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.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Wilhelm: The Sequel - Part Two

When we reached the lakes we headed off to one of the huts and the other group luckily went off to the other one. The first thing I decided to do was go for a dip in them. Last time I saw George take the plunge and so this time I decided to see if I could do it. Besides I also needed a bit of a dip as I was starting to smell.

The water at this altitude was not particularly warm, well it is 3500m, and jumping in proved to be harder than I thought. I stood on a rock for a long time just wetting my feet in the cold, trying to will myself into doing it. Eventually I leapt, submerged, emerged, screamed and got out quicker than I thought humanly possible. Hats off to those Finnish, Russians and Canucks who like to do this. I think you are nuts.

We had the afternoon to kill around the lakes. Not something that was particularly unpleasant. It was perfect weather, the sun was out, the birds chirping, no cold wind and we had a massive hut to ourselves while the others were crammed into a small A-Frame hut. There were only a couple of problems. One being that I had forgot to put any sunscreen on and I suddenly realised that I was quite burnt on my hands, neck and ears. And the other was that I had a headache. The latter I blamed on the high altitude and fixed it with a Panadol.

Our competition came over in the afternoon and decided to inspect our hut. Too bad for them that they had already coughed up the money for the other hut and couldn't move to where there was space, I snidely thought. We got chatting and I decided that they were not too bad afterall, especially when they invited us over for a cup of tea at their hut. We accepted their invite and went over before dusk. Tea turned out to be one cup comically shared between the two of us - unlike our hut they only had one cup available. Snigger some more.

Dinner was cooked - if you can call noodles and tuna a dinner - and an early bed beckoned. The alarm was set for 12:15 and we would be heading out the door at 1am. Talk about an early rise. One o'clock was also the time that the other guys would be heading off or so they said. This time of departure would give us around five hours to make it to the top before dawn. Remembering back to the last time when I did it, it had taken just over five hours.

Doc woke me up after her alarm went off. I looked out the window to check the sky and saw a perfectly clear night. In fact the Southern Cross was beaming directly out of my window and I took this to be a good omen.

A cup of tea and some Chicken Snax crackers were enough for my 'breakfast', before we ventured out ready, rugged up with beanie and gloves. Last time I didn't bring any gloves, a big mistake, this time I was prepared.

Looking out the hut window I saw a snake of head lamps and torches crossing the other side of the lake. It wasn't yet one o'clock and the other group had got the leg up on us. Were they that keen to beat us?

With a photo we headed off, head lamp, torch and full moon lighting our way. We could not have asked for better conditions if we had prayed for them. I had forgotten that one aspect of Easter time was that it was also a full moon. Blessed were we.

To climb Mount Wilhelm, you first have to navigate around the bottom lake. Then you have to climb up a steep section past a waterfall to get to the second lake. From there it is basically climbing to get up to a ridgeline which you follow and then go across the mountain and around a few bluffs. With an hour to go you climb up to the peak.

We caught up to the other group at the second lake. This could be easier than I thought. We let them lead the way climbing up to the ridgeline before they really started to slow us down about half way up. Where we overtook and kept going. So much for my challenge. You can have all the hiking gadgets in the world, but it won't do much good if you are not fit. It was not like we were going flat out, we just gently hiked up, the difference I think is that we paced it, and didn't need so many stops.

At a point just before the ridge, Thomas at the front, me in the middle and Doc at the back, our guide suddenly took off, dancing fleet footed in heavy boots over grass humps and off towards the edge of the steep valley, disappearing behind a bush. I thought he had gone crazy and was throwing himself off to certain doom. He suddenly reappeared the other side of the bush beaming a huge smile. In his clutches was a Cuscus.

Cuscus catch
Thomas and his catch

He brought the small marsupial over holding it up proudly by it's tail. I grabbed my camera and snapped a few shots of him with his catch. I was pretty impressed to say the least and thought he was just going to let it go now - show the tourists how good I am at catching a Cuscus and then release it Steve Irwin style. Not here in PNG. Cuscus is gutpela kaikai. He grabs my tree branch fashioned walking stick and thwack, thwack, thwack. Lunch for later. He looks for a place to stash it, sees an ideal scrubby bush, swings and whacks it against a rock to make sure and hides it. We continue on our way up, remembering this location for the way down.

More metronomic walking and we were way ahead of our rivals. It was about 4am when we reached the point where an Australian Army Sergeant died in 1971. Christopher Donnan's place as it is now called. He is not the only person to die, quite a few have died in the past. Thomas took great pleasure in telling us where. The most recent was just in December. A Japanese tourist fell off the side of the steep mountain. She was badly injured and was rushed back to Goroka and then onto Japan only to die later from injuries. We watched our step.

The weather had stayed clear for the entire walk, and it was turning out to a perfect hiking time. It seems that that the wet season had finished early in the highlands much to our benefit. The wind had now picked up, but that was only to be expected as we were very exposed at over 4000 metres.

We completed the rest of the hike and the scramble up at the end and made it to the top. Doc went up first and got to be Queen of the mountain at around 5am. It had taken just on four hours to hike from the bottom lake - an ascent of 1000 metres - which was a lot quicker than the last time I did it. As to why? I don't know, it is not like I am any fitter as this point, I guess one secret is to go in a small group.

The problem with getting on top so early though is that you have to wait until the dawn. Once you stop walking you cool down very quickly, and being sub zero temperatures this is not good. I knew it was sub zero because we had crunched our way over ice for the last hour.

We huddled out of the wind in the shelter of rocks and started to have weird conversations. Doc said that the Beach Boys Pet Sounds album was one of her favourites; it was a weird time to bring it up. We had discussed favourite albums but that was two hours ago. Altitude and cold was blamed. In fact anytime something weird happened over the weekend, altitude was the culprit.

Dawn was breaking and our rivals had still not made it. We had to wait until 6am for two of them to reach the top. I had great pleasure in saying we had been up here for an hour, I didn't mention that I was now half frozen to death.

We stayed and watched the magical dawn. The valleys a long way below were full of cloud and we were high above. I could see all I wanted to see unhindered. The north coast, Manam Island, Mt Hagen, Ramu valley, Ramu river and a clear outline below the rising sun of the Finisterre mountains - a place I still want to get to. I also saw my Sarawaget mountains, the ones behind my house in Lae. They were about five hundred kilometres away.

Plenty of photos now flowed. Snap, snap, snapity snap. The panorama, the vista, silhouette of the summit, me on a rock, them on a rock, me at the summit, thumbs up ... etc. Being so cold caused a few a technical problems battery wise, but my trusty liklik digital served me well again.

On Top 1
Dawn breaks on up high

On Top 2
Come on up, the view is great

We didn't stay long. We were too cold, so we headed on back down, taking it nice and easy. Last time my knees didn't cope too well and I wanted to make sure they held out this time, hence the Cuscus killing walking stick I had carried up.

Mt Wilhelm peak
What we toiled for: the summit - in daylight

to be continued ... in Part Three.