…… as soon as possible

Back at Airways here is our log of the past six days

Monday 22nd September 2014 Day 14

After a good night’s sleep, we spent the morning doing a complete repack as we can only take 15 kg each in total on our tour of the Highlands. Joyce was delighted that her boots fitted into the hold luggage and after lunch by the pool set off in her sandals. Eric was relieved that all went well with our check in and that we were met by our tour guide in Mount Hagen. However, Joyce’s sandals proved not to be the best footwear as the Heavens opened with torrential rain she quickly changed into more suitable shoes before leaving the airport and was surprised to be the only traveller with an umbrella. We then drove up for 45 mins into the mountains on an unmade long and winding road. It was still raining when we arrived at Rondon Ridge, umbrellas were provided as we were guided outside again to our palatial lodge. An excellent dinner asparagus soup, lemon chicken and chocolate cake, completed a relatively quiet day.


Tuesday 23rd September 2014    Day 15   Mount Hagen

After an English breakfast, we left the lodge at 9.00am for a day of cultural exploration. Mount Hagen lies in the very fertile Wahgi valley and is the home of the Melpa nation, who were contacted by the outside world only in 1934. As in many cultures a nation consists of a number of tribes, made up of a number of clans, each with sub-clans comprising a number of families. Agriculture is still the main economic activity, based on family farms. Although lying at an altitude of over 1500 metres the tropical climate, with its high daytime temperatures and high rainfall, ensure ideal growing conditions. The climate has a dry and wet season, mornings are dry and as we were finding from direct experience, afternoons are wet. As we drove back to Mount Hagen Eric became very excited by the exposures of deep trial weathering, complete with saprolite and corestones (it’s a Geography thing), along the roadside. Our first stop was the local market, with its huge variety of local products being sold by a huge number of stall holders. This was a formal market well organised and regulated. However selling is not confined to this location and we had already passed a large number of roadside vendors, each with small quantities of food for sale. We were joined by two other travellers for the visits to four local villages. The first was Kingalri, our guide’s home. This allowed us to see the traditional huts, square with plaited screen walls and grass roofs and their associated gardens, multicropped for maximum efficiency. We also saw the ceremonial area. From here we travelled to Tokura for a display of local dress, a spirit house and a Mika (gifting) ceremony in the round men’s house. After a picnic lunch in a traditional open sided hut, during which it started to rain, we were taken further into the countryside. As it was still raining we delayed our visit and went first to Memo to see a courtship dance, traditionally the only opportunity for singles to avoid an arranged marriage. Thence to Pogla to meet the mud men, in their fearsome mud masks and mud body paint. This was a dramatic reconstruction a traditional story of how an inter clan war was resolved with the victory of the smaller clan.

Having enjoyed the visits and the explanation of the local culture we returned, by a back road, to the lodge. As we drove we saw the now familiar elements of the rural scene with its myriad people, many of them children. We passed a funeral gathering of a large number of relatives, funerals take place over a two week period in the Highlands. We also saw the local graveyards, with graves provide with their own house.

On reaching the lodge Eric investigated a local nature trail, while Joyce rested. After a coffee we tried to find another trail, but were defeated. Joyce returned to the room but Eric finally found the path and went looking for birds of paradise, with no success. One item of note however was Joyce’s announcement on our return that she was glad she had brought her walking boots, especially for the market and the muddy village paths. The day ended with a spectacular electrical storm which persisted through dinner and beyond.


Wednesday 24th September 2014             Day 16   Karawari

Up at what seemed the crack of dawn, 6.15 am, to enable us to be at the airport for a 9.00am charter flight to Karawari Lodge. After another filling breakfast, increased in quantity from yesterday with juice, cereal, cake and hash browns with the bacon and egg, we left for the airport. We passed what were now familiar landmarks, including the market, the rolls of woven wall material, a multiplicity of churches of a wide range of domination, the Serenity and Paradise funeral directors and that sign of civilisation on a corrugated iron shop called ‘Total Interiors’. A 45 minute delay at the airport for final weather reports, then we boarded a single engine 8 seated light aircraft piloted by George. A spectacular flight over the mountains to the Sepik valley and its tributary, the Karawari. We landed on a grass strip right next to the river and transferred to a flat bottomed boat for the short transfer to the lodge. The narrow local dugout canoes were very much in evidence, luckily our boat had a much wider beam. After a further delay to wait for the truck keys, which were still at the airstrip, we travelled the final half a mile to the Lodge on a rough track, with the truck sloping and sliding around corners.

