“PASS me the worry cup,” James yelled to Peter as the driver shifted the gears and the PMV ascended the steep mountain near Goglme.
Having faithfully transported people over the rugged Gembogl road for many years age had caught up with the open back Toyota Land Cruiser and the possibility of brake failure or loss of steering had bothered James, Ken and Peter at the start of the trip.
However the boys were in high mood after imbibing the homebrew known as steam and now did not mind the vehicle’s condition anymore.
It was the end of term three and the boys were going to Bundi to spend the holidays there. They had been class mates since year nine and were now doing grade eleven in the same class at Rosary Secondary School.
Ken, who was from Bundi, had decided to take his two best friends to his homeland as a token of appreciation for them taking care of him at their homes over the past weekend leaves and term holidays.
It was a thrill for Peter and James because they had never been to Bundi before. This would be their first trip to the land of the Gende people and after much planning and fundraising, they had set off on their adventure.
James called out to Peter the third time for the empty plastic cup to be refilled and Peter obliged.
Ken was pointing out names of places and other landmarks to James as they made their way up the Simbu River gorge. They were enjoying the scenery, viewing the rolling cliffs, rocky-mountains, villages and rivers as they went on.
Peter spent most of his time conversing with a beautiful girl who sat close to him. She and Peter had been conversing since they left Kundiawa. He occasionally conversed with his friends.
The girl smiled and chuckled at Peter when the boys cracked jokes. The rest of the passengers did not notice Peter and the girl who were lost in their own private world.
It was three in the afternoon when they reached Nigl Guma. The boys disembarked along with the rest of the passengers.
Peter walked over and grabbed the hand of the apple of his eye. He would not have had the courage to approach her if he was normal but the steam made it possible for him. “Maybe I’ll see you sometime,” Peter whispered shyly to her.
She looked at him with a smile. That assured Peter that she too was attracted. It was improper to have a conversation with her at that moment because she was assisting her parents to unload their goods. As Peter looked over his shoulder, he could see her disappearing around a bend up ahead.
“Will I or will I not see you again,” he thought as he helped his mates with the bags.
“Shut up,” he ordered when he saw his two friends giggling and poking at each other.
The boys spent the night with one of Ken’s distant uncles at Nigl Guma. The uncle and his family cooked a hefty meal of water cress and potatoes. After filling their tummies and telling stories with their hosts they went to sleep.
The next day’s journey was on foot and it took them through the land that Peter and James had never seen before. Ken was satisfied that his friends would have a wonderful first day but that was only the beginning. There was more adventure waiting for the trio.
The hosts were still asleep when they silently packed roasted kaukau, which Ken’s aunt had baked for them in the night.
It was four in the morning when they left Nigl Guma. They had their flash lights on to find their way because it was still dark. By dawn they reached the famous summit Mondia Pass bordering Simbu and Madang provinces.
The sight was lovely. Peter and James were delighted to breathe the cool mountain air. As they sat on the summit’s fine white sand, they could see the Ramu Valley below, which appeared close and easily reachable.
The sky was unusually clear and the sun was just above the eastern horizon. Peter and James were quite excited. They were hungry too and insisted that they eat breakfast as they continued to travel.
The kaukau did not go down well in Ken’s throat but he did not mind because he was delighted to see his friends having a good time. With high spirits, the trio crossed the border and descended into Bundi.
On the way they came to a stream. They filled their water bottles and walked on.
At one stage they encountered a flock of black tailed birds of paradise feasting on nectar and the fruits of a tree.
They observed majestic trees that were hundreds of years old and marvelled at the vast stretches of greenery which turned blue nearer the horizon.
Ken showed Peter and James the mountain range that led to their destination and the trio raced downhill into what they observed was paradise.
The sun’s rays streamed through the undergrowth and a slight breeze had picked up. After a long while without meeting anyone, they met an old man followed by his dog.
They exchanged greetings and the old man asked, “Yupela i go we –where are you going?” Ken explained to the old man about where they were heading.
The old man asked for a light and Ken provided both a lighter and a cigarette.
At school, Ken was a heavy smoker and always had a good supply of tobacco and a lighter in his pocket to satisfy his craving. Although smoking was not allowed at school he would smoke in secret away from the sight of the teachers.
