Sunday, 12 December 2010

Back to the Star Mountains?

Day 22 - 10th December

I was rudely awakened at 07:20 by a phone call. Guess who? The friendly delegation from Bime were coming to my hotel. I was really annoyed by this because I hadn't had breakfast or packed all my kit. And it meant that my amazing plan to fly to Bime with the translator Titus had obviously changed. I told Titus, while trying to remember that he was just the messenger, that they must not come until after 9 am because I wouldn't be ready.

At 08:30 he called again to say they had arrived. I told him they would have to wait because I wasn't ready and after a quick shower I headed out to the terrace to see what was going on. Enus was in Oksibil so it was just Titus, his father and two random Bimers. I shook hands and tried to smile and then asked if everything was OK. It was, apart from the small matter of an administration fee that I had to pay immemdiately before I left for Bime. Titus told me it was 50,000 Rupiah, which seemed very reasonable (about $6). I then asked if Titus was ready to fly and he said no, because he had to go back across the border to Papua New Guinea because his Indonesian visa would expire in a few days. This was a real blow. I wanted him there to help me arrange porters and negotiate with each village kepala desa on the trek in and it would be so much harder without him.

I then started asking questions about how much the porters should be paid, because the fact was that I only had about $1,200 in rupiah since the bank had only chnged $1,000 for me the previous day. I had been planning to offer the porters about 100,000 rupiah per day (about $11), which I felt was very fair considering the remote community they lived in. I estimated 10 days with 5 porters would cost about $550, which was affordable. I still had to pay for my own AMA flight, which would cost me another $250 (if they made me pay this time, which I had to assume they would). So I had a little bit of spare cash that I hoped would be enough to see me through back to Jakarta (since it was a pain in the ass to travel to Jayapura to change money). Titus' father was constantly on the phone with Enus as the discussion developed to check and confirm details.

Titus told me first that Enus would fly to Sentani the next day (but I knew he couldn't because it was a Saturday) and would then fly to Bime. Realistically, the earliest that he could be there would be Tuesday. I would therefore be in Bime for 4 nights with no prospect of leaving until Enus arrived. This was quickly becoming a ridiculous and unrealistic situation, I started to think for the first time about cancelling my flight that day because it made no sense for me to fly out only to be stranded in Bime. I explained this to Titus and this was relayed to Enus. His next plan was that I would go to AMA and meet his brother Nas and be accompanied by one of the Bimers (from out of nowhere, 4 other people had now mysteriously appeared at the negotiating table). This would now involve me flying out and paying for a return ticket for me and Enus' brother and a single for the random Bimer – total cost to me was $750 for the tickets. I explained again that I really had only a small amount of money and that I couldn't in reality afford to pay those tickets and then also pay the porters etc.

Throughout the discussion, Titus mentioned several times how important it was that I paid the administration fee. I couldn't see what the problem was and reassured him that it was OK, I understood why I had to pay and would do so willingly. Finally, Titus confirmed that Enus had advised that I pay the porters 300,000 Rupiah per day ($33). Total cost to me would be $1,666 just for porters. Clearly, I didn't have the funds to pay this and I calmly (I think) explained that I would not be able to travel to Bime now and would have to fly back to the UK. This got their attention and I was asked again to pay the admin fee while they came up with a new plan. I reached into my bag and pulled out a 100,000 rupiah note and said I would happily pay double what they had asked. I looked up into blank faces. Then it dawned on me. Papuan people tend to forget about the last 3 zeros when they are talking about money – they were asking me to pay 50,000 thousands! 50 million rupiah is the equivalent of about $5,500!

I closed my notebook and tried to remain polite. I asked Titus to apologise to his father and Enus for wasting their time. I explained that I was here as an individual, a guest in their country and that there was no way I could ever afford to pay that amount. Immediately, Titus' father was on the phone to Enus and explained that I could instead pay a fee of 15 million ($1,600) and that I could pay the porters around 50 – 100,000 rupiah per day. Although this was much more realistic, it was still beyond my means and I resolved at this point that any further negotiation was a waste of time and that I would leave Papua as soon as possible.

I explained to Titus that I would have to postpone my trip back to Bime – I would come back in July to attempt Carstensz Pyramid and I started to form a plan to also keep 2 weeks free to come back to Bime. I really wanted Titus on board as he spoke good English and he confirmed that he had 2 weeks of school holidays at the end of July/beginning of August. It was obvious that everyone was disappointed and that they really did want me to come back to Bime but their greed had defeated them. I had a very heavy heart but a very clear head as I explained my position. Titus asked me what they could have done better. I explained that I (and other tourists) would understand an administration fee but that they had asked for far too much money. I tried to explain that if I had a good experience I could advocate for Bime and attract more people to visit and that they could get regular adminsitraion fees if they were more realistic, which would bring in more income for porters etc as well. I told him that if they had discussed the administration fee earlier in the negotiations, we could have agred a position and I could have changed more money or arranged a transfer into Indonesia and that it was not appropriate for them to come to my hotel just before I fly to try to extort money from me. Titus seemed to understand and was very apologetic about the whole situation. Finally, I brought from my room a 10kg bag of rice and some cigarettes that I was taking as a gift to the community in Bime and instead, gifted them to his father as a sign of my understanding and co-operation.

I plan to keep in regular touch with Titus between now and July and to make concrete agreements before I go back. I will happily pay 10 million rupiahs and will stick to my plan to pay only 100,000 per day for porters. I will also pay for Titus to fly to and from Bime with me. But if they try to change any agreed details when I get back to Papua in July, I will again walk away with no regrets.

As I sit here in Dunkin' Donuts in Sentani Square Mall with my ticket to Jakarta for tomorrow in my pocket, I'm looking at this expedition as very much a reconnaisance mission. Although I haven't achieved the objectives I set out to achieve, there have been a number of positives e.g.:

- I now know the route to Puncak Trikora and have a flexible and affordable local agent. If I can find a climbing partner, Puncak Trikora's true summit should be vey achievable
- I have made great connections with a number of local Carstensz Pyramid agents and will be able to negotiate a good deal
- Despite the last-minute breakdown in negotiations with the Bime representatives, they do want me to come back and I now have some realistic costs to budget with
- Having spent almost 3 weeks in Papua and having gone through prolonged negotiations, I understand what it takes to get things done
- I know the possibilities and constraints of flying around the island and know which airlines and hotels to use in future
- I have built good relationships with Mission aviation organisations and can count on their support in future

My plan now is to fly back to Jakarta tomorrow, pick up my second passport from the British Consulate on Monday and try to fly out on Monday night or Tuesday to the UK (maybe I'll stop in Dubai?). I am supposed to start my next contract with the German Red Cross on 17th January but will probably bring this forward by 1 – 2 weeks. Then, if all goes to plan, I will take a break again early – mid-July for Carstensz Pyramid and (I hope) Puncak Mandala. I have unfinished business here to take care of.

Back in the Game

Day 21 - 9th December

During the morning, the hotel staff arranged a car and driver to take me on the 1-hour drive to Jayapurato try to change USD to Indonesian rupiah (not possible in Sentani) as funds were getting a bit low after so long in this hotel. The Sentani/Abepura/Jayapura conurbation is really not set up for tourists and I had fialed to change any money inj Sentani the day before. At the Bank, I was told that two of my $100 bills were fakes and couldn't be exchanged (thanks to the Post Office at Clapham Junction for that one!). Also, this was not a good time to find out that there is a daily exchange limit of 1,000 USD (which didn't apply in Jakarta)! I had hope to change at least $1,500 to make sure I had a small float of Rupiah for any unexpected emergency payments.

I still hadn't heard back from AMA so I called Bob Ops Manager and he told me he was in Merauke and would not arrive back in Sentani until Friday afternoon. He told me to go to his office and visit his secretary, who I knew from my last trip. The trip to exchange money took 3 hours in total and then I rushed to the AMA office at the airport. I explained to Bob's secretary that I was hoping to fly the next day and to my relief she confimed there was a flight and that there were 4 confirmed passengers. I tried to explain that I may fly with one other (Titus) but I don't think she really understood my point.

My next stop was the supermarket. Bob Ronberts had advised me to take a 10 kg bag of rice as a gift to the community and I also bought some Indonesian cigarettes as gifts for either my porters or the community leaders from the villages I passed through. I also stocked up on lots of chocolate, which I had missed on Puncak Trikora.

I rushed back to the hotel in good spirits that at last my luck seemed to be changing. I packed my kit that evening and ate my last big meal at the hotel. I checked a press release that my PR Alex Foley wanted to issue recounting my attempt on Puncak Trikora and tried to get some sleep. I was really nervous about going back to the Star Mountains after my last visit and the fact that there were so many factors beyond my control. I had no idea if I would make more progress or if I would get stuck in Bime or another village en route. I didn't know how much the porteres would expect to be paid. I had received a lot of useful information from several correspondents but no-one had visited the area in the last 10 years so I was still going back into the unknown, although I was very happy that I would at least have one other English-speaker to help this time.

Playing the Waiting Game

Day 18-20; 6-8th December

On the 7th December, I received confirmation that the refund from the international agent had hit my account, which cheered me up from my misery. I felt trapped in the hotel and Sentani had no tourists sites to speak of. I was concerned about haemorraghing money the longer I stayed in the hotel. There was no-one else to hang out with or speak to and my frustration and sense of isolation was starting to wear me down. I phoned the local agent and he told me he still hadn't heard back from his clients but would know by Wednesday. This was a big blow. I decided to walk into Sentani proper just to get away from the hotel. Every time I had breakfast or dinner I was the only guest and it started to seem a bit surreal. I'm sure the hotel staff were wondering what the hell I was doing because I certainly was. I treated myself to Papa Ron's pizza (I though I deserved it after walking for 45 minutes to get there...) and started to relax a bit away from the confines of the hotel.

Later that day, I got a very aggressive email from the Czech agent claiming that he hadn't left me in a difficult position in papua, depsitre cancelling the Carstensz Pyramid leg with 3 days notice! I couldn't believe his arrogance but didn't have the time or energy to get into a fight with him. I'll just make sure that if anyone asks me in the future, I'll tell them to stay clear of him and his company.

On Wednesday 8th, I got the email I was dreading – the local agent confirmed that his clients had refused to allow me to join their expedition. It was a crushing blow. However, I immediately started trying to create something positive out of this disappointment. I decided to postpone Carstensz Pyramid until after my contract with German Red Cross i.e. until July 2011. At least now that I knew either way I could now plan to access Puncak Mandala. I wasn;t sure of the correct protocl now – should I contact the Bimers beofre I booked my mission flight, or book the flight and then let them know that I was going back? I decided to check the flights first, since the weekend was approaching and I knew they wouldn't fly on a Saturday or Sunday. I decided to try to arrange a mission flight back to Bime for Friday morning i.e. 10th December. I sent a message to Bob Roberts from Adventist Aviation to ask if he was around. He phoned right back to say he was on the way to Jakarta for dental treatment so instead I sent a text to the other Bob, the Ops Manager at AMA, and also to Eric Robnerts, the AMA pilot, to ask if a flight was available for Friday. I neede to contact the Bime representatives to inform them of my changed travel plans (they expected me in Bime just before Christmas) and I wasn't sure what further negotiations that would entail.

