From the Islands to the Highlands
A Local Tourists Personal Account - some years back
If the early bird between Londolovit and Tokua was any indication, this trip was going to be nothing short of adventurous. In all the 120 something plus flights that I’d clocked up over the last 5 years commuting between work and home, I’d never experienced gale forces of the magnitude witnessed that morning. We hadn’t even left the Islands yet and already I’d been relegated to a nervous wreck, biting my lips and tugging at my thankfully hidden “No Fear” undershirt, with its apt slogan, “Fear is in the eye of the beholder.” Suffice to say, ‘my fears’ were confirmed when the return flight was aborted and all light aircraft were grounded until further notice.
Laden with goodwill gifts of Lihir logo caps & coolers & the customary Tolai ‘kabaka’ full of buai, daka and kabang, we boarded the flight to Lae via Hoskins hoping that with a slightly larger plane - the Dash, the ride would be much smoother. Although it was, for most of the flight, we did have a few unsettling moments both in Hoskins and Lae during landing. One of my fellow travelers, Celine, mentioned somewhat tongue in cheek at the time that it looked like this was going to end up a whirlwind tour…what a premonition that turned out to be!
It was already going up to 4pm and we had only just arrived at Nadzab. With the onset of fading light we were confronted with the dilemma of whether to overnight in Lae or Goroka, which meant we’d miss the opening of the Enga Cultural Show or whether to travel straight to Mt Hagen through the night and make it to Wabag in time. In addition to this, the bus driver of the pre-arranged 25 seater coaster was asking for K1000 to take us there directly at K40 a seat. Thanks to Samson, our group leaders, brilliant negotiation skills, he was able to convince the driver to return to Lae and collect a few more passengers and cargo which meant that eventually we only had to pay extra for 2 empty seats before we hit the highway to the drivers’ timeless favorite, Barike’s “Sori Name.”
By the time we began the Markham Valley stretch it was heading past 7pm. After stopping at a village for fuel and at the Umi roadside market for some food, we settled ourselves down in our seats for the long ride, as we were all quite weary having been up since dawn and traveled this far.
We arrived at the bustling night market of ‘Watarais’ to music blaring from speakers at both ends of the parameter. As I stepped out to stretch my legs and grab some snacks I was inexplicably struck by the almost surreal atmosphere and surroundings. Given the savannah grasslands and the cattle we had passed on the way, the competing sounds of DJ Bobo and Kylie Minogue were in total contrast to what I would’ve envisaged as a country and western backdrop. The roadside stalls were selling anything and everything to accommodate many an intrepid traveler. The overwhelming smell of barbecued lamb flaps and other hot food permeated the evening air. There was buai, tea and coffee for the shivering, beer and soft drinks for the brave and even javelin versions of darts for amusement, all this, out in the middle of nowhere. As we mingled with other travelers, I couldn’t help but notice that despite exorbitant prices being charged by stall owners obviously capitalizing on the remote location, an incredible amount of cash was being openly flouted during these exchanges with ‘cash flushed’ travelers. This I found quite ironic given the much, publicized dangers of highway travel.
After almost ¾ of an hour, our driver notified us that there were enough buses to join us in convoy through Barola and down through Kompri Valley, an area known in recent times as a hive of rascal activities. As we set off amidst beeping horns, a flurry of fanfare and well wishes from newly-met acquaintances, my anxiety was somewhat alleviated with the company of four 15 seater buses preceding us up the highway. We rapidly conquered Kassam Pass, made a brief comfort stop near Puri Village and sped past Yonki Dams illuminated skyline and magically mirrored waters up towards Kol Wara, where we stopped for a drink of icy cold water from a roadside creek. Invigorated by this refreshing spell, we continued on to Kainantu and approached Raipinka with much trepidation knowing that Barola was just ahead. Having read and heard numerous stories before we embarked on the tour, I was hoping that some might be a tad embellished and that it would be too bitterly cold for anyone to be outdoors so that we could pass through without incident. A slightly tipsy, Wingti look-alike sensing my uneasiness, leant over and softly assured me that even in the unlikely event that we would be held up, he was from the surrounding area and would ensure our safety. Doubting his current physical state and slightly inebriated mind, but nevertheless, drawing small comfort from his well-meaning words, I was startled by the sudden surge of the buses as they formed a double-lane freeway and barreled down the hill, side by side, through the notorious valley, shouting and tooting their horns with much bravado as if daring any possible assailants to make their move. I glanced over at my travel companions, Liz and Celine, and exchanged a mixture of nervous but exhilarated laughter as our eyes met. At one stage I even found myself in the middle of an involuntary “Yee-Hah!” as I got caught up in the infectious moment. Despite this temporary show of courage, I was more than relieved when we passed without incident and quickly closed the gap on Henganofi.
