John Opa is one of the security guards on Kudjip station, and is one of the friendliest nationals that I have met. He lives up at Konduk, which is a good 2 hour hike from Kudjip. John is probably close to 60, and he makes this trek 5 to 6 times a week. There are caves about 2 hours past John's house, and John is always eager to take white people up and show them these caves. This past Saturday, I went with Tim Deuel, Dr. Imelda, Mark Tan, and Nolan to see these caves.
Tim's initial plan was to drive us to Konduk, and thus save about an hour and a half in time, plus several hundred vertical feet in climbing. It just so happened that the road was completely washed out at Kopsip, thereby only saving us 20 minutes off of our journey. We hiked about an hour and a half up to Konduk. Konduk is the end of the road as far as vehicles are concerned. From there on out, to get anywhere, you must go by foot.
Thankfully, it was a somewhat overcast day, which saved us from the scorching sun. Just past Konduk, we arrived at John's house, a traditional kunai grass hut. Before we resumed our trek, John cut several lengths of sugarcane for us. To enjoy sugarcane, you cut off the outside of the stalk and then bite into and suck on the pulpy inside. Sugarcane requires that you spit out the pulp once you have sucked the sugar from it. Any native PNGer can do this while talking without missing a beat. Any white person has to stop a sputter out all of the slivers of sugarcane pulp.
From Konduk it was another hour to Mount Taubee. This requires a lot of climbing on the narrow path. The ground underneath the topsoil is clay, and when this is even slightly wet, even the best hiking boots struggle to grip it. The high school missionary kids had spend the night camping on top of Mount Taubee, and just before our hiking party arrived at their campsite, we heard screaming and commotion. We walked into the campsite to find all of the missionary kids murdered, having been run through by their own bushknives. The only cure for a murdered missionary kid is to start telling jokes and making off with their possessions. They also spring back from the dead rather quickly if tickled. (In case you are slow on the uptake, the kids were faking, and thus not actually murdered). The fog made the scene every more eerie. We were on top of a moutain but could not see 50 feet in any direction.
Gina, a recent Mount Vernon Nazarene University graduate and the missionary kids' high school teacher, joined our party for the hike up to the caves while the rest of the missionary kids went back to Kudjip. The last hour and a half of the hike were unlike anything I have ever experienced. We were attacked by bees (I only suffered two stings), saw networks of spider webs the size of a car, and slipped and slided our way up the path. The path started to become less and less distinct. Soon we were literally in the jungle. Huge ferns sprouted up everywhere, every tree trunk was covered with mosses and lichens, and vines hung down, covered in thorns. The path went from slippery clay, to ankle-deep mud. Only the roots of the trees that bisected the path would stop us once we started sliding down the mud. The only sign of human existence in this place was a broken palmwood bow (which is now in my possession as a legit souvenier/artifact and a great conversation piece). After two more hills, we came to a creek that ran into the caves.
Now I've been on guided tours of caves like Cave of the Winds in South Dakota and Mammoth Cave in Kentucky. This was unlike either. No lighted, smooth walkway, no handrails. Humans didn't even go into these caves more than 15 years or so ago, when missionaries came up here with flashlights. The caves look very unimpressive from the outside, but after climbing 10 meters or so inside, everything started to darken and we encountered a waterfall. Using our headlamps and flashlights, we rigged a makeshift harness to make our descent of the four meter waterfall a little safer. I climbed down first, looking for handholds and footholds as the waterfall ran down beside me. From here on out it was relatively easy climbing. Over the next hour and a half, we went about a kilometer into the cave. When we all turned our lights off, it was impossible to see anything. Utter blackness. The only sound was the water running through the cave. During our investigation we found many spectacular stalagtites and stalagmites, three mushrooms growing in the complete darkness, and even one seedling that had germinated. Our only visitor was a solitary bat. The journey took us through tunnels where we had to crawl on hands and knees and caverns where we had to wade through up to two feet of water in a subterranean pool. I had to be careful as to where I placed my hands, as bat guano was stockpiled in certain areas.
We eventually reached the end of our exploration. The next passage was a chute straight down, that had water flowing into it. Tim had gone down this chute on previous journeys, but not when water was running down it. Our group climbed the kilometer back to the mouth of the cave and ascended the waterfall. Dr. Imelda unintentionally tested the strength and function of Tim's makeshift harness when she slipped while climbing up the waterfall. The harness did its job. We had spent an hour and a half in the caves and it was close to 3:00 pm by the time we emerged. The sun sets at 6:30 here, so we had three and a half hours to get back to Kudjip.
We escaped the jungle without any more bee stings. If climbing up slick clay was difficult, then descending it was a nightmare. When I would slip and fall, I would put my hands out to catch myself. This is when I discovered the delightful plant known as sawgrass. Appropriately named, sawgrass has razor sharp edges that sliced my hands open when trying to catch myself. Others had their legs and arms shredded by sawgrass. I was able to escape with only about six cuts on my hands. When we reached Mount Taubee on our return trek, the fog had completely cleared and we were provided with an unbelievable view of the entire valley. We could even see the entire Kudjip mission station from our vantage point. With binoculars, we were able to distinguish individual houses. It was also here that Gina, an avid bird lover, spotted a bird of paradise in a tree not too far away. The species name escapes me now, but it was black with an iridescent blue stripe across its breast.
After more slipping and sliding, we made it to John's house, where he had his son use a 20 foot long shaft of bamboo to knock down avacados out of a tree for us. As we passed through Konduk, the pastor of the local Nazarene church sent kids up a tree to bring us sugarfruits. We made the rest of the downhill journey with out a problem. We got to the LandCruiser at Kopsip right at dusk and drove back the rest of the way to the station, arriving home at 6:25. There was a talent show with all of the missionary families in our house at 7:00. My talent was taking a shower and making dinner in amazingly little time.
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