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Bushwalking Papua New Guinea

  • Submitted by: C. W. Lee
  • Submission Date: 15th Feb 2005

The term bushwalking, along with tracking, tramping, trekking, and walkabout are all downunder expressions to describe exploration by foot. Of the five phrases, bushwalking suggests the most rigorous process and in the most challenging area. The country of Papua New Guinea (PNG) celebrated its 20th year of nationhood (a graceful and peaceful change from an Australian territory to a member of the British Commonwealth) in the fall of 1995, and a few days later I started my bushwalking there. PNG is one of the few remaining third-world countries where unspoiled natural beauty is easily available and has not been displaced by widespread sickening poverty, disease, civil war, anarchy, or an overabundance of tourists.

While the well understood terms of 'native' and 'whiteskin' are still in common use in PNG to distinguish between the dark people whose ancestors have been there for thousands of years and the westerners who are 20th century arrivals, the current politically correct terms used within PNG to make that distinction are 'national' and 'expatriate.' I favor clear communication over political correctness, and thus, outside PNG, I use the terms native and whiteskin.

I started planning for this trip about a year earlier. I read extensively about the country, acquired maps, and discussed the topography with people I found on the Internet who had been there. For six months before leaving I trained two hours a day with increasingly heavier backpacks, and went from level to 15 degree slopes and climbing 14 story stairways. The original impetus for this trip was the desire to see my daughter with whom I have a somewhat strained relationship. To go so far, and to spend so much money, and perhaps not be able to see her, or to see her for only an hour or two, seemed extravagant, so I decided to see more of the country while I was there. Eventually I was able to visit briefly with my daughter, whose mind is being held captive by a missionary cult in the central area of the country. She teaches at a school for children of fundamentalist evangelical Christian missionaries.

PNG occupies the eastern half (roughly) of the island (second largest in the world, after Greenland) of New Guinea, located almost on the equator directly north of Australia. The western portion of the island is claimed by Indonesia as the province of Irian Jaya. Formerly, Irian Jaya was a Dutch colony, whereas PNG, occupying the eastern portion of the island, has as its heritage decades as German and English colonies. PNG also includes a number of islands I did not visit, including New Britain (containing the town of Rabaul of WW2 importance), New Ireland, Manus (of Margaret Mead fame), and Bougainville. Most recently PNG was a trust territory administered by Australia until independence in 1975. PNG is about the size and rough shape of California, but running east and west rather than north and south. There are two major climatic zones - coastal and highland. The coastal areas are hot (70F as a daytime low, with highs in the 90s) and humid most of the time, with frequent rain. The highland area is more moderate (65-80F range day/night) and with regular rain. The weather pattern does not vary much during the year. The coastal areas are generally flat, and marshy in places, with serpentine rivers slowly moving toward the sea. The highlands are mostly gentle valleys. Separating these valleys, and providing a barrier between the coastal areas and the highlands, are very rugged mountains. The severity of the terrain kept westerners ignorant of the existence of the highland areas until early in this century, when low-flying aviators discovered thousands of people living in the previously unknown valleys. That discovery led to airports and landing strips being built as the most economical way to transport people and goods over the forbidding mountain ranges.

When PNG made its peaceful separation from Australia, the latter continued to provide a substantial subsidy to the new government. Although decreased, that subsidy continues today, supplemented by income provided by the emerging mining (copper, gold) and logging operations. Oil and gas have been discovered recently, and are being developed. The export of coffee also provides some revenue to finance the road building, public health and education efforts, and other modest governmental modernization programs. The vast majority of people live in small villages where they grow and gather almost everything they need for their subsistence lifestyle.
With one major exception, the road system radiates from the ports inland only a few tens of miles. The exception is one major highway running west from the port city of Lae into the highland area located in the center section of the country. For those familiar with California, it is as if the roads from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Lake Tahoe, and Blythe all went only 30-40 miles into the state, but there was a road from San Diego running north to Bakersfield, and then on to Fresno. Beyond Fresno, as far as Sacramento, the mostly paved road would be only a dirt/mud trail suitable for four-wheel-drive vehicles and in dry weather only.

There are really only three practical modes of public transportation in PNG (in some coastal areas I did not visit, motorized canoes are available). One rides in 'PMVs' (public motor vehicles), flies, or walks. I walked between villages and towns a lot, but did accept rides in private cars, and paid to ride in PMVs. I flew where there was no road or the trails were too difficult.

