Welcome to SKJ Travel ... my narrative travel blog where you can join me vicariously in adventures around the world. I tell my stories through both words and photographs. If you're joining me on a mobile phone, click HERE to quickly access the archive and essays. People say to me all the time, "You should write a book about your travels." Well, my friends, this is essentially it. And in this age, an online blog is easier, displays a bajillion more photos, needs no publisher, and often reaches a broader audience than in print. Unlike a formal book or essay, though, I'm mostly just writing casually off the top of my head, but I hope, dear readers, you will feel as if I'm having a conversation with you. In the archives you'll find personal posts from some of my travels. To read my more formal articles and documentaries visit one of the blue buttons above or see the Travel Essays section (the bubble below the archive bubble). Friday Photos are updated weekly, and Tuesday Tales are updated sporadically. You can follow SKJ Travel on social media at:
Subscribe to the SKJ Travel newsletter to be notified when new posts go live. Simply enter your email address in the Updates box (bubble to your right)
This is an article based on interviews I conducted with Mr. Trevor Ellis, who also graciously shared some of his photos with me, scanned from his film originals. Please note all photos included here can be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click).
Three men saw the enormous white bird land in a clearing, creating thunder and unearthly wind, and a white spirit fell out. The bird flew away and left the spirit — or was it a creature? — on the ground. The men ran down the hill as fast as they could to investigate but by the time they got there the bird was high in the sky and the white mystery had bolted into the jungle.
Long spears in hand, they searched through the jungle for some time but never found the white man who was lying flat on his stomach on the ground, still as a tree root.
“I could run pretty fast and I didn’t have that much gear with me, not even my two-way radio.” Usually Trevor tried to get his sediment samples via trekking on foot from his base camps, but some places he was supposed to sample would take so long to walk there, it made more sense to fly. Helicopters were the mode of transportation in the jungle. On this day, the helicopter dropped Trevor off in a clearing at about 11,000 feet, the highest the helicopter could fly, near a gravelly stream cascading down a mountainside. The helicopter hovered and Trevor jumped out; it would come back four hours later to pick him up.
As the sound of the helicopter faded away, he heard hoots and hollers. “About 100 yards away up the stream slope, natives were running down the hill toward me just wearing penis gourds, nothing else, and I was thinking, ‘I don’t know that these guys are friendly.’ The way they were waving their spears around, I decided not to stick around to ask them, so I sprinted off into the forest.”
When the natives gave up the search after about 20 minutes, Trevor got up from lying on his belly and continued on with his work, collecting the samples he was tasked to. Four hours later the pilot returned to the clearing but the men with spears were not seen again.
“They probably had never seen a helicopter or a white man before. In those days this area was incredibly isolated. I never saw a jet airplane fly overhead in my entire time [spanning two years] in Papua New Guinea.”
Photos: Above men holding arrows and spears similar to the men he hid from; the spears have different tips on them depending on what animal they are intending to kill with it. Below a typical penis gourd worn by some tribal men.
I asked Trevor, “Did you or do you dream about these experiences? I’m wondering what kind of impact they had on your psyche.”
“No. Actually I didn’t find it all that disturbing. By this time I’d been through so many things that were sort of near death. Close shaves were very common in my work. I’m not sure I even told the other people I was with.”
Of course not; what young geologist in 1973 would bother with such a mundane story as being chased by naked natives with spears while collecting sediment samples in the highlands of Papua New Guinea? Although to be sure, most of his camp mates might not have been impressed, as they were other natives hired for him as translators and porters. He seems to feel bad about it now – it would probably be considered a bit un-PC in this age – but he often paid his crew in tobacco for their work. The company he was working for provided him the tobacco. At that time currency was just starting to be used in PNG, and day labor could be paid for in tobacco or currency.
He mentions a few such "sort-of-near-death" things with his disposition toward understatement. One night a big rainstorm high in the mountains caused a flash flood that tore through their camp lower down in the middle of the night, bringing snakes and debris right through his tent. There wasn’t much higher ground to climb to but they managed to get out of the way. The native crew were terrified as they didn’t know how to swim. But Trevor says, “It was rather exciting.”
Photos: Above typical base camp set-up for 10 days at a time; Trevor's tent and field supplies set upon a platform made of felled trees by the porters. Below a typical lean-to the porters built for themselves at base camps.
A more disturbing time was during one of his regular camp relocations, which were often conducted via helicopter —a far more expedient way to move than carrying everything through the extremely difficult terrain on foot — "the helicopter flew away with half my crew and didn’t come back." It was supposed to return for the other half of the people and supplies. "But it turned out the engine on the helicopter went bad. We screwed up and uh, well, he also had our food. The remainder of us went for three days without food."
I asked, “Were you starting to get worried?”
He replied, “Well the real problem was we couldn’t get communication either. So we didn’t know what was going on for those three days. I could guess, though." He had mentioned earlier he had a voracious appetite during his time in the PNG highlands, so he must have been painfully starving, but it’s hard to get a statement of alarm out of him.
"We ate beetle biscuits." I.e., little beetles they popped into their mouths live. "They were bland and crunchy." But not remotely filling. The remaining crew stranded with him, though natives, were agricultural people from a different part of the island who didn’t know how to catch or select edible foods from the jungle.
I had been wondering after a few hours of interview if he ever faced these rather extreme situations with anything but equanimity or secret glee, when he mentioned a moment of "extreme fright." Climbing around rocks and cliffs they didn’t have ropes or anything like that with them. One time he was on a ledge in a vertical cliff face near a waterfall, high above the river, and needed to jump over to where he could take a sample from the sediment in a small pool. As he jumped over a narrow channel, the rock on the side he landed on was slipperier than the one he left, and he slipped and landed on his belly on a rock ledge hundreds of feet up from the ground. He says it felt like ten seconds but was probably just one as he pushed himself back from the edge of the abyss that would have been his death.
But perhaps the most alarmed he felt in his work, I finally learned, was a time when he was working in remote northwest Australia, his home country. He was camped on a dried river bank next to a little lake. One afternoon swimming across the lake, "a pair of nostrils came up in front of me." A bit of laughter escapes him before he continues, "And then a pair of eyes a long way back from the nostrils. I just thought I was dead, I didn’t think I had a chance.”
