Thursday, November 15, 2007

The largeness of Papua New Guinea

To see the full set of photos go to our Flickr account.

Travel is reassuringly linear. You start at the beginning of your journey, have some revelatory experiences in the middle, and at some point it ends. The latest jaunt that Sarah and I took began in Port Moresby, the scary capital of Papua New Guinea. Sarah had been using up her lunch breaks planning our week long trip around PNG and did a fantastic job navigating conflicting advice to get the best trip for the best price. One example of the complexities of travelling in PNG emerged when we started thinking about driving through the highlands in a rental car. Leaving aside the exorbitant cost of hiring a car, it was also advised that we get security for fear of raskols. The initial quote was for an armed escort which would drive behind us the entire way, was about $1200 for two days. After getting some good advice Sarah found that it was possible to hire a driver at about two dollars an hour instead. So it pays to shop around.

Sarah was so focussed on organising the trip that she forgot to pack her camera. Luckily we were only 30 seconds down the road. The driver and I waited for her while listening to The Skyhook's 'Living in the 70s'. That was not the cultural highlight of the journey.

First we flew to Mount Hagen, the scene of the Mount Hagen show which we went to in August. There we picked up a big tough Hilux and a teenie weenie security guard with impressive sideburns who didn't speak English too well, but had a good command of Tok Pisin, the local variety of pidgin, which sounds deceptively like English until someone starts speaking it fast.



Sarah had picked up enough pidgin during her time in Port Moresby to impart useful information, such as could you drive slower please. This came in handy about an hour out of Mount Hagen when Sarah noticed that we were bombing down the road at 140km/h. “Easy-easy” she told the driver, right before we blasted by the police camped by the side of the road. We came to a fairly rapid halt, and our driver reversed back up the highway. We got a stern talking to in pidgin, but luckily the driver had remembered to bring his licence along, so we were let off with a stern warning to stop the next time we see police.

On that first day we were driving from Mount Hagen to Goroka, a leisurely four hours over roads with a varying size of pothole, through gorgeous mountain scenery.



If you don't already know, I love mountains. They fill me with inner calm. If I were to become a hermit it would be in a cave on a mountain. The mountains in PNG are beauties and quite unexpected. I'm loathe to compare them with others I have seen, but far from being the jungle covered expanse that I expected, they looked more like the lower slopes of a European alpine area. I expected to see men dressed in lederhosen and women milking goats. This image was often shattered by a guy with a big beard wearing a beanie and carrying a machete. The temperature in the highlands is reputed to be a year-round 25 degrees, perfect for a Canberra boy, and despite the threat of robbery, everyone we bumped into was more than friendly.

The highlands are also the vegetable basket of PNG. These huge valleys even resemble baskets, surrounded as they are by huge mountain ranges. The valleys in which Mount Hagen and Goroka are situated have rich soil, lots of rain and sun, and get neither too hot nor too cold. We saw the evidence of this in markets we stopped at, the first being at Kundiawa, a bit past halfway on the road to Goroka. The produce is just spread on blankets laid on the dirt, but it's as fresh as can be, and a huge range, from cabbage to cucumber, banana, strawberries and the sweetest pineapple I've had in quite a while. There are plenty of yams, carrots, beans, garlic, lettuce, and some very nice potato which we tried after it had been boiled in oil. I wasn't game to try the fried meats, but I like their style.

Tucked away from the modern world until the 1930s they are a recent discovery to the modern world, but people have been farming here for thousands of years. The area has a cultivated look, and every area of land has a traditional owner. Apart from the odd aid worker or missionary this part of PNG has a remote feel to it still without the hordes of tourists you encounter in other parts of the world. It’s refreshing to travel to where people are just living their life. The downside is that the infrastructure along the highlands highway is basic. The petrol stations are a wooden bench with old oil containers filled with fuel.

Whenever we stopped for a photo, which was often, people seemed to emerge from nowhere to stand in front of the camera, giggling when Sarah showed them the photo. This scene became quite extravagant at times, such as when Sarah stopped to take a photo of a couple of goats. The goats soon had garlands on them as men smuggled their vegetables into the shot, including the biggest cauliflower we will ever see.





At another roadside market Sarah took about a dozen photos of people in various poses. When the old lady selling twisties asked for a photo on her own she had no chance. The roaming crowd followed the lens to where she stood and crowded around while she held up her wares. We have promised to send photos to everyone, which will prove a major undertaking, mailing photos to friends who will travel up the road again to deliver them.

