Circling the coastal plain of PNG there is a range of almost vertical mountains that were considered impassable until the scent of gold lead explorers to find a way over them in the nineteen thirties. It is the scent of adventure that leads us to make the same journey, albeit in a slightly more comfortable manner.
The Leahy brothers were the first to make the journey. They started in 1930 and expected to find continuous ranges of impassable mountains, but instead after three long years, they came across an incredibly fertile highland expanse. The highlands were lush and green and incredibly beautiful, completely surrounded by mountains and inaccessible from any direction. It was their Shangri La. But even more surprising to the Leahy brothers was the fact that these unknown highlands were populated by thousands of people. These were the tribes of Papua New Guinea who had remained hidden from the outside world until that moment. The tribes were living a stoneage lifestyle. They had never seen a white man. They had never seen a wheel. They had never seen metal. And yet, what the Leahy Brothers discovered was a valley covered in a patchwork of immaculately tended fields planted with an amazing array of fruit and vegetables.
The five of us are about to discover the very same beautiful land and the amazing tribes that live there. At this point I should probably introduce you to the other three people.
Roger, a portly pepperpot, short and stout and hot for a good life, is an Australian in his early forties living in England.
At present he is spending fifteen months in the Solomon Islands trying to get eco tourism started and encouraging the locals with micro loans. He is a great travel companion with a terrific sense of humour . He has learned pidgin in the Solomon Islands which is the common language in PNG. We have voted him tour leader because of his ability to understand what is going on around us, while we are all are clueless. He has a wife in England. She didn’t follow him to the Solomon Islands nor did she accompany him on this trip. Mmmm!! He phones her daily, but I am still digging for dirt as I type.
Colette and Nellie, the passion fruit and the grapefruit of our group, are old school friends. Colette is a widow, slim and vivacious and ready for the next love in her life. Nellie cannot be taken if you are on blood pressure medication. She has verbal diarrhea and a constipation of humility. They are both in their late sixties, and when I say late, I mean the train still hasn’t arrived at the station. They travel together from time to time. Nellie also has a man back home. After a few days with Nellie we understand why he didn’t come. But what is it about this group? Maybe I was supposed to leave Gordon at home.
Colette, like Roger, has a great sense of humour that we all enjoy.
Nellie on the other hand has a sense of humour that only she enjoys. She tells many funny stories that cause her to laugh long and hard, while we all look blank
This morning we are back at Port Moresby airport catching a small commuter plane to Mount Hagen in the middle of PNG. Security is tight All our luggage has to go through a screening process, and Roger is pulled aside. His luggage is searched and two aerosol cans of extra strength bug spray are confiscated, or rather they are removed from his bag and put in a drawer in the security man’s desk. The next person through security is a local man. He places a machete wrapped in newspaper onto the screening belt. He has made no attempt to disguise what it is, and yet it sails through the screening process untouched. Perhaps the security man already had a machete but was short on bug spray.
An hour later we arrive in Mount Hagen. The plane taxis over to the terminal which is not much more than a shed. We clamber down some steps and cram into the shed along with the other passengers. In one corner are two grimy counters, unmanned and unlit. One says Avis and the other Hertz. Next to them is a sign but no counter, saying “SadMic Car Rental”. I would be sad too if that was my business. One side of the shed is completely open allowing access to a small paved area. The area is kept secure by a high wire fence topped with barbed wire. On the other side of the fence is a huge crowd of unsavory looking people all crammed up against the fence staring at us. We have no idea why they are there, but they do not seem to be a welcoming committee.
We all stand inside the shed waiting for the luggage. But first of all dozens of bundles of newspapers are dropped on to the tarmac. Immediately an equal number of locals run onto the runway and each picks up a bundle and disappears off to the side, presumably to their news stands, or fish and chip shops
Next comes a large number of small crates packed with chickens. More people rush on the tarmac, pick up the crates and head off to wherever one takes live chickens.
