Highland hopping

Ben Hall journeys skyward through a panorama, stopping at remote villages where the people are friendly and legends come to life.

As the van pushes uphill on the mountain's edge and through roadside villages, our driver slows down as another pig crosses the road, oblivious of the 1.5 tonnes of metal heading straight towards it. In fact, the pig stops and has a scratch before flopping down on the road's edge to catch the morning sun.

"These are like pets, or even part of the family, and if you hit one you must keep driving," our driver, Roy, explains. "The family will want revenge." Rumour has it that people have been beaten and killed for such an offence and Roy shows extreme caution and enormous respect for the animals.

In a couple of the villages, as we slow down, locals pet and groom their pigs, which, like dogs, often roll onto their backs to encourage their owners to give them a tummy rub.

The drive up the Highlands Highway from Goroka to the Daulo Pass not only reveals landscapes that earn this area a reputation as one of the most beautiful parts of Papua New Guinea, it's also a fascinating snapshot of the culture of a people who are renowned for their friendliness and hospitality – except when you harm one of their own.

At the top of Daulo Pass, through the fast-moving clouds and swirling mist at an altitude of 2478 metres, the full grandeur of the region is revealed with lush forests lining steep mountain ranges and rivers running beside small villages where wisps of smoke rise from the valley floor.

Goroka and its surrounds are famous for trekking, thanks to the stunning landscapes linked by extensive trails built by locals. The region also has year-round mild weather because the average altitude is about 1600 metres.

The temperature rarely rises above 26 degrees, earning it the nickname Land of Perpetual Spring.

Goroka itself is a gritty working city of about 20,000 people, the provincial capital of the Eastern Highlands and a major trading centre for people buying and selling farm produce. Outside the city, however, is where the real heart and soul of the Eastern Highlands can be found.

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One of the area's most enduring legends is that of the Mudmen of Asaro; the men of Geremiyaka village, just outside Goroka, perform the Mudmen rituals with genuine attention to detail and a little showmanship thrown in for dramatic effect.

This is not a dance, as is the case with most sing-sings in this part of the world. It's a performance that tells the story of one of the most established legends of PNG. The legend of the Mudmen goes something like this: many years ago, the men of the village returned from a hunting trip to find a neighbouring clan had raided their homes and taken their women.

The men then launched a dawn raid of their own to save the women but, in the darkness, they became lost and stumbled into a muddy creek, losing their weapons. When they finally emerged, they were covered in thick grey-white mud. When the rival tribe saw them stalking towards them, it created mass panic as their enemies thought they were evil spirits coming to take them.

Geremiyaka is a friendly place of great beauty and an impromptu village visit is often a part of the Mudmen experience. One of the local women, Rachel, shows us around and introduces us to her grandfather, Tenige, who she thinks might be 85 but nobody's really sure.

Tenige invites us into his traditional home and shows us his bed and the fire on his floor, where he cooks and makes his coffee.

Just 30 minutes' drive from Goroka, Kaveve is another traditional village set in jungle on the banks of a river. As you arrive, children begin to appear seemingly from nowhere to find out where their new visitors are from.

It's a laid-back place with a strong sense of community and it's the starting point for a two-hour trek to a waterfall deep in the forest.

"We could do the walk in 1 hours if we move fast and don't stop but you'll miss out on all the beautiful spots on the way," our guide, Geha, explains. After two hours, we cross the final bridge and walk along the river bank. We can hear the waterfall ahead. As we approach, the noise becomes much louder and, rounding a bend, we finally see what we've come to discover: Kaveve Waterfall.

With good recent rain, the waterfall is in full flow and it's easy to see why the Kaveve people have claimed this as their special place.

Geha and the handful of children who have followed us up know exactly what to do next. They sit down and watch and listen to the waterfall, saying absolutely nothing.

The writer was a guest of PNG Tourism Promotion Authority and Air Niugini.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Air Niugini has flights from Sydney to Port Moresby and throughout Papua New Guinea, including to Goroka. Phone 1300 361 380, see airniugini.com.pg.

TOURING THERE

Geremiyaka and Kaveve are accessed by four-wheel-drive. Goroka Treks & Tours takes visitors to the villages and conducts city tours. Phone + 675 732 1281 or email goroka@pngexplorers.com.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See www.pngtourism.org.pg.

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