by Michael Kerr, The Telegraph, November 20, 2017
There are hard and soft ways of seeing Papua New Guinea. For the first, follow the lead of explorer Benedict Allen, divest yourself of all modern technology, and hack your way in. He should soon be on his way home after his abortive attempt to renew contact with the Yaifo, whose cloudforest community is the most remote in the country. On Thursday, he was spotted “safe, well and healthy” near a remote airstrip – though there have also been suggestions that he had become disorientated as a result of catching malaria.
That won’t deter him. This is a man, after all, who on a previous expedition joined the locals in an initiation rite for those entering adulthood, allowing himself to be repeatedly cut with bamboo blades to leave scars that looked like crocodile scales. But you don’t have to go to those lengths, or even far into the interior, to have Papua New Guinea leave its mark on you. You could try the soft way, on a cruise.
This steamy outpost of the Commonwealth, just south of the equator and 100 miles north of Australia, is a country of rainforest-covered mountain ranges, limestone canyons and endless swamps embracing giant rivers. Until recently that rugged terrain walled off tribe from tribe – which is one reason why, in a population of 7.3 million, there’s a babble of 800 indigenous tongues, and a variety of costumes that would fill the V&A. In the interior, there are many who live by hunting (no longer for heads) who still don’t have much call for the lingua franca of pidgin English, or Tok Pisin.
On the coast, though, people are becoming accustomed to greeting the vessels of companies such as Coral Expeditions, an Australian firm that has been sending cruises round the islands for a decade. Even the places Coral visits see a ship only once or twice a year, however, so our arrival on Oceanic Discoverer at our first stop — Garove, in the Witu Island group in West New Britain Province — was a big event.
Not quite as big, though, as the arrival of Our Lady of Fatima, with whom we shared the billing. When we landed, cameras fogged by the sudden move from ship to shore, we learned that the locals — with hundreds from nearby villages — had been up all night celebrating their brief custodianship of a statue of Our Lady, which had arrived the previous day by boat and would be leaving later by helicopter.
While we waited with them for the chopper, we were entertained – by a dance group in plumage that would have startled a peacock, by mini-choirs singing spirituals from an exercise book, and by three men wearing shorts under grass skirts, one whacking the other two on the arms and legs with a whippy cane. “Not sure if this bit is something I should really be clapping,” said one Aussie.
Then down came the chopper, blasting dust over a sports ground that was already short of topsoil. There was a rush, as everyone turned to the church, then a hush as the statue was borne in procession to the aircraft and settled on board by a priest, before heading off to the next stop on her pilgrimage.
We returned to the Oceanic Discoverer to continue on ours, pursued by a flotilla of little boys in hollowed-out canoes. They spent the afternoon cavorting like dolphins from a platform at the stern, diving and jumping off the shoulders of Jack, one of the youngest crew members at 19. It was hard to say who had more fun, him or the kids.
That visit set a pattern. We’d raise our cabin blinds in the morning to see densely forested volcanic islands shouldering from the sea or, now and again, one of those sandy outcrops with nodding palms on which cartoonists dump their castaways. We’d come ashore from the ship on its tender, the Xplorer, or – at the shallowest, rockiest spots – on zodiac inflatables. There would be a reception committee of some kind (at Kuiawa, in the Trobriand Islands, it was 60 children in traditional dress, each with a little hand held out to be shaken or raised up for a high five); words of welcome, often in English, from a head man; the presentation, courtesy of Coral Expeditions and its passengers, of a stationery pack for the local school; a performance of songs or dance or both; and, finally, a stroll into the village of stilted houses to chat to the locals, and a stroll back through pop-up stalls of carvings, necklaces, fabrics and bilums, the handmade string bags in which the people of PNG carry everything from yams to babies.
Each community we visited had its own style of headdress, face and body painting and ornament. But there were constants, too. One was the hourglass-shaped kundu drum, with its membrane of snake or lizard skin, that features on Papua New Guinea’s coat of arms. Another was the unauthorised, four-legged performer sneaking in from stage right or left just as camera shutters were clicking: “The Ubiquitous Dog”, as our tour leader, Steve, called it.
Our passenger list of 36 (half the ship’s capacity) included retired but far from retiring Australians and two American couples. Among the Aussies was Victor, from Sydney, who had been a prisoner of the Japanese in Singapore during the Second World War and who, at 95, was determined to get out and about as much as possible. The purser, Sasha, asked him what was the secret of long life. “Bombay rum and wild women,” he answered. “But I haven’t found many wild women on your ship.”
