Saturday, December 26, 2009

Simbu

Call it what you like, Chimbu or Simbu, there is no doubt that Simbu is up there with Enga in regards to mountains and so it was here that we climbed. Go back and read my Madang entry to find an escape route from the highest point of PNG.

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.

Friday, June 19, 2009

West New Britain

Rain, Rain, Rain was what we were told to expect as we landed at Hoskins and made our way to Kimbe the provincial heart of the West Britain Province. But luckily for us, our overnight delayed flight landed in fine weather and the sun almost appeared from behind the clouds. The weather was fine, but I will note that it started to bucket down as our plane left Hoskins some few days later.
Just a weekend away from Moresby and a popular choice for many Moresbians to escape to for a few days. I am disappointed not to have spent more time in WNB as this visit was rather short, again thanks to the delayed flight. And this trip had a very touristy feel, good accommodation, good local guides, well arranged trips and great food, what more could you ask for?

On one occasion we grabbed the dive boat and headed out to a local island and while I snorkeled with the little fish, the others dropped off the shore and had a dive in deeper water. During another moment, we jumped in some kayaks and headed out to a local reef, and spent an hour snorkeling. On another day we drove round and round and round an oil palm plantation until we found a small creek with hot rushing water that spewed forth from a Volcano, wading in the water was like nature's own spa bath.My only issue with the whole trip? The sun rose in the wrong spot; when will it learn to rise in the West and set in the East?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Autonomous Region of Bougainville

Bougainville is an amazing place and my exploration there back in 2008 has left me with warm memories. Everywhere else in PNG that I have wandered, I have had reasonable support and guidance, whereas in Bougainville, I was alone but with one exception in Marist Father Austin. Fr Austin helped out when it was necessary but he never intervened to the level of taking over and it did indeed feel as if his guardian approach was minimal.

The best way to get up and down the East Coast Road is via the convoy of Land Cruisers that operate as 10 seater PMVs, these leave Kokopau (right next to the water taxi depot on the Bougainville side of Buka Passage) just before lunch and return each morning leaving Arawa between 3 and 4am. Make sure you book your seat although this does not guarantee a seat, much to my frustration early on a Friday morning.

I booked my seat and was told that the driver would pick me up at 0330 the next morning… so at 0320 I closed the door to my room at the Arawa Women’s Training Centre and stood out in the balmy darkness next to Alfred the Security Man.

“Morning” I said to Alfred and Alfred responded.

“Morning, you know your driver has gone.”

“Gone where?” said I.

“Back to Buka, he picked up some sick people from the hospital and said that you would have to find another PMV.”

All of a sudden, I was feeling sick. How was I going to find another PMV at this time considering I had been told all the others were already booked? Alfred went back to playing the snake game on his mobile. Alfred assured me that a PMV would come by… And one did, it was a group of Tax consultants who were auditing the businesses in Arawa for non payment of GST. I had met them the evening before and we had shared a beer together. While the Women’s Training Centre was very comfortable and the hospitality warm and inviting, they were unable to sell a beer to their customers, but we could go and buy some from the local bottle shop. So in the afternoon I wandered into this shell of a supermarket which had been torched during the Crisis and was structurally very, very unsound, but inside was a little timber hut with a SP sign on the side. I walked up to the window and the chap inside asked what I wanted and I asked for a few green cans, but he said “’fraid not, only got black cans”.

So I bought some black cans and wandered back to the accommodation block buying a few more betel nuts for my new found Tax friends. My Tax friends were well chuffed and they chewed and drank into the evening. Seeing as I had plans to alight in the early hours of the next morning, I retired to my room early.

This brings me back to the car load of Tax consultants who appeared at 0345 in a PMV that they had hired for their business and obviously as a means to find more beer for they were well drunk including the driver. Arawa is a rare town in PNG for it has kerbing and no pot-holes, so as an example, a driver negotiating the streets in Lae would drive in a zig-zag manner avoiding the pot-holes and using the footpath area when necessary, but in Arawa you can drive as straight as an arrow. Unless it is 0345 in the morning and you have been drinking all night and you have a pretty solid 4wd which can handle the kerbs with ease. So this car came up the road and on the footpath and narrowly missed the stobie poles by a bare measure, and then stopped in front of Alfred and me.

“Steve!!!!” the driver cried with beer cans spilling from his car, the fumes from inside overpowered the diesel exhaust.

“You guys are doing well, aren’t you all heading back to Buka today?” I said, making pleasantries.

“Yeah, we’re leaving at 0800… where’s your ride?”

I told them the story about how my man had decided to take the sick and injured back to Buka and that I was just waiting on the off chance that a PMV would pass by. They said that if I wanted to, I could jump into their bus at 0800 and join in the fun.

“But you guys are all drunk; you won’t make it back to Buka?” I questioned.

“Nah, we’re gonna hit the bunks now and get a few hours to sleep off this beer… you want a lift or not?”

“Only if I can drive” I said.

