“The craziest thing you can do on a motorcycle”
Among all the stupid and dangerous things you can do on a motorcycle, few things compare to the 'hill-climb' – a branch of motorsport in which riders attempt to climb ridiculously steep hills until they get to the top, get injured trying, destroy their motorcycle or simply run out of steam. In PNG, Lake Wanum – a bluewater lake infested with crocodiles and surrounded by steep grassy hills an hour's ride from the east coast city of Lae – is the home of the hill-climb. To this day, no one has successfully mounted its tallest hill.
“The ridge leading up to it has a sheer 80m drop on one side,” says Tossa of Niugini Dirt, PNG's first motorcycle touring company. “I tried going up three times but it was way too steep. My mate Chris had a go, but he gave it too much power and lost control of his bike. It went over the cliff and started bouncing, 10 to 15 big hops, landed in three parts, the frame was cracked, the handlebars had come off, the seat was up the hill somewhere, the mudguard was in the lake and his toolbox had exploded.” I'd wanted to ride to Lake Wanum for years. But on every single one of my previous journeys to PNG, torrential rain flooded and closed the access trail. But in 2017 the stars finally aligned and I found myself racing out of Lae on a KTM 350 EXC with Tossa and a bunch of his beer-bellied wantoks. Splash! Burrrrrooom! Ning ning ning! I can't imagine ever not wanting to do this.
We follow the Highlands and Bulolo Highways – the same route that took me to the smoked corpses of Aseki two years prior. But we only ride as far as the village of Gabensis this time, where an unmarked trail leads into a thick patch of jungle surrounding the hills that surround Lake Wanum. The trail isn't overly technical or rough, but bit-by-bit it altogether disappears under elephant grass that grows up to 3 metres high! After an hour so, Tossa admits he's lost; we have no choice but to turn around and go home. But all is not lost because during the return leg Tossa detours into a field that leads to the base of a steep series of rolling green hills. “These hills don't touch the lake,” he says. “But they may give us a good view of it.”
My first attempt at a hill climb ends with the front wheel of my motorcycle going over my head, my face in the dirt and Tossa laughing his head off. But I lose my inhibitions on my second attempt, accelerating hard on the incline until I reach the top. From there we zoom down the back of the same hill before shooting up a second hill and a third and a fourth and so on and so on like two crazy kids on a self-drive rollercoaster until we reach the highest peak in the cluster. There we can see all of Lake Wanum and the super-steep hill that once broke a motorcycle into three pieces. I won't get the chance to tackle it today. But I doubt this will be my last trip to PNG.