If I were honest, I’d have to admit that I felt more than a little trepidation about heading to Papua New Guinea. I had done enough research to know that the country was a beautiful yet hazardous part of the world. If it wasn’t articles on the urban Raskol gangs with their trademark robberies and carjackings, it was reports on the deadly attack on foreign trekkers out in the bush last September. Word has it the tourists were hacked with machetes over a business dispute. I did not want to go there. Volcanoes be damned.
And then there were the lingering rumours of cannibalism, as my family and friends gleefully reminded me: (“You’ll be a well-seasoned traveller – geddit?! Seasoned? As in, at the bottom of a cauldron??”). Thanks guys.
But as the project gradually took shape, there was nothing to be done. Mt. Giluwe, set in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, is the highest volcano in Australasia. I desperately looked for an alternative – Australia’s Kosciuszko (teeny tiny)? Could I send an emissary?
Nope. So I went about setting up the trip.
It was surprisingly hard to find an agency which offered Mt. Giluwe climbs. After some legwork, two recommendations pointed me in the direction of Mr. Pym Maimindi, head of Paiya Tours based in Mt. Hagen.
Map credit: Free World Maps.
We corresponded for several months, and the resulting and greatly shortened itinerary had me skimming the country, dragonfly-like: arrival in the capital Port Moresby, zip straight out to Mt. Hagen, punch out a truncated expedition and zip back to Port Moresby to hide out in the fortress-like confines (bazooka-wielding doormen!) of the wonderful Airways Hotel, which was right by the airport and absolutely nowhere near town.
Then the trip started.. and that’s when most of my preconceptions fell away.
Air Niugini (Singapore -> Port Moresby, 6 hours) was a very comfortable, modern, well-fed experience. Politer than most airlines and efficient to boot.
Upon landing at Port Moresby, I walked out into arrivals expecting to be mobbed by minicab drivers and their aggressive brethren. Not so. Just Mr. Maimindi himself, with his wife Elisabeth, bearing a big smile and a sign emblazoned with “SOPHIE”, come to take me to a 6am hot breakfast. I was charmed.
Bundled onto the next flight to Mt. Hagen, and after an hour the plane was descending on a lush, burgeoning landscape. Palm trees, bougainvilla, three-metre-high poinsettia.. lots of old botanical friends from Hong Kong days.
We touched down. We walked off the runway into the single-room airport. All around were people grabbing bags off an outdoor bench which served as baggage reclaim. I looked around – where was the arrival hall? Was there one? I walked down a corridor to find it and then I realised I’d already walked clear out of the airport. Fought my way back in again and walked into a man with blood-red teeth.
It was Luke, the guide. And that wasn’t blood, it was betelnut juice. He greeted me warmly, grabbed my bag and bundled me into a car.
We drove to Magic Mountain hut, a set of countryside villas developed by Pym. After a hearty dinner of chicken and rice, jetlag hit hard.
After retiring to my room, I organised my climbing gear and wondered how I should be feeling. It seemed silly (and stupidly girlish) to be alarmed, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t an undercurrent of anxiety. Everything had gone according to plan, but the facts remained: I was in a remote area of a remote country, conspicuously pale of skin, female and alone. I was totally dependent on the goodwill of those around me. Even if I could defend myself, there’s nowhere to run when you’re in the outback’s outback.
There was nothing I could do about it but watch a little Chris Rock on my iphone and get some sleep.
An early start. I met Luke before sunrise in the dining room for coffee and food, keen to get the expedition off to a good start. Luke had a calm, at times reserved demeanour, but he knew what he was talking about.
The rest of our team included Joshua, a huge guy with a showbiz smile who declared himself our cook and my personal bodyguard (he had the knife to back this up); Simpson, Stan and Gideon, who we met at the village at the head of the trail into the wilderness.
The day dawned bright as we drove to the trailhead. I was invited to ride in the front seat, and along the way Luke solemnly shouted interesting tidbits on the landscape, people, crops and Mt. Giluwe itself. I noticed that when Luke spoke, the others shut up.
Then we got to the village at the head of the trail. I was beginning to see a pattern – everyone was unfailingly polite, a little shy, and wanted to shake your hand. I instinctively liked everyone I met. We greeted people in the village, I thanked them for letting us pass through their village on the way to Giluwe, and they wished us luck. Off we set.
Luke (left), me, Joshua
We walked. We left the village and wove through a gully (which I later learned was the conduit for the village’s, erm, output).
Simpson (left) and Gideon
We walked up into the jungle. Rainforest. Whatever it was, it had dense foliage, steamy air and had a lot of fallen trees in the way. Three hours of moderate exertion through some of the lushest undergrowth ever.
We were plodding along at one point when suddenly we came to a stop. I heard “thwack….THWACK….thwack” and looked up to see Gideon attacking a tree which lay across our path..with a metre-long bush knife.
At that moment I also realised that he wasn’t the only one armed with a metre-long bush knife. It also sank in that Simpson, a tall bushman with an easy confident grin, was planning on doing the entire hike free of shoes. And that he was missing his right big toe. I wanted to ask, but didn’t.
We walked…and walked….and walked. The jungle gave way to grassland after three hours, and we all sat down and had lunch, enjoying the cooler air.
