By NATHAN LATI
THE recent trekking adventure to Mt Victoria, the highest peak in the fringes of Owen Stanley Range by a group comprising Kokoda Track guides and porters was an adventure of varied challenges.
The group was led by council president Norris Selu, Councillor Arthur Danny of Mainumu Ward, Nick Jerry of Koma village and officers from the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority (PNGTPA).
The trekking party encountered challenges at different atmosphere levels when ascending and descending elevations of the ranges with harsh weather conditions that were unavoidable during the eight-day return trip.
In average, we could trek for four to five hours covering almost seven kilometers a day but it was not that easy for every one of us. Each day started with climbing to an elevation of 2,500 – 3,000 meters and descending into gorges and valleys at 800 meters above sea level.
Mt Victoria is locally known as Anaka in the Koma language which means ladder-mountain to the locals. It is located 75km north-east of Port Moresby and was first ascended by British Administrator Sir William McGregor in 1889 and named in honour of Queen Victoria.
Until then, some ascents were made by colonial administrators and locals but details of those adventures are sketchy at the moment. There is no proper tour operator to Mt Victoria to date even when it is within interconnecting ranges of Kokoda’s Owen Stanley Range and Kokoda Trail
There were few special adventure treks undertaken to Mt Victoria by individuals with the assistance of locals. One such group was led by Australian-born adventurer Alice Ride who openly expressed her near-dying experiences from hypothermia.
“I was so happy I could’ve cried, but so exhausted and dehydrated that the tears never came,’’ Ride wrote on her blog under Passion Passport.
Her experiences of the trek and summit of Mt Victoria are extremely terrifying but she was happy that she visited such a beautiful place in PNG and returned home safely despite some issues on the trek that had nearly taken her team into a mishap.
“Not only had we made our way through the night to find our campsite and all of our porters, but we had survived the cold and wet of the storm too. It felt like a miracle. We were alive and we were safe.’’
Ride’s experiences sound astonishing but adding my personal experiences of Mt Victoria makes it completely different to be related by a second person. Nevertheless, after trekking to Mt Victoria and having to experience similar odd situations on the trek, I’m relating to her experiences very well and would have not preferred to go if I did read her experience of Mt Victoria on the blog earlier.
We arrived into Koma village from Popodetta town after a two-hour 4WD ride. The village is located near the foothills of Mt Victoria where the trek starts up a ridge with Koma River flowing out of Mt Victoria into the Kokoda valley separating the village from the mid-mountain forest-covered ridge that leads to the top of Mt Victoria.
The village elders welcomed the trekking team arriving from Popondetta to the village in the afternoon. We had a good chat with the elders and previous trekkers to the mountain range who shared their experiences to give us a fair knowledge of the trek and the jungle before the start of the trek the next day. The night was chilling and a local dinner was served to us inside a campsite-like shelter . At the same time the elders would warn us of some customs and protocols to be observed all the time in the jungles leading up to the summit.
We were told of some scared sites and their importance with some unique myths which we had to respect with strict protocol whilst at the site or face the worst in the jungles for not paying attention to those warnings.
News of the trekking team’s arrival spread and excited communities came over to welcome us the new faces in the village. The locally prepared food kept coming into our temporary home. The young boys from the community continued to remain in the shelter with us and told stories of their past adventures of the mountain from the last 10 and three years.
Among those stories was one of the trek that Alice Ride wrote on her blog. Her trek took more than 10 days. Her team nearly ran out of food and some locals found their own way home early and sent a rescue mission with food items which saved the remaining trekkers and locals at the camp sites in the jungle.
Our trek was then replanned and we were set to roll off early in the morning up the hill and the first camp was to be set at a hunting site for the locals but rain caught up with us a quarter of the way at elevation 1,700 meters above sea level. We had covered seven kilometres in six hours by then.
The local boys quickly secured an open space under the canopy whilst racing against the heavy downpour. We tied the canvass to some makeshift poles and started a fire to boil hot water for tea to warm ourselves. Our tents were later installed under another canvass away from the fireplace.
It was a cold evening with rain droplets continuously falling from the canopy. We dosed off early in our respective tents after dinner at the campsite. The cold and wet after the rain was unbearable in the first camp but somehow, I managed to get some sleep to wake up in time for the first bird’s signal in the forest.
The next day the weather appeared to be fine and excitement grew at breakfast time. We packed our camping gear and headed for some greater heights. We would be leaving the last of the flowing water from creeks from our first camp and the rest would be water from ponds or bamboos and rock pools as well as ground ponds from moss runoffs. We fetched fresh water and filled our bottles together with water for cooking and climbed with it for up to another seven kilometers for the next camp which was approximately 2,500 meters above sea level.
