Archive for January, 2010

PNG road trip – Hagen and surrounds

January 23, 2010

In January 2010, Tom, Sarah and I went on a seven-day road trip from Madang to Hagen. Nestled at the Western end of the fertile Wahgi valley, Mt Hagen itself is not a terribly attractive town but there are a number of attractions nearby. This entry provides some details on a few of these, particularly the scenic drives to Baiyer gorge, Kumul Lodge and to Tambul district headquarters .


Hagen’s biggest drawcard is the Hagen show, which is held in August each year at the Kagamuga showgrounds (near the airport and about 10km from the centre of town). Otherwise, in our short stay we didn’t find too much to do in the town itself.

Baiyer river and Baiyer gorge

The Lonely Planet makes a passing reference to the ‘spectacular Baiyer gorge’ and we decided to follow this up. We got great assistance from one of the wait-staff at the Highlander Hotel’s restaurant who he helped us to find a guide from the Baiyer area to accompany us the following morning. Although we didn’t encounter any troubles on our trip, judging from the reactions we got from locals we talked to before and afterwards, it sounds like taking a guide was a wise precaution.

Baiyer gorge, Western Highlands

The route follows the aptly-named North Road. It only forks twice during the trip. At the first fork (about 2-3km from town), take the left-hand road (the alternative route loops back towards Kagamuga airport). The second fork is just the junction of a loop road that starts near the top of the valley, descends steadily down one side, crosses the Baiyer river at the bottom and then heads back up the other side. The right-hand route was clearly in better condition when we drove through (the other side had a couple of sketchy-looking bridges …) so you may prefer to head down and back on the same side although we did the full loop and lived to tell the tale.

Open plains, Baiyer valley, Western Highlands

The loop is about 60km of which about 40km is sealed. Nonetheless, you should probably allow a couple of hours for the round trip in order to navigate the road and allow time for some snaps – the views are, as advertised, pretty spectacular. On the way down, the mountainside dropped away to our left and on the opposite side, small waterfalls were cascading down into a deep valley below.

In front of us, the valley opened out in a wide, flat, fertile plain. We had heard that further on, there was once a large zoo however it seems that due to either lack of funding or tribal fighting, Baiyer Zoo em i bagarap pinis distaem (it’s buggered!). Nonetheless, we quite enjoyed at least some of the additional 20km along the dirt road because there was plenty to see along the way: small villages, numerous churches, many schools, coffee plantations and fulsome gardens of kau kau, yam, tapiok, corn, bok choi, bananas, peanuts and more, and . If we had arranged things in advance, it would have been nice to stop at one of the villages for a bite to eat and tok story lik lik.

Tea plantation, Baiyer region, Western Highlands

Kumul Lodge (base of Mount Hagen, Enga Province)

We stayed a night in Hagen at Hotel Kimininga, which was nice enough and the staff were very helpful but the rooms were more functional than lovely and so we decided to look elsewhere. We considered staying at the Highlander Hotel, which certainly had a nice restaurant but fortunately we stumbled on Kumul Lodge, which is about 45-60 minutes drive from Hagen, just past the border and into Enga Province.

We loved Kumul Lodge even though we failed to take advantage of much of what it has on offer (described below). For us, much of its appeal lay in its lovely situation and its peaceful ambiance (admittedly, we were the only guests and it can have up to 45-60 visitors during peak times, which are presumably NOT during the wet season!). The lodge is surrounded by the mountain forests and all the buildings, from the central dining areas to the sleeping quarters/bungalows, are made from bush materials. They are nonetheless comfortable and cosy (important since it does get cold overnight – worth bringing thermals or equivalent). A reviewer at Trip Advisor expressed similar enthusiasm.

The room rates are a pretty good price at K200/nt for a pair and K169/nt for a single although they recoup some of their costs on meals.

Bedroom view, Kumul Lodge

The drive to the Lodge is itself remarkable, at times peering into sheer valleys or travelling along narrow ridge lines that drop away on either side. Getting there is fairly straightforward: follow the highway to a junction about 10km (10 minutes) from the centre of Hagen town. Take the right-hand turn (the left-hand turn head south to Ialibu and Mendi and the Southern Highlands). Kumul Lodge has obvious sign posts about 30km further on.

Note that about 3km before you reach the Lodge, you will cross the checkpoint at the border of Western Highlands and Enga. The guards there inspect cars and PMVs for weapons and grog and were quite friendly to us (once I slowed down long enough to realise that they weren’t a hold-up mob!).

We enjoyed one of the short walks (an hour or so) in the immediate vicinity of the Lodge and a drive to the nearby Tambul district (see below) but otherwise we spent most of our two days there reading, relaxing and enjoying the peace and quiet.