PMVs operate everyday, from dawn to mid-afternoon on almost all of the roads. In the towns PMVs are usually small vans, modified to hold 15-20 people very closely seated; in other areas pickups and flatbed trucks are used, sometimes with canvas covers for the rainy times. PMV drivers stop anywhere to pick up anyone who hails them, and deviate a good distance from the usual route to drop passengers off at requested places. The cost is very low, typically $1 in the towns; I paid about $10 for a ride from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. which probably covered 200 miles.

PNG is an airplane hospice, and I never saw two identical planes, or a plane that appeared to have had much maintenance performed on it. The planes I used handled both cargo and passengers - from 3 to 10 passengers and great quantities of packages. Rivets were missing, and other disconcerting evidence of hard usage was common. Most landing strips were dirt or grass, and on the sides of hills. Takeoffs, approaches, and landings were the scariest part of the trip for me.

For my bushwalking between villages and towns I carried about fifty pounds on my back, including all of my food from the USA. I ate (without heating) microwave packets of prepared foods like spaghetti and meatballs, ravioli, stew, as well as canned tuna and canned fruit. I took a lot of cashew nuts, dried fruit, and peanut butter for protein and quick energy. I carried a small water purification kit (which I used every few hours at streams I crossed) and powdered Gatorade, and drank several quarts of it a day. I lost about 15 pounds, but had no sickness at all. I carried extensive medical supplies, including some anti-diarrhea medication and antibiotics, but the only items I found necessary were hydrogen peroxide and Band-Aids on cuts and gashes. Insects and leeches were bothersome, and I fell and cut/bruised myself about 30 times on the steep trails. None of these injuries was serious and, with one exception, of no lasting import (my left knee still bothers me occasionally, but only slightly.)

The native diet is largely vegetarian (mostly yams and a great variety of greens) and consumed within a mile or so of where it is grown outside the villages. Pigs and chickens are sometimes found in villages, but are consumed only a few times a year for special occasions. The low protein diet is viewed as a major cause of the widespread health problems of the people living in the villages. I sampled some cooked bananas and some sweet potatoes/yams and found them to be very bland.

When I wasn't in the bush (sleeping in a cave, my tent, or a village hut) I stayed at one very nice hotel in the town of Goroka, or with missionary acquaintances in Port Moresby and Lae. Those (non-bush) accommodations were adequate but not luxurious by western standards. In the villages it is customary to pay about $3, or give canned food of similar value, in exchange for staying there (perhaps on the ground in one's tent, or in a hut with a family, or in a vacant 'guest hut') overnight. I was frequently offered food as well, both in the evening and early the next morning, as part of the hospitality. The commercial hotel cost was similar to American budget motels, and the missionary guest houses were even more affordable. The meals in both hotels and missionary guest houses were modest in cost, comparable to USA coffee shop prices.

Out of the bush I generally ate where I was staying, either at the hotel or with the missionaries. Western groceries are available in the towns, but with high prices and irregular availability. Most store food is from Australia, but some is from the USA, and some is local.
I found the trails much steeper, muddier, and more difficult than I had anticipated or ever encountered before. Much of the time I was on all fours struggling up 45 degree slopes, or sitting and sliding down them. Every hour or two there was a water crossing, sometimes just stepping on rocks over a four-foot wide stream, other times fording up to my waist across 50 foot wide swift rivers. In the more remote areas I sometimes hired a guide, and when my knees were hurting a lot I hired a porter to carry some of my gear.

At the time of my trip one could only enter the country via the capital city, Port Moresby. The most striking scenery there (and in the other towns I visited) was the high chain link and razor wire fences, usually an inner and an outer one, that ring most middle class homes. One or more guarddogs usually patrolled the grounds of these homes. Apartment and upper class homes were similarly protected, and also frequently had security guards with radios. The conventional wisdom is that it is very dangerous to be outside of such walled enclaves after dark. Daylight is 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., all year around, so very little commercial or social activity takes place after 6 p.m. If one goes to a restaurant after dark, there are walled parking lots, or other security areas, patrolled by guards, usually with dogs. The threat is from roving bands of 'raskols' or rascals who attack and rob people on the street, and invade homes and businesses for similar purposes. The evening I left Port Moresby for Australia a band of six rascals killed a security guard at the door and entered a popular local restaurant. They ordered everyone to put their wallets and purses on the table and to keep their arms in the air. Noticing that one man had a lump in his pocket, and believing it to be a wallet, a rascal ordered him to put his hand in his pocket and take out what was there. It was a handgun, and the man promptly killed four of the rascals, and one of the two that fled was wounded. At other times during my stay in PNG I learned of PMV drivers and others being robbed, and of stores being attacked and burned. Living in the Los Angeles area, this urban lawlessness made me feel right at home.