Realistically, I didn't know how many days I would need as none of the Bime representatives were clear on either the route or how many days walk it would be. The last person I knew who attempted this route failed to make the summit due to a hailstorm, after 5 day's walk from Bime. However, when I showed his sketch map to the Bime locals and representatives they told me that the names of some of the villages they passed were wrong. I know that Mark Anstice and Bruce Parry had some trouble on their attempt from the south when they were taken partly up the wrong valley so I would plot my progress carefully using GPS to make sure we'd be heading in the right direction at least. I planned to take max 5 porters but again knew that I may have more forced on me by the community. I hoped that I could leave the day after I arrived (i.e. Saturday), but again I didn't expect it would be a straightforward process. Hopefully, I could get in and out in a maximum of 3 weeks.

I informed the Fellowship Manager (Julia) at the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust and formally requested permission to postpone Carstensz and to return to Papua in July. I sent a text to Titus's father informing him of my plans and I got an immediate response asking how many of the delegation I wanted to take back to Bime with me. The answer was t hat I planned to take only one, Titus himself (to translate and help with negotiations). He then sent another message telling me that Enus would fly to Sentani on Friday (the day I planned to fly), which troubled me a little bit......

Contemplating life in Papua

Days 16 – 17, 4 – 5 December, Stranded in Sentani

Saturday and Sunday were spent contemplating a lot about what had happened so far and what may or may not happen over the next few days. I was really frustrated because there was really nothing I could do except wait for confirmation from the international agent and the local agent before I could really plan my next move. I spent some time over the weekend trying to catch up with my blog and updating the expedition facebook page with photos and videos so that people could share as much of my experience as possible.

I also started to catch up on some personal issues that had been left hanging when I started the expedition. I had been in contact with one of the journalists who had helped me promote the expedition for advice on a very difficult professional issue that I had face in Sudan. I'll try to relate it here, although it's a long and complicated story.

Between June 2009 and July 2010 I worked with a German Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) in Sudan (June 09 – Mar 10 in South Darfur, Apr – July 10 in Khartoum). In August 2009, the Country Director (CD), a German national, was arrested after a former local staff member, who had been sacked one month before for connecting his compound to the NGO's generator without permission, opened a private case against him alleging that the CD had entered his compound illegally and spoiled his good name. The CD was released and a court date set for September 2009, just as the CD was due to return to Germany at the end of his 2-year contract.

I looked through our financial records for evidence to strengthen the CD's defence that we had been out of Nyala (our base in South Darfur) on the date in question; however, none of our receipts supported this belief. Finally, I checked through my email records and discovered an email I had sent to a friend on the disputed date - we had no email access in the field so this was irrefutable evidence that we had in fact been in Nyala on the alleged date and therefore the CD could not win his case on a technicality. Despite this evidence against his defence, the CD allowed our local staff to contact the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC) employee who issued our travel permit around that time, who wrote a letter supporting the CD's case that we had been in the field and out of Nyala. This letter was submitted to the Court in clear breach of Sudanese Law, the CD's contractual commitments and several Codes of Conduct for humanitarian workers. The false evidence persuaded the judge to rule in the CD's favour and the former staff member's case was thrown out. I made it clear to our German HQ that if I was asked in Court I would tell the truth about what had happened. I also submitted a formal complaint against the outgoing CD, based on his irrational and, in my view, dangerous behaviour. I received no official response regarding this complaint, other than my complaint had been noted.

The former staff member who had opened the case had borrowed money locally to take the case to court in the expectation that he would receive a large compensation payment. In desperation (given that he was being pressurised to pay back money he owed but didn't have) the former staff member kidnapped the 7-year old son of the HAC employee who had submitted the letter of support on the CD's behalf. This happened in November 2009, after the former CD had left the country to take up a position with another NGO (presumably with a reference from my employer). In March 2010, after I returned from a period of leave, I discovered that the police had raided the former staff member's compound (which was directly behind our compound) and had found the body of the little boy stuffed into a latrine.

The police arrested the former staff member, he was charged with murder and he is now facing the death penalty. I took local legal advice in Khartoum and was advised that under no circumstances should I return to South Darfur, due to the potential of reprisals against me should the local community discover what had occurred and to avoid being dragged into a murder case. I informed my employer and while this was initially accepted, over the next few weeks I was put under pressure to return to South Darfur, which I refused to do to ensure my own safety.

My request to my employer for a formal investigation into the decisions that led to this horrific situation were brushed aside and my personal safety was not prioritised. My employer attempted to sweep the problem under the carpet and the management acted (and continue to act) in a morally cowardly way, by trying to protect the former CD and indirectly, themselves and the reputation of the organisation. Eventually, I was forced out of the organisation after management insisted that my position be based in Nyala, despite the fact that it was not safe for me due to circumstances beyond my control.

I decided that I couldn't just stand back and allow this situation to continue when no-one from the organisation is being held accountable and while the issue is brushed under the carpet. I am still in discussions with the journalist in question with regard to how to proceed. To me, the organisation have demonstrated a disturbing lack of moral courage and I want other people to know what happened so that nothing like this can ever happen again in the future. The situation, and the subsequent deterioration of my relationship with my employer, had a huge negative impact on my mental health during my time in Sudan, from which I am now thankfully starting to recover. I was hoping that the expedition would give me some time and space to reflect on my time in Sudan. But the expedition was now threatening to get out of control! Nevertheless, I had lived through the experience in Darfur and knew that I was trying to do the right thing in making sure people were held to account; this at least allowed me to put any problems with the expedition into perspective.

I tried to remain positive over the weekend and also sent emails to a couple of production company contacts I had about the possibility of producing a doumentary of the expedition. I got some feedback and arranged to meet one of them in London when I got back in January.

I also reconnected with Dr. Mike Prentice of the University of Indiana, who I was providing glacier photos and elevation data for to update him on my position and he wished me luck and told me he would have loved to join me on the expedition, which I appreciated.

Ready for Carstensz Pyaramid, then disaster strikes!

Day 15 - 3rd December– Wamena – Jayapura

It was an early check in at 6 am for the first flight out of wamena at 7 am. I caught a bicycle rickshaw outside the hotel and asked 'berapa' (how much)? The rickshaw driver said 'seppulu' (10,000 rupiah, just over $1). I feigned disgust and said I would rather walk. He then offered 'tiga ribu' or 5,000 rupiah and with my new-found confidence in Bahasa Indonesia I decided to negotiate further, since it was such a short journey. 'Tedak (no)! I will pay only dua pulu ribu', which every Indonesian knows means 20,000 rupiah. Somehow, I had managed to negotiate the wrong way. I figured this out on the journey and my smugness at playing hardball so effectively soon turned to mild embarassment. Given that I am about a foot taller than the average passenger, I was awkwardly wedged under the fabric shade with two bags stikcing out at strange angles. Ah, to be a tourist in Papua. Bad sport that I am, I paid him 5,000 rupiah based on the fact that this was his last offer.

At the airport, there was a Western couple already waiting at the check-in counter and we both approached an elderly Papuan at the check-in counter. Technology has yet to reach Wamena airport. The check in counter for Trigana and the other airlines was an MDF structure with holes cut out for check-in windows. The system (such as we could make out) was for all the passeneger tickets to be lined up on the couter in the order that people turned up. About half an hour before the flight, an Indonesian staff member arrived and all hell broke loose. People started waving their tickets in his face and demanding to be included on the passenger list. I was grateful that Justinus had arranged for my name to be on that list. As it turned out there was plenty of spare seats on the first flight so everyone who wanted to get on board got a seat.

This time I had a window seat and was privileged to have amazing views across the central highlands. Cloud was lying in the valleys but the rugged, emerald and still-growing peaks of New Guinea stood proudly above the cloudbase. The 45 minute flight passed quickly and before I knew it was landing back at Jayapura. I now felt like an old hane and was able to assist the other Western couple with luggage collection. Instead of hailing an overpriced airport taxi for the 10-minute journay back to the hotel, I walked out of the airport and jumped one of the local minibuses that serve as the local transport network. Similar in size to a matatu in Kenya, these minibuses are different in that you just tell the driver where you want to go and he will drop you off and then return to his regular route.

As we appropached the Sentani Indah Hotel there were a huge number of blue banners lining the street and fluttering in the breeze. I had returned in the middle of the PAN's Papua branch's 5-year political political conference, and was grateful that I had made my reservation as Romm 131 was still available. Although I'd like to believe that this was due to mu importance as a VIP guest, I was pretty sure it was more to do with the fact that the toilet leaked and the room was at the very back of the hotel........I also didn't realise it at the time, but the hotel would start to feel more and more like a prison over the next 7 days......

I cheked in , collected the bag I had stored and then headed to the Hotel Restaurant to grab some breakfast and check my emails, since I hadn't had a chance to in Wamena. I was really ready for the next challenge and excited to meet up with the expedition team after so long on my own. I was hoping for an email from the Europen agent, Petr Jahoda of www.carstenszpapua.com He was supposed to send me details of where I would meet the team in Papua and I had come back as soon as possible from Wamena specifically so that I could have time to make the flight arrangements etc. Having had my team pull out on me just a few weeks before I left the UK, I had no option but to pay him $10,500 as he was the only agent that I knew of (local or international) who was running a December expedition.

I was really happy to see an email in my inbox from him (via Iain Mackay) and opened it expectantly. To my shock and massive disappointment, the email was telling me that the expedition had been postponed. I was gutted and my brain started to kick into emergency footing. I think that, although I doubt mysalf sometimes and worry too much about small things, I am quite good at coming up with creative solutions in an emergency. His email stated that the trip MAY go ahead on 19th December but I had now lost all trust in this man, since he had only given me 3 days notice of cancellation. I sent an email to him directly stating that I required immediate reimbursement and that he had left me in a very difficult situation. I needed to get my hands on my money in case I could find another solution so that I could, if necessary, pay another (local) agent.

I then decided to check my UK account to see how things stood financially. I thought that perhaps I could send an interim payment to another agent if necessary. I was surpised to see that my account was almost empty. This was unexpected because two of my previous employers were supposed to have made deposits into my account. I had worked for a German aid agency for 13 months in Sudan, including 8 months based in South Darfur. I had been in dispute with them because they had promised that I would receive a pension contribution during the recruitment process. I didn't raise this issue until the end of my contract, but when I did there was a lot of resistance and I was told directly that although German staff members at HQ in Berlin were entitled to pension contributions, expat staff were not. Which can't be right. Being a Capricorn, I have a stubborn streak a mile wide and decided that this was one fight I had to fight (although not the only fight I had with them). In the end, they accepted my argument. However, this contribution had obviously not been paid into my account.

I was also due a reimbursement from a Canadian NGO, who had latterly been my employer in Sudan. I hadn't been paid my October salary or the promised allowances that were an agreed part of my contract. The reimbursements from both employers I needed in my account to cover UK expenses while I was on expedition and not earning. I had asked for both payments to be made two weeks before, before I left the UK and I was dumbfounded that neither had been made. I therefore sent two more angry emails.

I sent an email to Iain Mackay and asked that we discuss options later that day when Iain had a break from work. I communicated with a friendly local agent that I had built a good relationship with to identify any agents now running an expedition in December. She gave me an email address of one and I sent a message asking if I could get on their expedition. As far as I could see, I now had the following options:

1. If local agent said yes and the Carstensz expedition began 19th Dec or later, I would arrange a flight to Bime as soon as possible and attempt Mandala first. This woudl depend on the Czech agent reimbursing me my $10,500, which he claimed he will do the next day.

