20 July 2019
Daily Mail – Max Davidson
An intrepid English explorer named Benedict Allen travelled so deep into Papua New Guinea to live among local tribesmen that he had to be airlifted out, weak with malaria, by a helicopter chartered by this paper.
That was only two years ago, a salient reminder that, well into the 21st century, there are regions of the planet that have barely been touched by Western civilisation.
Papua New Guinea, once fabled for its head-hunters, and still largely undeveloped, falls squarely into that category. And the good news is that you do not have to be a daredevil explorer to visit it.
A few enterprising travel companies – such as True North, an adventure cruise company based in Western Australia – offer trips to the more remote islands of the archipelago.
I boarded a True North cruise after meeting up with fellow passengers in Cairns, northern Queensland. And I was not prepared for the extraordinary riches that lay ahead.
The beauty of cruises, and the reason I never tire of them, is that they take you on voyages of discovery that would be difficult to replicate on land and, as often as not, in great style and excellent company. It is a beguiling cocktail and True North serves it with real aplomb.
We fly into the island of New Ireland in teeming rain, then set sail for the Duke of York Islands. It’s not long before the rugged beauty of the landscape, unchanged in millennia, has me under its spell.
One minute we’re passing under jagged limestone cliffs, the next we’re whipping out our cameras to capture perfect desert islands, strewn with coconuts.
‘Pretty special, isn’t it?’ says my new best mate, Robbo, from New South Wales. Retired Australians compose the bulk of the 30-strong passenger list and good-natured banter rings around the ship from dawn to dusk.
The True North herself is as sleek as the brochures promise, with a flotilla of tenders that take small groups of passengers snorkelling, diving or fishing.
It’s the fishing, where the competition is as fierce as in any Ashes Test, which captivates me.
I had thought my 20lb tuna would give me bragging rights, but it was dwarfed by Robbo’s humungous coral trout, Carole’s ferocious barracuda and Edwina’s 5 ft Spanish mackerel.
With freshly caught fish on the menu every day, the chef is in his element, turning our catch into a string of mouth-watering dishes. I have never eaten as well, or as healthily, on a cruise ship.
Mostly our ship hugs the shore as it cruises from island to island. But we venture inland a couple of times: hiking through the jungle to remote waterfalls and cathedral-like caves.
It’s not for the faint-hearted. I am admiring an absurdly large stick insect in the undergrowth when I spot a spider the size of a dinner plate eyeballing me from the tree above. Exit one sweaty Brit, nerves jangling.
The surroundings have an Eden-like quality, but it is our encounters with villagers that will live longest in the memory.
The official language is English, but there are at least 800 other languages, as well as the ubiquitous Tok Pisin, a glorious pick’n’mix pidgin in which ‘lookem you behind’ means ‘see you later’.
Most of the villages we visit are accessible only from the sea and have no electricity or running water. The villagers survive on a mixture of subsistence farming and fishing, venturing out to sea in hollowed-out canoes.
On some islands, tourism provides a useful revenue stream. The villagers don traditional dress, perform ceremonial dances and hawk wood carvings and woven baskets. On others, months pass without a visitor from the outside world.
In the beautiful Trobriand Islands, to the delight of this grizzled MCC member, the islanders play cricket, a bastardised version of the game they learned from Victorian missionaries. They challenge us to a match on a sandy pitch but we’re not prepared for the local rules.
When a batsman is bowled out, he must hop around like a scalded cat, while the fielding side surround him and perform a war dance. The hallowed ground of Lord’s suddenly seems a long way off.
On another island, we land just as the school is holding its end-of-year graduation. Pupils process to the open-air seating area, heads bowed, with garlands of flowers around their necks, while solemn music plays. There is an unaffected grace to the proceedings that brings a lump to the throat.
As we board the plane back to Australia, flying out across a dark carpet of rainforest, my head swims with images that will stay with me for years.
A huge pod of dolphins following our boat through the dawn mist. Mango trees groaning with enough fruit to feed a village. A kingfisher flitting along a river overhung with trees.
It has been the trip of a lifetime, to a land where time has stood thrillingly still. As they say in Pidgin, me hammanus true. I enjoyed it very much.