Expedition Papua New Guinea: A Crossing By Patrick Hutton and Richard Johnson

We stood in the baking mid morning heat outside a supermarket in the northern costal town of Vanimo, with our kit and local fixer all sorted, ready to start a non-motorised crossing of Papua New Guinea. The countless emails to companies, endless social media posts, the articles and interviews where we boastfully announced our claims had led us here. We were in the business end now, time for talk was over, and we had to deliver. This part of the expedition however is where we would much rather be, much more enjoyable than the two years sat behind a computer and with our noses in books doing research.

After watching a BBC documentary on Papua New Guinea Patrick took inspiration from this remarkable island and did a little research. He predicted it was the appropriate size to attempt a human powered crossing. Thanks to its rough jungle terrain, unique tribal practices and lack of exploration Papua New Guinea was the perfect canvas to plan an expedition. As with planning for any expedition what started off as such a simple idea soon escalated and we realised this would be the challenge of our lives. Patrick invited me at the start of the planning stage and after a quick internet search to locate the country I was onboard. Never again would my life be the same.

Shortly before departing we were fortunate and privileged enough to receive the Royal Geographical Society Neville Shulman Exploration Award; the panel deemed our expedition worthy of such a grant. This was a huge relief as it allowed a contingency plan if something were to go wrong.

All the excitement and adrenaline of day one wore off very quickly. Our bags were too heavy, the sun was too hot, the hills too step and our legs too weak. In contrast to what was in store it should have been a very easy day. We arrived into camp that night and feared we may have bitten off more than we could chew. However what would become a theme of this expedition our greatest trait, stubbornness, took over and we were determined to correct these faults.

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In the first two weeks we followed a road used by the logging companies to the town of Greenriver. This transitioned from asphalt into dirt gradually and was a good environment to hone our jungle skills. We ditched unnecessary kit, adapted to the ridiculous equatorial heat, each day found our 39kg rucksacks lighter and watched as our feet toughened under the daily 8-10 hours of trekking. Things were going so great we found that with our new levels of energy we were filming more often and generally loving the whole experience.

This confidence was knocked out of us during a one hour walk one afternoon in our new home – the bush track. This alien world brought us back to down to earth with one hell of a bang. The concentration, strength, balance and control constantly needed to get up and over obstacles, cross wet logs (the bane of our life during this expedition!), ensure our hands weren’t pierced by 3 inch spear-like-thorns on trees and avoid inadvertently submerging ourselves in any swamp water was phenomenal. Once again we were back at the same point we were two weeks ago, fearing we were out of our depths and worried if the expedition would be completed. The bush track would only get worse so we needed to learn how to deal with these dangers- fast!

More kit was dropped and our rucksacks were now a more manageable 33-35 kg, unfortunately they still felt like we were transporting a wardrobe through the jungle with us!

We started the bush tracks for proper with a three day leg of relentless jungle mountains with our new local Murray. This leg was particularly significant as we had no idea if we would be walking or rafting the next section. In hindsight a relatively easy leg, but at the time nothing but waist deep river crossings followed by near vertical scrambling all the while being the leeches dinner, this was a horrendous few days. All this on seriously low sugar levels in relentless heavy rain it was a nice introduction to the pressures of the Papuan jungle.

Our reward for reaching the village of Sokamin with the start of immersion foot, heat rash and blisters? Quite possibly the best few days and experiences we will ever have.

 We woke up early as usual, slipped on our wet heavy boots and clothes as we always did, ate our bland dehydrated noodles which still had no taste, lifted our heavy rucksacks onto our sore shoulders like every other morning and headed off following the same river; however, this time we stopped after only 30 minutes in a small woodland off the river. Machete in hand we started chopping down tree after tree. We, along with three of the locals, were building a Huckleberry Finn style raft to take us the next 120km. This was why we came to Papua New Guinea. To have a real adventure, not to know what was round the corner and not know how we would complete this task. This was how the locals travelled between villages and as our goal was to learn from them, so would we.