A large salt-water crocodile was trapped inland for the season when the river dried up. About 20 yards away on shore, a co-worker happened to witness the scene, grabbed a hunk of wood and threw it at the croc, and hit it dead-on. "The croc rose up out of the water, all four feet in the air, water pouring off of him, while I swam by it. That was a really, really close shave.”
“They just told me where I was going and dropped me off.”
Trevor had been on his way to another job in Australia when he got a call that told him to go to PNG instead. On a dime he switched gears, got himself some vaccination shots, and he was over there in ten days from the call. U.S. Steel Corporation was trying to diversify into copper mining; Trevor was contracted through a middle-man company to explore the Western and Central Highlands region to the Indonesian border, taking sediment samples to test for the presence of copper.
“I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. I’d been working in a pretty isolated place in Western Australia, but Papua New Guinea was taking it to another extreme.”
At the time Trevor was working there, PNG was still a territory under Australian rule; it established its sovereignty in 1975, just after he left. PNG is one of the most culturally diverse nations on the planet, and most citizens still live in traditional communities. But given the diversity of tribes, the types of communities and living quarters can vary widely, just like "clothing" or lack thereof, body modifications, etc. There are over 800 known languages!
Even today, PNG is one of the least explored countries, mostly due to the extreme terrain. Still today, air transport is the primary means of getting around, there are few connecting roads, even to the major cities. The interior jungles likely contain numerous undiscovered species of animals and plants. I've read that some people theorize there remain "uncontacted" tribes therein. A big reason I was keen to interview Trevor on his experiences in the 1970s is because I was spellbound watching films, and reading articles, documenting Westerners' first contact with some tribes in PNG ... people living with stone age-caliber technology and frightened of the white people, fascinated with things like ballpoint pens. (I had the same interest in first-contact documentaries with tribes in the Amazon.) About 80% of the population continues to live in traditional, and often very isolated, communities with few or no modern "conveniences."
I knew PNG had been pretty infamous for the number of tribes engaging in headhunting and cannibalistic practices. Apparently by the 1980s, these practices had all but died out except in the more isolated areas, where it was still going on in the 1970s. Trevor encountered at least one village where the large huts had human skulls hanging all around the outside like decoration. In the photo below, you can see three of them hanging from the floor boards to the left of the man leaning against the hut.
As you, my readers, may know my interest in witchcraft culture through my friendship with Berrie Holtzhausen and the film I was involved with making about him, African Witchfinder, I will mention that witchcraft and witch killings are rampant in PNG. I watched a documentary with Ross Kemp that revealed the "witches" are also often horrifically tortured for hours and even days before being killed. Recently Berrie was involved with a Zoom meeting with people from PNG on the topic, perhaps combining knowledge and experience in combating the problem (I haven't actually gotten the low-down on the meeting yet).
So in light of how unexplored and unglobalized the country remains in context of today, imagine what a wild land it was in the 1970s.
"I had no idea what it was going to be like," says Trevor, "what the conditions were like, I didn’t have a concept of how isolated it would be. I learned all this as I went along. And gradually I learned what happened to the fellow I replaced." The guy originally tasked to do this work had a nervous breakdown. The heat, the insects, the extreme isolation, the river crossings and continual hacking through a jungle that blotted out most sunlight — it wasn’t particularly uncommon for foreigners in these situations to break down. That guy had to be flown home.
(The next job he took in Australia after PNG, Trevor again replaced a man who couldn’t take the tough conditions.)
Like early polar explorers seemed to have superhuman abilities to tolerate cold, Trevor had the good fortune of being able to tolerate heat. Before coming to PNG, he spent some time working in the harsh desert sand dunes in northwest Australia. He drank 10 gallons of water a day and was coated in a white crusty layer of salt at the end of each day. He had to take salt tablets each day to replenish what was lost through his sweat — every fourth gallon of water had a tablet with it. He said one day he sat next to an Aboriginal man in a pub and his white-man skin was darker than the Aboriginal’s.
He was able to handle mosquito and other insect bites without much trauma, even when he was coated in bees and had to run to the river like a cartoon character being chased by the angry stingers.
He learned to have exceptional balance, crossing rivers and gorges on skinny little trees that served as the natives’ bridges, machete hacking his way through dense soggy jungle and slippery tree roots, walking through rivers on super slippery rocks. Never using ropes climbing rock faces. Below are some photos of river crossings and typical "bridges." The native men are his porters.
The man sitting on the rock below was Trevor's "head" porter for a time (he had different tribes as porters in different areas of the country). His only duty, though, in the actual "portering," was to carry Trevor's two-way radio. That was the single most important piece of equipment, the only contact he had with the outside world. He said that it only worked about half the time, but it presented the only possibility of communicating with the company headquarters on the island to request supplies or an evacuation or exchange any other important information.
“I was pretty darn good with a machete,” he says, which I'm sorry, but you just would never imagine that meeting him today. Even though I'm a serious introvert, I do enjoy talking to people, especially older people for precisely this reason — the things you would never imagine about a person. The most ordinary person picking out an orange in the grocery store might have an epic background. Maybe they are a decorated war hero, maybe they invented something really important, maybe they escaped from the Khmer Rouge or China's Cultural Revolution, maybe they nearly starved to death one year. This is also one reason I love traveling the world — the stories behind peoples' lives in other countries are often even more astonishing than those in America because of the different conditions and histories of those countries. Anyway, I digress. Merely to say, don't ever judge a book by its cover.
He had teams of 10 natives with him at most locations to carry gear, and an assistant to help with the field work. He went through a lot of boots that rotted out from walking through the rivers. He eventually started to go round barefoot like the natives but he was warned about getting hookworm and decided to try going back to boots. Then there were the leeches, the rashes he would get, the mosquitos .....
He showed me a photo taken of himself standing the jungle with his shirt off, his hair and skin almost painfully pale (hard to envision him once looking like an Aboriginal!), and his back covered in beetles, the ones they ate as "beetle biscuits." I would have already run screaming from the jungle the moment my back became a porch for so many insects.
Amazingly, he never got sick or diarrhea drinking water straight out of the rivers in PNG, eating local food, munching on live beetles in the jungle. However, all his scrapes and cuts, inevitably accrued traipsing through dense jungle, would suddenly become infected at the same time. About every six weeks, he would fly out to recover for a couple weeks on antibiotics and then happily return.
