Chris Donnan’s Brothers’ tribute trip to Mt. Wilhelm
by Mark and Frank Donnan
DAY 1 – Flew with my brother Frank from Mascot airport to Cairns, window seat with clear skies and view magnificent, the Great Barrier Reef was a real standout. At Cairns we changed planes for Jackson Airport, Port Moresby (PM).
We caught the Crowne Plaza bus into PM and checked into our so called 4 star accommodation. I would not rate it so highly. Caught up with Pam Christie, the owner of the trekking company, in the foyer and discussed the itinerary. We explained to Pam the purpose of our journey, to pay our respects to our brother Chris who perished on the mountain on Tuesday 28 December 1971, to view the plaque which is on a ridge line two hours below the summit and is the only memorial to him as his body was never recovered, and to find out a bit more about the circumstances and the terrain in which he perished.
Pam gave us a good rundown on the trek we were going on. She appreciated our motive for undertaking the trek. She thought that the climb was suitable for more experienced and fitter climbers, certainly not first timers. Pam had climbed the mountain many times and knew the plaque well. The area is commonly known as Christopher’s Pass. Pam advised us to take care in looking around the town and not take valuables with us.
There are some attractive buildings in Port Moresby but in general it is below the standard of our cities and towns. We noticed what looked like blood splatter on the roads and footpaths, everywhere. We decided to keep our tour of PM short. We walked around the block, a real eye opener. There were little spot fires, we think for cooking.
I understand now that the red splatter is the remnants of the Betel Nut that many Papuans chew. Apparently it heightens their awareness and gives them a feeling of euphoria. They chew it constantly and spit out the remains. It is said to be carcinogenic. So there went my CSI theory.
DAY 2 – Leaving PM we boarded the transit bus and met up with two other tourists, German Americans, Sonja and Heinrich, who were embarking on the same trek as Frank and I. Sonja and Heinrich were very friendly. They were very experienced mountain climbers. They had climbed mountains in Africa, Nepal and South America. At 10.00am we caught the plane from Jackson Airport to Mt Hagen in the PNG highlands. The flight was only an hour. It actually took off 50 minutes earlier than our scheduled departure time. We then realized why you had to be at the domestic airport at least 2 hours before the flight!
Our host Betty met us at the Kagamuga airport, Mt Hagen. She is a PNG native married to an Australian, Peter, from Belmont in Newcastle. She is an excellent and attentive host and a real entrepreneur. Betty has a coffee shop at Mt Hagen 10 minutes drive from the airport. We refreshed there and got through the formalities then jumped into a Toyota 4WD for a long, arduous, scary ride of our lives to Betty’s Lodge , on the way to Mt Wilhelm. The trip to the lodge took 5 hours. The roads were not well maintained but we eventually arrived at the lodge a bit bruised and battered. Many times the road disappeared seeing out the window only a sheer drop of thousands of metres below!
We saw giant mountains on both sides of us, native huts scattered here and there resting precariously on the mountain edges with 1000 metre drops below them. The area is known for landslides, and volcanoes send tremors occasionally.
We noticed a lot of domestic pigs roaming around and many Papuans walking around without much to do. I understand that in the highlands there is 80% unemployment and they are extremely poor compared to Papuans on the coast. But the Papuans we met were cheerful people and seemed to have few complaints.
On arrival at Betty’s Lodge we were pleased to see such a well established homestead, 38 hectares, with a piggery, an impressive trout farm and large vegetable and fruit gardens along with a banana plantation. Frank and I enjoyed discovering the nooks and crannies of the place. We discovered that Betty had a pet Cassowary and the famous Bird of Paradise was a frequent visitor although we did not get to see one.
Sleeping accommodation was own room for us with two double beds, bathroom facilities at the end of the hall, separate toilets and showers for men and women. Hot water was supplied by a generator which is turned on at night to provide hot water for the following day.
