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.

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Wilhelm: The Sequel - Part One

Adventurer's folly. I think I have a dose of that and my body is currently feeling the after effects - tiredness, stiffness, soreness and sunburn...ness, lots of nesses.

Stuck at home over the Easter break just didn't suit me. I needed to escape and have some sort of adventure. I had already climbed Mount Wilhelm once, but like all good stories a sequel was needed. So my plan was to go back and conquer it again as there was still one thing that nagged me about the last time I climbed the 4509 metre mountain - the view from the top was obscured by mist. This time I wanted to be able to see all of PNG. To do this though it just so happened I had to go through a weekend full of very early risings, rough road trips, kindness of strangers, freezing cold, sunburn, exhaustion, exhilaration and eating small marsupials. So much for a holiday but it was all worth it in the end - I love that stuff.

It all started with a first of what became a trait of my small holiday, a very early rise. My workmate, Paul, informed me that he would be leaving on Thursday for the long weekend and driving up to Mount Hagen. I wanted to go to Goroka, which is on the way, so when I asked what time he would leave he casually replies "Four". "In the morning?" I ask. "Yup". Hmmm kay, I think and then reply, "no worries!".

So the alarm was set at the ungodly hour of 3:45am. It buzzes and I wake, shower and jump in the car when it came around on the dot at four - so much for the fabled 'PNG time'.

The trip up the highlands highway was a non event - the raskols don't get up early - and I got dropped off at the Bird of Paradise hotel, early enough to catch breakfast there. Wandering around second hand clothes stores, banking and lazing by the hotel pool filled the day before I met up, for the first time, with my partner (or sucker) for the weekend adventure, the new vol in Goroka, Doc.

The amount of people willing to come along on my adventuring folly had originally been largish, then it reduced, then it had increased and finally on Good Friday eve, it reduced again from four down to two - Me and Doc. She turned out to be the one who is actually foolhardy enough to decide to come along on one of my trips. Perhaps this was because she didn't know me at all and didn't realise that she still had time to bail out. Or perhaps she is just as loco about what to do on long weekends as I am. Luckily it turned out to be the later and we managed to get along and survive. Mad must attract mad.

Food and other items were purchased and arrangements made to meet up at 7:30 outside the Goroka market, the place where all the buses comes along to collect passengers. I stayed at the house of my volunteer mate, whom I came to PNG with, Widya and managed to find a bus going to Mount Hagen without any dramas. We were headed to Kundiawa, on the way to Hagen, so this was perfect. So far so good.

The bus did the usual 'round and round' that they do when trying to fill up with passengers before eventually leaving. Two hours later we were deposited unceremoniously in Kundiawa, capital of Simbu province, one of the poorest, and as we were to find out, friendliest provinces in the country.

I asked someone where the PMVs to Keglsugl (the last village before Mount Wilhelm) left from and we headed off to that spot. A public motor vehicle (or PMV for short) in this neck of the woods consists of an open back Ute. Unfortunately there were none around, so we proceed to just wait. And this is when we met Martin, a secondary school teacher heading home for the long weekend. It just so happened that his home happened to be the last house before the walk up to Mount Wilhelm, and he offered it as a place to stay. Staying at complete strangers homes is not usually something I do, so I decided we would chat to him over the trip up the valley to Keglsugl to see what he was like.

A Ute eventually came and it turned out to be of the dual cab variety, so the three of us managed to get privileged spots inside - perhaps with just a little bit of help from Martin. We chatted with him through the rough journey and he turned out to be a great bloke.

Even though the distance is only about 50km the ride from Kundiawa up to Keglsugl manages to take about three hours. The reason is because the road is like a goat track with numerous go-slow spots, including a few very dodgy bridges. One in particular had its normal wooden planks replaced by some rough-cut bush logs. Going over initially proved too much for the Ute and it knocked the logs out of the way and dropped into the gaps. It took the combined strength of the passengers to lift the front out. The logs were then realigned and Ute charged over skittling the logs again but managing to get over. The back wheels of the Ute reminded me briefly of those cartoons where a guy is on top of a spinning log in a river. Certainly an eye-opener and pity I didn't have a video camera. I think I remember Doc saying something like "Geez Louise". My comment was a little coarser.

Bagarup bridge 2
First attempt at crossing the bridge

We eventually made it to Keglsugl, not before our original PMV broke down and we had to hop on another that came along. It was raining when we arrived at the trade store near the high school and runway - which is Keglsugl in a nut-shell - and we huddled underneath the eaves. Here Martin introduced us to Thomas, one of his cousins, and said he could guide us to the top the next-day. We said sure and negotiated a price of 75 Kina for the two of us.

We had to make a decision whether we would stay at Martin's place or go to Betty's house, the place where most hikers to Wilhelm stay. Our decision wavered towards Martin's when he said we would stay for free and Betty's would cost us 95 Kina a night. I am a bit of a tight arse and that sounded like a bargain, Doc thought so too.

From the trade store the four of us hiked up to Martin's and got settled into his cool place. It was a bush materials built men's house that had an absolutely perfect view over the valley below. Martin it turned out has a soft spot for orchids and he has collected many numerous varieties from around PNG and put them around his house.

A fire was made in the middle of the hard packed dirt floor and we crowded around it to keep warm and started telling stories. Martin's wantoks showed up and the storying continued. He told us how they are going to set up bungalows for hikers nearby to the men's house and launch a tour group called Mount Wilhelm Tours. He said he was glad to have us stay as we would be the first hikers to use his facilities. I told him I was glad to stay.

Inside Men's Haus
Warming up around the fire

Food was cooked on the fire later as the sun went down and the warm clothes were pulled out. This altitude (around 2800m) is unsurprisingly pretty cold at night. I was glad I had packed my sleeping bag this time and not like last time, when I nearly froze to death at the lakes wearing all my clothes and underneath the same sleeping bag as my boss. A weird experience.

In the morning, we took our time. There was no need to rush as we had the whole day to get up to the huts at the lakes - the base camp to attack the mountain from. We left around 8 as it turned out anyway. It seemed like we had taken our time, perhaps because we had got up at 6:30 - another early start.

We left Martin, his house and his mates behind and headed up to the lakes. Thomas led the way as we puffed along behind. The track is surprisingly tricky for the initial hike through the forest. It is close to being a continuous hike upwards for an hour and a half and I was glad when we got to the grassland where it was a lot flatter.

It was on the grassland that we were overtaken by a huge group of people. We heard voices and I originally thought there may have been three or four people, but then as they came out of some trees, there turned out to be three guides, six ex-pat hikers - with all the gear (walking sticks, Lycra pants, Camel-pack water bottles, etc) - six women porters carrying the ex-pats backpacks (one with a backpack in her bilum on her head) and about four kids following their mums.

Rival Trekking party
Our competition. Notice the backpack in bilum

We greeted them and found out they were a tour group from Port Moresby, Madang and Cairns, before they headed off ahead of us. We followed shaking our heads in amazement at this massive group. If there was one thing I wanted to do now, it was to beat these guys - and their walking sticks, camel-packs, gators and GPS devices - to top when we all left for the climb in the early hours of Sunday.

to be continued ... in Part Two