It’s as if his body was especially made for jungle exploration. It seemed to know its destiny way before Trevor’s mind at the helm discovered it.
"At the time, I really liked the work [the remote assignments]. Being from a little country town, a coal mining town, youngest of three boys, it was great to get away and be totally independent and develop my own confidence. I was a really shy kid. In college I worked like a dog just to get passing grades."
When he managed by the skin of his teeth to get accepted into university, all freshmen had to undergo an intensive psychological examination. It was here he learned that all his questionnaire answers indicated he was on track to be the most average kind of person. Average number of kids, average income, average house on an average street, average humdrum career.
This – like a crocodile coming for him in the water – was alarming. He studied his brains out, so to speak, in order to graduate university, determined to thwart that prophecy. At that time the university system in Australia weeded out about three-quarters of the students — roughly a quarter of freshman made it through to graduation.
Straight after graduation, Trevor took a job and was sent off into a remote corner of Australia, his first taste of geological exploration, I guess you would call it. That type of isolated field of work attracted some "interesting" personalities. "For someone to be working out in those remote areas, they typically seemed to be running away from something. I mean really running away from something." Some personal demon or the law.
He found out one day that one of his coworkers was a murderer when the guy hopped in a truck and tore off and never came back. Trevor didn’t know why until the police came through and revealed his coworker’s crimes. If Trevor was running, I think it was simply away from his shy, average, unremarkable self into his real self, running toward his heart.
In its main base camp building in PNG, U.S. Steel had a big topographic map of the island on the wall, stretching from floor to ceiling. But in a large northern portion, it was just a blank white space, no lines or data. “That’s where I was hired to go,” testing for samples of copper in the silt on the land U.S. Steel had leased. He was directed to sample every stream valley.
Not even the Australian governing administration knew anything about what was in that area. Fifty miles x 100 miles of uncharted territory. There wasn't even aerial photography of the area because of the persistently cloudy skies. So Trevor had no idea what he would encounter in terms of the terrain he would be confronted with or the people he would meet. Three men that he decided not to meet were the ones who ran toward him brandishing their spears.
One thing he did have was aerial radar images at 4 inches-per-mile scale and his compass. He could make out the streams pretty easily in these images because they were breaks in the vegetation. On the ground, his compass was all the GPS he needed. One evening trekking back to camp from a ravine he was sampling, his porters had not paid attention and they found themselves in the wrong ravine to go home. As it was getting dark, there was some anxiety among the natives and it was Trevor with his trusty compass who led them back to their own camp ... they could hardly believe the white man knew the way better than them!
The company specified spots he was to reach and take samples. He would then fly around in a helicopter sketching out the terrain on a letter-size plastic sheet on his lap and then tell the pilot where to set him down, with the directive to come back in ten days and pick him up at the same spot.
"It could be very rough terrain and the managers didn’t have any idea the reality of the conditions. They asked me once to traverse a certain area from one drainage system to another in five days. I estimated it would take at least two weeks, then came to find out two other parties had recently attempted the crossing and had to turn back, so I didn’t attempt that one." Rather than argue with his superiors about it, he simply went somewhere different without consulting them, and that happened to be where he landed on his belly above the abyss in extreme fright.
I guess mostly on account of nature shows I've watched on television about PNG, I had thought living and working in the jungle would be a story full of slithering snakes and exotic colorful birds. But the reality for Trevor was that the jungle was so dense, mostly all he saw was flora — leaves, vines, roots, trunks, and more leaves, and mostly all he heard, rather than exotic bird calls, was insects, cicadas and the like. One time he saw a tree kangaroo, but unfortunately his native porters shot it with a bow and arrow and ate it.
There's a large family hut in the tree below if you can pick it out.
Corresponding to a wide variety of tribal customs and languages, types of dwellings also varied from region to region. Often they were erected in clearings, either natural or man-made, and typically many people sleep together in one big room and they often have a fire going, filling the hut with smoke. Perhaps as a form of insect control. One evening Trevor and his porters ran across an empty hut and decided rather than setting up a camp, why not use the building that was there. Once nighttime fell, Trevor lit his gas lantern and flying ants came out in droves ... picture Daphne DuMaurier's The Birds but with flying ants. Ewww. He quickly decided it was better to spend the night in darkness.
Below is a beautifully decorated community hut – it served as the main administrative and police building for the area. The guys sitting on the bench on the right are prisoners. Pretty sweet prison cell, eh?
The first building below is a post office (for whatever pittance of correspondence came to the administrative center), and then what is probably a ceremonial building (Trevor couldn't remember exactly) fronted by totems.
I asked about his cultural interactions, like what all he learned about different tribes — if it had been me, I would have asked all kinds of questions about their traditions and ways of life, and of course bride prices. But cultural learning wasn't really on his table for a couple reasons. One is he was mostly just focused on his work, at that time his interest was in dealing with the tough conditions and completing his assignments. But also, a significant inhibitor to chit-chatting was the language barrier. As mentioned earlier, there are over 800 different tribal languages and no lingua franca among the more isolated tribes.
Just asking "directions" could be challenging, as in "how long to reach the river" or "how far away is the next ravine." Like many folks living traditional lives in jungles and deserts and savannas, they have no need for and therefore no language for precise times. "A little ways away," "not long," etc., were the typical answers.
Often it would be a chain of three translators before words got from Trevor to the locals he was interacting with, and another chain to get the local's response. So asking complicated questions requiring lengthy answers would have been tedious. He had to scout for someone who could translate from the local tribal language to a tribal language that his porters spoke, and then his porters translated that into the pidgin English they spoke (which Trevor learned to understand). I listened to a course once on the evolution of language, and one of the modules was about the pidgin English in PNG, it's pretty interesting how pidgins start and evolve, and how quickly they can do so.
But he could actually tell me something about one of my biggest interests: bride prices. He said a cassowary bird like the one hanging out with him and a colleague at a headquarters camp, was extremely valuable and that "a man could get two brides" for one of these birds.
The language barrier was often unnerving, and just as unnerving for his porters as for himself, if not more so, as they were intimately familiar with how unfriendly and violent other tribes could be. Trevor knew this as a fact, but they surely knew it from experience.