Kumul Lodge, Enga province

If we’d been otherwise minded, here is what else is on offer:

Bird watching and orchids: ‘kumul’ means bird of paradise in pijin and the Lodge is primarily targeted at bird watchers (and also orchid lovers). Even without making any particular effort, we saw enough birds to see why ornithologists would be drawn here and certainly this avid bird watcher enjoyed his stay. We even failed to see the nearby wild orchid garden, so I can’t say more than that I know it exists.

Climb to the summit of Mount Hagen: The Lodge is close to the base of Mount Hagen (the mountain, not the town).  Apparently it is about a 10-12 hour return walk from the Lodge to the summit or else you can camp the night in a cave in the side of the mountain and the remaining walk is perhaps 6-8 hours, which sounds like a pretty cool adventure (maybe something I’ll get time to do while I’m in PNG …).

Village stay: the owners of Kumul Lodge come from a village about 15-20 minutes drive along the highway (in the opposite direction to Hagen) and they have designed the Lodge in part to provide casual employment for many of the villagers. In addition, they offer a village stay for those who are interested in getting a better sense of village life.

Tambul district

The other attraction of Kumul Lodge is that there are nice drives in several directions. In addition to the drive there from Hagen (mentioned above), the drive down the highway to the owners’ village is pretty nice. Finally, the drive into nearby Tambul district is well worth it if you haven’t already got your fill of the stunning Highlands scenery.

It is probably wise to take a guide from the Lodge but if you don’t, the route itself is pretty easy to follow. The right-hand turn from the highway is about 6km from the Lodge and about 3km past the border checkpoint. The road then winds its way up a ridge line and then continues slowly winding down the other side. At this point, you start to see some great views into the valley and the plains beyond. Most of the road is unsealed and tightly winding in places so although it is not a great distance, it is probably about 45-60 minutes drive each way.

Tambul District Headquarters has many of the trappings of a local administrative centre. There is a high school, district treasury, a bunch of beaten-up trade stores, two mobile relay towers (side-by-side, not more than 30m apart – the fruits of hot competition!) and, interestingly, the offices of the National Agriculture Research Institute high altitude program. In different areas there were cattle, goats and sheep grazing on the grasslands, which is something of a constrast to the usual run of chooks or pigs.

The roads running through the District Headquarters all run in straight lines, forming nice square grids that are now lined by large numbers of thin, tall eucalypts. I may be wrong but I had to wonder whether an Australian administrator had many years ago planted these as a reminder of home – they are certainly an attractive sight today.

I turned up in Tambul unannounced, in the hope of finding the relatives of one of my workmates (silly me, the area is much to big to rock up and ask if anyone knows so-and-so). The folks were understandably curious at my visit but were all friendly and welcoming. Nonetheless, it probably would have been better if there had been some way to give advance notice that we were coming (the folks at Kumul Lodge may be able to help with this).


PNG road trip – Madang to Hagen

January 23, 2010

In January 2010, Tom, Sarah and I went on a seven-day road trip from Madang to Hagen, via Goroka. This entry describes the route we took and also some of the preparations we made prior to the trip. In separate blog entries, I will some of the attractions we visited along the way in and around Madang, Goroka and Hagen.

Route times, distances and road conditions

Madang to Goroka (approx 300km, 6-7 hours):  Depart Madang town along the main stip – Modilon Rd. It terminates at the intersection with Baidal Rd/Ramu Hwy.  Take the left turn and go straight for the next 165km.

The sealed road cuts out after about 40km as the highway skirts the Finisterre Range. The road remains unsealed for the next 30km but was in reasonable condition without any obvious “slow points” (ie, points susceptible to car-jacking) let alone any risk of getting bogged. After that, a flat, sealed road (with occasional pot holes) follows the path of the Ramu river through open plains. About 120km from Madang you first encounter the Ramu Sugar and Oil Palm plantantations (and also the small town of Gusap), and you continue to pass through the plantations for the next 30km or so.It is also around this point that you leave Madang Province and briefly enter Morobe Province.

You can’t miss the junction of the Ramu Hwy and the Highlands Hwy at Watarais, which we reached after about 2.5-3 hours. Turn right and begin the climb up into the Highlands through Kassam Pass (the border between Morobe and Eastern Highlands is a short distance beyond the Watarais junction).

Along the way, you will pass the Yonki dam (about 30 minutes from the junction) and the town of Kainantu (about 1 hour from the junction). Both of these spots are worth stopping to have a look – see my earlier post on Goroka and surrounds for more details. From Kainantu, it is about another 2.5 hours to Goroka, passing through the town of Henganofi along the way.

Goroka to Kundiawa (75km, about 2-2.5 hours): about 20km from the Goroka you pass the turn off to Asaro, home of the famous Asaro mud men and you then head towards the scenic Daulo pass. It is about 50km from Goroka to Chuave, which is just across the border in Chimbu province. Thereafter, the road is unsealed and pretty rough and so it might be wise to arrange a security escort for the drive from Goroka to Hagen (or at least to Kundiawa if you are stopping there). In Kundiawa, Mt Wilhelm Lodge is a nice place to stop for lunch.