The sun was up when they reached Pomiai, the first big village along the road. They ran on and arrived at Pandabai, the junction where the roads from Yandera Mine and Snow Pass meet. Yandera Mine was now bursting with activity and the Upper-Simbus were trading fresh vegetables with the miners for cash.
While the trio scribbled graffiti on the red soil on the roadside, a group of Upper-Simbus appeared from behind bearing heavy bags of onions, carrots and broccoli. They took the route to Yandera. Peter and James looked at each other with awe.
How could these people catch up with us while bearing these heavy loads, they thought?
“Okay let’s move on,” Ken ordered as he took the lead for Snow Pass. Peter and James followed and after a few turns, climbs and more downhill, they arrived at Snow Pass.
Snow Pass got its name from being engulfed by heavy fog almost every day and night. It was about 10:45 am and the grass was still soaked in dew even though the sun was up. Sunlight could not penetrate through the heavy fog.
“This is Peter Yama’s village, the former Usino Bundi MP,” Ken explained as they were greeted by yet another of Ken’s relatives.
They met more people who were busy playing cards, chewing kapipi (betel nut) and smoking tobacco. Most were looking at the trio with curiosity.
Ken’s relative hugged the boys and had a lengthy discussion with him. Peter and James did not understand a word as they were conversing in the Gende vernacular.
“Are we getting anywhere closer?” asked hungry James as he trailed behind Ken and Peter.
“Usssh, ino yet ya traipla mama, hariap –usssh not yet big mama, hurry up!” Peter replied as though it was his turf.
They took a shortcut route called Biniza Road. Looking over their right shoulders they saw Bundi Station on the horizon below.
The Bundi airstrip, the Catholic Mission setup and Bundi Primary School were laid out in a small valley. Ken explained that if they had taken the longer route, which went right through Bundi Station, they would arrive at home late in the night.
The Biniza route enabled them to get a spectacular bird’s eye view of Bundi. They could also see Bundi-Kra village just below and its inhabitants. From afar, the people moving around in the village looked like ants.
The sun was now at its highest peak and the track had become rocky. They rested under a pine tree and had their lunch of buns and Tang. The buns and orange drink, which they had bought in Kundiawa tasted delicious in the countryside.
Ken finished his lunch with the puff of a cigarette and they were off again.
The muscles of their legs were now giving in to the gruesome walk but they pressed on down the steep descent.
After a while, they came to a clearing overlooking the deserted Kobum spice factory and plantation. This was the place they were heading to and Ken’s home was somewhere down there.
They could see smoke from various gardens. They could also see the old Kobum airstrip now covered in tall grass. “Man, your home is really far,” James said as the trio kept on descending.
Now they made the steepest descent of the journey all the way to one of Bundi’s several fast flowing and dangerous rivers called Wara Binaru. They crossed a foot bridge and climbed the last steep hill of the journey before arriving at Kobum, Ken’s home.
While going through a thicket, James’s toes got itchy.
“Ahhhhhhh!” he screamed in horror pulling off his shoe.
Ken and Peter rushed to where he was seated and to their amazement; they saw a blood sucking leach stuck between his toes.
“Usssh quiet, it won’t kill you,” assured Ken.
Peter stood at a distance as he was also terrified of the harmless leach between James’s toes to come close.
There were two leeches on James’s other foot when the old and partly tattered shoe was removed. James attempts to pluck the leeches off his feet only resulted in pain and sprays of his own blood on his feet.
Ken took out his lighter and burnt the leeches one by one. They had swollen to the size of an adult person’s thumb after sucking blood from James’s feet. One by one they fell to the ground and James took revenge by slicing them with his pocket knife. Their tube like bellies burst and blood gushed out from them.
“OK Peter, your turn,” Ken said.
“What?” Peter replied surprised.
He did not believe his eyes when he folded his jeans up as there were several glued to his legs sucking his blood. There were leeches on Ken too and the boys spent some time checking and removing them.
Then silence broke into laughter. Ken and Peter made fun of James, calling him a ‘meri-man’. He became furious and mockingly chased Peter and Ken in and out of the undergrowth.
Among the people crowding around them, Peter and James could easily identify Ken’s siblings because they looked alike. Ken wasn’t the only one in school.
He had two elder sisters who did year twelve and his younger brother in year ten at St. Michaels Brahman Secondary, which was the nearest school to the village. The whole family including uncles, aunties and cousins were delighted because they rarely had visitors in this remote part of Bundi.