With that comment, we passed farewells and the Land Cruiser launched off the kerb and up the road, turning around and then coming back to me kerbside… Another window opened with more alcohol spilling from within “We’re off to get some more beer!”

I shook my head with disbelief as the PMV swerved down the road and off across a paddock and again narrowly missing a stobie pole before returning to the bitumen. Alfred kept playing his snake game. A PMV then appeared on a road I could see across the paddock and roared along, Alfred said that was my PMV with the patients. I looked up at the stars and questioned whether I was going to see Buka again.

But then a PMV came up the road, Alfred said “You don’t want this one.” But I did, I just wanted to get moving, it was now 0410 and I had been waiting long enough. I attempted to wave it down but it ignored me and stopped a few houses away up the other street.

“Alfred, how do I stop that guy?”

“You don’t want that one Steve; we can wait a little longer.”

So we did and I made a second attempt to stop the PMV when it left the house and came back past us. Alfred said “You don’t want that one.”

“But if I can stop it then he might know of another PMV to swing by???”

We waited in the dark. Bougainvilleans or Bukans are also called Black Skins, as those from mainland PNG are known as Red Skins. I met a red skin in the same burnt out shell where I had purchased the black cans, the red skin was from Goroka and he was manning his Kai Bar. I said “Hey red skin, what are you doing here?”

He responded with “I came here for a look a few years ago, and found my nirvana, this place is paradise, so I opened a kai bar and now I sell my goods to all these black skins” He hailed from Goroka and was a nice guy for a chat. In a society were everyone had polished black skin, this Gorokan and I felt almost like wantoks, there was a connection in that his Highlander skin tone was the closest thing to a white person I had seen for some time and likewise, my skin tone was familiar to him. Well it felt like that.

So in the dark, Alfred was very difficult to pick out, mind you he did have some reflective tape on his Security uniform which helped. I asked Alfred where in Bougainville was he from and his response was “I’m from here, from Arawa”, so I asked if he knew everyone in town and he said “Of course.”

“So, some of your wantoks would be drivers?” I asked.

“Yeah heaps…”

“Got any of their phone numbers in that mobile of yours?”

“Yeah heaps…” he looked up at me.

“How ‘bout you start calling them and getting one of your wantoks to come and get me back to Buka?” I was getting nervous. “I don’t want to be stuck here.”

Alfred said quietly “The same thing happened to Mark.”

Now Mark ain’t his real name, I’ve changed that for two reasons, one; this is the internet and I understand privacy issues and the second is more of an in-joke that I will embarrassingly admit went on for too long. But the pair of us share some common interests and traits and have been often confused by some of the people of PNG in the past. Us white guys all the look the same. So when Alfred said “The same thing happened to Mark.” I knew what outcome was possible, another night in Arawa, and another early morning hoping for a PMV.

But to Alfred’s credit, he started making some calls on his phone although it didn’t sound to inspiring until he finally spoke to someone. He got off the phone and said that everything would be okay, a PMV would pass by. And then one came, but Alfred said “You don’t want this one.”

It was 0420. And then a Land Cruiser stopped. Alfred said “take this one” and I was already inside and on the seat.

“Thanks Alfred” I called out as the PMV left the kerb. I took a look around, no-one was inside, and I thought that was odd.

We drove around town, at the first house, we parked in the driveway and the driver laid on the horn for around half a minute. A tired looking guy came out onto his balcony and looked down at us through sleepy eyes. The driver gesticulated wildly at him, and the man went back inside. A few moments later he returned with a small bag and he walked down the steps. The driver got out and the new guy got in. It was explained to me that the first driver was actually the owner and that the new guy was the driver. I asked where were all the passengers and the new driver said we would go and get them now.

We drove to a workshop where the driver would once again get on the horn; a sleepy security guard came and said that the passengers were waiting for us outside on the footpath. We both got out and we found two men asleep in a pile of beer cans, one of them woke up and climbed into the back of the PMV, the driver and I picked up the other guy and tossed him into the back. We then drove across town where we stopped again, but this time to drag the sleeping drunk out and place him safely on another footpath. What a surprise for him when he awakes.

After a few laps of town (Arawa only takes 10 minutes to walk from end to end), and picking up a few new passengers, it was time to leave; 0450, we then started our trip back to Buka. Now the trip crosses many rivers and in the middle of the first river, we stopped the car and the driver got out. He wandered over to a rock, laid a towel down, removed his shirt and with a bar of soap, he proceeded to wash himself in the river. After drying himself off, he returned to the car and said “Ok, now we go.”

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Western Province

Flying over PNG whether in commercial F100s, small light fixed wing aircraft or even in a helicopter, it is amazing to look out and watch the Mountains rise and fall and the emerald green forests that carpet these peaks and valley floors. But catching a flight to Daru, and then jumping on a little plane and heading further west until you reach the border with Indonesia, the environment below looks like another country indeed. Spreading out below is a vast wetland of Melaleuca forests, acres of open grassland and not that many people.

