The trip starts with a great few days with Gus's chum in Jakarta and after an excellent round of golf we head to the meeting hotel.
Unfortunately it appears that through some confusion no rooms have as yet been booked for us. Weary as we are, we wait whilst the situation is resolved and quite conveniently get a second wind once things are resolved which enables us to pop out for a final beer, meeting some interesting expats and a number of locals celebrating the end of Ramadan.
By the time we get back to the hotel Zac, our guide, has arrived so we have a quick chat about the next day before heading to bed. He was the chap who taught me a lot in Scotland at the beginning of the year and hopefully will be the guide for Everest next year!
Obviously, still can't sleep so read until about 4 am; our recent fun has included a number oflate nights so we have made no progress in adjusting to the new time zone.
Up at 9am for breakfast and general chat to Zac about the next few days and then packing before we meet the local guide at midday - in fact little more is covered than saying hello and agreeing to meet at 6pm in the evening to go to the airport.
After that it is a quick kit check and then check out of the hotel. We sit in the lobby for a couple of hours and then head to the nearby fancy mall for some remarkably poor local food.
Back to the hotel at half five and the local guide comes in shortly after (making up for the mess last night?) so we decide to head to the airport. Even though the airport is less than 7k away, the Jakartan roads and traffic means that it takes us an hour to get there however this turns out to be academic as the flight is not until 10pm and so we have a three hour wait until departure. Then it's an overnight flight with a short stopover in Bali before we get to Timika at 6am.
Timika is a small town in the middle of the jungle that is the base for the huge Freeport mine nearby - the biggest copper mine in the world. All the wealth is obviously disappearing to Jakarta rather than being used to develop the area so there really is nothing here.
We wander round the town which has the usual collection of small stores selling Chinese rubbish (cheap plastic and pirated music / videos) and non-degrading plastic blowing about and then when the monsoon arrives end up back at the hotel for a few beers before another meeting with the guides - this time to say hello to the next guide and again discuss little else.
The food is actually quite a bit better than the places we went to in Jakarta - there is actually some flavour this time and it is very amusing trying to communicate with the young waitresses who speak no English and giggle when any foreigner (especially a 'handsome man') talks to them.
Up early to get the morning flight further into the jungle. The flight could leave at any time from 6am so it is the usual case of 'hurry up and wait'. The determining factor is the weather - we are flying in a 12 seater with no radar etc so the pilots am only fly when they can see for both take-off and landing - given the jungle / rainforest is prone to mist and cloud such windows are small and don't last long. The airport is the usual ramshackle buildings full of arguing locals with us foreigners very obviously getting preferential treatment. Luckily today the weather is not that bad so we take off at 7am.
The flight is thankfully very smooth but we can't see a great deal to begin with given the amount of cloud but this is lifting towards the end.
All of a sudden we start to dip towards the crest of a mountain - without a runway in sight there is a bit of concern in the plane but the pilots seem perfectly happy. Then as we approach the crest a runway appears just the other side of it. This is not that much less alarming as the runway appears to be really rather short with a large drop at the end of it. Thankfully the plane has pretty decent breaks and with only a bit of screeching and bumping we come to a safe stop - having successfully avoided the warthogs that seem to live there!
The airstrip is on the very edge of the town and you would never guess that 100,000 people live nearby. This seems to be the poor end and there is the usual group of people looking for portering work as well as a lot of kids just hanging around - even more so when people realise that foreigners are on the plane!
Our guides head off to organise the porters whilst we wait in the airport building. The chap running it is from the main island Java and so is pretty different in both appearance and outlook to the Polynesian locals. He is very unimpressed by their work ethic or, to be more accurate, the absence of one. Although he seems pretty happy and smiley I don't get the impression he is too happy here - a bit of a worry (for him) since he is three years into a five year rotation.
It is pretty tough to work out if anything is actually happening but each time we ask the guides, they seem to think that progress is being made although the locals still seem to be pottering about, chatting, smoking and chewing and spitting their betel.
After about 3 hours we set off on the back of motorcycles - something I am really not looking forward to. We are carrying our packs and presumably are quite a bit larger than most if not all passengers they have had before. In addition, the road has steep ups and downs and is in very poor condition. I also end up with the boy racer who overtakes the others on blind corners and goes far too fast into every corner meaning that we usually end up on the slippery gravel on the outside of the bend. After about half an hour we get to the end of the road and my forearms and stomach muscles are exhausted from gripping so tightly.
Over the next 10 to 15 minutes, the rest our entourage turns up. In addition to 5 guides ( UK, Indonesian, local Indonesian and one from each of the two local tribes (Moni and Dani)) numerous porters, cooks and some kids who just seem to be following us, we also have one policeman, two soldiers with machine guns and another armed security man. There also happens to be a couple hanging around who have a warthog with them; perhaps they are with us and bringing along the celebration supper for summit day?
