15 travel realities in Papua New Guinea
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What to expect when visiting Papua New Guinea, conveyed in 15 photos.
I JUST GOT BACK from traveling around PNG with a group of six journalists and travel industry reps. Our 10-day tour took us to three very distinct locations: the Middle Sepik, a jungle region in the north of the country, where lakes and tributaries feed into one of the world’s great rivers; Kokopo and Rabaul, the volcanically active beach towns on the northeastern edge of New Britain Island; and a dive resort just off of Milne Bay, at the southern tip of the mainland.
A press trip isn’t a typical travel experience, but through conversations with guides, tourists, and the Papua New Guineans who generously showed us their home, I feel like I got a good handle on what to keep in mind if you’re planning a trip here. And some decent photos.
[Many thanks to the Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority for hosting me on this trip.]
Guides go above and beyond.
The silhouetted man at top left is Jackson, our guide from Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort, who had no problem taking us into Simpson Harbour to photograph the Honeycombs -- caldera remnants of the ancient mega-volcano that sits below the water -- at sunset, even though it meant a 30-minute trip back to the resort in the dark, w/o a light. Later that night, it turned out Jackson was also the leader of the 10-guitar band that played for us during dinner, jamming out some local tunes and one shaky but pretty awesome rendition of "Hotel California."
You are a dimdim.
Of all the iterations of "gringo" I've qualified as -- waeguk, farang, gaijin, ferenggi -- Tok Pisin's dimdim is probably my favorite term. Ethnic / economic cues aside, it's impossible not to look like a dimdim -- and a fool -- when you're GoPro'ing yourself sprinting down a volcano.
You will attract attention.
Dimdims stick out. Unlike other places I've traveled, though, this didn't precipitate awkward situations of forced commerce, or 'hard sells.' Usually just waves. Kids were a little more curious, and they obviously knew the routine: shout "hello" and pose for a picture, either in adorable fashion as above, or something equally affected but more gangster -- body turned 90 degrees, arms crossed, head / eyebrows cocked. Easy way to make friends: show them the shot on your viewscreen after taking the pic. These kids are of the Yokoim tribe, in Kundiman #2 village, along the Karawari River.
No place on Earth is more culturally diverse.
Papua New Guinea is only slightly larger than California, but its people belong to 700+ tribes and speak 800+ mutually unintelligible languages. Each time you change location -- and even when you don't -- you bump up against a different culture with different traditions. Pictured above are members of the Baining tribe, from Kainagunan village in East New Britain, during a fire dance. The ritual, now most often performed for tourists, functions as initiation for young men and features large papier-mache animal masks with secret identities. They dance around, through, and directly on the fire, kicking showers of live embers into the encircling crowd (which on this night included 7 dimdims, 2 guides, and 50-80 locals).
The ground beneath you is moving.
Located on the Pacific Ring of Fire, PNG possesses many active volcanoes. Pictured at right is Tavurvur, one that blew in 1994 and covered nearby Rabaul in a thick layer of ash that, after a few days, collapsed the roofs of most of the city's buildings. The once provincial capital is still inhabited, but all administrative functions and a large portion of the population have been relocated down the coast to Kokopo. At left are seismic monitoring devices at the Rabaul Volcano Observatory, which sits on a ridge north of town and collects data from multiple stations in the region. Note: Requests to take archived seismograph paper home as souvenirs were not granted.
Most people chew buai.
Buai is the local name for betel nut -- or, more accurately, areca nut, since the chewing protocol in PNG doesn't make use of the betel leaf as cultures in Southeast Asia do. In this variation, you extract the nut from its husk with your teeth and chew its fibrous mass into a paste, keeping it confined to one side of your mouth (for ease of spitting later). Next, dip a piece of mustard plant (daka) into slaked lime (kambang), achieving a light coating, and pop this into your mouth, positioning it with your tongue on top of the nut paste. Chew and spit, until your saliva goes crimson. This is an even surer, if higher-commitment, method of making friends in PNG. My experience was similar to the first time I chewed tobacco -- flushed face, jittery limbs, and un-ignorable nausea. I also irritated my mouth as a result of overuse of lime and the chemical reaction it causes in conjunction with the mustard. But for 10 minutes, I was a village celebrity. Note: Habitual use is known to cause oral cancer.
