Papua New Guinea - View from the Inside 2019

"From the birds of paradise to the tribal face paint, Papua New Guinea is by far the most colourful country I’ve ever visited."

September 2019 • Laura Kelly, Head of Commercial

A long time ago in a land far, far away… There was an island nation as exciting as it was mysterious, irresistibly exotic and impossibly remote where the nature of the landscape determined that the way of life was preserved and tradition remains very much part of the culture today.

I love to travel, I crave the adventurous, the exotic and unusual. I have to admit that I am not so well versed on the traditional holiday hot-spots, nor as tempted, so if there is something off the beaten track, then my attention is piqued and I am ready to go and explore.

So what could possibly be more intriguing than Papua New Guinea, it has long captured my imagination: one of the seven wonders of the commonwealth and surely a place that sits high on many people’s wish-lists, yet about which, seemingly, so little is known.  Without the usual abundance of luxury resorts or high tourist numbers, it’s a bit of a hidden gem and nirvana for travellers wanting to take the road less travelled.

Sepik

I travelled directly from London via Singapore to Port Moresby, a real schlep – a stopover in Singapore would be a welcome break. Arriving into Jackson’s International Airport I transferred across the walkway to the domestic airport, which was to become a familiar base over the next few days as I crisscrossed the different regions of  PNG.  Stopping for breakfast at the Airways hotel there was time to relax with a first glimpse of the lowlands in this sprawling coastal city that overlooks a beautiful natural harbour and the Gulf of Papua.  If you have the time, it is well worth getting into Port Morseby to see Parliament House and the super Nature Park, spread over 30 acres with a lovely collection of tropical flora and more than 350 native animals.

Flora

Flying north to the Pacific coast we enjoyed picture-perfect views; swaying palm trees overlooking aqua-fringed islands and numerous scattered reefs along the turquoise coast, Ideal for swimming, snorkelling and diving, it proved just the tonic to get me on track for an adventure.

So on to Mount Hagen via Port Morseby, flying over the Wahgi Valley you spy fertile farmland and highlands filled with jungle villages. A bustling, busy town centered around a vibrant market and one of PNG’s fastest growing, it’s known as the country’s food basket and locals boast it is home to the best fruit and veg on the island. Climbing out of town towards Rondon Ridge, the astounding beauty of the valley became apparent. There are the most breathtaking views; lush greenery, rolling hills and bright sunshine as the lingering white mist cleared. The lodge itself is a delight, located on Kum Mountain with great views of Mount Guilwe, the Hagen Range, Bayer Gap, Sepik Divide and of course the Waghi Valley. I set off explore the lodge’s network of forest trails before a homely dinner at the lodge. Next day it’s time to explore village life in the Western Highlands – an amazing chance to see customs of the past and present whilst encountering amazing attire and headdresses, enjoying dances to the beat of the kundu drum and storytelling.

Western Highlands

A short drive further and we reach Tokua where following a traditional greeting we learn the role of sorcery in everyday life, we meet a witch doctor who cures and communicates with spirits through rocks and have a mooch in his spirit house.  After a simple but tasty lunch we encounter the Skeleton Spirit Dancers from Chimbu. The tribes’ impressive body ornamentation is intended to intimidate their enemies, the group of young men, with distinct skeleton body paint, featuring fierce skeletal teeth, start in a stupor, then with whooping and war-like cries see off their enemies.

 Chimu Skeleton Dancers

We arrive at a village where the Huli tribe has taken up residency. The wig-men are one of the most popular tribes on the island, and the most recognisable, probably the only tribe without a chief, in what could be seen as the earliest version of democracy. They are a jolly tribe and join festivities whenever they can. Their main currency are pigs that are used as tender, for bride price and other traditional rituals.

Huli Wig men

And so our journey takes us via Port Moresby, once more, to Rabaul in East New Britain, (by now I am on first name terms with the lady in the coffee kiosk in the domestic terminal - the local coffee is good and strong.) This, the largest island in the Bismark Archipelago, has a string of volcanoes, pristine rainforest and reefs that are possibly the most bio diverse in the world, the descent into Rabaul is breathtaking  beyond the Baining Mountains and coconut plantations.

The vibe is just about as laid back as I have experienced, on arrival at our hotel the welcome from the resident string band and the cool coconut drink signal the start of our time in this little paradise, just in time for a magnificent sunset with hulking Mt Tavurvur dominating the skyline.

Sunset in East New Britain

Aside from its natural beauty, the region is strewn with remnants from WWII, a network of caves used for living accommodation, complete with hospital wing, Yamamoto’s bunker and the beautifully tended Bita Paka Commonwealth Cemetery. Rabaul itself was engulfed in ash following the 1994 eruption, we drive across the buried capital, with roofs and chimneys jutting through the ash, to visit the hot springs at the base of the volcano and go in search of the Melanesian megapode.  These birds lay and incubate their eggs in volcanic ash mounds, they are dug up as a traditional source of food for the locals. Today (in dry season!) there was a deluge, the heavens opened, the roads flooded and the mud filled the road, we had to detour, change our itinerary for the day and wait for the roads to clear and move on.  It is unseasonal, but it serves as a reminder that everything works around the weather in PNG and it is essential to pack that sense of humour, a pinch of patience and remember that PNG is known as the land of the unexpected.

The Baining tribe live deep in the mountains, surrounded by jungle on the island and are known as “bush people.” A burning pyre glows as the rhythmic beating of kundu drums and bamboo-sticks usher the fire-dancers of Baining into view. Wearing bulbous-eyed masks resembling cassowaries and grass skirts they perform the ‘fire-dance’. Usually performed on special occasions, and normally taboo for women and children, this is an exciting performance. In a trance-like state, the fire-dancers shimmy around a fire, then daringly plunge through the flames sending fiery embers skyward. It’s quite the spectacle.

Baining Fire Dancers

From the birds of paradise to the tribal face paint, Papua New Guinea is by far the most colourful country I’ve ever visited, there are few places that can rival its vibrancy and less where I have met people who share their customs and heritage with a genuine openness and hospitality. I ventured to Papua New Guinea hoping to glimpse life unchanged by modernity. Life is changing, but outside the main cities, traditional life and culture still prevail and it is a privilege and quite fascinating to see.

 Birds

Exciting and mysterious, yet rarely visited Papua New Guinea is not the easiest of destination to travel to, or within; outside of the main towns, there are very a few roads, the most intriguing regions are remote and given the terrain, many lodges can only reached by air, internal flights are weather-dependent, so delays and cancellations can occur. These factors combine to make PNG a challenging land, but it is exactly these qualities that make it so wonderful. Its sheer rugged natural beauty, its reliance on nature, and the very nature of the landscape has resulted in isolated, thriving traditional cultures where you can experience inspiring, authentic encounters. Diverse, colourful and extreme, this is truly is a unique destination, one of the few last places where you still feel like a traveller, indeed an explorer and not a tourist. Explore a fascinating, diverse country untouched by the masses, with a splendid coastline, towering volcanoes, lush rainforests, and spend time with some of the most affable and hospitable people you’ll ever meet, where the spirit of its people will touch your heart.

 

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