Thursday, February 3, 2011

Magnificent Mt. Wilhelm!

Text and photographs by Barry Greville-Eyres, naturalist and development practitioner working with the Goroka-based Fresh Produce Development Agency

Sunrise Mt. Wilhelm summit 

 For eco-tourists and adventure-junkies the Simbu Province and in particular the Mt Wilhelm scramble offers an off the beaten track experience that is hard to surpass. At 4509m this imposing edifice flies largely and surprisingly under the tourism radar in terms of exposure, commercialisation, public interest and actual visitor numbers. Herein rests, for me personally, its greatest appeal. Its offers its own, uniquely PNG rite of passage, taken and cherished by the few. Its route is relatively untrammelled, unfettered and devoid of hype and controversy.  
In keeping with the notion of community-based sustainable tourism, almost every kina spent circulates within and boosts the local Kundiawa Mt. Wilhelm economy. My five day sojourn was remarkably affordable, amounting to K1.200 inclusive of transport (Goroka – Mt. Wilhelm return), accommodation and food, trekking and guide fees and in all cases I was able to meet and pay, thoroughly deserving service providers, directly. This provided a level of engagement and intimacy rarely encountered – well beyond a mere financial or service transaction. Remarkable insights were gained into the people of the area – their dignity, resilience, serenity, warmth, humility and kinship for family and others and their deep, deep connection to the soil and land.  It is hoped that this inherent environmental stewardship will support and demand measured and responsible development which is currently sweeping through PNG. The self determination and efforts of local landowners, farmers, mountain guides and lodge operators, in the provision of home-grown services, fruit and vegetables, and infrastructure, are applauded.

Camp Jehovah Jireh open for business

 The recently established Camp Jehovah Jireh, offering rustic yet comfortable lodge styled accommodation, is a classic example of local PNG entrepreneurship. The establishment and associated touring guiding services are consolidated under the Mt. Wilhelm Tours company, ably and passionately managed by former school teacher, Martin Thomas.  Martin is working towards a ‘stable client base and thus far has attracted an interesting blend of corporate clients (government, volunteer service organisations, and donor assisted projects), international tourists and even a Japanese film production company currently engaged in making a documentary in the area.’

L-R Martin Thomas of Mt. Wilhelm Tours, the author and Paul Sugma, mountain guide prior to tackling Mt. Wilhelm

Recollections of my experience are as varied as they are intense – all making up a rich mental and emotional montage difficult, yet necessary, to share and articulate in the written word. Even pictorial images fall short of the mark but some stories need to be told – somehow. The road trip from Goroka to Kundiawa (traversing Eastern Highlands and Simbu Provinces) was fascinating, dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful – a fantasy farmland often regarded as the fruit, vegetable and coffee basket of PNG. One can hear, see and feel luxuriant growth in profusion whether strawberries, kaukau, monstrous African yams, English cabbages, countless varieties of legumes and bananas and much more. All natural, fresh, flavoursome, nutritious – as good as it will ever get! The roadside Agro-tourism potential of the area is immense, especially with show, tell and taste experiences.     

PNG roadside snacks on offer

Summiting Mt Wilhelm, reputed to be one of the Pacific’s highest peaks, rates up there with Tanzania’s Kilimanjaro, Namibia’s Fish River Canyon and South Africa’s Otter Trail and many of the world’s iconic treks. The walk in to the lake-side base camp (from Camp Jehovah Jireh) is a comfortable three to five  hour amble taking in high forest, sub-alpine forest, grass and heath lands with dense stands of enormous tree ferns.  The water catchment potential of the area is self-evident with swiftly flowing mountain streams and an abundance of swampy surface water. The base camp accommodation is simple but adequate, offering stunning views over the lower lake and a natural mountain amphitheatre, both of which are traversed in order to reach the summit.
The Mt.Wilhelm climb is exceedingly tough, bewildering, uncompromising and with a midnight ascent, lasting between four and seven hours, requires a moderate level of fitness and highly recommended conditioning at altitude.  As with any remote, high altitude adventure there is a definite risk element involved and moderate on-trail care (steep ground security) and backup precautions should be taken. Our descent was far more sedate – close on eight hours, even at sub-zero temperatures, benefiting from daylight and panoramic views. Pockets of miniature alpine vegetation punctuate the austere yet intriguing moonscape / scree-slopes, clinging to a timeless existence alternating between daily freezing and thawing.  Paul Sugma, my expert mountain guide and I were held in morbid fascination, for hours, by the wreckage of a large aircraft littering the slopes above the upper lake.

Upper lake en route to summit

We finally stumbled onto our base camp where interim relief was sought, for aching muscles and creaking joints, in the icy waters of the azure lower lake. Little did we known that, shortly before our departure, magnificent Mt. Wilhelm was about to offer up one final extravagance to crown a remarkable trip.   

Hooked - John displays his sizable rainbow trout

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