by Miles Clarke, Travel Writer
A local promotion leaflet sums it up well: “PNG - where tourism isn't an industry.”
Papua New Guinea welcomes but a fraction of the international visitors enjoyed by other South Pacific nations.
Most conspicuous by their absence are Australians, while the notoriously fickle and safety-conscious Americans are to be found in droves lapping up the unique diversity of cultural and environmental attractions of this land just five degrees south of the Equator.
Reality in PNG largely belies the perception that many Australians carry that it is an unstable neighbour. There have been just six Prime Ministers in the first quarter century of independence, thousands of expatriate Australians raise their families there and there is a thriving cultural exchange between the countries.
No discussion of PNG can go past the personal safety issue. Not unlike most parts of the developing world, one can find trouble if one goes looking for it. There is, however, a strong level of security awareness and hotels, tour operator staff are all alert to anything that compromises the wellbeing of their guests.
Compiling this report in a week of intensive travel the length of breadth of PNG, covering as much ground as a normal tourist might expect to do in a month, there was not the slightest safety concern. The 10 flights on Air Niugini were all on time, with service standards and courtesy up to – and often exceeding - international standards.
People are invariably friendly – especially so outside the cities.
PNG’s challenge to the Australian travel industry is to put aside perceptions and prejudices that might be founded on rumour years out of date and rediscover a dynamic and cost effective travel destination. Air Niugini and the PNG tourist community are making it really easy.
Unspoilt Ancient Highland Culture
The richness of PNG in terms of environmental and cultural heritage is without peer in the Pacific. An 80-minute flight from the capital into the Highland town of Tari brings the traveller into the world of the Huli people, a warrior nation whose first encounter with white explorers was as late as the 1930s.
Contact remains limited as the only way in from Port Moresby is by air. The scenery in the Tari Valley is breathtaking with soaring cliffs, rushing streams and waterfalls. The climate at more than 2,100m are far more temperate than the coast.
Ambua Lodge, developed and operated by Trans Niugini Tours, is a winner of PATA's Pacific Heritage Award and overlooks the entire Tari Valley. The lodge is 22km from Tari, though the transfer takes more than an hour due to rough roads. The trip can be broken by visiting villages along the way and encounters with the remarkable tribesmen in full traditional costume. PNG’s birds are remarkably different to those of Australia, with the Bird of Paradise in evidence just minutes from Ambua Lodge. The Huli Wigmen of the Tari Valley a strong bond between themselves and these beautiful birds. The men revere them by imitating them ceremonial life, decorating their human hair wigs with their plumage.
Tari is one of the few places left where men and women can be seen wearing traditional dress as part of daily living and wealth is still counted by the number of pigs and wives a man possesses. The market is well worth exploring but be sure to have a lodge representative with you for interpretation and safety.
The Ambua Lodge bungalows are of grass and reed construction and all offer the sweeping valley views. A centrally located fireplace in the lodge wards off the highland chill and adds to the convivial atmosphere.
Ambua Lodge Fast Facts:
Activities: Explore Huli culture, village performances, rainforest & bush walking, bird watching
Local birds: Bird of Paradise, Cassowary, Hawk, Eagle, Kite, Falcon, Duck, Brush Turkey, Moorhen, Parrot, Dove, Owl, Nightjar, Kingfisher, Hornbill, Fantail, Monarch, Honeyeater and many more.
Karawari Lodge and Sepik Spirit
The owner of Ambua and Karawari lodges, Bob Bates of Trans Niugini Tours, clearly has an eye for the best pieces of real estate for his tourist operations.
Karawari Lodge sits astride a hilltop overlooking a swiftly flowing river of the same name. An ample balcony in Lodge picks the breezes and delivers grand views over a vast expanse of tropical jungle and distant mountain ranges. Scattered huts of grass and thatch and naked children gambolling on the riverbank are the only signs of human presence.
The dark timbers of the thatched Lodge are covered with local artefacts from the village people living along PNG’s main river, the mighty Sepik. Characters from the mythology of score of tribes are carved into the support beams, dining table and bar stools - one of which goes free to the first guest with the power to carry it out.
