Despite Air Niugini’s reputation of flights being cancelled every possible moment, I have’nt got any problem so far (knock on wood) and my two domestic flights brought me safe and well to Mount Hagen’s airport where Kim, the owner of the Kumul Lodge was waiting me on arrival.
Another very scenic ride through the Eastern Highlands brought me to my next destination in the Enga Province at an altitude of above 2000 meters. Sometimes literally driving through the clouds but to arrive finally at the Kumul Adventure Resort as it promotes itself. The eco-lodge is entirely build of local bush materials to be found in the jungle in which the lodge is located. There’s a nice lounge with a stove in the middle where visitors can warm their feet. Remember at this altitude it can be very cold, specially at night as temperatures drops down to about 5 C°.
The lodge mainly attracts bird watchers from around the world. I met U.S. folks who where there, weaponed with cameras holding huge tele lenses supported by tripods.
The lodge had a fantastic outside balcony with views over the bush canopy. In front of it a feeding board where all kind of birds took their breakfast by dawn. Myself, I carried a more simple Panasonic digital camera and took a few great “bird” shots too. The accommodation exists of standard rooms with private bathroom (hot and cold water) or a larger bungalow with a double + single bed, and a separate bathroom. The heating of the room was done by a kerosene heater which was placed inside by nightfall. I never used it cause it a bit smelly. Food was very nice in this lodge but it has to be said that they overcharge you for whatever service you use or sometimes even not use. You have to make clearly appointments on prices for service, whether I’m talking about meals, daytrips, transfers, guide …. anything. They have a worse reputation of overcharging and I heard similar stories from fellow travellers. You’re warned.
Why I am here in the middle of nowhere ? It is the best place to stay if you want to visit the annual Enga Show, this said despite the overcharging of services as I mentioned before.
And the Enga Show is exactly the reason why I am here, although I am involved into Pet products business, bird watching is not my cup of tea really.
Every second weekend of August, just a week before the bigger Mount Hagen Show, the annual Enga show takes place in Wabag, a reasonable short ride away from the Kumul Lodge.
Different tribes from the Eastern, Southern and Western Highlands, from Enga and other Provinces gather here for this colourful spectacle. If you only here in PNG for a few days, make everything possible to see at least one Sing Sing show. It should not be skipped if one is taking place somewhere. Some of the more famous tribes such as the Huli wigmen from Tari are extremely colourful dressed adorned with Bird of Paradise feathers, their faces painted in bright yellow, their nose pierced sometimes and their bodies shiny reddish oiled.
The best feature of the show however is the fact that in contrary to many other nations in the world, the Papuans love to have their picture taken. It is amazing to experience when the participants come to ask me if I can take their picture. They don’t request anything in return, they just seems to be very proud that a western visitor came all the way from Europe to see their beautiful performances. Very nice and a warm experience. I sometimes chatted with people in whatever language, but we understood one another. Others then that, locals pay 1 kina to get in, while foreigners pay 50 times that amount. It has to be said though that locals are only allowed to be at the showgrounds outside the fenced fields while foreigners can get inside to have a really close up experience. However, I spoke to a couple of American visitors who were their completely independent and could get inside the fence for just 8 Kina. We had paid the 50 Kina to the Kumul Lodge operations (sigh). Anyway, I did’nt complained since this is something else to remember forever. A truly feast for all the senses.
By the end of the afternoon, my skull was burning like hell - I forgot my hat - and could’nt stand it any longer.
This morning, I had met Alison at the Kumul Lodge, a young British lady who was on her own travelling around the world. She was here at the right time during the Enga show. We both enjoyed the afternoon. I estimate to be a few thousand visitors, locals that are. Between them about 25 to 30 foreigners with different nationalities. I praised myself so lucky being here today as one of a few handful of foreign people.
The drive back between Wabag and Kumul Lodge offers dramatic scenery with valleys, rapid rivers, waterfalls and gorges. Low clouds hanging between rugged mountains adds to the mysterious environment and perfectly represents the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.
The Enga show is held over two days. Since this is such a once-in-a-lifetime event not to be missed, I decided to go again today. As I mentioned before, most of the Kumul Lodge guests are here for its fantastic bird watching opportunities. Not myself. I want to go outside, taste the colourful way of living between the Highlands of PNG. Visiting local villages and enjoy the scenery.
However it is really very hard to organise something in PNG. If you want to make an appointment for a vehicle with driver the previous day, it is perfectly possible that he arrives 2-3 hours later then agreed for your pick up, or does’nt show up at all ! One has to take it as it comes. Tourist services are very poor at most areas. I met an Italian couple who paid half a fortune to have a well-organised package tour to different destinations in PNG. It was done through a local agent. On arrival they need to make changes in their original program because of the suspension of Airlink Services. They were full of complaints all the time I spoke with them.
To keep the story short: In my humble opinion, PNG is not a country for package tours unless you’re fine with some changes during your tour or minor inconveniences.