One time a little tribe of about 30 natives followed Trevor and his porters for about a month, spying on them through the trees. Eyes in the jungle always watching them. The porters didn't know how to communicate with them and they were really spooked. But eventually their shadows decided to officially join up with them, I guess deciding the pale man was benign and interesting. This came in handy when Trevor unexpectedly needed to be evacuated by helicopter as quickly as possible.
He had been stabbed in the eyeball by a hard, sharp and pointy leaf on a tree — it slammed into his iris when the person in front of him brushed by it and it swung back into his eye. “I didn’t worry about it for a couple days, but then my eye got infected. So I had to get hauled out of the jungle by helicopter to get it treated in Mt. Hagan."
But in the thick jungle, helicopters can't just land willy-nilly. It would typically take a crew of native porters several days chopping down trees to mark a flight path — an approach and take-off — and stacking them into a thick mat to make a helicopter landing pad. In this emergency situation, the shadow tribe gladly pitched in with their stone axes to help quickly clear a landing pad for the rescue. By "quickly," of course, I mean in PNG jungle time: two days.
See the little kids of the shadow tribe standing around wanting to help while the men cut down trees:
I said it sounds like that would have been a very painful experience. He said, “Oh I can tell you, that was really incredibly painful during those two days waiting to get out of there.” But he wouldn't have mentioned the pain unless I had asked.
"It was tough conditions all the time, really tough," he said. So I asked, “What was the most uncomfortable aspect?”
“Well, it suited me quite well.” Getting a complaint from him is as difficult as raising a sign of alarm. “I didn’t mind it, I really liked the work, the solitude and independence it gave me, it gave me a lot of confidence in myself. Although those things got me fired from other jobs where I told it like it was instead of what the company wanted to hear. Working alone I had only myself to answer to. Why should I tell anyone else anything but the truth?”
Now sitting in his office full of bookshelves as we Zoom, his phone rings at regular intervals, rerouted after a few rings to voicemail. He sips on water, though not much more than I do. He even tolerated radiation for throat cancer in such a way that shocked his doctor, who had prescribed three months of therapy and recovery time after the radiation. Trevor had quit therapy and was back working after two weeks.
He often takes a minute to chuckle at a memory before relaying it. The stories he’s most fond of are of the feats of others, rather than his own, namely the helicopter pilots. They sometimes landed and took off from places Trevor was convinced were impossible, even after having spent so much time landing and taking off as a passenger, regularly moving base camp and getting resupplied by helicopter every seven to ten days.
He recalls one rather thrilling ride when his favorite pilot, who was fresh out of Vietnam, executed a perfect take-off at a 45 degree angle, basically redlining both the motor and the rotors. The pilot was so excited, he explained to Trevor all the numbers and specifications about how everything worked perfectly, so Trevor suggested they go back to a site they’d passed up earlier because he (Trevor) thought it would be impossible to land.
The pilot knew so precisely what was needed to perform this, he told Trevor they had to get the fuel tank down to having only just enough to get back to camp, so they flew around for 20 minutes just using up fuel before descending through the canopy, where there was just enough room underneath the canopy for a helicopter. Not really descending, though, “He just drops the helicopter down through a hole in the trees” and then hovered beside the stream while Trevor jumped out.
While he was collecting his sediment samples, the pilot had fun doing laps back and forth beside the stream underneath the canopy. To leave, he revved up the motor and rotors again like a race car at the starting line, then "just flat-out acceleration and shoots the helicopter up vertically straight up through the trees."
Another time after a pilot picked him up from his sampling spot, they’d just barely gotten into the air when the pilot told him to get out, the copter was losing power. So Trevor jumped and then the pilot just disappeared. He waited there in confusion for awhile until the pilot came back. But instead of picking Trevor up, he pointed downstream and dropped a machete out of the helicopter. So Trevor had to spend about thirty minutes hacking his way along the river to where he finally saw the chopper was waiting for him on a little island. It had gotten caught in a downdraft which is why the pilot made Trevor bail, but Trevor didn’t know why at the time as he was grudgingly muscling his way through the jungle.
His time in PNG was ended by a case of appendicitis, at which time he had to fly to a hospital in Australia for surgery. He had a subsequent assignment in remote Indonesia. The living and working conditions weren’t as rough but he had more engaging cultural encounters, he says. There, a parasite entered his blood stream through his skin and shut down his kidneys. By a stroke of luck he got medical treatment at the British Embassy in Jakarta, where he was told he would have been dead in the next 24 hours if he hadn’t gotten proper treatment. But this isn’t what ended his days of high adventure in what were some of the wildest places on earth at that time.
It's a common end to even uncommon tales. The lives of many an explorer were becalmed and domesticated when their heart strayed into the territory of a woman and let itself be captured and drawn into a different realm of adventures in family life. After he was married he got offered many jobs to other exotic locales around the world. He would have been keen to take them but was quickly told by his beloved, “That wasn’t going to work.” So he never took any more.
Trevor met my dad after he was married and working a more civilized job. The two of them eventually worked on many consulting projects together in the synthetic and alternative fuels industry. That’s how I came to know him, and many years after my dad passed away I looked him up to learn more about his early adventures I had heard him mention in passing.
I asked what kind of tools the natives used to cut down the trees – stone, wood, metal? He gets up from his office chair and disappears off screen for a few seconds and comes back holding a stone axe with a beautifully decorated wooden handle. In his living room he has two large bows hanging on the wall. Not souvenirs, they were ones his porters carried as they made their way through the jungle, similar to the one the man below is using.
To meet him today — an expert in computer database programs and a court witness for minerals evaluations, dressed in crisp professional attire, blonde hair, pale skin, slight frame — the last thought that would cross your mind is that those bows were from his job, like emptying out your cubicle when you leave a job and taking the office stapler with you as a memento. Those were a part of the world his personal day-to-day living experience took place in.
He says he plans to retire next year, and I hope he will. He’d like to travel around a bit, maybe go back to Indonesia, but not PNG. "The Australian government pulled out too soon," he says. "The country wasn’t ready to run itself yet." And indeed it’s now one of the most violent countries on the planet. Tribal warfare is endemic and now guns are being imported and so revenge killings are no longer you shoot one guy with an arrow, their tribe shoots one of your tribe with an arrow in return, and back and forth. Now Tribe A shoots 20 people of Tribe B in retribution, so then Tribe B ups the ante and mows down 30 from Tribe A, who has to up the ante by burning down an entire village, etc.
