Thursday, November 05, 2009

Magnificent Mt. Wilhelm!

Text and photographs by Barry Greville-Eyres, naturalist and development practitioner working with the Goroka-based Fresh Produce Development Agency

Sunrise Mt. Wilhelm summit
For eco-tourists and adventure-junkies the Simbu Province and in particular the Mt Wilhelm scramble offers an off the beaten track experience that is hard to surpass. At 4509m this imposing edifice flies largely and surprisingly under the tourism radar in terms of exposure, commercialisation, public interest and actual visitor numbers. Herein rests, for me personally, its greatest appeal. Its offers its own, uniquely PNG rite of passage, taken and cherished by the few. Its route is relatively pristine, unfettered and devoid of hype and controversy.
In keeping with the notion of community-based sustainable tourism, almost every kina spent circulates within and boosts the local Kundiawa - Mt. Wilhelm economy. My five day sojourn was remarkably affordable, amounting to K1.200 inclusive of transport (Goroka – Mt. Wilhelm return), accommodation and food, trekking and guide fees and in all cases I was able to meet and pay, thoroughly deserving service providers, directly. This provided a level of engagement and intimacy rarely encountered – well beyond a mere financial or service transaction. Remarkable insights were gained into the people of the area – their dignity, resilience, serenity, warmth, humility and kinship for family and others and their deep, deep connection to the soil and land. It is hoped that this inherent environmental stewardship will support and demand measured and responsible development in the face of developmental challenges currently sweeping through PNG. The self determination and efforts of local landowners, farmers, mountain guides and lodge operators, in the provision of home-grown services, fruit and vegetables, and infrastructure, are applauded.

Camp Jehovah Jireh open for business
The recently established Camp Jehovah Jireh, offering rustic yet comfortable lodge-styled accommodation, is a classic example of local PNG entrepreneurship. The establishment and associated tour guiding services are consolidated under the Mt. Wilhelm Tours company, ably and passionately managed by former school teacher, Martin Thomas. Martin is working towards a ‘stable client base and thus far has attracted an interesting blend of corporate clients (government, volunteer service organisations, and donor assisted projects), international tourists and even a Japanese film production company currently engaged in making a documentary in the area.’

L – R Martin Thomas, Mt. Wilhelm Tours, the author and Paul Sugma, mountain guide prior to tackling Mt. Wilhelm
Recollections of my experience are as varied as they are intense – all making up a rich mental and emotional montage difficult, yet necessary, to share and articulate in the written word. Even pictorial images fall short of the mark but some stories need to be told – somehow. The road trip from Goroka to Kundiawa (traversing Eastern Highlands and Simbu Provinces) is fascinating, dramatic and breathtakingly beautiful – a fantasy farmland often regarded as the fruit, vegetable and coffee basket of PNG. One can hear, see, smell and feel luxuriant growth in profusion whether strawberries, kaukau, monstrous African yams, English cabbages, countless varieties of legumes and bananas and much
more. All natural, fresh, flavoursome, nutritious – as good as it will ever get! The roadside Agro-tourism potential of the area is immense, especially with show, tell, do and taste experiences.

PNG roadside snacks on offer
Summiting Mt Wilhelm, reputed to be one of the Pacific’s highest peaks, rates up there with Kenya’s Kilimanjaro, Namibia’s Fish River Canyon and South Africa’s Otter Trail and many of the world’s iconic treks. The walk in to the lake-side base camp (from Camp Jehovah Jireh) is a comfortable three to five hour amble taking in high forest, sub-alpine forest, grass and heath lands with dense stands of enormous tree ferns. The water catchment potential of the area is self-evident with swiftly flowing mountain streams and an abundance of swampy surface water. The base camp accommodation is simple but adequate, offering stunning views over the lower lake and a natural mountain amphitheatre, both of which are traversed in order to reach the summit.
The Mt.Wilhelm climb is exceedingly tough, bewildering, uncompromising and with a midnight ascent, lasting between four and seven hours, requires a moderate level of fitness and highly recommended conditioning at altitude. As with any remote, high altitude adventure there is a definite risk element involved and moderate on-trail care (steep ground security) and backup precautions should be taken. Our descent was far more sedate – close on eight hours, even at sub-zero temperatures, benefiting from daylight and panoramic views. Pockets of miniature alpine vegetation punctuate the austere yet intriguing moonscape and scree-slopes, clinging to a timeless existence alternating between daily freezing and thawing. Paul Sugma, my expert mountain guide and I were held in morbid fascination, for hours, by the wreckage of a large aircraft littering the slopes above the upper lake.

Upper lake en route to summit
We finally stumbled onto our base camp where interim relief was sought, for aching muscles and creaking joints, in the icy waters of the cobalt blue lower lake. Little did we know that, shortly before our departure, magnificent Mt. Wilhelm was about to offer up one final extravagance to crown a truly unforgettable experience.

Hooked - John proudly displays his sizable rainbow trout


  1. Anonymous11:54 PM

    Absolutely stunning photograph! Love the article - yes, money on these tours should be placed directly in the hands of the village and grassroots entreprenuers. Really lovely post. Thanks for sharing bro.


  2. John McGwynne12:23 PM

    Wow,What a Fantastic adventure, Barry!! And Who would have thought that there was a Mountain Peak rising nearly 15000 feet above the Tropical Jungles of Papua New Guinea, which is nearly on the Equator!
    I heard somewhere that there was a permanent mini-glacier near the summit,but with the amount of global warming happening, I think Sadly,this is a thing of the past?? Did any of the locals speak of a permanent ice presence??

    This from Wiki re the plane crash:
    During the Second World War in the early hours of May 22, 1944, an American F-7A (a converted B-24 Liberator) named "Under Exposed" crashed into the mountain while flying too low. The aircraft left from Nadzab airbase, close to Lae, and had been assigned for a reconnaissance mission to photograph Padaidori Island in Dutch New Guinea. Around 0400 the plane crashed into Wilhelm at about 13,000 feet (4,000 m) above the twin lakes.[6] All crew were killed and most of the wreckage landed in the topmost lake although some can still be seen today. The only remaining samples are from the plane, all bodies have been recovered.

    I would love to climb such a Mountain one day,Barry, but am wondering whether a Lounge Lizard like myself is fit enough??
    Keep up the Good Work, Swaer
    Your Brother-in-Law John (Auckland,NZ)

  3. Anonymous5:34 PM

    Hi John,
    Good to read your comments... Tim Flannery has written a couple of interesting and superb books on his zoological work in PNG in the 1980s & 1990s... wonderful insights into a world that is changing - too rapidly I'm afraid ...
    I have this compelling desire to work towards protecting PNG's unique socio-cultural and bio-physical heritage ... especially wilderness and hope to take this idea further with various chapters of the Wilderness Foundation (USA & South Africa). Up the Greens!!

    Barry GE

  4. Russell9:32 PM

    Mr father took me up there when I was about 12. This blog confirms I didn't dream this! Thank you! =) Every detail is there.