16-Apr-1978 -- As a recent discoverer of the Degree Confluence project and keen bushwalker, my first reaction was to immediately check what points had not been “bagged” in my home state of Tasmania, Australia. Unfortunately there was only one point left for which a plan had been registered for later in 2005, and as it is set deep in the remote World Heritage area, it will require a dedicated expedition to reach it.
I then thought about my extended trips in Papua New Guinea in the late 1970’s and checked the PNG part of the site to see how many points had been visited. Upon discovering there was only one complete and one incomplete visit so far, I dug out my old PNG maps to check if I had ever been near any PNG confluence points. I was excited to discover that one trip had taken me to within less than a kilometre of one of the remote mountain confluences in the Goilala region of the PNG southern highlands. This confluence is prominent on maps, as the original border between Papua and New Guinea changes direction at this confluence point.
The trek past this confluence started with an Air Niugini morning flight on Thursday 14th April 1978 from Port Moresby to Lae. I then was the only passenger on a noisy Talair Norman Islander doing a cargo run to Garaina tea plantation, where I enjoyed a traditional English afternoon tea with the best tea I have ever tasted, before settling in for the night in the Kiap’s hut. I was up and packed early the next morning and down at the airstrip waiting for the rest of the party of Port Moresby Bushwalking Club members to arrive by Cessna. They only just made it, as the mountain pass on their route from Port Moresby was rapidly clouding in, and the fully loaded plane could not go over 10,000 ft. - our walk south to Tapini via the top of Mt Essie would take us to 11,991 ft!
Friday 15th. April 1978 --
We set off past the tea plantation complex and through the village getting a lot of attention from the local inhabitants, especially the children. Our route south started along the western slopes of the Bu Bu River valley following a rough vehicle track which came to an abrupt stop only a few hours later. A steep scramble took us onto a well worn foot track which linked the villages on this side of the valley. The views up and down the valley were spectacular and in the far distance we could make out Mt Essie which was to be the high point of our week long trek. Several villages were on route during the day and regular creek crossings meant that we did not have to carry much water. Our first night’s camp was made on the grassy slopes with captivating views to the east, until the evening clouds rolled up the valley.
Saturday 16th. April 1978 --
We set off enjoying more good weather and valley views. The steep kunai grass covered slopes, abruptly fringed on the higher parts by thick forest, gave this valley its unique character. Villages could be clearly seen on ridge tops on the opposite side, but would require a lot of effort to get to, and explained why different clan groupings extended along opposite sides of such valleys. The track generally followed the contours, but soon we were on a steep descent to the village on a side creek followed by a steep slog back up hill to the next village through head high kunai grass. I recall we somehow split up in the long grass, and those who reached the next village first got some of the children to head back downhill to find the stragglers who were discovered feasting on wild tamarinds or tree tomatoes. We reached the village of Moimor at an altitude of 2,200 metres late afternoon and were invited to sleep in one of their huts. We had a crowd of onlookers as we prepared and cooked our meal, and were grateful for the internal smoky fire as the night grew chilly at this altitude. We were to later suffer consequences from this night indoors!
Sunday 17th. April 1978 --
We woke to another clear morning, breakfasted, packed up, and boots on. We were farewelled by the entire village as we made our way uphill on a well work track towards their gardens. This would be the last village until we reached the other side of the central ranges. The son of the “bigman” and three boys were designated to guide us to the start of the ridge that would lead us to Mt Essie. As we started descending the ridge to the river through thick rainforest we passed within less than one kilometre to the East of 8° S 147°E. We were treated to good views of the open ridge from a clearing as we descended to the Bu Bu River, where a bridge constructed of saplings gave easy access to the other side. One of our party had not felt well that morning and we spent some time at the bridge while he proceeded to divest himself of last night's dinner and breakfast at both ends! To pass the time I took out my harmonica and played to amuse our guides. I made the mistake of displaying both my harmonicas at the same time, and the “bigman’s” son asked if he could have one seeing I had one spare. I really had no choice but to agreed to this, and so spent some time showing him how to play it. As the day drew on, it looked like we would have to make camp to give our sick member a good night’s rest to recover. After discussing the situation with our guides, two of the boys agreed to remain with us and the bigman’s son and other boy would return to the village. We then moved up the ridge to an open area where we could set up our tents and cook dinner for us and our guides - our sick chap was certainly not up to eating a meal, but several hot cups of tea and a dose of antibiotics and Lomotil were prescribed and he was put to bed in his sleeping bag while the rest of us sat round the campfire and talked until we too were ready for sleep.
