Trailblazer's generosity: Mike Shepherd's journey from explorer to humanitarian

There aren’t many people who can claim to be the first person to explore a new country or area, but for Michael (Mike) Shepherd this was a defining point in his life.

At just 23-years-old Mike took part in the Australian Star Mountains Expedition and became one of the first Europeans to traverse the rugged mountain terrain in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

More than half a century later, reflecting on the challenging expedition, Mike says the highlight of the three-month journey was getting to know the local people and their different way of life.

It was this prolonged connection to the people that led Mike to give back to Papua New Guinea through a generous donation to The Fred Hollows Foundation NZ.

“I came away with very warm memories of the 17 local carriers who accompanied us for the three-month duration of the expedition, under tough conditions. They were loyal, hard-working, and good humoured, and we owed the success of the expedition largely to them,” he says.

“I had long waited to give something back to PNG and after attending a presentation by The Foundation, I realised there was nothing better I could do for the people than to give them back their eyesight.”

Through a $10,000 donation to The Foundation’s Future Fund, Mike was able to help partially fund a year of training for one eye nurse in Papua New Guinea.

You can read more about his experience on the Star Mountains Expedition below or find out how you can make an impact by donating to a specific programme in the Future Fund here.

The expedition group atop Mount Capella
The expedition group atop Mount Capella

The Australian Star Mountains Expedition in Papua New Guinea

The year was 1965 and the three-month expedition involved six Europeans and 17 carriers from Telefomin, a tiny settlement in PNG.

Mike was the youngest member of the group, and as a fourth-year honours student studying geomorphology at Sydney University, the Star Mountains was a perfect place to conduct research for his thesis.

With little knowledge of the area, the budding scientist was fuelled by the excitement of traversing a largely unexplored and unmapped area, and the possibility of discovering large caving systems.

“There were very few places left that were blank spaces on the map, so we knew it was the last chance really for anybody to go to a completely unexplored area,” he says.

“No one had been into the area before, so we never quite knew what we were going to find.”

Aside from cave exploration, the expedition had several other objectives, including climbing the highest peaks of the Star Mountains, collecting plant and animal samples for the South Australian Museum, and anthropological, geomorphological and geological studies.

Mike’s particular interest was in the mountain’s limestone landforms; however, he says his fondest memories are of the relationships formed with the expedition members, the carriers and the local villagers.

“Nevertheless, the geomorphology was also fascinating and formed a major part of my thesis… but in the end the highlight came from getting to know the local people, especially the carriers. I had great admiration for them.”

Mike says the carriers assisted with everything from wayfinding, building huts, hunting and interpreting.

“I came to respect immensely our 17 Telefomin carriers, who endured difficult conditions with few complaints and stuck with us through thick and thin,” he says.

“The weather was bad up there. We’d get the occasional fine day or part of a day, but a lot of the time it was raining and raining hard – it’s one of the rainiest places in the world. So, we were almost constantly wet, and everything would be sodden, and yet the carriers would get a fire going somehow.

“Things like that, and their local knowledge, was worth a lot. We just couldn’t have managed without them.”

On their journey into the mountains, the group also met with Mountain Ok people, some of which had never seen Europeans before.

“That was quite an experience,” Mike says. “The kids would come up and touch us to see if the white would come off.

“It was fascinating for me to see their reaction to everyday objects we possessed such as photos of artifacts from other tribes, and a radio. I soon realised that my assumptions about so-called ‘uncivilised’ people were far from correct. They were extremely adept at living in an unforgiving environment, were good-humoured and the children had fun.

“The whole time we were there, and visiting lots of villages, I never felt unsafe. I always felt very comfortable with the locals.”

Mike recalled using salt, tobacco and jewellery to trade with the villagers.

“Salt was the main currency because they didn’t have any up in the mountains and there was a real craving for it. With a couple of teaspoons of salt, you could buy enough food for a day or two.”

Despite village trading, a lack of food presented one of the toughest challenges of the expedition.

While multiple airdrops of food and equipment had been prior arranged, bad weather and technical mishaps meant several deliveries couldn’t be achieved and food had to be severely rationed.

“We spent six weeks on the top of the range and there was no food up there. It was a long way from the villages, so all we had was what we carried up and what could be air dropped to us,” Mike explained.

“The weather packed in at about the time we were going to have the first air drop so the plane couldn’t get to us. The second time the plane came, one of the two engines was accidentally turned off – just when the plane needed maximum power to pull out of the run. He just managed to get over the crest of the hill, but it scared him so much he flew straight back to Telefomin and we were left with hardly any food.”

Close to starvation, Mike recalled the group having to resort to shooting and eating a wild dog.

“It was pretty tough and not particularly tasty, but when you’re starving anything tastes good,” he says.

“After a few weeks of not eating much at all, I’d be dreaming not about cakes or jelly and ice cream, but bread and milk – the sort of common staples you take for granted.”

Despite recounts of rugged terrain, rigorous conditions, and serious setbacks with air drops, Mike says the expedition was overall a success – largely to the loyalty of the carriers and having a member of the group that could speak fluent Pidgin-English.

“On the boat out to PNG from Sydney, a fellow passenger - a warrant officer who had been based in New Guinea - did not hide the fact that he considered our chances of accomplishing the first crossing of the Star Mountains, let alone surviving the expedition unscathed, were slim.

“So, just getting through it was quite something. But we did just about all the things we wanted to do on that expedition, except for finding large caves,” he says.

Mike says his disappointment in not discovering any large caves “was more than allayed by the grandeur of the surface scenery which was both magnificent and unusual”.

“And the route along the main divide, in the vicinity of the West Irian border, must undoubtedly be one of the finest ridge walks in the world,” he says.

Mike says the expedition was a life-changing experience, that would go on to shape his career as a geomorphologist and university lecturer.

“The other expedition members were all interesting and talented characters, who coped with the extreme conditions in different ways. The four of us who are still alive keep in touch nearly 60 years later.”

*You can read more about Mike’s geomorphological findings from the Star Mountains Expedition in this article.

A young Mike Shepherd in Papua New Guinea
A young Mike Shepherd in Papua New Guinea
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