PNG trek – Highlands to the coast

1. Trek overview and highlights 

Chimbu highlands, Kegsugl

In September 2010, two friends (Pete and Iris) and I trekked from the PNG Highlands down to the north coast. We began at the base of Mount Wilhelm in Chimbu Province (starting at an altitude of around 2,800m) and followed an old vehicle track down to the town of Madang. The trek itself took us three days and afforded stunning views along the way. It was a real treat and relatively easy to organise through Betty’s Lodge. I highly recommend it.

In addition to the trek itself, the trip had several other highlights. If you haven’t been to the Highlands before, you can get a great introduction during the five-hour road trip from Hagen through the Waghi Valley to Kundiawa and then up into the Chimbu Highlands. And at the end of the drive, we were all enchanted by our short stay at Betty’s Lodge.

We completed the trip in four days and returned to work in Moresby early on the fifth day. For fit trekkers, it should be possible to cut a day off the walk although I think that would be a shame. Alternatively, for travellers with more time, here are several very appealing variations that could be add to the basic itinerary.

  • Climb Mount Wilhelm: the climb to the peak of Mount Wilhelm (at 4,509m, PNG’s highest) is very popular, even though quite a few people don’t quite make it to the top due to the effects of altitude. A typical trip might take a day to get to Betty’s Lodge, a day at base camp to adjust to the altitude and then a day up to the peak and back down to the Lodge. Thus, you could combine the climb to the peak and the walk down to the coast in six days, or longer if you wanted to spend more time in the middle relaxing at Betty’s Lodge.
  • Enjoy Madang: both Madang town and Madang Province have much on offer for travellers and tourists. If you have time, this is an obvious place to relax and explore (for some suggestions, see my earlier post on Madang).
  • Goroka to Mt Wilhelm trek: Goroka is a beautiful part of the Highlands (see earlier post) and apparently there is an old road from Goroka through to the base of Mt Wilhelm that takes perhaps two days to walk. If the three-day trek is not enough for you, it may be possible to start at Goroka, hike to Betty’s Lodge and then continue on to Madang (perhaps five days total). Or for the full bonanza, why not trek from Goroka to Betty’s Lodge, then head up to the peak and back and then continue all the way to Madang? I reckon it would be possible to do the whole trip in seven days if you were pushing it – and what an awesome week that would be!

The rest of this post sets out the basic four-day itinerary that we followed (Section 2) and then provides the logistical details (contacts, costs and precautions we took, Section 3). My trekking companion, Iris, has also provided a good description of the trek on her blog.

2. Four-day itinerary

DAY ONE: Port Moresby to Betty’s Lodge/Kegsugl

You should organise the trek through Betty’s Lodge both because it is relatively easy and because the Lodge and Betty herself are both wonderful (see contact details in Section 3 further below).

The simplest way to get there is to fly to Hagen. Betty’s Lodge has a small coffee shop that doubles as an office near the Hagen airport, so they can meet you when you arrive.

The drive from Hagen to Kundiawa (capital of Chimbu Province) takes about 1.5-2 hours and from there to Betty’s Lodge (near Kegsugl) is about 2-3 hours on a slow winding road with marvellous views.


Drive from Kundiawa to Kegsugl

DAY TWO: Betty’s Lodge/Kegsugl to Snowy Pass

(approx 8 hours)

Betty’s Lodge is located near the town of Kegsugl at about 2,800m altitude. The trek initially heads back down the main road from Betty’s until, after 45-60 minutes, you reach a junction. At this point you’ve already descended 2,480m and now have to do your only serious climbing for the trek.

Mondiyai Pass (2,900m) marks the border between Chimbu and Madang provinces. We got there in about three hours and then began to descend again. After a couple of hours, the road levels out a bit as it follows the ridge lines at around 2,200-2,400m. Along the way, the road passes by the small villages of Pomiyai and Pandabai, which we reached after 6-6.5 hours. We got to Snowy Pass in a bit under eight hours at an easy pace and with perhaps an hour of breaks along the way.

Snowy Pass (2,120m) is a remote but moderate sized village with a school and it’s very own Digicel tower. It has fine views of the route for the following day so take the time to get your bearings and note some of the landmarks that you will see behind you as you continue onwards.


Our accommodation at Snowy Pass

Some points to note:

  • Water: There are several watering points along the way but make sure to refill each time you get the opportunity. In particular, make sure you stock up at the final point because there is no water supply at Snowy Pass itself – you have to walk some distance further down.
  • Sunburn: The road on the first day is fairly exposed and although the altitude means it is not too hot, at least two of us should have applied more sunscreen along the way.
  • Cold: It gets cold overnight in Snowy Pass. Even with thermals and some extra layers, we still needed the blankets that our hosts provided.

