The King of the Jungle

On the second day of our trek, we picked our way down another incredibly steep hill and finally reached a creek bed. Five minutes later, I was walking in the middle of the stream, when one of our native guides called for me. He put his fingers to his lips and motioned to a tree. I strained to see what he was pointing at and saw something coiled around a branch. I almost jumped when I realized it was a large snake, perhaps a Papuan Black, one of the most venomous snakes in Papua New Guinea and the world. New Guinea is home to over 80 species of snakes, some of them — the Papuan taipan, New Guinea death adders, the New Guinea brown snake, and the Papuan black — highly dangerous.  

Image result for papuan black snake
Google Images 

When I reached for my camera, the guide stopped me, “No pictures,” he said. By then, the rest of the group had caught up and one of the other trekkers made a move toward the opposite bank of the creek, just feet away from the tree where the snake sat. I grabbed his arm and pointed up above. We stood there awe-struck, examining the snake. “Let’s keep moving,” the guide said.

When we reached our lunch spot, we learned the entire story of the snake. Our lead guide explained that some of the carriers had come upon it as it slithered from the underbrush. Had it been another species they might have killed it with their machetes, but this snake was something to be feared and respected. The carriers, he said, assured it that we were just passing through, that we wouldn’t disturb it or its jungle home. And they saw to it that we kept to that promise. When we inquired about swimming in a pool beneath a waterfall to wash the sweat and grime from our bodies, they told us no. At first we didn’t understand. Then they explained that it would be disrespectful to disrupt the snake’s home and by taking pictures and swimming in the pool, we would be doing just that.LRG_DSC00991

We had another four hours of hiking left, and for the rest of the day, I thought about that snake and the carriers’ reaction to it. Somewhere along the way, I came to understand that the snake was their totem – the king of the jungle. It was an animal they revered.


Strongpela Meri

“Rule Nambawan,” one of our New Guinean guides called over his shoulder as we trudged up a mountain, “Never look up. Longwe tumas. You lose strength.” He spoke a mixture of Tok Pisin and English, and I understood him perfectly: this trail was hard. It was the steepest trail I had ever seen. Barely wide enough for two hiking boots, it was surrounded by thick jungle and it went straight up. Leaning hard on my trekking poles, I wondered if the Papua New Guineans who used the trail to hunt and take their betel nut, peanuts, coffee beans, and cucumbers to the Port Moresby markets had ever heard of switchbacks. My dad and I had trained in Colorado and Montana, but we’d never seen a trail this rugged.

LRG_DSC01030After two hours of tiresome climbing, we made it to the top of a high peak, and were rewarded with a view of the Kemp Welch River valley, green and dense. We enjoyed it for a while and soon began our descent – again straight down. All the roots and rocks that I had used for footholds on the way up were now my enemies. One slippery misstep and I’d be tumbling into the valley, possibly all the way to Goreba, our first village stop.


It wasn’t until day 6 that I developed what I called my “ jungle feet.” I learned instinctively to place my feet between the slick roots and rocks rather than on them, and I learned how to navigate the stretches of wet clay. I grew fast and efficient at climbing up and down the hills and peaks, and soon I was keeping up with our guides.  I felt agile, strong, and exhilarated. Cresting a hill, I would hear our guides exclaim, There’s our lead girl!” I had earned their respect and a new nickname, “Strongpela Meri.”

Elevation Profile:


Rule Nambawan- Rule #1

Longwe Tumas- Long way to go

Strongpela Meri- Strong girl


Into the Jungles of Papua New Guinea

jim and rachel pre pngWhen I was three years old my father set out to the jungles of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to research his book The Ghost Mountain Boys. He had been there a number of times before, with my uncle in 1989 and later with my mom on their honeymoon (!). They all loved the country even with the threat of malaria (which my mother contracted) snakes, and overwhelming heat. So, naturally, I have been hearing stories about Papua New Guinea for a long time. Not just about the bad and the dangerous times, but about the wonderful people, the rare birds of paradise, and the beautiful jungles, mountains, and beaches. Now, I  get to experience it for myself.

This Friday, July 20th, my dad and I are leaving for PNG to do a 22-day trek across the Papuan Peninsula. PNG is shaped like a bird with long tail feathers, the tail being the Papuan Peninsula. kokodamap2
We will walk from south to north across the Peninsula, from a village on the coast called Gabagaba to Buna on the north coast. Along the way, we will cross savannah, jungles, and the peaks of the Owen Stanley Mountains, just like the U.S. soldiers, whom my dad wrote about in his book, did in 1942. Training for this trip has been a long process. Although we trained most of the time in Wisconsin, we took a 3-week trip to Colorado and Montana to train and adapt to altitude. We later returned to the green hills and heat and humidity of Wisconsin, saying goodbye to the Flatirons of Colorado and Yellowstone National Park.

As hard as training had been, packing was almost as hard. In an effort to keep our backpacks as light as we could, we had to keep packing and unpacking, winnowing down what we would need to the bare essentials. In preparation for this trek I made countless trips to Target for pharmaceutical supplies, browsed through thousands of outdoor clothing companies online, took a Wilderness First Aid course in case anything went wrong, and worked out hard so that I could climb the mountains with energy.

Here’s is a partial list of the essentials:

  • Gloves for holding onto trees and roots on the steep hills and for protection against salat, a plant like stinging nettles
  • Smartwool socks to keep the feet dry
  • Silk and Smartwool underwear
  • Moisture wicking shirts and a lightweight rain shell from Outdoor Research
  • Knee-high gaiters to keep out leeches and keep mud and debris out of the boots
  • Trekking poles for the steep inclines and declines
  • Lots of electrolytes to prevent dehydration
  • Garmin Oregon 600 GPS
  • A Garmin watch (Forerunner 735XT) to record details of trip (provided by Garmin)
  • Mosquito net for sleeping
  • Malaria Medication (Malarone)
  • Immunizations against Japanese Encephalitis, Typhoid, and Rabies, too (a bit overkill)

In addition, we will be carrying lots of moleskin, topical antibiotics, antiseptic pads, and ointments, especially ointments that prevent rubbing and chafing. But we are also bringing along stronger medications for more serious circumstances such as cephalexin for skin infections, cipro for UTIs, fever, and nausea, azithromycin for sinus issues, bronchitis, pneumonia, and a cough and fever, prednisone for rashes, and allergic reactions, benadryl for allergic reactions, and finally, eye antibiotics and anesthetic.

Finally, my dad and I have also been studying the language of PNG: Tok Pisin/Pidgin. Pisin is a old trade language that uses a mixture of French, Spanish, German, and English, but most of the words resemble English. Here’s a quick sample of some of the words and phrases we’ve been learning:

  • Liklik raunwara- Small lake
  • Nem bilong mi- My name is…
  • Biknait- Night (11 p.m.-4 a.m.)
  • Mi gat liklik wari bilong mi- I have a little problem
  • Inap mi malolo liklik- Can I take a rest here?
  • Food- Kai kai
  • Breakfast- Kai kai bilong moningtaim


Lukim yu (see you later)!