BULLDOG TRACK, this is no soft walk like the Kokoda Trail

September 2010

 Adventure and doing something different and challenging at least once a year, is important to me. My reckoning, I’m overdue for an adrenaline hit.

I’ve been working at Hidden Valley Gold Mine in PNG for over 12 months as a contractor surveyor; my job was with the construction of the overland conveyor and the processing plant. While there I was told about this track that the Australian fighters used during the Second World War against the Japanese. To my surprise, the original track goes through where the mine is now.

It’s about time I saw a bit more of PNG rather than the airports as I fly out for my break heading for Thailand.

I had considered doing the Kokoda Track which is very well known in Australia; however, the problem with that is it’s well commercialised and costs a small fortune in guides, extras and what for, to follow a well-defined track. Sure it has well known historical values, but I wanted something different and the Blackcat and Bulldog track was right at the backdoor of where I work.

I didn’t do a lot of preparation for the walk as I’m pretty much active during the day anyway.  I’m no fitness freak but I do attend the gym on a regular base and for a month before my hike, I stepped up my training program with 45 minutes running on the treadmill and 20-30 minutes on weights with every 3 training session I spent 30 minutes on the treadmill carrying 7 kg weight in each hand.  Sounds easy, but when you add the incline of the treadmill to your workout, that’s when you sweat like a pig and leg muscles get their hardest workout.

Day one: Hidden Valley to Yanina.

I decided to travel alone for a number of reasons, one being the complications of getting a guide so close to the mining lease where the local villagers were not permitted and besides, the feedback I received from the local workforce, was that the track was well defined and I shouldn’t have any problems. In hindsight, it probably wasn’t a good idea travelling alone as I will explain latter. The goal was to travel light where I geared myself up with a 35 litre backpack which was categorized as a day bag, very light summer sleeping bag and for insurance, I had some thermal pants for the cold evenings. My footwear was my old work boots that has steel caps, I know some would think I’m strange in doing this, but my thinking was that if I work all day in the boots then why spend extra on fancy boots with less protection. Food such as Protein bars, peanuts and a couple of cans of tuna, was all I took; after all, it was only going to be a 3 day walk and a day on the river to the main road.

Yanina, The first village

Came into view from a distance where my first sight was camp smoke rising from their huts,  I made my way down the track where I meet up with a couple of local boys, no English was spoken and they led me to their village. Fortunately the chief could speak really good English and after doing the polite introduction I asked for boiling water to make myself an energizing boost cup of Milo which I shared with others in the village.

2pm was too early to call it a day, so after resting for about half an hour, I arranged for a young guide to take me further along the track. I was more than pleased to palm off one of my bags, the heavy one, onto him and then we made our way to the next village, Anandea. This part took about 3 hours with many knee height river crossings and basic bridges. Drinking water supply wasn’t a problem as there were points along the way where bamboo was placed into clean water source which was just like a running tap.

Finally I got to my first night stay at Anandea, what a relief. I found the chief and did the usual introductions and within an hour I was invited into their home for dinner and a place to sleep. Very basic living, in this single room home there laid a fire place as a center piece of the room. Sun was gone and the cold creeped in but to my surprise the room with four adults and 3 kids was really warm and smoke free.

Day Two:  Anandea to Tekadu, Ivmka, then onto Niukeva

I woke up the same time as everyone else, breakfast wasn’t exciting, not that I really expected much. Banana was thrown onto the fire for 5-10 minutes with the skins still intact, surprisingly it was nice, I gobbled down four of them with burnt fingers to the locals amusement.  On departing, I gave a gift pack to the woman of the house that contained coffer, powder milk and tea bags. She really loved the smell of the coffee as they had never had it before.

Great start for the day with the weather nice and clear at 7am, agreed with the chef/guide that he would take me to Ivimka, a research station which was about 3-4 hours past Tekadu, within half an hour my guide was complaining about sore feet, I tried to provide a solution by pointing at his bush knife then his foot and smiled, it worked wonders with a big smile. Many river crossings, first I removed my boots and used my sandals but I soon got tired of this and just charged across. Bridges were an eye opener; some were just a couple of narrow bamboo placed across the stream, laced together by bush material.  Others were very elaborate with handrails or guide wire all made from local bush material and a bit of wire thrown in. Passing through the small villagers along the way I would see young boys with home-made sling shots or darts that they would use on any bird life they found.

By 11am (half an hour from Tekadu) I was getting tired with leg muscles were only driven on by willpower alone thanks to the previous days punishment.  My guide finally threw in the towel and wanted to return home, fortunately, he organized another guide and lucky for me, I had two which insisted on carrying my bags, no argument from me.

I sat on a verandah of a village house as my new guides were getting instructions from my old guild to where to take me. While sitting there I watched one of the boys climb what looked like a coconut tree to retrieve betelnut or buai as the locals call it, which is a drag that they continually chew with lime powder and mustard stick (daka).  Young and old chew the stuff, with the end result of bright red lips, red slivery and the ground stained red where they spit. When he came back down I was offered some but I polity declined having heard other westerns try the stuff and had bad reactions that needs hospital attention, well I was too far away from help for a first time user.

