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)...

October 21, 2002

Notes from Down Under, part the third

Cape Tribulation, Queensland

I have seen the Great Barrier Reef, up close and personal, and wow. Floating weightless amid breathtakingly gorgeous coral formations, in every colour of the rainbow, teeming with huge schools of fish of every size, and squid and stingrays and sharks and shrimps and eels and anemones and giant clams and and and and, and it all just went on, and on, and on -- and this was just at a few of the smaller dots on the overall Reef.

I went on 11 dives in 51 hours, living on a boat the whole time; for a while there I thought I was growing gills. I am now officially an Advanced Open Water Scuba Diver, which may impress you -- unless you have done the same course, and know it's about as difficult as Basketweaving 101. Terrific fun though.

The night dives were my favourite. Going headfirst down a towering coral wall, playing my light over the twisting alien formations -- I felt like an astronaut. And there were sharks at night, their eyes glowing a poisonous jade green. Little whitetip reef sharks, a mere five feet long, and gray whalers bigger than me.

The deep dives were a little disappointing; I was waiting for the nitrogen narcosis, the famous "rapture of the deep", to hit, and for me to develop delusions of omnipotence or a sudden hatred for my fellow divers; but no, I just felt a little slower and more thickheaded than normal.

(OK, I'll assume you've all made some kind of witty joke at my expense here. Now can we all just move on.)

I didn't get at all seasick -- though conditions were calm, the ocean nearly flat, the underwater visibility ("viz" to you divers) a good 20 metres -- but once I got back on land I kept expecting it to slosh back and forth the way the boat did, and my system (particularly the "balance" subcomponent) was not pleased by this unexpected stability. My attempt to counteract this lack of sway by consuming large amounts of Victoria Bitter, as suggested by my crazy Norwegian dive instructor, was an interesting but total failure.

The next morning, a little worse for wear, I went north to Cape Tribulation, a point overshadowed by Mounts Misery and Sorrow -- quite an unfair name, really, for one of the most spectacularly beautiful pieces of real estate on the planet; apparently Captain Cook went and ran his ship into an offshore reef nearby, and was obviously in a foul mood when he went about naming things.

But I guess he was half-right after all. While you can argue about what the deadliest creature on earth is, there's no doubt that whatever it is it's Australian, and it probably lives near Cape Tribulation. Here the crocodiles are 8 metres long, the jellyfish stings are so painful that most victims immediately die of shock and drowning and the survivors are still screaming after being knocked out with morphine, and one of the most common native plants causes three to six months of continuous agony if you so much as brush against it. And then there are the usual Aussie contingent of snakes; thirty-foot pythons, ridiculously lethal vipers, and so forth.

And then there's the cassowaries. But I'll get to them in a second.

It's a wonderful place. When you think Australia, you think rocks and kangaroos, not jungle; but Cape Tribulation is covered by rainforest which despite two consecutive failed wet seasons is as dense and diverse as any I've seen in Africa or Indonesia. I stayed a couple nights in a very relaxed jungle hostel called Crocodylus Village. It was just a few klicks up from an absolutely gorgeous warm-water beach, and at the village they assured us that despite the copious warning signs on the beach the jellyfish weren't out yet and the crocs stuck to the rivers. Although come to think of it they did insist on payment in advance. Hmm. Anyways, I swam and lived to tell the tale.

Cape Tribulation is also infested by cassowaries. Yeah, I never heard of them either before I came here. A cassowary is a colourful giant flightless bird, about my height. Allegedly they're extremely rare and highly endangered, but I couldn't get away from the bloody things - after a sightings yesterday, this morning I woke up and went outside and there was one literally blocking my path to breakfast.

Those of you who know me know that this is an unwise thing to do, but I hesitated; first because it was morning and as you know I spent all morning in one giant hesitation, and second because, even though cassowaries seem extremely slow, awkward, and ungainly, there is at least one documented instance of cassowary killing a man -- a man sitting on a horse, no less -- with a single flying karate kick. I swear I am not making this up.

(Who taught the cassowaries karate has not yet been determined, but Pat Morita is apparently wanted for questioning.)

Hunger won out over self-preservation and I gingerly picked my way past the cassowary. I wasn't too concerned about animal attacks anyway, because this was clearly the week for inanimate objects to have a go at me. Thus far I have been bashed by a vengeful scuba tank, blistered by a malicious flipper, bruised by two separate tree roots, and gashed by a bloodthirsty vine. Those of you who have known me long enough to remember when I was mauled by a savage waterbed will probably not be terribly surprised by any of this.

I'm leaving out a lot here: diving through hoops, the crocodile cruise, kangaroo steaks, my first confirmed wallaby sighting, the tropical-fruit ice cream factory, an aboriginal lecture on rainforest as pharmacy and buffet and arsenal...but I think I've gone on long enough for now, and besides, I'm absolutely dying for a roo burger.

