Papua New Guinea Highlands; August 4-10, 2014

Our time in the highlands of Papua New Guinea added a great deal of variety to our trip, while giving us a much better sense for the country and its culture. Our primary objectives -- scaling Mt. Wilhelm and attending the Enga Cultural Show -- were great successes, but the travel from one place to another, the people we met, and the places we stayed, all contributed to the experience. Please forgive the length of this travelogue and number of photos; PNG is a complicated and fascinating place!

One feature common to every city and village is the truly vast number of people sitting around doing absolutely nothing (photo 1). In the countryside, the habit presumably stems from a slow pace of life and subsistence culture. But in the cities it's due primarily to unemployment, and the not-very-cheerful crowds can feel a bit edgy at times. Crime, primarily theft, is a fact of life everywhere. All stores have armed guards. Restaurants and other establishments are guarded too; when we asked why, the answer was "to keep order." On the other hand, everyone we actually got to know was gentle, thoughtful, and genuinely friendly. We left PNG feeling as much of an affinity with and affection for the country as any other place we've visited.

In addition to high rates of poverty and unemployment, a significant contributor to tensions in PNG, particularly in the highlands, is the extremely strong tribal culture. Devotion to one's tribe is absolute, which has its positive aspects, but also leads to intense politics, retribution, and, in some areas of PNG to this day, outright warfare. Even in our short time in the highlands in the company of guides and lodge-owners, we became well aware of the strong bonds within tribes, and the few bonds across them. (A gruesome but fascinating article in Outside magazine depicts what can go wrong when a tourist trek unknowingly gets in the middle of tribal rivalries. The article was scary enough that it gave us pause in our trip planning, but our short trek was through a single tribal region, and violence in general is rarely if ever aimed at tourists.)

A remarkable 850+ languages are spoken in PNG, thanks again to the tribal culture. The one common language -- used on signs and airplane safety briefings, for example -- is Tok Pisin, which is pidgin (or Pisin) for "talk pidgin." It can be a fun game to decipher Tok Pisin since it really is pidgin English. Photo 2 shows the door sign from our Goroka hotel; give it a try.

Enough general observations; on to our travel adventures.

It was a full two days of travel from the boat dock at Walindi Resort to the basic lodge at the foot of Mt. Wilhelm. Air Niugini continued to belie its reputation, with on-time flights from Hoskins to Port Moresby and then to the highlands town of Goroka. During our multi-hour layover in Port Moresby, we crashed the deli and internet at the posh and heavily-guarded Airways Hotel. For better or worse, with white faces it was no questions asked.

After an overnight in Goroka, we headed out in the signature vehicle of the highlands:  a utility-model Toyota Landcruiser, with two low benches in the back instead of seats to accommodate masses of passengers and cargo -- in our case the four of us and our mass of diving and trekking gear (photo 3). The road from Goroka to Kundiawa is part of the main Highlands Highway, so it's a passable mix of pavement, potholes, and gravel. However, the road from Kundiawa to the village of Kegsugl, at the base of Mt. Wilhelm, is truly two hours of hell! Bouncing and sliding on our benches while trying not to be buried by our shifting luggage kept us busy the entire way.

The two-day trek up PNG's highest peak, 14,800' Mt. Wilhelm, was no easy affair, with the summit day rivaling some of our most challenging hiking days anywhere. The first day is a short one through forest and grassland to "base camp": an aging hut with a kitchen and decent bunks, perched next to a picturesque lake (photo 4). Our second day of hiking commenced at 1:30am -- common practice on peaks like this one -- so we could reach the summit before the daily clouds rolled in, then descend all the way back to the trailhead by mid-afternoon. The trail was muddy, rocky, and very steep in parts. It was a grind on the way up, but posed the most difficulty coming down: already tired from the ascent, the concentration required on every step was a serious chore. The altitude was also a significant factor on the climb, given our minimal acclimatization. But don't get it wrong: we love this stuff, especially in retrospect! Sunrise on the summit, and the spectacular views across Papua New Guinea, were well worth the effort (photos 5 & 6).

