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.  

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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.


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.


The Power of Nature

Grand CanyonMy first encounter with real wilderness was in the Talkeetna Mountains of Alaska in June of 2016 on a National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) expedition. The days on the trail were long: hours and hours stomping through mud and across rivers and boggy tundra; enduring cold and rain; and worrying about bears. Though my time on the trail was challenging, I still looked forward to each day. In the morning, I would crawl out of my tent, socks damp, hair greasy, and feet aching. Yet, I was amazed at how good I felt. I felt alive.

Then in the summer of 2017, with my family, I made the round trip hike down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We prepared as much as we could, but trying to simulate seven hours of descent and then eight hours of climbing at 100 degrees was impossible in Wisconsin. The Grand Canyon is a forbidding place, but also spectacular. The narrow trail we hiked was dusty and red and there were times when it seemed like it would fall off the edge of the cliff. For much of the hike, we were alone, just us and the 300 million-year-old rocks. We spent the night on the floor of the canyon, and the next day, I led the group out. Even though the heat was sweltering, even though I could feel my calves cramping from the steep climb, and even though the last water stop was closed, I felt strong and satisfied, like I could accomplish anything. 

So, when my dad proposed a 3-week trek through the jungles of Papua New Guinea last summer, I didn’t think twice about saying yes. I loved being outdoors and welcomed another challenge. As part of my training, I spent a lot of time cross country skiing in the cold. Despite the brutal wind and the long hills, I felt powerful. Even as I competed in a 30-kilometer ski race, the feeling stuck with me, and motivated me to go harder. In the months prior to our departure, I tried to hold on to that feeling, knowing that I would soon need it in Papua New Guinea’s jungle-clad mountains.IMG_7031.jpg

On the first day of our trek, we pushed boats loaded with our backpacks and supplies up a shallow river. The current was strong, and after a long day, I was tired and unsure of myself. But, on our second day, after climbing a succession of incredibly steep hills, I felt that power again. And, whenever I doubted myself on the trek, I relied on it. Just as it had got me through Alaska and the Grand Canyon, I knew it would get me through this, too.