Mt Wilhelm Conservation Area Research and Conservation Field Trip

After the months of preparations for the Our Planet Reviewed” Scientific Expedition in Papua New Guinea, the time finally arrived to leave for the field and our convoy of four Land Cruisers heavily-laden with research teams and equipment took off from our base in Madang at around 4 am. Our convoy carried the four teams that would be stationed at the four highest elevation sites of 3700m, 3200m, 2700m and 2200m.

Our planet reviewed PNG

The travelling party included the eight-man PNG BRC (Papua New Guinea Binatang Research Centre) entomology team, drivers and crews for the long trip. Included in the travelling party was Prof. Novotny who would address communities at the drop-off sites and oversee the teams’ dispatch, and a few expatriate coordinators and journalists from the international team to witness the terrestrial expedition’s first field deployment.

Mt Wilhelm Trip Plan

Our plan, taking off from Madang, was to go all the way up to Kegesugl village, below the 3200m and 3700m campsites, and drop off the two higher elevation teams there to proceed by foot up to their camps.

After a brief meeting with the community there, the convoy would travel back down a little distance from Kegesugl and cross a valley river and onto the adjacent mountain range at Mondia Pass, where the 2700m and 2200m teams would be dropped off.

Read about the Mt Wilhelm Conservation Area

Due to the deteriorating conditions of an existing road that once linked Madang and the Mt. Wilhelm area, the teams for the two lower sites would have to continue by foot along this road down towards the direction of Madang to reach their campsites.

Mt Wilhelm Transect - BRC led expedition

Field trip to document PNG’s vast biodiversity

Leaving for the field always caused a sense of excitement in the BRC team. With last-minute checks on equipment and supplies in the cars, making sure property left behind in the rooms were in good order, hurried goodbyes to members left back to man the base, and then a final check on personal supplies to ensure nothing important had been forgotten, it was now time to focus on going into the field.

Concerning the importance of double-checking supplies and equipment, it was not unknown for a car fully-loaded and leaving for the field to suddenly reappear a few minutes later to pick up an important item forgotten by a shame-faced team member, to the great annoyance of all the others in the car. But it was clear that this would not be tolerated on this particular trip, and everyone seemed well-geared up and ready.

Knowing you would be isolated in the field for weeks or months, and especially to the highlands, where many adventures (and misadventures) could be had, evoked a feeling of being soldiers going out on a dangerous, yet important mission.

Albeit, we were ‘soldiers’ helping to document PNG’s vastly unknown biodiversity, or “Soldiers of Green Fortune”, as I liked to call it.

An early research teams that established the Mt. Wilhelm Transect in 2009 (Image: Binatang Research Centre)”

Smokers and ‘buai’ chewers field trip misfortune

A somewhat humorous and automatic organization of team members into each car for all such field-trips included a simple separation of non-smokers/betelnut chewers (who mostly comprised of the team’s majority) into one car, often driven by smoking/chewing members, and the other non-smoking/chewing members go into a car of their own, likewise driven by a non-smoking/chewing driver.

Oftentimes the non-smoking/chewing car may carry expatriate researchers as well, and this appropriately spares the visitors the usual rowdiness that goes on in the ‘other’ car.

This simple organization entails checking out beforehand who is driving which car (mostly done by smoker/chewer members), and the appropriate passenger allocations naturally fall into place.

Such an arrangement allows the smokers/chewers to happily indulge in their habits during the trip without compromising the health and peace of mind of the non-smoking/chewing members and ensuring an overall, blissful journey for everyone.

A great misfortune, however, dreaded by all smokers/chewers is when they find themselves, unfortunately, stuck either as the driver or a passenger in a car carrying non-smoking/chewing travellers- and more distressing if also carrying expatriates.

The agony of travelling or driving for hours on end without nicotine or buai ache, coupled with the stresses of PNG’s challenging roads, are unhappy tales that a few who have lived through rarely like to recount.

For this reason, smoker/chewer cars mostly end up being tightly crammed with like-minded individuals, even though the other cars may have plenty of available space.

