Memoir: It's NOT all Wine & Roses

CHAPTER TWO. DANGER IN THE PNG HIGHLANDS

Danger came in 2008, when I was travelling through the Central Highlands of Papua New Guinea, with a small group of orchid devotees. The air in the Central Highlands is cool and clear: the mountains that rise steeply on either side of the narrow, snaking road are clothed in a mixed forest of deep green. You look down upon ravines that crash sheer a thousand metres and more to rushing rivers capped white as rapids surge over huge rocks. It is very beautiful.

Orchid lovers are in a league of their own when it comes to obsessive behaviours. They will climb high mountains, cling to treacherous cliff faces dripping with slippery lichens and mosses, and scramble through inhospitable forest to reach – and, these days, only photograph – their prey, in this case rare orchids endemic to the world’s botanical hotspots.

Our leader on this trip was an Australian who had been a forester in Papua New Guinea for more than two decades. I’ll call him Geoff and he knew PNG as well as he knew his own country. He loved the place, but the corruption and incompetence of the government, since independence in 1975, had forced him out. He returned often, however; spoke the language, loved its people and understood its challenges.

We had travelled west of the wild and dangerous town of Mount Hagen, up toward rugged mining country adjacent to the Fly River, and had flown through the stunningly beautiful, but terrifyingly narrow, mist-shrouded Tari Pass – home to the Huli people - to reach the high mountain jungles that played host to dozens of species of orchid.

One Sunday we were in a convoy of four vehicles travelling along the so-called Central Highway, on the high road from Kundiawa, in Simbu province, east toward Mt Wilhelm. In much of New Guinea you travel in groups, in heavy blue four wheel drive vehicles that, intentionally, resemble police vehicles. This particular day our car left the safety of the convoy: one of our passengers had decided she wanted to turn off the highway and venture down a small side track to explore a village. I demurred, as did the driver. She insisted.

“This is the sort of ‘on the spur of the moment’ decision we make when we travel,” said her husband. “We do this all the time. In Spain we’ll spot a romantic looking castle and divert, to stop for the night.”

“But this is not Europe,” I replied. “This is dangerous country.” Our driver, a huge fellow from one of the outlying islands was looking very unhappy. The two guests were insistent however, and, large as he was, our driver was a gentle soul, and not confident enough to resist the demands of a tourist who, after all, was paying his wage. So, despite my protestations, we headed down a god-forsaken, barely-there lane to inspect an equally depressing village, strewn with rubbish, populated with staggering dogs that looked as dangerous as they looked unhealthy, and littered with humpies.

None of us alighted from our vehicle – not even the couple who had insisted on this dangerous diversion - at this ramshackle place, but headed back as quickly as the bumpy road would allow, to join the main highway. Highway is just a euphemism for the track that runs along the ridge of the mountain. On either side the ground dropped away immediately, in terrifying ravines. Lush jungle covered most of the mountain sides. The highway, however, was hardly a road. There were huge holes in the road, some of which was paved, but much of which consisted of dips, holes and large and small rocks. The heavy car hiccupped over the wildly uneven surface, throwing us about from side to side, against the door, and each other. Then we came to a pothole that extended the width of the road.

“They call this a highway?” I exclaimed. “Can you stop? I have to take a picture.” With that, the driver stopped and I opened my camera bag, pulled out my big camera and tripod and was about to jump out of the car. Out of the thick jungle by the side of the road emerged a terrifying group of men. Most were barefoot; some had bones through their noses, or earlobes; all wore ragged, filthy clothes. And all had machetes held high above their heads. They go by the entirely inadequate name of ‘Raskals’, a term which would indicate benign mischievousness and amusing naughtiness. The threat was a great deal more serious than mischief, however.

I quickly closed the car door, and ‘stayed put’, emailing my children from my phone. I thought I should record what was happening in case we were never heard from again. The group wanted money: hardly a surprise. Our driver demurred. Then we heard the words, “Ferengi,” (foreign women) and insisted the driver pay up. After handing over the required ‘toll’ we were on our way, and I was left to reassure my family, who had been in the midst of a Sunday lunch-time barbeque in our back garden, at home in Sydney, that I was safe.

As we continued, climbing higher toward the guest house at the base of Mount Wilhelm that was to be our home for several nights, we found that every bridge we needed to cross, over each ravine, was guarded by a group of men who had either removed several planks, or placed heavy stones on them, either impediment rendering the bridge impassable. A toll was extracted in each case before we were allowed to continue safely on our way.

When we had caught up with the other vehicles in our convoy, and our driver had coped with the fury of Betty, our local leader and the owner of the guest house that was our destination, we learnt that the villagers all own strips of the thickly forested hillsides. But the central government in Port Moresby, Geoff told us, allowed building companies from emerging first world countries to the north to denude those mountainsides of timber, for scaffolding. In some cases the scaffolding is only used once before being discarded. These companies then return to strip another hillside of its timber. Where does the payment for this timber go? Not to the tribes who own the land, but to the central government in the capital. The tribes’ people remain desperately poor, with neither schools nor hospitals, and their roads remain almost impassable. Once I had been told this I felt no resentment toward the owners of the land, and did not begrudge them their small ‘toll.’