The town of Goroka is an enchanting little place. It has the lush look of the tropics, while the surrounding mountains bring an alpine climate. Apart from the airport being located right in the middle of town, it’s a lovely part of the world. We stayed with friends who live in a small community on the side of hill, amongst the trees and above a small creek which burbles day and night. There was a power failure on the Friday night, and as we sat on the deck in the glow of a lantern fireflies flashed their neon green mating signal in the air outside, which made it look like they were taking photos of each other on tiny little cameras. The next day we drove up to one of the many villages outside town which was as nice as any Australian country town. Just replace the tarmac with a dirt road and imagine bigger front yards with nicer lawns. The only sign that we were in a poorer country were the rusting cars, and a guy weaving the cladding for his own house from pandanus leaves, but I’m sure many Australians wish they could build their own house in a couple of weeks. As is the custom in PNG, we were woken early that morning, not by the resident two-year old as expected, but by the Goroka Screaming Bug, a creature often heard from the window of moving cars and those times you're trying to sleep in. It sounds exactly like a roller coaster full of screaming kids passing by in the distance.

The next day we picked up a new Guard Dog driver named Peter, a bullish little guy with an excellent ‘Movember’ fund raiser on his upper lip.



He bristled into action when he discovered I had decided to walk alone to the ANZ bank to get money out with Sarah yelling after me “make sure you get a lot out”. For some reason he thought this would make me a target for robbery, combined with the fact that I was the only tall white guy in town that day, so he got on the walkie talkie to his fellow guard dog out the front of the bank. I wondered at the time why he was staring at me so much. With more typical faffing around we finally got on the road and into some beautiful scenery. The landscape heading towards the coast was much sparser, and the mountains looked like they belonged in Wales. It was totally different to what I expected to see, which made it a refreshing surprise, especially after the dusty plain which houses Canberra.



The other exciting thing about this drive was that we were approaching a spot of renowned raskol activity where the highway slowly winds up a hill, giving the raskols time to spot their target and set an ambush. Peter knew this, and we roared up the hill in our Hilux, overtaking a slower vehicle, and a suspiciously abandoned truck. People driving down the hill had a reassuringly full load, and we made it through with no problems as well, passing the police station at the top of the hill which looked like an abandoned caravan. The raskols are reputedly much more likely to knock off a bus or a truck than worry about individual travellers, and Peter claimed never to have had any problems in twenty years.

The drive from Goroka to Madang on the coast has to be one of the most spectacular in the world. Starting out in the garden paradise of Goroka, you head through spectacular mountain scenery before coming to the truly incredible Kassam Pass.



This is where we emerged from the highlands plain we had been on since flying to Mount Hagen and starting descending to sea level. The experience of arriving at Kassam pass is similar to when you're snorkelling over a coral reef which suddenly drops away to deep ocean. It is epic in scale and has that grand canyon style illusion of being too big for the eye to communicate properly to the brain. Once down in the Markham Valley the temperature rises to what you would expect of PNG. To give an indication of just how mountainous PNG is, once you are out of the highlands there is still a completely separate mountain range between you and the coast. So it was up the valley that we drove, through stubby palm oil trees and into the sugar cane country of the Ramu Valley.



Along the way we stopped for a bite to eat at a service station as the market wasn't open on a Sunday. We came to regret that more than we knew at the time, as the alternative to fresh market food was a meat pie that tasted like tinned corned beef soaked in urine. Peter seemed to like his, though so I guess it's an acquired taste.

After the expanse of the valley the road begins to wind through the jungle on the way to the coastal town of Madang. At a roadside market Peter redeemed his taste buds by getting us some pitpit, an edible cane grass which when baked has a core which tastes like a artichoke hearts and has the texture of a warm sponge. It was better than I'm making it sound.



I also gave betel nut a try here, although without the other special ingredients which give it a buzzing effect, lime powder and mustard stick (which I think are also the carcinogenic ingredients). When you mix all the ingredients together in your mouth it turns a bright red which you can see people spitting at regular intervals. Betel nut on its own is a starchy, bitter ball which manages to make your mouth feel dry while producing large amounts of saliva simultaneously. I gave it a pretty good chew before I got sick of my mouth feeling numb. It made the banana I ate afterwards not the taste sensation I was expecting.



The sad sight at the market was the caged cuscus, a native possum who wasn't too happy about being out in the sunlight and the centre of attention. We passed on the opportunity to buy him and either keep him as a pet or eat him for dinner. Maybe we shouldn't have encouraged them by taking a picture, but its an instinctive reaction on seeing wildlife.



