As I have said before "You have to keep yourself entertained in PNG". When I wrote it I am sure that I wasn't thinking this would extend to swallowing up an entire weekend with walking for over 15 hours, sitting in a car the same amount, getting 30 minutes of sleep on Saturday night, experiencing freezing cold weather, serious exhaustion and the aches and pains of all that walking. But this is exactly what kept me "entertained" on the weekend past and I can say that it was all worth it.

Ever since I decided to come to PNG, one of the things on my list of must-do's while I am here is to climb Mt Wilhelm. At 4509m it is the highest mountain not only in PNG but Australiasia. Easily beating by double Australia's highest, the bump that is Mt Kosciusko (2228m), and the visually impressive but not quite there Mt Cook (3754m), NZ's biggest.

The attraction was the height of the thing. Since being impressed by going up to the top of Klein Matterhorn in Switzerland (by cable-car, mind you) and seeing the sign proclaiming 3883m, I have taken note of the highest place in altitude that I have been in the world. With a place close to hand here that is higher, it did not take me any convincing to try and better my previous best.

Of course the other attraction is the challenge at climbing and reaching the top, the thrill of making it. Cable-car's don't exist here. I have talked to most of the volunteers I have met here about climbing it and it seems that most of them had attempted it, but all but a couple had failed. The failures had come up with various reasons for not making it to the top, altitude sickness from the fast ascent, too much partying beforehand and not wearing shoes (Helen and Wendy, I now think you are completely long-long). So I thought why don't I try it and see if I can do it. Bragging rights and all that.

The only thing I needed was a willing accomplice and here it seems I had it made with George, my boss, being a keen hiker/mountain climber. He had already climbed the thing quite a few times - 16 by his count - but wanted to do it again as the last time he had done it was 1998. Since I first met him face-to-face at Nadzab airport, we have talked about climbing Mt Wilhelm. He told me back then that we would do it at Easter. Easter came but due to landslips caused by the highlands rainy season the trip was postponed until the Queens Birthday long weekend in June. This came, but coincided with bridge upgrade work on the highway, which meant they were closing the road for the entire weekend. So then we decided we would just do it in a normal weekend, and not worry about using a long weekend. The next free one for both of us was the one just past.

So the amended trip was planned and because of the less time we were going to execute it in blitzkrieg fashion. We would leave Lae straight after work on Friday, staying the night in Goroka after the 3½ hour drive. Drive up to Kunidawa and then turning off the Highlands Highway and go to Gembogl (the closest village to the mountain) at end of the road. Leave the car there, walk for 4 hours on Saturday afternoon to the established base camp huts at the two lakes, Piunde and Anude (mother and daughter). Have dinner and sleep there. Leave at 1am, Sunday morning, and climb to the top of the mountain, arriving at dawn (I'll explain why later). Come back down, in the morning light all the way back to Gembogl, arriving at lunch. Jump in the car and head all the way back to Lae. Well it sounded reasonable at the time.

Friday came and I had got myself prepared. I was using just a day-pack for the entire weekend, which was half filled with my camera and the rest of the space clothes and important bits like my maglite torch with spare batteries. Strapped on the outside was my rainjacket shell and water bottle.

At 3pm the team that wanted to go, converged at Georges place. The call for interested parties had gone out and it turned out that it would be just four of us heading up from Lae - George, Knox (our storeman at DODL), Norman (from UDC - the University consultancy arm) and me.

The trip up was uneventful and we got to Goroka, and dropped our kit off at the cheap accommodation we had arranged. Then we hit the Bird of Paradise hotel to get dinner and a few drinks. I met up with Monica and Jennifer here (AVI guys in Goroka) and had a chat.

The next morning we headed off and drove to Kundiawa as planned and then drove up the rough road to Gembogl at the end of the valley. The valley was impressive in itself, with extremely steep sides and gardens built into those slopes. The trip took 2 and half hours, so by the time we arrived we running behind schedule.

At Gembogl, which is practically the end of the road, we left the car at the high school with the headmaster, who happens to be - like most people in the highlands - someone that George used to work with. We also met up with Ben who works with Norman at UDC. He is a local from the area and arrived earlier to arrange a few things for us. One of these was Steven who would be a guide for the trip. We didn't really need him, but he turned out to be helpful and good fun.

The first part of the trip was to head to the lakes. So at 1pm we headed off up the road, which then turned into a track. It was perfect walking weather, cool and overcast, but it still meant that I had a real sweat happening after not long. By the second stop after two hours of walking, I was absolutely stuffed. I realised that my fitness level was pretty inadequate, and I started to wonder how I would cope for the rest of the hike. I took it easier and kept pushed myself to keep going, it was just the first of many walls that I would have to walk through I told myself (correctly proven it turned out to be too).

