Mountaineering :: Trekking :: Ski touring

 

This trip undoubtedly offers the most diverse range of experiences in the Jagged Globe programme, in a country that few outsiders have heard of and even fewer could place on a map. The fact that most of us arrived in Papua New Guinea on the third day from leaving the UK after three flights (London, Singapore, Port Moresby, Mt Hagen) gives some idea of the physical distance involved. Arguably the cultural distance is even greater.

In the course of 14 days on one of the world's largest islands our group of 10 climbers, from the UK and South Africa, shared unique experiences in a country yet to be discovered by tourists. PNG is a young country with a population of less than 5 million. It gained independence from neighbouring Australia in 1975. English is widely spoken and this enabled us to talk with people from all walks of life that we encountered during our stay. PNG is in the Commonwealth and the Queen is head of state. The Australian influence is still noticeable with many Papuans wearing cast off sports shirts from Aussie rugby, football and other sport teams.

All the team agreed that the non-climbing activities during the trip were just as unforgettable as the peaks we climbed. Firstly we visited Paiya village close to the town of Mount Hagen where most people live in traditional thatched huts and some of the older ones have been preserved. Here we saw examples of traditional crafts and were treated to a display of singing and dancing by villagers wearing the costumes and make up of the district. We saw today's villagers working in the fields and saw the bones of their ancestors in the spirit house.

PNG is renowned for its bird life. None of us were expert birders but all were impressed by the many brightly coloured species we saw, from a captive Cassowary (a bright blue ostrich sized creature) to wild Birds of Paradise (the national emblem of the country) and giant Hornbills flying overhead. The feathers of many of these unique birds feature prominently in the traditional costumes of the islanders. While hiking in the forests the sounds of bird calls were never far away, although the birds themselves were often hard to see through the thick foliage.

On a rest day between our mountain climbs we chose to visit two tribes famed for their unique attire. The Assaro mudmen paint their bodies with white clay and wear large heavy helmets/masks made of clay. The effect is quite dramatic and one would not like to meet these ghostly monochromatic figures on a dark night. The Huli wigmen on the other hand are among the most brightly painted of all PNG's highland tribes with bright yellow and red faces surmounted by enormous wigs made from (their own) human hair and decorated with bird feathers (and a few whole stuffed birds).

The highlands of PNG are immensely fertile and the population of subsistence farmers grow a large range of produce in small fields they refer to as 'gardens'. Coffee is the main cash crop. Small groups of people sit at the roadside selling produce fresh from the fields: sweet potatoes, 'English' potatoes, carrots and broccoli were in season. We enjoyed eating these with most meals whether cooked conventionally or in the local outdoor pit ovens (mumu) heated by hot stones. There was also a wide selection of fruits, and each of our meals ended with a tray of freshly picked bananas, pineapples, papaya and passion fruit. We did not try the mildly addictive local stimulant, betel nut, chewed by most of the adult population and leading to stained mouths and rotting teeth. 'No Chewing Betel Nut' signs were displayed alongside 'No Smoking' signs in most buildings.

For decades the infrastructure of the country has been run by missionaries. Outside of the towns the only buildings of any substance are either churches or schools run by a bewildering array of Christian denominations: Seventh Day Adventists, Nazarenes, Assembly of God, Lutherans... and dozens more. Other than farm produce, one of the few items for sale at the roadside were coffins.

The country's main road 'the Highlands Highway' linking the highland population with the coastal ports to the north was in a terrible condition, in places no more than a series of potholes linked by small patches of tarmac. Yet we came across good quality, recently built, roads in unexpected places. A large scale construction project financed by the EU and run by Chinese contractors aims to link the village at the foot of Mt Wilhelm with the nearest town Kundiawa. This could cut journey times from 3hrs to 1hr when complete. This is a nation without a scrap metal industry. Every old vehicle that has ever been imported into the country and is no longer functioning sits at the side of the road in varying stages of decay, rusting and overgrown with vegetation.

One second accommodation bases doubled as a pig farm and fish farm. We spent part of a rest day learning about the technicalities of farming trout in a jungle at 2700m. We also learnt that pigs in PNG are much more than just a source of pork and bacon. The pig is the traditional currency and predates the use of money. Pigs are still used as a means of exchange for important transactions such as dowry, paying compensation and for village feasts celebrating important events. We were shown the grave of a Catholic priest from Poland who made the mistake of killing a neighbour's pig when it trespassed into his garden. The pig's owner then killed the priest.

Most of the houses that we saw in the countryside were surrounded by gardens of bright flowers that seemed to grow easily in the tropical conditions. There were also several exotic wild flowers in the forests unlikely to be seen anywhere in the UK outside Kew Gardens. It was not until we were taken on a short walk in the forest by an Orchid expert that we realised what we had been walking past. The tiny delicate flowers of numerous orchid species clinging to tree trunks were invisible to all but the trained eye.