What I would call my "top list" of places/experiences I've most wanted to see since I started dreaming of seeing the world still has a couple un-checked boxes, and one of them is to see a traditional sing-sing in PNG at Mt. Hagan or Goroka. (Another, if you're interested, is to travel the Karakoram Highway.)
I could still have the opportunity to see these things, but the opportunity for me or anyone to explore places completely off the map, not having any idea what we might encounter, like the "golden age" explorers (my favorite reading genre, btw), is no longer available. So I really enjoyed speaking with someone who had that uncommon experience. I hope you enjoyed a little overview of our conversations and the interesting photos. Which aren't over yet ... below are photos of some of the native people he encountered. My favorite is this first one, if you look closely you can see that dangling from the ends of his headdress are bits of soda cans. A lot of Western materials were used as adornments when the native people first started encountering them. I remember seeing a photo of a man with a ballpoint pen through his septum, the way this man has a stick.
Above, a man surveys his banana fields. Below, a market day, where locals gathered to trade goods. Although clearly some of the people have had access to Western items (clothing, and I believe that's an umbrella in the background), this was in the region Trevor said the Australian administration had no real idea of what or who was here.
Although the photo of the man with the soda can bits is my favorite depiction of a tribal custom in the form of the headdress, I think this one below might be my favorite photo of the ones he shared with me. Beautiful women and girls he crossed paths with. The scanned film photo is really grainy, but it looks like the woman in green has facial tattoos.
Lastly, a picture of Trevor standing in a creek bathed in golden jungle light, isolated from the rest of the world — in his happy place.
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click mouse)
A few more words from our 4x4 driving trip based in Breckenridge, Colorado, with a little more Colorado history and photos. To me, the history is so much more accessible when you can still see the evidence of it in the remaining ruins which will dwindle with each passing year.
Before the gold rush in the Colorado mountains, about the only people who had reason to be living there besides Native Americans were fur trappers. Individuals and wagon trains might pass through the area on their way further west. In 1806 in what would eventually become Park County, a trapper told the famous explorer Zebulon Pike, who was mapping the western lands acquired in the Louisiana Purchase for President Thomas Jefferson, that he'd found gold in the South Park basin. At that time neither man was interested in gold -- which seems almost incredulous given the crazy gold fever that possessed so many thousands of people half a century later. But the trapper was only concerned with beavers (which were quite lucrative at that time) and Pike was focused on completing his report.
When a prospector found nuggets of gold in 1859 near what would soon become the city of Denver, the discovery triggered a stampede of gold-seekers and families looking for fortune in the Rockies. Within a year and a half, the population of the area known as Colorado jumped from a few thousand Native Americans and a few hundred mountain men to more than 30,000 people scouring the mountains for their personal pot of gold.
It was this 1859 gold rush that inspired the creation of the Colorado Territory in 1861 -- a space (the same as the current state boundary) drawn around the intersection of the Kansas, Nebraska and Utah Territories, extending down into the New Mexico Territory. So my state took chunks out of those four territories to make its own.
About a third of those first rushers came to Park County where miners found millions of dollars of gold. Check out my post on South Park City to see what it was like living in these early mining towns.
Wise Mountain is within the network of 4x4 roads that connect between Breckenridge and Montezuma near Keystone. The cabin on Wise Mountain was built in 1878 and used by the Wise Mountain Silver Mining Claim. The mine shaft was an impressive 1,200 feet from base to summit. The cabin sat above a mining town, Swandyke, which like so many, has all but disappeared.
Anyone working up there above tree line had sweeping views of the surrounding area. It's an "I'm on the top of the world" feeling. Let's see if you have that Carpenters song stuck in your head now for the rest of the day. Even though there is little flora besides low tundra ground cover and few fauna beyond some cute rodents, I think the colors of the mountain rock make a pretty picture.
North of Breckenridge on Hwy 9, Tiger Road (CR6) leads into Georgia Pass. Erik had seen a point on one of our trails apps that said "Masonic Monument." We decided this sounded of interest and used COTREX to arrive at the spot. We looked around and around and found a small stone commemorative marker that was the "monument." It hardly seemed like something worthy of pointing out on a map considering how many larger and interesting unmarked sights are found in these mountains.
Curious, I researched after we got back to our condo. And what I found was very surprising. I didn't take a photo of it because I didn't realize at the time its significance. So as a previous paragraph ended with the observation that so many mining towns have disappeared, here is one of the most remarkable examples.
The stone "monument" does in fact mark where the first Masonic Temple on Colorado's western slope was built. It's all that remains, apparently along with a cemetery, which we did not spy (but now I want to go back and find it), of what was once the largest town in Summit County (which at that time stretched west all the way to the Utah border) and was nearly voted the capitol of the Colorado Territory in 1861: Parkville.
Parkville was founded in 1859 when placer gold deposits were discovered. This means miners panned the gold from rivers rather than digging mine shafts into the rock. Only two years later, Parkville had 1,800 residents, and miner's cabins filled the area. These miners were among the luckiest in Colorado's mining history. I read they could pan up to $10,000 in gold dust in a single summer. $10,000 in 1860 was an enormous amount of money -- a typical day's wage for average people was maybe $2 at best. It makes me wonder what those miners did with all that money. Did they blow it all in the saloons, did they retire in little mansions, did they invest and start wealthy family legacies?
Parkville was a rockin' town with a brewery and three theaters. It even had a private mint so people could do business easier than with bags of gold dust. I'm curious how large a bag filled with $10,000 of gold dust would be! They minted $5 and $10 denominations, I'm also curious how big of a pouch of gold dust you would plop down to get a $10 coin.
So what happened to the town? It basically destroyed itself, destabilizing the mountainsides by deforesting them and then using high pressure hoses to wash down gravel so it could be sifted through to extract the gold. Rock slides eventually buried the town.
So we passed by the buried town of Parkville and didn't even know it. But we had a lovely drive on the Georgia Pass road, passing Mt. Guyot whose summit is just shy of 13,400 feet.
We took a delightful lunch break with little pikas calling from the rocks around us.