Having successfully negotiated the danger zone and with residual exhilaration still coursing through our veins, we approached the Bena Bridge only to be reined in abruptly by the sight of broken glass and buai bags strewn all over the bitumen ahead of us. It turned out that two of the leading buses, which had come from Madang, had been involved in an accident and were arguing incessantly over who was at fault, totally oblivious to the fact that their commotion was impeding traffic. Fortunately, our bus drivers voice of reason, managed to convince them to get back in their vehicles and sort the matter out back in Mt Hagen as we all still had a long way to go.
It wasn’t long before the distance took its toll on me and the last places I was aware of before drifting off to sleep accompanied by “Makoma”, were Goroka, Asaro and the Daulo Pass ascent. My next lucid moment was when I was startled awake by a policeman banging a rifle butt against my window and yelling at us to get out of bus so that they could search us for contraband items. Disorientated, I stepped out into the freezing Simbu night to join my companions and watched with growing alarm as our bags were searched thoroughly. Visions of unjust police brutality kept flashing through my over-active imagination whilst the other cops kept vigil over us. I’m sure the officer beside me heard my audible sigh of relief when satisfied that we were clean, they gruffly ordered us back on board and sent us on our way. With Mt Elimbari looming to the left, and exhaustion getting the better of me, I eventually slumped down in my seat to catch up on some sleep knowing I would need the energy for the morning’s events.
I woke up to daylight streaming through my window just as we were stopping at the Kudjip Hospital roadside to drop some people off. Fortunately, there was an elderly lady on board with a cargo of buai filling the entire backseat and heading for Banz. In an act of kindness, the driver asked us whether it would be possible to take a detour just to drop the old lady off since this was way off the normal bus route. We agreed wholeheartedly, knowing full well what a bonus destination this was on our travel itinerary. As we drove past the incredible rolling acres and acres of tea and coffee plantations, we were given an informative running commentary of their status from our “Boskuru’s”, Jude and Wanpis. Supplemented by the more than often, political in nature interjections from other local passengers, I returned from Banz knowing exactly where my usual morning cup of “National No1 Tea” comes from, why the big fuss about Whagi Mek, what the little cross-section of local passengers thought of their current politicians and left with absolutely no doubt in my mind as to who would win the next Western Highlands National General Elections!
From that point onwards, Rabbie Gamenu’s signature tune, “Faiv Gia Lok”, specifically tailored for our bus, “The White Horse,” ensured that the driver made short work of the rest of the trip adding new dimension to the term “Faia Lait”. We entered the surprisingly, enviable sprawling town of Mt Hagen, dropped off all the other passengers around town and headed straight for the Highlander Hotel where we were to rendezvous with our ride up to Wabag.
It was 7:30am in the morning when we entered the welcoming cool surroundings of the Highlander Hotel and were promptly met by an official but friendly looking Engan who introduced himself as our driver for the last leg of our journey. Amidst the exchanges of warm greetings and pleasantries, which I have now come to identify as unique to Engan people, he explained that he had actually stayed over-night at the hotel just so he could be there early to meet us. Flattered by that gesture, I was even more astounded and absolutely delighted when he led us to an obviously new, flashy looking coaster, sporting “Enga Tours” in bold over a backdrop of colorful traditional murals splashed across the length of either side of the bus. For a couple of weary and rugged looking back-packers we were going to virtually “brukim plastik” and cruise into Wabag Town in style!
With great enthusiasm we hopped on the bus, headed for Holy Trinity and picked up Simon, another member of our group who had been waiting for us in Mt Hagen at the time. After stopping by the ATM and roadside market we left the outskirts of Mt Hagen and set off for Wabag hoping to make the opening of the Enga Show.