After a while and some more negotiating, we start to walk. Not further along the track but off the side down a steep and slippery slope. This is the first time I have walked in anger in my new wellies and unfortunately I don't seem to have gauged the grip well as I manage to slip and fall twice in the first couple of minutes. Nothing too serious I hope but I seem to have jarred my knees and have a couple of angry looking cuts that will need watching over the next few days as it is easy in jungles for them to get infected. Things smoothen out after that, both on terms of the terrain and my experience with the boots.
We are trekking at about 2,000m and even though we are only 4o from the equator it is not that warm out of the sun. The sun is very strong so sunburn remains a risk - I am trying the P20 all day sun tan lotion to get round my usual reluctance / omission to apply it; will be interesting to see how it works.
While the Indonesians seem to be very keen to help and get genuine pleasure from it (pretty much all the people we have met or come across so far have been wonderful which has really contributed to our enjoyment of the country) there is apparently a very different attitude on this island where the people just want money but don't really want to do anything for it. We start to see this in that there are some ongoing issues with the porters but also the locals have set up road blocks every now and then and we have to pay them to get past - only in a very few cases (and none that we have seen as yet) can it be claimed that they carry out any maintenance to the route that would justify it.
After about an hour and a half we go past some school buildings that look relatively new and pretty unused. No one knows who built them and the contents have all been taken by the locals to use as firewood - it probably won't be long before the buildings themselves are taken apart.
This is a great shame as there is real poverty here with many living on a subsistence basis and there seems little understanding of the need to educate the children for them to have a 'better' life. One of the local guides tells me that people just don't really care about their children.
Whatever it is, the lifestyle for many can't have changed for thousands of years. They live in rags and some still were just a loin cloth (or the local version of one) live in wooden huts which they share with their dogs, pigs and chicken. Their diet is pretty much sweet potato as it is apparently very filling - it is not clear what happens to the pigs and chickens. Having said all the above, most people who we have come across seem pretty happy which is not something that can be said of nations in the West.
We get to our camp for the night which is a village called Suanggana - in fact this is simply an area of land where there are about 8 huts, one of which we stay in for the night.
Despite saying and knowing that a nap won't be conducive to a good night’s sleep, it is not long before we have all fallen asleep waking up at about 5 when a group of local children have come up to the entrance and are laughing at the strange white people. Shortly after that we have tea and then a remarkably good supper - very welcome as we skipped lunch.
The sun starts to go down at about 6 / 6:30 and so there is a bit of chat and then back to the hut for reading / blogging etc and then an early night in preparation for an early morning - as is usual on camping trips.
Unfortunately, the early night doesn't really translate into a good night’s sleep. We all seem to wake up about six hours later and then struggle to get back to sleep. Part of the problem is that the hut has a significant rat problem and they are fighting with each other and some of the other animals living beneath the hut and in the thatched roof. This culminates when one of the rats fall from the roof and manages to land on a pack of biscuits! This wakes us all fully at about 01:30 and from then on there is continual noise from them as well as the occasional foray onto the floor of the hut where we are sleeping.
Did not make it back to sleep unfortunately but this has allowed me to work on my blog for Elbrus which for some reasons iPhone is taking exception to and keeps deleting. We breakfast at about 06:30 and get various visits from the villagers and other locals who want to see the foreigners eating. Unfortunately this does not include all the new porters who start meandering in from about 08:30 so we don't manage to leave until about 9.
We now have 5 guides and 15 porters and a series of other people who are following us and probably hoping for some money at some point. It is not always easy to work out who is who as we now have a lot of people who aren't carrying very much. Still it starts to feel like a real expedition when you have such a large entourage.
The going remains really tricky. It is very hot and steamy with very steep ascents and descents and everything is slippery. There are some fun bits in there as well: a bridge has been washed out so we have to build a new one before we can cross the river; there have been quite a few landslides since anyone came this way so on a number of occasions a new path has to be found and some mini bridges built to prevent immediate erosion of the new soil; there are a number of tricky areas where we are using vines, branches and roots to keep us sliding down significant drops.
However, all this fun eats into our speed and soon it becomes clear that we will struggle to make it to camp before dark and any more challenges will mean that we won't. As such we end up halting at 14:30 which is a real shame on what was mean to be a long day as we are now adding to the distance that needs to be covered which is in any case the longest and hardest of the trek to the mountain. We have to stop early as there are very few clearings in the jungle and this is the last one until the planned camp site for the night.
