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.
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).