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Uphill & down along the Black Cat Track

Map of the Black Cat Track and surrounding landmarks
Map of the Black Cat Track and surrounding landmarks

| Ples Singsing

LAE – Morobe, November 2018, a blend of everything Papua New Guinean, from the cool mountainous ridges that step from the majestic highlands to the endless plains of the Markham and onwards to the shoreline of the Huon Peninsula.

A walk around Eriku and a visit to Lae Market remains no exception to this, fruits and vegetables of variety, faces and languages of throughout the country, all in chaotic-harmony of economic exchange.

As in any bustling city, it becomes clear as to what drives the tempo of society here, and it can be quite unforgiving to the uncounselled.

But a closer look into the crowd reveals a people of a different tempo, a people of a different time. A people I would never have noticed had I not ventured into the remote mountains of Morobe.

So here follows accounts of the time, no the times, I walked from the mountains of Bulolo down to the shores of Salamaua on the Black Cat Track.

The path we took was the one most travelled by the locals, one of detours and shortcuts, shortcuts that were nothing like shortcuts, and breathtaking bypasses past treacherous landslips peeling off half the mountains.

It was a time when the track had been closed off to the public due to rivalry among two tribes over tourism royalties.

You may have heard of the Banis-Donki incident, an unfortunate event which saw the aerial medevac of local victims and distraught foreign tourists.

The tension between the tribes and fear of retaliation forced people along the track to abandon their villages and move away further into the forest for their livelihood, a return to the time when the clock’s hands were daylight and tummy.

Lae was my first posting as a junior officer in the Papua New Guinea Defence Force.

Going to Lae meant two things to me; it was a city I have known and enjoyed for four and half years whilst a student, and most importantly to me, it was not more than a day’s travel by road to Mum and Pap in Goroka.

There I was attached to the headquarters of the Engineering Battalion in Igam Barracks, reporting directly to the second-in-command of the unit.

Looking back; it was a fantastic start to that line of work, especially in understanding the coordinating processes of a military establishment.

Every two years, it is tradition that the unit conducts what is called an Adventure Training Exercise. It was decided for that year to walk the Black Cat Track.

As in any good military organisation, a reconnaissance team had to be sent ahead to assess what was to be expected and required prior to undertaking the activity.

I leaped at the opportunity. I mean, who wouldn’t want to experience what our forefathers went through during the Second World War?

Fresh out of Officer Cadet Training, I knew there was nothing quite like physical hardship out bush that brought soldiers together; a bond forged by pains suffered together is a bond unlike others.

So off we went; a composite reconnaissance team with representatives from Morobe National Disaster Response, Salamaua Community leader representatives, guides from Wau and us four defence personnel - two senior officers, a sapper and myself.

Our mission was simple, walk the route, establish contacts along the way and report back on feasibility. That was my first time to walk the Black Cat Track, Wau to Salamaua.

Two weeks later, with the unit prepped and ready, we set out again, this time we numbered a little more than 25.

We left Igam barracks at around 10am and got into Wau around 5pm. The drive was a tale in itself - spectacular views. Most noticeable was the drop in temperature as we ascended to Bulolo and onwards to Wau.

There was a small vineyard of grapes, yes, grapes, as we passed what was the Vitis Industries plantations and factory, switching vehicles to local PMVs which were 4×4 trucks that looked like props from the movie Mad Max.

The next hour and a half was a breeze before we reached our starting point, Biawen Village, situated between Kaisenik and Ballam.

Amongst our group were two medical specialists, one a combat medic and the other a female nursing officer.

They had the greatest impact on people, winning hearts and minds of the communities along the way.

Apart from rations for the journey, we also carried medical supplies, clothes and useful items to give to the most remote villages. Things such as old newspapers which they could use to roll their tobacco cigarettes were greatly appreciated amongst the elders.

I had in my pack an assortment of sweets for the children. I tell you there is no greater joy than to see children light up to a present carried especially for them. I even had some adults lining up for that different taste of sweetness, priceless moments.

Oh, the first summit. If you’ve ever been led to a remote village by Papua New Guinean locals then you might know how they would say, ‘It’s just over yonder! It’s just around this bend! Not too far now!’

Having done the reconnaissance, and now walking the second time, I could see the innocence in what they were saying, for in their perception it truly was ‘just over yonder’.

But I knew better this time, and made sure I told my team, ‘It’s further than they say it is!”

There is a certain ease of doing things when one is mentally prepared to expect a far greater challenge than there actually is.

We reached the summit which was funnily enough called Summit. If the weight of your pack was unevenly distributed, you would have already known it by then.

Unlike my first trip, I was better prepared mentally and physically. The look on my companions’ faces though…. Little did they know, this was one of the easier climbs.

World War II plane wreck
World War II plane wreck as seen from the track to Summit

Rolling meadows of grassland led to the forest’s edge. Off in the distance to our left the locals pointed to the wreck of a World War II plane, a common first stop for many trekkers.

Ideally, we had to reach the forest before the midday sun kicked in and fortunately we did. From there the path went winding along the contours of the mountains in the shade of lush green trees.

Even out of direct sunlight, there was no relief from the heat of the Morobe sun. We passed numerous freshwater streams; I made sure I replaced all my water containers with nature’s own.

I had four litres carrying capacity on me and I went through it easy. Sweat poured out faster than I could take in water. All the toxins of city life expelled in one day.

The air was rich and nourishing, untainted by the tang of economic progress. Oh what a price we pay for progress.

This military profession has given me the opportunity to travel abroad on several occasions. Awe-stricken at how amazing human ingenuity can be, awe-stricken at how human behaviour and environment resemble each other.

Now even moreso, I am able to contrast the notion of a nation developed, a nation developing and one caught in between the two.

Ripped from the bosom of Mother Nature, the more people create, the more people learn, the more people are required to do and the more complex the society.

But then you come out into the forest, and you see these people, the primary necessities are still the same, but the process to it is much, much simpler.

I pity them for the conveniences they lack, but envy them for their comforts. And in their eyes I see the same compassion towards me.

They, as I, are products of the environments we were raised in. And they give so willingly, sharing food, smiles and at times laughter at how clumsy we foreigners look trying to navigate the rugged terrain which they so effortlessly and naturally glide through.

With around an hour of light remaining, we reached our first camp site, Haus Mambu, a regular first stop for trekkers as we learned.

Godogasul village - lollies for smiles
Godogasul village - lollies for smiles

Setting up camp, we had been walking for a good eleven hours. That night was truly memorable. I didn’t bring any sleeping gear so I had to make do with a balaclava over my head, my raincoat over me and socks on my feet facing the camp fire.

The crackle of the fire slowly gave in to the sound of silence. I stared into the canopy of bamboo and trees, pitch black, no light but that which we brought.

Nothing but the thoughts about nothing in your mind … and then sleep like you’ve never slept before.

A pre-dawn light drizzle roused heavy eyelids with the songs of insects and birds stirring unseen throughout the green…the second day had begun.


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