Karawari Lodge stands on a bluff 30 metres above the River, it replicates local buildings, with largely traditional materials, albeit built on steel rather than wooden posts. After an excellent lunch we returned to the boat, slipping and sliding down the track. A short journey brought usto the village of Kundiman. Here we were presented with a demonstration of the preparation of the local staple flour from the Sago Palm and the two main ways of preparing it, as a pancake or a glutinous pudding. The locals were in traditional dress, but soon reverted to the more comfortable and practical western dress once the demonstration was over. A walk through the village followed with a discussion with Lucas, our guide, about local culture, along the river front marked by planted and tended coconut palms.

On returning to our boat we motored a short distance upriver, past another village Yamas, on a tributary, crossing the clan boundary which is often marked by rain trees. We saw a number of birds, including two species of egret, parrots, and whistling kites who were actively fishing. We drifted home to the accompaniment of the sound of shoals of fish amplified by the aluminium hull of the boat.

As night fell the forest came alive and we dined to the sounds of insects and birds. The lodge only ran its generator until 10.30pm so we retired early and, despite the room door being closed, Eric spent a good 15 minutes de-mothing the room.


Thursday 25th September 2014 Day 17    Karawari Lodge

Breakfast was at the civilised hour of 8.00 am and we left for a visit to two villages, down river, at 9.00 am by boat. As we travelled through the forest we were rewarded with the view of Brahmin and whistling kites and hornbills. The forest along the river is broken by settlement and isolated gardens, marked by plantains. From the river the villages are marked by the cultivated coconut palm, with each tree having a mound at its base, the remnant of protection from flooding established at its planting. The characteristic layout of the villages was a series of huts, parallel to the river. Each hut is built on stilts, raising them above the flood level of the wet season. The sides of the hut consist of plaited panels, often with decorative weaves, and the roof, with a horizontal ridge line, comprises tiles of local leaves. This system means that roof repair is much simpler. Scattered amongst the huts are ground level roofed structures, with raised benches which offer shade and a breeze during the day, a place to hang out. This area is the domain of the Yokaim tribe, originally cannibals. The first village was Manjamei. As we approached we passed a series of canoes, each with a woman in traditional dress, demonstrating methods of fishing and the cleaning and smoking of the catch (in the canoe). The main fish are two introduced species the carp (which really do emit a drumming sound) and the paku, a form of herbivorous piranha, brought in to eat the alien water hyacinth. On landing we were shown a typical family home. Within the structure there are no partitions and it sleeps 18, with cooking carried on at one end. A short river journey brought to the village’s spirit house, under construction, with its characteristic curved roof and gable mask. Each clan contributes and decorates one of the major uprights. The spirit house is the centre of male activity and traditionally initiated youths onto adulthood. In this area the crocodile cicatrised tattoo was practised, although no longer done here. The ground floor would be closed off by screens, and no women or children could enter. On the first floor were stored the ritual objects eg masks, spears, clubs. We were permitted to have our picnic lunch in this space.

After lunch we headed back up river and entered a tributary of the Karawari, to visit the market and spirit house (yeloeeman) in the village of Konmei. In this village the curve in this structure was in the wall, not the roof. Beliefs in the spirit world are being replaced by the spread of Christianity, and here women and children could freely enter the ground floor. The importance of the crocodile could be seen in the objects on display, but also in the crocodile heads on the prows of canoes.

Village life is still dictated by rules of communal support, with all aspects of family life supported by the wider clan relationships. Transport costs are very high, especially for fuel for outboard motors which are necessary if heavy objects or materials are to be moved, imposing a significant friction of distance. This area is at least 16 hours travel time by outboard driven canoes from the nearest road and even further from significant centres of population, markets and services.

One last visit was to the local catholic church of St Andrew, a replacement for the spirit house, built in traditional materials, with pews and Christian symbols painted in their traditional style. On our return to the lodge, built above the abandoned Australian Amboin station, we joined with a group of birdwatchers for some expert identification of the species in the area. As well as the birds already seen along the river we were able to see a pair of fish eagles, sunbird, honey eaters, the electus parrot, parakeets, lories, palm and sulphur crested cockatoo and a cicada bird.

After dinner we were entertained by the local musical group, the bamboo band, singing and playing guitar, pan pipe, flutes and a distinctive percussion instrument made of bamboo pipes played with a pair of flip flops. On returning to the room the nightly ritual of de-mothing was re-enacted.


Friday 26th September 2014         Day 18   Ambua Lodge

Having been enthused by the bird watching fraternity Eric was up at 6.00am, but had little to show for the early rise. After breakfast we were transferred back to the airstrip to await the plane’s return from Ambua Lodge, having already transferred the bird watching group. The flight itself was largely through cloud, with glimpses of the deep valleys and the goldmine development. The latter part of the trip was very bumpy, with heavy rain within the clouds, as we approached Tari, the main town of Hula province. A successful landing on the Lodge airstrip, an airstrip running up a hill, we were driven to the lodge, to find that we were immediately leaving for our cultural visits, before the rain started.