A friend once said to me that the Bensbach River is like a place where God removed all the people and left only the animals behind. And animals there are a plenty of. When you get sick of the gorgeous view from above and you step out of the plane, there’s always a boat waiting at the end of the runway which will give you a Barramundi’s eye view of this vast wetland area. This is where you will meet all of those animals that God left behind; huge crocodiles, white breasted sea eagles in every second tree, wallabies, Rusa deer, goannas and an endless variety of birds.

But if you look closer, there are Papuans living here and the small communities of Weam and Wando are an interesting clash of cultures. There have obviously been attempts to modernise this part of PNG, many houses had tin roofs and there were cars parked in front yards around the place. On occasion a telephone tower sprung up as the tallest member of this flat wetland but thanks to a lack of follow up maintenance, the people here now no longer rely on telephones to communicate… they now have message boys and bicycles. The cars that sit in front yards no longer drive as there are no longer any roads in the province and the tin roofs are slowly rusting and being replaced by thatched grass materials.

Slowly, all attempts to bring the 21st Century to these communities are being rolled back and traditional living is looking more and more likely to be the future. It doesn’t appear to faze anyone, the people are wonderful and warm and inviting. Life on the river moves rarely faster than the river itself and it is a requirement to stop and chat to everyone you meet either on land or water.

Oh, and some of the animals were well tasty. Roasted wallaby and venison, large barramundi steaks cut from a fish caught only an hour earlier, and crocodile curry all served with locally grown vegetables made for a culinary experience that rivaled the experience of seeing such a gorgeous countryside.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

New Ireland

Eloi tasig!

New Ireland is really pretty, it is what most travelers to this country would expect when they first imagine stepping onto a Pacific Island, but there is one exception to this thought and I’ll get to it later. The Australian troops that were sent to the mainland of Papua and New Guinea during the Second World War were disappointed when they arrived at Port Moresby to find a relatively dry landscape with a few Gum Trees dotting the countryside and also small clumps of heavy barked Cycads reminiscent of the Australian grass trees or “black boys” as they were once called before political correctness stepped in. The troops were expecting Coconuts, white sandy beaches and well tanned, bare breasted Melanesians wearing only their grass skirts. While you can find all of these things if you know where to look in Moresby, it is much easier to achieve if you get away from the Capital.

I spent a few days on a tiny Island off the coast of New Island, it took me 15 minutes to walk a lap of the Island and that was a slow lazy lap and 1 hour and 30 minutes to swim a lap of the coral reef that lie below the crystal clear waterline. During my stay, I opted not to wear footwear as there were no roads, and few rocks, for it was a white sandy island with coconuts, a few Mango trees, a Frangipani or two, some Hibiscus and a gorgeous white ginger. But not wearing shoes for such a period of time had its pros and cons. Firstly, my feet have never looked cleaner, the abrasive sand particles had ex-foliated my skin to perfection but upon returning to the mainland and having to walk along a concrete pathway, my feet were in pain because of the hardness of the ground beneath. Ouch.

While I was able to find the utopia that the Soldiers found missing in Port Moresby, there is a slight physical difference to the bare breasted Melanesians of mainland PNG here in New Ireland. Along with the people who live in East New Britain and across the sea in Bougainville, the New Irelanders share a common trait with both these neighbours. Like the Bukans of Bougainville, the New Irelanders are of darker skin tones but like the Tolais of East New Britain, the New Irelanders often will have blonde hair colour.

A really pretty part of the country despite the ever expanding Oil Palm plantations, but even these has a lineal symmetry that is peaceful and entrancing. The Boluminski Highway is an easy and attractive coastal road, in good condition which cruises through a few small tiny villages as it winds its way to Namatanai. I know of others who have cycled this road and had a wonderful time doing so. In envious rage I shake my fist at them, but not too threateningly, they know who they are… Next time I return to New Ireland, I’ll take my bike.

And getting back to those soldiers who were disappointed with Moresby in 1942, they should have know better as Australian troops saw action and casualties against the Germans in New Guinea during the First World War and two of those soldiers of the 1st and 4th Tropical Force are buried on the island of New Ireland. Vale.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

East Sepik Province

I have traveled to Wewak on occasion and one time, I was able to get up in the hills behind the town and my aim was to overlook the Sepik Basin, well one thing lead to another and the Sepik never appeared before me so I returned back to the Airport and back to Moresby.

This experience left me with a desire to experience life on the river and after meeting two Austrians in Enga, I decided to spend some time on the Karawari River, high up near the mountains of PNG but well inside the East Sepik Province. I would use the Karawari Lodge as my base and spend my days languishing on the river in a canoe or jetboat and visit the nearby communities.

Planes, Boats and Automobiles, PNG style.

