PNG road trip – Madang to Hagen

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).

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One Response to “PNG road trip – Madang to Hagen”

  1. Everest Says:

    You need to add a facebook button for your blog. I just bookmarked this article, however I had to do it manually. Only my $.02 🙂

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