Soon Ken’s parents returned from their garden. His father was a sociable man. He made Peter and James feel at home instantly and assured them that their holiday was going to be well spent there.
His mum was a warm hearted person but she talked less because she did not know Tok Pisin well.
The whole family was aware of the trio’s visit and was looking forward to them. Ken’s parents felt indebted to Peter and James because they had taken care of Ken like a brother when he was in school.
Further, Ken was far away most of the time and his parents found it difficult to visit him at school. They were aware that Peter and James had cared for Ken well and that provided assurance that Ken was alright.
That night the whole extended family entertained the visitors. They asked so many questions about the school life and also about James’ and Peter’s homes. The trio enjoyed answering the questions.
It was already late into the night and the conversation seemed like it was going to go on forever so Ken’s father teasingly chased everyone to bed saying the boys needed to rest. The three huddled together in one bed, which was going to be their bed for one whole week.
“Night-night sweeties,” Peter said playfully to the two as they fell asleep.
The next day the visitors woke up to find Ken checking his bag for leftover cigarettes.
The boys had to recover from sore feet so Ken’s parents reminded them to not venture out. They were told to stay at home.
Ken took Peter and James to the villages near River Rugainage. Rugainage was such an awesome sight with its crystal clear view. The deep sections of the river were dark blue while the shallow parts exposed shiny granite rocks which seemed polished under the water. They were amazed at the sight of it.
Ken threw a twenty toea coin into a deep part of the river and was clearly seen in the water. Over-excited, James and Peter dived simultaneously into the river, racing to retrieve the coin.
They bathed and had fun until midday and they then went to the village’s hausboi. There they were greeted by the village’s youths.
Drug addicts openly smoked marijuana and musicians played their old and rusty instruments while they sang ‘Remember Me’ by Lucky Dube.
The hosts offered sugarcane, ripe bananas, cucumbers and peanuts to the boys. There was plenty for everyone and Peter and James had heaps in front of them.
Around three o’clock the two visitors begged Ken to go panning for gold. Ken had told wonderful stories about gold in the area and they really wanted to go panning for it because they had never seen gold before.
So the boys took panning dishes from under Ken’s bed and went to a different river a bit further away called Kogowai Nime.
Unlike other goldfields where people spent many hours just to collect dust, this river contained plenty of gold. Ken had a secret spot where he usually found nuggets and gold dust in abundance.
He demonstrated gold panning to the two enthusiasts and they started to get their hands dirty. Keeping a close watch, Ken made sure that they did not spill gravel that contained gold.
After washing off their first load of sand and gravel the boys couldn’t believe the shinning stuff that got stuck to their dish.
“Are these really gold?” the boys asked.
Ken smiled and said, “I don’t know. Maybe it is gold or maybe it’s not,” he lied.
They kept panning for gold until sundown when Ken’s father came looking for them.
At the end of their hard work, they had collected about 4 grams of gold dust and 2 small nuggets.
On their way home Peter and James mentioned that they would spend the rest of the holiday panning for gold. But Ken insisted that there were other exciting things to enjoy than just panning for gold.
“How comes no one is really serious about panning for gold?” James asked.
“They are,” Ken answered. “Part of my school fees is being paid by the gold that my father collected. The Kogowai Nime is restricted to my clan. Therefore no one apart from my clan can access the gold,” he added.
In the evening they had bandicoot for dinner. Even though there was enough for everyone, Ken’s family members refused to eat the meat because they wanted the two visitors to enjoy to the fullest. Thus they allowed Peter and James to savour the tender bandicoot meat.
Ken greedily joined the two ignoring the insults from his two sisters.
“Yu save kaikai long em ya, larim tupla frend blong yu kaikai –You have always eaten like this, let your two friends have it,” his sisters said.
While Ken was asleep, the two Simbus were busy examining their gold nuggets and dozed off late. They were overwhelmed that they had actually found gold and could not wait to tell their folks back home.
Thinking that they were dreaming, Peter and James awoke to hear Ken and his father discussing something in Bundi vernacular.
Ken was at the door sharpening a bush knife with a stone file. Without further talking, Ken told the two to put on their shoes and they responded instantly for they had spotted a shot-gun and some cartridges lying on the front porch.
“We are going hunting,” giggled the two. They were not wrong.
Off they went to a mountain adjacent to the one that Bundi station is built on. Peter and James took turns in carrying the gun and acted out a few stunts that they had seen in movies.