Buai and Brus Must-Stops

In line with the distinction of the two groups outlined above, another important reason for having the non-smoking/chewing passengers in a separate car is to facilitate the vital need for a quick final stop. Either at Madang’s 4-Mile Market or other favourite roadside markets for the smokers/chewers to stock up on satiating amounts of betelnut and its complementary ingredients, including on tobacco for use on the road trip and in the field.

This is done by either the smokers/chewers car leaving early from the base to make a stop at the market while the other cars catch up, or by trailing behind the other cars, making the essential stop and then quickly catching up to the others and cheerfully proceeding on schedule.

Non-smoker/chewer members of the BRC (Binatang Research Centre) team, even those in authority, and expatriate researchers with any considerable experience in PNG, acknowledge and, to a certain degree, accept this ‘tradition’ among teams leaving for long periods in the field.

It is common knowledge that smoking/chewing members (who are always mostly a majority in the team) will not operate to full capacity in the field without these necessary boosts.

As well as this, betelnut and tobacco are often expected from local assistants and villagers in the field, especially in the highlands where betelnut is scarce and highly valued. These gifts help to quickly create bonds with local people and the BRC team, strengthen existing ties, and generally contribute to ensuring cooperation and goodwill among the field team and community members.

Mt Wilhelm Trip
Binatang Research Centre convoy heading up to Mt. Wilhelm (Image: BRC)

Travelling along the Ramu Valley

Leaving Madang under the cool cover of darkness, the daytime heat saw us in the sprawling and beautiful Ramu Valley, where the rushing, dry winds almost seemed to tug at our cruising vehicles to turn them on their sides.

The vast openness of this fertile valley was bordered on the right by the rugged, cloud-tipped and ominous-looking Sarawaged Ranges; a stark contrast of dark lushness against the sun-scorched, lighter hues of the grassy Ramu plains.

Passing through the valley each time, I never ceased to be amazed at how the small, fragile-looking, light-aircrafts made their way into and momentarily disappeared behind this foreboding curtain of rocks and thick vegetation from Lae’s Nadzab Airport every day. The light-aircrafts were the lifeline of the people, visiting and bringing vital goods and services to the mountainous communities hidden beyond, and managed to return unscathed.

Although I had personally made several such trips into the remote Kabwum District and witnessed the wondrous steep mountains, ravines, cascading waterfalls and isolated ridge-top communities that lay on the other side of this seemingly impenetrable wall of Morobe’s Huon Peninsula.

Highway to PNG Highlands

On the left of the highway, the distant foothills that gradually led up into the Central Cordillera of the PNG highlands seemed somewhat familiar and less sinister-looking.

This was perhaps because I knew that it faintly veiled an enormous, thriving civilization of densely-populated highland communities that had long conquered much of its mountains and rich valleys through thousands of years of settlement and agriculture.

Although the first outsiders to behold and attempt to scale this mountainous impasse that once concealed its hinterland peoples, led by the Australian Leahy brothers in the 1930s and making first European contact with the highlanders, may certainly have appreciated the impossibilities of its precipitous landscapes.

Brief Stop at Watarais

Passing the busy crowds at Gusap Station, we headed on to the Watarais Junction where the road continues into Lae City, and the Okuk Highway breaks off onto the right to begin the tightly winding Kassam Pass climb into the highlands.

This spot, having a small trade store and stalls with locals selling fresh fruits and refreshments was always a favourite for us- offering a short respite before leaving the familiarity of the coast behind, and allowing us to mentally change gears for the new challenges of the higher elevations.

Last ‘kulaus’ and other coastal fruits that would be missed for a month were drunk and eaten, and then the convoy pushed off again, our ultimate destination being the highest point accessible by 4 Wheel Drive vehicle in the highlands of PNG.

Back to my birthplace – Goroka

I was born in the beautiful town of Goroka and had spent a wonderful early childhood there. But having left the highlands as a young boy and returning there in adulthood, now on this expedition and in other subsequent trips, always felt as if I was entering an alien world- inciting a feeling of awe and wonderment almost akin to visiting another country.

This was probably because I never usually had the chance to remain in the highlands for long periods of more than a month, after my early years in Goroka. And so returning to the highlands intermittently for brief periods offered me opportunities to catch nostalgic glimpses into my happy childhood memories of these seemingly strange but wonderful lands.

