With primeval forest, rugged highlands and tropical reefs teeming with marine life, Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s last remaining wilderness areas. Still, the startling attractions of this island nation can be enjoyed in comfort. By Roderick Eime
BEAT IT Above: In Watam, East Sepik, villagers perform a welcome ritual incorporating a giant “dragon” Right: A Papuan hornbill
“They came from there,” said the village elder, gesturing toward the end of the valley. “We’d never seen such a thing.” “They” were the Leahy brothers, accompanied by their caravan of trackers and porters. And gold was on their radar. Nuggets of gold had been found across Papua New Guinea since the mid-19th century, but it wasn’t until 1926 that the great Edie Creek strike, near present-day Wau in the foothills of Mount Hagen, brought this wild land to the attention of the world. In 1930, Toowoomba lad Mick Leahy and fellow prospector Michael Dwyer began a series of prospecting trips into the interior of the country, beginning with the Ramu tributaries and culminating in the “discovery” of the ore-rich and fertile Wahgi Valley. In the Wahgi the Leahy brothers found gold, and lots of it. But Mick was also interested in documenting his interaction with the inhabitants of the countryside and, in addition to prospecting tools, he brought with him cameras. Sections of Leahy’s dusty 16-millimetre film – not to mention photographs – were recovered and restored, and a crew returned to the Wahgi Valley to find surviving members of his expeditions and villagers who remembered their first encounters with the explorers. “They say Mick had the gold fever,” recalled his brother Dan in the 1982 Academy Award-nominated
documentary First Contact, the result of Leahy’s filming efforts. “Well, we all had it.” While Bob Bates wasn’t around for the Leahy brothers’ visit, he appreciates the challenges they must have faced in exploring the rugged Central and Western Highlands. The Bates family have lived and worked in Papua New Guinea for more than 45 years, establishing Trans Niugini Tours to give visitors a taste of the country in relative
“Built entirely from local timbers, Karawari Lodge is popular among birdwatchers and nature lovers, but other than that it’s a private gem.”
PAPUAN PARADISE Clockwise from above: Karawari Lodge overlooks a lush river valley; PNG blooms with hundreds of varieties of orchids; the Mount Hagen area is home to the third-largest city in PNG
comfort. Their offerings now extend beyond their initial 4WD safaris and include aircraft charters, river cruises and wilderness lodges. Their newest lodge, Rondon Ridge, overlooks the entire Wahgi Valley, or so it seems. Spacious and kitted out with highland and Sepik art, the accommodation is also sensitive to the fragile environment it calls home: it’s powered by its own hydroelectricity plant and the kitchen serves organic salads and vegetables gathered from local market gardens. The freshly plucked avocadoes here are like nothing I’ve tasted before. The Wahgi Valley is the traditional
home of the Melpa people. I hear their distinct language being spoken in the villages and markets. At least I think I do – PNG has more languages than any other country in the world, a legacy of its millennia of isolation and the territorial nature of its many tribes. Even members of Leahy’s Papuan staff were unable to communicate with the Melpa when they first encountered them – everything was negotiated with sign and body language. Joseph, my driver and guide, takes me on a series of jaunts across the countryside, visiting villages, markets, gardens and attractions vacationsandtravelmag.com
such as Mount Kuta, where the Leahy brothers found much of their gold. “My father found a big nugget there for Mick,” recalls Joseph, pointing over to the river. Back at the lodge, Joseph offers to escort me on a tour along one of the walking trails that weave their way through the surrounding jungle. It’s secondary growth, apparently, regenerated after Australian loggers came through and cleared out all the old-growth oak and beech in the ’50s. Joseph shows me around the lodge’s orchid garden, protected from marauding pigs by a moat. The Bates tell me that, in the name of research, they hope to collect a specimen of every orchid that occurs in the valley – around 400 different types at last count. They’re about halfway there now, and have more than 90 species in the lodge’s own orchid garden. The rest of the highlands is equally diverse in its floral offerings, home to everything