DAY 3 – Frank and I and our tour companions, Heinrich and Sonja had a hardy breakfast before heading off for the Mount Wilhelm base camp, about a 10 kilometre hike away. We each had a native porter and guide along with a kitchen hand. It was a scenic trek but very muddy and mostly uphill. We took some happy snaps and shared a few laughs along the way with our porters, guides and each other. My porter’s name was Hanna; my guide’s name was George no. 2. Frank had Eva as a porter and Peter was his guide.
We walked through rainforest, grasslands, passed beautiful waterfalls and again the mud, plenty of it, sometimes sinking above the ankles in it.
On the approach to base camp we came upon the most picturesque lake which is referred to as the lower lake. Peter the porter said this is the female lake; there is another further up the mountain referred to as the male lake. The male, he said, is always above the female, he informed us also that there is plenty of trout in them. From here you can see the dark mountain. The prospect of climbing it was frightening, and then it dawned on me, “Am I going to climb this thing?!”, It seemed impossible, Frank said it looked so imposing and I was beginning to get jumpy. From the lush greenery as the eyes take it all in the further up they go the green becomes sparse and then nothing but jagged bare rock. Eva and George mentioned that if it rains it would be more difficult to climb the mountain, as it adds to the already dangerous climb. I am thinking I hope it doesn’t rain.
The base camp consisted of a timber A-frame style building with a connecting hut for the help. Toilet was a pit about 20 yards out the back. Sleeping arrangements consisted of wooden bunks of which you then got to use your -10 degree sleeping bag. It was dormitory style with the sleeping sections divided by curtains.
The kitchen porter, Anna, had lugged a 2-burner stove for the whole 13 kilometer trek, and our early dinner was appreciated even more knowing how the stove had come to be there.
We were sent to bed at 6pm as the next leg of our adventure was to commence at midnight.
I realize I have now become Judge Dread, Frank said he was not looking forward to tonight and my response was I do not want to talk about it. Go to sleep. I could hear the rain pelting down and it sounded ferocious beating on the corrugated roof. I admit I felt relief as I thought the trek would be called off.
Frank had drifted off and then his alarm went off and I said to him I am not going up that mountain because it has been raining, Frank said come on, you have come this far, you may as well do it. We kitted up with our thermals, beanies, 3 litre Camel pack (filled earlier with pre boiled water) head lamps, layering as instructed, gaiters for boots and gloves, we hired trekking poles which were essential. Goretex jacket on, then for a cup of Number 1 tea which is the locally preferred tea. Then came a bowl of noodles, YUK. Peter said it is going to be a fine night, stars everywhere and the trek was on.
DAY 4 – 1AM. We set off to ascend the mountain, I am bucking like a mule, pissed off and don’t want to be here. As we depart I look up into the huge vast sky and there is Orion the Hunter and it was shining sweetly upon us, I thought to myself this is a good night to die.
It was pitch black, head lamps turned on, trekking poles in hand to keep balanced, just the light from our heads showing the way, eyes remained down as you had no visibility at all apart from your headlamp. There was thick knee high grassland to begin with, this lasted for roughly an hour with the bottom lake to our right, we then started to veer away from the lake at the waterfall, the ground was extremely muddy from this point. We commenced a steep ascension using the poles to keep balanced whilst traversing the never ending rocky terrain.
Bits of rock broke away under our hiking boots crumbling below us and the black of the night was something I had never experienced in my life. Hour after hour, on and on clambering over these rocks up and down then up again and down – it was relentless. I kept thanking Kerry in my mind for making me buy that 3 litre water bladder and my fabulous hiking boots. My heart started thundering in my chest and I could hear Frank gasping for breath.
We rallied on through the night, the altitude was affecting Frank, I became queasy but to my surprise the thin air was not affecting my breathing. All self doubt was left behind us as we were fully focused on one foot after the other, following the lighted treacherous terrain ensuring no foot went wrong, hoping that neither of us would fall. Below us were sheer sharp unforgiving depths of thousands of metres.
