Wilhelm is the highest
place in PNG. Whether or not I actually went to the highest
place wasn't important. On the other hand, if it's
nearby, Why not?
Kundiawa, one could catch the first glimpse of the tall, jagged
mountains above. These were way beyond the typical hills and
ridges in the highlands, these were hard-core mountains.
Seeing the high mountains of New Guinea was a priority of mine and
these definitely fit the bill.
The road was basically a four-wheel drive track all the way to Kegsugl.
Some of the bridges were pretty dodgy. Some had stones
between boards that lie across the bridge to keep the wood from sliding
around and before crossing passengers would check to insure the rocks
were properly placed. On other bridges, it was simply a few
planks lying lengthwise over a steel frame and I helped the driver get
aligned on the planks. Upon arrival, I went up to Betty's
Place which is a nice, comfortable guesthouse nestled in the hills.
At 6:30, Betty turned on a generator and the evening was wiled away
reading books and relaxing. I met Somo, a guy who was working
on an electrical line survey, so that Betty and the other locals
wouldn't have to use a generator. I took the next day off to
relax and procure a "guide" named Thomas, and have a look around the
area. I wasn't entirely certain he was really a
guide. He was supposed to be a "ranger" but wasn't sure what
that meant and guessed he would have to do. I spent a good
part of the day with Michael, a local student studying chemistry and
commerce. He seemed very interested in the rest of the world
and took in any science knowledge that I could pass onto him,
constantly asking questions. He showed me a large group of
people who had gathered. They were holding court.
There aren't buildings with a marble fašade and judges in robes, just
people sitting on an unused airstrip.
The next day my "guide"
and myself were off to a hut on a lake where we
would start our climb of Mt. Wilhelm. Somo and his wife would
be walking with us, although they would be doing a different trail the
following day. The climb wasn't that hard and parts of the
forest resembled those of New Zealand. The similarities ended
when we reached the lake. We were at 3000 meters on the
equator, meaning the sun was beating directly down and there was little
shade. We white guys don't always fare so well when the sun
is so harsh.
In the evening, our group was joined by Kalli, a friend of Thomas, and
we sat around the fire. They told me about the OPM, a group
fighting the Indonesian occupation across the border in West
Papua. Kalli was an orphan whose parents were killed in the
fighting. Thomas' family adopted Kalli and they now call each
other brother. The guys told me about "bride price" which is
the practice of giving gifts and money to the family of the
bride. It consists of pigs, a substantial amount of money,
bird of paradise feathers, and other traditional gifts. Bride price can
be a genuine burden on some men, but it's part of their
culture. All the guys agreed with the statement, "You have it
easier, all you have to do is a give a ring." I smiled and
I wore my long underwear to bed as I didn't want to dress in the cold
of the middle of the night. We woke up at 1:15 a.m. so as to
see the sunrise on the summit and ideally see both the northern and
southern coasts at the same time. Within fifteen minutes we
were on the trail by the light of Thomas' lantern.
We climbed gently past another lake and waterfall and then started a
steep climb of about 45 minutes. We looked up at the
brilliant stars and could only see the massive ridge by where the stars
weren't visible. It was an exhausting climb grabbing onto
clumps of grass in spots and the altitude was taking its
toll. We nearly crested the ridge when Thomas said, "We're on
the wrong trail." I looked at him in disbelief and said,
"Oh." The ""guide"" (yes, a second quote mark is getting
added) seems to have lost his way. We trudge down the ridge
and he found the correct trail (hopefully).
We started to climb again and there were many shooting stars, including
a fireball which left a sparkling yellow and orange trail.
The air was so clear and crisp and the peaks, near and far, were
visible in the starlight. I kept asking, "Is that Mt.
Wilhelm?" and for what seemed forever, the answer was, "No, it's behind
that ridge (or peak)." The altitude was tiring for sure.
Periodically, the breeze blew ever so gently. It was chilly,
but not so much that we had to wear gloves or hat the entire
time. We went through a narrows in the rocks, which caused
the breeze to blow a little harder and it blew out the
lantern. He asked, "Did you bring matches?" It was
starting to look like the """guide""" wasn't completely
prepared. We used a small flashlight that I brought
along. As we got higher, the ground scintillated beautifully
with frost and ice. I wondered how much higher we had to go.