Sensing our urgency, the driver produced some gravity defying moves on that highway especially around the corners, that I’m sure would amaze even seasoned rally drivers Brock, Senna and Schummacher. We reached the Togoba Junction in no time, took the turnoff towards Pyakona valley and Tomba before stopping at the Hagen-Enga border for a quick tour through the infamous, traditionally built and totally cozy Kumul Lodge. We then headed for the Minamb Valley, passing through the precariously perched village of Pausa and up the ridge to Wapenamanda before entering the tribal fighting zones surrounding the Birip and Lenki villages. Hankering to witness a tribal fight, I was literally on the edge of my seat scanning the desolate landscape with it’s remaining building stumps still smoking from recent clashes. In the only somber moment of the entire trip, our host Samson and the driver gave a brief rundown on recent events leading up to these disputes and went to great lengths to emphasize that these conflicts anywhere within Enga were confined to warring clans alone. Bolstered by their assurances we entered Wabag town on a high and were greeted by the sight of colorful dancing groups marching towards Momis Oval for the opening. We quickly dumped our backpacks at Sam’s place just below Premiers hill down in Hidden Valley and promptly joined the hordes of people queuing up on Beat Street to enter the showground.
Now I’d been to various shows all along the coast, and the attendance is normally only a couple of thousand. In Enga, they flock to the show in tens of thousands! I found that quite remarkable given current road accessibility issues compounded by tribal warfare and conflicting show dates with Mt Hagen. I was even more incredulous when a local spectator mentioned to me that it was supposedly a small turnout compared to previous years! My mind baulked at the thought of exactly where, on that soccer field, during the highlights of activities, could they possibly fit everyone else that didn’t turn up!
For the next two days we were treated to a spectacle of a variety of energetic, marathon dancing groups, all magnificently attired in a myriad of colors and textures. The variety of bird of paradise, plume headdress’ crowning the strikingly painted faces were a collectors dream. There were the Engans with their predominantly black with white striped painted faces, the Tari’s with mainly yellow and thin red and white stripes, the Western Highlanders with their all red and thin white and black stripes and the Simbus with their combination red and yellow faces. There were exquisite displays of traditional arts and craft, which ranged from bilum making and sand paintings to traditional weapons and round house construction. Local honey making, orchid growing and other environmentally friendly eco-tourism displays proved quite popular among many show goers. Robert Oeka, Kanage and the Trukai sponsored Body Builders kept the younger crowd entertained in between the dance performances. But perhaps the biggest highlight for me was the opportunity to briefly dance with the Sili Muli dance group. I had heard so much about them that I wanted to see for myself and prove that they really were all identical in height, looks, dressing, and perfectly synchronized dance moves. I was not disappointed.
From then on things just got better. A short trip up to the top of Kaiap Lodge revealed an incredible breath taking view. Standing up there on that insignificant little ledge, I experienced one of those rare time stopping moments where one can almost feel the presence of some omnipotent being, someone responsible for such an absolutely awesome view. Surveying the horizon I was able to see Mendi, Ialibu to the left, Mt. Hagen to the back and the blue Sepik Mountain ranges in the distance ahead. The surrounding verdant Ambum Valley looked miniscule from that height whilst Sopas Hospital and Kopen High School directly below looked a lush picture perfect postcard. Another definitely humbling, not to mention fitness testing experience was an early morning hike with my guides Fada, Mercy and Jackson, to the Wara Lai Waterfall to pick some fresh orchids.
The evenings entertainment at Teremanda was the best “six-to-six” I’d attended in a long time and believe me I’ve had my fair share. The overloaded trip to and from the dance in Nanson’s, rustic, 15year old, prone to tyre punctures but trustworthy Nissan Patrol was an adventure in itself. Somehow, nothing could quite beat dancing in the moonlight under the stars to a live band from dusk till dawn.
Perhaps the greatest honor bestowed upon us came from the Enga Show Committee and Governor Ipatas himself when they invited us up onto the podium during the closing ceremony to acknowledge our presence and address the show goers after having heard about our adventurous trip. We still haven’t recovered from that one yet.
Immediately after the finale we bade teary farewells to our hosts and new friends of Hidden Valley and drove out of Wabag for Hagen to meet up again with Simon who had left earlier to prepare for our arrival there.