On and on we scrambled, tumbled and climbed up, down then up again, jagged crumbling rock after jugged crumbling rock. My gear was soaked from sweat, the climb was grueling, muscles were screaming. Our wonderful guides helped as best they could, warning where the ledge narrowed or if there was a particularly difficult climb or descent ahead, reaching down to pull one or the other of us up. Up a jagged rocky outcrop after taking our tracking poles to free our gloved hands to grip onto whatever was available.
Our guides were our life savers in every sense of the word.
At around 6.00AM we came upon a WW11 bomber wreckage, which had crashed into the mountain in 1945, 11 airforce men were killed in that crash.
The sun was starting to come up shining through the clouds below. The dawn was a glorious sight. Visibility started to improve and we could switch off our headlamps. What a relief to be able to see beyond 1 foot. I had been muttering to the porter for the last few hours that I would be happy when the sun came up.
We began to tentatively climb around yet another mountain peak when the usually very quiet guide Peter very sternly said to Frank, “This is very dangerous, now I want you to concentrate NOW, you have to reach up for a hand hold and push yourself up, the toe hold is only a half inch, any slip is over a 2000 metre drop” I looked down and it was a sheer drop alright. Above was a bolder top, about an 80 degree angle, the hardest part was the foothold, we thought it was not possible, we had to find what we felt was a secure finger hold and use the tips of our boots to push up, really stretch up with just a ½ inch between us and sure death. Frank and I inquired as to whether there was another way. There was not, the guides had to bully us and encourage us to pull ourselves over the lip of the boulder. We survived.
Not too long after this mammoth climb we came upon a horizontal ridge line about 3 feet wide. From here we could see below the second lake known as the male lake, Frank checked the time. It was 7AM, we had to turn back as we had been informed the night before that descent had to be at this time in order to return to base camp. Experienced climbers reach the summit by this time. We were only 1½ hours climb from Christopher’s Pass where Chris’s plaque is located. It is a 2 hours climb past there to the summit. We were given a 15 minute break here and at this point we knew we were going to be okay. Thighs were burning and the lactic acid started to lock up our mucles.
The dreaded descent began, we were exhausted, the climb down was quicker, but it was still exhausting and all care still had to be taken as the same dangers were present. We noticed after about 3 hours the breathing became easier, and it took approximately 5 hours to descend.
When we reached the lower lake and heading towards base camp we could hear cheering from Sonja’s guide. We had a little hill to climb for base camp and I noticed both our porters Hanna and Eva crying , they came to us and hugged us and gave us flowers, this was a particularly emotional moment, apparently we were considered high risk. They thought we were goners, we did not know about this until then.
My brother Frank and I were totally done in by then, I told Frank I was going to have an hours sleep. We both flaked out.
On awakening I found Frank was still dead to the world, it was about 1.30PM and we had another 10 kilometre walk back to Betty’s Lodge. I have no idea why we couldn’t stay the night at base camp!
Frank was unhappy that he had to go on for another 10 kilometers, Anna cooked lunch, tea mince and potatoes after which we trudged off with our guides and porters. The porters took all our baggage. We couldn’t carry anything only our trekking poles, absolutely stuffed.
The walk was back through the rainforest, beautiful scenery which helped keep our minds off our aches and pains, somehow we separated along the way. I was with my guided George 2 and the porter Eva. At last at 7.30PM I reached Betty’s Lodge, the last hour of the walk was in complete darkness. Frank and George 1 and porter arrived at 8.00PM.
We tipped our guides and porters well for their achievements and thanked them.
Muddy shoes and socks peeled off before entering the lodge, a blessed hot shower, and I told Betty that I would kill for an orange juice. I heard Frank return, he was on the verandah when Betty returned with a litre jug of orange juice, it took me 3 minutes to consume 5 glasses and it didn’t even touch the sides. I met Sonja and Heinrich at the dinner table and they said they had been worried about us as Heinrich had returned by 5PM. (Sonja didn’t do the climb as she had knee trouble.) My comment was better late than never. Checked on Frank who was as exhausted as I, told him I was off to bed, we were too buggered to be bothered speaking to anyone. We asked Betty to forget about dinner for me and went straight off to bed. I crashed immediately.
