A visit to… Papua New Guinea

| December 16, 2015

In spite of knowing where it is, the notion that Papua New Guinea (PNG) is ‘just the other side of Singapore’ is erroneous. It is a 7-hour flight from there, and only just north of Queensland, Australia. There are regular flights on Air Niugini, from Singapore and Hong Kong and it is a friendly and, in our experience, efficient airline.


There are very few roads, which means that to get to most places you have to go by air, with some travel on scheduled airlines and, to get to the more obscure places, on small charter planes, such as 8-seater PACs. The smaller landing strips are often spectacular, and can be a bit of a white knuckle ride, but the pilots are all superb – and it is said that if you have been a pilot in PNG you can get a job as a pilot anywhere else in the world!

The terrain wherever you are in PNG is difficult; from the steep mountains of the central ridge, to the swamps in the south-west and the sea-level jungles in the north around the Sepik river basin. This would seem to be the reason for the multiplicity of languages (in excess of 800): people in one valley would have had extreme difficulty in meeting people in the next. This, along with the tradition of inter-tribal warfare (though now largely eradicated), kept groups of people isolated from one another.


For example, in the valley where the Mud Men live there are four separate languages in an area of 20 sq km, with three of the four mutually incomprehensible. Nowadays, the communication problem is overcome by the lingua franca of Pijin, to which one begins to get attuned by the end of one’s stay. And although we never tried to speak it ourselves, we were pretty good at the safety instructions on aircraft by the time we left, and the PNG Pijin newspaper WANTOK (out on Wednesdays), is a real brain teaser for those with linguistic inclinations.

We arrived in the capital, Port Moresby, from Hong Kong at 5am; and were on an internal flight to Goroka by 8am. This is a highland town with a good hotel and a pleasant climate, though you often need a sweater in the evenings. The town is the base from which you go out to visit various villages, where often you are entertained to local dances. The highlight for us was the Mud Men dance. Each village tends to have its own special dance, in which all the villagers are trained, and they are not just for tourists. The Mud Men dance commemorates how the village saw off a neighbouring tribe that tried to conquer them. Each person has a grotesque mask of dried mud (not fired) and these can weigh up to 15kg each. The dance is impressively choreographed and executed.


One of the frustrating aspects of travel in PNG is that the internal airlines do not have any route / ticket sharing. To get from Goroka to Mt Hagen, our next stop, involved going back to Port Moresby and then back past Goroka, (instead of a short hop of 35 minutes over the mountains), resulting in the loss of most of a day, and from there to Tari, and to Ambua Lodge.


This lodge is situated high up in the mountains, at around 7000ft, overlooking the Tari valley and surrounded by forest. Each hut has a panoramic view, and a full moon while we were there created a beautiful moment. There were two highlights to this part of the trip.

One was the wig makers’ school that helps to supply wigs for the ritual dress in the area. This would not normally be cause for comment (we have wig makers in London), were it not for the fact that the wigs are grown on the heads of the attendees of the school over a period of 18 months, at which point they are shaved off, and either sold as is or amalgamated with another to make bigger, more fancy wigs. However, there are rituals and prohibitions, including celibacy for the attendees, one of whom was in the process of making his fifth wig, and evidently regarded it as a better way to make a living than actually having to work!

The second is that at the Ambua Lodge you are in prime birdwatching country, since you are in Karawari area (see below). You don’t have to do more than step outside the door of your room to see really exotic species. Plus, trips by road further up the mountain up to a 9,000ft pass reveals birds of paradise, parrots, sicklebills and a plethora of others – including an island thrush, which looks just like an English blackbird and seems out of place in such an exotic location. Most importantly you have two world-class bird experts at the lodge; Joseph Tano, who is in the credits of a book published last year, Birds of New Guinea, and Stephen, whose family name we never discovered. Between them they showed us a large variety of birds which would have been difficult to see and identify on our own.

We left the highlands of Ambua, with temperatures of 6C, and arrived at our next destination in the lowlands of Karawari. Sitting at sea level it is surrounded by jungle with 95% humidity and temperatures of 35C. The plane trip of about 50 minutes used the hotel’s airstrip, which is on a steep slope, and makes for dramatic, but perfectly safe take-offs and landings. The trip took us over the huge mine at Porgera, one of several gold mines in PNG that also has big deposits of copper and other minerals, as well as liquid natural gas.


Set above the Karawari river, the Karawari lodge has spectacular views and a resident, tame hornbill. He delights in following you around, and is particularly fond of shoe laces, which he investigates any time he can. Here we visited villages to learn more about sago – it being the principal source of carbohydrate for the locals. It must be said, it doesn’t taste any better than the nightmare dessert did at school, though the process of obtaining it is interesting. There is also excellent wood carving and basket weaving done in the area.


Again, we mainly concentrated on the birdlife, with huge varieties of parrots – from sulphur-crested cockatoos to minute pygmy parrots 3-4 inches long, as well as a lot of water birds. We had hoped to see mammals there, but this aspect is disappointing. There are many exotic mammals in PNG, but wherever there is dense population, they are hard to see, probably because they have been largely hunted out. There were no crocodiles in this bit of river, although we were assured that there are plenty both upstream and down.

The team at this lodge performs miracles of logistics and cooking, while many miles away from their nearest supply point. Many things come in by plane. The meals were excellent, and the excursions were taken by Chris Nick whose knowledge, not just about birds, is encyclopedic. The bird book had only just been published, and he was ecstatic that his name was in print in the credits. The highway here is the river, and the lodge has aluminium flat-bottomed boats to take you everywhere.


From this lodge onwards, we were really on our way home. The Airways Hotel in Port Moresby is good and has a spectacular restaurant on the top floor that looks over an old DC3 aircraft that is in the grounds, and beyond that the airport runway. Port Moresby is not particularly exciting, but has a good museum, and the views over the harbour are good. It is not a safe place to wander, so it needs to be regarded as a staging post to get to better things.

Our conclusion about PNG was that it is better to go there with a specific interest in mind as the main theme of the visit. Its history is limited, in the sense that there are no really interesting cultural remains, so visiting a cathedral is not an option as it would be in Europe. However, those things that are good in the country are exceptionally good. These include, obviously, ornithology, but also fishing, especially on Lake Murray, which, we were told, is the barramundi capital of the world. PNG is also very well known for its flora, especially orchids, which have been extensively sought out by commercial growers in the past. If you don’t go with a specific plan, you may end up seeing a lot of village dance troupes!

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