DAY THREE: Snowy Pass to Bundi

(approx 5.5 hours)

From Snowy Pass, the road snakes down and along the contours of the mountainsides. There are several water crossings along the way: perhaps three shallow crossings and three bridges, including one built for a disused hydro station not far from Bundi.

After 2.5-3 hours, we stopped for lunch at one of the bridges crossing the Kwaegu River (1,430m). This was also a nice spot to have a wash (there are no showers at Snowy Pass!).

Thereafter, the road levelled out. It took us another two hours to get to Aranam junction and perhaps 30 minutes from there to Bundi (1,410m). Thus, the day’s walk was only 5.5 hours, including around one hour for breaks.

We had one slightly unpleasant incident as we passed through the village of Bundikara (before we stopped for lunch). Some young lads, perhaps affected by grog or marijuana, suggested that we should pay them something for travelling through their village. This is rubbish and our guides politely told them so. The lads persisted and so our guides eventually gave them K5, which was enough to satisfy them. It was a small amount to pay but an unfortunate incident nonetheless.

Fit trekkers could try to press on Brahmin provided that the ‘short road’ from Bundi to Brahmin is passable. This road apparently takes about 4-5 hours but we were warned at Bundi that there had been a few incidents along that route. The alternative route, described below, took us 7 hours to get to the Imbrum Bridge, which is still perhaps 2 hours walk from Brahmin unless you can get a lift.

In short, fit trekkers might be able to shave our time down and get to Brahmin in about 8 hours (short road) or 12 hours (longer road). However, this would be a shame because Bundi affords terrific views, whereas Brahmin is down in the Ramu plain.


View from Bundi village, Madang province

DAY FOUR: Bundi to Madang

(about 7 hours walking + 4 hours by vehicle)

As mentioned above, the ‘short road’ from Bundi to Brahmin apparently takes about 4-5 hours. We were warned at Bundi that there had been a few incidents along that route so we took the ‘long road’ (with short cuts). Hopefully the short road will be safe again in future, otherwise the final day is pretty long and you should start very early to make sure you get into Madang before dark.

The short cuts involved us deviating from the main road for three steep descents. Despite assistance from our guides, a couple of us ended up on our arses several times on the way down but by taking it slowly, there was little risk of injury (although perhaps some sense of foolishness as we scrambled down a few of the more slippery points).

Even with the short cuts, it took us 3 hours to make the descent to Binaru Bridge (550m) and another 4 hours to get to the Imbrum Bridge (approx 300m), at which point our walking track met the road from Brahmin to the Ramu Highway. On most days, it should be fairly easy to hitch a lift within perhaps half an hour however we arrived on a Sunday and had to wait for two hours until our guide was able to convince someone from Brahmin to get us. (We eventually paid K150 for the trip, but there was a considerable premium for driving us on the Sunday.)


Driving from Brahmin to Madang

It took about 1 hour and 45 minutes to get to the junction with the Ramu Highway and about the same length of time for a PMV to then get to Madang (K10 per head). All up, expect a minimum of 3.5 hours driving time at the end of the walk, plus some time for negotiating transport.

We stayed overnight in Madang and then caught the early morning flight back to Moresby. (Note that this flight is often overbooked so even though you’ll want to sleep in, it’s worth checking in early.)

3. Organisation and logistics

BETTY’S LODGE

As mentioned above, you should organise the trek through Betty’s Lodge both because it is (relatively) easy and because the Lodge and Betty herself are both wonderful

The most reliable way to contact Betty’s Lodge is through their coffee shop in Hagen (+675 545 1481). Betty also has a mobile phone – 7175 8350 or bhiggins@digicelpacific.blackberry.com – but when she is up at the Lodge, she can only get reception when she stands outside (she has placed a stone, now known as the ‘Digical rock’ at the point where reception is best).

It may also be possible to contact her on 0145 112 037 (satellite phone) or Betty_Higgins_lodges@yahoo.com.au but I’m not sure that either of these are still working.

GUIDES/CARRIERS

Betty’s Lodge arranged three excellent guides/carriers (one per traveller): Toby, Otto and Augusta. In addition to lugging our packs for us, they were particularly valuable when arranging accommodation in Snowy Pass and Bundi. I highly recommend them to future trekkers.

