Papua New Guinea: The South Pacific’s final frontier
Less well-known than other South Seas nations, and one of the last places in the world to open up to tourism, Papua New Guinea is unlike anywhere else on earth.
Papua New Guinea is an unbelievable melting pot of hundreds of different tribes, and there are some 800 distinctly different languages spoken by a population of just six million. Hence, New Guinea could be one of the most unusual places on the planet. And this uniqueness is reflected in the culture(s), geography and wildlife.
Low-lying swamplands, snow-covered mountains – almost unheard of in countries near the equator –lush rainforests and jungle all jostle for space, while several outlying islands are actually active volcanoes. The mighty Sepik River winds for 1126 km through the country and is one of the most pristine freshwater systems in the world, resulting in an abundance of wildlife.
Port Moresby is the capital and was named after Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby. Other major centres are Lae, the second largest city situated at the mouth of the Markham River; Madang, consisting of reef-fringed lowlands backed by some of the most rugged mountains in Papua New Guinea; the Eastern Highlands and the Western Highlands.
Port Moresby lies on the southeast shore of New Guinea and is built around Fairfax Harbour, the island’s largest harbour. As the city capital and administrative centre of Papua New Guinea, it has the greatest population density in the country.
Europeans became aware of this port city when British explorer John Moresby sailed through the Gulf of Papua in 1873. About 15 years later, Great Britain established the colony of British New Guinea, and named Port Moresby the capital. The area was occupied by Motu and Koitabu people for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.
Due to the rugged terrain, many parts of New Guinea were not ‘discovered’ by the Western world until the 1930s, and even today there are large areas of the country still waiting to be explored. Experts say many undiscovered species of plants and animals live in these areas, undisturbed by human intrusions.
But it’s not all about trekking through mountains and wildlife watching. There are plenty of deserted white-sand beaches were you can kick back and relax, and friendly villages where you can touch the tip of a culturally varied iceberg.
So, take a deep breath and plunge into this virtually unknown wonderland … and be prepared to expect the unexpected!
Did You Know?
- Pidgin is widely spoken, although English is the official language of education, government and business.
- Human remains found in PNG date back 50,000 years.
- More than 3000 different types of orchids grow here, more than anywhere else in the world.
- A land bridge once linked PNG with northern Australia and both countries have kangaroos and possums.
- The only known poisonous bird in the world is the hooded pitohui – pronounced ‘pit-oo-ey’ – of Papua, New Guinea. Thepitohui’s poison, similar to the toxin found in poison dart frogs, is concentrated in its skin and feathers.
How to Get Here
Jackson’s International Airport (POM) is the gateway of Papua New Guinea, and is situated about 8 km away from the main town centre of Port Moresby. Mt Hagen Provincial Airport has been declared an International Port of entry because of the mining activities around the Highland provinces.
Transportation from the airport to Port Moresby is limited.
Car rental agencies are available close to Jackson’s International but driving in Port Moresby, in fact throughout Papua New Guinea, might not be what most people are used to. It is recommended that you arrange transportation with your hotel from the airport to your hotel.
New Guinea Kina
The currency in Papua New Guinea is the Kina. It is best to exchange money upon arrival at at Jackson’s Airport or in banks.
Travellers cheques and international credit cards are accepted in major hotels and restaurants.
It is best to carry travellers cheques in either USF or Australian dollars. ATMs are scarce and do not always contain Kina. For locations of ATMs you can visit these VISA and MasterCard Web sites.
What will the seasonal weather be like?
Local geography creates a microclimate in Port Moresby. The rain shadow created by the nearby Owen Stanley Range means that the city receives less than 1,270 millimetres (50 inches) of precipitation per year, far less than the average rainfall on New Guinea Island.
The dry climate created leads to occasional drought and drinking-water shortages, but the mountains also shield the city from the heavy rains that regularly sweep across the rest of the region from May to November. With offshore protection provided by coral reefs, the rain shadow also helps to insulate the harbour from harsh weather approaching from the northwest.
The best time to visit is April or November, when it’s the least rainy and the trade winds blow. (April and November are actually the only two months that do not fall within one of the two monsoons) The northwest monsoon season lasts from December to March (the worst time to go), and the southeast monsoon runs from May to October. PNG is south of the equator, so when it’s summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s winter here. From April to November, the days are generally 27-37 C, with nights ranging between 21-26 C. It’s always warm and humid, with a chance of rain. The farther inland and higher in elevation you go, the cooler it will be, especially at night.
Geographical realities – a small and scattered population which is often isolated in mountain valleys and on tiny islands – means flying is a necessity. Unfortunately, it also means it is expensive. The main carrier is Air Niugini, with several small operators touching down at very small airstrips. Bookings are quite reliable as most systems are computerized.