He picked us up from St Pauls and took us to his home at Holy Trinity where we were to overnight. Once again we just dropped off our bags and were taken for a tour around Mt Hagen by Simon’s older brother Jeff. We finally ended up at a local watering hole the Kange Hotel where we were admitted to the bar despite our cold weather attire of jumpers, tracksuit pants and wooly socks clad in “cringe factor” thongs. Must’ve been a comical sight, but as with wherever we went, people were too polite to say anything. Despite the fact that we ended up getting totally legless, Hagen Style, courtesy of Simon and his brothers, we were still able to touch on some thought provoking topics. This, I believe, helped bridge the gap of understanding in my mind between, me as a Coastal person and my Highland brethrens.
We stumbled back to our cozy little round house where a sumptuous meal of homegrown vegetables and kaukau had been prepared by our host. Instantly demolishing our plates, we promptly crashed on our mats around the amply stoked fire.
Morning found us back on the road, being driven by our host to the main market where we could catch a bus down to Goroka. Luckily we spotted the same bus, which we had driven up in so we said goodbye to Simon and immediately boarded it much to the delight of Wanpis and the driver.
Getting on public transport in Mt. Hagen is an experience on its own. Drivers will literally do wheelies, which would rival my little nephew’s tricycle, cutting in between other buses in an attempt to entice passengers. As this is going on, there is a human loud hailer calling out, much like an auctioneer, the various destinations of that particular bus route as dictated to by the boskuru. When the bus is completely full, the boskuru tips the caller who jumps off and hops on another bus repeating the same process. The full bus then sets off on its journey.
Completing this ritual, we finally headed for Goroka with the chorus “Goroka, Lae wan sot” still ringing in our ears. In broad daylight we were now able to see clearly the vast expanse of the fertile Whagi Valley, the craggy outcrops of Simbu and Chuave, past the usual Warabung pit-stop, down the heart stopping Daulo Pass descent, through the pleasant Asaro Valley and finally into Goroka town.
As soon as we had checked into our accommodations at the National Sports Institute with Celine’s relatives, we headed straight into the quaint little town where after dropping our travel companion, Liz at the bus stop, we proceeded to explore on foot. As with all our stays in different towns throughout the Highlands, good fortune came in the form of an ex-colleague, Willie and his wife. Upon meeting, they lent us their short wheel based, double cab, Toyota Hilux for the duration of our stay. Absolutely bowled over, but not surprised by this increasingly prevalent show of typical Highlands generosity, we decided then and there to stay for an extra day and make use of our newly found mobility to see as many places as possible.
We scoured the town and it’s outskirts for all the many local attractions. To name a few: A lengthy visit to the McCarthy Museum ensured that we learnt a lot about the history of Goroka. We were Raun Raun Theatre dancers for a morning and even University of Goroka students for an afternoon. Accumulated artifacts of bilums and flowers etc added to our already orchid laden luggage. A view of the town from the top of Mt. Kis’ Lookout with the sun setting over the ridge epitomized the whole trip; absolutely glorious!
As we partook of Nathan and Januaris’ slightly burnt but delicious barbecued steaks and sausages that evening, I couldn’t help but reflect on the accurateness of our host, Janets, quote on “Goroka being, the most livable town in PNG due to its year round pleasant climate.”
With conflicting emotions of fond memories and heavy hearts we left Goroka the very next morning for Lae via the now quite enjoyable PMV route. Traveling past Yonki’s endless waterways and burning rubber down the vertigo inducing Kassam Pass, I turned and remarked happily to Celine that for less than 1000 bucks we had pretty much covered 4 provinces and all the experiences possible on our little journey. It seemed that I spoke too soon because as soon as we hit the Umi Market stretch, the front left wheel of our fifteen seater bus almost fell off. My heart palpitations went into overdrive as I realized what a close call that was and totally grateful that it didn’t happen earlier on our descent. Stranded out in the middle of nowhere, we calmly waited until another bus passed and hitchhiked our way in to Lae. We treated ourselves to a night at the friendly Melanesian Hotel before we flew back to Rabaul and back to work.
There are not enough superlatives in English to fully describe my feelings about my Highlands Tour, except to say that it’s the best trip I’ve ever undertaken, both here and overseas! The only thing cold about the Highlands is its climate; everything and everyone else is extremely warm, friendly and accommodating!
“Pasin em ol ia!!”
Last edited by Brownie; 23-03-2008 at 07:41 AM.
Visiting them and getting the correct idea with is the thing that would always be helpful for us and keeping things in an order where is the right and matching outcome for the traveler it brings the best impact throughout.
People who mostly prefer 2 days tour from new york should take a look and see how amazing it is!
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