Sunday 10th August 2014
My meeting with Grace occurred towards the end of my trip to Papua New Guinea. Let me take you back to the start. On Sunday, 10th August I am dropped off at Brisbane airport by Julie for my flight to Port Moresby. The check in desk is not open when I arrive but once it does the process is over quickly and I then look for something to eat. I find a café and have some expensive but tasty pancakes for breakfast and to kill some time. WiFi is available so I check e-mails and the weather forecast for my mountain objectives. Not too bad.
The Air Nuigini plane is a 737 seemingly well fitted out and possibly relatively new. I have a decent seat in row 12 by the window. The plane is about 75% full. After take-off there are brief views of the Brisbane River and the coast to the north but it soon clouds over. At one point I think I can see a Barrier Reef atoll. There are no further views until the descent to Port Moresby. Refreshments comprise juice and a couple of biscuits. The first biscuit is quite nice so I decide to keep the other for later on the mountain.
Port Moresby airport comes into view, located in a valley beyond a small group of low hills from the city itself. The city has a few higher buildings and there is plenty of traffic on the roads below. Out to sea a reef protects the city’s harbour, broken low clouds hang over the land.
We land. Passengers descend the steps and walk across the apron to the terminal building. An entry card has to be completed. As I do not have a pen I have to ask an airport employee to borrow one! I am glad I obtained my visa in the UK as the queue for visas on arrival is long and slow moving. Immigration and customs requirements are straightforward and I make my way to the exit not really knowing what to expect.
The exit from customs is through an ordinary door and along a narrow passage with a dirty white wall on one side and a railing on the other. I see “James Stones” on a piece of paper among a sea of faces at the far end. I make my way to the sign and introduce myself. The “meet and greet” has been organised by my agent from Mount Hagen.
This is not quite as indulgent as might first seem. Although the onward flight is from the other, domestic terminal, I have to drop my bag in the international terminal and obtain my boarding pass here too. Once that has been achieved, we walked the two or three minutes to the domestic terminal in the hot and humid air. There my hand luggage is subject to screening. This is a bit of a laugh really because a little further on in the terminal there is an exit without any security which people are using as an entrance. Still in order to access the gate there is a further screening and my guide leaves me at this point. I now have a 90 minute wait for the onward flight to Mount Hagen.
The waiting area is quite basic. Whereas the international terminal had a mix of black and white faces, the domestic terminal is dominated by black faces. I spot one western face, a 50 something year old with a grey ponytail. Later an eastern European couple sit near me.
There is a rudimentary café which does not do much business and I while away the time by reading a book.
A Fokker 100 provides the onward flight. This too is by no means full. Again I have a window seat. The route follows the south coast to the west of Port Moresby. Views inland are limited by heavy tropical clouds but the coastline remains largely clear. The sea is that wondrous combination of blues that are only seen in the tropics. It is mainly fringed by forest or wetlands. I see a wreck. And reefs.
We turn inland. There is mile after mile of jungle. But the flight is a short one hour. It is a race to avoid a rain storm on the descent to Mount Hagen. We lose, but only just. It passes by quickly and by the time we are disembarking the rain has gone.
We collect baggage in the open next to the terminal off a pallet brought there by a fork lift which we have watched trundle across the apron. By then I have met my driver who insists on carrying my bag. A two metre high steel palisade fence surrounds the airport grounds with eager or curious faces pressed against it. At the gate in the fence my baggage tag is checked to make sure that I am not making off with someone else’s bag. Once through that it is out into the melee.
I follow the driver to the car. Although I am accompanied I am offered lifts and other help by the throng. The driver leads me to a ubiquitous Toyota Land Cruiser. It is easy to see why a car of this type is needed. Mount Hagen is the third largest city in PNG with a population of about 46,000 and is the capital of the West Highland Province. It does feel as though you are entering a modern version of the wild-west. The airport is a little way out of the city.
