Triage on the Trail

One of the first things my dad and I packed for our hike across New Guinea was our medical supplies. To make sure that our trip wasn’t ruined by infection or illness, we put together a very thorough first aid kit. Our fellow hikers were just as well-equipped.  Among us, we had ointments and antibiotics, Ibuprofen, antihistamines, steroid creams, eye drops, bandages, splints, and more.

We had been informed there was minimal access to healthcare in PNG, and virtually no healthcare once we were on the trail. In fact, the villages we were hiking though were so remote that in order for people there to get to a clinic, they would have to hike for several days—often on treacherous trails.p1010232 2

Papua New Guinea, with a population nearing 7 million, has fewer than 400 doctors. And of those 400, only a handful work in rural areas—where 87% of the population resides. This absence of any kind of healthcare was made apparent to us while we were on a rest day in the village of Laronu. We were sitting around for the day, waiting for our re-supply helicopter, when a young boy approached Julie, a fellow trekker, held out his arm and asked her if she could “fix this.” Julie immediately grabbed her pack and dug out her first aid kit. She applied some antibiotic ointment on his infected cuts, wrapped his arm in a bandage and sent him on his way. But soon, word spread. An hour later we had a line of at least 30 villagers, all seeking treatment for their ailments, or for those of their family members. By then we all had our first aid kits out.

We treated a little boy who had tripped over a pot of boiling water and burned his arm, and another child with a tropical ulcer so big it looked as if he had taken a machete blow to the head. My dad offered up a dose of his antibiotic eye drops to a man with persistent pink eye, the same drops, it turns out, that I would need later in the hike. And the people kept coming, huddling close in the waning sunlight, waiting their turn.lrg_dsc01640

As we treated infected cuts and bandaged open sores, villagers went about their business. Children played soccer, running barefoot over rocks and dirt without even a grimace. Women carried buckets of water from a nearby mountain stream while others crouched around a cooking mumu filled with pig meat, sweet potatoes, and greens.

Despite the sickness and hunger and malaria outbreaks, life in the village goes on. The villagers seemed content. I, however, was not. That night, I told my dad that I wanted to figure out a way to get medical supplies to the villages along the trail. At the very least, antibiotic ointments for skin infections, but, ideally, antimalarial drugs and mosquito nets. Easier said than done. But having experienced the generosity and friendship of the villagers, I am determined.


Frisbees and Friendship

When my dad and I were packing for Papua New Guinea, we put a lot of thought into what gifts we would carry with us to give to each village. My dad suggested that we bring Frisbees, one for each village that we would stay in. He recounted how my mom and he had brought a Frisbee with them when they visited the island in 1995. They had only brought one, so they could not leave it behind, but the whole village had turned out to play or to watch the magic disc floating on air. So, along with our other gear, we packed into our backpacks 12 colorful Frisbees.LRG_DSC01610

After arriving at a village, reaching our designated grass hut, and settling in, my dad and I would grab a red or blue or bright yellow disc and venture out toward an open area. The plastic toy immediately caught the children’s eyes and they would follow us, excited for a game. My dad would fling the disc as far as he could, and the children, never having seen this object before, chased after it. It took awhile for us to teach them the art of a good backhand or how to finesse a forehand. Some were naturally skilled at it and some were not—so much so that I would often have to cover my head and duck. 

After a few village visits, this became the ritual: unpack, unwind, rehydrate, present the Frisbee, teach, play, and then, the following morning before departing for the next village, get in one last throw, before we left the Frisbee in their hands.

PNG Frisbee #2Playing Frisbee with the kids (and adults) of the village was a way to build a bridge, to gain each other’s trust. We were largely unknown to each other, divided by our dress, our language, our customs, the color of our skin, our education. But through the simple act of play, we could connect with one another, and that gap narrowed. In the process of sharing this flimsy circular toy, flinging it, dropping it, watching it roll, laughing, instructing, and, finally, successfully passing it back and forth among us, we felt more alike than different.

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)!