Bob Bates’ riverboat, the Sepik Spirit, takes guests along the Karawari on into the Sepik for a three night, four day exploration of the jungle and the wide diversity of river clans and culture. Guests get the chance to meet the artists and learn about the influences that determine their style. The river banks where the vessel operates are dotted with many large traditional villages each with its own unique "haus Tambaran" or spirit house decorated with ancestral figures, carvings, massive drums and ritual flutes.
The Sepik Spirit takes 18 guests and, with its high picture windows' and indigenous art provides a unique river travel experience.
Activities: Explore local culture, village performances and handicraft demonstrations, bush walking, bird watching
TNT provides transfers from the highland hub town of Mount Hagan to Karawari and Ambua lodges using company aircraft with flexible services to coincide with Air Niugini flights.
Kariwari Fast Facts
Rooms: 20 twin share
Activities: Explore local culture, village performances and handicraft demonstrations, bush walking, bird watching
Tariff: includes tours, all meals.
When in Mount Hagan
Mount Hagan is the service centre of the PNG highlands. The town itself has few attractions for the visitor, though the countryside is quite spectacular and certainly warrants a half day tour.
The Pogla Cultural Centre about 25 minutes from Mount Hagan features the "Mud Men", which recalls an historic battle when a local tribe transformed themselves into magical creatures by spreading themselves with mud and covering their faces with clay faces to ward off a numerically far stronger band of aggressors.
Accommodation is limited to the Highlander in Mount Hagan and Haus Poroman. Haus Poroman is a short distance from town and features traditional thatched huts and big Highland views.
Madang the Perfect Gateway
PNG is one of the world's last great frontiers. There is no McDonald's, Body Shop or Gucci delivering that universal sameness of tourist experience.
The Pacific island experience is pretty similar throughout - swaying palms, resorts of varying standards, a few golf courses and the ubiquitous cultural village of Melanesian, Micronesian or Polynesian slant.
Papua New Guinea is quite different
"In Madang province we have 178 languages spoken in a population of 380,000 each with their own culture," commented Sir Peter Barter, PNG tourism's most colourful of personalities.
Sir Richard, a former New South Welshman, has in his almost 40 years in PNG has risen to the lofty heights of Governor of Medang Province and a seat in the national Parliament. He also was behind the recent talks which brought peace to Bougainville.
The proprietor of the Melanesian Tourist Services, Medang Resort Hotel, Niugini Diving Adventures, Malagan Beach Resort (Kavieng) and the luxurious Melanesian Discoverer cruiser said the wide repertoire of the PNG tourist product deserved greater interest from the Australian market.
"I've been operating here for decades have never had a safety problem with a guest. We simply don't send our visitors to places where there is the slightest chance of danger."
The 25 double cabin catamaran, Melanesian Discoverer, provides year-round cruising up the Sepik River and through the Trobiand Islands. A helicopter can land on board for sightseeing excursions. The vessel full diving equipment for 16 divers, more with advance notice and provides access to some of the most pristine and remote dive spots on the planet.
The 100 room hotel features a number of waterfront bungalows, three restaurants, live entertainment nightly and sweeping sea, mountain and garden views. Rates are quoted in US dollars and range from $90 (for twin share) to $280 for the Presidential Suite. In 1995, the Madang Resort Hotel hosted the South Pacific Forum and is one of the busiest conference hotels in PNG. The largest conference room has space for 600.
Hotels and Lodges: Madang Hotel Resort, Lutheran Guest House, Smugglers Inn Resort, Coastwatchers Hotel, Krangket Island Lodge.
Activities: Local culture, bird watching, snorkelling, diving.
Air links: Daily services to Port Moresby and other PNG centres with Air Niugini.
Social Development Through Tourism
By any stretch of the imagination, PNG faces a long road in its quest for full development.
The rugged and often inhospitable terrain makes the delivery of basic medical, education and utility services costly beyond the means of many.
Tourism as a high labour, clean industry provides jobs and career paths as well as providing international visitors with an insight into the particular needs of the communities they visit. The fine handicrafts of PNG are valued the world over for the quality and variety and tourist vessels on the Sepik and other PNG rivers bring much needed cash to river communities through the sale of artifacts.
The proprietor of the Melanesian Tourist Services, Sir Peter Barter, was instrumental in the establishment of the Melanesian Foundation.