With the 15 or so logs in place and vine pulled from the trees, Patrick and I witnessed a skill neither of us possessed and would only gain by spending many years in the jungle. They lashed together all the logs to form the base of a raft, about 6 foot wide and 15 foot long held perfectly in place by the vines, we were utterly amazed. To show off their skills further they constructed a platform in the centre of the base for our rucksacks to be stored away from the water, by nailing smaller pointed branches into the rafts platform in a crisscross fashion. From start to finish the project took roughly one hour. Left to our own devices I worry that Patrick and I would still be there now!

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Armed with only long branches to punt ourselves along the course of the river we were off on what appeared a very tame river. We quickly realised after crashing into the bank numerous times it was anything but! With the river picking up speed, whirlpools and submerged logs becoming frequent obstacles the raft took an absolute battering. Minor adjustments to tighten up the vines proved fruitless and the slowly sinking raft soon became a death trap. Jumping on and off in shallow waters to help with steering and decelerating often resulted in one of our legs slipping through the raft, our foot getting wedged on a riverbed rock and the rest of our body dragged along the boat, we would frantically wrestle it free just in time before any serious injury, share a brief look of relief mixed with fear before releasing we were still in the thick of it. These episodes of absolute madness would come at times after an hour of relative boredom and it certainly woke us up.

Against all odds the little raft which was significantly more submerged and a lot more flimsy arrived in Hotmin. After three days away from towns and villages we welcomed the sight of a trade store and a rest – even though the tiny village was covered in red ants that would urinate into the cuts on my feet causing a horrendous stinging pain we had passed another test.

Well and truly into the swing of jungle life we set off to cross the start of the Star Mountains towards Telefomin. With a local who was now a long way from home, (some may argue now not a local!), we struggled with navigation quite considerably on this section and at times this would sap morale. Nothing worse than crossing rivers that are waist deep dragging you under if you aren’t even sure it is the right way.

We were in one of the hardest sections of the expedition and in an environment which we could only dream of back in England. Every hour of every day, day after day, was an absolute struggle. Constantly on edge as the jungles natural dangers reminded us how unforgiving this country can be, and why no-one had attempted this route before.

Pulling ourselves up the slippery rock face by exposed tree roots, made all the more difficult thanks to our big clumsy rucksacks was actually safer and easier than the descent of the jungle mountains, which would see us slip, slide and inelegantly tumble down constantly breaking a golden jungle rule of, ‘Don’t put your hands on the trees’. Other than being unlucky enough to use a Bastard tree with thorns covering its bark to stop our momentum, every so often the tree we chose to stop us falling would often break away from the ground and cause us to drop a good few feet with a thud. If we were fortunate to come across a section of flat usually they were littered with fallen trees covered in slime, which with our plastic boots felt like we were walking on an ice rink. Every time we crossed a log it felt like that old Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle, a lottery on how far we would get before we tumbled off, I’m not sure who fell off most but either way Patrick and I did not win that game.

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The gap between us and the locals on walking ability in the jungle was something that never changed throughout the expedition. Patrick and I greatly improved on the bush track and became a lot more confident and competent however we were always light years behind the locals. They would effortless skip across obstacles as if they were not there, and look back in utter bemusement at us with our giant rucksacks scrambling over like a couple of amateurs.

Despite at times only covering 5 miles in a day we arrived in Telefomin two battered and broken men. We had swapped Murray, who when leaving decided to steal some equipment, for the professional Ismail, who despite only being with us for three days was on a different level compared to the other locals who worked with us, saving us both from being dragged under on one river crossing. He also made us feel very emasculated when at 2200m in the wettest jungle we had ever experienced and all the trees covered in moss he made a fire…..plus he was shirtless.

Despite the joy of being half way through the Star Mountains I was finishing each leg suffering from some pretty painful and potentially dangerous immersion foot. Even with regular airing and daily talcum powder the relentless wet conditions took their toll and caused large areas of my feet to become raw. As you can imagine this would make walking on them extremely painful.

