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The many faces of Papua New Guinea

Article by Maria Visconti / Source: Travel there next

Have you ever been in a plane where it is all one class – business class – and  there are twice as many seats as there are passengers? Where champagne flows and delicious titbits arrive periodically? What if I tell you that this flight will take you to your luxury yacht where the staff to passenger ratio is almost one-to-one?  Tempted?

I am on a chartered flight from Cairns to Madang where the True North is berthed ready to take us on an exploratory cruise of the Bismarck Archipelago in Papua New Guinea. The staff are flying with us and so is Craig Howson the owner, a congenial yachtie from Western Australia who goes about like any other passenger. Sighting the True North, our home for the next 10 days is exciting. As we go up the gangway expectations rise. We are asked to remove our shoes before we go inside the main common area, which is stunning but understated, more of an upmarket, designer living room than that of a luxury vessel. This is an intimate, light-filled space, all white carpets and soft cushiony sofas.

During the course of this trip I discover the amazingly laid back feel of this luxury yacht. Life onboard is so laid back it’s horizontal. There is a no-shoes policy onboard; staterooms have no keys (you can lock them from inside for privacy); there are no safety boxes. The bridge is open at all times and you are encouraged to come and say g’day. Where on earth can you find the same conditions? This is Paradise -not yet lost. There are a couple of professional photographers onboard and all other passengers have piles of electronic equipment lying on beds or outside decks ready to go. There is total trust; a no-worries feel to the whole experience. Very Australian. The open cabin door policy allows light from the oversized windows to fill the main corridor with natural brilliance.

The back deck is full of diving equipment, bins for storing fins, masks and anything wet. Two hot showers provide a chance to get salt off your body suit and hair before going in. There are disinfection areas to clean your reef shoes and avoid contaminating the ship.

Dr Andy Lewis is the marine biologist onboard, a keen diver and photographer who summarises the day’s finds and clarifies the mysteries of this watery world. He is first in and last out of the ocean, his sleek body taking in the dynamic lines of his beloved dolphins and fish. There are morning and afternoon sorties of several kinds including not only dives and snorkelling trips but fishing and cultural visits. Life starts early and it is all go till lunch, which is an affair to look forward to, superbly executed and presented by Chef Andy Tonge. This is no continuous buffet affair or ‘eating till you die’ cruise. The menu is restraint, healthy and modern. Dinner is a wondrous three-course affair and although many dress up a bit, the no-shoes policy makes for a quirky twist.

The True North is so agile that it takes us 70Km up the Sepik River to visit a remote village where the rite of scarification still takes place. This place is so inaccessible that we also need to board the ship’s helicopter for another 45 minutes and then a dugout canoe with an outboard motor for an extra half hour to get there. The single-engine Eurocopter 130 B4 has a huge cabin with panoramic windows taking 6 passengers in air-conditioned comfort.

In the relative darkness of the Spirit House several young men sit on low stools around a straw crocodile swinging from the rafters. Their backs are swollen and angry with scarifications in a crocodile’s skin pattern. Similar scars surround their nipples, arms and legs. Clay slurry applied liberally acts as an antiseptic. Swirls of smoke keep insects away from their weeping wounds. This is a centuries old initiation ritual recently revived in the village of Yetchen.

Australian born and PNG raised Simon Tewson is our link to this isolated regions. He speaks fluent pigin and personally knows the elders in charge. His invaluable contribution makes our visits to villages and school projects all the more enjoyable. One such experience takes places at the Ponam Island School where records reveal student grades have climbed up by 40% since last year’s promise by True North to reward the eight best performing students with a helicopter ride. Big smiles with a hint of bragging illuminate the flyer’s faces on their return. We are privileged to be the ones to deliver this promise. There are no roads on these islands and no cars. No TV either. Islanders live in a virtual cashless society getting by subsistence farming and bartering for most of their needs.

When Kylie, a lanky teenager from Luf Island, shyly asks us “What attracts you to PNG?” we find it a hard question to answer without sounding patronising or banal. The fine balance between voyeurism – even if of the cultural kind – and a genuine desire to experience other cultures is addressed by Captain Greg Dunn: “We come to learn about your culture” – he tells her. “Why are you so interested in making fire with sticks when you have lighters?” puzzled locals often ask. Yes, it is hard. How could we possibly explain the concept of ‘holidays’? Most people in the world don’t know what that means. Explaining we pay thousands of dollars to come and see a village sing sing will seem absurd to them.

We sail on the eerie waters of a volcano’s ancient caldera; buy giant prawns from local fishermen whose brand of Christianity forbids them their consumption and dive among WWII shipwrecks. The onboard chopper flies us over live volcanos and over strings of small islands shining like pearls on a turquoise ocean.

This is a sophisticated, understated Australian enterprise with an efficient all-Australian crew of 20 who deliver service to the maximum capacity of 36 passengers with a contagious sense of humour.

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