PNG Mountain the Ultimate Challenge

An Australian tour company has completed the first traverse of Papua New Guinea’s second-highest mountain, in the hope of opening a new tourism experience in the rugged Highlands region.

No Roads Expeditions led trekkers up and over the Mt Giluwe massif in a difficult crossing of a plateau which was formed by an ancient volcano at more than 4,000 metres above sea level.

The mountain has been climbed before by both locals and visitors.

But No Roads chief executive Peter Miller believes his group has made the first full crossing of the massif, ascending from the north and descending on the southern side.

“We were very well prepared physically and we also had a big crew and a lot of equipment,” Mr Miller said.

“I think the difficulty was the mindset, that we’re doing something that no-one’s ever done before and we don’t know what’s down there [on the other side].

“Of course you have some maps, but no-one’s seen it or documented it and that’s the difficult bit, especially when you get lost in the jungle.”

The highest peak of the massif sits at 4,367m, making Mt Giluwe the highest volcanic mountain in Australasia.

“This area is full of waterfalls and meadows and ponds so it’s a very pleasant place, a very idyllic place to trek in,” Mr Miller said.

“Of course because it’s at 4,000 metres-plus the storms can come in at any time and you need to be prepared for it, but it’s just a beautiful, rugged landscape for anyone who loves trekking.”

Sunset over camp atop the Mt Giluwe massif

Famous PNG prospector Michael ‘Mick’ Leahy was the first European to climb the mountain in 1934, on one of his trips into the Highlands with his brothers.

He documented the ascent in a report for the Royal Geographic Society in London

“On Thursday, June 14, 1934, we climbed the Keluwere (the former name for Mt Giluwe) and camped at 11,000-foot level on an open alpine grass ridge at the foot of the main peaks,” he wrote.

“Every mountain and peak for 100 miles around was visible above cloud-filled valleys. The morning sun created stark contrasts as it rose.

“At 12,000 feet we began the final climb through the clumpy grass. The rare air slowed us, and we climbed in bursts of 40 or 50 feet before collapsing on the grass for a rest.

“The last 1,500 feet were the hardest and steepest.”

Local porters next to a lake on Mt Giluwe

Like today’s trekkers, Leahy noted the unusual nature of the volcanic plateau at the top of Mt Giluwe.

“The space between the two topmost peaks or crags suggested an old crater area,” he wrote.

“It must have been a tremendous mountain in its active days.”

Leahy and his party descended back down the north side of the mountain, to continue their search for gold in the mountains further north-west.

The local people who live around the mountain can’t recall anyone crossing the forbidding massif and descending the other side.

“Previously our forefathers, they have never, ever been that way,” local guide Brook Etena said.

“That’s our first time.”

The purpose of the expedition was not to just to break new ground — it was also to potentially create a new trekking destination in PNG.

“Possibly it’s opened up a new area for tourism,” Mr Miller said.

“Not just trekking, but these mountains are very rocky so there’s a possibility we could set up some cables or steps and stuff and do some via ferrata (climbing routes), which don’t exist in Papua New Guinea.”

Trekkers on descent on Mt Giluwe

The PNG Government is supportive.

The chief executive of the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, Jerry Agus, hopes trips like this will boost PNG’s small tourism sector.

“We have some of those magnificent tourism products, the difficulty in developing them is in terms of accessibility, how we can get our tourists across,” he said.

Opening new trekking routes and tourism destinations is difficult in PNG, because almost all land is owned by local people and companies need to negotiate with multiple groups of landowners.

Pam Christie, who runs locally-based company PNG Trekking Adventures, has spent years trying to find and develop new destinations.

Trekkers on a tricky section of Mt Giluwe

“When you go into a province of PNG and you want to start up an adventure expedition up there, you’re walking through people’s backyards,” she said.

“There has to be a lot of training going in to set up any tourism industry in Papua New Guinea, and your social mapping is very, very important.

“You’ve got to be able to identify the people that actually own the land. That may take 12 to 18 months before you can actually get the right person that you should be dealing with.”

So while the traverse of Mt Giluwe might be complete, turning the trek into a tourism staple will be a much longer journey.