After 10 minutes we pull up at the side of the road without warning. I am still a little tense, being in an alien environment. Why have we stopped? Wild thoughts enter my mind. Am I going to be robbed? Or put in the pot?! My driver’s English is limited to a few words. I am still not clear what is happening. Another vehicle draws up after 5 minutes. I am not sure if I am to switch vehicles. But no, an occupant from that vehicle joins us and we set off again.
Within a few minutes we are in what seems to be the heart of Mount Hagen. There is plenty of traffic that weaves between the potholes (some are truly enormous) and people walking in the road. Litter is everywhere making a mockery of the “Keep Mount Hagen beautiful” signs. I do not know what literacy is like, perhaps the populace cannot read English, or at all. People swarm about. Others sit around, looking bored. The windows in the Toyota are heavily tinted. I feel a bit whimpish but the fact that I cannot be seen from outside gives me some comfort.
My two companions decide that they want to buy some drinks and disappear into a shop with a battered and largely shuttered front. I am alone. I watch the throngs mills around nearby. Loose dogs scavenge amongst the rubbish. I try and discern what rules of the road apply here, but decide probably that there are none. If there is a pothole on your side of the road you swerve on to the other and a game of chicken occurs if there is someone coming the other way. If it gets too close, horns are blasted. My companions are not long and we continue.
I find out later that the main street was once the runway for Mount Hagen’s original airport. No wonder it is so straight!
Soon the city begins to merge with the countryside. Big advertising hoardings sit up high advertising mobile phone operators and Coca Cola. The standard of the road improves because we are now on one that mining vehicles use. We pass by small clusters of primitive houses. Fields grow corn and the density of trees increases.
The road becomes more windy and some elevation is gained. Mount Hagen is at 1,700m (5,500ft). We are going to the Magic Mountain Nature Lodge which, whilst it advertises itself as being in Mount Hagen, is in fact 12 miles away, 200m (660ft) higher and a 30 minute drive out of the city. Although it is the dry season, the road and the ground are wet. The road now cuts through the rain forest.
The dry season in Papua New Guinea merely means that it is less wet. In August there are an average of 22 rainy days a month as opposed to 26 in the wet season! That said the volume of rain is about half at a mere 6½ inches of rain. Over 12 inches fall in March. Mount Hagen has almost as much rain in February and March as Harrogate does in a year. It is a little warmer though!
Anyway, after our 30 minutes we get to a right turn and start up a track, now unpaved.
For a brief while the going is fine, if bumpy. A local gives a cheery wave. I learn later that he is supposed to be “improving” the track by shovelling little stones on to it.
We pass a few houses and a mobile phone mast. Then the gradient steepens. The car struggles. Finally the Toyota gives up and can go no further. We disgorge on to the mud. My companions help with the bags. It is only a 400m walk up to the entrance of the Lodge with its car park and vehicle turning area, but by then mud cakes my shoes.
We walk through the entrance and along past the lodges, one of which will be allocated to me.
I am left outside them whilst my companions go and look for a key. I wonder if I am the only guest. Out in front of the lodges is a sea of green. Clouds swirl around a jungle clad hill behind. I am told later that this hill is the Magic Mountain.
The key arrives and I settle into my accommodation for the next couple of nights. The room has two single beds and an en suite with toilet, shower and wash basin. The shower seems to be a magnet for hundreds of little flies that are crawling on the plastic surrounds. I will worry about them later.
The lodge has a small veranda with seats. I notice that the lodge next to me is occupied though the guests are not in. I settle on the veranda and look out over the lush garden and watch the clouds swirl around. It is cooler here than down in the city but still pleasant. Dinner is served at 6pm, half an hour off.
At 6pm I wander the 40m to the building where dinner is to be served. I enter a large room with a kitchen immediately to the left. A large red plastic table with matching chairs sits down the middle. Pictures of mountains line the walls.
I settle down and a sumptuous feast is delivered to me. Soup to start followed by fried chicken and vegetables. The other guests arrive. They are a pair of Turkish film makers who are travelling around the world to record the lives of tribes. They have already been to South America and parts of Asia. Next they plan to go to Africa. In the meantime the owner of Magic Mountain Nature Lodge is fixing things for them. As you will gather, given that my Turkish is non-existent, they are able to explain this to me in English.
