Once the domain of fearless National Geographic photojournalists, headhunters and god-fearing missionaries, Papua New Guinea is re-emerging as the ideal adventure destination. Can you visit this ‘land that time forgot’ in five-star luxury? Roderick Eime reckons you can.
Like fleeting shadows in the undergrowth, they moved silently and stealthily, occasionally stopping, half-hidden, to check the progress of our canoes along the narrow, mangrove-lined creek. Smeared head to toe with thick volcanic mud and just a tiara of mangrove leaves as camouflage, they were stalking us. Were they looking for an opportunity to ambush us or just satisfying their curiosity? My question would soon be answered.
Papua New Guinea is an untamed land with an equally wild reputation. Within the last century, first contact was still being made with remote tribes, while cannibals continued to eat their dinner guests. Ravaged by war and plundered by unscrupulous miners and governments, some say this wobbly democracy should be struck from the list for all sensible travellers. Yet here on True North, one of the world’s acclaimed expedition cruise ships, are worldly and wise travellers who could just as easily be sipping Burgundy somewhere in the south of France.
The handsome, fascinating people of PNG demonstrate warm, heartfelt generosity, with a deep respect for custom and tradition.
This land of magic and mysticism, exotic cultures, mind-boggling rituals and over 700 unique languages is just 100 nautical miles north of Australia. Looking past the gloomy headlines, visitors can find the true essence of the Melanesians on an enlightening journey such as North Star Cruises’ ‘New Adventures in Paradise’.
Beginning in the capital of New Ireland, Kavieng, the 11-day expedition among the islands and along the coastal fringe of the Solomon Sea visits volcano-ravaged Rabaul, the uninhabited Lusancay Islands, stunning Tufi, the D’Entrecasteaux Group, the Louisiades and finally, Milne Bay and its port of Alotau.
All the time, we are feted by handsome, fascinating people of warm, heartfelt generosity, with a deep respect for custom and tradition.
Shore visits from True North use the six aluminium, 150hp runabouts. These hi-tech ‘tinnies’ are more durable, faster and more versatile in tropical waters than the sometimes ponderous Zodiacs common on most of the world’s adventure cruisers. Landings are almost invariably ‘wet’ on the many tiny atolls and isolated beaches like Nimoa and Kimuta, so don’t pack your best Florsheims.
One of True North’s trump cards is the six-seat Eurocopter piloted by full-time aviator, Rob Colbert. Used for the trickier landings and extra special excursions, this asset really makes any expedition outstanding, and truly sets North Star Cruises’ offering apart from rivals in this arena.
You might think all this opulence is incongruous out here on the edge of civilisation, but a hot shower and crisp lager is just the ticket after a day on the baking sand or trekking in the steamy jungle. Hardcore adventure purists and Kokoda-trackers may want to bunk down with all the jungle has to offer, but we have the opportunity to retreat to supreme comfort at day’s end.
Meals aboard True North are at least equal to the highest standards aboard boutique adventure yachts anywhere. With the enforced barefoot cruising aboard True North, where all staff and guests are shoeless inside, it’s hard to call this ‘fine dining’, but head chef, Nik Flak, knows all about ‘hats’ from previous roles. He turns out what he likes to call “sustainable, organic and very Australian cuisine” using lots of locally sourced items like seafood, greens and root crops. As our barefoot staff serves delicate seafood, steak and poultry, there’s great wine too.
Scuba diving is a big part of any True North expedition into these glorious tropical waters and there is every opportunity for PADI-certified divers to explore the pristine reefs and corals that make PNG one of the world’s top diving spots. Dr Andy Lewis, one of Australia’s foremost marine biologists in the field is there every step of the way, helping us unravel the mysteries of these remote waters while first officer and divemaster Simon ‘Simmo’ Benneworth keeps an eye on the whole operation.
Rabaul, at the tip of New Britain, is intermittently the jewel of the district: perfect Simpson Harbour and glorious Blanche Bay framed by a magnificent but volatile mountainscape are but a scant indicator of its tumultuous past. Once a perfectly manicured German colonial town, Australia’s first job in World War One was to evict the Germans from Papua – and Rabaul was one of their objectives. The task was completed by September 1914, but not without loss. Somewhere in Rabaul Harbour, or nearby, lies the wreck of submarine AE-1 and her 35 crew. Rabaul’s violent history continued into World War Two, where the entire town was turned into a fortified base for the Japanese Imperial Army and Navy. Relics and artefacts can still be seen all over the town, including two aircraft wrecks at the old airport slowly disappearing under a carpet of ash.
