3am Friday morning and the alarm sounds. I felt as if I had barely been asleep yet I bounced out of bed excited to get the day underway. I had just made it downstairs when the phone began ringing – all of the other trekkers calling in to say that they were awake and ready to head to the airport. I threw on my clothes and grabbed some snacks to munch on in transit. Kissed the kids goodbye as they slept, bade farewell to man-child and before I knew it my ride was out the front, it was time to go. To say I was excited would be an understatement.
We had arranged a mini-bus to transport a group of us out to the airport where the rest of the group was waiting. By this stage I had had confirmation calls or text messages from everyone letting me know they were ready. It was all falling into place, it was all happening.
We made it to the airport all ready to check in but for some reason we weren’t allowed to check our luggage right through to Port Moresby. Despite flying both legs of the journey with the same carrier we would have to collect our bags in Brisbane and re-check it for the next flight. It was going to be tight, if the flight was on time we would have 2 hours to collect luggage, change terminals, re-check our luggage all before going through customs. Oh well, there wasn’t much we could do about that, we were all too eager for our adventures to begin.
The next minor drama was one I caused. We were heading through the security point to get to our departure gate and there was a hold up with my carry-on bag. It was my work backpack and had all the things I couldn’t afford to lose stowed away inside it – a satellite phone, camera, video camera, snacks, a book to read and a journal to scribble notes in. What I didn’t realise was that there were a pair of handcuffs stuffed inside one of the hidden pockets inside the bag. I had forgotten they were in there but they showed up on the xray and was causing quite a stir! Luckily one of the partners was still at the airport and was able to come and collect them for me. I was so embarrassed to be the first nomination for ‘Tool of the Trip’!
Luckily that was as exciting as the journey was until we landed in Brisbane and the madness began. When the luggage was collected and it was time to catch the train over to the international terminal, naturally by the time we all made it to the platform the train had just departed so we had to wait some more as the clock to departure was ticking down. Checking in seemed to take forever, with staff seemingly more concerned about finding out who was to blame for us not having our luggage checked through from Melbourne rather than actually checking us in. It was taking forever but we were fairly confident that the plane wouldn’t leave without such a large group onboard. Still, with such a tight connection we didn’t have time to change currency (the Exchange at Melbourne Airport had run out of Kina!) and would have to do it in Port Moresby instead.
Customs wasn’t too much of a hassle and before we knew it we were onboard our fight to Papua New Guinea. By this stage I didn’t know if I was tired, excited or nervous – probably a combination of the three.
Flying out of Australia was a huge contrast to flying in to PNG. The northern Australian coastline was lush and green running into beautiful blue seas, the skies were another shade of vivid blue with fluffy white clouds – every bit the tropical paradise it is promoted as being.
Flying in to Port Moresby was almost depressing. The sky had taken on a faded brown hue, the sun was shining but the air just didn’t seem clear, with it the seas didn’t have the anticipated blue either. The hills surrounding Port Moresby weren’t the lush rainforest green I was expecting, instead they were a seared brown and yellow, similar to the colours around Melbourne when flying in during a hot summer. Nothing was as I expected and the surprises continued when I stepped off the plane.
Fortunately I was expecting a huge temperature difference and had dressed in layers to accommodate the heat. Clearing customs and immigration was time consuming as expected but no hassle, in fact the staff were all friendly and delightful, perhaps they thought we were a little crazy to embark on such a mad journey!
Finally we made our way out of the airport and into the sunshine where we were met by children from a local school who were welcoming us with traditional dance. Can you imagine my surprise when this is the first dancer I saw!
When the dancing was finished we all piled into mini buses for the 5 minute drive to take us to the hotel we would be staying in overnight. Despite the proximity of the hotel we had to drive there, it was too dangerous to walk. The hotel was in a secure compound and we were warned not to go out of the compound unless accompanied by a security guard or tour organiser, even if it was just to look at the ‘market’ opposite. That was all the convincing I needed to stay inside the compound.
Quickly dumping our gear we wandered around the hotel to see what was around. If I was a swimmer I would have made time to have a swim, instead I enjoyed the sunshine. We had a pool-side briefing planned before going on a driving tour around Port Moresby.
After looking at topographic maps of where we would be going and checking out our itinerary yet again, we piled back into mini-buses and headed out to a school to thank the kids for meeting us at the airport. We were greeted by children with locally grown sweet potato cooked as chips – delicious, especially after not having eaten anything of substance all day (airline and airport food really doesn’t cut it!). We were all given coconut drinks, an actual full coconut that had been frozen and was still icy cold. I am not a huge coconut fan, unless it is in a curry, but it was so hot and the coconut milk was cool and refreshing. I found that by the end of the drink I was actually enjoying it.
The school itself was far from any school I have seen before. There was a single classroom in a shed and surprisingly enough a computer room/library. The school is a not for profit organisation that focuses on teaching the children English literacy (there are over 800 languages spoken in PNG) and the life skills that the children will need irrespective of whether they end up living/existing in the city or returning to their villages. As a result, the school garden is a huge priority.
I say garden but really it was a gigantic paddock that the kids tend to manually, planting corn, tapioca and sweet potato. Literacy and numeracy is taught through gardening and research for the garden as well as the essential subsistence living skills the kids will need.
After many photos were taken with the kids and gifts given (we donated classroom and sporting equipment as well as money to be used towards the running of the school) it was time to jump back on the buses to continue our tour. What surprised me most on the tour was the sheer number of people sitting around on the side of the road. I was unaware that there is 80% unemployment in Port Moresby so as a result there is nothing for people to do other than sit around and wave to cars. We felt like celebrities waving out the windows to kids who would wave back and run alongside the bus cheering. There were frequent roadside stalls where produce was trying to be sold but it didn’t look like much was selling.
I was also surprised by the dirtiness of Port Moresby; there was no feeling of pride in much of the city. The streets were littered and rubbish was everywhere. The cars in the street were old and if they were in Australia would not be considered road-worthy resulting in an almost overpowering smell of fuel in the air. The city was further divided; you could clearly see the government workers homes all neat and tidy in a row, behind a huge security fence and then the homes of the politicians and big business operators (mining predominantly) perched on the sides of the hills overlooking the bay. Everyone else was in small, weathered shanties and it appeared that there were large family groups living in single room homes. Despite all this the people looked happy, even if they were bored.
Back to the hotel to make final adjustments to our packs, grab a bite to eat and head to bed for our last night in comfort for a while. That was the plan, but like all plans, they soon go out the window and before we knew it we were sitting pool-side chatting and getting to know each other better as some of the trekkers we were meeting for the first time!
Finally a quick email back to the paper to let family and friends know how our adventures began and it was more than time to hit the sack. The first group were due to leave the hotel at 6.30am to fly up to Kokoda, the second at 7.30am followed by the final group at 8.30am.
I will post more of my adventures soon but in the meantime, please watch Sunrise on 7 in the morning at 8.15 to find out more about our journey. It would be great if you could even post a comment online about the Kokoda program.