In contrast to the semi-paranoia about crime in the towns, when I was in the bush I was never afraid. Every village I entered welcomed me enthusiastically, and when I left the people urged me to stay, and walked on several hundred feet with me warmly saying good-bye. I was invited to stay in their huts, to eat their food, and to inspect their village. Walking along trails alone, I had some initial anxiety about surprising a native who was not expecting to see a whiteskin approaching around the bend. All the men I met on the trails were armed; always with a long knife, frequently also with bow and arrow or slingshot. Without exception, as soon as they saw me they smiled and made me feel welcome. The men, as well as the native women I met, all wanted to touch my hand, and then run their hand up my wrist and arm, and frequently continued stroking my arm for minutes. I was told that this is a remnant of believing that the whiteskin's magic can rub off on those who touch him. In any event, I sometimes found myself in the middle of a village, with 20 or 30 smiling people crowding around me, all reaching out to touch me. At one village where I paused for only half an hour a very old woman spent all that time running her hands through my long hair, with her face about six inches from mine, speaking enthusiastically. The only translation I could get from one person there who knew a bit of English was 'good greeting'. Usually the approaches to villages were such that I had been spotted well before my arrival, so that everyone in the village knew I was there, and had gathered together to greet me.

Besides the capital city of Port Moresby, other towns on the coast include Lae, Madang, and Wewak. Goroka and Mount Hagan are the two towns in the central highlands area of the country. There is very little in the way of tourist-oriented accommodations or facilities, but that is made up for by the hospitality of both the natives and the whiteskins. I enjoyed my time in PNG, met some warm and interesting people, but certainly did not fall in love with the country. Trips back will again be motivated by a desire to see my daughter.


My time in Sydney was scheduled as rest and recreation after what I anticipated would be (and was) a grueling and Spartan month in PNG. Although I didn't need any special time or conditions to recover from any maladies, the time in Sydney was a splendid opportunity to relax and gently exercise my sore muscles. It was nice to have a wide selection of foods to choose from at every meal. Having lost 15 pounds bushwalking, I felt no hesitation in eating whatever I wanted, including candy bars and milk shakes between meals. I ate a lot of curry, pizza, fried chicken, and other things I especially enjoy and missed in PNG.

Sydney has the charm, beauty, and excitement of San Francisco, but without the winos and sleaze that keep so many tourists from returning. I visited museums and parks. I walked 5 to 10 miles each day, building back up to a comfortable pace. I stayed in a backpackers hostel and 'hung out' with young people from Germany, Sweden, England, and other parts of western Europe. I made friends at the University of Sydney who arranged for me to have Internet access, and I was thus able to send and receive email. I attended a few Mensa meetings, and met some interesting people. They shared with me various perspectives on a wide range of topics while I generally listened. My lodgings were perfectly located, within a block of a public library, two ice cream shops, a McDonalds, a Burger King (called Hungry Jack's in Australia), a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a subway stop - all the things I needed to pamper my mind and body. Equally close were many Indian, Chinese, Lebanese, Japanese, and other ethnic eating places, so I had a wonderful cafeteria of places to choose each time I was hungry. I took harbor cruises and visited the zoo. My railroad interest took me on subway trains all over the area. One day I visited a historic railroad located about a three-hour train ride away.


The approximate costs of this adventure were as follows:

Category PNG Australia Total

Plane, international $1600 - $1600
Plane, domestic 300 - 300
Lodging 400 $400 800
Food 300 200 500
Guest meals 300 - 300
Trip equipment 500 - 500

TOTAL $3400 $600 $4000

C. W. Lee, 1-26-96
Post Office Box 4822
Carson, California 90749-4822

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Papua New Guinea

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