PNG Highlands – hiking and hitchhiking Mt Wilhelm

After the Sepik, I travelled by boat and truck to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Unlike the Highlands of West Papua , those of PNG are in a sense one of the most accessible parts of the country because there is a road that goes right across them to the east and north coast.

The climate is very nice, an eternal spring and after a month of eating sago and fish I was really happy to see all those vegetables at the markets. The strawberries are very nice – “even better than Swedish strawberries”, as a Swedish guy said.

I met very nice couchsurfers (both locals and travelers) in Goroka and climbed Mt Wilhelm – the highest mountain in PNG and the (political) region of the South Pacific (4509 m).

Click here for a GPX file to explore in Google Earth.

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Goroka is a nice little town, fairly safe for PNG standards, it has a university and is kind of cultural. It is also where the most popular singsing show takes place but I didn't want to wait for a month to see it.

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I went to see the famous Asaro mudmen. It is a very photogenic show, some might find it scary even, but overall a short theatrical performance without much structure 🙂

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With the show over and masks off, the mudmen turned out to be very friendly guys who took me and my friend Joseph for a swim. Rivers here are cold - nothing like the Sepik.

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Schools in PNG try their best to teach in English as much as possible. Which might be good for securing better opportunities but is bad for preserving the linguistic diversity.

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From the top of Mt Wilhelm you are supposed to see both the north and south coasts of PNG, but that morning it was quite cloudy, but I could still see a bit to the south.

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The path to the top is quite easy and they are working on making it even better.

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I camped at the twin lakes Aunde and Piunde.

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At the top it was freezing

After coming down from the mountain, I spent another night in Keglsugl and then wanted to go back to Goroka. It was a Sunday and I heard different stories about the availability of PMVs. Finally I ended up hitchhiking with some church-goers and some policemen to finally catch a PMV for the last third of the way. Hitchhiking in PNG is nothing like conventional hitchhiking. You will never be alone – if you stand by the road, a crowd will come and join you and they’ll basically also stop the cars to arrange a ride for you. You just need to relax and laugh at the jokes….

Noone knew that people lived in the Highlands until the 1930s when the Australian Leahy brothers went there to search for gold and found fertile valleys with more than a million people living there. The place also turned out to be an anthropological dreamland. Since then, however, virtually all tribes have been contacted and if you come here to look for uncontacted tribes or cannibals you will either be disappointed or blatantly cheated. Apparently some tourists get frustrated that there’s no uncontacted tribe reserved for them. In fact you can find people who traditionally wear almost no clothes, in much more accessible places on the earth. If you wanna see naked people just go to the beaches in Croatia or city parks in Scandinavia!

Before the Highlands were “discovered”, eastern (German) Papua had already been divided between England and Germany by an arbitrary line through the middle. Little did these people know that they lived with one foot in Germany and the other one in England.

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Next stop was Lae, where I couchsurfed with very cool people, cooked some Bulgarian moussaka and waited out my flight to Kavieng.

The PMV ride down to Lae was supposed to be a straightforward one. This is one of the busiest roads in the country and in very good condition. The buses normally don’t get crowded because there are police checkpoints.

Around half way we had a near miss with an oncoming truck. Maybe it scratched the side of our bus a bit or maybe it didn’t – I’m not sure. This produced major excitement in our bus, the driver immediately turned around and chased the truck for about ten minutes. When we caught up with the truck, the driver wouldn’t stop, even after we passed him and finally our driver pulled over, a few passengers rushed out, picked up rocks and threw them at the truck as it passed us. The truck however had all its windows and the windshield well protected by a steel net (I guess it wasn’t his first time). Everyone came back in the bus, politely apologized to me for the scene, they all laughed about it, the driver turned around and off we were again on the way to our destination. All in all, a normal PMV ride in PNG ☺

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I also went to Salamaua, which is a nice boat ride away from Lae, and where the local expats like to hang out. It has nice snorkeling and some WW2 relics (of course).

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Lae also has an OK rainforest habitat that is like a small zoo. And a nice market and a real supermarket with a discounted section. A pack of organic quinoa for 1 kina ($0.40) is hard to beat.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

To get to Mt Wilhelm one needs to take a PMV from Kundiawa to the village of Keglsugl (pronounced something like /kegusugu/). It’s an open Toyota pickup to suit the bumpy road and it costs 20 kina (have the exact amount ready as they’ll try their luck overcharging you). Tourists do come this way and it’s clearly visible. There are a few places to sleep in the village. Betty’s Lodge is by far the most popular (but not necessarily the cheapest). She charges around 280 kina a night but she also has a backpacker price (the words “I am a student” sometimes work wonders in PNG) that is 60 kina. Dinner and breakfast are included and are good and the place is really nice. The trout is from Betty’s own fish farm. Betty’s and the JJ guesthouse are out of the village on the way towards the mountain so you might have to walk for a while to get there, but that means you’ll have a shorter trek on your way up to the mountain the next day so it’s OK. The PMV will probably not want to drive you all the way to them.

