A Biker’s Guide to Papua New Guinea

By Ian Lloyd Neubauer
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Ian Lloyd Neubauer

Sydney-based journalist and photojournalist, Ian Lloyd Neubauer specialises in news, investigations and travel in destinations that are hard to get to but offer great experiential rewards for those who go the extra mile. Ian’s work has appeared in TIME, The Economist, The Guardian, The Telegraph, BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera. Ian is a regular guest on Sky Business News ‘Business Class’ show and ABC Radio, and the author of two novels: Getafix (2003) and Maquis (2006).

An introduction to

Papua New Guinea

Even for an adventure rider who’d tested his mettle in some of the most batshit crazy corners of the planet, the idea of riding a motorcycle through Papua New Guinea was daunting.

A colonial construct of some 1,000 warring tribes occupying the eastern half of Southeast Asia’s largest island, PNG is an almost mythical place where fact and fiction intertwine and stories about witch burnings, tribal warfare, highway bandits and other freakish stuff that most will only ever see in an episode of Game of Thrones pepper the evening news. “Be careful you don’t get eaten,” was typical of the comments I received before my first trip to PNG in 2010.

Well, they needn’t have worried because they stopped eating people in PNG some time ago. More so, New Guineans are just about the most generous and warm-hearted people you could ever meet. In the half dozen times I’ve returned to the country, never once have I felt threatened or copped as much as an unkind word – and my experience is not unique. It’s not uncommon to hear about tribes locked in pitched battle that will take time-out to let cars or trekking parties pass unharmed.

Stories like these show how off-the-bell-curve PNG really is – a country few outsiders will ever truly understand. But the key to successful travel in PNG is much simpler: offer a smile and handshake to everyone you meet and in no time at all, you’ll make legions of wantoks. In Tok Pisin – the pidgin English language spoken all over PNG – wantok means ‘one talk’ or speakers of the same language and members of the same tribe who offer each another unconditional protection and safe passage through their territory. In a country that where most of the land and the roads on it are still tribal-owned, the wantok system is more than a safety net; it’s a passport for travel in PNG.

01

PORT MORSEBY

“Welcome to Monster Island!”

As far as wantoks go, PJ takes the cake. After an intro from a mutual friend on Facebook, the barrel-chested piss-taking Aussie TV executive based in PNG’s capital dust-blown Port Moresby not only invited me into his home but loaned me a mate’s motorcycle – a gutsy Yamaha WR450f – and spent the best part of a week showing me the city and surrounds in his capacity as President of the Port Moresby Motorcycle Club – “a drinking club with a motorcycle problem,” as PJ used to say.

The first thing I notice while riding around Port Moresby is there didn’t seem to be any other motorcycles around – a rarity for a developing country. But that doesn’t stop the locals from appreciating our rides. Every time we hit a settlement or busy junction, crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands of men, women, children and even old-timers in zimmer frames run out cheering, waving and jumping up and down in scenes I can only compare to the victory parades of WWII.

As far as wantoks go, PJ takes the cake.

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Few people know that PNG was one of the main staging grounds for the Battle of the Pacific, or that the country is peppered with important war relics. On my second day in Port Moresby, PJ and I rode to the Bomana War Cemetery about an hour out of town where 3,824 Australian and New Guinean WWII soldiers are buried. We also checked out the massive old gun batteries at Idlers Bay and the twisted remains of an old Japanese fighter plane that crash-landed in the jungle.

Every night after riding we hit the town. We drank tequila shots with Ms PNG at the Lamai Nightclub and met the Prime Minister at the swanky Airways Hotel. But mostly we hung out at dodgy old pubs like the Aero Club – a basement bar behind the airport that would make the perfect set for Vietnam War-era movie – and The Weigh Inn, A.K.A. The Crab Shack, where according to PJ, “even the cockroaches have genital warts”.

On Sunday we met with a dozen other club members for a ride along Snake Road, an undulating carriageway that ebbs and flows through the bluffs and ravines east of Port Moresby before spitting us out at the foothills Owen Stanley Ranges – a chain of blue-grey mountains with gigantic razorback ridges that follow each another like dragon’s teeth.

The road comes to an ends at Owers Corner, the starting point for the Kokoda Track – a 96km-long rough-as-guts machete trail rated as the hardest sea-level trek on Earth. The Imperial Japanese Army learnt that the hard way during a failed attempt to capture the Port Moresby in 1942. Australian soldiers and their New Guinean wantoks halted the Japanese advance, though malaria also played a part. Some 4,500 Japanese soldiers were immobilised by the mosquito-borne disease during the Kokoda Campaign – more than double the number killed in combat.