We made it to the lakes at 5, walking past waterfalls and up grassland areas. The trees which had started down below as part of established forests, were by the time we reached the lakes, small and stumpy. I asked Ben how high the altitude was and he said it was around 4000m. At over 3500m there is the chance of getting altitude sickness, and the higher you go the more likelihood of it happening. I was feeling light headed, but convinced myself this was just from the physical exertion of coming this far.

The weather was cold but not freezing, and it certainly was not cold enough to stop George from getting his kit off and plunging in to the lake. After a toe dip from me into the icy water I told him he could do it all by himself. Instead I stayed in the house cook near the our arranged mountain hut and warmed myself up by the fire.

Dinner was two-minute noodles and baked beans, followed by fruit cake for desert, all washed down by cups of Milo. At around 8 it was bed time. So George, Norman, Ben and me crashed in one room and used the hut supplied bedding, while Knox slept in the house cook.

I was tired enough to really want to go to sleep and I knew I had to sleep, but I did not factor in the fact that Norman sounded like a truck going down a steep hill with it's air brakes in full song. It took me over two hours to get to sleep, and when I finally did it seemed that it was time wake up.

That time was midnight and I roused myself out of bed and got ready. This meant that we left behind anything of non essential items, and just carried what we needed to trudge up the supposed 4 hours to the top.

The night air was, considering where we were, quite pleasant when we headed out. We circled around the bottom lake first and then we started the what turned out to be almost continuous climb for the next 4 hours. My Maglite provided the source for me to see the way, and coupled with the half moon, we were able to progress at a reasonable pace.

While walking it seemed that I was having to take double the amount of breaths that I would normally take to get the same amount of Oxygen out of the thin air. My pulse raced from the effort. We took frequent short stops because of this and this enabled me to keep going. After about an hour a wall was hit and the question of why bother reared it's head. This was pushed aside and I kept going.

The group seemed by this stage to spilt into two. Norman was not coping at all and started to slow down the whole group, so the group started to spilt into two with me, Knox and Steve in the front and the others coming behind. George and Ben were mainly doing this to coax Norman along.

After two hours we started to see some lights from Ramu sugar factory down in the Markham/Ramu valley, which was easily a couple of hundred kilometres away. Then the views became obscured as unwanted mist rolled in around the top of the mountain. This made it extremely cold as the wind also became whipped up. My hands felt it, as I didn't bring gloves along, even though I did try and get some in Lae, but funnily enough there is not a big demand for them there. I had to alternate between holding the torch in my left and right hands and eventually sticking it in my mouth, while my hands recuperated in my pockets.

After 4 hours of walking I was starting to wonder if the bloody thing would ever end. We made it to "Wilhelm's rest" and we were informed that it was only another 30 minutes away to the top. This would enable us to get up there before the dawn and see the sun come up and watch the clouds roll in. The reason you see for going through all this effort of walking in the dark, freezing cold etc, was because in the tropics, the best time to be on top of a mountain is at dawn. Once the sun comes up the clouds will build and obscure it all for you. Unfortunately though, we were already in this situation. I guess it can't be right 100% of the time.

The final 30 minutes dragged on to 45 and then onto an hour. We had slogged for 5 hours and still not reached the top. It was 6am and the sky to the east was becoming lighter. We really needed to get up there to see anything if at all. Me and Knox with Steve leading had left the others behind at Wilhelm's Rest. I kept asking Steve where the peak was because we were now surrounded by multiples of them and they all looked to be the one. After going past 3 of these faux peaks Steve told us that this one was it. Both me and Knox let out a "woohoo" of joy as we were standing directly beneath it and it would only require another 5 minutes of scaling up the rocky face. I was completely and utterly exhausted at this point and just wanted it to be over - to be able to stand on top and know that I have completed it.

What Steve was pointing to though was not the peak we were below but a vague shadow that we could just see through the mist. I didn't even believe that it was a mountain at first and thought it was a trick of the light at this time of the day. A shadow cast by another peak. But it was the real one and it meant we had another 15 minutes to go. I groaned inwardly, but again kicked myself on.

The final ascent involved almost rock climbing like skills, finding handholds and the like to get up. Steve helped me and Knox over some of these and this meant that I was the first to get to the peak. As I stumbled over to the sign sticking up and saw the words written Mt Wilhelm - 4509m. I didn't know weather to laugh or cry, so I did both at the same time. To make it up there was the happiest moment of my life (of the ones that I could remember at that exhaustion hazed moment). Knox came up behind and we shook hands and hugged. Then we both sat down out of the wind and rested while waiting for the others.

I closed my eyes and must have slept, because the next thing I knew was Steve coming up with the others and shouting to me to take photos of the sun coming up. I did and then we took the obligatory pics of standing at the summit. In the wind it was extremely cold with it sleeting. Climbing up the mountain you don't notice it as much but once you stop it is felt.

Unfortunately the view which I had been told so much about - being able to see Madang and the north coast, seeing the south coast etc - was not there because of the mist that had come up. It did though afford us glimpse's of the east coast and the Finnisterre mountain range as it swirled around.

George and me stood up on top and got our photo taken. I looked at him and thought, then told him that he must be completely crazy. He had not worn a hat or trousers the whole way. On the back of his head after the picture was taken I could see a frosting of ice.

On top. Notice the numbers behind Georges head

We didn't stay at the summit for long, perhaps 30 minutes all up, before we headed down. It was good for the sun to be up so we could see the way but it also meant we had four hours of walking ahead of us. At the end of this my legs were like jelly trying to step down all the rocky steps. Going up is certainly easier on your legs than coming down.

Back at the hut at 11 we had a nap for 30 minutes, before having some lunch consisting of more two minute noodles. Then there was another 2 hour walk back to the high school, which was one of the longest two hours I can ever remember, it seemed like it would never stop. My right knee was also very painful making it hard to walk, I must have overstretched it at some point coming down.

Finally we hit the road after some more food and drove all the way back to Lae. I took over the driving at the bottom of the Kassam pass and drove down the Markham valley, getting home at 11:30pm. My exhaustion was absolute and as soon as my head hit the pillow I was out. I woke up 7 hours later in the same position.

It was a brilliant experience and something I will do again one day - but not for a while. I will also have to find another mountain higher as well, to better my PB. There is one in West Papua (Irian Jaya, Indonesia) at 5025m ... hmm.

Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Western Highlands Funeral

Another trip to the Western Highlands and in particular it's capital Mt Hagen has been completed. After driving up incident free on Friday, working Saturday at the school setting up computers and then having a lazy Sunday at the Hotel I actually thought this trip would pass by without any eventualities happening - comparing it that is to my last trip anyway (see Highlands Hwy Survivor). Then Monday morning when it was time to turn tail and head for home, George (my boss and travel partner) told me first we had to go and pay our respects at the funeral of one of our work colleague's brother who had died.

Paul's brother had passed away in Moresby on Friday, from Asthma complications or bronchitis or something like that. Paul and his brother are from Mt Hagen, so Paul went down to Moresby from Lae and retrieved the body and returned to Hagen with it on Sunday. Monday was set as the first day of the funeral, which would last three days until the body would be interned on Wednesday.

Once George had told me that we were going to a funeral, I changed into some semi-decent clothes that I brought along for the trip and George picked me up. We arrived at the bottom of the driveway up to Paul's clan's area with a group of about 20 other people. Most of these were people George knew and there was the obligatory handshaking of everyone by me as I was introduced.

At this stage I realised that wearing a shirt, a pair of trousers and my doc martins - my usual work attire - was considerably overdressing for the occasion. Funeral's it seems in PNG - or at least the western highlands - don't have the same sort of unwritten dress code that exists in Australia and I imagine all the other western countries. I was standing with a group of mourners dressed in the usual PNG highlands attire, which basically consists of the pickings from second-hand clothes stores (the next time you throw that heap of clothes into the St. Vincent's de Paul clothes bin outside the local church, bear in mind that it will end up being worn for another good couple of years all over PNG, until it finally falls apart), mixed and matched in all sort of unusual combinations. There was even one elderly bloke, who was wearing a nice tweed jacket, elbow patches and all, combined with as gras (arse grass - a bunch of leaves covering your arse, it is traditional highlands dress) hanging from underneath the back of the jacket, dangling above his bare legs.

After all the handshaking was completed the group proceeded to slowly walk up the drive. As we got closer I could hear what I would describe as rhythmic wailing coming faintly from the direction of the ceremony. We stopped as the wailing was getting louder, a respectable distance from the proceedings and one of our members took up a song. After a time others joined, then everyone was singing in the local language. To best describe what the singing sounded like, think of a Aboriginal song in chorus. I am not sure of the details of the song, but no doubt it was to do with sorrow.

