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When the Road Matters | Trip to Mt Wilhelm in Papua New Guinea

October 21, 2018

by Olga Fontanellaz

“No beaches. Jungle,” our friend Jérôme is pretty clear about where he wants to go. Coming a long way from Switzerland, he is the only friend curious and courageous enough to visit us in Papua New Guinea. Lured by images of dense hard-to-penetrate jungles, foggy mountains, exotic birds of paradise, isolation and remoteness, and incredible tribal culture, PNG has been on his mind for a long time.

Where to go? PNG has the rainy season, mango season, and sing sing season with many tribal gatherings showing PNG cultural diversity and its uniqueness at its best. But in December all sing sing will be over. The challenging Kokoda trek is far beyond the capacity of someone with a sedentary lifestyle. Climbing Mt Hagen and Mt Giluwe, the second highest peak in Papua New Guinea, is an option but we don’t have time for training. Sepik? It’s beautiful, intriguing and rich in culture. Or Rabaul with its fuming Tavurvur volcano? Maybe remote Trobriand Islands…? “Jungle,” I recall my friend’s words. All suddenly, Simbu, the rugged mountainous province, pops into my mind. It has a combination of all three elements – mountains, jungle and tribes. And I haven’t been there yet.

A few days later, with a newly arrived Jérôme in tow, we fly into Mt Hagen, the third largest city in the country, which is often referred to as the “wild frontier” of the Highlands. Travelling in the afternoon in PNG is never a good idea, and we have to stay overnight near the airport at Betty’s coffee shop, which has a few basic rooms.

Today will be a long day. After buying the essentials, which basically come down to Wopa biscuits (PNG famous crackers) and peanut butter, we are set to go to Betty’s Lodge located near Kegsugl at the foot of Mt Wilhelm, the country’s highest peak. Our search for PMV (Public Motor Vehicle), the country’s public transportation ranging from minibuses and trucks to 4WD, turns out to be pretty successful.

But our PMV to Kundiawa, Toyota Land Cruiser, is pretty empty, which is always a bad sign. The driver won’t depart until his PMV is full, and for the next hour, we circle around Mt Hagen’s main streets, pretty much around the market, looking for passengers. This kind of sightseeing may be interesting for our friend but the last PMV from Kundiawa to Kegsugl leaves around midday… We start to feel the sense of urgency. In the end, the friendly ladies from Betty’s coffee shop help us charter the whole PMV, and a couple of hours later we reach Kundiawa, the capital of Simbu province, also spelt Chimbu. Good decision. With all the stops along the way, what could have been a five-hour road trip turned out to be less than a two-hour drive.

Waiting for our connecting PMV in Kundiawa, we finally hear the magic words “Kegsugl. Kegsugl. Kegsugl” coming from the touts standing in the doorway of a Toyota Land Cruiser PMV. They are collecting the last passengers using all possible methods ranging from seduction to encouragement bordering on intimidation. The PMV, one of the last ones going to Kegsugl, is full. But people promptly squeeze up on their seats to leave space for the “waitman” (us), and one gentleman with bloody red-stained teeth and one-sleeved shirt even gives me his prime seat next to the driver. Sitting on well-worn and half-broken seats, surrounded by large bags full of Papua New Guinean “green gold”, aka buai, aka betelnut, enough to feed an army, we are set for a long mountainous drive.

But not long after we left Kundiawa, our minibus breaks down. Flat tire. A minor disturbance and an opportunity for a cigarette break for our driver. Soon, we are on the road again. Shooting the state of the roads these Toyota Land Cruisers ply every day, and the quantity of cargo and people squeezed inside could probably be the best advertising for the Japanese manufacturer.

Soon, the spectacular beauty of Simbu province opens up to us. I realise that the road to Kegsugl alone, snaking through steep slopes, is worth the whole trip to Mt Wilhelm. Simbu province is known as a very rugged region, where remote villages are connected by muddy tracks and treacherous roads. But despite its challenging terrain, the locals use all available land and transformed the impossibly steep hills into a patchwork of gardens adding charms to the scenery.