Near the end of the day we found ourselves descending SOB Hill (really more of a pitch at the bottom of a longer, less challenging 4x4 trail). We didn't intend to go down this trail as I'd seen the rating of it and while Erik would surely be competent at it, we also were on vacation, not on our home turf, so we didn't want to risk injuring our 4Runner, Chewie, and not being able to drive home. However, we inadvertently ended up on it because I managed to screw up my phone that afternoon (big surprise -- I'm incompetent with it) and I couldn't log in to the COTREX maps we'd been using, so we were winging it.
We came to that pitch and it looked gnarly, but we saw another trail to the left and thought it was either a "chicken route" or the actual trail. So we followed it instead. It was easier but not easy. And after awhile it ended abruptly with a fallen tree across the trail. Absolutely no way around it and not enough room to turn around, so we had to back up the trail to the fork, which was even less easy. In the process, Chewie got injured but not so that we couldn't keep driving; we had to replace the rear hatch door after we got home, though. We realized then the gnarly section was in fact the trail and we had no option but to go down it.
It required some spotting, and so walking down the trail to scout the route, I managed to slip and fall and bruise my butt up nice and pretty. So Chewie and I were injured, so there were a couple moments of "SOB!" cursing. Otherwise everything went fine, but this cabin back on flat ground was a welcome sight (the flat ground more so than the cabin). And the outhouse. I often think old miners' outhouses are quaint.
We stopped to take a picture of this pretty hillside with autumn aspens and colorful tailings on the way up Tiger Road.
South of Breckenridge on Hwy 9 toward Alma, is the picturesque Magnolia Mill just above Montgomery Reservoir. What used to be the mining town of Montgomery, established in 1861, now lies underneath the waters of the reservoir which supplies Colorado Springs, quite a ways southeast, with water. The town had a large dance hall and I read it sent President Lincoln a bar of gold from the Montgomery Mine. I guess the postal service was very honest not to nick a bar of gold, haha. I wonder how it arrived ... wrapped up in a box with a bow? "Happy birthday" "Top Secret: For Your Eyes Only" "To Whom It May Concern" ... I wonder how Lincoln reacted ... "ho hum, a bar of gold," or "woo-hoo a bar of gold!"
You can see that a bit of sheet metal has peeled back from a section of the walkway in the pic above. The breeze was gently knocking it against the structure making an eerie ghostly sound that gave the place a nice abandoned atmosphere. I saw it referred to as an ore walkway, ore probably traveled between the two buildings on a conveyor belt.
The original mill burned down -- a common fate of buildings in mining towns. It was rebuilt in 1930, which is what still stands now. Some of the large machinery is still inside in good shape (photo taken through a window).
In the evenings we relaxed under a full moon in one of our condo's hot tubs. As this was during COVID, pool and tub activity was limited and controlled, so we had a hot tub all to ourselves, which was delightful. Staying in a condo, cooking our own meals and driving ourselves around in our own vehicle was a perfect vacation during this strange time of pandemic.
Read more articles about Colorado
Read more articles about this area Breckenridge - South Park - Montezuma
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
In this post I'll share some places we explored with Montezuma, Colorado, as the anchor. We explored three gulches off the Peru Creek Road, the most interesting of these in terms of mining ruins was Cinnamon Gulch.
At the mouth of the gulch, visible from Peru Creek Road (it's a dirt road, not a 4x4 track), are the steadily collapsing ruins of the Pennsylvania Mill, and further up the hill the mine and the tram house that conveyed ore between the mine and mill. The Pennsylvania Mine started operations in the late 1870s pulling out about every kind of valuable mineral in these mountains: gold, silver, lead, copper and zinc. Its biggest production year was 1893, the year of the silver price collapse. It operated until 1908 and then continued sporadically until the 1940s.
If you look closely, you can see the top of a wheel near the apex of the roof. A bird was standing there talking to us as if he was either the sentinel on duty to guard it or the tour guide explaining to us how the mill once looked and operated.
I wish I would have known about all these places a couple decades ago -- you can find photos on the internet that show how much more intact they all were even just 10, 15 years ago. I feel fortunate to see them at all before they're completely gone, as it's obvious that the trajectory for most of these is steeply toward a featureless pile of wood and metal.
I was surprised to find out this mine is considered the most toxic in the state. Reclamation efforts are ongoing, but currently no fish or other aquatic critters can live in Peru Creek.
As a bit of an aside, you might be wondering, as I frankly did, " How does moving earth around create something toxic that pollutes the water?" I picked this explanation up from the Summit Daily if you're interested:
"Most of the gold, lead, copper and other metals mined in Colorado are found in ore deposits with metal sulfides. Drilling huge holes in the ground exposes those sulfides to air. Those compounds then combine with oxygen and water, and a chemical reaction occurs that creates sulfuric acid, spiking the acidity level of rivers and streams. The process also releases heavy metals in higher concentrations into the water as it trickles over the rocks, turning creeks a ruddy, orange color. Plus hard-rock mining smashed large rocks into small pieces, which means more exposed surface area, intensifying the problem. This oxidation of minerals happens naturally, but mining operations greatly accelerate the process."
Trams are a feature prominent and particular to the old mines in the South Park-Montezuma area. I live in a gold and silver mining area also but most of our mines are at a lower elevation, below tree line, and trams were not employed ... either small mills were built nearby or other modes were used for long distance transport ... unlike this region where many of the mines were high up on bare mountainsides above tree line where tram cars would be unimpeded by the likes of trees, making them by far the most direct and efficient form of transport.
The most challenging of the three gulches to drive, Chihuahua Gulch, requires a high clearance 4x4 vehicle. There were no ruins to see, but the route was fun for Erik, his favorite kind of 4x4 trail -- some big rocks to clear but no cliffs to fall off of -- and there was a pretty hiking trail at the end. We were there late in the day and had not prepared for any real hiking, so we walked up it only a little ways.
The other is Warden Gulch. The road ends in a valley at a few splintered remains of a mine with completely gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains. It made an excellent lunch spot.
I put Santa Fe Peak on our itinerary based on the recommendation of a fellow we met at the two Colorado Gambler 500 rallies we've been to. The description in the main source I was using to plan and judge the difficulty of routes also suggested it would provide excellent views and wasn't too hard. Well, part way up this trail is when Erik realized he really, really did not like driving these very narrow roads with loose rocks and nothing but sheer drop-off on the outside. You can just make out another vehicle parked facing uphill at the switchback below us.
