This is an old journal, from our trip around the world in 2002, taken from the diary I wrote at the time. Apologies for the poor quality photographs, they are scans of prints taken with a compact camera and images from the scrap book I made afterwards.
08.11.2002 - 08.11.2002
I do not sleep well in the night. I am awake from 2am with a tight chest pain and a feeling that I can’t breath. I must admit I start to panic, worrying about having a chest infection at 7000ft in the Highlands when I struggle to catch my breath here at sea level. I take various tablets, but sleep still eludes me.
The breakfast by the pool is really good, but as I don’t feel well at all, I can’t do it justice. It doesn’t help that I am sitting in the sun and it is very hot and humid. I am dehydrated too, and down bottle after bottle of water.
Steven arrives just as I am in the shop buying post cards and stamps. My logic tells me to buy post cards when I see them as they might not have any where we are going. The lady in the shop carefully puts the stamps on the cards for me, three on each of the 16 cards. It takes along time and Steven has to wait for us. He is very patient and nothing seems too much trouble. At the airport Steven changes the incorrect return flight tickets from Mount Hagen to Port Moresby, and will contact the office to sort out the section between Tari and Mount Hagen. He will somehow get a message to us in Tari, where there are no telephones. He keeps assuring us that ‘all will be OK’. I have to believe him.
We have a baggage allowance of 10 kg each, but the hotel did not have any scales we could check out our bags on this morning. We needn’t have worried though; the bags only weigh 15 kg between them. We are certainly getting better at travelling light.
In the lounge we meet our fellow travellers, two English girls also going to Ambua Lodge. There is some confusion at the gate, as two flights are leaving at the same time from the same gate. They probably only have one door leading to the planes. Nobody is there to directs or greet us at the aircraft once we are out on the tarmac; we just have to guess that the plane with the door open is the one we are going on.
It is a 40-seater Dash 8 and most of the passengers are locals. Personal hygiene seems to be rather lacking and a very unpleasant aroma is wafting through the aircraft. Still, it doesn’t stop me from sleeping.
The gravel airstrip and surrounding area at Tari is precisely how I expected Papua New Guinea to be. Just how it is in old films of the first missionaries arriving, the entire town have turned out to greet us. They must be a thousand strong thronging against the perimeter fence. It is positively intimidating, all the more so as we are surrounded by 30+ police in combat gear, supposedly looking after us and the luggage.
We are met by Harold and Paul and the mini bus is inside the locked airfield compound. The policemen must have been drafted in from all around the area, as we give a lift to half a dozen of them. Or is it that they are still required to ‘look after’ us while we are driving through town? The crowds open up to let us through as we leave the landing field, and they are beginning to disperse now that the show is over. All through town we are surprised to find so may people still wearing the traditional garb with colourful wigs, painted faces and straws skirts. Many women have tattooed faces, and it is not just the older people who are dressed this way. Tradition is obviously still very much part of daily life here in rural PNG. I wonder for how long, once western influences have made their mark.
The track can be charitably described as bumpy, it is in fact more akin to a dried-our river bed than a road. Large boulders with a little gravel between them make the two hour journey an endurance test. We barely travel 25km during that time, and en route we only see five other vehicles: one Jeep, one bus and three lorries. Only the sturdiest of vehicles will survive these conditions: our mini bus is basic, but robust, a proper little work-horse. As we move out of town, the people appear friendlier, especially the children; or is it that we have gained some confidence after the daunting start? I am delighted to see so many primitive outfits; the people are a photographer’s delight. I don’t feel confident enough to ask the driver to stop when we see two men walking along the road with their faces painted bright yellow. How I wish I had! This is just so amazing.
The bridges are an experience in themselves: a simple metal structure, covered with a few logs. There are more gaps than there are logs, and in some places a metal plate is covering the surface. Once or twice Harold gets out and moves the wood around a bit, making it less treacherous to cross. The bridges are vital to the survival of the local people, and are the first to be attacked during tribal disputes.