Tomorrow I am to undertake an acclimatisation walk so it is off to bed early for me.
Monday 11th August 2014
I am up at 6am for a 6.30am breakfast. I settle on toast and fruit. My guide, Edward, arrives for an 8am start. Edward is accompanied by a young chap with a machete. I am assured that this is to enable blockages on the jungle path to be cleared. Mmm.
The walk starts from the Lodge and the jungle soon engulfs us. We are going to explore Mount Hagen (the mountain not the city). The young chap leads, he speaks no English. Edward follows on behind.
The walk through the jungle is some of the most exhausting that I have ever done. OK I did not do a lot to make myself fit for this trip. I am relying on my fitness from Kilimanjaro (but that was 6 months before) and occasional visits to the gym. But I have been in Australia for the best part of two weeks with little exercise.
The walking is like an obstacle course. If it isn’t a creeper trying to trip you, then there are tree trunks to hurdle. Most of them are enormous. Some have fallen a long time ago so standing on them risks piercing through the rotting outer. And if it isn’t the trees then there are the mud and roots – a slippery combination. Naturally the locals take all of this in their stride as I huff and puff ever upwards. Here are a few photos of “spot the path” – OK the first one is easy.
Now then, Edward. He is the most rotund guide I have ever seen. Of course, in a country such as Papua New Guinea you do not expect to find “guides” in the sense that we would understand in the West. That said, he is actually more nimble through the jungle than I am – but this is his terrain.
After a couple of hours up the obstacle course the trees begin to thin. We arrive at an open area where there is a rectangular charred area on the ground. It is the site of a hut. Well it was. Apparently some men had been there with alcohol. No more needs to be said.
We pass, now walking on tussocky grass with the occasional soggy section, through charred stands of trees. A forest fire unconnected with the ex-hut has passed through. A broad ridge forms, still of rough grass. A faint trail can be followed. Cloud sweeps across from time to time. We press on. There are a series of rises. These are followed by more level sections. A deep valley is to the left; undulating flanks cloaked with trees are to the right.
The ridge narrows still further. Not knife edged but much more prominent and a couple of rocky tors cap some of the rises followed by dips. We stop for lunch. Time seems to have moved on faster than my ascent. There are some soggy sandwiches in the packed lunch with which I have been provided plus juice and a mini banana. There is also a fruit with which I am unfamiliar – a sugar fruit. It is full of seeds but is indeed sweet. Here is a pic.
Edward wants me to turn around. But I am nowhere near the top. I can see that the ridge I am on joins on to another, higher one. To the left I can see a high summit. Ahead beyond another bump in my ridge is another slightly lower summit. Further to the right still the higher ridge continues.
Edward stops. I carry on with the machete youth. Twenty minutes later I am on the higher ridge at the lower summit. On it is a collapsed communications mast with an empty shipping-like container. I can now see the main summit of Mount Hagen. It is probably an hour away – so an additional two hours round trip at least. I feel I do not have time to get there without prejudicing my attempt on Mount Giluwe. I estimate that I am at around 3,600m in altitude, perhaps a little more. The main summit is at 3,800m. Mount Hagen is the third highest mountain in Papua New Guinea and a long extinct volcano.
It is disappointing. Perhaps we could have started earlier. Perhaps I could have been faster. The information I had been given suggested that I could reach the summit in 4 hours. We have been going 5½ hours. Reluctantly I turn back. Half an hour later we are back with Edward. We return the same way. Back down the obstacle course. We are back at the Lodge at 5.30pm. The decision not to proceed was right. It will be dark in an hour.
I have a shower, first spraying the zillions of insects out of harm’s way. Dinner follows which, again, is good. I chat to the Turks who have been filming amongst local tribes people.
I turn in early and re-pack my rucksack for the next two or three days. It will be another early start in the morning.
Here is the link to Part 3.