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One last hard section remained on the walking part of the route as we had to traverse the Hindenberg Wall and cross No Mans Land towards Tabubil. This six day leg physically and mentally tested us both to our limits. Even as we reached 2600m, 90% of this section was in swamps. Dragging our legs through the treacle thick mud for 8-10 hours a day absolutely wiped us. Not ideal build up before we tackled a cliff face with no specialist climbing equipment. Thankfully the locals had erected a make shift ‘ladder’ made from fraying vines and splintering dead wood. It did not fill us with confidence as it creaked and cracked under the weight of us relative giant Europeans with our rucksacks. This stage tested us the most mentally. The jungle was taking a hold on us both, causing us to become extremely weary and frustrated. Crossing the swamp pits we would place our foot down not knowing if we would sink to our ankle or all the way up to our hip, sliding down mini waterfall rock gulleys tore our knees to pieces and I found myself unintentionally laying in a thorn bush after an unsuccessful log crossing. At the end of each day in the safety of our hammock, after the small bowl of rice and fish we had every evening for dinner, we had to remind ourselves; ‘If it was easy, everyone would be doing it’ and a quote from Roosevelt we both took inspiration from during our time ‘who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly’.

Even after diving into emergency rations on the final evening we arrived into the purpose built mining town of Tabubil absolutely relieved to be out of the jungle for a few days. We raided the local supermarket of all its chocolate, had and a rare treat of a beer, and then followed the mining highway off down to Kiuanga to start the river section. It felt like another expedition!

The river section would see us travel down the Fly River from Kiunga all the way to Daru. With no idea how to approach a Papua New Guinean fishing town and ask a local if we could buy two canoes, get them lashed together to make a catamaran and then if they would like to join us rafting down the Fly River we did what we know best. We winged it. Within 18 hours of being in the town we had bought our two canoes, found a local carpenter who could construct our catamaran and even hired a local fisherman who knew the river very well.

A slight hiccup on departure day as our trusted fisherman was drunk and turned up 4 hours late, in that time we hired another local called Jeffery, a spitting image of Usain Bolt (we liked to call comparisons of our local guide with famous people wherever possible, we even had a spitting image of Cat from The Red Drawf).

As we paddled off down the Fly River the first few days some may say was plain sailing! We even started to paddle through the night to make sure we completed the expedition under the cut off for our 3 month visa. Similar to our first river section on our Huckleberry Finn style raft this final part of the expedition had large sections where not a lot would happen, and then all of a sudden the most bizarre chain of events would occur and often associated with a giant surge of adrenaline.

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On one occasion we planned to paddle through the night so needed to resupply our water stores. In the middle of the afternoon we pulled our raft, Tut-Tut, into a riverside village. As we pulled up on shore we were greeted by three gentlemen with rifles and covered in mix match camouflage. As you can imagine we were pretty shocked and nervous, any fear however was dispelled by the fact all three guys had the widest smiles and kindest looking faces. After introducing themselves as ‘rebels’ we found they were part of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka, the Free Papua Movement, abbreviated to OPM. They oppose and fought against current Indonesian governance of Papua and West Papua. They were extremely welcoming as they allowed us to take photos and videos as we asked them questions on their cause. Obviously unaware of mine and Patrick’s background they even asked if we could supply them with arms in exchange for some of PNG’s valuable resources – we politely declined this business opportunity. They explained to us they were preparing for a ‘big event’ and that our questions would be best answered by the Commanding Officer at their headquarters. The OPM rebels organised an escort further down the river for us to be taken to their headquarters, ensuring we were not mistaken for Indonesian Army or any other enemy and our safety across this difficult section wasn’t compromised.  It was pitch black when we arrived at 2am into the head quarters and the mood was completely different to the first encounter. It was extremely tense; no weapons were on show, as were no smiles, jokes or laughter. We signed in the OPM visitor log book, which was an outcast school text book, and then guided to stand outside a hut. The three of us stood there as a circle developed around us, three to four people deep, they just stood there staring at us with not a lot of conversation between them. We asked the assistant to the Commanding Officer what they hoped to achieve, why they wanted independence and how they intended to achieve it – no questions were answered, instead a long awkward silence would follow. As the crowd grew and the tension rose we made our excuses and left, we were ushered back to our boat and watched until we were out of site. Even our usually calm local Jeffery was shaken by the events of the night. A very uneasy and unpleasant experience we were glad to be back on the river.