The group moved on. My doc martins by this stage were slipping through mud, caused it seems by the combined effects of heavy rain the night before and hundreds of people trampling over the same spot.

The ceremony area was obscured by village buildings along the whole of the path to it. I may have not been able to see proceedings but I could certainly hear it. Similar songs were being sung as the one our group was singing which in turn was mixed with wailings and stomping of feet.

We entered the clearing and I finally got to see what was happening. The area was about the size of an Olympic swimming pool with the edge lined with onlookers who I assumed to be members of the clan. At one end of the clearing a group of people were standing around a effigy of the body. This was the family group and ones causing most of the wailing. To the side of the mourners, were the warriors. About a hundred strong lined up into ranks. They had painted their bodies with mud and brought along their weaponry, including spears, bows & arrows and axes. Most of them were wearing traditional dress of as gras and the like, but some just wore their St Vinnies best. They were marching around the area, chanting and singing their warrior songs to make sure that the other side knew that they had to accept the spirit of the deceased or they would come in and force them to accept it.

Our group came into the area and solemnly walked around the same circuit as the warriors, all the while still singing the same song. We encircled the mourners, coming face to face to them and their grief. This ceremony also goes by the name of bikpela kry (big cry), and now I understood. It was expected for you to show huge emotion. This meant that everyone there was wailing, crying, blabbing and basically overcome with grief. It was a shock to see Paul who I always thought of a tough guy, letting go, with tears streaking his cheeks. He saw me and beckoned me over, so that he could hug me and I could offer my sympathy.

Despite everyone else breaking down, there was no way that I could turn on the waterworks for someone I didn't even know. I looked around to see if I was the only person who was like this and I saw George standing there looking like me, as if he was a bystander at a car accident - intrigued at the sight, but not emotional. Later he told me that he has a real problem crying in public, understandable I said, most guys in the western world are exactly the same.

Up close, the effigy of Pauls brother, which should have apparently been the actual coffin, looked more like a coat rack than a person. It consisted of a branch cut from a tree jammed in the ground with a hat sitting on top and a Hawaiian shirt on a coat hanger, both items which belonged to Paul's brother. Where the face should have been was a photograph of him. This was the centre for the grief and anyone new who arrived made there way to this, to touch it and weep. It was unfortunate that the actual coffin could not be there, instead we got what looked like an unstuffed scarecrow. The reason apparently that the coffin could not be there was because being hot weather, they wanted to keep it at the Mt Hagen morgue until time of burial. I am not sure if this is correct or not, but it was the explanation I got.

While in the inner circle of grievers, the warriors still marched around the outside. After a while they changed from marching in ranks to an attack mode. Racing around in a hunched stance, spears raised, arrows pulled tight on their bows and axes ready. A couple of complete circuits were completed while in this mode, before the inner group that I was in, parted back from the coat rack. The warriors now, with their lungs pumping out a war cry, came around behind and through the group to gather up the effigy. They carried this aloft and down into a hut at the end of the grounds. This signalled that the first part of the funeral was over.

Everyone now relocated to another part of the clearing and formed a circle. The important people sat on seats but most people including me either sat on the grass or stood. Firstly the formalities were done, which meant that someone explained how the guy died, when, where etc. Then others got up and expressed their condolences. Then finally as in the other time I have witnessed one of these events at the compensation ceremony of my last trip here, the talkfest started and every topic people wanted to air was raised. There is one thing to be said about highlanders, they love to talk. These talkfest's are very orderly, no one interrupts anyone, everyone can get there turn at the topic they want to discuss, or to readdress and put there spin on a topic already raised. There was only problem for me, I had no idea about what they were saying, only picking up the general English word every once in a while, and I was sitting directly in the hot noon sun, which I later found turned me a bit pink.

George and Me took our leave at an appropriate time and headed back on the long trip down the Highland's highway to Lae. It was a late leaving, which made the time we got back about 9.30. The trip after dark turned into a bit of a nightmare for me. I was given the reins after Kainantu, and got the pleasure of driving through the dark. Fun fun fun. One of our headlights was not working and road is a shocker even if you drive during the day with potholes appearing as numerous as holes in Swiss cheese. Also the numerous trucks heading up to the highlands don't bother turning off their hi-beam, making it virtually impossible to see anything as they pass. Anyway we made it back safely, though in hindsight next time I will insist on staying the night in Goroka.

LP finally getting updated

I had heard that Lonley Planet was updating the current guidebook to PNG (which dates back to 1998), and now I know for sure. I just stumbled across the trip journal for one of the authors on the front page of the LP website. Check it out at this location