“Harden the fuck up!”
It's a bone-jarring two-hour ride along the Highlands Highway from Goroka in the Eastern Highlands to the township of Kundiawa. But for my newest wantoks – PNG-born and bred gold prospector Daniel, Dutch coffee grower Joeri, Tossa and his mate Rahui from New Zealand – the Highlands Highway isn't nearly bone-jarring enough. So instead they plot a backcountry route made of firetrails that wind far too tightly between pine trees and 10-inch-wide singletracks that hug the sheer sides of cliffs. I work every muscle in my body to navigate the 107kg bulk of my Honda CRF450 around metre-deep ruts, half-collapsed bridges, boulder fields, fallen logs and muddy 30-degree inclines. The going is so rough and requires such sharp and frequent braking that I cop a painful cramp in my right hand that locks my thumb against my palm. The only way to unlock it to come to a stop and flick my thumb back into position with my other hand. Then my left thumb locks too, leaving me only the use of my fingers.
Some of the other guys get cramps, too. “My hand cramped up and got stuck on the throttle when I was cranking it in third gear,” said Rahui. “If I hadn’t hit the kill switch, I would’ve ridden off a cliff!” Then my calves start cramping up along with the souls of my feet. Just standing on the motorcycle's foot pegs is painful and I start falling further and further behind. “What's the problem?” Daniel asks when he doubles back to check on me. “Bloody cramps,” I cry. “I don't know if I can go on.” “Harden the fuck up!” he replies, shooting off and spitting mud in my face. Daniel's motivational tactics work like a charm. I bite through the pain for the next two hours until the jungle mercifully spits us out at Kundiawa.
After refuelling at a truck stop and filling our stomachs with soft drinks we ready ourselves for the final leg of our journey: the dreaded Kengsugl Road. Our destination, Betty's Lodge – a rustic B&B at the foothills of snowcapped Mount Wilhelm – is only 50km away. But the road is an atrocious state, we only have 90 minutes until it gets dark and my headlights are stuffed. Then it starts raining and the Kengsugl's clay surface becomes a slippery downhill flowing stream. My goggles fog up, I'm shivering cold and the cramps return to my hands and feet with a vengeance. At one village, we’re forced to charge at speed through a human gauntlet. The villagers leave us only about a foot on each side of our bikes, hands reaching out like zombies with suntans. Even worse are the bridges – iron skeletons stripped of their wood by raskols where we have to dismount and wheel our bikes slowly across. Despite the delays, we rock up at Betty’s Lodge a few minutes before dusk. My whole body aches but I'm stoked just to have made it. “Well done,” says Daniel, patting me on the back. “Didn't think you'd make it. Glad you proved me wrong.”