"We become involved with the welfare of all the villages and settlements on our cruise itineraries. To date we have provided some 10,000 school desks and established five schools along the Sepik through the Melanesian Foundation. The traditional handicrafts are kept alive through sales to overseas visitors and the benefits of tourism are obvious to all."
Visitors have also contributed many thousands of dollars to the Foundation over several decades.
|Trobriand Island Children greet guests|
Quick Break to Loloata
Some 20 minutes from downtown Port Moresby and a 10 minute ferry ride is Loloata Island, a world away from the urban bustle.
Comprising little more than a ridge protruding from the sea, Loloata is a snorkeller and diver's paradise or simply a spot to relax.
Within a 10km radius of the island is a treasure trove of underwater discoveries for the Scuba diver - wrecks, reefs and the full range of marine life to be found in the warm New Guinea tropical waters.
Loloata has a full time dive program, with internationally rated dive masters, qualified to instruct to the highest levels. Other activities include fishing, kayak, windsufing and bushwalking. It takes about an hour to circumnavigate the island.
Loloata Fast Facts
Transfer by tender from mainland
Accommodation: All bungalows have waterviews and some are air conditioned.
Conference facilities for up to 50.
Exclusive Jewellery on PX
Air Niugini carries an exclusive range of duty free Kara Jewellery which features PNG gold and designs reflecting the flora, fauna and landscape of this diverse country.
Items on sale inflight range from Bird of Paradise Pendants at AU$15 to charm bracelets for AU$251.
Cigarettes cost as little as $9 for 200, while there is also a wide selection of liquors at prices which undercut those at Australian duty free stores. (this is dinkum, I checked)
The range of fragrances is not extensive but there is no shortage of the most popular brands.
Lessons for Life
For some 20 years boys and girls from Mentone Grammar School in Melbourne have gathered insights into other cultures and learned about themselves through visits to Papua New Guinea.
An initiative of the school Chaplain, Reverend Roger Williams, groups of scholars have stayed in villages, attended school, gone hiking, cycling and mountaineering across PNG.
“We have four groups going to PNG this year, ranging in number from 20 to 35 and the interest is such we are having to knock back some applications,” said Rev Williams.
“We have developed wonderful friendships with the PNG people over the years and our students have found the trips most illuminating in the most positive way. We have had students from PNG visit our school on exchange programs and our students have had the chance to rethink their attitudes on materialism, happiness and many other aspects of life as a result of their experiences there.”
The pupils have walked the Kokoda Trail, learning first hand what the Anzacs ensured during World War 2 and explored many of PNG’s close historic ties with Australia.
Rev Williams says the questions by parents on security and medical concerns do arise.
“We have never had a security incident in the 20 years we have visited PNG. We travel as a group, maintain responsible supervision and tend to stay outside of Port Moresby. We’ve never had a problem. With regard to medical matters, we require the students to take a course of anti-malarial medication prior to departure. In the 20 years we’ve never had to evacuate a child and, besides, Cairns is only 90 minutes by air from Port Moresby.
“There is some terrific cycling and sightseeing to be enjoyed at Kavieng and down the road to Rabaul and we’ll stop in to villages and share a meal along the way. These trips provide memories of a lifetime to our students and are an important part of their learning of life skills.”
Kokoda Treks And Tours
Frank Taylor’s Kokoda Treks and Tours are designed for the energetic and curious traveller.
A veteran of 31 years in the Western Australian Police Service, Frank Taylor has an abiding passion for the modern history of PNG, especially that of the Australian and Japanese campaigns of World War 2.
He’s travelled the full length of the Kokoda Track more than 32 times; has been involved in the making of several major documentaries for the Army and the ABC and been responsible for the construction of a water supply for a village along the Kokoda Track.
Using carriers his expeditions explore the many natural and historic landmarks of PNG and range up to 14 days in lengths. Recent concerns about safety along the Kokoda Track have diverted the expeditions to Shaggy Ridge in the Finisterre mountain ranges which also harbour significant historic reminders of the war.
“We have excellent local knowledge after almost 30 years’ close involvement with PNG the participants in our expeditions get a wonderful feel for the country and its people. Exploring on foot brings a quite different dimension to the experience,” said Frank Taylor.
“Every day we visit different villages so there are new things to see and people to meet and as often as not there are sites of historic interest.”