Finally a fork lift truck carrying a large wooden pallet goes out to the plane. All our luggage is thrown from the plane onto the pallet. Some find the target, others miss and are scattered around the fork lift. When all the luggage is finally piled high onto the pallet, the fork lift makes its way to the side of the shed. There is a slope from the tarmac to the paved area and the fork lift driver goes very slowly. It appears that the luggage will never stay on, but it does.
The driver then drops the pallet on to the ground and seventy five anxious passengers dive into the pile trying to find their case. At first we stand back politely and watch the melee, but we quickly realise that if we don’t want our cases to disappear we need to join in. I launch myself into the crowd and am easily elbowed back by far more practiced passengers. But my rugby playing days come to the rescue, and I soon find myself grasping my luggage, and passing back others to our group. It may seem uncivilised but is it really any worse than the scrum at any conveyor belt.
We have all been told several times by the tour company and the airline that there is a strict limit of 10 kilos (22 lbs) per person and that we must use soft sided bags. We seem to be two of the few passengers who followed these instructions, and of course Gordon’s soft sided bag has a large rip in it, which might prove a bit of a problem as this is only day two.
We are met by a guide who takes us to a small rather old looking bus. There are just the five of us plus the guide so it feels more luxurious than it really is. Our guide tells us that the people are extremely friendly and will wave at us as the bus goes by, and will want us to take their photos. After our night in Port Moresby we are a little doubtful. But the guide is not exaggerating. As we drive through the streets of Mount Hagen the majority of people do stop and wave at us. It is amazing to think that they see so few tourists that this happens.
Mount Hagen is the largest town in the region and the population is about 40,000, although no one really knows for sure. The center of town has paved roads, and the main roads out of town are paved, but most of the others are dirt. There are no cars. The people can’t afford cars, and the cars are not suitable for the roads. The lucky few who can afford vehicles have pick up trucks. The streets in town are busy with buses and trucks, and packed with people. It is a bustling centre. Sadly it too is full of rascals and theft occurs on a scale that we find hard to imagine. But it doesn’t go hand in hand with violence as it does in Port Moresby.
Our first stop is the central market.
It is a very large but simple structure, with a roof built over rows and rows of free standing concrete counters. The local entrepreneurs set up their wares on these counters. The quality of the produce is amazing, but we are shocked at the prices.
A chicken is $12. You can buy them dead or alive – it is fairly easy to tell which is which, but they are all the same price. Later we see the roadside stalls sell them for almost twice as much.
Fruit and vegetables are sold by the piece and are much more expensive than in the States. Most vendors have small amounts to sell but it is beautifully displayed.
They even have their own version of the supermarket misters to keep the vegetables looking fresh, but in this case it is a plastic bowl that has seen better days, filled with dirty looking water which is sprinkled over the fruit by means of a much dirtier sponge.
We hear that prices have skyrocketed in the last two years. The mining companies that have come to PNG are buying everything and driving up prices. Families in the countryside are all self sufficient as they own the small plots of land first seen by the Leahy brothers, but people living in the towns without any land have to buy their produce and it is becoming very difficult for them.
The market was just built three years ago, and it is a huge success. But for us the real stars of the market are the people. They are delightfully friendly and greet us with huge smiles and friendly handshakes. We are the only white people in the market, and they seem genuinely pleased and a little excited to see us there. The town knows that the market is a great attraction for all Papuans and for the few tourists that come here, so everyone tries hard to keep the rascals out.
I stop frequently to take photos of the people and their produce, and they are delighted, rushing to get their friends to join in. As we walk through the market, everyone strikes a pose wanting to be chosen for a photo. It’s like a Madonna video gone wild
The young children all run after us in the hope we will take their picture.
It is remarkably different from many other countries we have visited, and what is even more refreshing is that no one asks for money or tries to sell us their merchandise. We are free to wander around without being accosted. We are only there for half an hour, but it is one of the most uplifting and heart warming experiences I have had in all of my travels.
The town knows how important this market is, and has taken great care to keep it clean and crime free. The difference between this and other markets is striking. Here is the local betel nut market
Not quite so clean, and certainly not crime free. And I don’t think they offer free delivery, but they do promise a red stain on your teeth.