Kundiawa to Hagen (100km, about 1.5-2 hours): the unsealed road remains rough for about 10km after which it settles down to a fairly flat, straight (albeit occasionally pot-holed) drive through the length of the Waghi valley from Minj (near the border with Chimbu) through to Hagen.

Precautions & preparations

Car hire: We hired a 4WD Nissan Patrol through Budget car rentals (K305 per day incl. insurance, K1/km), mainly because it included a two-radio that connected through to the PROTECT security bases in Madang, Goroka and Hagen. It handled some fairly rough and muddy tracks without a problem.

Before you go, remember to check:

  • where to find the tyre-changing equipment,
  • how to turn on the ignition (we had a strange immobiliser that took us a while to figure out) and
  • whether you need to lock the front wheels to go into 4WD (we forgot to do this until we had troubles getting up a muddy hill).

Maps: There is a widely available map of PNG that gives you the general highway route from Madang to Hagen.  Town maps are available in the front of PNG phonebooks (and have more detail than the maps in the Lonely Planet).  Detailed topographical maps are available from the National Mapping Bureau (which is in Waigani, take the first right off Kumul Ave, and it is on the opposite side of the road to Morauta Haus).

Crime, illness & weather: There are three main risks to worry about: crime, illness and inclement weather. The travel advice from the Australian Dept of Foreign Affairs (Jan 2010) recommends a “high degree of caution” and states:

We advise you to exercise a high degree of caution in Papua New Guinea because of the high levels of serious crime. Crime rates are high in the capital Port Moresby and in other areas of Papua New Guinea, especially in Lae, Mt Hagen and other parts of the Highland provinces. Cases of cholera and dysentery have been reported in Morobe Province, Madang Province, and East Sepik Province since August 2009. On 9 September 2009 the Government of Papua New Guinea declared a national emergency to prevent the spread of infectious disease.

A security escort can be arranged with security firms like PROTECT (aka G4S) or Guard Dog. We did not have an escort but ensured we had maps and several means of communication (two-way radio in the car and both Digicel & bemobile handsets to maximise coverage, with a list of key contacts saved in each phone). We sought advice on the road conditions from locals at each place we stopped and ultimately dropped one leg of our trip (Betty’s Lodge, Mt Wilhelm, when we learnt that heavy rains had left the road in poor condition). As noted above, the main stretch where you might want an escort is the unsealed section of road in Chimbu province, in between Goroka and Hagen.

We kept an eye on news reports before and during the trip (there were several jail breaks at the time) and were most cautious in and around towns and at “slow points” on the highway (eg, unsealed or pot-holed sections and junction points). We minimised driving at night. We also had an emergency “grab bag” with food, water, first aid kit, mozzie net and light sleeping bag in case the worst happened and we were forced to leave the car.

UPDATE (24/2/10): we returned to Moresby in mid-January. Since then, I’ve read at least half-a-dozen reports about blockages on different sections of the Ramu Highway and the Highlands Highway due to landslides, flooding or bridges getting washed away. The blockages seem to be particularly concentrated in the Southern Highlands and Chimbu but also include the sections of road from Madang to Watarais and from Kainantu to Goroka. We knew we were taking our chances by going on a road trip in the wet season but even so, it seems that we were pretty lucky to get a clean run all the way through. My guess is that the risk of road blockages is probably much less during the dry season (roughly between April to November).

PNG road trip – Goroka and Eastern Highlands

January 23, 2010

Goroka is an attractive town and a relatively quiet one (at least by Highlands standards) with plenty on offer for tourists in addition to the famous Goroka show that is held in September each year.

I spent a couple of days there in January 2010 as part of a road trip from Madang to Hagen. The entry below provides some details on a few of the attractions both within Goroka itself and nearby.

Goroka town

(JK McCarthy Museum, Mt Kis, Mt Gahavisuka, accommodation)

JK McCarthy Museum (K5/psn, near the Sport Institute): although it has obviously seen better days, this is a terrific museum and well worth an hour or two. There are about six large rooms that include WWII refuse and a range of traditional artifacts from various parts of PNG. However, perhaps the most interesting section is the large collection of photos of the Eastern Highlands taken in the 1930s and 1940s by Mick Leahy and others shortly after they first entered the Highlands.

According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, the museum’s founder, JK McCarthy, lived and worked as a patrol officer and then administrator in PNG for more than 40 years between 1927 and the late-1960s. At various times he was posted in the Sepik, New Britain, Bougainville, Madang and the Highlands. He also wrotewrote one of the classic books on PNG patrolling – Patrol into Yesterday.