The tally stood at one diesel jetboat silently cruising downstream with the current after the engine died, one diesel generator cutting in and out providing lights and darkness, followed by lights, followed by more darkness at the Lodge, one diesel 4WD which had front wheel diff problems, followed by some burning of the rear bearings, followed by the passengers all jumping clear as the 4WD rolled noisily backwards and over into a drain, one light aircraft heading our way only to turn around because of mechanical problems and Airniugini showing up 22hours late with their F100. And this was after I bought my Karawari Good Luck Idol.

But back to life on the river; apart from the odd 15hp outboard motor for a canoe and the odd commercial fishing net, life on the Karawari has not changed much over the years, the people still living with the river as they have for many generations. The one thing that impressed me was how clean the villages were, no plastic bags, no tin fish cans, no trukai rice bags, there was the occasional bleach and coke bottle used as a fishing reel and/or float and the odd flame flour bags stitched together to make sheets and sails. Everything else was traditional fibre.

The houses were huge and sago was the roofing material of choice and would give good shelter for at least 15 – 20 years, far greater than pit-pit or kunai thatched homes in other parts of PNG, and apart from termites and the occasional change in the river, most homes were solid and expansive. Apart from a longhaus spotted at Kutubu, these homes were the largest in the country, and designed well with the kitchen at one end, and sleeping on either side of the large open space. Mosquito netting was the only protection against mosquitos which in this part of PNG is a big issue, the gnat gnats were everywhere as soon as you got out of the village and into the tall grass and trees. But the mozzies were no where near as bad as I expected.

There were some demonstrations in place for us tourists and we learnt how to make sak sak and how to fish, but I think one of the better moments was when a concerned debate started between the Councillor and some of the local businessmen, a group of kids and I decided to go for a bit of a look around the rest of the village and see what the rest of the crew were up to. This provided a more natural demonstration of true village life and we were able to visit the local church, chat with the guys who were building a new Spirithaus and talk with a couple who were preparing some more sak sak.

The kids were fantastic, as they always are in PNG, I sat and listened to a group of young boys with a home made ukulele playing a song a girl named Lolene, inspiring stuff, I was disappointed not to meet this young lady and another bunch of kids were happy to continue running the entire length of their village just to wave good bye.

But my return to school was an emotional journey. Lucy the teacher came up to see us in the evening and let us know that the school kids would be happy for us to join them in the morning. When we arrived, the entire school assembled in their best clothes and presented us with wreaths of flowers that we wore Roman style around our heads. The school then turned their back on us and sang the PNG National Anthem to their flag; this was an emotional experience as I find the PNG National Anthem a stirring and interesting song about the modern way of life in PNG. They then sang another anthem about their country followed by a rousing welcoming song to their school.

After the singing came the dancing and the laughter and then we had to give a small introduction about ourselves, and where we had come from. It was a fantastic moment and a joy to see all the students have an opportunity to learn in such a remote part of the country. This year saw the introduction of 4 new teachers raising numbers from just the Principle to a staff of 5. Not bad for 120 kids.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Madang Province

Madang town at the heart of Madang Province is the Florida of PNG. It seems every crusty no-necker from Moresby or Lae chooses to flock there if they are forced to holiday within PNG itself. You will often overhear stories of people having their family decide to come and visit them in PNG and they have to decide where outside of Moresby do I take them for a break… inevitably Madang is the destination.

Sure, Madang offers a relaxed lifestyle that Moresby or Lae doesn’t, and one can feel relatively safe in walking around the markets, but don’t let that fool you. Madang was the first place in PNG where I saw some graphic domestic violence in full view of a crowd at a PMV stop, bottles of beer thrown at my car and the way that some store owners (from another nationality) treat their locally engaged staff. Behind the pretty orchid rich grounds of the resorts and lodges lies a socially and economically struggling community.

Some people fly in to Madang, some even tackle the drive through the Ramu Valley from Lae, but I chose to walk there. A dear friend of mine who was recently murdered here in Moresby once walked this track from high up in the Chimbu mountains and down into the Ramu Valley below, so shortly after his tragic passing, I decided to follow his footsteps from PNG’s highest point down to the sea.

My Madang story starts in neighbouring Chimbu, high up on the spine of PNG sits Mt Wilhelm at 4,508m above sea level. Because my plan was to walk down to Brahmin in Madang, I only opted to walk up to the cool of Base Camp and then plan my descent down to the heat and jungles below. From Kegsugl my girlfriend and I set out on a gorgeous Spring Day in the mountains, the daisies were blooming, the birds were singing, there was a crispness in the air, and with a porter each and a guide each, the six of us loaded up our packs and headed up what appeared to once be a road. Indeed it was, the Bundi Highway linked Madang to Kundiawa via a treacherous road cut into the mountainside and it was along this track we would travel, with Pomyea being our first point of call inside the border in Madang.

The road climbed up over 3,400m above sea level from our starting point some 1,000m below and then crossed the border shrouded in the mountain cloud. We met many people along the way, many of whom were wantoks of our fellow travelers and we often stopped to take a break and just chat about how things were. Many of the people we met were from Pomyea and were just taking a walk into Kegsugl or Gembogl to do a bit of shopping and would plan on a return later that afternoon.