Not to get too comfortable in our routine we arrived at the section of the river where the crocodiles roamed free and our new nemesis the tidal bore was a real issue. For the big shipping containers which would power past us these weren’t an issue, unfortunately for us in our small low profile canoe we were sitting ducks. Numerous times in the next few days as we paddled along we would sight a crocodile slipping or thrashing in the water. Often these were the size of our canoe. If that wasn’t incentive enough to get a bigger boat the river was widening from it’s 100m width up to 3-10km as we arrived at the river mouth. The river was resembling more a sea now and we had to negotiate the twice daily tide and the tidal bore, which the locals assured us would get to 2 metres high. It never reached the heights of folk tales but we found we were bailing more often as the waves crashed into our boat and battling against the current. We swapped our beloved Tuk-Tuk for a short paddle in one giant canoe, before he hit the town of Sturt where we picked up our next mode of transport, The Black Pearl.

Named the The Black Pearl after its striking resemblance to the sailing boat from the film The Pirates of the Carribean, we would now be sailing the remaining 165 miles to our end point Daru. The water was too rough and the current too strong to paddle and so we needed to follow how the locals travelled. Before we left our goal was to learn from the locals and do as they do, that ethos is what led us to this point. The boat consisted of one large canoe with an outrigger held together with thin metal wire, vine and tattered twine, and a wooden mast held the patched sail which had holes dotted around it. We were in a completely alien world that neither of us knew a great deal about. The tide along with the bad weather hampered us as we were stuck for most of the day marooned on the river bed, frustrated that progress was limited out of our control and a real worry we would be running out of time on our visa, the mood in the team was very low. We were promised at every town that the next town we would find some locals who could take us all the way the Daru, we would arrive at the next town, who would then proceed to tell us ‘oh no, the next town can take you’. With the option of going on foot for the final 100 miles back on the table our luck seemed to change when we met a group of sago farmers looking to sell their produce in Daru. A dingy they had converted into a sail boat was our final mode of transport of the journey. We struggled to find anyone to join us on the final push because no locals given the time of year would sail this route; the guys we were with called it a ‘suicide sail’.

After four days on the ‘suicide sail’ we had our greatest day and saw the sweetest sight. Daru Island.

We had seen this place on our map two years ago back in England when we initially started planning, for the past 83 days we spoke of Daru Island to every local we met. Eventually we were here. We had just crossed Papua New Guinea. We had reached our goal. The celebratory beer never tasted so good.

This expedition epitomised adventure. We left our start point not knowing so much; not knowing how we would get our end point, who we would meet and what we would experience.  Even at the lowest points; usually covered in mud at the end of the day with a stomach growling with hunger, or at the start of the day putting on our damp cold clothes and slinging our stupidly heavy rucksacks onto our broken bodies, or getting lost in the Star Mountains and unnecessarily crossing rapid rivers, we still absolutely loved every second. What we experienced on our expedition and the stories we now own is why we do these ridiculous feats and why we are both incredibly proud of our achievement. A non-motorised crossing of Papua New Guinea at its widest point. Not bad for three months work.

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One comment

  1. Dear Mr. Strandberg,
    I hope this email reaches you. I’ve always thought that exploring the Amazon, for instance, would be of intrigue. Meeting the natives of that land and getting to understand their culture and customs, whilst trekking through rainforest and conducting studies would be bliss. Following on from the likes of Percy Fawcett, who unfortunately died in 1925 whilst searching for “El Dorado” in the Amazon, would be a great goal to aim for. As such, I have recently looked into the Island of New Guinea. As you already know, the Eastern part is known as Papa New Guinea, and the West, as Western New Guinea. Western New Guinea, if I’m correct, is one of the least explored areas on earth with thousands of new species to be discovered, along with countless uncontacted or semi-uncontacted tribes.

    I’m 18 years of age and currently work for the ​Société Jersiaise (Jersey Society), a learned society founded in 1873 to promote and preserve the heritage of the Island of Jersey, located in the Channel Islands. We have 15 sections, including botany and marine biology. My question is, is there a way of independently trekking through the Western part of New Guinea, pursuing your own expedition and field of study, without having to pay x amounts of money to join a very much commercialised tourist package? I’m aware of the dangers – these so-called “savages” and head hunters are in abundance, as well as insects and other exotic reptiles which are foreign to a person like myself.

    I’d be grateful if you would be able to enlighten me on where to go from here, is there a possibility to pursue my own expedition through New Guinea? Or is this merely a young boy’s unrealistic, Indiana Jones-orientated dream.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Kind Regards,

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