02

The Highlands Highway

“One of the most dangerous roads on Earth”

PNG is about the same size of Thailand but only has about a dozen serious roads. The most serious is the Highlands Highway: a 700km partly sealed carriageway linking the east coast city of Lae and the major townships in the highlands. It also happens to be one the most dangerous roads on Earth, riddled by frequent landslides and highway robbers called raskols.

At Lae I rendezvous with Tossa, President of the Morobe Motorcycle Club. A beer-and-bike loving Kiwi, Tossa lends me one his spare bikes, a Honda CRF450, and guides me to a point north of the city where the Highlands Highway starts in earnest.

It begins as a mess of potholes the size of bomb craters filled with scuzzy warm scummy water that splashes on my legs. But after half an hour’s riding the surface smooths out. I hunch over the petrol tank and squeeze the accelerator, zooming down long dead straights that split the horizon in two. Tossa reckons a mate of his who owns a Suzuki Hayabusa GSXR1300, the fastest production bike in the world, clocked 300km/hour here: “He knows where all the potholes are, but I’d hate to see what happens if he hit one of those hawks you’ll see scavenging roadkill. One slammed into my windscreen the other day and it wasn’t pretty.”

 

03

Betty’s Lodge

“Harden the fuck up!”

It’s a bone-jarring two-hour ride along the Highlands Highway from Goroka in the Eastern Highlands to the township of Kundiawa. But for my newest wantoks – PNG-born and bred gold prospector Daniel, Dutch coffee grower Joeri, Tossa and his mate Rahui from New Zealand – the Highlands Highway isn’t nearly bone-jarring enough.

So instead they plot a backcountry route made of firetrails that wind far too tightly between pine trees and 10-inch-wide singletracks that hug the sheer sides of cliffs. I work every muscle in my body to navigate the 107kg bulk of my Honda CRF450 around metre-deep ruts, half-collapsed bridges, boulder fields, fallen logs and muddy 30-degree inclines. The going is so rough and requires such sharp and frequent braking that I cop a painful cramp in my right hand that locks my thumb against my palm. The only way to unlock it to come to a stop and flick my thumb back into position with my other hand. Then my left thumb locks too, leaving me only the use of my fingers.

After refuelling at a truck stop and filling our stomachs with soft drinks we ready ourselves for the final leg of our journey: the dreaded Kengsugl Road. Our destination, Betty’s Lodge – a rustic B&B at the foothills of snowcapped Mount Wilhelm – is only 50km away. But the road is an atrocious state, we only have 90 minutes until it gets dark and my headlights are stuffed. Then it starts raining and the Kengsugl’s clay surface becomes a slippery downhill flowing stream. My goggles fog up, I’m shivering cold and the cramps return to my hands and feet with a vengeance.

At one village, we’re forced to charge at speed through a human gauntlet. The villagers leave us only about a foot on each side of our bikes, hands reaching out like zombies with suntans. Even worse are the bridges – iron skeletons stripped of their wood by raskols where we have to dismount and wheel our bikes slowly across.

Despite the delays, we rock up at Betty’s Lodge a few minutes before dusk. My whole body aches but I’m stoked just to have made it. “Well done,” says Daniel, patting me on the back. “Didn’t think you’d make it. Glad you proved me wrong.”

After refuelling at a truck stop and filling our stomachs with soft drinks we ready ourselves for the final leg of our journey: the dreaded Kengsugl Road. Our destination, Betty’s Lodge – a rustic B&B at the foothills of snowcapped Mount Wilhelm – is only 50km away. But the road is an atrocious state, we only have 90 minutes until it gets dark and my headlights are stuffed. Then it starts raining and the Kengsugl’s clay surface becomes a slippery downhill flowing stream. My goggles fog up, I’m shivering cold and the cramps return to my hands and feet with a vengeance.

At one village, we’re forced to charge at speed through a human gauntlet. The villagers leave us only about a foot on each side of our bikes, hands reaching out like zombies with suntans. Even worse are the bridges – iron skeletons stripped of their wood by raskols where we have to dismount and wheel our bikes slowly across.

Despite the delays, we rock up at Betty’s Lodge a few minutes before dusk. My whole body aches but I’m stoked just to have made it. “Well done,” says Daniel, patting me on the back. “Didn’t think you’d make it. Glad you proved me wrong.”

After refuelling at a truck stop and filling our stomachs with soft drinks we ready ourselves for the final leg of our journey: the dreaded Kengsugl Road. Our destination, Betty’s Lodge – a rustic B&B at the foothills of snowcapped Mount Wilhelm – is only 50km away. But the road is an atrocious state, we only have 90 minutes until it gets dark and my headlights are stuffed. Then it starts raining and the Kengsugl’s clay surface becomes a slippery downhill flowing stream. My goggles fog up, I’m shivering cold and the cramps return to my hands and feet with a vengeance.

