Uphill: A journey from the Highlands to the Coast (Part 1)


November 2018, Morobe, a blend of everything Papua New Guinean, from the cool mountainous ridges that step from the majestic highlands to the endless plains of the Markham and on-wards to the shoreline of the Huon Peninsula. A walk around ‘Eriku’ and a visit to Lae Market remains no exception to this, fruits and vegetables of variety, faces and languages of throughout the country, all in chaotic-harmony of economic exchange. As in any bustling city, it becomes clear as to what drives the tempo of society here, and it can be quite unforgiving to the un-counselled. But a closer look into the crowd reveals a people of a different tempo, a people of a different time. A people I would never have noticed had I not ventured into the remote mountains of Morobe. So here follows accounts of the time, “No! The times!” I walked from the mountains of Bulolo down to the shores of Salamaua, on The Black Cat Track.

Figure 1: Map of the Black Cat Track and surrounding communities, extracted from the book “” 1943

The path we took was the one most traveled by the locals, one of detours and shortcuts, “shortcuts that were nothing like shortcuts” and breathtaking bypasses past treacherous landslips peeling off half the mountains. It was a time when the track had been closed off to the public due to rivalry among two tribes over tourism royalties, “one may have heard of the ‘Banis Donkey’ incident”, an unfortunate event which saw the aerial medevac of local victims and distraught foreign tourists. The tension between the tribes and fear of retaliation forced people along the track to abandon their villages and move away further into the forest for their livelihood, a return to the time when the clock’s hands were daylight and the tummy.

Lae was my first posting as a junior officer in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force. Going to Lae meant two things to me; it was a city I have known and enjoyed for four and half years whilst a student, and most importantly to me, it was not more than a day’s travel by road to Mum and Pap in Goroka. There, I was attached to the Headquarters of the Engineering Battalion in Igam Barracks, and reported directly to the Second-in-Command of the Unit. Looking back; it was a fantastic start to that line of work, especially in understanding the coordinating processes of a military establishment.

Now every two years, it is tradition that the Unit conducts what is called an Adventure Training Exercise. It was decided that for that year, the Black Cat Track would be walked. As in any good military organization, a reconnaissance team had to be sent ahead to assess what was to be expected and required prior to undertaking the activity. I leaped at the opportunity, “I mean, who wouldn’t want to experience what our forefathers went through during the Second World War?” Fresh out of Officer Cadet Training, I knew there was nothing quite like physical hardship out bush that brought soldiers together; a bond forged by pains suffered together, is a bond unlike others.

So off we went; a composite reconnaissance team with representatives from the Morobe National Disaster Response, Salamaua Community leader representatives, guides from Wau and us four defence personnel; two senior officers, a Sapper and myself. Our mission was simple, walk the route, establish contacts along the way and report back on feasibility. That was my first time to walk the Black Cat Track, Wau to Salamaua.

Figure 2: Morning of day one; the Reconnaissance, Biawen Village

Two weeks later, with a unit prepped and ready, we set out again, this time we numbered a little more than 25. We left Igam barracks at around 10am and got into Wau around 5pm. The drive is a tale in itself, spectacular views. Most noticeable was the drop in temperature as we ascended into Bulolo and onwards to Wau. There was a small vineyard of grapes, “Yes, Grapes!” as we passed what was the ‘Vitis Industries’ plantations and factory. Switching vehicles to local PMVs which were 4×4 trucks that looked like props from ‘Mad Max’ the movie, the next hour and a half was a breeze before we reached our starting point, ‘Biawen Village’ which was situated between ‘Kaisenik’ and ‘Ballam’.

Figure 3: Godogasul Village; lollies for smiles.

Amongst our group were two medical specialists, one a combat medic and the other a female nursing officer. They had the greatest impact on the people, winning hearts and minds of the communities along the way. Apart from our rations for the journey, we carried also medical supplies, clothes and useful items to give to the most remote villages. Things such as old newspapers which they could use to roll their tobacco cigarettes were greatly appreciated amongst the elders of the villages. I had in my pack an assortment of sweets for the children. “I tell you there is no greater joy then to see children light up to a present carried especially for them. I even had some adults lining up for that different taste of sweetness, priceless moments.”

