The Two-Day Journey To High Camp

From the Field posts

This fall, a team of vertebrate specialists from the Museum—Brett Benz, Chris RaxworthyPaul Sweet, and Neil Duncan—is heading out to one of the most remote areas in the world in search of new species and specimens on the Explore21 Papua New Guinea expedition. Paul Sweet will be sending dispatches from the field as long as his laptop—and a signal—persist. 

From left, Explore21 team members Brett Benz, Chris Raxworthy, and Neil Duncan at base camp in Malaumanda before heading to high camp. © AMNH/P. Sweet

From left, Explore21 team members Brett Benz, Chris Raxworthy, and Neil Duncan at base camp in Malaumanda before heading to high camp.

© AMNH/P. Sweet


[Filed October 3]: We’ve now been at our high elevation camp for 24 hours and are finally close to starting our work. I had expected that getting here would be hard, but I had no idea how hard.

Camp is at an elevation of 1,800 meters (about 5,900 feet), 1,100 meters (about 3,600 feet) higher than our base camp at Malaumanda, but we probably ascended three times that, traversing countless deep ravines with steep muddy slopes that required hauling oneself up by grabbing roots. And then there were crossings of raging streams on slippery mossy rocks or by a precarious vine suspension bridge. 

To reach high camp, the Explore21 team had to cross streams on vine suspension bridges like this one. © AMNH/P. Sweet

To reach high camp, the Explore21 team had to cross streams on vine suspension bridges like this one.

© AMNH/P. Sweet


It took us two full days to get here. I was on the trail for 11 hours each day, drenched in sweat and struggling into camp in the dark both days. Thankfully one of the young men from the village took pity on me and stuck with me the whole way. The 50 or so local carriers did the same walk barefoot and in half the time, while carrying loads of up to 20 kilograms (44 pounds) slung into billums, the Papua New Guinea string bag, or in white “Didiman” sacks. Some women even brought their babies. Both Neil’s and my hiking boot soles detached in the first hours on the trail—Papua New Guinea is hard on gear. Just to make life interesting, we also had some heavy rain.

Carriers collect gear in the village of Malaumanda for the trip up to high camp. © AMNH/P. Sweet

Carriers collect gear in the village of Malaumanda for the trip up to high camp.

© AMNH/P. Sweet


The night on the trail was spent at a “bush house,” where the villagers go to work their taro and kaukau (sweet potato) gardens. It is essentially a platform above the ground, built around a fire with a thatched roof and open sides. Dinner was boiled taro. Fortunately, Brett had some Hi-Way Chicken Bisket, a large, hard, salty cracker that requires a liter of water to swallow and is a favorite snack food in Papua New Guinea.

Arriving at camp we were greeted by an incredible sight. Using just axes and bush knives, an advance crew of village men along with Enock Kale, one of the Papua New Guinea biologists on our team, had cut a large clearing in virgin forest. 

The advance crew constructing a lab at high camp. © AMNH/P. Sweet

The advance crew constructing a lab at high camp.

© AMNH/P. Sweet


With the felled timber they constructed two large sleeping platforms that fit six tents, a kitchen area with a large long fire where the villagers sleep, and a huge lab with a 12-meter long table and benches on both sides, all held together with “bush rope.” Large tarpaulins, “sails” in Tok Pisin, cover these areas and keep off the frequent torrential downpours.

Chris and Bulisa, the herpetology team, have started collecting and have already found a good variety of frogs. The bird and mammal teams will get started in earnest tomorrow. The forest is pristine, and we are excited to see what it holds.

Read the next post in the series here. 

Tags: Explore21