I have read some dreaded stories about the nail-biting road to Kegsugl. But maybe I saw worse in Africa or maybe due to its recent upgrade, I found the road pretty good for an unpaved road in PNG. It’s nevertheless about three-hour rough and speeding ride along the side of a cliff with a driver high on betelnut. It’s also a winding road with perilous hairpin turns, filled with potholes, ruts and sharp slippery rubbles, boulders and stones. But the views are breathtaking! From time to time we stop at improvised markets along on the road, often located at the most stunning spots so that our driver could replenish his stock of buai and take another smoke break.

Landslides are frequent in this area, and they often completely cut off the roads. We pass some sections recently washed away. But this is not the only danger here. Chimbu people are known to be temperamental with strong beliefs in black magic and the payback system with disputes often escalating into bloody tribal wars. The region is also known for impromptu roadblocks by raskols, or local gangs, who ambush and hijack vehicles. But we only met warm, kind and welcoming people. Curious and friendly, they keep us occupied with their questions and jokes. Before we know it, we arrive in Kegsugl. Now, the road is all mud and ruts, and our PMV is straggling. We decide to go on foot.

It’s a short walk through beautiful villages with colourful flowers and friendly locals, who show us the way to Betty Lodge. A half hour later, we are sitting warming ourselves near the fireplace.

Betty’s Lodge is a simple mountain lodge located at the foot of Mt Wilhelm at 2’700m. Set among lush vegetation, it’s cosy, homely, warm and rustic. The most luxurious items here are a generator and hot water.

Unfortunately, Betty Higgins, the lodge’s owner, is away. We don’t have the honour to
meet this local legend, a former Air Niugini flight attendant and a winner of several awards for entrepreneurship. Coming from a poor family, with her determination and will to succeed, she is now the owner of both Betty Lodge, popular among the climbers, and the trout farm providing her main income. Proceeds are shared with the community through funding schools and providing training programmes.

Despite the absence of Betty, her staff organise a warm welcome. We are greeted with fresh strawberries, hot tea, and a burning fireplace in the lounge. We spend the rest of the afternoon on the large veranda surrounded by the lush jungle. Later, when the temperature drops to freezing degree, we move inside near the fire. Soon, dinner is ready – delicious baked whole rainbow trout freshly caught from the nearby trout farm, organic veggies followed by succulent strawberries for dessert, all picked from Betty’s garden. Jérôme also makes a gustatory discovery – Tang, a bright orange powdered juice, the beverage of choice of all Papua New Guineas.

We organise a guide for our hike the next day and call it a night.

We wake up early for our 4-hour hike to the Mt Wilhelm basecamp located at 3’600m. The path is easy and well-maintained, with log paving and steps. It even has wooden picnic benches at regular intervals, some of them still being built by chatty locals. “Moning tru, Susa” (good morning), wide smiles of the locals accompany us along the way.

Hiking to the basecamp of Mt Wilhelm reminds me one of Australia’s most famous hiking trails, the Overland Track in Tasmania, which is renowned for its variety of vegetation, tropical, forest and alpine, changing with the altitude. After leaving the village, the trail gently climbs through mountain rainforest with wild orchids and moss, which transforms into open grassland with giant tree ferns before becoming an easy ascent to the alpine plain with a waterfall and finally reaching the Mt Wilhelm basecamp, with its rocky and barren land. What started as a clear day, slowly transforms into a thick mist by the time we approach the fern valley making it look mysterious and charming.

The sky is overcast, and it starts drizzling when we approach the basecamp right next to the famous Mt Wilhelm. Located at 4’509m, it’s the highest mountain in Papua New Guinea and Oceania. Mt Wilhelm received its name in 1888 when a German newspaper correspondent climbed the Finisterre Range and named one of the four highest peaks of the range after his child, Wilhelm. It’s a rugged mountain, which was first climbed only in 1938 by Leigh Vial, a government patrol officer, and two Papuan New Guineans.

