Aesui – Bipa
Today we woke at 0600 and packed our kit away aiming to leave Aesui at 0630, breakfast consisted of a bowl of steamed bananas. Stanley said to us “This is for breakfast and lunch”. “No lunch! This is going to be horrendous.” I said to Ant joking but also being deadly serious at the same time. We got as many down us as we could before we said our good byes and headed down to the Yawa rvier.
We would follow this roaring beast up into the foot hills, there we would head over a mountain range and down to the village of Bipa. That would be our target for today, it sounded simple although we were certain it was going to be a tough day.
We plodded against the flow, our quads were burning as our jungle boots struggled to find grip on the slippery rocks. The strong currents would roll small boulders under the murky surface smashing into our shins from time to time. Constantly crossing from one side to the other to avoid fallen trees, waters falls and other dangerous obstacles. It was tough going and combined with the weight of our bergans it was not long before our levels were flagging and every movement became a real effort.
By the time we got to the foot of our targeted mountain we were 85% spent, it seemed the white man’s body simply can’t operate on the same diet as these tribal machines, craving sugar and salt we started the climb. We both knew this was about to get emotional.
As we pressed on, our surroundings turned from an open river to a dark, damp green house. Thoughts started to rush through my head…..”What have you got yourself into this time, you absolute moron”. I glanced around to see these leather footed jungle ninjas made light work of the undulation tropical terrain. Ant and I gasped for air, each time filling our lungs with a warm moist cloud, finding zero relief as we plodded up this near vertical mud face.
The weight in our backs held us down as if we were dragging a ship’s anchor behind us. The jungle had no mercy, I looked up in the hope of some moral. Hoping to see light though the canopy, anything that would symbolize the end of this agonizing slog but there was nothing but a jungle mountain wall that went on forever.
Ant was only a few meters behind me but due to the sheer incline he was almost underneath me. From time to time we would make eye contact not needing to say a word as we both knew each other was so deep in the hurt locker, words had no use at this point. The words I would use to describe how I felt at this point would most definitley not be suitable for this blog!
3 or 4 hours later light broke through the trees above our heads, the final trunks stood high on the top of the ridge line and the most incredible view could be seen through the gaps in our green surrounding. We had made it to the top, the instant I stopped the large muscle groups in my legs cramped and I am sure I provided a great level of entertainment from my native onlookers as I lay face down in the mud wriggling, trying to force my body out of spasm.
We were against the clock now (the sun) and needed to keep moving. Down the other side and we would be done I thought to myself. I half considered just throwing myself down and hoping for the best. With nothing but a few bananas to fuel us we were both deficient of thousands of calories at this point and were almost acting like we had both sunk a bottle of port. Clumsily tripping over roots and grabbing on to vines like two bulls in a china shop crashing and tumbling down the side of this mountain. As we heard each other crash to the floor we would mutter a token effort “are you ok mate?”, not expecting an answer.
Covered in mud, blood, leaches, insects and jungle prickles we made it to flatter ground. The thought of a wash in the cool river and getting theses boots off my rotting feet had gotten me through and in a few minutes my dreams would come true. We had reached the small village of Bipa an hour or so before the sun started to fall. We finally came to rest and Stanley turned to us and said, “for white men, you very very strong”.
The Shaggy Ridge
After a deep slumber fueled by malnutrition and sheer fatigue we awoke and prepared for what we knew was to be our most challenging day so far. The villagers of Baipa had prepared us a breakfast of one sweet potato each, cooked on embers each. That was our fuel for the next 12 hours, grimacing to each other we forced the starchy blackened tubers down our respective necks.
Slept and fed, we hit the River Mindjim and followed it deep into the mountainous jungle until we reached its source. Little rubber snakes made a renewed attack on us, seemingly ravenous for the exotic taste of English meat.
The ridgeline we were heading to is known as the Shaggy Ridge. Named after an Australian Captain Robert “Shaggy Bob” Clampett who was instrumental in the reconnaissance of the ridge in WW2. A hugely pivotal ridgeline in terms of strategic importance, it overlooks the Ramu valley which is where the main supply lines run between two of PNG’s major settlements. Under the control of the Japanese, in December/January 1943/1944 the Australian forces assaulted the 6km 1400m knife edge ridgeline in a series of skirmishes known as the Battle of Shaggy Ridge.