The network of roads around the country remains limited, but Public Motor Vehicles (PMVs) are always at your beck and call. Essentially modified Japanese minibuses, PMVs are a cheap form of transport and pick up and drop off people at any point along a pre-established route.
Driving a car in the country (left side of the road please) requires a valid overseas licence but be forewarned: Some authorities suggest that if you are involved in an accident, keep driving and report the incident at the nearest police station. Because PNG has only one major road – the Highlands Highway – and a handful of secondary roads, renting a car is not recommended. However, it is possible in the major cities, although you’ll need a 4WD to get to many places of interest and prices are high. Although self-drive rental cars are available, it is not recommended that you drive on your own during your stay in PNG. The mountain roads are spectacular but treacherous, and most rural roads (except for the Highlands Highway) are unpaved.
A good form of transport is boat. Passenger ships, freighters, charters, outboard dinghies and canoes are inexpensive, though sometimes uncomfortable.
Outside Port Moresby, taxis are scarce. They’re often old, battered vehicles with questionable safety and hygiene standards, but they are inexpensive – just be sure to confirm your fare before you get in.
Arts Culture and Attractions What not to miss …
The Kuk Early Agricultural Site consists of 116 ha of swamps in the southern highlands of New Guinea, 1,500 metres above sea-level. Archaeological excavation has revealed the landscape to be one of wetland reclamation worked almost continuously for 7,000, and possibly for 10,000 years. It contains well-preserved archaeological remains demonstrating the technological leap which transformed plant exploitation to agriculture around 6,500 years ago. Kuk is one of the few places in the world where archaeological evidence suggests independent agricultural development and changes in agricultural practice over such a long period of time.
The three sections of the Papua New Guinea Museum and Art Gallery are home to thousands of artefacts, relics and artworks. The main museum and Modern History building are in Port Moresby, while the JK McCarthy Museum is in Goroka. They are all worth an hour or two to learn more about local history and culture.
PNG has some of the most varied flora and fauna in the world, and the National Botanic Gardens in Port Moresby are a must. Amongst an oasis of green in the dusty capital, you can walk beneath jungle vines, marvel at the contrast between the manicured gardens inside and the chaos outside, and view fascinating wildlife displays.
Stunning Parliament House is also not to be missed. Opened in 1984, it incorporates local designs and artworks for a truly unique effect. Three buildings create one structure linked by a sweeping roof that resembles a tribal mask. The aptly named Grand Hall is filled with huge masks and interesting display cases.
If you’re interested in World War II history, take the road from Port Moresby to Sogeri and visit the Bomana War Cemetery. A sobering reminder of PNG’s involvement in the war, it’s the final resting place for 4000 Australian, British and Papua New Guinean soldiers.
A region of soaring, mist-shrouded peaks, rugged terrain and dense rainforest, the Highlands in central PNG are a sight to behold. Vast areas remain unexplored even today, and some villages have little or no contact with the outside world. The scenic Highlands Highway links much of the area together, and among the jagged mountains and vibrant valleys are several bustling towns.
Unfortunately, tensions between rival tribes have resulted in travel warnings being issued about the area, but the situation changes constantly. Ask at the Visitors Bureau in Port Moresby for the latest information before making plans.
If you think you can face the challenge, trekking the Kokoda Track is an experience you’ll never forget. This treacherous 96 km trail through thick jungle across the Owen Stanley Ranges is steeped in history thanks to the heroic efforts of Australian armed forces who fought the Japanese along here during World War II. Many lives were lost through fighting, disease and starvation, and the track is now a popular pilgrimage for Australians, as well as a physical challenge for people from around the world. Locals – nicknamed Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels by the troops they helped – were just as important to the success of the mission as they provided much-needed food and carried wounded soldiers back down the track.
If you have the time, a trip to one of PNG’s beautiful islands is well worth the effort. New Britain, with its rich colonial history and string of rumbling volcanoes, and untouched New Ireland with its picture-perfect beaches and chilled-out town of Kavieng, are two of the more popular choices. It is possible to visit the others, but facilities are often few and far between. Beautiful Bougainville in the North Solomons Province is still being rebuilt after decades of civil unrest.
For a unique experience, head to the Trobriands. This handful of tiny low-lying islands just off the south east coast of the mainland is quite different to everywhere else in PNG. Few people speak English and even Pidgin is not common here, so it might be quite a challenge, but the islanders are some of the friendliest people around and famous for their culture and exquisite carvings. A highlight is signing up for a village stay. You can inquire at the Visitors Bureau in Port Moresby.
The attractive city of Madang on the northern coast of PNG is the most ‘touristy’ spot in the country and a favourite with divers for its coral gardens, superb visibility and numerous wrecks of ships from World War II. It’s also a pretty spot to sit back and enjoy the view of the sparkling tropical harbour dotted with tiny islands against a backdrop of impressive mountains covered in lush vegetation. Madang is well-serviced, with good hotels, fine restaurants, and a selection of shops and markets, and there’s even a golf course. Karkar and Long Islands float offshore. Both are volcanic and have active craters – Long last erupted in 1993, and 15-20 volcanic earthquakes each day, for a few days, were measured at Karkar in February this year. If you’re in town when a volcano erupts you should get some interesting snaps.