We paid them K100 per guide per day, which is intended to cover their food along the way and also the PMV fare from Madang back to Betty’s Lodge (consequently, make sure you have some very small denominations so they can buy food at road-side stalls).

To avoid awkwardness later on, it would help to clarify the following points before you leave you: how will food purchases be arranged (we left it to the main guide, Toby), who will pay for transport to Madang (we did) and who will pay for accommodation in Madang, if required (we didn’t expect to pay for this but, when asked, we contributed K30 each).

VILLAGE ACCOMMODATION

Betty suggested that village accommodation would cost K20-30 per head but you won’t know the exact costs for accommodation until you get to the village and have negotiated a rate so take some extra cash (in smallish denominations). We paid K20 per head in Bundi and K30 per head in Snowy Pass. We did not have to pay for accommodation for our guides.

Note that Bundi mission also has some dedicated guest houses that apparently even have showers. Despite this temptation, we turned down the option when we found out the price was K60 per head. Frankly, it was much more companiable to stay in a village house for the night anyway.

MAPS

The National Mapping Bureau has electronic copies of the ‘Bundi map’ (Sheet No. 7986, Series T601, scale 1:100,000) – purchase and printing at Theodist costs K230.

You can also get hard copies of the larger scale ‘Madang map’ (Sheet No. SB 55-5, Series 1501, scale 1:250,000) for much less, perhaps K50.

We found the maps interesting so we could trace our route but they are not necessary for navigation purposes – the road is obvious and the guides know which turn to take at junctions.

BUDGET

The main costs are: flights to Hagen and from Madang (check with Air Niugini), transfer to Betty’s Lodge + fuel (K900), one night at Betty’s Lodge (K240 per head), food supplies and accommodation in Madang. Our total costs during the walk (guides, accommodation and transport) came to a bit under K1300 between the three of us. Note that we paid for the transfer and for Betty’s Lodge in cash.

FOOD

We took food for three days plus emergency supplies (and/or supplementary suppliesfor our guides). If necessary, it would be possible to buy basic supplies (hard navy biscuits, rice, some fruit and veges) at stalls along the way however I wouldn’t rely on it. For what it’s worth, here is what we took (which proved more than sufficient).

  • Breakfasts: muesli (1.5kg for three people – too much!) and powdered milk
  • Lunch: peanut butter (approx 1.2kg for three people) and two packs of vitawheat biscuits
  • Dinner: 2 packs of two-minute noodles per person (plus substantial extras)
  • Snacks: muesli bars (approx 24 between three people), dried fruit and nuts (approx 600g per person), 3 cans of peanuts

WATER

In general, there are good water sources one each day of the trek although it is important to refill when you get the chance, especially on the first and last days. One of us (me) trusted our guides’ advice about which water sources were clean. The other two, however, trusted their water purification tablets more. We each had water bottles with around 1.5-2L capacity.

OTHER SUPPLIES

  • Satellite phone and GPS
  • Sunblock, mosquito repellent, gastrolyte tablets/powder (plenty)
  • First aid kit with: antiseptic power & antiseptic swabs; various bandaids, bandages and elastoplast; panadol and panadeine; gastrostop, anti-diahhroea treatment, anti-nausea treatment; tweezers & scissors; disposable gloves; thermal blanket
  • Matches, cigarette lighter, torches
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4 Responses to “PNG trek – Highlands to the coast”

  1. Jill Says:

    Great post Harry. Could you incorporate a map? Just to show the main towns like Madang, Hagen, Kundiawa, and the location of Mt Wilhelm

  2. albert Says:

    hii ..i’am planing to visit png october 2011 with a friend of mine ., and u r stories sounds amazing ..my question is …do u think is possible to do some treks without a guide?? and how difficult do u think that would be !!

    • Harry Greenwell Says:

      hmmm, i would recommend taking a guide for three reasons. first, even when we were following a worn out old road, we would almost certainly have taken major wrong turns without guides who knew the area. i doubt you could find a sufficiently clear and detailed map to avoid this. second, there are sometimes risks of running into trouble – thieves or tribal fighting – and guides with local knowledge are your best protection against this. finally, i think the guides can add a lot to the experience by sharing their knowledge.

      i think the question is where to find guides, because many people will offer their services and for varying prices. unless you have some other local contacts you can take advantage of, i’d recommend you go for someone who has been recommended (eg, by Betty’s lodge) or who comes from an established trekking company. but that’s just my two cents worth 🙂

  3. Abraham Gandhi Says:

    could you kindly show
    Me a map of Bundi area
    Of Madang province,PNG
    please.
    cheers.
    Abraham.

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