The road descended from the border until we reached a mountain spur where Pomyea was situated on top, with a ridge barely 20 metres wide, a village sat. Their vegetable gardens were on the incredibly steep slopes below and on the far sides of the valleys. This was mountain goat territory and a sense of being high up in the mountains was further impressed by PNG’s best view of Mt Wilhelm itself off to the west.

Inside the Hausman, we dropped our bags and met the locals, because we had a good supply of food and our guides were sure we could get a feed at Bundi, we cooked the lot and half the village community joined in. Greens were brought in, Kaukau was roasted on the fire on the floor, rice was served and we ate. And then the locals ate, and ate and ate. We were informed that this amount of food was a rarity so it was a joy to have a full belly. I grew up with a reasonable appetite but the amount of food; I saw a young boy tuck away was phenomenal! So with full bellies, we retired to our raised bamboo bed and slept. So too with half the village as they all decided to camp out in the Hausman with the two white people; plenty of piccaninnies, some lapuan men na meris and our guides and porters. I expected a noisy night but the only stirring was when a young mother was woken by her infant baby crying for a feed. I slept well with my new family.

The next morning I awoke to see the Moon setting behind Mt Wilhelm as the sun rose behind us. Astronomically, only an eclipse could have made the moment more inspiring. It was a gorgeous way to start the day.

The 6 of us were joined by a young brother who wanted to walk with us to Madang so the 7 of us then continued our walk down the mountain road, past the kids at Snopas School, past the tiny little kopihaus and into the warmer air. The alpine rugged barren hills started to become richly vegetated as we entered into the jungle landscape of PNG and it was here we found an extraordinary site of a tin clad Catholic Mission at the base of a Mountain. Its tin exterior looked like a Knight in shining armour and Sister Roselyn greeted us with a warm New Ireland smile. Our guides and porters left us for nearby accommodation with family and left the two of us in the hands of the Sister. So there the three of us were inside this massive Mission and waited for the night to fall. A tremendous storm came and lashed the Mission with torrential rain as Sister Roselyn served us some dinner in the giant hallway inside. Sister Roselyn moved with a stealth along the timber floors of the mission, often moving between rooms down the ends of long corridors, her blue and white habit so clean and neat against the blackness of her face, she wasn’t quite a Bukan but very close in colour..

The sun set just after 6, just like it does every night and after walking hard all day, we retired to the crisp well tucked in linen of our beds. A polar opposite of yesterday’s evening. During the night Sister Roselyn quietly performed her rounds of the corridors and at sunrise had prepared us an urn of hot water, and some warm food. We ate in silence and in awe of Sister Roselyn’s hospitality. Shortly she would show up down stairs with a friend who was keen to sell some handicrafts to the visitors. As we offered our farewell, we headed off in the direction of Madang, and around the corner came our guides and porters from their overnight rest.

We then left the highway and took a shortcut through the jungle. This was more like walking the Kokoda Track and the trees were filled with Hornbills and the creeks swollen with cold mountain streams. Up and down into valleys and ridges were traversed only to find an old Bailey bridge sans timber and remnants of a road. This shortcut was once a road, but now the jungle had won. Even more surprising was when a friend of ours from Kegsugl phoned me up on my mobile to say that she was waiting for us at the Brahmin Mission, we only had to step out of the jungle at 2pm and she would come across the bridge to meet us. Sure enough at a few minutes before 2pm, the jungle parted and we were standing on the side of a road, to our right were another Bailey bridge avec timber and our friend driving across. We all jumped into the Ute and headed to the Mission where some of our guides/porters departed, with their Aunty (our friend from the mountains) calling out “Don’t you steal anything this time!”

With that thought we drove across the Ramu Valley and into the town of Madang. Later relaxing with a beer, at one of those places the crusty no-neckers frequent, we borrowed two old dunga bikes and took a ride around Madang town. My first and most likely only push bike ride in PNG.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gulf Province

My trip to the Gulf Province was fun but short lived, what initially was planned was to spend a few days at Kikori, just hanging out on the river, but a better offer was to go through the Gulf Province by road and enter the Southern Highlands after first arriving in the Gulf Province by Air. This trip also included the previously blogged about lap of Lake Kutubu and an aerial assault on the Wasi Falls so with 4 flights, a few hours on a road in the Jungle, camping out in minesite, a six hour boat cruise and lunch with the locals, this weekend looked like a corker, and a good reason to escape from Moresby for a few days.

The Gulf part of the trip was fun; the plan was to fly to Kikori, catch a drive to Gobe while crossing the mighty Kikori River and then flying north. Sounds simple, this is PNG and like most travel in PNG, it starts with that familiar voice (imagine a Rabbit trapped in the headlights of a car) at Jackson’s Airport letting us know that our plane was delayed.

