a baptism of fire.
A purple sunrise gives way to a grey dawn. We shoulder 45 kilos each and shuffle out under the cover of the semi-light, trying to get out of town before it wakes up properly. We are heading out north, aiming to cover 1000 kilometres in six weeks.
I thumb through the satellite maps searching for natural lines in the impenetrable geography, something, anything that might have linked the ancient trade routes of the highland Dani town of Wamena to the coastline of Papua’s remote northern shore. The best bet lies in a road running north from here. We can follow that out of the hills and down to the jungle lowlands then look for a track connecting to the great rivers. If we can make it to the Mamberamo we are home and dry. The Mamberamo is New Guinea’s Amazon, a 100 metre wide, densely populated, monster of a river. It may as well be a superhighway to the coast. All be it an indirect, crocodile infested, infuriatingly meandering super highway, but still, beggars can’t be choosers – if it’s slow enough to take the packrafts, it’ll work for us.
We push on out of Wamena town, a dozy stray dog sniffs the air in our direction. He keeps quiet and we slip out unseen and undisturbed. Our bags stooping over us in the dark like the grim reaper.
Remember Will, they will never be this heavy again, and we will never be this unfit.
Our path stretches on ahead for eternity.
Following a long tarmac road along the southern edge of the Baliem valley, we’re locked in on all sides by towering slabs of granite, huge uncompromising faces, total indifference, we are far from the first to walk on their toes. The Baliem has been populated for 45,000 years, Papua’s greatest secret, hidden from the wider world right through till 1938, the largest highland tribal population in history, locked deep inside this most impenetrable of natural fortresses.
Eventually we double back on ourselves, slide through a fault in the wall and begin a long two-week descent from the highlands due directly north.
Day Two – 9:43 am on the 6th February
Pain. Pure, white, pain. I live for the twenty-minute break we allow ourselves every forty minutes. I am tailed by a Dani man who tries to prise my implausible bag gently from my back every time he spots me wince. It will cost me 200,000 rupiah for his help. I may as well take the car for this section if I give in now.
I am a water buffalo in a Natural History program. I am being pursued by a gang of Komodo dragons. They will try to kill me over a week by taking incremental bites out of my ankles every time I pause till I drop dead from exhaustion and infection.
The man is leaving now. I notice he isn’t wearing shoes. He is also over sixty.
We collapse to the deck in exhaustion as soon as we can be sure no one is watching.
He pulls his cap down hard over his eyes and allows his own sweat lubricant to aid a smooth slide out of his pack, finishing smartly on his back.
The mid-afternoon heat is searing. It eats our energy and magnifies this task ten-fold. The pack’s weight tears at my shoulders, numbing my left arm entirely and inflaming an old injury on my left knee.
I take a fall on the third day, tearing the left knee open in five places. The old injury stops speaking to me.
This is where this expedition begins. Just keep moving forward Will. Nothing else matters now.
Day five – 10th February
I am not a water buffalo.
I am a single swollen muscle. No head, no brain, obviously.
Just legs, arms, flat feet and an arsehole.