Cruise through time: The coast of Papua New Guinea
It’s like stepping back to an earlier age when foreign travel really was exploration where anything can happen. PNG is a land that has many attractions ranging from excellent diving, world-renowned walks, rare flora and fauna, and hot springs and volcanoes. There’s an exotic foreignness in this near neighbour.
The coast and islands are beautiful. Elsewhere that spells over-development: seek untrammelled golden sands and you’ll find it shaded by highrise hotels; look for fish and coral living in unpolluted topical waters and you’d find you’ve arrived long after the developers. In PNG you are well ahead of the rush.
The coast surprises in its diversity. Arriving by sea to Tufi, a clifftop village with a population of just 400 people, you cruise into what can only be described as a beautiful jungle-fringed fiord. From here you can go deep-sea fishing or scuba diving, or take a short walk to seek huge birdwing butterflies. Besides these, the world’s largest butterflies, PNG boasts 2000 species of orchids and over 700 bird species including 43 Birds of Paradise.
At a pretty nearby beach you can swim and snorkel amongst the coral. Or head up a river accompanied by a colourful local guide. An aluminium tinny takes you part way up the river, to transfer to dugout outrigger canoes fitted with bamboo platforms on which to luxuriated while young local girls skilfully paddle the craft under fallen trees and around sand bars.
Eventually, you arrived at a glorious river beach enclosed by high hills and broad leaf vegetation. Here the men of the village slice and dice a tree trunk to extract taro while numerous naked children used the outing as a chance for a party. Australia seems a long way away.
As news reports once showed, Rabaul is situated on a beautiful bay, treacherously fringed by volcanoes. It’s now a virtual ghost town after the major volcanic eruption of two decades ago – and it looks like a ghost, too, with the old city centre covered in grey volcanic dust. Eruptions are ongoing and most locals live in nearby Kokopo, a few kilometres from the town that was once referred to as “the Jewel of the Pacific”.
Also volcanic, Fergusson Island is the largest of the D’Entrecasteux Islands in the Solomon Sea off the southeast tip of the mainland. This is a lesson in volcanic landscapes writ large with fields of bubbling mud pools and steaming geysers. The water has coated everything in a rime of white calcium and the local villagers use the scalding pools as cooking pots.
New Britain, New Ireland, the Bismark Sea – the colonial heritage of Papua New Guinea lives on in names and government structure. English is very widely spoken. But a voyage along the coast of PNG has the atmosphere of a journey of discovery of ancient culture and customs and of a new nation endeavouring to establish its place in the world.
Of all the rivers in PNG the most renowned is the Sepik that flows for about 1000 km from the Highlands to the Bismark Sea. Throughout PNG you’ll find remarkable carvings and traditional masks but in the Sepik you find artworks that were born in your worst nightmares. You can buy it directly from the villages or there are excellent art and craft shops in Port Moresby holding artefacts from across the entire nation.
Despite PNG being a very foreign land, there are constant reminders of Australia and the two nations’ connection. In the island community of Kwato there’s a memorial to Reverend Abel who felt the best way to civilise the local populace was by introducing cricket. The city of Alotau was the World War II site of the 1942 battle of Milne Bay where the Australian forces became the first to force the Japanese army to retreat on land.
A place of pilgrimage that also combines a rite of passage is the Kokoda Trail that runs for 100 km across the rugged Owen Stanley Range north of Port Moresby. It was the scene of some incredible bravery and fortitude from the Australia troops that pushed the Japanese back along it in 1942 in perhaps the worst conditions in the world. Mud and mountains, heat and humidity all ensure it remains a 10-day challenge that is very rewarding to accomplish.
By far the easiest way to get around the coast and islands of PNG is on a small cruise ship.
Written by David McGonigal. Republished with permission of Wyza.com.au.