Since reclaimed by the jungle, we were given a microscopic taste of the conditions faced by the unbelievably brave men who fought in PNG. The slopes leading to the ridge were precarious at best, slick with wet mud and incredibly steep, we clawed our way up the mountain. By lunchtime we reached a saddle marked on our maps and an unbelievable sight met our eyes, a huge 25mm Japanese machine gun, still in place, with its tripod sat right next to it. It must of weighed 50kg and Lou and I picked it up, marveling at this long forgotten relic still in place.
Hornbills, and tropical birds sang around us, vibrant butterflies of all the colours of the rainbow flew gracefully almost in homage to the spirits of the fallen that surrounded us. Silenced by the tragic beauty of the location, we sat and paid our quiet respects to the young men who were forced to fight in this grueling theatre for the freedoms we all enjoy to this day.
Once onto the ridgeline, things got interesting. The order given to the 7th division assaulting the Shaggy ridge was in typical Aussie dry humour;
“ The 7th Division will advance on a one-man front. Anyone disobeying this order will break his bloody neck”
2 metres wide, in the best of places with drops either side of over a thousand meters into the jungle below, we made our way cautiously along the ridgeline. More than once we fell into the Japanese entrenched positions and foxholes which the land had done its best to reclaim. During the most narrow section, our rope was out and we held onto it with our lives as we carefully stepped along the razor sharp edge with the clouds billowing ominously below us.
The ridge was a mix of broken jungle and kunai grass, and it rolled up and down for its duration making going extremely hard work. Half way along we stumbled on another entrenched position complete with belts of rusted ammunition and grenades.
After a long day of extremely frayed nerves we descended the ridgeline and thankfully found a river (we had been without water for two hours and thirsty is an understatement!) we made our way into a village known only to the locals as Shaggy Village and arranged a night’s stay there. Once washed and clean we tucked into another meal of baked bananas and got ourselves to sleep.
Shaggy – Dumpu primary school
At 0630 we started our normal routine ready to head out of the beautiful village, with a fresh pair of eyes, we were able to appreciate the beauty surrounding us in every direction. Today was simple follow a reasonably level bush track all the way into Dumpu. The thought of having dry feet for a day was morale in its self. The sun was soon high in the sky and with no jungle canopy to shelter us it felt like walking in a sauna. As we walked we chatted to the locals, shaking hands with the people in the villages we walked through.
Over in the distance we could see our destination, beyond a palm oil plantation some tin roofs could be seen shimmering in the sun light. Dumpu symbolized the end of the first leg of this expedition. We eventually came to a road and followed it to a small bus stop.
As we arrived, people stared to flood towards us, men, women and children. Big blokes holding bush knifes and machetes surrounded us. Some smiled and offered their hands to shake other looked us up and down in a violent manor, focusing on our watches, boots and bergans. The safe feeling of the rural jungle communities had disappeared in an instant and we immediately felt uneasy and on the back foot. Stanley was also concerned as he turned to me and quietly said “some people here good, some people here bad we must go”. Ant remembered Miss Banag told us it is safe at Dumpu primary school so we hit the road, it was about 45 minutes walk, the last thing I wanted to do was walk any further but was more than happy to do so to get out of this questionable situation.
After 50 minutes of walking along a hot highway a beautiful open field with a few boys playing football came to our left-hand side. Surrounded by a few classrooms and over looked by the Bismarck mountain range to the south and the Finstare range to the north (where we had just come from). It was a little patch of paradise.
A man came out from one on the small buildings and the boys playing football ran over to him not sure what to make of theses funny looking guests. He greeted us with a big kind smile on his face and almost immediately suggested we will stay with him. His name is John, the head master of this little school. A tall strong man with a shaven head and a beard took us in and made us feel welcome in his home. Once again I felt relaxed and away from any potential threats.
We said our goodbyes the Stanley and his band of legendary tribal friends, who’s physical ability, knowledge and skill in this harsh environment is something we will never forget. They are kind, loyal and professional people the experience of sharing this tough journey with them was a privilege and an honour.
We spent the night with John, his wife and four boys, replenished our bodies with salt and sugar as the towering mountains watched over us and our new friends.
The first leg of this expedition is was now complete and already we had been pushed above and beyond our physical limits by this beautiful but tough and demanding country. What lays ahead of us is uncertain and unknown but is sure to be a real adventure in a last frontier.
Expedition5: As times get tough in our expeditions we both remember why we are putting ourselves through this challenge. To raise funds for Help for Heroes and the Royal Marines Charity, to help support the brave men and women who go through struggles that are tenfold to what we face on theses expeditions. If you enjoy following our adventures and can find a spare fiver then head over to our Virgin giving page and chuck it in the pot and support these legendary people that keep our country safe.