At one village, we’re forced to charge at speed through a human gauntlet. The villagers leave us only about a foot on each side of our bikes, hands reaching out like zombies with suntans. Even worse are the bridges – iron skeletons stripped of their wood by raskols where we have to dismount and wheel our bikes slowly across.

Despite the delays, we rock up at Betty’s Lodge a few minutes before dusk. My whole body aches but I’m stoked just to have made it. “Well done,” says Daniel, patting me on the back. “Didn’t think you’d make it. Glad you proved me wrong.”

04

The Smoked Corpses of Aseki

“Motorbikes and Mummies”

Of all the crazy shit I’ve seen in PNG, nothing holds a card to the smoked corpses of Aseki Province. No one knows why in a land where cannibalism was so ingrained that people even feasted on their late relatives, the people of Aseki began smoking and mummifying their dead.

In 2015 I returned to PNG to find out. It was conspicuous timing as my old wantok Tossa in the east coast city of Lae had recently launched Niuguini Dirt, PNG’s first motorcycle touring company. Which is how the ‘motorbikes and mummies’ tour was born.

Late in the afternoon, we hit a section of river that’s so flooded it looks like a delta. We’re sitting on our bikes trying to figure out what to do when two dudes in dugout canoes rock up and offer to take us – and our machines – to the other side. The canoes are quite thin but are anchored with outriggers and we cross without incident.

We spend the night at Bulolo, a former gold mining town with a 9-hole golf course and plantation-style clubhouse where we smash a couple T-bones and a six pack of South Pacific Lager before passing out. By sunup the next day we’re back on the road, darting through pine forests and valleys so vast they look like sets from Jurassic Park.

It’s early in the afternoon we reach Angapenga, one of the villages in Aseki known for smoked corpses. There, we pick up a wantok of Malcolm’s called Dickson who takes us to a spot a few kilometres down the road where we park our bikes and continue on foot. It’s a gruelling half an hour slog through the jungle to the site under a cliff where the smoked corpses are assembled in bamboo shrines. They are more gruesome than anything I ever imagined, with perfectly preserved fingers and toes, skin clinging to bone and eyeballs dangling from sockets screamfest-style. I ask Dickson why and when the custom of smoking corpses smoking began. He tells me a bunch of crap that doesn’t check out but redeems himself by picking up a loose bone and posing for a photo with it clamped between his teeth. The shot ended up on the cutting room floor but you can see some of the others I took for the BBC here.

05

Lake Wanum

“The craziest thing you can do on a motorcycle”

Among all the stupid and dangerous things you can do on a motorcycle, few things compare to the ‘hill-climb’ – a branch of motorsport in which riders attempt to climb ridiculously steep hills until they get to the top, get injured trying, destroy their motorcycle or simply run out of steam.

In PNG, Lake Wanum – a bluewater lake infested with crocodiles and surrounded by steep grassy hills an hour’s ride from the east coast city of Lae – is the home of the hill-climb. To this day, no one has successfully mounted its tallest hill.

“The ridge leading up to it has a sheer 80m drop on one side,” says Tossa of Niugini Dirt, PNG’s first motorcycle touring company. “I tried going up three times but it was way too steep. My mate Chris had a go, but he gave it too much power and lost control of his bike. It went over the cliff and started bouncing, 10 to 15 big hops, landed in three parts, the frame was cracked, the handlebars had come off, the seat was up the hill somewhere, the mudguard was in the lake and his toolbox had exploded.”

I’d wanted to ride to Lake Wanum for years. But on every single one of my previous journeys to PNG, torrential rain flooded and closed the access trail. But in 2017 the stars finally aligned and I found myself racing out of Lae on a KTM 350 EXC with Tossa and a bunch of his beer-bellied wantoks. Splash! Burrrrrooom! Ning ning ning! I can’t imagine ever not wanting to do this.

My first attempt at a hill climb ends with the front wheel of my motorcycle going over my head, my face in the dirt and Tossa laughing his head off. But I lose my inhibitions on my second attempt, accelerating hard on the incline until I reach the top. From there we zoom down the back of the same hill before shooting up a second hill and a third and a fourth and so on and so on like two crazy kids on a self-drive rollercoaster until we reach the highest peak in the cluster. There we can see all of Lake Wanum and the super-steep hill that once broke a motorcycle into three pieces.

I won’t get the chance to tackle it today. But I doubt this will be my last trip to PNG.

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