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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What a great read.

I lived in Ukarumpa eons ago with my family.

We climbed Wilhelm-or was it another?- and vacationed in Madang.

Lovely, lovely story.