As I venture across the phantasmagoric, topographies of Papua New Guinea (PNG), it amazes me that very few intrepid travellers scratch the surface of this huge island in the South Pacific. From completely deserted, tropical island paradise, to ash encrusted volcanoes, to villages camouflaged by dense primary rainforest, to colourful, lively tribal sing sings; there are so many amazing sights and sounds to experience.
The coastal town of Madang, where I live, juts out like a fist into the ocean and is surrounded by a scattering of off-shore islands; some dotted with small, wooden houses and smiling nationals and others desolate, being metamorphosed by the elements. The underwater world is a magical wonderland with sunken wrecks; diverse and bountiful coral reefs that explode out the ocean floor, blossoming with colour; and water teaming with creatures from schools of enormous pelagic fish, to playful dolphins jumping through the waves, and a myriad of brightly coloured fishes that dart before your eyes when you venture into the blissfully warm water.
The highlands villages are found among seemingly impenetrable, lush rainforest, with mountains peaking through the clouds that change in different light, and tellytubby hills tumbling down in ragged formations. The people and way of life is quite different to on the coast. Highlanders are shorter with wizened faces, men with beards and bush knives as standard, and women with eyes that tell countless stories. All appear fierce at first glance but with the introduction of a smile, that first impression melts with the all-familiar PNG smile.
And then there are the islands surrounding this huge country. East New Britain with its towering palm fronds, imposing volcanic landscape, chorus of cicadas lulling you to sleep, and beaming, smiley faces is yet another dimension to the PNG smorgasbord of spectacular panoramas. From coast to highlands, islands to underwater, it has a lot of the bases covered.
So why when I look around am I the only white meri (woman) in town? Well in the most part I put this down to cost. Long haul flights to PNG are eye wateringly expensive (from the UK it can cost in the region of £1,700 return) and it is a long way away from the South East Asian circuit so tagging on a visit isn’t really feasible. Whereas getting to Bali or Singapore is relatively cheap, taking the next leg into the capital and beyond is really pricey. This is predominantly because there is only one airline that flies into the country – Air Niugini. Once in Port Moresby, a place that doesn’t rate highly on any travellers wish list, you have to take another flight to get to paradise and again this is costly.
Road travel is pretty much out of the question, the few roads that are here rate as some of the worst I have ever been driven on, and long road trips can be dangerous particularly if you are a woman. And then you come to food and accommodation both of which are limited and pretty steep. In Madang there are just three restaurants, one attached to the nicest hotel in town and the other two next door to pretty ‘exclusive’ ex-pat drinking clubs, one of which boasts being ‘one of the number one clubs in the Pacific’! And PNG cuisine is based around simple, filling ingredients like kau kau (sweet potato) and taro so there is no local delicacy to whet your appetite with.
Unlike, other bustling Indonesian and Melanesian tourist destinations there is no real nightlife scene in PNG. This pretty much comes down to safety after dark. Most places are governed by daylight hours as many people live with no power, when it gets dark everyone is back at home so the once bustling streets and markets become like ghost towns and it gets increasingly unsafe. When you can party for 24 hours in Bangkok why would you want to come to PNG?
Well, the abundant wildlife, diverse scenery, tribal colourfulness, and intriguing people are just a couple of reasons to get past the early nights! It may not be the obvious answer but it is certainly not to be underestimated. But for now, I will enjoy this spectacular country in peace…