We travelled on the main road through Hula province, an unmade road that is being widened, although the river crossings are still single track bailey bridges. We passed many individual farms, with a hut and garden, the limits defined by an earth wall and deep ditch. The entry to each farm was over a narrow wood bridge and through a low gate set into the earth wall. Some of these gates were elaborately decorated. Within the gardens were the distinctive sweet potato mounds and watercress beds are also common. Along the road were many shop units, selling convenience goods with grilles rather than windows and micro markets with women selling small quantities of agricultural products. More worrying were the groups of men, sitting or standing in serious conference, all armed with pangas, large machetes. The road was thronged with people of all ages, in a rag tag variety of clothing, with many Australian style leather hats. The women still use a woven bag, carried with a headstrap, for their food products, often accompanied by a stout spade. Carrying starts young, with girls as young as four introduced to the art. Umbrellas are a common accoutrement, not surprising as heavy afternoon rains are commonplace. We also passed the local hospital, staffed only by nurses and the new market hall, apparently modelled on the one in Mount Hagen.

Our first visit was to a wig school. The Huli tribe use wigs in everyday life and in ceremonial dress combined with bird of paradise feathers and hair is grown for 18 months by a student under the tutelage of a teacher, who ensures that the hair growth occurs under conditions of optimum purity, with no contact with the outside world, especially women. The teacher is paid 300 kina. At the end of this period a specialist cuts the hair and constructs an everyday wig or with hair from two students a ceremonial wig. The wigs may be dyed with charcoal or clay, mixed with pig fat. An everyday wig costs 700 kina and ceremonial wig costs 1,400 kina, with 100 kina going to the wig specialist for each head of hair used and 600 kina to the student who has grown it. The kina is named after the traditional shell currency in New Guinea, shells that are still worn as a sign of wealth in traditional dress. Currently there are 3.4 kina to the pound.

Having been fully briefed on this custom we then moved to a second demonstration of Hulu costume, complete with face paint, wigs and the feathers of many birds, especially birds of paradise, hornbill necklace, woven bag, arm, waist and thigh straps and the dagger made from the thigh bone of the cassowary, which being hollow doubles as abiding place for paper money.

Having been shown the key components of Huli culture we returned to the Lodge for lunch. Joyce followed this with a rest in the room, a bungalow constructed as a traditional grass roofed round house with extensive views over the valley. Eric opted to go on a guided walk to a nearby waterfall down a steep track, made even more treacherous by the heavy rain.


On his return and after a cup of coffee in the Lodge we joined the bird watching group for more expert guidance as to the local bird life within the gardens of the Lodge. Joyce was not so captivated by the experience of standing round looking at trees in the rain, although the advantages of a high powered telescope in viewing birds was demonstrated, and she retired early. By the end of the afternoon the bird tally included a butcher bird, lorikeets, maledictus honey eaters, mountain swallows, swiftlets and three birds of paradise, Stefanie’s Astrobia, the Superb and the short tailed paradigalla.

Dinner was at 7.00pm and was followed by the showing of the enthralling documentary ‘First Contact’ about the first encounters of Australian gold prospectors and the highland tribes, at that time unknown, in the 1930s.


Saturday 27th September 2014   Day 19   Return to Port Moresby

We were up at 5.30am for the chance to do some more bird spotting in the few hours after dawn. We left the Lodge around 6.150am and drove up the road towards the Tari gap, a grassland col at 8,000 feet between mountain peaks. We were fortunate to add to our birds of paradise tally with the Astrobia Ribbon tail, the Brown Sicklebill and the King of Saxony’s as well as more honey eaters and a mountain pigeon. The guide’s binoculars were a boon turning LBDs (little black dots – courtesy of our US companion Lori and her niece Avery) into recognisable birds.

After breakfast we went for a waterfall walk, visiting the Lodges’s HEP plant, two waterfalls and crossing three traditionally built suspension bridges, constructed of vines and palms. The only bird seen and not just heard was a rapid fly by of a green lorikeet.

We had only a few minutes to pack on our return before being whisked into the airport in Tari. The flight was late in arriving and took time to disgorge its cargo of freight, much from the cabin. The schedule included a landing at Moro, but one attempt at an instrument landing in thick cloud and torrential rain proved abortive, so we returned to Port Moresby ahead of schedule, where a plush car took us to Airways Hotel.

Recovering our left luggage we settled into our room and enjoyed a pizza in the restaurant

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One Response to …… as soon as possible

  1. Clare Jeens says:

    Corr proper Indiana Jones stuff folks; it sounds amazing! Looking forward to seeing some piccies…. intrigued by the prospect of being paid to grow your hair for 18 months in purity…. xxx

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