Even though the hike is only two days long, Mt. Wilhelm is normally done in expedition style, with a guide and porters and so forth. We're accustomed to this type of trekking, but nevertheless were quite surprised when we discovered it being taken to a new level: although a guide is certainly a necessity, we were issued four guides, one for each of us! At first we were chagrined, since we don't like so much attention, the set-up minimizes family togetherness, and we suspected the main purpose was to provide additional employment for locals, which may well be the case. But in the end it wasn't a bad thing: The kids and their guides high-tailed it ahead of the parents, many places on the trail were difficult enough that each of us did need a hand, and Alex & Tim took a detour to see the wreckage of a WW2 American bomber (photo 7). Although the guiding itself was "high touch," on the flip side,  the guide who was billed as our cook did little but
set out a few provisions and point us at the stove. Rounding out our entourage were three barefoot women porters, two of them quite elderly, who carted food boxes to the base camp, one guy who randomly tagged along carrying our sleeping bags, and four students (apparently) from the local high school -- though they looked well into their 20s or 30s -- who joined us for the summit climb (photo 8).

The Mt. Wilhelm trailhead area, and the trail to the summit, are controlled by a single tribe, who seem to believe they're sitting on a tourist bonanza (photo 9). We're not convinced, due to the difficulty of the hike, the basic nature of the accommodations, and the horrendous road in. They're working on the last part, though: one of their tribesmen was elected recently to the national parliament and, surprise, $30 million has now been earmarked to pave the road. Even the basic lodge at the trailhead is vastly overbuilt -- the money must have come from somewhere -- with extensive groomed grounds, a lookout area, and a large block of rooms even though they're lucky to have any guests at all on a given night. It will be interesting to see how things develop.

From Mt. Wilhelm, it was back down the road from hell, then on to the Magic Mountain Lodge. The lodge is situated not far from Mount Hagen, PNG's third largest city, but it's very remote, with a beautiful setting and comfortable bungalows (photo 10). We were especially surprised to find that the only other guests at the lodge were also the only other tourists we'd met on Mt. Wilhelm -- a friendly pair of well-traveled Ukrainians.

Although we enjoyed the lodge a great deal, our main reason for staying there was to attend the Enga Cultural Show in Wabag, about two hours away. The annual highlands tribal shows in Goroka and Mount Hagen have come to attract considerable tourist crowds. The Enga festival is a bit smaller and much less known, meaning we were among a very small handful of tourists, just the way we like it. In a word, the festival was amazing -- surely one of our richest one-day tourist experiences ever. Forty-seven tribes from the highlands participated in full regalia, singing and dancing. Each tribe that entered was more colorful than the previous one. While the Huli Wigmen and Asaro Mudmen were expected fan favorites, every tribe has its unique elaborate attire and remarkable headdresses. (Yes, the women were bare on top, but within minutes none of us seemed to even notice.) Jennifer's photos 11-14 give but a small taste. Tim's promise to be remarkable.

The festival also included craftspeople, games, and food-sellers, but it was the tribal "sing-sing" groups that were the centerpiece. In addition to just enjoying the costumes, singing, and dancing, it was fascinating to spot the performers sneaking cigarettes and betel nut at every opportunity, to catch their eyes for willing photos, and to watch the other festival-goers who were almost exclusively locals. As icing on the cake, when we discovered the Asaro Mudmen changing back to their street clothes next to our van, Tim arranged to buy one of their famous masks, the same one Alex had tried on earlier (photo 15). It's a huge pain to cart the mask home, but well worth the effort it once it gets there.

The festival was a perfect cap to our two weeks in Papua New Guinea -- a complex country with a great deal to offer any tourist who ventures there. Highly recommended!

After a morning of Sydney tourism, Tim flies home, while Emily, Alex, and Jennifer embark on a relaxed and largely unplanned 5-day road trip around New South Wales.

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