Both images above courtesy of Jake Warga. All rights reserved.
Significant WWII action went down here.
The Japanese invaded in early 1942 and captured Rabaul around the same time they kicked the British out of Singapore. Via conscripted local labor, they dug tunnels into the surrounding East New Britain hills to hide equipment and vessels, like the barge pictured above, from Allied bombers. Not too much later, PNG became the site of the first Japanese land battle loss, a major turning point in the war. When the invaders withdrew in 1945, they left these barges but stripped them of their engines.
You're in rainforest country.
American rain tree, yellow meat, strangler fig, palms -- coconut, areca, sago, oil -- breadfruit, red cedar... Everywhere we went, I tried to get a handle on what plant species I was looking at. Hard to do in the rainforest. This shot was taken looking up to the 80ft canopy over a 4WD road outside of Wagawaga, Milne Bay, on the way to Ulumani Treetops Rainforest Resort. The guy who runs the place, Warren Dipole, is an excellent source of information on the wildlife, plant life, and traditions of the area and its people.
Your trip is what you make it.
Want to spend a week traveling up the Sepik River by motorized canoe, sleeping in village huts and crapping in pit toliets along the way? You can make it happen. Feel like hiking to the local swimming hole to dive off rocks into six feet of water? The village kids will be happy to show you how it's done, even if you end up chickening out. This is not the US -- don't expect the hand rails and insurance waivers of home. Find what you want to do, know your limits, and go for it.
You'll want to get on the water.
While 80% of PNG's land area is accounted for by the mainland (itself considered an island), the country comprises hundreds of smaller islands and atolls. Boat travel is a fact of life, and for many areas it provides the only means of human access. Image left is from a quick sea kayak paddle over the house reef at Tawali Resort. To the right is Jackson again, with the boat shored up on Little Pigeon Island (fun little snorkel spot), looking back at a storm building over the Baining Mountains behind Kokopo.
You'll ponder 'cultural authenticity.'
This is a singsing -- a ritual of singing, drumming, and dancing -- of the Karim of Yimas #2 village. Singsing-ing or not, village inhabitants in the Sepik dress in this traditional fashion when they know tourists are visiting. But it's not how they live day-to-day -- normally, they wear Western-style t-shirts, shorts, and flip flops. To analogize, I kept imagining how I'd feel if I visited an English home and its residents whipped out powdered wigs for my benefit. Paul Api, our guide from Karawari Lodge, explained that this is what tourists expect, that they want to see the 'traditional ways'...and in PNG, tourism is a key source of GDP. What are the implications here? I have no answers.
You might be flying almost every day.
If you're not on a boat, you're probably on a plane -- there just aren't many roads in PNG. A couple helicopter pilots we met in Mt. Hagen told us that, while tourists get pumped up about flying in a single-prop plane or a chopper, people from PNG are "more excited about riding in a car." You will likely become far more familiar than you'd prefer with the domestic terminal in Port Moresby (top pic) -- all flights connect through the capital, and delays are common. If you're on a long trip, it might be worth looking into some sort of frequent flier account. Note: Air Niugini flights can earn you miles on Qantas.
Some caves are filled with skulls.
As recently as two or three generations ago in some areas, intertribal conflict was common. A warrior party might go out, execute a hit on a neighboring tribe, kill a handful, return with the bodies, eat them, and keep the skulls in a cave or "men's house" as an account of the deed. This cache was in a cave on the coast west of Tawali, among villages of the Hihiyaola people. Cannibalism only exists in stories now, the skull caves serving as valuable tourist attractions, but when murders are committed today, it's often along tribal lines.
Travel at the top is very comfortable.
We were mainly doing the luxury thing, staying at properties like Karawari Lodge ($600/night double occupancy), Kokopo Beach ($221/night), and Tawali Resort ($340/night double occ). (Scenes from the first two, respectively, are pictured above.) At the other end of the price spectrum are basic village guesthouses, which you can arrange through villagehuts.com. In general, though, PNG is an expensive place to travel. For more ideas on how to save, check out 6 budget travel tips for Papua New Guinea.
You should take time to appreciate where you are.
In this case, looking over Goodenough Bay from the deck of Tawali Resort post-dive / snorkel session. It took me 30 hours of travel time to get from Texas to PNG, and 50 to get home. I'd go back in a second.