from wild banana crops to endless fields of tea. It’s a different story altogether on the coast. I leave the remote highlands behind and fly – the roads in central PNG are hairy, if they exist at all – to Tufi Dive Resort, located at the tip of Cape Nelson, jutting into the Solomon Sea on the northern coast of the island. Formed by the eruption of three volcanoes, Cape Nelson is one of my favourite places on Earth. Visiting divers, cruise passengers and naturalists flock here to enjoy the sublime coastal panoramas; away from shore, the terrain transforms into lush tropical fjords, ideal for trekking. Needless to say, scuba diving is the main attraction in these parts. Tufi resort staff take me to explore reefs teeming with fish, hammerhead sharks and moray eels. For my second dive, I explore sunken wrecks from WWII and earlier. In the water
WE ARE FAMILY Left: A Family from Erma Village near Mount Hagen dressed in traditional costume Inset: Papua New Guinea is one of the world’s last remaining wilderness areas
TRANS NIUGINI TOURS is Papua New Guinea’s leading inbound tour operator. Trans Niugini Tours owns and operates a number of award winning Wilderness Lodges in Papua New Guinea. In addition, Trans Niugini Tours owns and operates mini-coaches in Port Moresby, the Highlands and Madang. In the Sepik and Western Province, we own and operate boats on the Sepik, Karawari and Bensbach Rivers. We also have our own aircraft which service these Lodges. At each of Trans Niugini Tours wilderness lodges are comprehensive cultural and ecological touring programs, which take you on a journey to unique cultures, over rugged landscapes and through amazing ecosystems. With over thirty years of operating in Papua New Guinea, you can be assured of a consistently high standard of service while with Trans Niugini Tours.
Email: email@example.com Phone: (+675) 542 1438 website: www.pngtours.com
Let Air Niugini show you the real Papua New Guinea.
TO THE POINT The accommodations at Karawari Lodge are among the country’s finest and take their design cues from traditional architecture
Virgin Australia offers flights from Sydney to Port Moresby. Direct flights are also available from Brisbane on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. 131-645; virginaustralia.com Air Niugini and Airlines PNG offer regular domestic connections. airniugini.com.pg and apng.com
whentogo The coastal regions of PNG experience a wet season between November and March; the highlands are less susceptible to these rains. The Mount Hagen Show is a cultural feast held every August.
wheretostay Trans Niugini Tours manages Rondon Ridge, Karawari Lodge and other retreats across the country. The company also organises air links and ground excursions. 675/542-1438; pngtours.com Tufi Dive Resort offers much more than underwater adventures. 675/323-3462; tufi-experience.com
furtherinformation The PNG Tourism Promotion Authority can assist with travel plans. pngtourism.org.pg
directly in front of the resort are two McHale’s Navy-style PT boats sunk during a wartime accident when the site was a forward naval base. Diving instructors have just uncovered a B25, twin-engine bomber that ditched in a very shallow 15 metres of water. Farther from shore is the famous B17 Flying Fortress, Black Jack, lying 45 metres below the surface in crystal-clear water. Flying west toward Irian Jaya (Indonesian Papua), I reach my final destination: Karawari Lodge, deep in the Karawari River valley and accessible only by private air link. This is wild Papua at its finest, home to tribes that cling to local superstitions and dark rites and produce some of the island’s most sought-after indigenous artwork: wooden carvings, woven goods, shell items and beadwork. My head still spins when I recall the hypnotic gyrations of mud- and ochre-smeared dancers at the remote village of Kambaramba, a day’s cruise along the deep, winding Sepik River.
Back at Karawari Lodge, also owned by the Bates family, I’m guaranteed peace and quiet. Built entirely from local timbers, the property is popular among ornithologists and nature-lovers but other than that, it’s a private gem. Still, staff members tell me that if the twitchers become too rowdy, I’m welcome to spend a night in one of the local villages… As I sit waiting for my flight home from busy Jackson International Airport (formerly Jackson Field, a once-busy wartime airfield), I find myself clutching the carvings and tapa cloth that I’ve purchased over the course of my travels. I’m hoping they will help preserve the memories I’ve formed here but I know they won’t. With a country this untamed, the only thing to do is to return and relive the experience. •
Air Niugini can show you the wonder of Papua New Guinea and beyond to Asia and the Pacific.
Call toll FREE 1300 361 380 or book online at www.airniugini.com.pg
Photography by Roderick Eime and courtesy of the respective hotels.
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Published on Jun 30, 2011