2. If local agent said yes and the Carstensz expedition began before 19th December, it would not be worth trying to get to Mandala before Carstensz and I would figure out a short term-plan to save money and wait for Carstensz

3. If he said no, then I would arrange to fly to Bime as soon as possible, try Mandala and then plan to go back early to the UK and postpone Carstensz until possibly next summer

4. Ask Freeport McMoran (who operate the Grasberg mine adjacent to Carstensz) if they would allow me access through their project area to Base Camp to at least collect some photos of the glaciers. During my research, they had already refused me access, although they have in the past supported expeditions collecting data for the same researchers that I support. I emailed my contact there to gauge their reaction

The local agent sent me a message to tell me that they would ask their client if I could join the private expedition and told me they would contact me on Monday with an answer. This meant being stuck in Sentani over the weekend in the middle of a political party conference! Truly bizarre. However, it was the first time I had seen other guests at the hotel.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Puncak Trikora - Lake Habbema - Wamena

Day 14 - 2nd December – Cave camp - Lake Habbema – Wamena We set off from Semalak at 7 am sharp. I had plenty of water and was keen to make good progress to get back to Wamena as soon as humanly possible. I wanted to get clean, have a Coke and get back to Jayapura to prepare to meet the Carstensz team on 6th December. I needed to clean my clothing (especially the softshell that Wameka was still wearing for the fourth night and day in a roa!) and kit, book my flight to wherever I would meet them and I also wante dto bring my diary and blog up to date. One of the aims of the WCMT Fellowships is to share my journey with as many people as possible and I had the opportunity to do that.

I felt pretty sure that we could cover the ground back to Wakikama pretty quickly. My idea was that when we gpt there I could then call the local agent to ask him to dispatch the driver and vehicle to save us hanging around. With lighter loads (we'd eaten almost all the food) and with our mountain legs, we raced down the valley, over, down and up a series of ridges and soon we were descending into the forest towards Wakikama. We arrived just after 9 am. I fired up the satphone to see if Justinus had acknowledged any of my messages; he hadn't. I then tried to call him on the number I had stored, but it wouldn't connect. I decided to check the number against the number that Wameak had stored, but because he had left his phone switched on during the entire trip, his battery was flat. This had the potential to become a very difficult situation. If I had no way to contact Justinus and if he had never received any of my messages, we could be stranded at Lake Habbema with little food and no way to get back to Wamena other than on foot.

I checked my own mobile and although it had been playing up for a couple of weeks (mysteriously switching itself off and on) it thankfully fired up and I was able to check the number I had stored for Justinus. I realised that I had made a mistake when adding his details to my satphone and was really annoyed with myself for this stupid mistake. I quickly dialled his number and after a long dealy he answered. I tried to explain as quicly as I could our location and likely time of arrival at Habbema (12 noon). He told me that, having not received any word from me, he had sent the vehicle and driver that morning to Habbema in the expectation that we would have spent the night at Wakikama – the driver had been waiting since 8 a.m. I tasked Junus with the job of getting his ass to Habbema as quickly as possible to try to find the driver, since we were taking a different route back. At least I knew that if we made it safely to Habbema and found the driver that we should be back in Wamena in the mid-afternoon. I also asked Justinus if he could arrange to bring my flight back to Jayapura forward one day from 4th to 3rd December, so that I could get settled in my hotel and get myself organised.

Junus set off in front off us but we followed closely behind at a steady pace. We were all keen to get back, for different reasons. The guide and porters had wives and children; my motivation was just to get to the next mountain. We had to cross a boggy, flat valley to reach the foot of a steep, tree-clad ravine. It took us about 45 minutes to cross the valley and at the foot of the ravine ran a broad, shallow and slow-moving river. It was quite picturesque and although I would normally have tried to find the shallowest part to keep my feet as dry as possible, I plunged straight in and waded through the water, since I felt we were so close to the end of the trek. The path up the ravine intially followed a small stream that fell sharply from the valley in which Lake Habbema sat. With the sun beating down on my neck again it was hot work to follow the narrow, steep path, which soon turned sharply away from the left hand bank of the stream to climb a series of narrow, switchback turns that took about 25 minutes of exhausting and hot work to ascend.

I felt certain that Habbema would be in sight once we reahced the crest of the valley, which was coming closer and closer as the ground became less steep. Wameak would climb for a bit, then stop suddenly. I found this incredibly frustrating because it would spoil my rhythm. I prefer to keep going at a steady pace and find my mind wandering off into different directions. This ability to take my mind off whatever my body was doing was being constantly interrupted and made the final climb much less bearable than it needed to be. As we breached the crest, instead of the welcome sight of Habbema in the distance and the road back to Wamena, I looked down into another boggy plain that I esteimated would take another hour of fast marching to cover. At this point, my contempt for my guide reach it's zenith. I quietly fumed while we plodded through the mud and every utterance made by Wameak was met by stony silence. I started to believe that whenever he was faced with a decision between 2 paths, he would ALWAYS choose the more difficult path. The porter, on the other hand, seemed to take the easier path, so I started following him instead, partly because I trusted him more and partly, I suppose, to make a petty point to Wameak. Wameak started jabbering away to the porter and eventually the porter started following Wameak, which I suppose made Wameak feel a bit better about himself.

Finally, just when I started to despair of ever reaching the road, I caught sight in the near distance of the sandy ribbon that would deliver me back to Wamena. It was a huge relief. As I slumped onto my rucksack at the side of the road and removed my wet boots and socks, I wondered where the porter who had gone ahead, Junes, had got to. Wameak started to light a fire and was hollering into the distance, but no reply was heard. We waited by the roadside for half and hour, then in the distance we could see sand being kicked up by a vehicle and before long a 4WD pulled up beside us. There were about 10 or 12 local tribespeople in the back of the pickup and it took me a feww seconds to register the Indonesian driver and then recognise Junus's smiling face in the front seat. It was our vehicle! They had picked up some villagers that were making their way down the road into Wamena, which would take them 2 or 3 days. I noticed that a few of the tribespeople were armed; two of them carried rifles and other had parangs, but thought nothing of it. The villagers disembarked and as we started loading our kit into the back, the driver expalined politely, but with a tangible sense of expasperation, that he had been waiting here since 7 a.m. Ouch. I felt sorry for him but what could I do? We had got there as quickly as humanly possible and it had taken us less than 4.5 hours to walk from the Cave back to Lake Habbema.

We jumped into the truck and started driving. After about 10 minutes, we stopped ata makeshift shelter by the side of the road – the driver and his friend (who was also in the vehicle, for safety I guess) hadn't earten since very early morning and we had a small smount of food left. Therefore, we let them prepare a hot meal of noodles and cabbage and as they cooked and ate, the villagers started to pass us and make their way up the steep road ahead. Once they had eaten their fill, about 40 minutes later, we jumped back in the car. The driver seemed determined to make up for lost time. He was going flat out but seemed to know the road well enough, so I never felt particularly unsafe. Having worked in the field in South Darfur, I was used to covering very rough ground at relatively high speeds. We soon caught up with the group of villagers again and a few of them started flagging us down. It would have been impossible for us to take them all in the truck – as we passed one of the villagers on the left hand side, the driver seemed to slow down as though he was going to stop. The man began to gesticulate and shout angrily and this persuaded the driver to pick up speed again as we passed him. I could see his face flashing with anger as we passed and then I watched in the wing mirror as he threw his machete with all his strength at the back of the vehicle as we picked up speed. It was a terrifying moment for me. If we were to break down now or further up the road we would have found ourselves in a potentially very serious situation.

As I sat in the car trying to collect my thoughts, my first thought was that these were OPM rebels, which would explain the weapons and the aggressive attitude to our Indonesian driver and me. I was really gald that we were moving at high speed away from the mountains. I began to rationalise a bit more an decided that they were most probably just villagers who really didn't fancy walking all the way to Wamena and had missed the chance of a free ride. However, before my brain had fully processed the incident, we had to pass quite a few other groups of Papuans on the road and each time I caught sight of them a little chill would run down my spine until we were safely past. It was with a huge sense of relief that I finally reached the Baliem Pilamo Hotel at 2pm. The driver had done a great job of getting me back safely in good time.

I called Justinus and he told me to send Wameaa immediately to the airport with my ticket, so that it could be brought forward to tomorrow. Then, I took my kit inside and checked in. My last stay at the hotel had been faintly amusing, due to the horrifically bad service provided by the staff. This time, when I cheked in, I explained that I would be checking out very early as I had to catch the first flight to Jayapura in the morning. The conversation went something like this:

Staff: “OK Sir, well we give you breakfast voucher”
Me: “Very kind, thanks, what time does the restaurant open in the morning” Staff: “Seven am Sir”
Me: “OK well I'll be leaving at 6 am so I guess I'll just take a discount on my room rate”
Staff: “Impossible Sir”
Me: “OK well I guess I could use the breakfast voucher to get something from the hotel restarant tonight then”
Staff: “ Impossible Sir”
Me: “OK well I guess I'll just check right back out then and find another hotel” Staff: “No Sir, you must stay here”
Me: “Are you trying to kidnap me?”
Staff: “No Sir, you may eat some breakfast today after check-in”
Me:”Excellent, well I'll just check in now then and then grab some food – I haven't eaten since 7 am”
Staff: “Impossible Sir”
Me: “But you just told me......”
Staff: “You may eat some breakfast only between 7pm and 9 pm”
Me: “Are you on drugs?”

I left it at that and made my way to my room. Just as I had dropped my stuff of and was making my way outside to but huge quantities of Coke and chocolate, Justinus arrived back from the airport. I explained that he had just 5 minutes and then I was heading out. I was starving and didn't want to waste any more time negotiating. I paid whet we had agreed and then gave Justinus a short list of feedback, based on Wameak's perceived weaknesses. Hopefully that will allow Justinus to refine his services for any future Puncak Trikora clients. Just before 7 pm, as I was settling down in front of Pearl Harbour, someone delivered two sandwiches with chocolate spread to my room. Mmm, breakfast!?
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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Puncak Trikora - Summit Day

Day 13 - 1st December (Summit Day) I lay in my sleeping bag and looked at my watch – 04:00, then 04:30 and I still couldn't force myself outside. Despite my earplugs, I could hear the porters preparing breakfast but it was 05:50 before I forced myself out of my cocoon to face today's challenge. I had asked that the porters boil some water the night before because I wanted 3 fresh litres to take onto the mountain, but they hadn't done this. We wasted some time boiling fresh water in the morning, which was annoying on several levels, but the clear skies and pink-tinged clouds quickly banished my negativity. My appetite had returned and I ate a huge portion of rice and noodles. Somehow, whether the Diamox was taking effect (I'm sure it was because I felt pins and needles in my hands and forearms, one of the side-effects) or not, I felt immeasurably stronger. Perhaps it was just that I had resolved myself to giving it everything today.

We set off late (06:40), but I had my headtorch and enough warm stuff to see out a night on the mountain if necessary. Instead of following the path southwest in the next valley as we had yesterday, today we forked off the path directly towards the mountain. Bootprints in the mud convinced me that we were now on the right path, which boosted my confidence further. We were trekking towards the scrubby forest again and soon we were ascending steeply through mud and tree roots. At the top of this short climb (4,100m (04 15.224 S, 138 40.115 E)) there was a firepit where porters had obviously been keeping themselves warm on earlier climbs. This was followed by another short forest section and then we came to the first buttresses on the mountain itself. From a distance this looked suicidal - from up close it just looked plain stupid. I was faced with a steep 50m – 60m grass-covered, near-vertical slope. It was a really uncomfortable experience and required me to grab handfuls of wet grass to ascend, which was not an enjoyable experience after yesterday's debacle. I prayed it wouldn't rain today, otherwise the descent would be a nightmare.