In hindsight, this was how I preferred to keep my romanticized relationship with the birthplace of mine, since I was familiar with how being in one place for too long could gradually erode the novelty and initial delight of being in a new environment, reducing it to just another overly familiar place of living.

The hazardous Kassam Pass

And so as our car meandered and crawled under its weight over the hazardously-narrow Kassam Pass road littered with gaping potholes, barely avoiding the passing giant semi-trailer trucks that appeared to menacingly command the entire road’s width, my mind was consciously taking in the changing environment around me.

Passing sections of the road with precarious bends and sheer drops into the gullies below, I somberly took in the mangled, rusty remains of vehicles that had long met their fate on this treacherous entrance into PNG’s hinterlands.

Other wrecks seemed to have been recent, filling me with wonder at how this vital road link that urgently needed major upgrades still managed to sustain the livelihoods of a significant proportion of the country’s population over many decades.

Highlands environment and people

On a less disturbing note, I also noticed with some exhilaration my inner ears softly ‘popping’ with the increasing elevation, and sensed the gradual coolness in the highlands air with its accompanying unfamiliar scents.

The thick, tall jungles of the lowlands had now changed into wide expanses of grassland with patches of montane forests isolated to the deep ravines and the high mountain ridges. Planted groves of Casuarina trees towered over neatly tended coffee and sweet potato gardens on the edges of the constricted road, with thatched highlands round-houses and semi-permanent trade stores almost encroaching onto the public highway in certain crowded spots.

Being the lifeline of the Highlands region, the Okuk Highway was always busy with vehicles, as well as with local people going about their daily lives. Regular car-horn tooting was necessary to warn resident pedestrians, who looked to have as much right on the road as the speeding vehicles, either sitting on the edges or walking unperturbed on the bitumen-sealed lanes.

Appearing to be a highway-centric people (also common in many coastal areas in PNG) owing to the overly rugged surrounding landscapes, and with a well-known culture of aggressive compensation demands, the dreadful mishap of faulty brakes in a car that could certainly be disastrous for both vehicle party and local victims in these densely-settled roadsides, was not an impossible scenario to cross my mind.

Adapting to cool Highlands climate

The daily attire of the people here was also obviously different. In contrast to the light, loose clothing usually seen in coastal people, I noticed with personal interest the commonplace thick jackets, cardigans and woollen hoodies that were an essential part of people’s dressing here.

These apparels were evidently because of the cooler climate, but my fascination at these differences stemmed again from my childhood here. Growing up on the coast with vague memories of my birthplace, going through photo albums from Goroka, I was always curious about the thick, fuller clothing my family and I were outfitted with back then.

From my hazy memories, I remembered the misty Goroka mornings where my older siblings would go to school wearing their school uniform sweaters. I also recalled with fascination tales my family would tell about the occasional hail that fell on particularly cold days.

And now, after years of wondering as a boy about these different climates and clothing needs here, I was personally experiencing the essential requirement for warmer clothes by the people living in this part of PNG.

Our planet and people

Having satisfied my childhood curiosity through this experience, I then found this interest extending onto how the highlander ancestors, before the arrival of European clothing, had managed to go about their everyday activities scantily-clad in the chilly environment here. Had their bodies been somehow better adapted to withstanding the climate here than the current generations?

This also had been a wonder of mine regarding Aboriginal peoples living in the southern, temperate climates of Australia and Tasmania, although I knew that they were generally more mobile and would sometimes move with the changing seasons.

Thinking about this, I remembered reading about an interesting genetic study showing that Aboriginals had adapted over thousands of years to endure cold climates in Australia’s southern parts and during its central desert’s freezing nights.

Perhaps this had been the same for the early New Guinea highlanders, I now wondered.

About the writer

Bradley Gewa is a former Research Technician from the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre in Madang, where he helped in the study of insect-plant interactions in the PNG rainforest, as well as supported community-based conservation projects. He has a keen affinity for nature, loves books and writing, and is a life-long student after the pursuit of knowledge.

PNG Insight is delighted to have published several articles from the writer. The articles are a reminicense of his work in areas of research, conservation and community projects with the PNG Binatang Reseach Centre. 

We are also glad to annouce that Bradley has started a website:PNG Science News

Below are the articles by Bradley. Click on the image to read more.


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