Our goal was not to reach the highest point of PNG, I am not a mountain climber, I'm a bushwalker so I had no real desire to get to the summit of Mt Wilhelm but I was keen on trekking at least up to Base Camp, so here goes...
Betty picked us up from Hagen, well from her coffee shop by the airport and after stopping at some markets and fording a broken river we left the Western Highlands and entered the mountainous region of Simbu, the air was cool, the grass were green and the locals friendly as we scooted along the Highlands Highway. At Kudiawa, we turned left and the road went up and up and up along a dirt track we drove. At one point I looked out of my window and looked down, just a bare few inches from the edge of our vehicle, the road disappeared and the edge of the valley just disappeared below. I could see clearly 170 metres down into the valley. I whispered to my girlfriend "I am not driving out of this mountain range, we're walking to Madang, it's safer".
We came to a bridge, or what was left of one; the timber was gone, but luckily for us, a small fee paid to some boys on the side of the road soon revealed that the lads had some timber tucked away that just so happened to fit the bridge we wanted to cross, so over we went. Thanks to the lads and their suitably sized timber! Road Tax anyone? But we finally made it to Betty's Lodge and her visitor's book made for fantastic reading as we looked for our friends who had trekked before us.
Now, the reason why we were there was to walk up to Base Camp and then wander down the road to neighbouring Madang, so up we got bright and early, got the fire going, warmed ourselves up and then off we went. Now the Governor General of PNG had walked to Base Camp only a few months before us and to make things easier for old Sir Paulius Matarne, they had cut timber legths into quarters and placed these wedges into the soft wet earth to make a sorta track through the forest. I don't know what was better, wet slippery mud or wet slippery timber? But once you learned how to place your foot on the high edge of the timber pieces, walking was a breeze, except that at 3,000 metres abover sea level, the air is a little thinner and it took us a few rest stops to get to Base Camp.
Base Camp is on the edge of Lake Pindaunde and the lake is part of a series of lakes joined by waterfalls all situated in a series of steps which leave the rainforest behind some few hundred metres below and make their way up to the rocky craggs of PNG's highest mountain. You step out of the rainforest onto a grass and heather covered plateau, tall Tree Ferns stand majestically and sway in the cold damp wind. Everything is wet, this is the cloud forest of PNG, where the heat from the coastal rim of this large island rises up into the mountains; it drags moisture from the seas and oceans that surround PNG and it is here at 3,400 m ASL that this moisture condenses and saturates all. The clouds would roll up the valley and completely cover the rocky craggs that surrounded us, the clouds would hug the mountain would enclose it and then would disappear and expose to us the formidable rock formations that seemd to be alive. They looked as if everytime the clouds would leave, the rocks would lean forward, almost spying on us only to retreat as the clouds would once again engulf the stone.
We sat at the edge of the lake and we listened, we could hear the crackle of a small fire that Dominic (our Guide and Security) was making for tea, we could hear the clouds moving in and out of the rocky crevices like ghosts, we could hear tiny finches calling to one another as they found a new yellow daisy to inspect, we could hear the waterfall on the other side of the lake roaring into the depths below, we could hear our own heartbeats as we tried to relax after the tough 3 hour walk to get there and most of all, we could hear peace.
But then we could hear a helicopter, mixmasta bilong jisas crais and this one was a blackhawk from the Australian Defence Force on route to Madang. We would see the same machine a week later when we relaxed with a beer on the waterfront of Madang. But that was the only modern disturbance; peace soon returned to our ears. Apart from the odd helicopter, the other things we could not hear were mobile phones, computers, alarms, cars, trucks and babies crying; all those dreadful noises that plague us in the western world.
It was perfect. The cup of tea was like no other cup of tea I have ever had, the colour had a rubiness to it, and there was no bitterness to it, it was tea as it should be.
Our moment of enlightenment passed, we then legged it back down the mountain to Betty's Lodge. We almost ran back as we were filled with a new purity, and it gave us motivation and speed in our legs. What was a trudging 3 hours to climb took just under an hour to get home. Our goal to see Base Camp was achieved, the next aim was to walk to the beach in Madang and follow the footsteps of a dear friend of ours. Vale.