I slowly followed the guide and porter up and gladly reached the top of the climb and safe ground (Approx. 4,200m (04 15.310 S, 138 40.157 E)). From the top of this slope, the views northwards back past the cave and towards Lake Habbema were sensational. It was possible to see from this height where historic ice flows had carved and shaped the earth. From the top of the grassy slope, the path meandered left to the foot of a buttress into a small valley that ran south from Trikora. It was one of several parallel valleys but this most Easterly valley allowed the only easy access to Trikora's upper reaches. The path led up through some rocky ground and then as the ground became more boggy we passed a boulder, topped the propeller shaft from an AMA aircraft that had crashed several years ago on the mountain, killing the missionary pilot and a local woman. This was the end of the small valley and now we turned right (West) along a larger valley that ran parallel to Trikora's summit ridge, which was now high up to our left.

The valley climbed and narrowed in the distance and as we ascended it became more rocky. We walked for about 40 minutes and my confidence increased with every step. I still wasn't sure how I would gain the summit ridge but the sun had stayed behind some light cloud and I was feeling strong and knew that we had made good progress. We reached a point where two large boulders stood guard at the foot of a steep scree slope top our left that led to a steep chimney, and up to the ridge itself. We made our way up the scree slope and started to ascend the chimney for about 25m. It was a bit dicey but at least I had my boots to provide grip on the rock. The guide and porter went up barefoot. (04 15.704 S, 138 39.907E, altitude 4,467m.) Again, I kept my fingers crossed that the rain would stay off because I didn't want to descend that chimney tired and wet.

As we gained the summit ridge and the guide and porter stopped for the inevitable rest, I checked my watch. We had made it this far in only 2 hours from the cave and I had a feeling that I was going to make the first of my 3 summits. Wameak and Junus would go no further. The sharp limestone would have been too much even for their feet. Wameak started complaining of a headache and I agreed that he should descend immediately with Junus. He told me he would descend the chimney and walk down the valley we had just come up to a small cave, where he would rest and see if his headache improved. I didn't want to take any chances with the altitude so had no choice but to send him down. It left me somewhat exposed up on the ridge, but I felt there wasn't much they could have done for me up on the ridge. Had I fallen and broken a bone, it would have been very difficult for them to extract me and they would probably just have made their way to the nearest missionary station to alert the authorities, In any event, I had my satphone and could have given my co-ordinates immediately to Iain Mackay in the UK who would have contacted my insurance company and Helimission to arrange extraction by helicopter.

I estimated that I could move rapidly along the summit ridge and expected to reach the summit in about one hour. I still wasn't sure which of the two rocky summits was higher, but based on my discussion with the Indonesian climber the previous day (he had told me to stay just off and behind the ridge to make it easier), I felt like there must be a route that would allow me to reach both summits and take GPS readings to determine which was higher. Just to the West was another summit that looked relatively straightforward to climb but I dismissed this as it looked significantly lower than the rocky summits in the distance to the East, which would occasionally float behind the clouds that were slowly building.

As I made my way carefully along it, the summit ridge itself was initially broad, grassy and rocky After 15 minutes, the ridge then started to narrow and for the next 20 minutes involved lots of rock-hopping with some scrambly moves, then started to become quite exposed. The exposure then increased and the ridge started to become very narrow and required some difficult down-climbing over quite exposed terrain to pass obstacles. Being up on the knife-edge ridge alone in the clouds was exhilerating but the sense of vertigo could not be ignored. I took time to route-find and started to question my sanity. There were some cairns on the ridge that did help with navigation round obstacles, but typically I only spotted them after I had already decided which route to try round obstacles. The terrain reminded me of the Cuillin Ridge on Skye, with dark exposed rock and huge drop-offs to either side. Although the very sharp limestone gave good holds , it was tough on my fingers and hands.

As the distance to the first rocky spire decreased and I began to see just how exposed it was, from about 250m distance, I began to have major doubts about whether I could or should continue. I took 5 minutes to sit down and remind myself that I had faced other more difficult challenges in the past and overcome them. And I kept telling myself that things normally looked better once they were right in front of you. The mental aspect of climbing mountains or undertaking expeditions is the toughest thing for me to manage. I know from my own experiences that it's incredibly easy to talk yourself out of trying something difficult or beyond your normal comfort zone and I've had to fight against those feelings of self-doubt for most of my life. I feel lucky to now know that I can push myself further than my own thought patterns try to convince me of, but I still have to go through that mental process and to remind myself each time that I have to try. I wish other people could understand that their main limiting factor is fear of failure. For me, it's so much more liberating to try something and fail than to always wonder what I could have achieved if my fears hadn't held me back.

As I got closer to the base of the rocky spire over more and more and more difficult ground, I estimated that the spire was probably about 30m high. I was now well beyond my comfort zone and the exposure on that spire was horrific. When I got to the foot of the spire I decided to carefully think through my options – I came to the conclusion that, although I may be able to get up (horrifically exposed as it was), it would have been absolutely hellish to get back down and any slip would have been immediately fatal as I would have fallen hundreds of feet. For me, the risk of attempting to climb it solo was too high. The spire was connected to the next peak on the far side by another horrendously exposed ridge. I was already tired from the concentration required to get to this point. If I had a climbing partner and some technical equipment I would definitely have tried to summit; as it was, I decided that I had reached my limit. I was quietly satisfied with my efforts. After a terrible day the day before, I had found my confidence and fitness, and although I had missed out on the summit, I felt like it was the right decision in the circumstances. I took a GPS reading at my high point (04 15.778 S, 138 40.511 E, altitude 4,638m), took a few photos and then started to descend.

Scientists have know that the ice cap on Trikora disappeared sometime between 1939 and 1962. That gives some indication of just how infrequently this mountain was climbed during this period. Snow does fall on the mountain but the warming of the Earth's troposphere ensures that this snow cover is only transient.

As I started to descend, it began to rain lightly. I tried to move as quickly as possible because I was aware that the two difficult downclimbs (one on rock at the chimney and the other down the steep grassy slope) would be much more challenging in the wet. I had a bit of trouble following the route around obstacles again on my way back along the ridge, and was conscious of where I was placing my feet due to the long drop-off behind the ridge itself. Soon enough, I was past the difficult ground and back to stepping from rock to rock and could get into an easy rythym. After about 1 hour, I had made it back to the broader, grassy ridge and was heading towards the lower peak that lay West of the chimney. At the foot of this peak, I spotted a small cairn that marked the start of the chimney and I started to make my way carefully down.

On the first short section that was less steep, I made my way down facing out, feet first and half-slid, half-climbed down the slope. It then became steeper and I had to down-climb, facing into the rock. Although there was a scree slope beneath that ran out to the small valley below, I was still careful because any fall here would not be fatal but any broken bone would be a massive issue in this remote location. About 5 metres from the bottom of the chimney, I had to move over to the left-hand side to find the easier ground. As I was reaching to move my left hand up and across to a good handhold, the rock that I was holding wuth my right hand broke free and I felt myself falling backwards. Instantly, I grasped at another rock with my right hand and as I did so, I also managed to grab onto something with the outstrecthed left hand and managed to hold myself against the fall. Not good. I carefully picked my way down the last few moves to the scree slopes and, using my trekking poles as supports, I made my way quickly down into the small valley that I had earlier walked up.

As I made my way down the valley, I looked for the cave that Wameak had said he would wait at, but couldn't identify it. I shouted but there was no response. I walked down the valley for about 30 minutes, looking for anything that would jog my memory. I felt certain that the propeller shaft would be visible form this valley but there were som many small ravines off to my left and they all looked the same. I explored a couple of them to try to identify a path but they all ended in steep drops to to the North. I was becoming tired and frustrated again that the guide and porter had left me alone on the mountain. Finally, I explored the second-to-last ravine, then realised that it was the wrong one. I climbed up a small ridge and looked down into the last valley, expecting to be disappoined, when I caught sight of the propeller shaft sitting on a rock. Excellent! I knew how to get down.

I followed the path down the initially grassy and boggy ground, then into a rocky path that lay close to the mountain wall. It ended abruptly at a grassy ledge and as I looked down into the forest 50 m below I saw Wameak next to the firepit and Junus collecting firewood. I shouted and gesticulated to him – I was now at the top of the steepp grassy climb and was not impressed that they had gone down this and had not waited for me. I wasn't exactly sure where the route started and I frantically tried to ask Wameak whether I needed to move left or right to start the downclimb. His reposne was that I was at the right starting point and I should just come down. With my blood boiling, I removed my rucksack and lacunhed it over the edge, aiming at a small ledge 20 feet below. I didn't want the extra weight to potentially drag me off or the bulk to put me off-balance. Of course, my rucksack then cartwheeled well beyond the ledge and stuck in a bush halfway down the slope. I really didn't care – I knew we could retrieve the rucksack later and I was more interested in getting down safely.

I inched forward to the edge of the slope and peered over, trying to identify any safe footholds. It was a horrible experinece – again, I had to gran handfuls of grass to gently lower myself over the edge and hope that they would take my weight. I immediately realised that I was a few metres too far to the right and couldn't believe my guide had left me in this position. I inched carefully over to the spot I had climbed up earlier and then vary caustiously made my way slowly down, garbbing handfuls of grass with each move. When I finally reached the bottom , I hurried through the forest and up to the small hill where Wameak was warming himself at the fire. Although he probably understood very little of what I screamed at him, he was left in no doubt that I wasn't happy with him and hopefully he learned a few good Scottish swearwords as a bonus.

I was pretty subdued for the rest of the walk down the mountain – the clouds had closed in and it had started to rain steadily so I was quite cold and just wanted to get down to the cave to get a hot brew and some food. We made quick progress down the mountain and turned the corner into Camp at about 1.45 p.m. It had taken me 7 hours or so to get up and down – it was hard to compare with the Indonesian's ascent the previous day because I don't know how far along the summit ridge he climbed, but I felt we had set a good pace. The plan now was to leave early next morning to make our way back to Lake Habbema – I asked Wameak what time we should expect to arrive at Habbema and he said 3 pm, so I texted the agent on my satphone to request pickup for that time. When we tried to figure out timings I was sure he was overestimating how long it would take us but I didn't want to underestimate so followed his advice (when will I ever learn?).

During the afternoon we ate noodles, rice and cabbage and drank tea and Wameak recounted the story of a 20-year old Indonesian climber (with no Surat Jalan) who had been climbing Trikora using technical equipment. One of his clibing nuts (used to wedge into cracks in the rock, thus protecting the climber form a fall) had failed and he had fallen badly. His Lani guide had made his way to the nearest mission station to report the accident, leaving the climber lying badly injured on the mountian. The Army dispatched a helicopter to the site and he was later flown to hospital in Jakarta. No doubt he would also have been heavily punished for not having the correct papers to be there!
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Saturday, 4 December 2010

Puncak Trikora Day 3 - All Hope Gone

Day 12 - 30th November

I rose next morning at 04:45 and could barely eat any breakfast. Whether this was down to altitude (we were now at 3,700m), nerves or lack of sleep I couldn't be sure, but I couldn't face much food in the morning and was keen to get moving. Wameak and Junus were going to accompany me to an unspecified point, after which I would continue alone.