The haughty exclusivity aboard True North, I’m pleased to report, does not equate to callous disregard for the less privileged people of Papua New Guinea. While generally happy and healthy thanks to an abundant diet of fresh vegetables and seafood, there are the privations of island life to contend with. Medical and school supplies, for example, must make a long journey to reach these outposts, often passing through many hands. This is where expedition cruising can assist by bringing educational materials, books, clothing, simple medicines and first aid supplies. Bypassing the convoluted distribution chain ensures communities receive valuable resources – and every passenger can help by filling their spare luggage space with inexpensive donations, and refilling it again with exquisite art, carvings and souvenirs. ‘Giving back’ is fast becoming the hallmark of expedition cruising.
Back in the silent swamp, our masalei (spirit) followers continue to monitor our journey. The heavily laden canoes still glide effortlessly along the still waters, just metres from the densely wooded embankments. Now our pursuers reveal themselves in spectacular fashion. Leaping out from behind huge trees, they bring our party to a halt with incomprehensible, blood-curdling cries.
From hidden vantage points within the undergrowth saplings are hurled at us, some bouncing menacingly off the side of the canoes. Several anxious gasps of alarm are clearly heard from several passengers and muffled chatter comes from others as we try to interpret their apparently hostile intentions.
The traditional challenge, thankfully, is all part of the show put on for us today by the Tufi villagers. Once, strangers would be challenged and encouraged to state their purpose – whether friendly or hostile. Our passivity established, we are welcomed by Anthony, the local chief, dressed in the stunning costume that makes Tufi one of the most spectacular cultural experiences in the country. Set amid stunning tropical fjords, Tufi is only accessible by air or sea and is renowned for its diving, trekking and rare orchids. For the next hour we are feted like visiting royalty, shown the convoluted process of sago extraction, ritual tattooing and treated to local ballads performed by a tiny choir of children with the voices of angels.
“Thank you for visiting our village,” says Anthony with an earnest, almost sorrowful look as the experience comes to a close, “we all hope you come back again soon. Once upon a time, we are so happy to see you, we make sure you stay – we eat you up!” And with that delivery he reels back in raucous laughter slapping his bright orange tummy, his betel nut-stained teeth exaggerating his mirth.
Preserving and encouraging local tradition and culture is important in expedition cruising, but for once I’m content that this sacred ritual is discussed in the past tense. Clutching a gorgeous ebony carving delicately inlaid with mother-of pearl, I doze off momentarily to the drone of the outboard motor dreaming of centuries-old rites and rituals. Then back aboard, I’m ready for that beer!
New Adventures in Paradise Cairns / Kavieng – Alotau / Cairns Departing 3 December 2014 and 2015. Returning 13 December. Eleven days aboard True North. Charter flight connections included in fare plus all meals, accommodation and excursions aboard True North. Helicopter flights are extra. A full four-hour, six-flight package is available for $3,160 but single flights can also be purchased depending on space. Diving is available for PADI-certified divers and occasionally for beginners depending on demand and duties of divemaster. Tanks and belts are supplied and limited equipment is now available for hire. Rates for 2014 departure start at $15,696 per person in an Ocean class cabin.
Sepik Soiree Cairns / Kavieng – Madang / Cairns (Or Reverse) Departing November 11 returning November 22, and second schedule departing November 22 returning December 3. Twelve days aboard True North. Explore the remote Admiralty Islands, snorkel and dive pristine areas of coral that are rarely visited and encounter the mysterious Sepik River.*
Archipelago Adventure Cairns / Alotau – Louisiade Archipelago – Alotau / Cairns Departing December 13 2014. Returning December 18. The Louisiade Archipelago is one of the great island arcs of the South Pacific, stretching some 400 kilometres along the northern rim of the Coral Sea. A wonderland of hundreds of islands, lagoons, and extensive barrier reefs, this remote area is the home of the seafaring Dobu people, and is rarely seen by outsiders. With some of the best diving, snorkelling and fishing to be found in PNG, our Archipelago Adventure is an action-packed five-day voyage designed to satisfy the most discerning tropical explorers.*
*Return charter flights ex Cairns are included in the cruise tariff. This itinerary is provided as example only – prevailing conditions and local arrangements may cause variation. Helicopter flights can be purchased additional to the cruise tariff as a package or individually.