A few months later, back home in Sydney and in the heat of the climate change, carbon offset and Copenhagen debate, I heard a reporter on one of our more serious radio programmes telling the interviewer, “Cap and trade is great. A company can be a big dirty polluter in this country and offset their activity by paying to plant forests in Papua New Guinea.” It struck me that this comment was akin to saying that, if you starve yourself all week to conserve calories, you can gorge on chocolate for a day. Hardly a healthy choice. So, I wrote, in great indignation, in a newspaper column a week or two later, we need a holistic approach to the environment, just as we take to our health.

While Papua New Guinea is a breathtakingly beautiful country, it is also desperately poor. The people are mostly subsistence farmers; their basic requirement of a clean, unspoiled environment has often been disregarded by the richer neighbouring nations and their corporations that serve a largely un-knowing, but demanding, body of shareholders. Multinational mining companies have dumped toxic waste into the rivers that were once pristine, clear and green, and are essential for growing the crops that provide a tiny income in this subsistence economy.

Our travels, by truck, on that day – the day we were held up by the ‘Raskals’ – took us some seven hours, on to Mt Wilhelm, and the beauty of the area was worth all the danger. We were staying at Betty’s Lodge, a guest house set at some 3000 metres up in the mountains. Our goal was the climb, through the jungle, along a glacial valley to the top of Mt Wilhelm, to search for orchids and rhododendron, and to picnic by its alpine lakes.

First, though, we were to visit, the next day, the local village, Kegsugl, to pay our respects to the villagers. More importantly, Betty was to give a large donation of foods, from frozen Australian lamb, to biscuits, sugar, Nescafe and tea. We all stood in a large circle, in front of the blue-painted wooden missionary church, watching the local tribe in their war costumes with their extravagant tail feathers, dancing around the food offering. Mothers held babies wrapped in possum pelts, warriors held spears aloft. Not so long ago, we muttered, there might have been a cauldron in its place, and we might have been in it! Not sharing the spoils of good fortune, courtesy of tourists, has since had tragic outcomes for trekking guides and their guests.

While Betty was a miracle worker with food, her lodge was an uncomfortable place. I had paid for a ‘single supplement’: she must have laughed to herself as she took my money. The men were in a dormitory and the three women in our little group were in one small room with bunk beds. There was no-where for our suitcases and so we tucked these into a corner of the room where meals were served, and where we would get dressed and undressed in the morning, and evening, in the security of darkness, for the generator only allowed electric light for a few hours each day. We were grateful for our headlamps, for escape into a few tatty novels found on the shelves, and that we swapped with each other, was essential. Water was only pumped from the tank for an hour or two each day and a quick hot shower became a luxury to be coveted. Standing in line for a shower was not an activity I had ever expected to encounter, now that I was long out of boarding school!

The day we climbed Mount Wilhelm was, like all the days in the highlands, cold in the mornings, although we soon started to strip off our fleece vests. Long walking sticks, which we each hired from the villagers, were an essential aid.

Much of the climb to Mount Wilhelm is along the valley of an ancient glacier and through a forest, at some 4000 metres, of Cyathea atrox, one of the high altitude tree ferns. Always, if you look back, the twin peaks of the Bismarck Range glower above you. A little higher, among the snow, two affiliated species of tree fern have not yet been named by botanists.

Higher still, rhododendron cling to the sides of the glacial lakes. The site is pristine and supremely peaceful. To reach the lakes you climb some five hours through the steamy jungle, long vines cascading from massive white hazelwood trees (Symplocos cochinchinensis). Above you, orchids hang in the canopy, flowering in brilliant colours among the rich detritus that has collected in the forks of the trees and along the branches. The last part of the climb, before you find yourself in open country, where the promise of snow seems to hang in the thin air, is reached by scrambling up a cliff face. Then, the bracken and scrubby rhododendron spread out, broken only by the lakes, which hover in the clouds.

Some of the most intriguing rhododendron occur in the highlands of Papua New Guinea, where they range in size and habitat, from trees that can reach 20 metres, with huge leaves and waxy, bell-like flowers, to epiphytes that cling to trees, or to the sides of mist shrouded mountain ravines, to tiny, ground hugging species suited to rockeries or garden understorey.

The vireya Rhododendron commonae flowers beside the clear waters of Lake Piunde, 4500 metres up on Mount Wilhelm. Its small leaves tell us that these plants have to cope with snowfalls, and their scentless, tubular flowers indicate that they are pollinated by birds, including the brilliant, multi-coloured bird of paradise, Papua New Guinea’s national symbol.

Drama was not confined to climbing Mount Wilhelm and the ‘Raskals’ of PNG, however: that day, in September 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed and the world coined the term ‘GFC’.

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