We followed a clear path heading south-west from the cave along a valley. After an hour of gentle ascent that kept Trikora to our left-hand side, Wameak spotted a break in the first escarpment and headed off the path over some boggy ground to try to find a path. I could still see bootmarks heading south west on the actual path, but the language barrier prevented us from really understanding each other. My frustration with the situation began to grow and after Wameak had been gone for about 45 minutes with no sign of finding a path, I gestured to Junus that I had had enough. I asked him to bring me the lunch food and gestured to indicate that I would continue along the path and try to skirt round a subsidiary peak that protected Trikora's north-facing buttress to look for a safe way up. I thought I could see path up to the summit ridge high up behind this subsidiary peak. I felt like the time wasted so far would be fatal to my attempts to even get on the mountain and I preferred moving positively to sitting around and waiting for the guide to identify the path. I was sure if he found a path it would most probably be the wrong one anyway.

I set off to skirt round the minor peak over grassy ground that got steeper and steeper. As I traversed, I realised that the ground ahead was becoming steeper and steeper and so I decided I may as well make it to the top of the minor peak to at least gain a good vantage point to survey the ground ahead. The porter had shouted across to Wameak and they followed me at some distance. It was hot, sweaty work to plod slowly up this waterlogged peak, which was riven with many small, watery fissures that I had to cross with care. Eventually, I reached the crest and was joined some time later by the two others.

My hopes of spotting an an obvious break in the buttresses ahead were dashed – I really couldn't see any feasible way to get on this mountain! Ahead and slightly to the right was a 100m high grass-covered corner and Wameak identified this as the route I should take to gain the summit ridge. He explained that two Japanese climbers had climbed this way using ropes and climbing gear. Although the route got less steep near the top, it looked atrocious and would have been incredibly risky, especially in the wet. I decided to call this Plan B and expalined that I wanted to explore all other options before committing to this.

Therefore, we continued to skirt West and South along the base of Trikora's flank. We were now off the path and had to cover broken ground where every footstep had to be taken with care. It sapped a huge amount of mental energy, knowing that every footstep could lead to a plunge into an unseen hole. We walked like this for 2 hours and as we progressed slowly, I always expected to see round the next corner a break in the wall that would allow easy access to the summit ridge. I identified a col where we should be able to see down a valley that ran south and from where I would be able to see an accessible route. As we sat on the col, I looked south and saw that Trikora's buttresses seemed to run unbroken into the distance. It was clear that it would take too long to reach a ridge at the bottom of the valley that MAY have given me good access to Trikora's ridge. I was completely despondent. We had walked for 4 hours, it was incredibly hot and now we would have to retrace our footsteps with no prospect of getting on Trikora today. I had been desperately scanning the wall to my left for any possible access routes and could see that even if I managed to climb up some of the steep and exposed corners, I would still have faced an unknown and steep route above to gain the summit ridge.

We trudged back to the route that Wameak had identified and I began to feel weaker and weaker. I explained that there was no way I would be able to attempt that route today. We had already walked for 4.5 hours across difficult ground, I was feeling weak and my breathing was very rapid. My heart rate was 120 bpm and I was not going to risk being stuck halfway up Trikora when I had no clear exit strategy. I was starting to feel nauseous and was now struggling to keep pace with the two others. We had decided to walk East, this time keeping Trikora to our right-hand side, to recce a path for the next day. Although this sounded good in principal, my physical condition was not good and I was starting to run low on water. From my previous experiences at altitude I knew how easy it was to become dehydrated and how badly this could affect my performance.

I tried hard to follow the others and became frustrated and angry with Wameak. I began to feel more nauseous and finally knelt down and threw up. I explained that I was going to head immediately back down to the cave – I should have told the others to accompany me but I also wanted to make sure I had some possibility to get on the mountain the next day so I allowed them to continue on with their search for the right path. I wanted to find the place where Wameak had gone off the path earlier in the day, because I thought if I found that boggy ground below then I would just head East to hit the path. However, I didn't want to have to climb back up the energy-sapping subsidiary peak that I had climbed up earlier. I made my second big mistake and made my down to the edge of the escarpment to find a way down to the boggy ground.

The ground below was steep and I wasn't sure what I would face after the initial descent. I crept my way down beside a small stream through thick bush. I was grabbing handfuls of bush, tree and grass to cover the steep ground and realised soon that I had made a serious error. I was on my own, with no way to contact the others, I was weak, dehydrated and I had no idea what lay below me as the ground dropped off steeply. However, the adrenaline was kicking in and and I had to trust my own abilities. Most of the trees and tree stumps were dead and brittle so I grasped clumps of grass and bush for safety. At one point, I had to swing out over the stream 20 feet below and this was the worst moment of all – I was only being supported by two clumps of grass and as I found a foothold below and made it on to relatively safe ground I breathed a huge sigh of relief. I followed the ravine down for another 50 feet and then saw the beautiful sight of a more gentle slope that ran down to the boggy ground below. At this point I started to both relax and curse myself for my own stupidity. It was a stark reminder of how easily one bad decision can snowball and lead to a very dangerous situation.

Once I was on the boggy ground I had to make my way back uphill to reach an exit route from the escarpment. It was soul-destroying having to trudge back uphill in my physical condition, but eventually I spotted the path and knew that I just had to stumble along it and it would eventually take me back to the cave. I got there 1.5 hours later to find all the others asleep. I crashed out, and only rose when I heard Wameak asking if I wanted tea. I was pissed off that he had not boiled any water so that I could rehydrate. I had lost a huge amount of fluid both from sweating and from water vapour in my breath. The Papuan porters didn't sweat and drank infrequently and didn't seem to appreciate how important it was for me as a Westerner to have access to copious amounts of fresh water. But I was too tired to fight with them so I quietly drank my tea, refused any offer of food and sank back into my tent.

As I lay in my tent, I began to convince myself that it was now impossible for me to get up this mountain. I was still feeling sick, dehydrated and tremendously weak. I decided that I would make a token attempt on the sketchy climb in the morning (depending how I felt) and that I would fail, head back to the cave, pack up and get the hell out to Wakikama. It seemed like the only option. After some snatched sleep, I made up a diluted Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) drink, took half a Diamox tablet (a prescription diuretic that prevents and reduces the symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS)) and managed to eat some fried noodles. It was now 17:30 and my improving mood was helped further when Wameak explained that they had found the correct path to get on the mountain. Although I still wasn't completely convinced that I could get on the mountain, my black mood was lightening and I resolved to at least try. I had come this far and overcome so many obstacles already to be in this remote and beautiful part of the world and the mountain was right there in front of me. When I checked my emails there were so many messages of support that I knew I couldn't concede defeat just yet. Now, I just had to get on with the part that I had spent over a year preparing for – actually climbing the mountain!
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Trikora Day 2 - Wakikama to Semalak (Cave) Camp

Today, we were walking to Semalak (Cave) Camp, from where I would make my attempt to climb Puncak Trikora. We woke at 06:30 and Wameak produced a delicious breakfast, which looked suspiciously similar to the dinner he had prepared the previous night; nevertheless, it was a big improvement on my freeze-dried fare and I devoured breakfast with two cups of sweet tea. The camp had a very small stream running close by but the water was brown and I didn't really want to drink it, either purified using my water purifier or with iodine.

There obviously hadn't been a lot of rain recently because the ground around the camp was quite dry and the stream was very sluggish. It looked like it would be another clear and hot day. Wameak told me it would be a very long walk today, and I tried to put my sunburned neck (which had kept me awake most of the night) and my almost empty water bottle to the back of my mind.

We climbed south out of the forest for about 15 minutes and the porters decided it was already time for a break at the top of the ridge. Having such a serious nicotine addiction is not conducive to trekking long distances. After a 10-minute break, we progressed onto a series of ridges the ran generally south but we occasionally had to descend one ridge into a short, steep valley and climb up to another ridge to continue our southerly progress. It was clear that we were making good progress and we could see Puncak Trikora in the distance, hovering above a broad valley that was accessible by a break in the mountain wall, down which a small river flowed. One of my porters (Junus, who was the 'substitute' porter) was the strongest in the party and I followed him – Wameak the guide set a slower pace and as I no longer trusted his path-finding ability, I was happy to stick close to Junus to find the best path.

After 3 hours walking under the hot sun, we stopped at a small waterfall in a wooded valley to fill up my waterbottles and to have a rest stop. Wameak produced a pack of digestive biscuits, which we all ate hungrily. I scoffed 10 biscuits and started to feel like a Papuan! What I was already finding remarkable was just how much food the Papuans could consume at one sitting – having read Marks Antice's book 'First Contact' to prepare for the expedition, I was aware that I needed to be careful with food and to make sure that porters didn't consume all their food and help them plan ahead. . However, last night and this morning I was stunned by the heaped platefuls they ate (at least twice as mush as me) and when Wameak confirmed that all the biscuits were now finished (he had only bought two packets), I began to worry slightly about having enough lunch for the remaining days.

We spotted some fresh bootprints heading south on the small path. Although I was surprised to see that there would be tourists climbing Trikora (which is still rarely climbed), I was a bit relieved to know that we could ask detailed questions about the route. We climbed over a small rise and Wameak pointed out a small cave in an escarpment in the distance. We headed slightly downhill towards it and could soon see a tent wedged in the left-hand end of the cave and a tarpaulin flapping in the wind to the right, supported by wooden stakes. Smoke was issuing from behind the tarpaulin so we knew there would be porters sheltering from the wind behind the screen.

We climbed up a short, steep slope into the cave, which was about 50 feet wide, 8 feet high and 12 feet deep. The roof of the cave, which was caked black with the smoke of hundreds of fires, sloped back sharply, so that as you entered you had to crouch lower and lower to reach the back of the cave. The floor had been spread with grass to make it more comfortable. Although the cave would provide excellent shelter from the rain, because it was effectively open to the front, it funnelled the wind that blew down the valley, hence why the incumbent porters had erected a tarpaulin for shelter. As I sat wearily down on my pack, my Dani team introduced themselves to the two others, who were from the Lani tribe and appeared much younger than my porters. The Lani porters explained that one Indonesian tourist was climbing Trikora with one guide and one other porter. They had set off at 5 am and were expected back late in the afternoon.

I wasn't sure that my tent would fit under the sloping ceiling of the cave so started to experiment with various ways of deploying my outer as some kind of makeshift shelter, but soon gave up. I slid the main pole through the outer and secured it and was grateful to see that I had about one inch of clear space and finished pitching my tent. Meanwhile, Wameak was doing what he did best – cooking up a storm. As I was pitching my tent the Indonesian tourist returned from his climb, and although we acknowledged each other briefly, he immediately entered his tent to rest. I decided that was a splendid idea so I did the same. Wameak and I had discussed the possibility of walking up towards Trikora in the afternoon to try to identify the best access route. I thought this was a great idea, but as the afternoon wore on, it became clear that this would remain an idea and would not be put into practice as we were both tired from a long, hot walk. I consoled myself with the knowledge that he would interrogate the other guide and porter for vital navigational information that would help us the next day.

Unfortunately, I forgot to consider Papuan male pride, which meant that under no circumstances would a Papuan male ever show a sign of weakness (such as admitting he didn't know the path to the mountain), even if that sign of weakness could help save his or his client's life.

