Mi Laik Kisim Win Liklik
(I would like to catch my breath a little)
Papua New Guinea
“In India your Mary (wife) pays you with pigs?”
Now he was getting really excited, even leaving the steering wheel to wave his arms about expressively. I began to take nervous glances down the precipitous drop along the narrow dirt road. David, the driver of the Land Cruiser PMV, was obviously very interested in the intricate differences between the Indian dowry system and New Guinea’s tradition of ‘bride price’. In Papua New Guinea, the men have to pay a “bride price” in pigs in order to marry a Mary.
I can almost see David, who has three wives, counting the pigs he would have owned rather than given away had he been in India.
I was heading from the highland town of Mt Hagen towards Mt Wilhelm which at 4507 metres is the highest peak in Papua New Guinea. The unpaved road up to the road head at Kegsugal clings precariously to the steep slopes of the verdant mountains of the Chimbu Province. The drive was hairy enough on its own, let alone when the excited driver is trying to have an animated conversation.
The amazingly green slopes are speckled with brown dots of remote highland villages. We stop every now and again to load and unload goods and passengers. Green bunches of bananas, lengths of sugarcane, Marys burdened with bulging bilums (bags) of kowkow (sweet potato), excited pikininis (children) and men with unsheathed machetes. Every man in the Highlands of PNG is armed with a machete. I am not sure what they intend doing with them and refrain from asking.
Friends, who I was staying with, had warned me not to take much money and had also sent along a couple of burly looking locals armed with machetes to act as my bodyguards because there was a high risk of being waylaid by “Raskols” or highway robbers. Seeing all these unsheathed blades around didn’t fill me with too much confidence. I really didn’t want to be around if things heated up. Having an adventure is one thing, but getting into a machete fight….
After a bone-jarring ride through the spectacular mountains, we finally lurched to a halt at the tiny town of Kegsugal. I had barely hopped off the PMV at the disused ples balus (airstrip) and shouldered my pack when a bearded local emerged from the bushes and offered his services as a guide. After a bit of haggling we settled at the “numba to prais” of 45 kina for the trip.
The ascent from Kegsugal begins at an altitude of 2470 meters with a well-defined track that climbs through the town and disappears into the leafy bowels of tropical forest. We cross the gushing Komanemambuno Creek and climb steeply through the ocean of green. New Guinea is a land of a billion shades of green.
While I keep an eye out in the hope of spotting a bird of paradise, my companions chat loudly in Pidgin. We stop every so often and share hand-rolled “brus” cigarettes. The guide has long strips of dried tobacco leaf and squares of newspaper that he rolls between his palms to make eight-inch long cigarettes.
I offer him a duty free Dutch cigarillo. He dismissed it and says, “Too many chemicals.” Maybe someone should tell him about the ingredients of newspaper ink.
After a couple of hours of climbing a steep muddy staircase, the track emerges at the lower reaches of the grassy Pindaunde Valley at about 3200 metres. Tall fern trees and tussocks of grass shrouded in a heavy mist give the valley a very Jurassic Park look. You could easily picture a Sinosauropteryx thumping across the grassland or a Rhamphorhynchus soaring in the misty skies above. Unfortunately I see no sign of any wildlife, present or prehistoric.
My boots squelch in the black boggy ground as we make our way up the valley. In a veil of mist and cold rain we climb past the cascading Nigledembuglokuglo waterfalls, up a couple of rock steps and reach a small A-frame hut at shores of Lake Piunde.
The emerald waters of the lake are set like a gem in a deep glaciated cwm. Heavy forest line the shores and a waterfall tumbles into the northern end of the lake. This waterfall is fed by the run off from Lake Aunde, which is located a little further up the valley.
After a quick meal of two-minute noodles and canned luncheon meat we light a fire and my companions smoke more “brus” cigarettes. I settle down for the night while the other three curl up by the fire and continue talking till late into the night.
At two in the morning I am woken by a rough shake and am blinded by torchlight.
“Morning. We go up,” the guide says.
I fumble around in the dark and pull on every bit of clothing I am carrying. Outside a brilliant full moon renders the world black and white. The crisp air cuts like a blade. I switch on my head-torch and stumble down the track after the guide.
We skirt the left bank of the lake and climb a steep slope to the shores of the considerably larger Lake Aunde. My eyes have adjusted well to the moonlight and I can now see both lakes perfectly. What I can also see ahead of me is a very steep climb.
The altitude makes me gasp like a goldfish out of water. The guide strides ahead and has to stop every so often to wait for me. There is no way I can keep up with him. I begin to realise that I should have spent an extra day at Lake Piunde to acclimatise.
After a relentless climb the track eases off considerably as we gain the shaley south ridge of the mountain. Here my torch flickers and dies. Luckily, by now we are out of the jungle. The full moon shines like a silver sun and I can see very well.
At the top of the ridge, nearly 4000 metres above sea level, we pass the wreckage of a B-24 bomber from the Second World War. Unrecognisable bits of metal litter the mountainside. Apparently, aviation maps of that era wrongly indicated the PNG’s peaks were all well below the 4000 metre mark.
As we get higher and climb out of the deeply glaciated valley, the view improves considerably. The rugged high country begins to emerge from the darkness as dawn begins to break. Bare rocky ridges rise up from the darkness to meet at distant mountain tops and remote valleys conceal their secrets under a heavy shroud of low lying clouds. The guide points out the distant summit of Mt Elimbari.
The track now settles into a gentle climb and traverses along the base of a number of subsidiary peaks. Huge sweeps of grey granite tower over us. Tussocks of coarse brown grass and low shrubs cover the stony mountainside.
Soon even the grass stops growing and splotches of leathery lichen are the only signs of life. A freezing wind cuts straight through the layers of my clothing and numbs me to the core. My boots crunch through the icy skin of puddles on the narrow path and my gloveless hands begin to feel like clumsy stumps.
The track flattens out considerably as we gain the barren summit ridge and traverse along the top. Finally, we round a corner on the ridge and I can clearly see the summit. A white survey marker atop a grey granite crag indicates the highest point.
I struggle up an easy scramble over the large boulders that guard the summit. After unceremoniously dragging myself over the top I shake the guide’s rough hand and sit in the warm light of the rising sun. The altitude makes my head feel like it’s going to explode.
The freezing morning air is amazingly clear and the rising sun paints the eastern horizon gold. I can see islands far out in the Bismark Sea and the shadowy profile of the Finisterre and Saruwaged Ranges. The impressive gorge of the Ramu River slashes the landscape like a deep wound. The summits of Mt Giluwe, Mt Hagen and Mt Herbert stick out like islands through a blanket of heavy white cloud which smothers much of the low lying country. Directly below me, brown treeless slopes drop away into nameless valleys.
It is still very early in the day but the cloud, stirred by morning thermals, has already begun to rise. It moves like thick cappuccino froth, filling valleys and pouring over ridge tops. In another hour or so there will be nothing left of the view, and in another two it will be raining again.
Now that summit fever has worn off all I want to do is get out of the biting wind. We reverse the final scramble and eagerly begin the descent.
Lower down, once we are well out of the wind, we take a break on a sun-warmed rock. As I savour the sweetness of an orange flake, the first delicate wisps of cloud sweep up the grassy slopes towards us. Soon we are descending in near white out conditions and it is only 10 o’clock in the morning.
Every now and again a window in the cloud opens to reveal either the blueness of the August sky above or green depths of the jungle below. I hurry to keep up with the guide. It will be raining soon and neither of us wants to be caught out.