So we have a chat to the Airlines PNG girl, give her my mobile number and we scoot out of there. The easiest escape is to get up to the Airways Hotel and jump into a cold SP while wasting a few hours watching someone else’s planes come and go, and while we couldn’t find the Airways shuttle bus we did manage to spot the Crown Plaza bus and he was gracious enough to take us poolside and at the Airways. He told us he knew where we were headed because he used to be the driver at that Hotel. If the Crownie ever read this and they work out who he is, he will probably want to line up the Driver’s job at Lamana. But thanks to ol’ Bud, we were relaxing in a little bit of Moresby style while our plane was doing naught.

Then came the call, the Airlines PNG girl phoned me up and said that our delayed plane was early and we had to be back at the Airport. She was well excited that she was able to give us the good news that our delayed plane was in fact, taking off early, she almost couldn’t control herself. Good on her.

So we took the Airways shuttle bus back down to Jackson’s and boarded our Twin Otter. It was a pleasant flight along the Motuan coastline of southern Papua, we could check out Yule Island, and the Brown River and then we started descending well before Kikori, and it was raining, perhaps the weather was bad and we were going to sit it out at Kerema. The landing was okay, but then the Twin Otter got stuck in some mud as the pilot tried to get closer to the terminal. We were bogged, I was watching out the window as the right hand tyre started to disappear into the yellow mud. The pilot had the Twin Otter straining with the engines screaming and slowly the plane lifted like that Phoenix story from the ashes or charcoal and the Twin Otter wandered across the mud to the terminal.

The pilot came out to say G’day and that he was going to head off to Bereina and then come back and get us and then we would all go to Kikori. We said that we would like to go to Bereina too as an excursion would be nice, but he said it would be best if we went for a walk around Kerema, and besides, how often do you get to check out Kerema?

Oh yeah, during this flight my seat totally collapsed, it came away from its railing on the side of the plane and just fell apart in a heap. I was stuck holding on to the seat in front of me while using my hip flexor muscles to try to rise the seat up to a normal position. I was then able to rest the edge of the seat onto the top of the rail, meaning any turbulence would cause the seat to collapse again.

Whilst stationary at Kerema, the Pilot and I went to town on fixing the seat. We got it solid again.

So there we were a group of us, standing at Kerema, no luggage, no plane and a supposed one hour before the pilot would be back. So we went for a meet and greet with the locals. We watched some muddy soccer on the town square, we hung out with some betelnut chewing lads and we had a chat with a betelnut bombed lady in one of the Chinese stores. She was keen to show us around town as they don’t get too many white people just wander into town with no luggage and stuff, but when we wandered off looking at other shops, she got a bit offended. I feel deeply bad about it, and if she’s ever in Moresby, I would like to say I am sorry. But she was pretty bombed.

So we bought some coke and twisties and had lunch.

After some time we went back to the Airport and sat around the terminal, and lo and behold, our plane came back! We got onboard and took off towards Kikori. There was no chance that our driver would be there waiting at the airport…

The Kikori Airstrip is laid with Marsen Matting. No Way!!! This stuff was laid down during the Second World War to create runways on beaches and build temporary bridges and roads. Not in 2007. But sure enough, we circled the airport and we could see the torrential rain, we could hear the torrential rain and we could see the 60 year old strips of rusty iron all curled up and bashed together to form what appeared to be a Second World War Airstrip designed for Kittyhawks and the occasional Mustang. This landing was going to be all over the shop like a mad woman’s breakfast, and I was right. Bang, we hit hard, you could hear the plates of old metal moving around and there was mud and there was rain, and the Twin Otter was sideways, slewing all over the runway, we could see the Pilot through the little wooden archway and he was riding this beast like a Rodeo rider. We slowed to taxi speed and then taxied across the drainage trench and up to the shed. The Pilot looked back at us and said “Welcome to Kikori, hope you enjoyed your flight, sorry ‘bout the landing and I’ll see ya next time.”

After collecting our bags, a man approached and said he was our driver, and he was going to get us into the dark heart of the Gulf Province and to a place called Gobe, but first he must piss around in town and at his office. After all this he said; “Sorry crew, there isn’t enough time to get to Gobe tonight, we will miss the last ferry and it is better if we try again at 4am tomorrow”. We politely persuaded him to give it a go getting us to the ferry and in the back of a Troopy, we headed off on a reasonably well graded gravel road at 40kph. “Can’t we go any faster?” we cried… “No” was the response.

This road is maintained and built by Oil Search Ltd and they have a strict no speeding, stick on 40 kph limit apply. We even have to sign in and out and check points along the way, which is a good opportunity to stretch the legs. Normally when traveling in PNG, one gets amazed at how many people are just sitting around and doing nothing. Not on this road. This road is one of the remotest roads in the country, it is owned by the Oil Company and it is used by the Oil Company. No one else has access and it is quiet.