Monday 18th. April 1978 --
We woke to a clear day and checked our patient who was feeling much more normal, and ate a good breakfast with us with another dose of antibiotics and Lomotil. We packed up the tents and enjoyed the brilliant views from the foot pad as we climbed south along the open ridge clothed in kunai grass and ferns. By mid morning we were at the crest of the ridge at 3000 metres and looking down into the valley of the Javiwaitaiz River. The dominant plant form in this highland valley was a type of giant cycad, and as we walked down the slopes to the river with these ancient cycads towering over us, I could imagine dinosaurs appearing out of this forest - and looking perfectly at home! We stopped for lunch at the river which was clear and fast running. As I unpacked my lunch gear I noticed lots of strange small ant size insects amongst my gear in the pack. The others discovered the same, and we proceeded to empty our packs, unroll our sleeping bags and clothes, and give everything a good shake to try to rid ourselves of what seemed to be blood sucking bugs of some sort. It appeared that our night in the hut at the last village subjected us to infestation by the local bed bugs! Having got rid of our unwelcome passengers and reduced our pack weight a little more, we crossed the river in bare feet to avoid wet socks and boots. It was below knee height and freezing. I could hardly feel the rocks with my numb feet as I climbed up the opposite bank. Boots on again, we climbed uphill underneath the cycads until we reached the edge of the moss forest. Here we said goodbye to our two young guides who were keen to get back to their village before nightfall. For the next few kilometres we walked through what I recall at the time describing as “Mirkwood” from Lord of the Rings. Everything was moist and all shades of green. All the trees were draped with moss, and the fallen timber underfoot crumbled as we walked. Occasionally we felt the rotted timber give way under foot with little support below. As we climbed above the 3200 metre level the vegetation started to open up with patches of alpine grassland appearing. I remember stopping to take a photo of the rest of the party as we took a pulse count - all around the 150 mark! - the altitude was making climbing with a pack hard work. By late afternoon the summit trig marker of Mt Esse at 3655 metres (11,991 ft) appeared and we stopped for photos and to enjoy the views as the sun set. This was to be the highest point of our trek across the top of Papua New Guinea. We set up camp on a relatively level but very soggy patch of alpine grass as the evening mists closed in on us. A hasty meal was cooked and we did not need any encouragement to snuggle into our sleeping bags.
Tuesday 19th April 1978 --
We were up at sunrise to make the most of the views and photo opportunities, as the high humidity seemed to turn into clouds in this climate as soon as the sun was up. We had clear views to Mt Yule to the west, but the valleys on the north eastern side of the main divide were already filling with cloud. By the time we got underway, the cloud had closed in and visibility was down to a few hundred metres with light rain falling. The pleasant part of the journey had ended, and navigating by compass in dense tropical moss forest led to several wrong turns and backtracking. By late afternoon we realised that the original plan to reach a village to the south east of Mt. Esse by nightfall was unlikely to happen. But we pushed on through the darkening rainforest, eventually following a ridge down into the Lowa River valley to the east, past old overgrown gardens and rotting timber pig fences. One of the party had a fall in the dark and we realised that it was increasingly risky to keep moving, so we looked for somewhere to shelter for the night. It was still raining steadily and we were all soaked with the high humidity and sweating under 1970’s plastic raincoats and japara jackets. An old stockpile of fencing timbers was discovered on the steep slope, and we managed to lay them out to create a level platform. We strung up two of the tents over the platform and stowed our packs under shelter. Then one at a time, we stripped off our wet clothes and moved under the shelter. It wasn’t cold and we eventually dried off sufficiently to put on our one set of dry clothes. I don’t remember the time when we were finally settled into our “perch” on the mountain side, but I do remember that we had little food left. There was no room to lie down to sleep with three sitting up in each tent, so to pass the time we set a billy to catch water off the tent roof and boiled it on the hour to make a communal cup of tea. I vaguely remember that the only accompanying snack was Vita-Wheat biscuits with a smear of Vegemite spread (Australians will know what that is). A continual stream of talk and recycling of every joke and funny storey we could remember, kept us from despairing about our situation. We were at least two days walk away from the nearest airstrip at Tapini.
Wednesday 20th April 1978 --
As soon as there was enough light to see, we packed up our tents, put on our wet clothes, socks and boots, and headed downhill along the faint track towards the Lowa River. About an hour later we came upon a village, the last one up the Lowa valley, looking wonderful in the morning light, with smoke from internal cooking fires seeping through the pandanus leaf roofing, shimmering in the sun light. As we approached, we stirred up an astonished crowd who could not comprehend or believe where we had come from. We were plied with fresh fruit from their gardens and pointed in the direction of Tapini on a well formed track. Our progress was tracked down the valley by each passing village yodeling a message on to the next village. This meant that there was always a crowd to greet us, with many of the children coming some distance along the track with us. We reached Erumelavalava village where there was a small ridgetop airstrip but no regular flights. We were welcomed by our host for the night, a Swiss ex priest who had married a local lady, and who was the custodian of the carton of food that we had organised to be flown in ready for our arrival. We were invited to stay overnight with them, enjoying fresh bread, strawberries from their garden, and fresh cream from their cow. I was intrigued by the cow hide sheeted walls in the partially completed living room extension, and was told that they were the hides of the old milkers, and bulls killed for meat. Nothing was wasted! The area outside the house became strewn with our wet tents, packs clothes etc as we tried to dry everything out for the last day’s journey.
Thursday 21st April 1978 --
We were delighted to find that our host had arranged to transport a log of special cabinet timber and a load of passionfruit to Tapini on a tractor drawn trailer. This would save us the 15km walk and get us to Tapini with little effort. However we were to find out that our host had his reasons for having us accompany him - there were many washouts on the track that required some pick and shovel work - so in between our labours we enjoyed a feast of fresh passionfruit as we travelled in the trailer. We reached Tapini by midday, found a Talair plane on the airstrip which had enough seats for all of us, and were soon on our way back to hot and sticky Port Moresby.
Anyone wanting to get to this confluence point I would suggest to fly to Garaina from Lae, and walk up the Bu Bu River valley. It would require at least five days to get to the confluence point and back to Garaina. The track is likely to be well used by the locals as far as the village of Moimor. This village is only 2.5 kilometres in a direct line from the confluence point. The actual point would be in dense rainforest on the northern slopes of a western tributary of the Bu Bu River (see Photo No. 1), so a GPS may not work effectively anyway without climbing a tree. Anyone with access to a helicopter could possibly land on the kunai ridge only a kilometer or so away from the point. Best of luck to any adventurers!