Later I learnt that another guesthouse, Keglsugl guesthouse, I believe it is called, charges very reasonable amount and the hosts are very friendly.

There’s a 10 kina fee for the trek that is supposed to go to the landowners. It seems like it is collected by whoever, but it probably reaches the landowners eventually. If someone random asks for it in the village, say you’ll give it to your guesthouse’s owner.

In PNG where there are tourists, there are guides. And even more so for a mountain trek. As soon as I arrived in Kundiawa from Goroka, I was approached by a young guy who said he’d guide me up the mountain. I made it clear that I didn’t need a guide but he kept on and after a few contradictory statements by him and after he told me he was just roaming the streets in Kundiawa because he had nothing to do (read he’s probably drinking) I stopped paying much attention to him. Then he even came on the PMV with me to go to Keglsugl to be my guide but shortly after the PMV left Kundiawa, he jumped out of it. Then another guy, much friendlier and fitter for the job, offered his services and I had to politely refuse (many times). Once at Betty’s Lodge the people working there seemed to be pretty cool about me going alone so that was OK but only until the next morning when I was actually leaving and some of them really freaked out. I thought that the main point of hiring a guide is finding the trail and not being alone in case something happened (accident, altitude sickness etc). But these people were mostly concerned with crime. They said there were people working on the trek (indeed there were some) but some of them were dragbodi (drug+body = they smoke marijuana). They would come and steal my things. Now this is the single biggest issue with travelling independently in PNG. The security situation is indeed not the best but the (mostly Australian) media have created a horrible image of PNG that is absolutely out of proportion. The locals are also very superstitious and scared. Ladies would usually freak out when they hear you want to go to the market alone. Everyone will ts-ts their tongue when they hear you are traveling alone. Someone will show up to escort you to anywhere, including to the (pit) toilet. And then when you want to insist on going alone up a mountain you need to be very firm. So finally I was on my way up the trek, gps trace, backpack and all. I met quite a few people walking up to work on the trail in order to make it better. Mostly women. There was the usual ts-tsing but no one tried to stop me or persuade me not to go alone. In fact a few younger guys were encouraging. There was only one guy (who, I later learnt, has acted as a mountain guide in the past) who asked me for a “contribution” since I would be going alone. I told him I already paid the trekking fee.

Now, in touristy places people are of course interested in the guide fee as much as they are interested in your safety. I decided to do this trek by myself for various reasons. I had had a cold the week before and I was still coughing so was aware that I might not even go to the summit, so I wanted to enjoy some nature and silence on my own pace and in my own tent. Secondly, most guides in PNG (and many other countries) are simply someone who knows the trail (if you are lucky). Unless you find a specialized (probably western) guide, who would however cost many times more, your guide from the village would not normally be knowledgeable about flora, fauna, geology etc. He might not even speak good English. And answers to questions very often sound something like this: “It takes two hours to reach the top. If you leave at 1 o’clock, you’ll be there at 6…” Otherwise they can be pretty funny and good company. But if you are an experienced mountaineer, you might easily end up guiding them instead. That said, it’s not too bad hiring one just in case. In Keglsugl they start from 100 kina for the trek (but usually more). A traveller I met recommended John, who’s the grandson of a Mr Wilhelm, after whom the mountain is actually named. This was the price for one person. For a bigger group it will probably be more. (UPDATE: The mountain is actually named after Keiser Wilhelm but you can still hire John and pretend you didn’t know about Keiser Wilhelm and then brag about who took you up the mountain).

When it comes to safety, yes in a mountain it’s rarely a good idea to go alone because of potential accidents. But I was not afraid of the raskols particularly. People who are drunk or on drugs will most probably not go climb a mountain to get to you. When me and Nicolas were paddling down the Sepik river, we kept hearing the same warning: “The drunk guys will catch you on the river while you’re paddling and rob you”. I only saw drunk boys in a canoe once – their canoe flipped and they had to take a swim (with the crocs).

Now, to do this alone I was prepared – the GPS trace from Wikiloc, my phone with GPS to read it, a lot of information from the Internet, my very good waterproof tent, previous experience with high altitude, camping and trekking in general. The trail up Mt Wilhelm is not technical, it is well marked in some places, but certainly not for people without experience. I certainly do not want to encourage anyone to do this alone. A guide is after all not too expensive. Also, if you don’t have a good(!) tent you’ll probably want to sleep at the hut at around 3600 masl for which your guide will have to bring the key. The guide should stay for free there, but you’ll pay 80 kina. Apparently if you just want to camp outside it’s 60 kina! That’s what the hut keeper (owner? – who’s hut keeping is apparently limited to keeping the key and staying down at the village, not at the hut) told a traveler I met. When the guy asked why it was so expensive to just put a tent on the grass, the hut guy replied: “If you put your tent there without paying, I’ll throw stones at you!” What a nice fella!

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