You drive through thick forest, forever following a pipeline which is buried under the ground, and then the forest parts and you find the Kikori River, a river which is just smashing along… parts of Kikori get 6 metres of rainfall a year and it is not unusual for the parts inland to get 11 metres. This river is moving and the ferry is dragged sideways by around 6 cables to get from side to side. Trees float past. It is near dark, and the ferry has waited for us, after driving for hours at 40kph, we make it across the river, and we continue in the dark towards the mining camp of Gobe.

My time in the Gulf Province is short lived for after a night sleeping in the mining camp listening to the deafening rain on the roof, I am in a plane and headed for Lake Kutubu and the Southern Highlands. The Gulf is scarcely populated, heavy with rain and the rain forest is one of the thickest I have ever seen but I enjoyed my time here. Apart from meeting the crew at Kerema, I feel as if I have missed something, maybe next time.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Manus Province.

Manus is the most Northern Province in PNG, the main Island is Manus Island and it was here that I was able to get away to for a few days back in late 2007. Manus requires a couple of flights to get to and it feels very remote. If life in PNG is fairly laid back and casual, then in Manus it feels as if time has stopped. And a short walk around the Provincial Capital of Lorengau proves that indeed some of the construction work to build the town stopped shortly after the end of the Second World War; old Nissen Huts are now Coca-Cola advertisements, old concrete bunkers are storerooms and the start of a great causeway built by the US Army still looks as if work will re-start tomorrow.

Manus does not know what Tourism is. The trios of us traveling there in November of 2007 were tourist numbers 8, 9 and 10 for the year to date, and as I knew who the last two visitors were, I felt that we were in elite company. The day we arrived must have been tourist season as we saw a couple of lads with surfboards arriving to try and catch some PNG swell… we never saw them again albeit ever so briefly in the marketplace. I wonder if they tried any of the smoked Cuscus.

The only Hotel in town was owned and operated by the Local Level Government and they would only receive visitors from workers coming to the Island to fix things. Workers like Telikom and PNG Power and Eda Ranu would stay there along with Politicians on workshops and junkets. The staff eyed us suspiciously as we wanted not to sit around the stagnant pool drinking warm beer and staying up to 6am, but we wanted to visit local communities, chat with the locals, go for a swim and enjoy PNG hospitality. These ideas were foreign to the staff.

After much convincing and cajoling we managed to get a vehicle and staff member to take us for a journey away from the heart of Manus and up into the Mountains in the centre of the Island. As it was surfing season, the swell was far too great for us to go visiting neighbouring Islands. We did manage a snorkel on Ra-Rah Island close by which was a swell time, and there was fantastic Manus Pandanus on the Island. Our journey into the Mountains culminated with watching a Soccer Match in the pouring rain with the entire Village community involved. There was not a blade of vegetation on the pitch and the red soil was saturated with the constant rain. We got to hug a baby Cuscus which probably ended up being smoked and sold at the markets later and we got to spend some good quality time chatting to the local crew. Some of whom had a fair idea about tourism, but were being hamstrung by the only Hotel on the Island. A shame really because hindsight is an amazing thing and I think I would have altered my original plans if only I knew more and spent more time with these people…

After the men finished their game of soccer, the young ladies of the Village had their turn, in pouring rain and on a field of clay; two dozen young Manusian girls chased a heavy saturated leather ball around. Mud wrestling anyone?

We then drove back to town, purchased a shortwave radio and decided to listen to the election to see if Johnnie Howard still had a job or if Kevin 07 was gonna be the new PM. Amazingly enough, the Hotel found a technician who was willing to work all day Saturday to make sure the planets were in alignment and that the televisions picked up the ABC. Unbelievable, as we sat and drank warm beer and peered at the crackly snowy image on the teev, we watched history being made, from as far away from Australia we could get whilst in PNG.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Sandaun Province

Formerly known as West Sepik Province, this most North Western corner of PNG is now referred to as Sandaun or “Sun Down” Province. This is the west for PNG and it is in the west that the Sun goes down every night. As they say, getting there is half the fun. My plan was to go to Jayapura, the provincial heart of what I always learnt in school to be Irian Jaya or as it is referred to now, West Papua, or even (in some circles) West Irian. Jayapura started off its life as Hollandia and was the Colonial headquarters for the Dutch who had administration duties of the left half of New Guinea before the Indonesians took Sovereignty.

Like I said, getting there was half the fun and what could have been a disaster, turned out in the end, a good rollicking rollercoaster of a ride which as with many adventures in PNG start with a flight delayed call at Jackson’s domestic Terminal.

There we were, a small group of 4 sitting in Jackson’s when the announcement came over the PA, “all people flying to Wewak and Vanimo, your flight has been delayed…”, a few audible groans reverberated around the (at the time) mangy carpeted attempt of a departure lounge that serves the Air Niugini patrons in PNG’s capital. It was later we found out that this delay then meant that our pre-arranged driver in Vanimo had felt that we were not coming.