Shaggy Ridge is a dominating mountain feature within the Finisterre Mountain Ranges. In the latter part of 1943 and into the beginning of 1944, it was the scene of ferocious fighting between the Australian and Japanese forces.
As with the Kokoda Trail, the locality needs to be seen first hand to fully appreciate the enormity of effort and endurance of those involved in this little known campaign.
"Tourism" is an unknown to this area, with no infrastructure at all within the mountains.
“We are reliant on our own arrangements and that which we carry in. Pristine environment are oft used words to conjure up images attractive to the trekker. It was never more truthfully used to describe the areas we walk through. And the scenery and surrounds are spectacular. It is not for the faint hearted, as there are Kokoda like physical and mental demands on everyone in the expedition team. It is a truly rewarding experience.”
Just Going is an Adventure
“We sell active holidays where our visitors get to experience the country and its people rather than lounging around at a resort pool.”
This is how Owen Coney of South Pacific Tours (offices in Cairns and Port Moresby) sums up his company’s operations in PNG.
With peace finally achieved in Bougainville after 11 years of civil strife, tourists are making their way back to the exotic island, many of whom are veterans or descendants of soldiers on both sides of the conflict in the 1939 – 1945 campaigns.
“Our treks range from between three to 10 days. We use carriers and issue our participants with lightweight tents for the duration. Our numbers can range up to 40 and we’re able to customise an expedition, though we do have quite an extensive repertoire on offer.”
One of the adventures is a Sepik River canoe tour, where the visitors paddle from one native village to the next, learning about the customs and handicrafts of the area.
“Australians and especially the travel industry need to put their perceptions aside and make the effort to visit PNG. The birding, butterfly spotting, snake seeking and diving options are without parallel in our region,” said Owen.
The tropical waters around PNG are home to the widest diversity of marine life in the world.
For divers, PNG is the ultimate destination, offering an indescribable array of coral formations, fish and crustaceans.
Cairns-based Mike Ball of Mike Ball Dive Expeditions has been in the dive business since 1969 and operates a year round luxury dive boat off PNG, the Paradise Sport. The vessel has capacity for 22 divers and 11 crew. Accommodation includes six double cabins with king size beds.
He is one of a number of dive operations which make the most of the near perfect conditions underwater which include a fascinating collection of historic wrecked ships and aircraft from the bloody days of the New Guinea campaigns in World War 2.
“There are few places where the diving is more intense than off PNG,” he says. “This is the destination for divers who want to experience something off the beaten track and they are invariably rewarded with great diving.”
Operating out of Milne Bay and Kavieng at different times of the year, the Paradise Sport offers seven and 10 day programs to a variety of dive sites and special diving experiences such as night dives.
In addition, guests have the chance to explore native villages, visit natural wonders such as mighty waterfalls and rainforests
Mike Ball says the new airport at Port Moresby has been a valuable addition to the tourist infrastructure and that visitors to PNG who follow simple recommendations with regard to their movements have few problems.
“My 16-year-old son comes up to PNG independently from Cairns and there’s certainly never been any problem.”
Features of a Mike Ball Dive Expedition in PNG include:
- Unlimited diving - reef, wreck, night, shark, nautilus & deep dives
- Non divers welcome - spectacular scenery & cultural experiences
- Unlimited fresh towels after every dive
- Maximum 12 divers at small sites, choose between main vessel or tender dives
- Exotic creature finding service - we find them you shoot (photo that is!) them
- Complimentary Reef Ecology Certificate course Mike Ball's Safe Scuba System ensures both experienced and novices are catered to Solo diving as per Mike Ball
- Photo and video pro on board.
- Huge dive deck with multilevel camera station
- Nitrox instruction
- PADI speciality course available.
Walk Softly into Adventure
Rather than the volcanic wasteland imagined by many, Rabaul is still an exquisite jewel of the Pacific.
The trail of destruction wrought by the volcano some years ago provides a fascinating contrast, with lush tropical forest alongside the near lunar landscape left by the lava flow.
There are few better ways of experiencing the essence and texture of a destination than by walking through it, capturing the pace of the countryside, its birds, insects and foliage.
