Saturday, April 07, 2007

From the deep dark jungles...

I'm 3 belt holes slimmer after my 2 weeks in the jungles of PNG. I'm covered in cuts and bruises, stings and bites, but it was one heck of a rollicking adventure!!

And sheer bloody exhausting, too...

Breakfast was at 5am, then we finalised the plans for that day. For me, this meant confirming the region I'd be looking at, working out where to get dropped off by helicopter and where to be picked up and when (the latter done in case the signal from the walkies wouldn't make it to Dispatch back at camp).

Once the sun came up, we were off - we included myself and my two PNG locals, whose job it was to prevent me from falling down a ravine or off a cliff, stop me from getting lost or from stepping on Death Adders or bumbling into ants nest, warn me away from salaut (a nasty stinging tree that hurts like hell) - basically, try to keep me alive until the chopper came to take us back to camp.

Camp itself was situated about 50m above the Hegigio River, deep in the Southern Highlands Province of PNG.

Our camp in the Southern Highlands Province (taken from the chopper).

One of the spectacular views from the camp.
There were 101km of jungle to cover geologically, but we were only making on average about 3km a day because the landscape was so tough. If we weren't trudging through ankle deep mud that seemed intent on sucking you down, we were climbing up limestone cliffs or tumbling down steep descents.

My camera kept fogging up with the humidity, my clothes were soaking wet, I was covered in mud and hurting from all the things that had bitten or stung me, my muscles were aching and my head pounding, but for some inane reason, I was loving every second of it, even as much as I hated it!

It was a real adventure.

Our path through the jungle was barely a path; the company I was conducting the work for uses minimal bridging, that is, they do as little as possible to impact upon the environment. So there might've been a hand rail leading down a 60 degree slope, a mad looking ladder going up a cliff, or a tree slung over a river for you to balance your way across.

Some fairly decent bridging, actually...

Sometimes, there was no path at all, and we had to use machetes to cut our way through the jungle. My two guides were brilliant at preventing us from getting lost and for repeating all day long for two weeks, 'you don't touch this or tomorrow you won't work,' 'you don't touch that or tonight you won't sleep,' 'You must come this way,' 'don't go that way...'

This ladder continued up the face of a cliff for close to 100m.

At one stage, we rounded a corner and came across a huge python(?) lying on the path! We had to walk past it, which we did so slowly. Fortunately, it had no interest in us other than to keep an eye on what we were up to. We also encountered two Death Adders (one of which we nearly stood on) plus a small ground snake of some kind. There were tree kangaroos up in the canopy (which itself was about 50m high), cassowary, wild pigs (which tasted pretty darn good), and butterflies (or moths? Hercules moth, I think) about the size of backpacks!!!!! I kid you not... That's a ridiculous size for a moth to grow.

There were also hornbills flying from tree to tree, making an odd wooshing sound with their wings as they flew overhead, a cave filled with thousands of bats that came roaring out (just like you see in the movies!) when we disturbed them. Rivers disappeared into the ground, raging waterfalls came out of cliff faces - the limestone terrain was pitted and ravaged; caves and ravines were as numerous as the trees.

The snake in our path...


The cave of bats...

And then, after reaching our destination each day, we (or me, really; my two helpers were of an entirely differenlt level of fitness to me) collapsed on the helipad and tried to call up base to organise a lift home. The chopper was Bravo-Charlie. We were Geo-crew. Helipads were labelled with a number followed by a letter, and call signs went accordingly; alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrox etc...

But of course, I kept forgetting, so my call signs went more like; apple, bat, carrot, dinosaur...

And then we waited for the chopper. What a joyous sound that beast was when your ears finally picked up the rotors. The heavy clouds would begin to roll in after lunch, so if visibility grew too bad, we'd have to camp out in the jungle overnight and then get a lift out the next day. I was hoping this would happen so I could experience a night in the wild, but honestly, after hiking across the terrain we'd been hiking across for the past 6 or 7 hours, all I really wanted to do was get back to base camp, take off my shoes and socks and clothes, stumble into a cold shower and then fall into bed...

One of the helipads, perched atop a rise in a small clearing...

And thus did I spend the next 11 days, reaching levels of exhaustion that I never knew possible...

Another of those wild views you get from the jungle...

But just when the end was in sight, all hell broke loose... A man, loaded up on drugs, went crazy with his machete and started destroying some of the company's property at another base about 15km away due east. He seriously wounded a couple of people when they tried to stop him, too. The police finally managed to get him under control and threw him in the slammer (there was a small police station at the second camp).

But the man then hung himself.

His clan believed the police had beat him to death, so they went on the rampage. Subsequently, all activities at that camp and at our camp were shut down, especially after the clan started firing automatic weapons at the cop shop, then disappearing into the jungle!!

The army was called in, and we had 17 heavily armed special forces men move into our camp, bringing a whole hoard of weapons with them. The clan were making threats to kidnap an expat, had blocked the only road into/out from the second camp.

I was due to fly home on Thursday 5th April; there was a meeting between the company I was working with, the police and the clan on the Wednesday before to try to sort out the issue (the clan were seeking compensation from the company I was working for, believing that the police were only there because the company was there, ergo it was all the company's fault).

At one stage, the clan sent away all their women and children (an ominous sign).

The plane from Cairns to the second camp was due in that afternoon, but if the problem got any worse, or if the pilot wasn't comfortable landing there, then that was it; I wouldn't be flying out on Thursday and would have to spend Easter over there under seige... But that never happened.

The plane landed, I got a helicopter ride down to the second camp on Wednesday afternoon, and flew out of the country on Thursday.

One of the last things the camp boss at the camp I had been staying at told me was that he had been asked if he had enough provisions should they be locked down for weeks... I hope the situation never grew any worse - there were a number of people hoping to get home within the next day or so.....

Anyway, that was my PNG adventure - rough, harsh, exhausting, exhilerating, mind-blowing and frightening.

Would I ever want to go back?

Hell yeah.

...going jungle for 2 weeks seems to make you quite hairy, for some reason...

1 comments:

Andrew McKiernan said...

Wow! What a trip that must have been. I'm sure I wouldn't have enjoyed it as much as you (I like my home comforts too much) but it definitely sounds like a trial well worth the sweat and insect bites.