I wish I could give a better report of Madang, but we turned up there in late afternoon, had a swim in the pool, some good fish for dinner, and were up early the next morning for out flight to Wewak on the north coast, the entry point to the famed Sepik River, although I didn't realise how famed until I got back and people started talking about the Leyland Brother's exploits there. The strange aspect of our stay in Wewak was the hotel. Not strange because it was so bad, but because it was so good. In PNG you get used to everything being a bit old and run down, and you start looking past that to the more positive experiences. But the In Wewak Boutique Hotel would not be out of place on the beach at Noosa.



It was completely renovated a year ago by Phillip, oldest brother of the Asian family which seems to own half the town. The hotel is a side project for him, a place where he can escape from his import/export business where he complained the people are constantly asking him for loans. I suspect the hotel also assuages his loneliness, providing a steady flow of new people to talk to. He invited us to pre-dinner drinks one night which subtly turned into dinner, and tried to invite himself to dinner on our last night. He has a strong Australian accent, did his schooling in Australia, and his ex-wife and children live there, but he was born and raised in Wewak and seems to have done a decent job making a life for himself there. Despite being a little bit clingy at times, he really was a fantastic host and was very generous with his time and in organising our Sepik River jaunt. The hotel felt amazingly luxurious, especially after our experiences overnight in a Sepik village.

The Sepik River is enormous. It stretches 1,100 kilometres from the central highlands to the north coast, but it is the scale of the river that once again boggles the mind.

video

It is as though a large lake just keeps stretching on to the horizon. Perversely travelling up this large expanse of water felt a bit like being in the desert, a yawning sameness all around. We got on the river at Angoram, a two-hour dirt road drive south-east of Wewak. Our guide for that day and night was Kenny, a local guy with his own boat. We were seated on two cane chairs in the middle of the boat, a recent innovation, and I suspect to keep us out of trouble as much as for our own comfort.



The heat on the Sepik is incredible. It is the hottest place I have been so far in my life, beating New Orleans and Taiwan by a long way. The heat was bearable while we were bombing along in the boat getting natural air-conditioning, but whenever we stopped the heat settled over us like a blanket. It was hot when cloudy in the morning, but when the sun came out in the afternoon it was almost unbearable. One village we stopped in had climactic conditions similar to what I would expect to find in hell, with no shade to save us whiteys from the burning, burning sun.



We applied sunscreen every 30 minutes, but with our malaria medication making us more sensitive to the sun than normal, we were lucky to get away as pink as we did.

The river is a highway for the people who live on it. Most people get around in dugout canoes with some featuring outboard motors, but most powered by muscular arms and backs.



Kids jump in little dugouts as if they were bikes to get to school or visit another village, and there are floating markets selling vegetables which the owners apparently sleep on.



The villages in the area have wooden and bamboo stilt houses, no electricity, but some radios, and volleyball is big here as in other parts of the country.



The first village we stopped at we asked about carvings. The Sepik is famous for the quality of their work, but our surprise visit caught people unaware. Necklaces and bilums (hand-made bags) slowly emerged but while we were waiting for the others we took a wander through the village, along the river bank, followed by a large crowd of children, some of whom raced ahead to pose in front of us before running away giggling as we approached. When we asked about what we thought was a canoe being made, it turned out this was sago harvesting in progress, which was demonstrated for us for photographic purposes.



We almost made it to the school when we came across the goods for sale, transported ahead of us while we strolled to ensure it caught our eyes. Sarah bought a few bilums to add to her collection and I bought a carved lime holder for if I ever take up betel chewing in a serious way. We wandered back down river to the first shopping spot, only to find that it was all the same stuff as where we had come from, once again whisked in front of us as we walked.

We had been advised to take food and used clothes as gifts. Luckily for us the used clothes shop in Wewak was having a half price sale, so t-shirts cost 50 cents instead of a dollar. We loaded up and distributed gaily to villagers from our boat before departure, handing over plastic bags of clothes and non-perishable food items from the esky.



We spent the rest of the day tooling around the river, getting off the main highway towards the end of the day and into the back alleys, where we came across a village with a resident master carver. This old man shooed the laughing kids away as he fetched his work out.



