A country with over 850 languages. A country with hundreds, maybe thousands of ethnic groups. A country of both fast paced modernization and tribes who still live in the same way before colonization. White sand beaches. Unexplored jungle. Birds of paradise. Elaborate native dress. If those words don’t stir a bit of adventurous feeling in you then I don’t know what will.
Papua New Guinea has always fascinated me. And terrified me. Tales abound about the crime and danger in the country, especially in the main city of Port Moresby. I have crossed mine fields in Laos. I have crossed a UN disputed border. I’ve set off firecrackers that look like grenades in Kosovo. (All actually extremely safe activities, but to non-traveller friends give me incredible street cred.) But PNG? Nah. I knew I was out of my depth.
So I threw off my backpacker roots. I swapped my backpack covered in patches and dirt that just won’t wash off, and dug out a bright pink suitcase (no, I did not select that colour, thank you very much. It was a gift), and headed off on a cruise ship tour of PNG.
I’ll talk about the boat in another post. Because indeed, the boat was fantastic, and several steps above the boat from my previous cruise. I could spend a whole blog post going on about the boat. But today I’m talking about PNG.
We had six shore days during our 13 night cruise. Each one completely different from the last. Each one in a new region, with a new language, a new ethnic group, new costumes, dances, and cultures, new art forms, new and different and amazing things to buy (more on that in another post too). There was no “more of the same” on this cruise. Our six stops were well selected and showcased some of the best of PNG. Often, the spots we visited were remote or difficult to get to. I often remarked to Kaelah and Holly that it would have been an insane effort and trek to get to these places by traditional travel means. But by the cruise ship… ease and luxury.
Our stops were, in order; Alotau, Madang, Wewak, Rabual, Kitirimiti, Doni Island. I’ll speak on each in turn.
Our first stop is in the busy little town of Alotau. This was one of the places where women are advised it is best to dress modestly. There is an airport in Alotau, which will soon offer direct flights from Australia, giving the more independent traveller a way to bypass the capital of Port Moresby. I opted to do a shore tour in Alotau and was whisked off to a local hotel to learn how to cook traditional Papua New Guinean food. We created a traditional clay pot, and despite all the ingredients being layered in a large pot, it actually takes a lot of time and effort to produce. We broke off into teams who hollowed up green plantains, scraped coconuts, and prepared all the leafy greens. It was a certain team effort. The food is delicious and starchy, I can’t imagine keeping my figure for long if I lived off this stuff!
The town is easy to walk around. There are a few cafes with little waterfront bars. We stopped in one which also offered a gift shop. It was the only Western style gift shop I saw in all our stops in PNG and is the only place where you can buy novelty PNG themed pop art tea towels – one of the many necessities of life.
Madang was once known as the prettiest town in the Pacific. There is some excellent scuba diving in the area, which is what attracts most tourists. I opted for another shore tour in this location and attended the “Madang Festival.” It wasn’t an actual festival, but rather a sing sing put on for the arrival of the cruise ship. We were all ferried to a large park owned by a hotel where dancing groups from all over PNG, representing the largest and most diverse group of cultures I have ever seen gathered in one location, showed off some of their traditional music and dance. It was a hot day, and Jake was still not acclimatized, which stunted his normal curiosity and fearlessness. He wasn’t too impressed when all the ladies and girls wanted to pinch his cheeks and put their costumes on him.
Wewak is the gateway to the Sepik region and a lot of independent travellers come here before striking out on grand adventures. The town doesn’t have much to it, but there is a lovely beach just a short walk from where the cruise ship tenders dock. Being the gateway to the highlands, Wewak had some of the most interesting traditional costumes and dancing performers who came to meet the boat. One group had people dressed as giant crocodiles, while another group had this guy…. he was my favourite.
We ended up spending most of our time in Wewak relaxing on the beach. Local highland tribes had also come down the Sepik river for the arrival of the cruise ship and had set up a very large market along the road leading to the beach. Some of my most interesting purchases came from Wewak.
Rabaul was once a thriving town, until the volcanic eruption of Tavurvur in 1994 which destroyed much of the town. Since then, the administrative capital of the region has been moved to nearby Kokopo, while Rabaul is slowly rebuilt. Rebuilding efforts are slow going, as there is always the threat of another eruption in the area.
Other than volcanos, Rabaul also offers a plethora of Japanese war relics and war history. There are tunnels dug in the mountains, and abandoned war equipment around the town.
Popular shore tours on offer were the volcano tour and the war history tour. We took the volcano tour which was well worth the investment as the points of interest were spaced apart and too far to walk to on your own. We visited the volcano observatory, the volcano and hot springs, and a few Japanese war sites. Everywhere we went were locals selling crafts and little souvenirs.
Rabaul was also the only place during our stops where local tour operators were set up outside the cruise ship disembarkation point offering their own versions of tours. We could have potentially saved a mint if we took a local guide, but we were not aware of this option prior. However, our guide was absolutely fantastic and the wealth of knowledge he provided was certainly worth it.
Kiriwina Island was one of my favourite stops and the best place for shopping on the entire cruise. In fact, I will soon publish a shopping guide, so stay tuned for that. The island here is stunning and the coral reef offers great snorkelling.
the incoming tide was quite strong, so local children in small dug out canoes would ferry people out to the edge of the reef so they could snorkel back to shore with the current for just a few kina. While I didn’t go snorkelling, just a ride in one of those little boats would have been an adventure. The beach here is very rough and full of dead coral. It is impossible to walk along the beach without pain, and I highly, highly recommend water shoes to protect your feet.
Doini Island is a privately owned island with a small local village and a resort. Here was the nicest beach that we came across on our journey. The island is small and easy to walk around. Local villages had set up a market and school children danced in traditional costume in exchange for donations to their school. For a last spot, this was the most relaxing, and a great way to end our PNG adventure.