“One of the most dangerous roads on Earth”
PNG is about the same size of Thailand but only has about a dozen serious roads. The most serious is the Highlands Highway: a 700km partly sealed carriageway linking the east coast city of Lae and the major townships in the highlands. It also happens to be one the most dangerous roads on Earth, riddled by frequent landslides and highway robbers called raskols. At Lae I rendezvous with Tossa, President of the Morobe Motorcycle Club. A beer-and-bike loving Kiwi, Tossa lends me one his spare bikes, a Honda CRF450, and guides me to a point north of the city where the Highlands Highway starts in earnest. It begins as a mess of potholes the size of bomb craters filled with scuzzy warm scummy water that splashes on my legs. But after half an hour's riding the surface smooths out. I hunch over the petrol tank and squeeze the accelerator, zooming down long dead straights that split the horizon in two. Tossa reckons a mate of his who owns a Suzuki Hayabusa GSXR1300, the fastest production bike in the world, clocked 300km/hour here: “He knows where all the potholes are, but I’d hate to see what happens if he hit one of those hawks you'll see scavenging roadkill. One slammed into my windscreen the other day and it wasn’t pretty.”
At around midday I pull over at a petrol station at Ramu Junction, causing instant pandemonium as hundreds of curious locals crowd around to watch me refuel. Some are smiling. Some are frowning. Some wear expressions normally reserved for the landing of aliens. But they all cheer like soccer hooligans when I ride off and pull a sick wheelie they're probably still talking about now. From Ramu the highway veers inland and begins climbing the mythical highlands – a tropical Switzerland where farmers tend vegetable gardens on lush volcanic slopes and the only thing more colourful than the wildflowers are the clouds.
The higher the road climbs, the more remnants of recent landslides I see. I absolutely shit myself as I skate around the edges of a huge chunk of road that's crumbled like a biscuit into a valley below; and laugh my tits off when I see two random topless highland women waiting for a bus on the side of the road. I'm riding along, taking it all in, when an armour-plated fuel tanker cut straight out of a Mad Max movie swerves into my lane to avoid a pothole and forces me into a ditch. PNG has the worst road accident statistics in the Western Pacific, and I have another half-dozen near-death experiences before the day is through. I crawl into the town of Goroka a few minutes after dark, where I'm promptly arrested and have my bike impounded by the fuzz for riding without a working headlight at night. But instead of locking me up in a cell with a bunch of very dirty raskols, the bikman or chief lets me crash in his office for the night. The next day he releases me without charge and gives me his cell number in case I get into any more trouble on the road.