Looking to the east, we
could just see, barely, a hint of light and
realized we wouldn't reach the summit by sunrise. Eventually
we could turn off the flashlight but still couldn't see Mt. Wilhelm,
but the peaks were now all jagged and rocky and I sensed that we were
getting close. We followed a ridge and finally could see the
summit. We walked behind the conical peak and had fifty
meters to go up. We stopped to rest as the air was thin and I
was exhausted. I motioned for Thomas to lead the
way to the top but he said he was tired. He wasn't tired, he
wanted to make sure that I was the one to reach the top
first. You know what, I'm going to remove a
quote-mark and make him a ""guide"" again, it was a nice
gesture. The top was 4509 meters, the highest I had been at
that time and the highest point in PNG. It was worth it.
Earlier as the sun rose, the sky was the most delicate pink but was now
a fiery orange and yellow. The mountain tops were stunning
and we could see forever. It was a downer that there were
thick clouds a thousand meters below us, so we couldn't see the
coasts. Oh, but it turned out to be ok.
There is a natural
phenomenon called a Brocken Spectre. If
the sun is shining down upon the clouds and if something gets in
between the two, you can get a circular rainbow surrounding that
object. We could see the shadow of Mt. Wilhelm upon the
clouds as well as our silhouettes. Surrounding the mountain
top was a circular rainbow and when we waved our arms, the shadows of
our arms swept the rainbow like the hands of a clock! I had
never seen something like that before and I have to say, it's one the
coolest things I've ever seen. You know, that put me in such
a good mood, I'm going to take off another quote mark and make Thomas a
"guide" again. I don't know how big our shadows were on the
clouds, but if I had to guess, we were 100 feet tall. Seeing
what we did, we certainly felt that tall.
We spent about 45
minutes at the top and the sun got higher in the sky
and warmer. The way down was much easier than the way
up. Usually it's easier going up, but the altitude changes
that around. On the way down, we met Kalli, and how different
things looked. That second lake with the waterfall was
surrounded with near vertical cliffs and the views, well...the word
"forever" comes to mind. We stopped at the hut and rested for
an hour. I didn't want to rest too long as hiking in the
mid-day sun isn't an appealing prospect. So the three of us
continued down to Kegsugl. It was worth every step to the top
and seeing the circular rainbow, made it ok that we didn't get to the
top when planned. Thomas wasn't such a bad guide after all.
I spent the rest of the day and the following day relaxing, having a
look around and reading (Betty has some great books). The
evening was spent with Betty, Somo, and his wife and every
minute was enjoyable. Betty is a former stewardess for Air
Niugini and sounds like she is working hard to help the people of the
area, setting up a fish farm among other things. She's very
friendly and interesting and should you want to see Mt. Wilhelm, it's a
great place to stay. Somo invited me to visit in Moresby and
if I made it there, I certainly would.
After relaxing for
another day, it was off to Goroka, the capital of
the Eastern Highlands. I caught a PMV down to
Kundiawa. The driver tried to charge me a high price, I said,
"Nope, that's a tourist price, we both know that." Everyone
laughed and the driver knew he was caught. You can't blame
him for trying and actually, I ended up liking him. He sat me
next to him so that he could ask me questions, he was very curious to
hear of my home. He mentioned how people didn't have
ambition, only working 3-4 hours a day and relaxing for the
rest. He felt they needed to do more to get ahead and
emphasized how important it was that his kids got educated.
"I don't want them to fall behind." he said. That
certainly wasn't the last time I heard such a discussion. It
seems that there are many people who are ok with a lack of "progress"
and others who are not.
Eventually we reached Kundiawa and I caught another PMV to Goroka and
stayed in the Lutheran Guesthouse. My travel book said that
Goroka was the "prettiest in the highlands." That really
wasn't saying much. Yes, it's nicer than Mt. Hagen, but
certainly not pretty in a European city sense, but it wasn't a horrible
place by any means. A day was spent taking care of
miscellaneous business and trying to determine what to do
next. I settled on Crater Mountain, where I would be doing a
four day walk around the mountain...or so I thought.