Short video clip showing the airport and road to the lodge:
We can see Ambua Lodge from a distance, perched high on a ridge above the valley floor. Outside, in the rudimentary car park, a yellow-painted man is being photographed by some tourists. After the incredible journey from the town, seeing other white people seems rather inappropriate. The lodge is rustic and beautiful, an incongruous opulence in the midst of all this pristine rainforest and the primitive villages.
It is a modest luxury, with each room being a thatched rondavel balanced on the ridge leading down from the main building. We are met by Mike and Mary-Jane, the managers of this lovely place. They explain about the lodge and give us a choice of room: short walk but no view; or steep climb with a great outlook. We choose the latter, although at this altitude we may come to regret that. I still have a chest infection, and at 7000 ft, breathing may become laboured walking up the 71 steps to the restaurant and bar. Mike is right; the view from the chalet is stunning! We can see across the roofs of the other cottages, along through the valley and right down to the flat ground several thousand feet below.
The room is furnished with all mod-cons: a comfortable double bed complete with electric blanket (the nights do get cold here at this altitude), seating to relax and admire the view, 180° panorama windows, an open-fronted wardrobe and a lavish hot shower. The water here is straight from a mountain stream, and with no habitation or grazing above us, it is safe to drink. There is no running water, sanitation, telephones or electricity in this area, the lodge has its own hydroelectric plant. The lights fade at regular intervals, adding to the charm of the surroundings. I am rapidly falling in love with this place.
At lunch, we meet all the other guests, they are a mixed bunch: a large group of 17 Swedes, four Americans, two Cypriots and us four. All the others are leaving tomorrow, but then two large American groups are joining us. 50 of them are landing on the new airstrip built right next door to the lodge – the very first passenger plane to land there! What sissies, not suffering the appalling but fascinating journey from Tari airport.
We share a table with Leonie and Helen, who turn out to be great company. We are very much on the same wavelength, something that doesn’t happen very often. They are both laid back, easy going, well travelled and have a great sense of humour. The food is prepared in a ‘mumu’, a traditional earth oven often found in the Pacific. We have experienced similar affairs in Fiji where the name is Lovo and New Zealand who call it Hangi. There is chicken, vegetables, corn on the cob and fresh bread.
After lunch we take the Waterfall Walk with Peter Hobbs, one of the guides in the lodge. The start of the walk is tough, a steep ascent out of the hotel up to the main road. We then turn off the road into the forest where the walking becomes much easier and very pleasurable.
The trails are super, and although I am told that all the paths and bridges are constructed by Ambua Lodge, I feel as if they have been there for centuries; they blend beautifully into the landscape.
Peter makes me a walking stick which improves my feeling of safety as we amble down the track to the river through the gorgeous montane rain forest. The vine bridges are created using only natural materials, no nails or ropes here! They are tremendous, typical of this area, very enjoyable and not at all scary. With the call of the birds, the thick vegetation and the occasional waterfall, the trails are heavenly, a real paradise for nature lovers. We continue ever downwards to see the biggest waterfall, and it does occur to me that what comes down must go back up again. My throat hurts, my chest feels tight and I am losing my voice.
Here you can see David's video of the bridges and waterfalls:
We join the other guests for pre-dinner drinks and nibbles in the bar. One Swede claims to have contracted Malaria and asks if anyone has any medication. We do carry Quinine in our first aid kit, and if I thought for one moment that he is suffering from Malaria, I would gladly give it to him. Having seen people who really do have the disease, I don’t think that just because he “feels feverish in the afternoons” that he has Malaria. The people I have previously encountered have been seriously ill. He is probably just dehydrated! He takes four Larium and is happy with that. Later, chatting to the Americans, it transpires that one of them is a Norwegian called Grete! There is a roaring fire going in the restaurant / bar area, and the only time we need warmer clothes is to and from the room. Rain wear is probably more useful here! Back in the room, the bed is fantastically warm, so hot in fact that I end up turning the electric blanket down.