We did, though, encounter a few wildish men. At McLaren Harbour, in Oro Province, where we woke to Norwegian fjords-in-a-jungle, we were transferred to shore in a flotilla of outrigger canoes, sitting on platforms amidships while paddlers in tribal dress (who’d swap it for T-shirts and shorts as soon as we’d gone) did the hard work at bow and stern. After an initial outburst of “oohs” and “aahs”, there was nothing but the sound of paddles, birds and insects, as we were carried through swamps of mangrove and nipa palms. When the channel ran out, in a grove of pandanus forming arches like a cathedral cloister, we wobbled off the platforms and on to a path towards the village.
It was there we were “ambushed” by three spear-wielding warriors. Their leader, crimson-tongued and with a mane of wood shavings, demanded to know whether we were friends or foes. On being assured of our good intentions, he posed for photos, his menace slightly diminished when he revealed that his name was Brian.
On forays ashore, we got some sense of the immediate problems facing local people, most of whom depend on fishing and subsistence farming. Many areas hadn’t seen rain for months. The El Niño weather pattern had dried up rivers and frozen crops. Almost everywhere we stopped, people brought bottles, jerrycans and tanks to have them filled with fresh water from our ship’s supplies. At Kuiawa, one of the places suffering most, our crew dropped off a consignment of 20kg bags of rice.
On the ship, we were briefed on longer-term challenges facing the country, which has failed to meet any of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. PNG ranks 156th out of 187 countries in the UN Human Development Index, with infant mortality at 75 deaths per 1,000 live births, and a maternal mortality rate that has remained for a decade at about 733 deaths per 100,000 live births.
Our teach-in came from Alex Paira, a native of Papua New Guinea, who was once a banker and is now a tour consultant, and Carol Kidu – Dame Carol Kidu – who has not only had two careers but two lives. Born Carol Millwater into a working-class family in Brisbane, she fell in love at 16 with a young man from Papua New Guinea, Buri Kidu, who was on a scholarship in Australia but intent on a career back home. On finishing training as a teacher, she went with him. “I didn’t marry a man,” she told us. “I married his family, his clan and to some degree his village.”
She lived as women of the Motu people did, gardening, collecting firewood, harvesting shellfish, as well as teaching in a village school. Her husband, meanwhile, rose to become chief justice minister. After his death in 1993 of a heart attack, she decided to run for parliament – but not until family, clan and village had given their approval, the consultations including a visit to her husband’s grave so that the elders could sound him out on his view.
When she lost her voice on the hustings, her campaign team was convinced she had been the victim of sorcery, and insisted she appoint her own sorcerer to counteract the spell. Her voice returned, she won the seat of Moresby South, became minister for community development, and between 1997 and 2012 worked tirelessly to increase opportunities for women in PNG to enter political life.
Her husband hadn’t been a believer in sorcery, she said, but his mother had feared it, and it was undeniably a force in the life of Papua New Guinea; a force for conformity in a communal society. And the most powerful sorcerers of all were believed to be in the D’Entrecasteaux Islands, where we were headed next day.
Sorcery of a different kind seemed to be at work the following afternoon off Dobu Island, where we snorkelled over hydrothermal vents, gas bubbling up at us as if from the tanks of some invisible diver. Earlier we had explored the hot springs at Deidei, on Fergusson Island, following Owen Miki, a man who coordinates tourism, over rock terraces where geysers bubbled.
In the “cannibal times”, he told us with a grin, headhunters would cook their victims here. “When Christianity came, our lifestyle changed.” But other cooking endures, the locals as matter-of-fact with the holes as we are with the hobs on a cooker: this one is for boiling veg, that one’s for steaming. But they had bigger ambitions, he said. In a few years’ time, if the government could reach agreement with local landowners, this geothermal energy could be powering the port of Alotau, where our cruise was due to end.
Coral Expeditions (0061 1800 079 545; coralexpeditions.com) offers several cruises to Papua New Guinea, including a 12-night round-trip voyage from Cairns priced at £7,240 per person (excludes flights) booked through Discover the World (01737 214250; discovertheworld.co.uk). Sail on Coral Discoverer (departs Nov 5 2018) or the new ship Coral Adventurer (Nov 12 2019).
Return flights from London to Cairns with Cathay Pacific start at £757 (0800 917 8260; cathaypacific.com). A return flight from Cairns to Madang with Air Niugini costs from £548 per person (airniugini.com.pg).
Tourist visa free on arrival ( papuanewguinea.travel/uk ).
Further reading: Papua New Guinea & Solomon Islands (Lonely Planet); Throwim Way Leg: An Adventure by Tim Flannery (Penguin); and Notebooks from New Guinea by Vojtech Novotny (OUP).