The other problem is that I am having problems with my knees, similarly to Elbrus. There it only happened when I was going downhill at speed, but here they are becoming painful and swollen pretty quickly. We are walking through rainforest and there is no real path which really isn’t helping. I am also finding that my balance isn’t what it should be as I can’t rely on my legs to remain that steady when they are under stress.
We spend the afternoon chatting and rehydrating and trying to dry out our wet gear for tomorrow - which is pretty difficult given the amount of moisture in the air. We have another good dinner and then bed at about 7. Having not slept much for some time I sleep through to 06:30 am without too much trouble.
We have a quick breakfast and pack up and then get going to catch up on the hours missed yesterday. The weather, as seems to be normal here, is pretty good in the morning with the strong sun coming through the trees and making it pretty steamy. Again there is plenty of fun with steep slippery slopes and river crossings.
We get to yesterday’s planned campsite after 1.5 hours so things seem to be going pretty well. We have lunch at another campsite at 11:40 - as usual lunch is not my favourite meal on these trips. Here we have biscuits and chocolate bars which I am not really in the mood for.
As we are getting ready to leave, there seems to be some excited chatter amongst the locals and our guides get drawn in. It turns out that we have porters from both the local tribes and one of the tribes isn't happy about the performance of one of the older porters in the other one or as they claim they are concerned about his safety and think that he should be sent back. Obviously the other tribe vehemently disagree - no doubt they would be unable to agree and lose face even if they did privately agree - and a long 'discussion' ensues with plenty of finger pointing.
This seems a little odd to me especially as we happen to be at a campsite and my gut feeling is that this is just a delaying tactic and that soon they will say that it is now too late to carry on.
It is not clear what resolution is reached on this as it appears that the conversation shifts a bit and our guide seems to be having a few stern words of his own. It turns out that the shift in conversation was that it was now too late to continue on for the day as we might not reach camp before dark as I suspected. This was now in a way true as we had spent almost two hours here. Our guide had been saying that this was now twice in two days that this had happened and if it occurred again we would send them all back and carry on ourselves without them. It would be tricky and we would be down to the bare essentials for the rest of the trip but doable.
As I write this, I remember that late on in the various discussions a few of the porters (who were not really involved in the discussions) were pointing at us and laughing - we were assuming that this was some private joke rather than at the idea / threat of us continuing without them!
Anyway, we are forced to stop early again so set up camp. It rains most of the afternoon so we spend it in our tent. Another good supper and early to bed in preparation for another 6am start.
We woke up to a beautiful blue sky and wondered on the possibility of a day of good weather. Obviously this was not to be and the clouds soon duly arrived during another hard day's slog through the mud and dense foliage of the rain forest. We managed to avoid an early porter’s revolt by having lunch in a different location to them and then speeding past them when they were having their lunch which I think was quite a surprise to them. However a couple of hours later it started raining really hard which set them off again. To be fair, walking in a downpour is not too much fun for anyone and it gets really slippery and quite dangerous here so we are not too upset this time. It takes quite a bit of time to find anywhere that we can pitch our tents since there is a good few inches of groundwater everywhere. The rest of the day (as usual) is spent sheltering from the rain and then an early supper and early to bed.
After three days of trekking, I would like to give you an idea of what we are going through. About half the time is spent walking in almost knee deep mud which is tough going and pretty slippery and pretty much all of our gear is now filthy. At other times we are clambering round, through or under trees which is not easy with a pack on. The rest of the time seems to be walking on top of wet, slippery and rotten logs with drops on both sides, sometimes over the large river with some severe rapids - not the best when you have vertigo and malfunctioning knees! Quite bizarrely, I am probably finding this the toughest period yet of my expeditions.
This afternoon we came out of the rainforest so the issues with trees and rivers have almost gone, however we are now walking pretty much continually through deep mud - that saps the morale as much as the strength. This is a very different challenge to big mountains!
Our porters are ideally built for this - short (so easy to navigate the trees and with a low centre of gravity) and with very large feet which both gives them grip and buoyancy in the mud.
We are not - being tall with narrow feet - and it is quite a struggle to cope with both the terrain and the constant cloud and rain. My other concern are my knees which still seem to be troubled following my fall right at the beginning. Going downhill seems to be a lot worse than uphill and slippery footing doesn't help. I will have to see how they go and hope I can get them up the big climb at the end!
Accounts and photos of completing the Explorers Grand Slam - 2 Poles and 7 Summits. By Sebastian Merriman. Aconcagua, Ama Dablam, Carstenz Pyramid, Denali, McKinley, Elbrus, Everest, Kosciusko, Kilimanjaro, North Pole, Arctic, South Pole, Antarctic, Antarctica, Vinson, vertigo, climbing, mountaineering, skiing to the pole, skiing to the poles, seb2poles7summits, seb27, Seb Merriman, seb2poles, mountains, poles