I thought 3 nights at the Kumul Lodge would be enough for the moment, so this morning I drove up to Mount Hagen, a city famous for its annual Sing Sing Show too. I just want to stay overnight in Mt Hagen to prepare for Goroka tomorrow. I arrived before lunch in Mt Hagen, so I could organise an afternoon trip in the neighbourhood to do some sightseeing but…
Got stuck up at the grounds of the Hotel Poroman. No way to get something organised again. The only option is to hire a car which is very expensive this side of the world.
I made an appointment with the driver who brought me from Kumul Lodge to Mt Hagen. In fact he was the private driver of the Italian couple but these people were friendly enough to take me with them as they had to go to the airport of Mt Hagen anyway. After we had dropped the Italians at the airport, I appointed the driver to come to pick me up at Hotel Poroman for some sightseeing this afternoon. I had been waiting for another 2 hours and still he did not arrived yet.
The Hotel Poroman is a nice accommodation if you’re not in need of a big lobby with piano bar and 3 different restaurants or such. It is located neatly in town while its grounds are protected by a wall and a secure guarded gate. Although about everyone had warned me not to venture on my own in Mt Hagen, after a full 3 hours of waiting for Solomon, the driver, I decided to go into town anyway.
I think personally that Mt Hagen is fine during the day and not more dangerous then let’s say Amsterdam. The streets are, as in all other bigger cities here in Papua New Guinea, packed with people. And a white skinned guy with a red backpack and a Lonely Planet guide book in his hand, is an easily spotted target between the dark skinned people but I never felt any danger walking in the streets of Mount Hagen. Anyway since I don’t have much on program I took off.
The market, my destination is even more crowded then the streets. After a short stroll through the vendors, I heard my name being called ! Coincidentally, I bumped into Kim – the owner of the Kumul Lodge – where I had spent the three previous nights. She was stocking up groceries for the lodge. I explained her that I was just killing time because my driver, Solomon did’nt showed up. She said that her husband was waiting outside the market and that he would be happy to show me around Whagi Valley this afternoon. He has a 4-wheel drive, so you understand that I was delighted to join. We drove a few kilometres and he provided me with stunning views along the valley. That was really cool I thought and could not thank him enough for his generous effort.
What I did’nt knew by now is that I would be heavily charged for this short 45-minute ride when I check-out the Kumul Lodge after my second stay later (read on).
Normally wherever I am in the world, after the sun has gone down I usually check out the nightlife in the neighbourhood. But in this place I leave it for what it is and decided wisely to stay at my hotel. However, I heard that the “Hagen Club” would be a hang-out for expats en visitors. But wandering on your own by foot through the streets of Mount Hagen is asking for troubles. I stayed at the hotel grounds.
That night at the hotel’s bar I am completely alone, no other visitor or guest is inside. So, I started to chat with the lady behind the bar. I came to know that it is quiet everywhere because of the recent elections. Last week there where some roads being blocked at the most important intersection where I passed a few times before. People held demonstrations around that area while soldiers kept everything under control simply by killing one unlucky dude.
Around 10.00pm I called it a night. I had chosen the cheapest category of accommodation at the Poroman Hotel because they have the same space as the more expensive and have similar lay-out and amenities. The only difference is the tv. The cheaper rooms can only receive local channels while the more expensive can get CNN as well. I did not come to Papua New Guinea to watch the “victories” of Mr Bush in Iraq. Yet there’s another more expensive class accommodations available of which are a bit further away from the road and have less noise. When I was laying in bed, thinking back of the past days, I noticed continuously people’s figures of which I could see through the transparent curtains. I think back to the missed Mila Malaa festival at the Trobriand Islands. How difficult it is to get something organised wherever you are in this country. En more importantly, that you need a lot of patience with whatever you want to do.
I had an appointment at 8.00am this morning with Solomon who will drive me with his PMV to Goroka today, my next destination in this country. At 9 am I was still waiting while I received a telephone call from Junne, a helpful young lady who I met earlier at Paradise Adventure Tours office (yes, there’s a travel agent in town). She kindly ask me if I need to go to Goroka. I explained her that I am waiting about an hour for Solomon. Much to my surprise she answered that he is at her office and that he will be here within 10 minutes.
He arrives finally at Hotel Poroman at 10.30h where I was about to give up. The PMV is as full as a can of sardines, all locals. Luckily I can sit at the front together with the driver and another fella. I never knew how they managed my luggage inside the can of sardines on wheels, but it got in.
Although sitting at the front is considered to be the most comfortable seat available, I can tell that I had more enjoyable rides before, even at the top of the truck at the Trobriands last week. De front window is full of cracks and it looks like a road map. De road to Goroka is reasonable good and never really boring because of the spectacular views. We drive trough typical Papuan scenes.
As we stopped at a gasoline station, I noticed a bright yellow coffin standing up. It has a sign “For Sale” and I ask myself whether it is a new one or a second hand. Every now and then I notice darts boards attached on a pole at roadsides. It is a popular outdoor game here in the Highlands and people often win or lose lots of money as it is pure gambling.