Whatever I’d been clenching over the last 24 hours was finally beginning to unclench. I realised that these guys gave off very good vibes. I didn’t feel like a girl around them, which is an excellent thing. We simply felt like a team, and a team needs trust to hold together. Everyone helped everyone else, and we all had to look out for each other. It felt good. Worst come to worst, I had the feeling that Simpson – who walked the trails barefoot, carrying far more weight than any of us, far faster than us – would be fearsome against unwelcome outsiders.
Lunch time after emerging from the rainforest
Of which there were many. The Highlands of Papua New Guinea is home to many different tribal groups. Our route wound through several tribal territories, made evident by the markings on the rocks we passed on the way. Simpson, Gideon and Stan, being from the nearby village, knew which territory belonged to whom and were key to our safe passage.
We marched for another 7 hours. The original route to base camp being closed, we were following a longer route than the usual 6-hour one. With typical trekking pace at 2.5 miles / hour, I’d say we easily covered 20 miles that day. Made for a tiring hike, especially when jetlag started batting me about after 3pm.
Still, we got to Base Camp eventually:
I was still wrangling with my asthma at this point (back with a vengeance after 23 years of dormancy) and opted not to sleep in the smoky shed, warm and dry as it was. I ate with the team though – boiled rice and other good stuff in a big pot directly on a wood fire – and crawled into my damp little tent to sleep. Beasties hummed meaningfully all around in the pitch dark, but after 25 miles you don’t really give a flying one.
Summit day pre-dawn. My alarm went off at 4am for the agreed 4.30am start. Headtorch, layers, anorak, hat. Rain. Scrambled into the smoky hut.
Snoring. Only Joshua was awake, looking a little sheepish.
“Luke does not feel well,” he said, indicating the nearest bundle of legs and arms.
It looked like his stomach problems hadn’t cleared up yet, which explained his slower hiking speed the previous day.
“It is raining, so it will be slippy at the summit,” Joshua added, who was making hot water.
Back to the tent. Sleep.
At 6am, I suddenly heard: “HELLOOO. HELLOOOO!”.
Up again, daylight. Out to meet the boss. Luke was outside my tent, gazing at me balefully as he stood in the heavy drizzle.
“It is raining. It will be slippy at the top,” he said.
I felt about as keen as he to tromp about in the mud and clamber through wet reeds and fog.
“I’m sorry, but I have to go. I’ve come so far, I can’t turn back now.”
He peered at me, “OK.” He was obviously not feeling good, and I felt for him.
We set off after half an hour. The conditions were not great – there was thick fog all around, and every step submerged my Salomons into ankle-deep muddy water, to the point where my feet were constantly immersed within the boots. It wasn’t exactly cold, but the wind and drizzle didn’t help. For some insane reason I hadn’t packed my hardshell pants and before long I was soaked to the bone from the waist down. Curses.
“It is cold,” said Luke.
We trudged on.
Before long we were joined by Simpson and Gideon, who had given us a half hour’s head start.
For the next two hours we trudged uphill. Every half an hour:
“Is that Giluwe?”
“No. It’s behind.”
“How about that one?”
Weird shadowy hulking forms appeared out of the mist covered with reeds and rock. It wasn’t until we were actually on the summit stretch that we could glimpse Mt. Giluwe through the fog. Things got steeper, to the point where we eventually had to climb without poles using our hands and feet to grip the wet rock. Simpson was beside me every step of the way, watching carefully, sure-footed, and helping me over the slippery rock.
I was so focused on balance and grip that I was surprised to hear, “we are at the top!”.
And we were!
There was absolutely no view. It was cold and windy. But we jubilated all the same, and took photos.
Me and Simpson at the summit
It was fantastic.
The walk back to base camp was easy. We merrily toasted our socks in the fire, dried out our sodden shoes (except Simpson, who dried his feet) and ate lots of rice. The guides seemed happy with the speed of the climb, and I realised how acclimatised I still was. It was such a pleasure not to be gasping for breath for once. And after Antarctica, nothing seemed that cold anymore.
Then we set out back for the village, and it was a whole other story.
Heading back..there's always time for photos!
10 hours of marching again! Through jetlag and fatigue! And...through a dark jungle.
We were slipping down the muddy paths and sliding across fallen tree trunks in our haste to get back, and still we got caught after dark. Just as dusk turned to night, the insects started up and the jungle took on a chilling life of its own. It became very, very clear that humans had no place in a place like this.
Around 7pm, a blood-curdling screeching started up. It sounded like a mixture of a fire alarm and someone screaming in terror. I was horrified. It had to be something man-eating.
“What is that?” I asked Luke.
“Houseflies,” he said.
Man-eating houseflies then.
I won’t go into the rest. Suffice to say, two hours later I was blessedly back at Magic Mountain Lodge, having thanked and said goodbye to Gideon, Stan and Simpson, ridden in the van for an hour, thrown up in the bushes, and eaten dinner. All that mattered was that we’d achieved our goal and were tired but back safe.
Stayed a night in the wonderful Airways hotel, then flew back to the UK. All in all, I had a wonderful time. Though I will admit Port Moresby felt iffy at times, I was very well looked after and felt pretty safe. And no Raskols in sight. If you're looking to travel to Papua New Guinea, I'd say definitely look past the sensationalist headlines, play it safe and take it all in.