October 29, 2002

Notes from Papua New Guinea, part the only

Port Moresby, PNG

But of course you're not really an intrepid traveller unless you're crammed into the back of a battered Japanese minibus with a dozen families and their produce and their livestock, picking your way along a stomach-churning Third World road punctuated by roadblocks where menacing drunken machete-wielding men demand a "toll" before allowing you to continue on to the rat-infested rooms-by-the-hour flophouse where you're staying. Anything more comfortable than that, and you're just a tourist.

Sigh. The really sad thing is that I'm only mostly joking.

So I went up to Papua New Guinea for a week, partly just to see what it's like, partly because Australia, while wonderful, seemed a little bit...tame, partly because having already been through cities and beaches and ocean and jungle, and with deserts next on the agenda, I felt like spending a little time in the one terrain Oz does not offer: mountains.

PNG has an absolutely dire reputation in Australia, but it's actually quite nice. There is a certain culture of violence up in the Highlands -- a local museum proudly displays gruesome human-finger necklaces, and traditional tribal "payback" battles flare up now and again -- but nearly all the violence is internecine. The people here are among the friendliest that I have ever met.

The food is nothing to write home about, but I have been eating a lot of an addictive local delicacy called "long pig."

It is not a good country to be in a hurry. Local transit is slow and irregular, and it can take all day to travel a relatively short distance between A and B, and that's if you're lucky and don't wind up stranded overnight at Z inbetween -- I spent one night in the uninspiring town of Kundiawa because I got up at the unbearably late hour of 7AM and missed all the morning transit from the mountain village where I was staying.

Ah yes. Mountains. As I was saying. I'm always climbing something when I travel -- Indonesian volcanoes, Mount Cameroon, the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal, the Great Wall, the Chimanimani Range -- and I have decided that the main reason I do this is because the mind is a liar. It promptly extinguishes all memory of the hours spent with lungs and legs ablaze, eyes focused on the treacherous muddy trail at your feet, head swimming with altitude sickness; it erases the tedious tricky business of picking your way down steep downhill slopes for hours upon hours; it retains only the triumph and accomplishment that you get at the top.

Mount Wilhelm is the biggest mountain in PNG, and at 4500m/15000 feet a fairly serious mountain anywhere outside of the Himalaya. It wasn't as tough as Cameroon, which remains the most physically gruelling day of my life, but that's only because I'm in considerably better shape these days. It was a tough slog. In retrospect, it would have been a lot easier if I had decided to climb it in the dry season.

I'm tellin' ya, if you haven't climbed a big mountain in the tropics during the height of the wet season, you haven't lived -- unless, of course, you have something against being soaked to the skin, chilled to the bone, and gasping for thin air like a fish on land.

I was led up the mountain by a tag team of guides, but as always I foolishly decided to carry my pack myself. I'm always a bit suspicious of guides, but this time it was a good idea; several trekkers have died on Mt Wilhelm, and the track was not always easy to follow, especially when the artificial stupidity that hits me above 4000m kicked in.

Guide #1, Francis, led me up to the huts at 3500m. Fortysomething, missing half of his teeth, insanely strong, he fussed over me like a mother hen but had an alarming habit of lapsing into violently angry rants about the imminence of World War III between the English-speaking countries and the Middle East (which in Francis' somewhat muddled worldview included Germany and Japan) which we oughta nuke right now
because they're all Commies. Otherwise the nicest guy you'll ever meet. I briefly considered discussing geopolitics with him, but decided that smile-and-nod was the wisest strategy.

Guide #2, Nick, took me up to and from the peak, and he was not so much guide as philosopher-king. I challenge you to find another PNG mountain guide who will quote Kierkegaard to you en route and spend the rest breaks discussing the spiritual and philosophical significance of mountain climbing.

They say that from the top of Mount Wilhelm, on a clear day, you can see both the north and south coasts of Papua New Guinea. I cannot confirm this, but I can tell you that, weather permitting, you may see a lot of clouds.

After a mere ten minutes at the top (it was snowing, and windy, and cold) I stepped, stumbled, skidded and swam my way down the mountain and back to the village of Kegsugl, where I received the ultimate accolate from Francis, who said of me to the lodge owner there, who expressed surprise that we made it through the rain: "Oh yes. He plenty strong." (pause) "Plenty strong...for a white man."

Gotta put that on my CV.

After a longer-than-necessary journey I made it back to civilization in the form of the town of Goroka, which has a cool name, wide tree-lined streets, nice people, and the four-star Bird Of Paradise Hotel. Following my usual travel modus operandi I checked into a cheap lodge around the corner and beelined straight to the luxury hotel, where I proceeded to spend an entire day in Colonial Mode: resting my weary legs on the poolside verandah, sipping G&Ts and banana milkshakes, smoking cigarettes, and reading old Agatha Christie novels. If that isn't the life then I just don't know what is.

I am now in Port Moresby, a hot, dusty, and generally disagreeable place, which recently came dead last in a worldwide survey of what expats think of the cities where they live, but not the bullet-drenched anarchy that it's thought to be in Australia. Tonight I fly back to Cairns, and thence to Australia's Red Centre. But I'd love to come back to PNG; the coasts are supposed to be beautiful and the diving the best in world.

Next time. Like the man said (that would be me), you can't go everywhere, and you probably shouldn't try.

Hope you're all doing well. I expect there'll be only one more update after this one; less than two weeks of travel to go, sob sob. Take care.

pretty fly (for a white guy)...


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