I spot a lady fully soaped, washing her body next to a waterfall. A little bit further as we’re about to cross the border into Simbu Province, we were stopped by a police control unit. No problem. More further we are witness of a practising Sing Sing group. Pity that we can’t stop. I am not on a private tour. Myself I need to travel about 3 hours and a half but most of the passengers inside the PMV are going all the way to the coastal town of Madang, another 5 hours away. That is past Goroka.
During the trip I make a deal with Solomon that he will come to pick me up at the Bird of Paradise Hotel at around 2 pm tommorow to bring me to the Asaro Mudmen as well as to make a brief stop on top of the magnificent Dualo Pass.
And then, finally…at about 3 pm the streets are getting more crowded which marks that we are entering Goroka.
After about 10 nights in more or less poor circumstances, I decided to spoil myself tonight and stay at the luxury Bird of Paradise Hotel which costs me 253 Kina a night, but I don’t care. Finally a spacious room with a bathtub which I fill up instantly. It is a very comfortable establishment complete with swimming pool, fitness room, decent restaurants and a few bars. Contrary to Mt Hagen, Goroka has an inviting atmosphere to wander around. I feel perfectly safe when walking along the busy roads. However, it is the same thing here as well when it comes to organise something.
Alright, tomorrow Solomon come to pick me up to go to the Mudmen but until then I want to keep myself busy, even if it is just a village visit somewhere. No matter how much effort the friendly ladies behind the Bird’s reception are making, there’s no way to find a company or driver to get me around. There is a tour agency next door to the Bird but the Japanese lady can’t help me ahead neither.
I then ask myself, why these people are running business while they are impossible to sell the products. I am ready to pay, but no service is available. This is really something the PTA of PNG should consider. More services means more business. More business means more income. More income means better facilities. Better facilities means more tourists…. This is how a sleeping fishing village as Phuket in Thailand became a billion dollar resort town. There are countless of examples.
Ok, PNG will never be a luxurious resort but it certainly has many touristic potentials. Great hiking, Superb diving, extremely rich culture, stunning nature, excellent bird watching,… the list is endless.
Finally, the Japanese lady can offer me a tour to the Asaro mudmen. I compare her fare with the 48 Kina I have to pay tomorrow with Solomon during my private tour.
The Japanese lady at her tour agency ask me 325 kina with a minimum of 2 people going, which turns out to be 650 Kina !!! (sigh) Tommorow I pay 48 Kina plus the advantage that we stop at the Dualo Pass and I am going in complete privacy. This declares immediately why tourism is here still in its children’s shoes. Again at the Bird of Paradise, Karina the receptionist is doing everything within her limits to make me happy and keeps trying to figure out a half-day trip. She even contact her personal friend who owns a car to get something done. I decided to try again tomorrow morning. If things does’nt work out, I will just hike on my own up to Mount Kiss which offers nice views overlooking Goroka where after I will just relax at the poolside of the Bird.
Again today, in no way I can get something arranged in addition to this afternoon trip to the Asaro mudmen. I decide to go to the local market, always nice to wander around and definitely a colourful event here in Goroka. It is as crowded like an egg. Between all these coloured people, the contrast with myself, the white face, is immense.
A number of times people are trying to start a conversation with their strange visitor. Not a lot of people seems to speak English here. I ended up buying nothing as most of the goods were clothes, fruits, vegetables and basic items such as lighters, coathangers, balpens and other small stuff.
At night back in the restaurant of the hotel, I am approached by two local ladies who offer me their company and it is immediately clear to me that they have other services available as well. I gave them a friendly “No thanks” and enjoyed my dinner.
Unfortunately, this night I can’t stay anymore at the Bird because a group of Japanese were being booked in and there is’nt any vacancy available anymore. Not a big problem as a little furter away there’s another plush hotel, The Pacific Gardens. This has the disadvantage that I had to move my stuff again from one to another hotel but on the other hand, gives me the opportunity to check this accommodation out as well. I even paid more compared to the Bird, 300 Kina a night incl. of breakfast, but the room is huge and is remarkable spotless. I am sure this is quite a new wing where they put me in.
Solomon and his companion are exhausted from the long drive to Madang yesterday and the return route today. They look tired and dirty.
Very polite, Solomon ask me if they could take a shower in my room since they have to wash themselves in a river otherwise. They spend their nights in the smallish PMV because their employer (Paradise Adventure Tours in Mt Hagen) does’nt want to provide them even with the cheapest accommodation. I am happy to offer both these guys a hot shower. Solomon keeps telling me that each night they have to spend the night in the PMV and refresh themselves in the nature. Because the only option at the Pacific Gardens Hotel was a Deluxe Premier Room, Solomon and his partner are surprised what they see inside the room. A very spacious room with walk-in shower and wall to wall mirror. It is clear that the hot shower made them feel better, and I felt good myself that I could offer these friendly folks what they deserve. A little bit of respect.
Unfortunately they will have to spend the night in the PMV again.