October 12, 2002

Notes from Down Under, part the second

Byron Bay, New South Wales

It is with great reluctance that I leave Byron Bay. This is the chilled-out kind of beach town where people come for a day and stay for a month, and I've been here only a week. But verily it is one of life's great truths: you can live in a giant covered wagon for only so long before it's time to move on. And so in an hour's time I'll be on a bus to Queensland and the North.

Understand that I was only staying in the giant wagon because the giant teepee was full. Accomodation at the Arts Factory Lodge is a wee bit idiosyncratic. It's a good place, though, in a good town, with all kinds of things to do. In the last week I've been horseback riding, surfing, mountain biking, scuba diving (twice), and trapezing -- yes, trapezing -- and I still feel like I've been extremely lazy. In a good way.

It turns out I'm not a natural surfer. After a few hours of patient training I managed to wobble around in front of a few baby waves, but Zonker Harris I'm not. I am pleased to report that the trapezing came easier, and I was doing knee-hang catches and backflip dismounts like I was born to it -- maybe it's not too late to run away and join the circus after all.

But enough about me, let's talk about Oz.

The funny thing about Australia's east coast is that if you close one eye and squint with the other it looks a whole lot like California; green mountains, golden beaches, sunshine and surf hippies, wine regions, etc. It would be easy to believe, riding the bus through New South Wales and looking out the window, that you're in some particularly beautiful part of California. (All the country here is particularly beautiful.) But you would know, somehow, if you looked hard enough, that it's not; maybe because you'd realize that half the plants and trees are species you'd never seen before last week, or maybe because you see a kangaroo by the side of the road.

Roos are just one step up from vermin in Oz. Like baboons were, in Africa. Funny ol' world.

Another example: I went horseback riding a week ago -- and, despite it being my first time on a horse in fifteen years, with more trotting and cantering over rough rainforest tracks than I had expected (I had expected none) I was still able to walk the next day -- and the road up to the ranch could have been almost anywhere in Canada or America, until we stopped to investigate the four-foot python on the road ahead of us.

Turns out pythons don't much like having their tail grabbed. And who can blame them, really? I should have known better. Steve Irwin has much to answer for.

(No, actually it just slithered out of my grasp and quickly away.)

Well, I must away, to Brisbane and then a week in Cairns, where I intend to live on a boat for a few days of diving, then do some sea kayaking and rainforest trekking. Then I may head up to Papua New Guinea to climb a mountain. Because it's there, of course. Why else?

Faster, higher, stronger...

October 03, 2002

Notes from Down Under, part the first

Sydney, New South Wales

So it's just as pleasant a city as everyone had said; green, gorgeous, relaxed, stunning waterfront views absolutely everywhere, populated by people who are almost pathologically friendly. When you walk into a store in Sydney, people ask you "How you going then?" and not in the robotic drone of a Wal-Mart greeter. I'm not even sure all of these grinning greetings came from store employees and not fellow-shoppers. Whoever they are, they genuinely want to know how you're going and how they can help. Naturally with my New York/London/Toronto reflexes I blanch and back away quickly, muttering something about "just looking," but I hope to soon overcome this reflex and establish communication with the natives.

Flew in with Singapore Airlines, and I'd like to give them a shout-out for being The Greatest Airline On (or, more to the point, above) The Planet. Your own little screen with video, audio, and Nintendo on demand, and snacks given out like it was a candy convention, and seats big enough that even poor ol' economy-class me could extend, if not actually stretch, my legs. I had expected to spend the first few days clobbered by jet lag, but miraculously I managed to dodge it entirely. I think my unorthodox routing with a 24-hour stopover in London helped; I think by the time I got to Sydney my internal clock had completely expired, its hour hand spinning like a broken compass, and it was just so terribly grateful that it was still on the same planet that it desperately latched onto whatever local time was available.

I am pleased to report that I have spent my first few days being obscenely lazy, although I have probably walked a good marathon or two just drifting aimlessly around, and managed to get in a run around the Opera House and Botanical Gardens. People told me that Sydney is a lot like San Francisco, which is half-true; the climate and culture are similar, but geographically they're quite different, SF being compressed onto a peninsula and Sydney sprawling a long ways on either side of the harbour which divides it. (Said harbour actually being a fjord, if you ask me, but no one here calls it that, presumably due to some trademark dispute with Norway).

The Paul Hogan commercials were true; they do barbecue a lot here and, amazingly, they really do say "barbie", without a hint of irony. The beaches are theoretically swimmable but we're just coming out of winter and at 16C (that's 60F for you imperialists) still a wee bit below my comfort level. But fear not, it gets warmer as we go north, and I'm going north today. First to go diving at South West Rocks, cunningly located on the southeast coast, and then to chill out at Byron Bay, which is a peninsula. I am learning not to take the place names too seriously.

Research continues regarding: the difference between rugby league and rugby union, the relative superiority of Victoria Bitter and Toohey's, and the relative sizes of the wombat and the wallaby, not to mention whether I will every be able to say either "wombat" or "wallaby" with a straight face.

Bring Back The Biff!