But we boarded our F100, and we were soon in the air and heading to Wewak, not a bad flight, you cruise along to the north west skirting the PNG southern Motuan coastline until you get to Yule Island, where you then start to drift inland and up and over the sort of saddle between the Owen Stanley Ranges to your right and the PNG Highlands to your left. After flying over the top of these ranges you then start to head over the Ramu Valley and then skirt the PNG northern coastline until Wewak comes into view. Always a right hand circle over the sea then lines you up with the air strip at Wewak. Touch down, now 30 minutes (ish) on the tarmac while passengers are exchanged and luggage hopefully, a dash of fuel if there is a tractor to pull the fuel tank out and then up and flying along the north coast heading west to Vanimo. Again, a quick circle over the sea, this provides gorgeous views of the Timber logging wharf and one touches down at Vanimo Airport.

After collecting our packs, we then headed to the carpark where we were to meet our driver who would take us to the Indonesian border. Vans came and went and no-one driver seemed interested in taking us to the border, but it soon became clear that the driver wasn’t there and he had decided to go home and chew some betelnut because the plane had been delayed and he was off. It was Good Friday by the way and everyone wants their public holiday. The driver had been seen in an old red Toyota crew cab Ute and some of the locals said that they would go in search of this vehicle for us. As a dozen young men from Vanimo, headed off to all points of the compass, we remained patient and in the carpark of the airport.

And then, a red Toyota showed up and our man Doug was there, he said we would drive to the border, so bags were chucked into the back and we climbed aboard. Doug drove in typical PNG fashion, get the car into 5th gear, and leave it there until it nearly stalls and then start changing back down the gears until the car goes forward again. Then once you accelerate to 5th gear, do the same. So in a slow racing chugga chugga style we made our way to the border. I was in Sandaun Province.

The road to Wutung and the border is gorgeous, it snakes it way gently along the north coastline of PNG towards Indonesia, along the way, and gaps in the jungle expose white sandy beaches and small bays with waves coming ashore and so many children riding old wooden surfboards or planks of wood. Some of the boards are full of borer holes and look like Swiss cheese and none of the children are clothed. They just run and play in the surf without a care in the world. Oh to be able to enjoy such a freedom. The car passes many small villages where everyone waves and nods at the passing vehicle. The road is quiet as not too many people make this journey, although the views are worth the effort alone.

After 90 minutes of driving, we come to the Village of Wutung; at the base of the hill is a yellow gate which today being Good Friday is closed. Doug grunts and mumbles about never seeing this gate closed ever before. We sit for a short period of time, and Doug blasts the horn. No movement but up on top of the hill we see Indonesian figures, these men were there waiting for me, they were going to get us to Jayapura. Doug had nearly completed his work for the day. I talked to Doug about approaching someone in Wutung to open up the gate, and he had an old wantok who could do the trick. We reversed back down from the gate to a road junction and headed into town. While reversing down the hill, Doug’s Toyota was making an awful noise from the front wheels, it looked like Doug was driving with his wheel hubs locked into 4WD and the front left was locked solid when reversing. It was smoking, but Doug just wanted us gone.

We arrived at this house, Doug went inside and spoke to the owner, they chewed some betelnut and we watched the kids surfing just down the road. Doug came back and said that there would be a Custom agent on top of the hill and he could get us to the yellow gate but no further, we would just have to walk the remaining distance to the border. Ok we said, and off we drove again.

We got out of Doug’s Red Toyota at the Yellow gate, shook Doug’s hand and said thanks; he said “Buai” and then drove off at speed. The four of us were now standing at the bottom of a steep hill, with no transport, and no place to stay and the time was marching on. So up the Mountain we climbed, and what a steep climb it was, over 180m change of altitude in a distance of less than a kilometer. At the top of the hill, we met our two Indonesian drivers who were to get us to Jayapura, a handful of PNG policemen and a closed Customs Agency. It was Good Friday by the way.

There were more audible groans.

How were we going to spend our weekend in Indonesia when the sign on Customs said come back tomorrow? We spoke to the half dozen PNG Police officers who were sitting around chewing betelnut and we asked if they had the clearance to stamp our passports out of PNG and therefore clearing us to Indonesia. The answer was “No”. We asked if there was someone in Wutung who could perform this task, the answer was “Yes, but it was Good Friday, so they are not working today”. It seemed no-one was working today.

We asked if the good Police officers could use their phones to call up someone in town to come up to the top of the hill and stamp us in. They tried their mobiles, no coverage, so the answer was “No”. We asked about the phone inside, and they said it was for emergencies only. This was taking time… The police officers continued to chew. We spied a small scooter and we asked if the police officers could send someone down to Wutung and pick someone up for us, the answer this time was “Yes”, but it would happen after they had chewed some more betelnut.

Sometime later, one of the police officers got on the scooter and then put-put-putted on their way down the hill. Some 45 minutes and needless to say, some betelnut chewing later, a Customs officer showed up and stamped us out of PNG. There was relief on everyone’s faces.

Getting to Jayapura is another story. The return leg in Sandaun Province was a smoother process as everyone was back at work, and we eventually boarded another F100 for our return to Moresby.