I don’t usually focus on where I’m staying in my articles and blog posts but this place is special. It isn’t just a place to stay while exploring local villages and birding in the lush, surrounding countryside. This is a destination in and of itself.
First, full disclosure — I was hosted by Trans Nuigini Tours, the company that owns the lodge. But if you don’t want to take my word for it, trust the Mick. By all accounts he loved it here.
The lodge, which was opened in 2006, is about a 45 minute drive on a rough road from the airport in Mount Hagen, the third largest city in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the capital of the Western Highlands Province in the Wahgi Valley in the center of the country.
The lodge is on a mountain ridge overlooking the city at an elevation of about 6500’, so it is cool, not steamy like the rest of PNG. The lodge is comprised of several low slung buildings with spacious suites and apartments, all offering panoramic views over the lush, deep valley, steep hillsides, mountain peaks in the distance, and Mount Hagen below.
During the day layers of clouds undulated over the scene, changing the view from moment to moment. At times its almost clear save for a cotton puff of cloud here and there. Other times it’s locked in with fog and mist. At night the lights from the town twinkled in the dark.
It poured every day, mostly in the late afternoon and evening, sudden intense cloudbursts with the sun shining just a few feet away. The pounding rain, plus the occasional thunder and lightening, added even more drama to the experience.
The rooms are stylish, the towels and robes are plush and there are patios, a koi pond, and lush gardens outside the main lodge about twenty steps up the slope from the guest rooms. The lodge is also surrounded by acres of forest for hiking, birding and just plain reflecting on the unpredictable forks in our existential roads that sometimes carry us to a place like this in the middle of nowhere. I spent the first two days of my three day/four night visit exploring the surrounding countryside and villages in the capable hands of my guides James and John. I viewed a reenactment of the traditional funeral ceremony and mourning rituals and visited a local village where I learned how the locals live.
The soil is very fertile. As my guide noted, “We plant it, it grows.” They sell what they don’t need at the bustling outdoor market in Mount Hagen. Many people also have pigs and chickens. This is not a rich country, but it doesn’t look as if anyone is starving.
We also visited a village where we viewed a collection of traditional weapons, wigs, and other artifacts, plus a collection of skulls. My guide assured me that these were not heads gathered by head hunters but heads of people who died from other causes and were displayed to honor them and remind the other villagers of who they were. It was creepy but fascinating. As to their origin, I’ll just have to take the guide’s word for it.
I also met the village chief, who was dressed in traditional garb, including his pig tally, a necklace with sticks representing all of the pigs he has owned. From the length of his necklace, it was clear that this dude was a veritable Farmer John. He posed with his two wives (I wasn’t sure whether they were actually his wives or whether this was an enactment put on for my benefit). Clearly, they were attracted by the length of his necklace. In other words, he was very well endowed.
We also visited an orchid garden and a wigman village where I saw two guys dressed in the elaborate wigs, decorations and face paintings of their tribe. It was put on for my benefit, but this wasn’t just an historical reenactment for tourists. All of the villages and tribes appear at shows during the year. Tourists often attend, but the locals mainly do it for themselves to keep traditional practices alive.
Everyone I saw and met were friendly. They smiled and waved when we passed by on the road. In the villages and in the town they introduced themselves, shook my hand and asked me where I was from. The kids were especially excited to see me. Maybe they thought I was Mick.
I was the only guest at the lodge while I was there so I ate dinner with either Kathy, the manager, or Terry, the assistant manager, or both every evening. From our conversations I learned even more about life in the villages of the Western Highlands and life in PNG in general.
The morning of my final day at the lodge was dedicated to birding. I’m not a birder. I respect their devotion, patience and spirit of adventure, but I just don’t get it myself. But I figured that since the Western Highlands of PNG is primo birding territory, I should give it another try (I had done some birding two weeks before in Indonesia — see previous blog — but with limited results).
Terry asked me if I wanted to do some serious birding or something more casual. Serious birding required a 5 am start, the more casual option started at 9. This was not a difficult choice.
The day started with a fruit platter at breakfast that included passion fruit, sugar fruit, tree tamarillo, banana, papaya, pineapple plus a freshly baked muffin with marmalade, followed by a cheese omelet with bacon and toast. I ate while looking out the windows at the ridges across the valley jutting through the layers of morning clouds.
After breakfast, I started hiking with my birding guide, Joseph, on one of the several miles of trails that wind through the property. We headed up the ridge to a clearing with a platform for sitting. It was comfortably cool.
The view changed with the level of the clouds. When they were high, they hid the ridges across the valley, but revealed the town spread out below. The ridges pierced through the clouds when they drifted lower.
That’s the way our birding started. Joseph set up a scope and aimed it at a distant tree. Soon he spotted a Superb Bird of Paradise. I looked at it in the scope, then found it in my binoculars. I even managed a hazy photo through the mist.
We hiked along the trail through the woods looking for more. We caught a Bluebird of Paradise and a Common Smoky Honeyeater in flight, too fast for a photo.
We wandered a bit more through the forest in silence, following the sounds of birds chirping and calling, but didn’t see anything else. It didn’t matter. It was so quiet and serene, at that point the birds became the means, not the end, an excuse to be still in the forest, like a slowly unfolding meditation. I was, as the Japanese call it, “ bathing in the forest” (shinrin-yoku).
If that’s what birding is about, I finally get it. That was the best 3 hours of my visit to Rondon Ridge and PNG.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the lodge, catching up on my writing, and in my room, catching up on my napping and reading. I’m not sure what Mick did when he was here, but he couldn’t have had a better time.