The first team on the trek reached the designated camp at 3pm and the weather was clear for some minutes and we could get a good glimpse of Kokoda station as well as a chance to see planes landing and taking off from the Kokoda Airstrip. It was an amazing experience of its own.
When looking down to Kokoda Valley, it felt like beholding a territory of ants from an elevation of 2,500m. The farm machineries of the oil palm plantation and people moving around appeared like ants. The clear view was up for few hours and then clouds took over and it started raining as we retreated into our shelter to keep warm.
The night was cold and windy which made some of us restless. The local boys got up early with their usual jokes by the fire and boiled hot water for tea. During breakfast the team renamed the campsite after PNGTPA which sponsored the trekking and its officers on the team as well.
On the third day we could not see any sunlight as clouds covered the area in the morning and the sky was grey. Despite the weather, we were ready to climb one of the highest peaks along the range which locals call Mt Kawa.
As we were climbing, the atmosphere became very thin and we could not take those usual steps in climbing. The air was chilling and the temperature was moving between 10 and 5 degree Celsius. Deep down within me, I was scared of rain catching up with us there. I was imagining how cold it would be with rain pouring down at such a place with low temperatures.
Seeing the local porters without proper trekking gear beside me gave me all sorts of mixed feelings. These local boys were born to the environment and they had been living with such harsh weather conditions but for the few of us from Port Moresby it was totally strange.
The cold temperature was unbearable at the peak of Mt Kawa and I asked for a quick descent to a warmer location to camp and make a fire. I could feel my toes going numb inside my shoes and I feared that a few more minutes in that state could freeze me to death!
We quickly ascended to a valley at 800m above sea level. The campsite had been used by the locals on hunting trips. Droplets of the previous rain from the treetops felt like rain too and then rain fell also as we made our way to the campsite. We got used to the weather conditions and we needed to set up tents as quickly as possible and start a fire to keep ourselves warm.
It rained all night and some of us were worn out from the three days on the trek. There were two more campsites to go before Mt Victoria. There was no happy moment with sunshine in the forests leading to Mt Victoria. Our camps and tracks were all under the cover of the forest canopy and thick clouds could never allow us to see a clear blue sky but rain was ready to pour on us any moment.
On the fifth day, after a weary and exhausted trip to Camp Team Anaka where a helipad was built by the trekking team, we had a little bit of sunshine but the wind was very chilly and the place was still cold under the sun. The wind could blow the clouds around to cover the area rapidly and then it would rain the next minute.
Losing our track
The next day we made it to rocky grassland and explored Mt Anaka which is on the eastern edge of Mt Victoria whilst the labelled peak was only one kilometer away on the same rocky range from where we were. It appeared to be a clear day but the misty wind blew the clouds against us and that was the time we lost our tracks at the top of the mountain range.
The misty clouds were too low for us and we could not see the tracks leading to the campsites or to the peak. It was so cold that we all got wet. Our bags and camping gear were soaked too. We regrouped and agreed to retreat to the hillside and camp rather than advance to the peak.
Luckily enough we quickly descended to a flat rocky hillside and set up tents there and built fires. The rain and misty wind continued and ground water ran into our fireplaces in the tents. We all feared dying from hypothermia much like Alice Ride had shared about her experience in these mountains earlier.
There was no guarantee we would be safe from the scary cold temperature with misty rain that is no different to snow when it landed on our clothes. Fearing the worst, I took the initiative to set up our tent on a flat rock area, diverted the ground water away and then reinforced the canvass with the porter’s bags with cargo on one side and the other was tied on to the little trees on the hillside. The area was secured and then we transferred the other camping gear into the shelter and made a fire inside.
There was no place for anyone to sleep inside the shelter. We had one fireplace that provided little heat as it was surrounded by every one of us and we sat till the next morning.
Confessing to nature
We confessed to nature for not adhering to protocols of the mountain and we made the decision to turn back to the Camp Team Anaka where the helipad was.
When the pickup helicopter was unable to make it to the elevation of 3,200m, there was no option but for all of us to walk back to Koma on the same trek.
The endurance and sacrifice were realities one will come to sense in such a harsh condition in the mountain range miles away from villages. We opted to break into two parties; one was going home early to bring additional food supplies back to the second team who were worn out and exhausted to trek long distances.
On our return trip we skipped all campsites but had only one overnight rest and arrived at Koma village safely in the afternoon after eight nights on the track.
The return trip was easy because most of the track was descending the ranges all the way to the village.
This is written to tell others our experiences but what we had actually gone through during the days and nights on the track to Mt Victoria will for each of remain for a life time. We will tell about our attempt at scaling Mt Victoria’s summit from time to time.
Source : The National, PNG, 11 December 2021