I had brought with me a rough sketch map drawn by one of my email correspondents, who had visited both Puncak Trikora and Puncak Mandala 20 years before. I had tried to find any reliable mapping of the 3 mountains for several months but had come up with almost nothing. I had visited the Library of the Royal Geographical Society in London in January and made copies of what was available, but these consisted mainly of old maps from expeditions in the 1950s that had no contour lines and very little in the way of detail. Therefore, I was relying heavily on local knowledge to help me find a safe route up the mountains.

Late in the afternoon, the Indonesian tourist re-appeared from his tent and he explained that he was a mountain guide who had guided on Carstensz a few times and he was surveying Trikora with a view to running commercial trips. After Trikora, he was planning to walk for a week down to the Asmat region in the south, where the tribes still lived relatively traditional lives. I showed him my sketch map and asked him some questions about the route onto the mountain. The sketch map didn't bear much resemblance to the physical geography that I could see with my own eyes and he confirmed that he had some difficulty finding a way up to the summit ridge. He also confirmed that there was a lot of scrambling once on the ridge and at least some sections that required technical climbing. He wasn't exactly sure which of the several rocky high points on the ridge was the actual summit. My worst fears were confirmed. He had taken 10.5 hours to ascend and descend with a guide who had apparently been strong and fit and who did in theory know the mountain and had been there before.

My situation, on the other hand, was less advantageous. I didn't have my mountain legs, my guide was unsure of the way and I would have to try to ascend alone. My discussion with him seemed to confirm that we should skirt West along the base of the mountain to find a path up to the summit ridge and then follow the ridge East. I spent a very restless night worrying about whether the easiest of the 3 summits I would attempt (in theory at least) would even be possible.
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Trikora Day 1 - Lake Habbema to Wakikama

I woke early (05:30) just to make sure that my kit was packed and to try to grab a quick breakfast before the scheduled 7 a.m. Pick up from the hotel. Just before 7, I ate a very quick breakfast of mie goreng (fried noodles). I asked if I could have a couple of fried eggs with toast and was told that yes, of course this was possible, but that I would have to pay extra. I was starting to hate the fact that tourists are ripped off at every opportunity. Of course I recognise that income from tourism is very important in Indonesia and Papua (as in other developing countries), but I detest the fact that every single person here sees tourists as being awash with cash. I'm happy to bring some small income into developing, remote communities, but having already paid 505,000 rupiah for my room ($60!) I would have expected that a couple of fried eggs would not go amiss!

Outside the hotel, the vehicle was already waiting with my Indonesian driver and I was pleased to see it was in good condition. I wasn't sure what state the road would be in but was glad that at least the first part of my 'budget' trip would be trouble-free. At 07:20, I texted the local agent to ask where he was. During my previous expedition in Indonesia, I had experienced the phenomenon known locally as 'rubber time' so I wasn't too upset to learn that the guide was still buying food etc - the agent finally turned up at 07:45 with the guide/cook and 2 porters, one of whom looked about 100 years old. The arrangement was that there would be 3 porters; the 3rd porter was planned to be an acquaintance of the old porter (I assume a friend from the local old folks' home?) but he hadn't shown up so instead we left the old dude and jumped in the car to find a friend of the guide/cook who lived near the local market. It didn't take him long to agree to earn a bit of spending money and after a quick stop to buy torch batteries we sped off West on the road into the mountains.

Initially, the road was in good condition and was passable by 2WD. We drove past smallholdings and schools that, although traditionally built, were in good order and the Indonesian flag was prominently displayed. After about 15 minutes of driving out of Wamena, we stopped at an Army checkpoint; despite my concerns about being denied access, the soldier manning the checkpoint was happy with my Surat Jalan and my permit from the Forestry Office and we were allowed to proceed. By now, the driver, his friend and the guide and porters must already have smoked about 5 cigarettes each – lung disease rates in Indonesia in general and Papua in particular must be among the highest in the world.

The road surface soon became much rougher and although it was a graded road, it would have been impossible for a 2WD vehicle to progress. Luckily it was dry, otherwise it would have been very difficult even for a 4WD vehicle to ascend. As we climbed up the winding road into the mountains, we passed small groups of Papuans walking either towards or out of Wamena. There were several small settlements hidden by the vegetation, but which were identifiable by the breaks in vegetation that allowed villagers access. There were several small logging camps by the roadside, where a few Papuans brandishing chainsaws were busy sawing logs into planks. It was clear that most of the forest around Wamena had already been denuded and it really felt like I was travelling through a frontier. Papua feels like it's on the brink of something big, either for better or worse. So far, the only traditional dress I had seen was an old man in Wamena selling tourist trinkets – every other person was wearing Western clothes in different gaudy combinations. The missionaries had obviously done their work well and not for the first time, I questioned whether this kind of development actually helped the local community. I do believe in creating opportunities for people to access basic human needs like healthcare and education and to earn income to 'improve' their lives. However, doing so on the basis that they accept God is, in my view, clearly wrong. Forcing Western ideals of culture and society on a group of people reduces cultural diversity, which makes the world a less interesting place.

Rant over. We stopped at a viewpoint where the forest opened up and there was an incredible vista across the broad, flat Baliem Valley, where I stopped to take a few photos. It felt really exciting to know I was the only white person making my way through this frontier and into an area that was really off-limits to tourists. The fact that I was going with a ragtag bunch of Papuans gave it more of an edge. The reality was that no Indonesian official knew I was headed so if someone decided that I should disappear then only my daily contact with Iain Mackay, who knew my co-ordinates and plans in details, could help get me out.

After about an hour and a half of progress up into the mountains, I started to get good views of the Snow Mountains to the south. This far into the mountains, there were no real forestry operations. In actual fact, we were now deep into the Lorentz National Park, hence why I had to apply for a forestry permit to access Lake Habbema. Officially, deforestation is illegal in this Park, which is a World Heritage Site that stretches for over 150 kilometers (km), from the central cordillera mountains in the north to the Arafura Sea in the south.

In the distance, I caught my first glimpse of Lake Habbema, which sits in a broad alpine valley. To be honest, it was a bit disappointing, but that's not surprising when you consider that I'm from Scotland, which boasts many incredibly beautiful lochs. I think the fact that the landscape was scarred by the white sand of the road (which soon splits and runs all the way to either Timika or Tiom) spoiled my impression.

We soon stopped on the road when the guide was happy that we were at the right spot. Of course, we were in the wrong spot and as the vehicle sped off back to Wamena I had a sinking feeling that things might not go as smoothly as planned. I had agreed with the agent that I would send him a message from my satellite phone to let him know the day before we needed a pickup. The 'guide' (Wameak, which means Little Pig in Dani) and one of the porters headed West down the road to find the path, whicle the other porter headed East. My agent had assured me that the guide, who was in actual fact a cook, had been to Trikora many times before. Lying bugger.

Meanwhile, I sat down on my pack and waited while they hooted and hollered at each other from a distance before they decided the porter to the East had found a suitable path. As I trudged slowly uphill in the morning sun, I found myself breathing quite heavily. Habbema sits at an altitude of 3,400m and the effect of the lower oxygen pressure on my physiology was obvious. I was also carrying my big pack (around 20 kgs) because I wanted to build up a base of mountain fitness on this first leg of the expedition, having had precious little chance to train while working in Sudan. One thing I was not wearing at this point, however, was suncream, which I was later to regret.

We trudged slowly down the steep slope that ran south from the lake to a broad, boggy plain. To the south was a scrubby forest, beyond which were a series of rocky ridges ridges, and beyond those ridges Puncak Trikora was shrouded in cloud. The porters pace was initially slow. Two of them wore flipflops and the third walked barefoot. The flipflops were discarded whenever we crossed really slippery ground, to be replaced by...er.....nothing – they preferred to go barefoot and as I followed in their footsteps I could see that the big toe was slightly splayed compared to my own foot, which helped balance on e.g. tree roots. We seemed to be heading slightly to the West of Puncak Trikora, which seemed strange to me, and Wameak seemed unsure of himself but obviously didn't want to lose face so early in the trip. So we continued to walk in the same direction and I already started to lose my faith in his guiding abilities and judgement.

After a while, we reached the forest at the other side of the plain and started to ascend through the shrubby trees. There were visible footprints so it was obvious that people used this route, however it was clearly heading too far West. At this point Wameak decided that we had veered slightly off course and decided to change direction. We had been heading up into the mountains to a village called Brumu, which was under rebel OPM control. The Free Papua Movement (Indonesian: Organisasi Papua Merdeka, abbreviated OPM) is an indigenous organisation established in 1965 to promote self-determination and secession of West Papua from the Republic of Indonesia. The movement is outlawed in Indonesia, and raising the Morning Star flag and speaking in support of OPM goals are outlawed.

Wameak also decided that the forest was too thick to walk through (it wasn't), so instead we walked back the way we had come for half an hour and then spent an other hour walking East to meet the actual path that we should have taken all along. It was really infuriating to know that I had been under the equatorial sun for an hour and a half for no reason, and that I had used up energy walking with a heavy pack to boot. Once we hit the right path it was easy to follow up through the forest and about halfway up a shallow slope we hit a heathery open area with many tree stumps – in the centre of this area was a raised, flat, grassy mound with a traditional A-frame shelter built from branches with space for a small tent adjacent. We had reached Wakikama (3,301m).We had walked for 4.5 hours and arrived at camp at 3 p.m.

As I pitched my wee GoLite tent above the shelter, the porters collected wood for the cooking fire (hence the many tree stumps). I had brought with me from the UK a selection of freeze-dried meals, which only required me to simply add boiling water to the pouch, stir, and then wait for 10 minutes. My food included a selection of breakfasts and main meals and I had only requested Wameak to provide me with some lunch. Once the fire was going, my water had been boiled and I was tucking into my bland, rehydrated food, Wameka unveiled his wok with a flourish and in no time at all was cooking up freshly boiled and egg-fried rice and noodles with garlic, sardines and cabbage. It smelled and looked amazing, but I stubbornly refused to eat it as I chewed down hard on my stodgy foil-packed dinner. In that one moment of extreme clarity, I knew that Wameak's true calling was as a cook and not as a guide, and I resolved to only eat his freshly cooked food from them on, starting with breakfast the next morning. I also resolved to ignore every navigational decision he made henceforth.

I made one huge mistake while we were having dinner and while the porters smoked another 20 cigarettes each. I had brought with me into the shelter my new Montane softshell, which was one of the items that Paul Cosgrove from Montane had very generously donated. Wameak stared at it with his beady eyes and then asked if he could borrow it as it would be very cold at night. As a humanitarian aid worker I had no choice but to accede to this request. I said goodbye to this shiny new bit of kit with a heavy heart. I retired to my tent and had the first opportunity to test my satcomms in the field. I set up my laptop and BGAN in my one-man tent and was able to check emails and update the expedition facebook page. Simply amazing!

I settled down in my waterproof goosedown sleeping bag and waited to drift off with the sound of the porters jabbering away in the background. Two hours later, when they finally shut up, I was also able to grab some sleep, but woke up cold in the middle of the night. I had to add some layers – 3,400m, whether in the tropics or not, is not a warm place to be once the sun drops below the horizon.
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Thursday, 25 November 2010

There and Back Again

How to sum up the strangest 36 hours of my life? Exhilirating - yes; confusing - yes; terrifying - sometimes; amazing - always.