In between the two switchbacks is when Erik realized this and got a bout of vertigo. We stopped and got out to walk it off and decided it wasn't worth continuing if it was just going to be stressful and not fun. If the driver isn't having fun, neither is the passenger. So we went back down and stopped to talk to the folks on the lower switchback. They had done the entire route two days earlier and said that's why they were stopped there on that switchback ... the guy was an experienced driver (his wife said he is usually "fearless") and he said he kind of regretted having done it because he'd never been so scared in his life. Haha. Basically it only got narrower with looser rock and steeper cliffs and they felt the view was just as good at the top as where they had stopped. So while I already wasn't feeling bad about turning around, it was nice to talk to those folks and feel justified for having done so. I later read a description of it that said, "May be intimidating for novice drivers." Erik is anything but a novice, and it sounded like the other guy wasn't one either. So I believe it's more correct to say intimidating for people simply not keen on narrow shelf roads on super steep treeless mountainsides and those who feel vertigo.
(It was this experience on Santa Fe that helped us decide to turn around at the North London Mine without much hemming and hawing when we saw Mosquito Pass looking a bit similar.)
Webster Pass connects Montezuma to Highway 285 north of Fairplay and is one of the higher roads in the state, crossing the Continental Divide at 12,100 feet. This also was underrated on the site I was using as my primary source. It said pretty much nothing about it except that it was a connector from Highways 6 to 285 and rated easy. This was essentially true of the north side -- you need a high clearance 4x4 but we didn't find anything actually challenging. The south side of the pass is a different story even though there is nothing technically challenging there either. But first let's stop at the top and marvel at this rather surreal landscape. The colors really reminded us of Haleakala Volcano on Maui.
After we got home I looked the pass up on some other websites and found most of them more accurately described the south side, pointing out the width of the shelf road with loose rocks and hairpin corners and the sheer drop-off. But to be honest, there is really no indication of this from the north side -- it's only obvious once you're looking down from the pass. As we came to the bottom of the south side, we saw signs there warning people heading up, "Experienced 4x4 drivers only," and "Road narrows, not suitable for full size vehicles, no turn around beyond this point." I guess maybe they figure you can discern that for yourself from the pass looking down, haha, but you might not know it starting up still below tree line.
But after Googling Webster Pass I see plenty of photos and videos of SUVs on the pass, so we weren't exactly scofflaws by driving our full size vehicle. But what was a little unnerving is I saw photos of vehicles both descending and ascending the south side. And the sign speaks truth: there is no turn around, so I don't know what you'd do if you met another vehicle, as there is also zero room, as in *zero,* room to pass and backing up or down the narrow rocky ledge would be eight steps beyond hair-raising. From the pass you can see most of the road and could probably tell if someone was coming up and wait for them, but I'm not sure that's true from the bottom of the south side.
So in spite of the precise kind of road that gives Erik vertigo, it was worth going down that for this view. Therefore in retrospect I'm glad I didn't read the other write-ups because we might have avoided going there, and we're both glad we didn't, even though Erik's shoulders were tightened up high enough to about brush the bottom of his ear lobes. Fortunately, wise or not, I always have faith in Erik's driving so it really wasn't stressful for me as the passenger.
Another day we entered this network of trails from Breckenridge and came out through Montezuma on Deer Creek trail, which is not difficult. We decided to check out an unnamed side trail that was a little more challenging and were delighted with what is these days a rare find -- a mine entrance that hasn't been intentionally (or unintentionally) collapsed and has the cart tracks still intact leading in. I don't know anything about it as far as when it was last mined, so I'm not sure why it has remained in such pristine condition. Because of its condition, though, I'm not inclined to reveal any more information about its location. Too many jerks these days who go around ruining things for everybody. Just enjoy the photo. :-)
A car below the mine who has seen better days.
And our trusty 4Runner, Chewie, who is in his prime. I love him and I was happy to spend a whole week with him in this area when we otherwise spend so much of our 4x4 time with Pinzy (our 1973 Pinzgauer) these days.
please note all photos in this post may be viewed larger by opening in a new tab (right-click)
These are two pretty aptly named old mines, whose lodes were discovered in the late 1800s but are long abandoned, near Fairplay, Colorado. Access is from County Road 18, also known as Fourmile Road, just past the junction of Hwy 285 and Hwy 9 South. There aren't any real technical sections, but a high-ish clearance vehicle and 4WD would be super highly recommended for the Peerless, where we also encountered snow on the trail up there in September.
I was very disappointed in the lack of information on these mines on the internet. Sobering to realize how much credit I have come to give Google for presuming it knows everything! About the only thing I learned is that they started as silver mines and later secondarily produced lead and zinc (after the collapse of silver prices in 1893). As for the history of them, I found barely a few scraps. If you're reading this and can provide more information than me, send me a message and your sources!
The ore from the Dauntless Mine and the Hilltop Mine was processed at the Leavick Mill alongside Fourmile Creek.
Following is some interesting (in my opinion) info I snagged from a brochure (mostly verbatim from a PDF) put out by the forest service. They put out a whole series of brochures about the South Park area. If you notice little round signs along the roadsides with numbers on them, they correspond to information in these brochures, so you can take your own informative auto tours. I picked mine up at the Fairplay visitor's center a couple years ago.
"The remains of the old Leavick mill on the right are a crumbling reminder of 1890's high technology. The first buckets of promise were brought to the surface [from inside a mine] by pulleys and hand labor. Then burros hitched to winches pulled the substrate into daylight. Later, tracks and ore carts streamlined the process, but burros still provided the power. The Hilltop Mine eased the burro's burden and added efficiency by constructing an aerial tramway to move its ore to this mill. It stretched 1.75 miles from the mine to the mill [!] with 125 buckets that could hold 400 pounds per bucket.
"Eventually railroad tracks were laid to the mill that anchored the town of Leavick which only had one street. Along that street, a store, post office, cookhouse, school and a few cabins clustered. The Hilltop Mine operated off and on until about 1920. [The Dauntless lies several hundred feet below Hilltop.]