Oh the first summit…if you’ve ever been led to a remote village by Papua New Guinean locals then you might know how they would say; “It’s just over yonder! It’s just around this bend! Not too far now!” Having done the reconnaissance, and now walking the second time, I can see the innocence in what they were saying, for in their perception, it truly was as they said; “Just over yonder”. But I knew better this time, and I made sure I told my team, “It’s further than they say it is!” There is a certain ease of doing things when one is mentally prepared to expect a far greater challenge than there actually is.

We reached the summit which was funny enough called, “Summit.” If the weight of your pack was unevenly distributed, you would have already known by then. Unlike my first trip, I was better prepared for this one, mentally and physically. The look on my companions’ faces though…little did they know, this was one of the easier climbs.

Figure 4: WWII Plane wreck as seen along route to Summit.

Rolling meadows of grassland that led to the forests edge. Off in the distance to our left the locals pointed to the wreck of a WWII plane, a common first stop for many past trekkers.  Ideally, we had to reach the forest before the midday sun kicked in, and fortunately we did. From there the path went winding along the contours of the mountains in the shade of lush green trees. Even out of direct sunlight, there still was no relief from the heat of the Morobe Sun. We’d pass numerous freshwater streams; I made sure I replaced all my water containers with nature’s own. I had four litters carrying capacity on me, and I went through it easy. Sweat poured out my pores faster than I could take in water. All the toxins of city life; expelled in one day. The air, rich and nourishing, untainted by the tang of economic progress…“Oh what price to pay for progress…”  

This profession has also given me the opportunity to travel abroad on several occasions. Awe-stricken at how amazing human ingenuity can be, awe-stricken at how human behaviour and environment resemble each other. Now even more so I am able to contrast the notion of a nation developed, a nation developing and one caught in-between the two. Ripped from the bosom of Mother Nature, the more people create, the more people learn, the more people are required to do and the more complex the society. But then you come out into the forest, and you see these people, the primary necessities are still the same, but the process to it is much, much simpler. I pity them for our conveniences they lack, but I envy them for the comforts there in. And in their eyes I see the same compassion back towards me. They as I are products of the environments we were raised in, and they give so willingly, sharing food, smiles, and at times laughter at how clumsy we foreigners look, trying to navigate the rugged terrain which they so effortlessly and naturally glide through.

Figure 5: Dawn at Haus Mambu Campsite.

With around an hour of light remaining, we reached our first camp site, “Haus Mambu,” a regular first stop for trekkers as we learned. Setting up camp, we had been walking for a good eleven hours. That night was truly memorable. I didn’t bring any sleeping gear so I had to make do with a balaclava over my head, my raincoat over me and socks on my feet facing the camp fire. You’d hear the crackle of the fire slowly giving in to the sound of silence. I recall staring up into the canopy of bamboo and trees, pitch black, no light but that which we brought, nothing but the thoughts about nothing in your mind … and then sleep, like you’ve never slept before.

A pre-dawn light drizzle rousing heavy eyelids with the songs of insects and birds stirring unseen throughout the green…the second day had begun.

To be continued…

Published by Ples Singsing

Ples Singsing is envisioned to be a new platform for Papua Niuginian expressions of creativity, ingenuity and originality in art and culture. We deliberately highlight these two very broad themes as they can encompass the diverse subjects, from technology, medicine and architecture to linguistics, music, fishing, gardening et cetera. Papua Niuginian ways of thinking, living, believing, communicating, dying and so on can cover the gamut of academic, journalistic or opinionated writing and we believe that unless we give ourselves a platform to talk about and discuss these things in an open, free and non-exclusively academic space that they may remain the fodder for academics, journalists and other types of writers alone. New social media platforms have given every individual a personal space to share their feelings and ideas openly, sometimes without immediate censure. The Ples Singsing writer’s blog would like to provide another more structured platform for Papua Niuginian expressions in written, visual and audio formats while also providing some regulation of the type and content of materials to be shared publicly.

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