Where to begin? As a planner and worrier by nature, I tend to get stressed when I'm in situations where I don't feel in control. And yet I continue to put myself in those exact situations. This expedition has so many different elements with the potential to go wrong, most of which I can't really influence. I could have been refused a travel permit, I could easily miss flights due to bad weather in the mountains, I could run out of money or I could have a major kit malfunction in the extreme weather conditions in the Central Highlands. However, having overcome one of my major worries by getting my travel permit, I turned up at the AMA hanger at Jayapura airport with a burgeoning sense of excitement. I was finally on my way to the Star Mountains. Besides my excitement, I was also conscious that I was really flying into unknown territory - I knew almost nothing about Bime and even one of the AMA pilots I spoke to could only tell me it was a grass airstrip at about 1,800m. He couldn't tell me if there was a police post or how many people lived there or any other basic information.

Nevertheless, it seemed that the gods were smiling on me - at the airport, I was able to fill my fuel bottle with Kerosene and because two Indonesians had chartered the flight, I didn't have to pay a penny. The Cessna Caravan was stripped out so I was pushed right up at the back seat for the 1-hour flight to Bime. As we took off over Lake Sentani, I could see a lot of deforestation around the city and lots of palm oil plantations, but within a few minutes we were gaining altitude over unbroken forest as far as the eye could see. For the most part it was undulating terrain, punctuated by broad, brown, sweeping rivers. After about 25 minutes, we started to pick up altitude again and the towering clouds in the distance signalled that we were approaching the Central Highlands. Very soon, the earth began to appear crumpled and we started crossing deep ravines and sharp, forested ridges. I spotted an airstrip carved out of the mountain away to the left and thought that we would bank left to line it up. To my surprise, we headed straight for a high ridge ahead of us and as we popped up over it I saw Bime airstrip directly ahead of us on the westerly slopes of a steep-sided valley. As we sped in for a bumpy landing I caught my first sight of the local villagers and my stomach leapt - I suddenly realised that as soon as the plane took off again I would be here alone in one of the world's most remote locations with no way to communicate with the local people!

The plan rolled to a stop at the apex of the runway and turned in a tight circle. The pilot, and Indonesian guy named Arnold, disembarked and opened the doors and I followed the two other passengers out. I didn't want to approach anyone directly for fear of offending them so I waited until Arnold had run his checks and asked if he could translate my purpose. The local Kepala Desa (headman) stepped forward and Arnold explained that I wanted tiga orang (three men) to accompany me to Puncak Mandala. The headman seemed to suggest that this was OK. Then another villager stepped forward and asked in (very) broken English if I needed help with my bags. His name was James and he told me he spoke Pidgin English and that he was the only person in the village that did - he was employed in the Kantor (District Office) as assistant to the District Officer, who was absent. That was a stroke of luck for me because when I explained that I had brought a tent, he insisted that I would stay in the District House, meaning I would at least be dry and comfortable for one night.

To my surprise, the District House had running electricity. James explained there was a small water powered turbine further up into the mountains that provided Bime with 24 - hour electricity! The house I was staying in was a simple wooden affair with two small bedrooms and a living are. It also boasted an indoor latrine, which I was grateful for. Very soon, James abandoned me and I understood that he would speak more with the Kepala Desa to figure out if we could leave the next day. I was then pretty much left to my own devices for most of the day until late afternoon when a guy turned up at the door - he didn't speak English but was very enthusiastic and it was clear that he wanted to join me on the trek to Mandala. After an animated conversation that somehow made sense despite neither of us speaking the other's language, Manius left and I spent some time testing my satcomms again (they worked!) and cooking some food. A little while later James arrived again with food that his wife had prepared (rice and vegetables). All the rice that was available in the village has to be flown from Jakarta because they can't grow rice in the Star Mountains – the staple diet is potatoes. James disappeared again and I waited patiently for him to return so that I could ask him about the plan for the next day.

After dark, James and several others turned up to the District House. James informed me that he had been in radio contact with Oksibil, the capital of Pegungan Bintang (Star Mountains) regency. The Kepala Desa from there had decided that I couldn't proceed and James informed me that he would fly into Bime the next day to discuss my options.

After a promising start, this was a real blow and I had a sinking feeling that things would not go smoothly. My mood was quite black and I started thinking that James and the others were only interested in how much money they could get out of me. At about 7 p.m., I went to bed but had quite a troubled sleep because I couldn't stop thinking that this could be a disaster for the expedition.

Day 7 - 25th November

Next morning I was woken about 3 a.m., by the incessant crowing of several village cockerels. I tried to doze until 5 a.m., then decided sleep had escaped me so got up to see if I could catch my first Star Mountains sunrise. The sun rose around 6 and as I gazed over the village I felt incredibly privileged again to have had the opportunity to visit the area, which so few Westerners have ever seen.

However, this was tempered by the fact that I was concerned about having to spend another night in Bime with no guarantee that I would be grated access. I knew the terrain that I would have to cross was exceptionally difficult and I knew that somehow I had to be back in Jayapura by 6th December at the latest. Losing days would make any attempt to reach the summit of Mandala futile. The best I could hope for would be to trek in as far as possible and try to catch a glimpse of the summit. James turned up to the house around 7 a.m to tell me there was a change of plan – now, the Kepala Desa would fly to Jayapura the next day and James and I would fly to meet him there. I explained to the best of my ability with the enormous language barrier that I hadn't known that I needed permission from Oksibil and that had I known I would certainly have done so. I think one of the reasons why it was difficult to gain access was because James's boss, the senior District Official of Bime District, was on leave. I got the impression that James did not want to get himself into trouble and lacked the authority to make any decision. Therefore, he would discuss the situation by radio with anyone who would listen.

Having accepted that I would be staying only one more night in Bime, James asked if I wanted to have a look around the village and local area. I jumped at the chance; up to this point I had really just stayed in the District House because I wasn't sure what was appropriate and what wasn't – for example I knew from previous expedition reports that often the women in villages are hidden from visitors and I didn't want to offend my hosts any more than I had already done just by being there.

With James, Manius and his two kids we left the compound and walked up the path adjacent to the airstrip, then crossed a small river, following a path cut into the steep hillside. At the top of the small ridge was another small settlement and there I was introduced to the Kepala Desa of this settlement, who was sitting on a log and handling a large parang (knife). He had visited the Distrcit House the previous day and was happy to meet me again. There were a few children sheltering from the hot morning sun under a simple wood and grass structure. Two young men approached and explained as best they could that they attended school in Borme, some distance away, but that they were back in Bime for the school holidays. They were dressed like proper Gangsta rappers but were very friendly. They spoke very broken English but joined us with a small posse to visit the local District school, which was set in a prominent position on a nearby west-facing hillside.

The school was formed of 3 wooden buildings and each Grade had their own classroom with simple wooden desks and a blackboard. Nixon was one of the students from Borme and he told me he was in Grade 3 and was 16 years old. I was constantly surprised when I asked people their age to discover that I was much older than most of them. For example, James was only 26 years old and I would have guessed he was more like 40. Similarly, I would have guessed that Nixon was in his mid-20s. I guess it's still a very harsh life in the Star Mountains, even if you live in a village next to an airstrip. Although they now have 24-hour electricity and access to satellite TV, access to basic healthcare is limited and there is a huge reliance on the few missionary aviation organisations that serve the various remote airstrips that are spread around the Star Mountains.

Primary education in Papua is now free to all pupils, thanks to the Government working in partnership with NGOs. However, parents then have to start paying 50% of school fees beyond this and University education must be fully paid for. There are several missionary organisations that sponsor bright pupils but for most Papuans, it's exceptionally hard to access those opportunities and jobs are very scarce and hard to come by.

However, it was great to see that the local community has a school and to meet a couple of younger men who had been able to see life beyond Bime. Although the traditional way of life has almost disappeared in Bime itself (I only met one elderly man who was wearing a penis gourd), it's unfair to not give poorer communities the chance to develop as they wish.

As we were planning to walk to another local community, James was called back to Bime from across the small valley – he was required to take an urgent radio call. We sped back across to Bime itself and James asked me to wait back at the District House again. About 30 minutes later, James reappeared with more news – I was now to leave Bime immediately – there was an AMA flight flying into Bime in half an hour and I had to be on it. The previous day, I had joked with Arnold, the mission pilot, that I would call him to come and rescue me. Now, it seemed like he was coming to rescue me after all. I packed my kit up as quickly as I could, gently reminding James that he still had my titanium cooking pot and spoon. I knew when he offered to wash it the night before that he had his eye on it and thought it would make a fine addition to his cookware collection!

I hauled my kit up the path to the top of the airstrip and waited at another of the wood/grass shelters where about 25 people from the local community were waiting. I was able to grab a couple of photos with Nixon and was asked to take a photo of one local villager's rock collection, which I happily did. Very soon, the low drone of the Cessna's engine could be heard in the distance. In no time at all, the small plane was zooming to a halt at the top of the airstrip. It's fair to say that Arnold was surprised to see me! He said it was no problem for me to hitch a ride back to Jayapura, so I climbed in with promises from James that we could fix this. I wasn't sure how that would happen, given that I had no way to contact him or, in fact, anyone from Bime. During the flight, I started to review my options:

1. Give up on Mandala and enjoy some rest at the hotel in Jayapuar and explore the local area
2. Try to meet the Kepala Desa at the airport , get his permission to go back and go back to Bime immediately
3. If I got permission, postpone Mandala to the end of the expedition and figure out instead how to get to Wamena to attempt Puncak Trikora.

Option 1 was ridiculous so I dismissed those thoughts from my mind. I decided that I would make up my mind between Option 2 & 3 after (I hoped) I was able to talk to the Kepala Desa the next day.

The views across the mountains on the flight back were just as mind-blowing as the way out, but my mind was preoccupied by how to figure this situation out. Once we landed back at Jayapura, I immediately enetered the AMA office to try to find Bob, the Operations Manager, who was becoming a key figure in my life! Unfortunately, he was not in his office, but at least I knew that the KD was flying tomorrow from Oksibil, which was at least something to work with. I took a taxi back to the hotel and settled back into my room, keen to upload all my photos to facebook and to update all my sponsors and supporters with my news.

As I waited hours at the hotel for my pictures to upload, I texted Bob to ask him to let me know when tomorrow's flight from Oksibil would land. He phoned me and I tried to explain my position and he agreed to phone me in the morning once the arrival time was confirmed. This information reduced my stress levels a bit as I now had a clear goal to focus on – to convince the KD that I should be allowed back. During the early evening, as I was trying to write my diary on the hotel terrace, two Papuan men approached me and asked if I knew of an American who had wanted to fly to Bime. I exaplined that I was that American and then decided not to go into too much detail about the War of Independence and the fact that my predecessors were on the losing side. One of the men spoke passable English and explained that, although he was originally from Bime, he studied across the border in Papua New Guinea. I invited them to join me and then 3 more Papuans appeared from nowhere and joined us. My life was becoming truly bizarre at this point and I had to pinch myself to check I wasn't dreaming.

