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Ancient axe heads that have been found suggest people have been living in this part of PNG for about 40, 000 years. Simbai settlements date back 15, 000 years. Bilbil and Yabob people in Madang Province are famous for their pots, which they’ve been trading with Morobe peoples and Highlanders for eons.

The first European to spend any length of time on the PNG mainland was Russian biologist Nicolai Miklouho-Maclay. He arrived at Astrolabe Bay, south of the present site of Madang, in 1871 and stayed for 15 months before leaving to regain his health, which was badly affected by malaria. He came on two more visits. Maclay’s relations with local people were remarkably good and his studies make fascinating reading.

Arguably the most rapid change, however, began when the German New Guinea Company established a settlement at Finschhafen in 1885. It was a disaster, with malaria, boredom and alcohol all taking a heavy toll. The company moved north, first to Bogadjim on Astrolabe Bay, and then on to Madang, before finally conceding defeat to the mosquitoes and decamping for the relative comforts of New Britain. The Lutheran Mission arrived during this time and Finschhafen remains a Lutheran base.

The legendary prospector ‘Sharkeye’ Park is credited with discovering gold near Wau in 1921. By the mid-1920s the gold hunters were flooding in, arriving at Salamaua and struggling for eight days up the steep and slippery Black Cat Track to Wau, a mere 50km away. Malaria, the track itself and unhappy tribesmen claimed many lives.

In 1926 a richer field was discovered at Edie Creek, high in the hills above Wau. To squeeze the most out of these gold-rich streams the miners turned to aircraft and within a few years more air freight was being lifted in PNG than the rest of the world put together. The goldfields continued to be productive until after WWII. Today, local people still work the fields but it’s nothing more than a cottage industry.

Lae was a tiny mission station before the gold rush but soon became a thriving community clustered, in true PNG fashion, around its central airstrip. It was from here that, in 1937, pioneer aviator Amelia Earhart took off on one of the final legs of a round-the-world flight and disappeared without trace.

Volcanic eruptions at Rabaul in 1937 prompted a decision to move the capital of New Guinea to Lae, but WWII intervened and instead Lae, Salamaua and Rabaul became major Japanese bases. The Japanese also took Madang.

In early 1943 the Japanese, reeling from defeats at Milne Bay and the Kokoda Track, attempted to take Port Moresby by attacking towards Wau, marching over the mountains from Salamaua. The Battle of Wau was fought hand-to-hand after the ammunition ran out, with villagers watching in much the same way that foreign researchers (with an advanced knowledge of clan disputes) and voyeurs watch Highlands battles today.

In September 1943 Allied troops took Salamaua, Nadzab and finally Lae. Many Japanese escaped into the mountain wilderness of the Huon Peninsula and started on an incredible retreat that saw them fight their way over the Finisterre Range towards Madang, and eventually all the way to Wewak. Today, groups of Australian military-history buffs occasionally walk the route over Shaggy Ridge, scene of some of the most desperate fighting of the campaign. Lae, Wau, Bulolo and Salamaua were badly damaged during the war and Salamaua was never rebuilt. Madang was demolished and completely rebuilt.

Postwar, Lae became a major transport hub for goods shipped to and from the Highlands. The road between Wau and Lae had been built during the war and work on the Highlands Hwy was made a priority so it could service the fast-growing coffee and tea industries. The Highlands mineral boom of the 1980s and ’90s, with its need for massive heavy-cargo shipments, resulted in Lae becoming the main port and industrial centre of PNG.

In the footsteps of history

Two of the most historic and famous tracks in PNG still attract a few trekkers. They require experience, planning and stamina, and don’t even think about attempting them without a local guide. Speak with the Morobe Tourism Bureau or Tim Vincent of Wau Adventures who can help find you a guide (K60 per day) and offer up-to-date information on the condition of the tracks.

Port Moresby–based Papua New Guinea Trekking Adventures (325 1284; www.pngtrekkingadventures.com) has also lead several treks down the Black Cat.

black cat track

This track was used by miners in the 1920s and its difficulty lies in the ‘no-matter-what’ route straight from Salamaua to its objective – the Black Cat mine, northeast of Wau. The miners took eight days to cover the 50km, and parts of the track were later used by Australian soldiers during WWII.

These days the middle sections of the Black Cat are seldom used by anyone, and the trail itself is often overgrown or obstructed by landslips and fallen trees. It will take three to five days to walk depending on which end you start (the climb is 1800m) and how fit you are. Note that this track shouldn’t be attempted by inexperienced walkers. A couple we met in Salamaua, one a former member of the British SAS, rated the Black Cat an eight out of 10 for difficulty, compared with a five for the Kokoda Track. There is a series of traverses with loose footing and long drops below, plus several crossings of the Bitoi River. Be sure to wear long pants and boots with an edge and heel for grip on the traverses.

For a fuller description see accounts by Richard Stanaway (richard.stanaway.net/blackcat.htm) and Paul Greene (www.wanemya.com).

bulldog track

The WWII Bulldog Track, intended to link Wau with the south coast, winds its way from Edie Creek to Bulldog, from where you had to travel by river. When completed in 1943 the track was actually a road capable of bearing large trucks. It has deteriorated since and been cut by landslides and jungle. Depending on how much of it you want to walk, the Bulldog Track takes from three to nine days and passes through a stunning array of landscapes and villages, little changed over centuries. You’ll pass through cool moss forests, tracts of pine-covered hills and villages where grass skirts remain common.

The longer trip is a bona fide adventure; see the excellent description by Richard Stanaway (richard.stanaway.net/bulldog.htm). The shorter trip requires as much planning, and requires a charter flight to meet you at Kakoro. Don’t be late.