Phone: (675) 732 1502, Facsimilie: (675) 732 2987, Email: (Open 8-12 & 1-4 weekdays, 2-4 Sat & 10-12 Sun.)

Mt Kis Lookout: Mt Kis is near the centre of town and now has a shiny new Digicel tower at the summit. This doesn’t spoil the lookout, which affords great views over the town and valley and out towards the surrounding mountains. However, we were warned that the “Lookout” is also known as “Look Out!” because of the prevalence of trouble-makers nearby. So keep your wits about you or go with a guide. (We didn’t but fortunately were befriended by a helpful ex-security guard named Paul Papio who lives in the area.)

Mt Gahavisuka National Park (K20/psn + K25/vehicle): The National Park used to be run by the provincial government but several disputes with landowners mean that they now look after it themselves.  However, they don’t receive any funds from the  provincial government for upkeep and so the road and facilities (such as BBQ area and some huts for camping overnight) are now somewhat run-down. At the time we visited, it was certainly only accessible by 4WD.

Nonetheless, it is well worth the trip. There are several walking tracks that wind their way around the forest-covered mountain peak before finishing in views out over Goroka in one direction and towards Asaro in the other. Allow at least 45-60 mins round trip walking at a leisurely pace.

The right turn (if heading from Goroka) to Mt Gahavisuka is not sign-posted and is easy to miss. You may find it is best to ask your hotel to arrange a guide. Otherwise, it is about 3km from Independence Dr/Goroka marketsalong the highway. The turn-off is between “3 Mile” and “4 Mile”, which are both sign-posted.

Accommodation: we thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Pacific Gardens Hotel, which is owned by colourful Governor of Eastern Highlands Province, Malcolm Smith-Kela (‘kela’ is pijin for bald …). The hotel is aptly named – the grounds are beautiful and are surrounded by tall trees, a running creek and lush vegetation. At night, guards with bows and arrows prowl the perimeter! It has also received positive reviews on Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet.

Rooms: K375/nt for very nice “premium room” (double); K225/nt for perfectly satisfactory “standard room” (double). Phone: (675) 732 3418 / 732 1139, Email:

Nearby attractions

(Yonki dam, Kainantu Cultural Centre, SIL, Asaro mud men & Kamaliki Training Centre)

Yonki dam: The Yonki dam and hydropower station fills much of the Arona valley and is the main power source for Madang, Morobe, and much of the Highlands (or at least those parts that are connected to the grid). As you drive up the Highlands Highway from Lae, it is about 30 minutes beyond the junction with the Ramu Highway that connects up with Madang (ie, about 2.5-3 hours from Goroka). More info & pics available at Malum Nalu’s blog.

Kainantu Cultural Centre: The Cultural Centre is another worthwhile stopping point on the drive from Lae or Madang to Goroka. It is about an hour’s drive from the junction with the Ramu Highway, perhaps 30 minutes beyond Yonki and about 2 hours from Goroka.

Kainantu itself is a pretty rough looking town and didn’t get a great write-up in a recent article in the Post-Courier (19/12/09) which opened with:

Kainantu is notoriously known as an outlaw town and is often shunned by tourists and other local PNG natives passing through into the Highlands region. Tribal fights, attempted armed robbery, cold blooded murder and other types of lawlessness are rampant …

However, as the article goes on to describe, the Cultural Centre has a great range of locally made pottery, using clay from the nearby Bundaira and Arau areas. Vases and fruit bowls sell for K50 or less; and numerous different tea sets containing 11 cups, a teapot, a milk jug and sugar bowl sell for K180. Once again, journo and blogger Malum Nalu has more details and some terrific pictures of the pottery.

Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL): According to the Lonely Planet, SIL is situated at Ukarumpa in the Aiyura valley, about 30 mins past Kainantu (perhaps 1.5 hours from Goroka). SIL’s web site explains its objectives:

SIL PNG is dedicated to vernacular language development and translation of materials within the country of Papua New Guinea. We analyze and publish academic studies in hundreds of languages and promote literacy activities including the development of orthographies for unwritten languages.

SIL in PNG is a branch of SIL International, a volunteer nonprofit organization that has worked in PNG since 1956. In cooperation with the PNG Department of Education, research has been carried out in more than 389 languages, and at the present time about 316 SIL members are actively working on projects in 190 different languages.

Asaro mud men: There’s heaps of information about the famous mud men elsewhere so I’ll let you Google this yourselves. The left turn (if heading from Goroka) to Asaro village is about 20km from Independence Dr/Goroka markets along the highway. Generally the villagers need a day’s notice to prepare a performance for visitors so speak to your hotel to assist with the arrangements.

Kamaliki Vocational Training centre: I only know what I’ve read on Malum Nalu’s blog but it sounds like an interesting place.  Apparently the centre is about 10km out of Goroka (heading towards Lae).