The young man who spoke English explained that his father was a representative of the KD and head been asked to come to find what my intentions were, in order that he could report back. At least I now had a way of definitely setting up a meeting. I explained clearly that I was very sorry that I had not asked permission and that I was very grateful that they were giving me this opportunity to explain myself. I told them that I was there to try to get a picture of the ice cap on Mandala's summit and that I would like to document the lives of the local villages by taking photographs. I was told to write this down, along with basic details about myself. So, now they think I'm descended from William Wallace and that my Uncle is the President of Scotland. They seemed happy enough and we parted on the understanding that the KD would visit me at the hotel tomorrow. They asked my room number but I decided that I didn't necessarily want 5 Papuans coming to my hotel room first thing in the morning!





Day 8 - 26th November

Bob phoned me at 06:30 to say I had to be at the airport at 08:00 sharp. My sleep patterns were still all over the place and I dashed into the shower and ran for breakfast. I had decided that rather than wait for the KD to come to my hotel, I wanted to meet him off his flight. This was because:

1. I wanted him to know how important he was in my eyes, and
2. I had about $5,000 cash in my room and over £5,000 worth of equipment and didn't want them to see any of this

When I arrived at the airport, Bob asked me how much luggage I was taking – the language barrier struck again. Bob was convinced that I was flying back to Bime this morning, instead of meeting someone from a flight. He also told me that there was no AMA flight from Oksibil this morning so I ran out of his office and nearly knocked over one of the Bime representatives. He explained that the KD's flight was landing at 09:00 so I waited with him for an hour, eager to catch sight of the KD and wondering what his mood would be like.

The KD appeared with a big smile and as I stepped forward to shake his hand, he grabbed me in a bear hug, although given the that the typical Papuan is less than 5 feet tall, it was around my waist. I was really happy that he was pleased to meet me and also very happy that I had made the decision to meet him at the airport. He took me by the hand and ushered everyone to a taxi. Although he didn't speak any English, I felt confident that I could work something out with him. I'd already decided that the maximum amount of money I could realistically afford to pay for a 'permit fee' would be $500, but wanted to negotiate to around $300.

At the hotel, I ordered tea for everyone and we started a discussion. They explained that we would have a break in the discussions around 1 p.m., in order that I could get some rest. I wondered how much they had to say, because my piece would be short and sweet! I explained again my position and then explained that I was respectfully asking his permission to complete the important project. This time I explained in detail that I was in Papua on behalf of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to photograph Papua's glaciers and that the Queen, as patron of the Trust, gave the expedition her blessing. With a flourish, I produced a Letter of Support from the Director General of the Trust, asking for any assistance that they could provide., This turned out to be a master stroke and I suppose that is exactly why the WCMT issue such a letter in the first place.

I also explained that if the KD was kind enough to give me permission to return to Bime and allow me to access Puncak Mandala, I would have to postpone my visit until after I had completed the Carstensz Pyramid leg of my expedition. He agreed to consider this as part of the decision-making process.

After I had finished explaining how important I was (which took about one hour), they informed me that they would now leave to discuss amongst themselves and would return at 1 p.m., and that I should get some rest ( I must have looked tired). I was feeling pretty crappy through a combination of lack of sleep and a heavy cold that had come on the day before and would have jumped at the chance to get some rest, but I decided to take the calculated risk to go back into Sentani town to book a ticket to Wamena for the following day. I was pretty sure that the KD would allow me to visit and felt I could convince him that I should postpone to the end of my trip. I therefore wanted to make sure I could fly to Wamena in the Baliem Valley as soon as possible to make an attempt on Puncak Trikora. I asked at the hotel reception if they could help me book a flight for the next day, but when the hotel manager phoned his friend at Trigana Air he was told that all flights were full. He suggested to go directly to the ticket office to try to figure something out. I went straight to the Trigana Air office near the airport and was able to book a ticket for the 08:00 flight the next day to Wamena and also booked a return flight for 4th December, which would allow me to meet up with the Carstensz Pyramid team. I also phoned a hotel in Wamena and booked in.

My plan now was to fly to Wamena and then try to fix sopmething on the ground. In email correspondence with a couple of local agents from Wamena, they ha offered prices that were outwith my budget – I really wanted to organise a Trikora climb for less than $1,000 but wasn't sure if this would be possible. As a last resort, I was prepared to wing it and try to get my own way to Puncak Trikora, risky as this was.

Back at the hotel, the KD and his associates returned just after 1 p.m.. The KD produced a number of documents for my perusal, including a very useful map, something that I had struggled to get hold of in the UK, despite visiting the library of the Royal Geographical Society. He also had some historical geological and other scientific reports from European bodies, the most recent being a geological expedition from Frei Universitat Berlin in 1982. A couple of documents had a copy of a photograph of the glacier on Mandala's summit that was taken in the early 1950s by a US reconnaisance flight. I had seen a copy of this photograph in a book written by the first party to summit Mandala in the 1950s (a large-scale Dutch scientific expedition). However, I have never been able to find any other photographs of the summit elsewhere.

He expounded the following extraordinary facts about Mandala:
1. It's the highest and most important mountain in New Guinea
2. The glacier is permanent, will never melt and has been there since God created the Earth
3. The mountain is needle sharp and impossible to climb – I would be unable to take a photograph of the summit
4. Bime is 1,300 km away from Mandala
5. Despite the distance above, it can be reached in two days walk from Bime
6. I would need a team of at least 20 porters because so many were likely to die on the way
7. Even with all my fantastic Montane clothing, the cold would blow most of it off and I would probably also die

I thanked him for the information and told him that if I could get a photograph of Mandala, it would be a huge news story in the UK and that was why I wanted to save Mandala until last, because it was so important. I exp[lained that I hope on the first two mountains I woul dbuild up my strength to be able to tackle such a mighty mountain. Regardless of the fact that I would be walking to my certain death, he agreed that I could try to reach Mandala and supported my project. He then produced an official 'permit', which reads as follows:

Subject: Main connection of the people of Stare Mounatin District of Papua and the Sub-District of Bime and the whole of Republic of Indonesia.

With the Respect of Hon. Mr. Ricard, I'm the Member of Stare Mountain District. On behalf of my people in Bime Sub-District, we would like to ask you,

What benefit will we get apart from your travelling to Bime sub-district and the resources and minerals there?

Please, our motives is that you must help us and developing our sub-district of Bime so that we may work together and help each other by multilateral/bilateral system.

Thank you very much

I thinks this means I have free access to Bime and all the villages en route to Mandala. I was asked to pay just a small token of appreciation in travelling expenses that amounted to less than $70. I actually really enjoyed meeting the KD and he seems genuinely pleased that I will return. The only small problem I forsee is that he told me he will keep me in Bime for one month and advised me to send an email to my new employer explaining that I will not be returning to Scotland. Maybe I should just marry a girl from the Star Mountains and raise pigs.............

It feels great to have at least one issue settled and it will be good to go back to Bime knowing at least partly what to expect – I've no doubt that there will be huge frustrations and delays when I get there but I have some flexibility in my schedule and will do all I can to make this work.

On a lighter note, I managed to watch some of the movie 'Misery' on TV, which I'd never seen and would now like to watch in full, and later in the evening E.T. was also showing and I watched a bit of that. But I was so tired I put my head down at 20:00 and fell immediately fast asleep.

Day 9 - 27th November

It was another early start this morning at 04:30. I packed my kit (again) and had a quick breakfast before heading to the airport for my 06:00 check-in time against an 08:00 departure. The check-in queue at the Trigana Air counter gave me goosebumps – it reminded me of the check-in desks for local flights at Khartoum Airport in Sudan. I've been trying hard to forget my experiences in Sudan, but the disorganised chaos brought back unhappy memories for me. However, I soon realised that, unlike in Sudan, there was some order behind the chaos. The girl behind the check-in desk also took pity on me and called me forward, then accepted my overweight bag with no charge. She told me my flight would start boarding in 10 minutes, which was 1 hour 45 minutes ahead of schedule – luckily my biggest fear in life is missing a flight so I'm always at the airport in good time and I made it on OK.

While I was walking to the plane, two Indonesians in their mid-20s asked what I was doing in Papua – turns out they work for Worldvision, an international Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO). On the 40-minute flight, we shared stories of lazy local staff members as though we were playing Top Trumps!

The flight into Wamena is incredible – the plane has to pass through an opening in the mountains and suddenly the whole Baliem valley opens up in front you. The Baliem Valley was only discovered in 1936 by coincidence by a mail aircraft and had a self supporting agricultural system of high standard, despite having had no previous contact with the civilized world. Now, Wamena is home to 10,000 people but there are still no roads into Wamena from anywhere so all goods have to be flown in, which pushes prices up and makes life expensive for the local residents.

At the airport, the NGO staff explained that my hotel was within walking distance, which cheered me up because I have already started to lose patience with the fact that people will rip off tourists at every opportunity. For me, walking for 10 minutes with two bags is preferable to paying 10 dollars for a two-minute taxi ride.

At the hotel, I had a taste of what to expect when I asked if I could get breakfast if I paid for it. They said no. I immediately hated them all and decided to be an annoying guest. I asked if they knew where the internet cafe called Papua.com was located and the receptionist proceeded to draw me the worst map in history. As I write this blog update 12 hours later, I still haven't found this place. I was looking for this cafe because I had been advised by my PR Alex that if I could seek out a Japanese man called Fuji he could change my life (i.e. organise my trip to Trikora). Having failed to find said cafe, I passed a cafe called Hotel Pilamo and went inside for breakfast. I checked my laptop and was surprised to see a wifi connection. It didn't belong to the cafe but I was grateful to hijack it nevertheless. I had been in email contact with a couple of guides several months previously but was not happy with the prices they offered. However, I decided to try to phone both of them now that I was in Wamena and had my travel permit to see if they would be willing to negotiate.

The first guy I called had come highly recommended on several internet forums, but when I tried his number it didn't connect. The second guide answered and I arranged for him to come to the cafe to discuss a trip. He spoke really good English and over a cup of tea (and several cigarettes for him) he explained that he had been sponsored by a priest through school (which is how he had learned such good English), that he had 7 children, including 6 daughters and that each time one of his daughters marries he receives pigs as a gift from her husband's family. It really pays to have daughters in Papua. The local population come from the Dani tribe and he explained that very few people now live the traditional way.

Then, we started to negotiate. I explained my position that I didn't have a large budget and that I wanted to be as quick (while staying safe) and as minimal as possible. Over email his lowest price had been $1,750 but his opening price was this time was $3,000 and I immediately told him that if he didn't give me a serious price I would simply fly back to Jayapura the next day. I don't actually have access to lots of cash in Papua so I told him my limit was $1,000 and eventually we settled ona price of $1,200, which I am relatively happy with. I know that the most expensive part of the trip is renting a 4WD vehicle for the 2.5 hour drive to Lake Habbema and back. The cost of fuel in Wamena are prohibitive since, like all other goods, it has to be flown in from Jayapura.

Unfortunately, I hadn't learned anything from my experience negotiating access to Bime and I assumed everything would be taken care of. However, a couple of hours later, the guide turned up at my hotel to continue negotiations and finally left 3 hours later. I think trying to organise access to these mountains will be more time-consuming and exhausting than actually climbing them! So, now I'll be accompanied by a guide who doesn't speak great English, a cook (for the guide) and two porters. The guide will not actually climb to the summit with me but just make sure I get to the mountain. I have to but 10 packets of cigarettes to smooth our progress with the OPM and also have to make a 'donation' of 500,000 Rupiah, which equates to about $60 USD.

Officially, Lake Habbema and Puncak Trikora are off-limits to tourists, but this being Indonesia, anything is possible at the right price.