This part of my story is fairly epic, and I may need to split it into several parts. Epic, I tells you.
I was more than aware that most of our passage around PNG would be on foot. We have relatives in all sorts of disparate villages, and there are only two ways to travel between them all: planes and legs. This didn’t concern me before the trip, because I consider myself a fairly fit person. I regularly do cardio exercise, and put in quite a bit of hill-climbing because we have some lovely hilly national parks and bushwalks in Victoria.
This means diddly-goddamn-squat in the vicious, unholy terrain of Papua New Guinea. I might as well have been Gina Rinehart for the amount my ‘fitness’ helped me.
Our original plan was to take a week to make a return trip from Pindiu to a village called Siwea, where Mum was born and several of our relatives still live. Step-Grandma was a bit antsy about this idea, for reasons that remain vague to me to this day. Something about curses or spirits or people with ill-feelings towards our family. Papua New Guineans can be very evasive and roundabout with tender issues, yet they’ll happily slice you in two if you touch their husband. Mum and my uncle mulled over the issue with the appropriate amount of prevarication, and finally decided we’d better not walk all the way to Siwea, but instead do a kind of loop that would take in several other villages in which we had family ties.
Our little party of four Westerners, the eldest uncle and four minder cousins set out at 6am one Tuesday. Sometimes it’s difficult to put emotions into words, so here is a photographic depiction of my state of mind that morning:
Most of the family followed us down to the first river crossing to see us off. We later found out Jojo had surreptitiously trailed after us for quite some way, until one of the uncles had noticed she was missing and dragged her back home while she cried her eyes out.
I’ve previously mentioned the Mongi River and its lack of vehicle passage. Luckily, at some point the villagers had strung this delightful contraption across it to make foot crossing a more pleasant, safer experience:
Obviously, the most fun game in the world for the locals is to violently shake the bridge while you’re traversing. Such a fun game.
Safely on the other side, we found ourselves faced with a solid four hours of up. Being a main road, it wasn’t terribly steep and the surface condition wasn’t bad compared to the goat track that led down to the Mongi, but the sun was burning down and it had been made clear to us that there was nowhere to fill our water bottles until around lunch time. Our cousins had come along as porters (somehow villagers can embark on a 5 day trek needing nothing but the clothes on their backs), but for some reason I had it in my head that I was going to carry my 13kg backpack all the way on my own, because I am an independent woman and don’t need no help from nobody. This is actually a very good way to kill yourself, as I was soon to found out.
Eventually the up ended, to be replaced by ankle-splintering, jagged-limestone-littered down. It soon became apparent this was not a main road, as the track whittled down to little more than a muddy line through the scrub. We had a short rest at another river, where I fixed up my first blister and tried to mentally prepare myself for another couple of hours of uphill slogging. Sometime around 4pm the fog started closing in around us, and shortly afterwards it entered my soul, too.
The last few hours of the day were nothing short of a nightmare. The ascent just never stopped. It was a never ending staircase of mud and despair. I cursed Papua New Guinea, I cursed my parents for talking me into this shit, I screamed a ragged ‘FUCK’ at the sky every two minutes. Every time I lifted my exhausted head, the doglegged track stitched itself interminably higher with no end in sight. I could barely take four steps at a time without stopping to catch my breath, and it only dawned on me later that maybe the five thousand foot altitude was wreaking havoc on my sea level accustomed lungs.
The men had charged on ahead a couple of hours earlier to alert the village we were to stay at that visitors were imminent, leaving Nicole, Mum, cousin Gersing and I to wander up at our own pace. As twilight descended, we came to a crossroad and it became immediately apparent that we were lost. The sound of children’s laughter was drifting through the mist, but with all the trees and hills and rapidly encroaching darkness, it was impossible to tell from which direction it came. It was like a bad 70’s horror flick. We scoured the ground for familiar footprints, but with our limited forensic experience we came up with nothing. Just as we sat down dejectedly in the drizzle, some ghostly apparitions emerged from the mist – local villagers with umbrellas. It turned out they knew Mum (surprise, surprise), and gave us directions to Morago village. I was almost feeling cheered by the thought of the impending warm meal and dry hut, but forty-five minutes later when we were still clambering up muddy slopes in the damp semi-darkness, I nearly had a nervous breakdown. Eventually we passed a hut, then another, then a whole cluster of huts and suddenly we were in the midst of a group of Morago villagers violently shaking our hands and clutching our shoulders.
Now in Australia, when someone has just made a twelve hour journey on foot, carrying a 13kg backpack, we offer them a place to sit and maybe a cup of tea. In Morago, however, there is nowhere to sit. There is no tea, no food – just a lot of hand shaking and talking. The disappointment came like a kick in the guts – this was as physically exhausted as I’d ever been in my life, all I wanted to do was sit, and I was being denied even that simple pleasure. I dragged my carcass beneath the nearest hut, sat down in the dirt, closed my eyes and tried to quietly come to terms with death, while every few minutes someone would come over, shake me awake, introduce themselves and walk away.
Finally someone decided to show us where we would be sleeping, and as we unrolled our sleeping mats and sleeping bags the entire village trickled into the hut to observe. One of the aunties offered to show Nicole and I the ‘shower’ (a tap in the yard), and kindly held a towel up as a screen while we dejectedly splashed cold water onto ourselves. When I was as clean as I was likely to get, I trotted back to our hut all ready to crash into bed, only to find thirty people crammed inside, loudly munching their dinner and yapping with the usual PNG vigour that’s often recognisable in cocaine addicts. I looked despairingly at Mum, who whispered that if I just lay down to sleep, they would get the idea and leave. I lay down. They kept munching and yapping. I sat up and glared. They kept munching and yapping. I lay down again, and just as my brain was about to hit Ctrl Alt Del, a blinding glare through my eyelids pitched me painfully back into reality. I squinted past the light to find some old woman shining a torch in my face, exclaiming excitedly something like “which one is this one?” Then Mum made me stand up and hug her – unsurprisingly, I was more inclined to chuck her headfirst into the fire.
Around 10pm the circus eventually departed and I could finally put my weary bones to bed, with a throbbing head and a deep regret at ignoring my instincts and coming on this stupid trip.
Dad regularly made patrols like this during his didiman days. He kindly gave me a scrap of his journal to take with me, that I could compare his previous journey to my own.
9th May, 1972
Village meeting Masa. To Hobo and conducted meeting thence Morago overnight.
18th December, 2012
To hell with this shit.
Next instalment: The continuing misery of a spoiled white girl.