Don’t plan on upgrading your electronics or filling your bags with clothes and shoes in PNG. Even in the capital city shopping is pretty much limited to arts and crafts, and the selection here is often inferior to artworks offered elsewhere. If you are looking for local handicrafts in Port Moresby, head to the Ela Beach Craft Market. Here you’ll find all the carvings, paintings, masks and jewellery you could ever need. An added draw is the food stalls and traditional dance performances. It’s only held about once a month, so check locally for dates.
Most towns and cities in PNG have a market of some kind, whether limited to fresh foods snapped up by locals or a combination of food and handicraft stalls likely to interest visitors. Whether you’re looking to buy or not, the markets are a great place to see people from many different tribes going about their daily business, often wearing traditional dress. The sheer variety of languages and outfits is fascinating.
Papua New Guinea after dark …
Nightlife is pretty much non-existent in PNG. What little there may be is in and around around Port Moresby. Here you’ll find a (very) few clubs, ranging from rough and ready to more upmarket establishments in the hotels. In a country not exactly known for its cuisine, the hotels are also where you’re likely to find some of the better restaurants, although there are a few notable exceptions in the capital. Kai bars – takeaway joints – are a popular and inexpensive places to have a snack. If you want to enjoy a cold beer overlooking the harbour after a dusty day of sightseeing, try your luck at getting into the Royal Papua Yacht Club.
Almost everywhere else in PNG eating and drinking is limited to hotels and guesthouses, and in the most remote villages the place where you sleep will be where you eat. There’s not likely to be much choice on offer, so get ready to enjoy plenty of starchy root staples like sago, taro, yams and cooked bananas. If you’re by the water and very lucky, fresh fish might be on the menu – and possibly a beer to wash it down with while you watch the sunset.
If you’re living the life of luxury in one of PNG’s few top-end resorts, expect the usual selection of fine dining and drinking options as you would anywhere else.
Sports / Outdoor Adventure
If you’re looking for adventure, Papua New Guinea is where to find it. From the rugged hinterland to the relatively unexplored waters surrounding the country, PNG promises plenty of unforgettable experiences. Whether you choose to trek through dense jungle, raft down turbulent mountain rivers or dive the deep blue, you’re sure to barely scratch the surface of this wild place.
To rate Papua New Guinea as one of the world’s top dive sites is no exaggeration. An enormous variety of land based and live-aboard expeditions take advantage of the diversity of dive possibilities available in this secluded frontier.
Like many Pacific destinations, PNG has its fair share of mind-boggling marine life, and the wide range of dive sites available make for fascinating underwater forays. Barrier reefs, drop offs, sea grass beds, coral atolls and ship, aircraft and submarine wrecks from World War II ensure you’ll always see something new and interesting. One of the most astounding sights is found just off tiny Gona Bara Bara Island, which sits off the south eastern tip of PNG. Here you’ll find the Manta Ray Cleaning Station dive site. Watch in wonder as giant manta rays congregate near the coral, then position themselves vertically so tiny wrasse can clean them.
If trekking is your thing, PNG is the place. Apart from the famous Kokoda Track there are dozens of excellent hikes you can do throughout the country. For some you’ll need to hire a local guide to show you the way. Others you can tackle alone. Mt Wilhelm in the Highlands is the highest mountain in the country at 4,509m and a favourite with serious trekkers. On a clear day you can see both the north and south coasts of PNG from the top. The three-or-four day climb is hard work but not impossible. But you’ll need a guide. A couple of companies in town can arrange tours with porters and food, or let you know if it’s too dangerous to attempt right now.
Legacies of PNG’s colonial past are present in sports fields around the country, from cricket in the Trobiands complete with grass skirts, war paint and unlimited players to impromptu rugby and soccer matches elsewhere. Tag along and get caught up in the enthusiasm.
Local Customs and Etiquette
Due to the many different tribal communities that have remained relatively isolated from each other, and each with its own language and customs, it is difficult to define a single culture.
Hand shaking or hand clasping is common when you meet a local, unless they are a village chief, in which case anything but a bow is seen as disrespectful.
Any attempt at speaking Tok Pisin – the Melanesian Pidgin language that most people can understand – will be greatly appreciated.
Public displays of affection between couples are frowned upon. Although handholding between friends of the same sex is normal behaviour here.
Dress is informal and casual, although women should dress modestly.
Tipping is not customary or expected.
If you plan to photograph local people, ask permission first. Some will want money in exchange for the favour, and K20 is an average amount. And never photograph a spirit house without getting permission first.
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