Bruce Alexander of the Hamamas Hotel - Rabaul provides a description of a typical trek in the area:
The trip leaves Gaulim, a small village called near Rabaul, and the last place you can drive to before the mountains. From there we walk for two and a half days through the mountains. Very few people now live here as they have all moved out to be closer to schools, shops, etc. The country is relatively high, about 1000 metres up and cooler than the coast.
We pass through a spectacular gap in the mountains into the Torio river watershed.
At around midday of the third day we reach the Torio river. From there we build bamboo rafts and proceed down the river. We raft for approx three hours of that day and make camp by the river. The next day we do a full day of rafting and come out of the river, to be picked up by the timber company and taken to the boat pick up point. We go by boat the next day around Cape Lambert and are back at the Hamamas Hotel by about 2pm.
The trip can be broken into three segments and in their own way they are all spectacular. The bush walk goes through pristine wilderness, while the river section is also amazing with long slow stretches and faster sections. We travel at around 5kms an hour which is a luxury after having to walk for the last couple of days. It is a wide and relatively shallow river with a vast array of bird life and vegetation along its banks.
The boat section travels past small deserted tropical islands and spectacular coastline. As a wilderness adventure it is world class, providing a perfect combination of bushwalking and leisurely rafting..
People who have walked Kokoda, Shaggy Ridge and others say that this trek beats all of them.
We have 20 Mentone Grammar school children booked in for later this year and I am sure it will be a trip they will talk about for the rest of their lives. Crocodiles are not a problem in the river as we stay at least 30 kms from the river mouth and as crocs are hunted in PNG so they are very cunning and stay out of the way. Interaction with the local people is considerable as we normally take as many bearers as trekkers. The rafts are made in the traditional fashion and the visitors learn many bushcraft skills from the bearers.
Some Great Live-aboard Dive Options
For dedicated divers who’d rather stay afloat than spend time ashore, PNG Islands offer a range of opportunities for live-aboard dive boat experiences. Based in (insert operational ports) a fleet of modern, well-equipped and professionally crewed boats include M.V. Chertan, Golden Dawn, Telita, Tiata and M.V. Barbarian. Dive locations include everything from spectacular reefs and volcanic seamounts, to dramatic drop-offs and wartime wrecks.
MV Golden Dawn is an owner operated vessel which visits dive sites from the northern islands of Wuvulu, Ninigo and Hermits to the southern atolls of Eastern Fields. She takes a maximum of ten divers at any one time.
MV Barbarian II offers twin share air-conditioned cabins and operates out of Morobe Province. Specialising in historic wreck diving, they also offer Birdwatching Adventures in Paradise and the chance to fish, visit native village or simply relax aboard.
MV Febrina is a 72ft liveaboard operating out of Kimbe in West New Britain and offers seven to 10 day dive trips for a maximum of 12 guests. She cruises Kimbe Bay, Witu Islands and into the Bismarck Sea.
In Rabaul, MV Star Dancer caters for 16 guests in air-conditioned and en-suite comfort. She cruises the Duke of York islands and the north coast of New Britain.
Tufi and Telita are Dive Legends
A byword among dive enthusiasts the world over, Tufi Dive Resort and Telita provide superb dive experiences in some of the most spectacular and unspoilt territory of PNG.
Accessible only by air or sea, Tufi is located 250km north east of Port Moresby between Lae and Alotau on the tip of Cape Nelson. The resort has been extensively rebuilt and features just 14 rooms, each with double bed and single bed. There are also six air-conditioned units with ensuites.
For visitors whose interests are terrestrial, the resort can arrange for overnight stays in local villages. There are also conference facilities for up to 30 delegates.
Three day dive boats operate from the resort, with the largest providing dive platform, camera wash, toilet and shower facilities. It has a cruising speed of 20 knots, providing quick transfers to dive sites.
Telita, the renowned live-aboard dive vessel, operates from Tufi and comprises five twin berth cabins, one deluxe suite and is fully equipped to meet the demands of the most exacting of dive enthusiast. Facilities also include satellite phone, fax and email, barbecue and bar areas.
Sites visited on Telita include historic World War 2 wrecks as well as many pristine coral reefs, each with its own particular characteristic.
Extended charters can be arranged for trips of five to 14 days.
There are three weekly flights to Tufi from Port Moresby and charter flights are easily arranged for small groups.