There were the large story boards which we had seen elsewhere but had no chance of getting on the plane, even with the relaxed carry on policy of the local airline. We saw one woman carry on a watermelon, it's address neatly written on the skin in black pen. Thankfully he had some smaller carvings, one of which we bought. His initial asking price was 10 kina, about $4, but we talked him up to twenty kina. He then motioned for is to go up into his house and take some photos of his wooden crocodiles, which were not lovingly crafted out of a single block of wood, but interesting sculptures stuffed with straw which would not look out of place in the Mardi Gras parade. They look a bit like slugs with headdresses.



Towards the end of the day we went back to our guide Kenny's village, where he showed us his crocodile farm, the scariest wildlife we had seen that day, if you don't count the flock of eagles circling above us earlier in the day.

video

The crocs on the Sepik are of the small freshwater variety, and apparently do not come out during the day. I felt safer in the knowledge that any stray crocs in the area would be immediately nabbed and thrown in the farm, the same farm which I now jumped into (after some encouragement). The farm was just three open-roofed tin sheds with pools covered by shade cloth. The crocodiles progress from one shed to the next as they grow in size. Understandably the pool closest to the door contained the smallest crocs, which our guide's nephew proceeded to wade about in looking for examples to show us. Sarah wasn't quick enough in taking the photo of the first one, which starting thrashing about and hissing, and continued to give us the evil eye once safely back in the water. Despite being small, they still have pretty sharp looking teeth.



Before dinner we took one last cruise to the nearby lagoons. We passed through a village built entirely over the water on stilts, where the kids must have to learn to swim before walking.



The lagoons were beautifully still. The water had a deep dark colour, unlike the muddy, opaque waters of the main river. White egrets burst from the reeds by the bank as we passed by and wheeled away towards the setting sun. Water lillies peppered with purple flowers bobbed in our wake. It looked like an idyllic English river, until we stopped to turn around and the heat set in once again. On the way back we were ambushed by kids in canoes with flowers to give us.



Kenny kindly offered to share his food with us. We were treated to four varieties of fish – soup, fried, cooked in banana leaf and cooked on the fire. They were all delicious. The sago was not quite so delicious. It had been prepared in two ways, the first fried, which had the consistency of chewable rubber, and the second gelatinous, which had the consistency of sticky jelly. The taste was bland, like solidified river water. It was just filler to eat with the fish.



When we first sat down to eat in a hut on stilts looking out over the sun setting on the Sepik, we were amazed at how much food there was. Kenny invited us to sample everything, and not wishing to be rude by leaving any food behind, we took a deep breath and started eating. Luckily at some point Sarah asked what the rest of the village was going to eat, and the answer – whatever is left after we finish – made us slow down our pace. We had images later of small children crying and cursing our name as we waddled off to sleep in our waterside hut with full bellies.





The heat eased when the sun set. We flopped on mattresses setup beneath our mosquito net, then spent the next thirty minutes killing mosquitoes who somehow found a way in. Lightning flashed in the distance, and within an hour a storm had rolled in, pelting the thatch roof with rain.

video

Despite the discomforts, which will be forgotten, it was an enchanting place to spend the night, even with rats fighting in the early hours as they gnawed through my bag in a desperate attempt to get the coconut biscuits contained within. We were woken an hour before dawn by duelling roosters, surely one of the most horrible sounds in the world, other than rats screeching. Once there was enough light to see by Sarah took a ride in a dugout across the river to complete her morning ablutions, and we set off back for town in the cool of the morning.



On the way we stopped at various villages buying out their supplies of river prawns for the hotel. As with a lot of things in PNG, these prawns are gigantic, the size of a small lobster. They were hauled fresh out of the river and thrown in the esky still clicking away. We feasted on them that night back at the hotel.



So the sun sets on another PNG trip. It's a great country to travel in, with so much variety in the landscape and really friendly people.

13 comments:

Mike said...

Brilliant writing and beautiful photos Dave! What a fantastic trip and a really great account of it - I felt like I was there.

SINABADA said...

this is one of the most physically beautiful countries in the world, and worth a visit but only with arranging security and radio, even outside of moresby. dont let the pictures tell you what you think the whole story is... life in this country is harsh. and travelling must be taken with extreme caution. However, this said, I am an expatriate living in Moresby and still love the people and the landscape.

Lazy TramCar said...

hi was just looking for pics of ramu sugar saw your site i was there when it was being built, i built 3 villages there must of been in the 70's

Lazy TramCar said...

hi i was looking for pic's of ramu sugar came across your site i was there in about 1976 think it was i built 3 villages there for the sugar

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