Then they left the beaten track and moved into the jungle. Ken’s father gave instructions to the trio and led the way. The boys were to lag behind silently and respond to whistles.
There were two different whistles. One meant that the boys had to advance and the other was for them to stop.
For a while they kept on advancing without trampling noisily on a stick or leaf while keeping at a distance from Ken’s father for the signal to stop.
Peering through the thicket, the boys could see Pa taking aim at something about fifty metres away. They could not see the target but they could sense the seriousness because Pa was gripping the gun tightly. He took a deep breath but he did not fire. His fingers relaxed under the trigger but the boy’s fingers were still in their ear holes.
Then, he aimed again and this time… Bang! The barrel spurted fire and smoke and there was a squeal and numerous thuds. The loud bang was deafening even though the boys had covered their ears.
Without warning Ken had already taken off. Peter and James ran after him wildly until they approached a huge black thing.
There before them lay a wild boar. It was normal for Ken but extremely fantastic for his two friends. Being the most emotional of the three, Peter was already crying with joy.
They rolled the pig over and examined it. It was still warm and bleeding from numerous wounds made by the pellets.
“Leave it there, we’ll come back for it,” Ken’s father instructed.
They went on and not much further Ken’s father took down a cassowary, then a much smaller pig. Two of the targets were far away but he hit them anyway. From the distance that he fired and the wounds inflicted on the game, the boys concluded that he was truly a marksman.
There were plenty of kapipi in the jungle and the three including Pa reddened their mouths with the wild nuts.
James, the skinniest of the three carried the cassowary, which was young and light. Peter and Ken carried the boar tied on a stick. Pa carried the smaller pig with the shot-gun and bush knife.
By now the boys were used to leeches and did not mind a few feeding off their feet.
With the help of the villagers the trio cooked the meat together with taro, yams, banana, kaukau and greens in a huge mumu pit.
There was plenty of food and the whole village participated in the feast. Naturally Peter and James were given the lion’s share.
The boys spent the next few days eating bush tucker and panning for gold. By the week’s end, they had collected about 50 grams of gold.
Ken’s parents had three piggeries in different locations.
On the Friday they slaughtered three pigs, the biggest for the two guests.
Again the whole village joined in the feast. The village was filled with activity from sunrise till sunset.
Since it was too far for the visitors to bring back the pork to their families in Simbu, Ken’s uncles prepared dried pork pieces in bamboo, just enough for them to carry.
They were also given Bundi bilums by Ken’s aunts and mother to present to their parents.
Ken’s father gave them K450 which he had earned from selling gold and vanilla beans.
Early on Sunday morning the three boys and Ken’s two sisters left for St. Michael’s secondary school. A number of Ken’s cousins helped carry the boys’ heavy bags, which were filled with souvenirs.
They all spent the night near the school with relatives. The next day they hugged and exchanged farewells and parted ways.
From the look on Ken’s face, Peter and James could not see any sign of homesickness or sadness for leaving his sisters and cousins. This strengthened their ties and they resolved to look after Ken back in Simbu as a true brother.
After riding on the back of a six ton dump truck for an hour they arrived at Yakumbu Junction along the highway between Madang and Ramu Sugar.
There they spent the night with one of Ken’s aunts. The next morning they hopped on a bus bound for the highlands and heading back to Simbu.
James and Peter started going through their souvenirs as the driver stepped on the accelerator. They had gold, bilums, kapipi, cooked pork in bamboos, cassowary thigh bones for splitting red pandanus nuts, a few red pandanus nuts and two live cuscuses offered to them by Ken’s grandfather.
For the first time they had tasted cuscus, bandicoot, eel and cassowary. They had also gone hunting, fishing, panning for gold and trekking.
These are things that most youngsters of today never have the opportunity to experience or enjoy. Both Peter and James agreed that they had a marvellous time at Bundi and as they turned around to thank Ken, they found him fast asleep with his head against the window, so the two let him be.
Around three in the afternoon, they arrived at Waigar village in Kerowagi District. James and Ken got off and Peter continued to his village at Korinigle Bridge.
Ken also had a wonderful time even though everything happened at his home. That was simply because Bundi would not have been interesting without his two best mates.
They would have vivid memories of each other as friends and more importantly, a band of brothers who once travelled the Bundi country.
The three were destined to be mates for a lifetime and the journey had sealed just that.