The location of our hut is terrific, in front of the mountainous Piunde lake. Called Anu Hut, it’s an old Australian National University monitoring station. There is also another hut, called A-Frame Hut, which is more modern but not as quiet. Although Anu Hut is very basic, it has all we need – dozens of mattresses and pillows on the floor, and a kitchen equipped with stoves, cooking and eating utensils. There is no power, no hot water, no heating, and no inside bathrooms, and in place of glass, the windows are covered in plastic well battered and torn by strong mountain winds. But the lack of comfort is largely compensated by the hut’s stunning location right next to the lake.

The rain has stopped, and we go for a walk to the lake. There are twin glacial lakes lying at the foot of Mt Wilhelm – the more distant, Aunde, and the one in front of our hut, Piunde, a beautiful mountain lake with a waterfall gently feeding into it. With no wind, its crystal-clear water looks like a mirror. From the distance, we notice the remnants of WWII American plane, which crashed into the mountain while flying too low for a reconnaissance photography mission. I always said photography can be dangerous.

The outside temperature drops as darkness sets in. Jérôme helps our guide cut the wood for a fire before the night falls. Using headlamp, we arrange our beds for the night and drink hot tea to warm us up. And this where our strategic reserve comes into play. Wopa biscuits, these ubiquitous water and flour PNG cookies with added peanut butter and washed down with hot Earl Grey tea are the best remedy for the cold. I think I spent too much time in local villages as I somehow developed a liking for these rather bland biscuits. I hardly imagine travelling in PNG without a few packs of these legendary cookies with a muscled man on the wrapper.

Luckily, our guide is also our cook. With some veggies and rice supplied by Betty Lodge, he cooks us a simple but tasty dinner. Lying in bed and slowly drifting off to sleep, I think of those climbers, who get up around 1 am to start their ascent to Mt Wilhelm summit. We are high in the mountains, and I wake up in the middle of the night freezing in my light sleeping bag. I end up putting every piece of clothing I have brought before managing to get back to sleep.

Early in the morning, we are woken up by our guide, and after a quick breakfast of Maggi noodles, we start our descent to the cosy Betty Lodge along the same track.

“Do you want lunch?” ask us the ladies upon our arrival. Who can resist one more freshly-baked trout? We take our time in the lodge before realising it’s getting quite late. To make things worse, it has started to rain transforming already bad roads into a mud bath. We have no choice but to walk in the rain, accompanied by our kind host, to the main road to catch a PMV. No sign of PMVs. It really is getting late, and if we don’t catch a PMV soon, there will be no more travelling from Kundiawa down to Goroka. I wouldn’t have minded staying a couple more nights at Betty’s Lodge but Jérôme has his flight back to Switzerland in two days.

We decide to hitchhike. By now, we are completely soaked but determined to find a solution. All of a sudden, a police car stops in front of us. Seeing men in police uniforms can mean two things in PNG – either they are actually policemen or they are raskols, with about 50-50 ratio. In our case, fortunately, we strike real policemen, who are very surprised to see three white, wet and, by now, pretty miserable-looking faces. They offer to drive us directly to Goroka.

Night has fallen by the time we pull into this capital town of Eastern Highlands. Even if our friend didn’t manage to see the famous Daulo Pass on the way, these policemen showed him something better – the welcoming, generous and kind-hearted people of Papua New Guinea.

Olga is a Russo-Swiss travel photographer passionate about vanishing cultures and traditions. Through her photography, she attempts to showcase the world’s cultural diversity with a special focus on customs, ceremonies and rituals, ethnic minorities and indigenous people. Her images are a small window in their unique way of life. You can see her work at anywayinaway.com.

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