"A common mine laborer could expect long hours, many dangers and low pay. For $1-3/day, including board, a miner toiled in dank and dusty tunnels. He worked in constant danger from falling rocks or cave-ins, from explosions caused by the buildup of gases in unventilated tunnel shafts, and from fires or snow slides that could trap him inside the mine. In the 1890's, this was a scene of bustling men and animals, puffing steam engines, and streams of ore cars."
Further up the road from the mill, we ran into a mama moose and her two children munching the bushes.
We didn't hike up to Hilltop Mine, but its name describes exactly where it is, nearly 13,000 feet above sea level. The hardiness of 19th century miners just astounds me ... they didn't have all our nifty technologies and materials. They carted supplies up in wooden wagons with burros, for heaven's sake, up super steep mountainsides to work and live in some of the harshest climate in the country, particularly through the long winters, living in wooden cabins and bunkhouses with virtually no insulation like we have today.
The road is closed at a gate at about 12,000 feet, so it's another 1,000 feet up to the Hilltop Mine. I didn't know anything about that mine at the time (error on my part), so we just walked up to the one we could see from the gate: the Dauntless Mine. Many people walk past both of these on their way to summit Mt. Sherman, yet another thousand feet higher, which is apparently about the easiest 14er to hike up.
Various rusting machines and appliances -- the first one is a cookstove, probably resided in a bunk house during the heyday.
Nature always wins, though, even where there is little in the way of life at such high altitude and brutal climate. I thought these thorny plants were pretty but also looked vaguely sinister crawling over the rotting wood, looking almost like an octopus or something.
In the photo below, the track to the left took mine carts from the mine to an ore bin, which has been torn down, and the right track took the waste rock to be dumped over the end. This info was given to me by a guy whose dad worked in this mine and others around it. He also explained that the large iron thing between the tracks is what's left of a tram motor that pulled the mine cars in and out of the mine.
I thought it was neat to hear from someone who had actually witnessed the mine run. "I spent many days through the summers up there following my dad. A friend and I watched the compressor, and sometimes we went in the mine with the miners and watched."
Getting to see pikas was another great component of checking out this mine. I absolutely adore these tiny but incredibly hardy creatures who live typically above tree line in extremely harsh climates, building their dens in the crevices of rockfalls and skree. Look at how large their furry feet are relative to their body, their size and padded toes help them scamper all over the jumble of rocks they make their homes in. These tiny souls weigh in at about six ounces. You'll see them collecting lots of grass in their mouths and carrying it into the dens, but they don't hibernate, they're simply building up their winter food cache. I've just recently learned that they are an indicator species -- meaning that changes in their behavior, location and numbers can be particularly evaluative of the effects of climate change in the area.
So the thing is, the first day I misremembered the map I was using via COTREX and didn't consult it once we started up Fourmile Road. So that day I actually thought we were at the Peerless Mine, which was where I had planned to go, when in fact we were at the Dauntless. I was confused when we reached a gate well before the mine, when the route information I'd read said we could drive right up to the mine. Well I figured out the next day, after looking at the maps, it was because we weren't at the Peerless Mine at all! Since I didn't know anything about the Dauntless or Hilltop mines -- they weren't mentioned on the website I was primarily using to plan our routes -- this is why we didn't know to hike up to the Hilltop Mine.
So a couple days later we decided to abort a route I had planned for us over Mosquito Pass, as we weren't super keen on the very narrow, rocky cliff-side shelf road, and decided instead to find the Peerless. The photo below is us driving the road to Peerless. Lop off about a third of the width of this road, put a whole bunch more rocks in it and add another couple thousand feet to the drop-off at a steeper angle to get a sense of what we aborted.
Heading toward "peerless" on the map wasn't very difficult, as there was only one road that branched off of Fourmile in that direction toward a mountain of that name. However, finding the actual mine is not what we thought, and we likely never found the main entrance. But I didn't know this until I got all the way home and "met" (online) the fellow whose dad worked there. I was expecting some ruins along the lines of the Dauntless with lots of artifacts and buildings, but the only thing we found was the entrance to what we presumed was the Peerless Mine. But according to the miner's son, this in fact is called the Twinkle Mine, of which he says: "My dad and a few other men leased the claim in about 1957 and tunneled in to a small stope they mined out. Don't think it paid the bills." [If you're wondering, "stope:" Stoping is the process of extracting the desired ore or other mineral from an underground mine, leaving behind an open space known as a stope."]
So where was the Peerless? As far as I can tell, we probably never even saw the main entrance. It's apparently near the saddle we drove up to where the driving trail ends. The little patch of snow just behind Chewie in the pic below has a shaft beside it down into the mountainside with a grate over it.
I asked if that was it, and he said possibly part of it but he thought the main entrance was below it. Anyway, the point being there were no buildings remaining, perhaps some splinters of wood we couldn't see from where we were.
So Peerless Mine itself was a bit of a bust, but the pursuit of it and the view at road's end is certainly fairly peerless. Absolutely amazing views on either side of the saddle (I didn't have a camera that could do it justice) -- one view down into the South Park basin and the other view down into the Leadville area. I realized the two are not really so far apart as they seem driving by road. A crow can get between them in no time! Assuming he's flying the same direction as the wind ... he wouldn't go much of anywhere trying to fly against it. It was quite calm on the mountainside but up on the saddle it was so windy I couldn't even hold my phone to take a picture with one hand, had to use both hands to keep it steady. The miner's son said of it, "They called it Gobblers Knob, said it was the only place they knew in the winter you could spit down wind and have it hit you behind the ear five seconds later. It was brutal. They parked at Leavick and pulled a sled with a little D4 Caterpillar dozer all the way to the Twinkle. They were glad to get underground, out of the wind to work."
Although sometimes 4x4ing it's super handy, even crucial, to run across another vehicle on the trail, I absolutely love it when we are all alone, which we were most of the time exploring this area. On this day we came down from the saddle to have a late lunch sitting on the tundra beside the trail. Neither of us was talking. I was privately thinking to myself that it's too bad I have to chew my food because even just the sound of my jaws mashing a soft burrito shell and pepperoni was extremely distracting to such deep silence, I wished I could just drink it in. Back in the car on the way down, Erik made the exact same comment, how when he stopped chewing his sandwich the silence was almost profound, the chewing was a distraction. When two people have such a completely random thought that chewing food is too much of a trespass, you know that's some divine silence.
Thanks to Herk Almgren for the firsthand info and personal memories.