We were informed later that the reason for the night ascension is the air contains more oxygen then than it does during the day. The sun burns the oxygen as the day warms. Heinrich mentioned that when he climbed Kilimanjaro it was at night for this reason.
DAY 5 – We awoke at 6.00AM, and we felt like a truck had run over us, moaning and groaning we dressed, packed out kits and went for a big breakfast, smoked trout omelet, (Betty smoked her own trout) vegemite and jam on toast, Number 1 tea, orange juice.
Sonja and Heinrich, and Frank and I reminisced the previous events and discussed the dangers of the mountain climb. We asked Heinrich if he had taken any photos of Chris’s plaque and he said he had taken a few, Frank gave him his email address and Heinrich kindly agreed to send these on.
We bought some bilums at Betty’s Lodge. Peter had organised for some local villagers to bring some along for us to buy. They are so poor, you would have no idea. Many women cannot afford shoes and have basic cotton dresses, no brassiers. They are very lean, no fatties as they walk everywhere. But they appear to be happy and contented and very proud of their country and the highlands. I am sending Kerry for a visit ha ha.
Departed with the driver to Mt Hagen stopping at roughly a 3 hour rugged drive as described earlier, Simbu a wild village where we drove into a compound with a double set of 8 foot gates, barbed wire and tall besser block fencing. We had a toilet break and refreshments.
Unbeknown to us at the time our driver had been on the road for 24 hours and had to make a stop for his medicine at a tiny village before Simbu, medicine was a feed of Betel Nut, he had teeth like a vampire who had just taken his first blood, he spat out the window and chewed constantly. Also on the outskirts of Simbu we were pulled up at a check point where the roadworthiness of the Toyota 4WD was inspected. Would you believe, the vehicle was out of rego, Betty was ropable and had to pay a 60 kina fine/bribe to enable the journey to continue. Frank and I were not impressed.
We proceeded to Mt Hagen, Kagamuga Airport via Heinrich and Sonja’s hotel , they were staying on for the Mount Hagen annual cultural festival where all the tribes come down with their festive regalia, full paint and head dresses of Bird of Paradise feathers etc., check the internet for more info. We should have stayed on for this as it is a draw card for tourists.
They have promised to forward pictures to Frank via email.
A Hawker de Havilland took us to Port Moresby (PM) cloudy skies and the landing was very bumpy.
Transit bus took us to the Crowne Plaza, PM. Pam rang us to inquire as to how the adventure went and we gave her a good run down as to how harrowing it was, she repeated it was more suited to younger and experienced mountaineers. We sensed that she was relieved that we had made it intact.
We had a huge dinner that evening, an international smorgasbord, hot and cold foods, potatoes, prawns, salads, cold meats, savories, desserts and cakes. A few beers were consumed and we watched Souths play Manly in the bar area. All TV channels are Aussie programs except one which is Papuan.
Due to quarantine we scrubbed our shoes free of dirt etc. to avoid a $70.00 fine and have them taken and cleaned before boarding our next flight for Cairns.
Showers and bed, bodies still aching.
DAY 6 – We transferred out of the Crowne Plaza at 10.00am and our driver took us via PM Parliament House for some picture opportunities, unfortunately it was closed, however, we took the best shots that we could manage.
We boarded Air New Guinea from Port Jackson airport, PM to Cairns where we waited for the connecting flight 3 hours later to Sydney on Virgin airlines, It was the best plane of all, surprised that no meals available, cannot buy anything on board.
The hike reminded me of reading about the Borneo death march, I told Frank to call someone else if he gets another brainstorm like this. We were so utterly tired but we survived and are still as tough as old boots.
I leave you on this somber note with the quote from the plaque at Chris’s Pass, as you all have things to do:
To The Memory of
Sgt Christopher Donnan
who was last seen at this place on Tuesday 28th December 1971
If heaven is in a high place, Chris is indeed privileged to rest so near to God.
Here is a link to the photos I took whilst in PNG: