Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area
In the tri-border area, where the Eastern Highlands, Simbu and Gulf provincial borders meet, is the Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area (www.rcfpng.org). This is one of the best places in PNG to experience the spectacular countryside, wildlife and village culture.
Goroka has grown from a small outpost in the mid-1950s to a major commercial centre, and is now the main town in the Eastern Highlands Province. Mountains encircle the town, which in turn almost encircles the airport. At 1600m, Goroka enjoys a pleasant year-round climate of warm days and cool nights.
Despite its environs and economic prominence, Mt Hagen is not nearly as attractive as Goroka. It’s PNG’s third biggest city. ‘Hagen’, as it’s often called, was a patrol station before WWII, and has boomed in the last 40 years as Enga and the Southern Highlands have opened up. Now it’s an unruly city with major squatter settlements, pot-holed roads and many itinerant people.
Southern Highlands Province
Southern Highlands Province is made up of lush, high valleys between towering limestone peaks. Mt Giluwe (4367m), the second-highest mountain in PNG, sits on the province’s northeastern border. The limestone hills and high rainfall are ideal for the formation of caves.
Simbu (pronounced chim-bu, and sometimes spelt that way) derived its name when the first patrol officers gave steel axes and knives to the tribespeople, who replied simbu – very pleased. Despite its rugged terrain, it’s the second most heavily populated region in PNG. The people have turned their steep country into a patchwork of gardens spreading up every available hillside.
For many, climbing to the 4509m summit of Mt Wilhelm is the highlight of a Highlands trip. On a clear day, you can see both the north and south coasts of PNG. It is the tallest peak in PNG and often billed as the tallest in Oceania (even though several mountains in Indonesian Papua surpass it as, technically, all of Indonesia belongs to Asia).
Despite being the provincial capital, Mendi is a relatively small town, built around an airport. It shelters in a long green valley, surrounded by limestone hills. There is not much to keep you hanging around here – it’s really just the starting point for a trip into the Tari Basin or Lake Kutubu. Mendi and the region west towards the Tari Gap isn’t always volatile.
Kundiawa was the site of the Highlands’ first government station, but has been left behind by Goroka and Mt Hagen. Although it’s the provincial capital, and the crossroads for the Highlands (Okuk) Hwy and the road to Kegsugl, Kundiawa is pretty small. There’s a bank, post office, small supermarket, bakery and several hotels.