Dental hygiene is probably the worst I have ever seen; either red from the beetle nut or black teeth from years of neglect with the only tooth brush they use is the blunt end of a twig.

After a hand full of peanuts for lunch, we started on our way. It was a very long day that provided a real challenge for me to keep moving, we stopped many times for a quick dip into the river to cool down and refresh ourselves.  Along the way we passed many single huts with locals working in their gardens, each time we stopped, my guide shared his supply of betelnut for an exchange of home grown tobacco.

With Tekadu a couple of hours behind us, the track was easy going, running along the major river with tree canopy giving use cover and our river crossing challengers becoming much less than the previous day. At 4pm we came upon the major water crossing where an old fishing trap was constructed, it was later that I realised at this point I was meant to turn off and head to Ivimka (Research Station) where I had planned to stay the night.

Translation problem and no road signs in the jungle, a hand held GPS would have come in handy.

About this time thunder was happening around us and the sky opened up, fortunately, the rest of the way was with in the dense coverage which provided some cover. We met up with a family that was traveling to Niukeva, which gave me confidence that we were going the right way. Low light, mud, aching muscles and my first introduction to leaches was my experience for the last couple of hours of that day. What a relief when the village come into view.

Within minutes, I was surrounded with villagers keen to know where I had traveled from, moments later the village chief invited me to his home.

Niukeva is the last village on the walking track; the rest of the way is by boat which will take about four hours depending on how many stops they do.

The hut I stayed in during the night was probable one of the better ones I have seen on my journey. It was erected on stilts with live animals underneath such as pigs and chickens. The kitchen is on the first level which has a basic open fire with pots and pans, bananas and dried herbs hanging on the bamboo open walls. Three rooms in the next step up and I had one all to myself, my biggest concern being so close to the river and swamp area was malaria mosquitoes.

As the food was being prepared, the chief took time and showed me around his village, each house was well kept where they obviously swept the ground each day and kept the grass short. He took great pride in his village and told me his strict law about marijuana and alcohol, he told me that too many of his villagers had used marijuana and latter in years the effects on their mental ability had deteriorated.  On return to his house he showed me his bow and arrow collection, each arrow had a different function, sharp steel head, three prongs probable for fishing and a blunt club obviously used to knock objects out of tress and not to kill.

Day Three: Niukeva to Lakekamu Bridge by Boat on Lakekamu River.

Rice for breakfast was a great start whilst others were arranging a boat for me. We hit the water at about 8am with the boat trip to take 8 hours to get to Lakekamu Bridge from where I would find a lift to Bereina to stay the night at a Lasallian Church guest house.  How to get to Bereina I hadn’t had a clue and arriving so late in the afternoon was a concern as I was now getting away from the safe environment of the local villagers to the busy highway and small towns.

On the river, we stopped at many points to pickup and drop-off people and cargo. The boat was narrow with a spacing of one person from side to side and about 10 people on board, we made steady progress crossing over a couple of rapids where we had to jump out to lighten the load so the boat wouldn’t bottom out .

Bird life and fruit bats were plentiful, it was great sitting in the front of the boat and occasionally we passed dugout canoes laden with garden vegetables heading for the main road for trading.  There were many small villagers along the river edge, the house were very basic with most buildings having no walls and mosquito nets hanging from the roof top, swampy area on each side of the river provided a great environment for a breeding ground for malaria.  I’ve personally have had malaria three times and I must say it’s not a nice experience, but for the locals that live with it all their lives, their attitude is very different as if it’s just a common cold and a couple of pills will fix the problem.

Finally we got into Lakekamu Bridge where I waited for about an hour for transport to go to Bereina, I felt very uneasy hanging around there. Locals I talked to while waiting for the truck to fill up with passengers, told me to be careful as there were many ”rascals” about looking for trouble. I got my lift which was basically a truck with bench seats at the back and security screens on all windows in the cab.  The truck had problems with dirty fuel which slowed us down for a couple of hours and while waiting we witnessed a knife fight at one of the bus stations with others trying to break it up.

This is my final leg of the journey, I had no pre-arranged transport or accommodation and travelling so late in the evening isn’t my ideal way of doing travel, my golden rule while travel was not to travel at night, this served we well when I traveled in Africa for 12 months as the only time I had problems was after sunset.

Finally got to Bereina guest house at 9pm and luckily for me the driver was happy to take me to the door which was probably an hour’s walk from the main road. As I arrived unannounced, there was a little confusion, but within half an hour I was welcomed into the guesthouse and the sister then arranged for a couple of students from the school to cook up some supper. This part of the journey was difficult to pre-plan, all I knew is what my workers at the mine site had told me, “head to Bereina” they said to stay at the Lasallian Church guest house.  After a hot meal, cold shower and a real bed, I started to apply betadine antiseptic to my cuts over my body to avoid infection.