I am tempted to say that we had an excellent cultural, birdwatching and botanical holiday with a little trekking and climbing added on. But I don't think that any of the team would agree, and they certainly will not forget the mountains in a hurry. We had come to PNG with the aim of climbing three peaks, and this objective was successfully achieved by most of the team.

The farmland and villages in PNG's highlands extend up to an altitude of about 2500m - 2700m. There is then dense virgin forest up to an altitude of 3300m - 3400m. Above this height there are open grasslands leading up to rocky mountain summits, some higher than 4000m. This would be excellent trekking and climbing terrain except for one fact, an annual rainfall of over 2200mm. When the ground is wet the forest trails can be muddy and the grasslands can be boggy. Our visit was timed to take place in the dry season, but it seemed that no one had told this to the rain gods and they omitted to turn off the taps. To be fair, the rain fell mostly in the afternoons and evenings when we were usually under cover. By planning our walks and climbs for the mornings we rarely walked in the rain. But the underfoot conditions could not be described as dry. They were not quite as bad as I have encountered in the Rwenzoris, or on the walk into Carstensz Pyramid but were not dissimilar to the NW highlands of Scotland after a few days of heavy rain.

We had an intrepid team who were not going to be put off by a little mud or by wet boots. On 4th September we all set out from Pym's Magic Mountain lodge for our first taste of hiking in PNG on the slopes of Mt Hagen. The steep path through the forest was to be the most challenging and difficult of the trip with fallen trees, mud and slippery tree roots. Everyone made it onto the grassland above the forest at 3300m and half the team pushed on to the ridgeline at 3810m. Back at base among piles of muddy clothes and broken ski poles I told the team that all the other hikes would be easier, but few believed me.

Giluwe (4368m), the highest peak of volcanic origin in Oceania, was our next objective. The climb required a three day round trip with a camp at 3700m. The hike to the camp was longer than the climb to the summit, and we set out from Kagoba village with an entourage of 18 local guides and porters. On 6th Sept we hiked for 6hrs to the Base Camp spending roughly half of this time in the forest and half in the grasslands. The forest trail was less steep than Mt Hagen and the path a little better. However much of the grasslands were relatively flat and therefore boggy. We were fortunate to get to camp and erect the tents before the afternoon rains arrived. We had not taken either a kitchen tent or mess tent with us and shared the porters encampment for a smoke scented evening meal cooked over a roaring open fire. A 5.00am start the following day saw eight members of the team reach the summit of Giluwe by 8.00am and enjoy fine views before the morning mists rolled in to obscure the summit. We slept and rested for the remainder of the day and hiked back to the road the next morning. The hiking trail from Kagoba to BC is quite a bit shorter than the trail from Malke village that I have used on my two previous trips to Giluwe.

Our third and final peak was Mount Wilhelm (4509m), the highest mountain in Papua New Guinea. We climbed this from a comfortable base at Betty's Lodge in Kegsugl. Five (male) guides and nine (female) porters accompanied us on the three and a half hour hike to the ANU hut by the side of a mountain lake. Early on the morning of 12th Sept we set out for the summit. The climb to the top takes 5 - 6 hours so we started climbing at 01.30am to have a good chance of reaching the summit before the morning clouds arrived. The 900m climb splits into two halves, with the first half being steeper and gaining height quickly while the second half involves a long undulating traverse. The climb was tougher than most people expected but, by the time dawn arrived at 06.00am, nine members of the team were within an hour of the summit. An unexpected rocky scramble up the final 20m added extra interest to the climb and the summit marker provided a welcome handhold whilst taking pictures on the small rocky platform. It was quite a squeeze getting everyone onto the summit for the team picture. On the descent the clouds rolled in and we were all back at the hut in time for lunch at 13.00. After eating we set off for the comforts, hot showers, and cold beers at Betty's, arriving by 16.00, on one of the very few days when no rain fell in the afternoon. Everyone in the group felt rather tired after a 14 and a half hour day (even the 4 Everest summiteers in the team) and it was suggested that perhaps the Jagged Globe grading (a T2 trek) should be reviewed for next year's brochure entry.

As the trip came to an end the group flew from Mount Hagen to PNG's capital, Port Moresby, to connect with onward flights to Singapore. Some team members then headed directly home to the UK and South Africa while others chose to spend a few extra days in Asia. My own stopover in Singapore coincided with the floodlight Formula 1 GP on the Marina Bay street circuit. 36hrs after leaving PNG I had a grandstand seat to watch Lewis Hamilton win the race followed by a spectacular firework display over Singapore's dramatic night skyline.

I can't think of another climbing trip anywhere in the world that packs such a range of experiences into a two week journey. It will be quite a while before mass tourism arrives in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, but now is the time to visit before it does!


David Hamilton, Singapore, 17th September 2018

David Hamilton
High Adventure
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Email:  david@highadventure.org.uk

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