By Kate Humble
Kate Humble finds out how tourism is helping to preserve a unique way of life in this remote and dramatic land
We knew that these were rich fishing grounds for both humans and seabirds because we had spent much of the past few days underwater. For any scuba diver, Papua New Guinea is high on the wish list, and for good reason. The water is warm – between 28C and 30C (in Britain you are lucky if it gets to 15C) – the reefs are in magnificent condition and as a consequence there are fish and marine creatures of every shape, size and colour imaginable, and lots and lots of them.
Papua New Guinea’s terrestrial wildlife, and indeed its human population, are every bit as diverse and intriguing. It would have seemed a travesty if we left Papua New Guinea without at least some experience of the culture and way of life of a people who continue to fascinate and surprise anthropologists to this day.
But that is easier said then done. I have a horror of the sort of “cultural programmes” offered by hotels and resorts in places like this, where you are either bussed in in an awkward group to “meet the locals” or, even worse, you gather in a soulless hotel lobby to watch a bit of lacklustre dancing and feel morally obliged to join in even though you’d rather poke your own eyes out.
Photo: Ludo Graham; Michele Westmorland; Terry Moore; Alamy
Luckily for us, the resort of Tufi has a different approach. Situated in what was once a government station of the same name, there is little there apart from a small police station, a few old administrative buildings, an airstrip and a football field, both of which slope in a somewhat unorthodox fashion. Tufi is in Oro Province, a vast tract of land with a mountainous, forested interior and spectacular coastline. Outside the main city, Popondetta, there are no roads anywhere in the province. The only way to get about is on foot, by boat or in a plane. By necessity, the people who live there have to be very self-sufficient. They may wear Western clothes, and a few have mobile phones, but their way of life is little changed. Most live in villages or in small settlements, sometimes comprising just one family. Shops are few and far between and so is the means to make any money, so everything they need they either grow or get from the forest or the sea.
William has worked as a guide at Tufi for 14 years. He lives in the nearby village of Kofure and is a member of the Yari Yari clan – a chiefdom clan, which gives him not just a position of influence in his own village but in other villages and with other clans, too. And this is crucial because land ownership in Papua New Guinea is fiendishly complicated. All land, however remote, or seemingly untouched, belongs to someone. And they may not even live locally. Access to land, even just to walk across it, must be carefully negotiated and almost certainly paid for. For visitors like us it is pretty much impossible even to go for a short walk without unwittingly trespassing or worse. And foreigners who don’t know their way around the system are easy prey.
William told us about a Malaysian palm oil firm, which, presumably having exhausted possibilities in Malaysia, had come to exploit Papua New Guinea instead. It had, quite correctly, sought out the owners of the land it wanted to develop and paid them all. But when it then started to move its staff and machines into the area, it was stopped. The people it had paid were not the landowners at all, and the legitimate owner refused to give it permission to establish a palm oil plantation. The Malaysians, confident they would have the legal muscle to take on any local in a trial, took the landowner to court, not realising that their adversary was in fact the Church of England. The machinery and the Malaysian workers are still sitting there and the forest remains untouched, the Church of England resolute.
So to help visitors like us have a more authentic experience of local culture, as well as to enable tourist income to be spread farther out beyond the resort and its employees, the people behind Tufi asked William to use his status as a regional chief to encourage families to build guesthouses up and down the coast. There are now nine of them. Tufi Resort handles the bookings, takes the money on behalf of the owners and organises transport to get there. Some can be walked to. We chose the remotest of them all, one that was away from the coast, and were relying on Archie and JT’s expert navigation to get us there.
Photo: Ludo Graham; Michele Westmorland; Terry Moore; Alamy
Finally we were clear of the reef. The coastline here resembles an outstretched hand, with fingers of land jutting out into the sea, creating fjordlike inlets where tall mangroves – taller than I’ve ever seen – give way to steep, thickly forested slopes. Occasional clearings revealed small groups of neat, rectangular dwellings on stilts. Archie nosed the boat farther up one of these fjords until we saw a group of people standing on the bank who started to wave. It was Tomlin, the owner of the Awanen guesthouse, and his family. They were expecting us.
Papua New Guinea has more than 700 languages, but the official language is English and Tomlin spoke it beautifully. With nervous but justifiable pride, he showed us the guesthouse that he had built with the help of two friends, and which, like their own homes, had been made entirely from materials they had gathered from the forest. High up on stilts, again in common with all the buildings here, the four small, neat rooms opened on to a wide balcony with views over Tomlin’s own immaculate house and garden to the forested ridge beyond. There were jars of flowers everywhere and the palm-leaf walls were decorated with painted bark cloth. We sat nursing mugs of delicious local coffee and eating, we both agreed, the most spectacular pineapple either of us had ever tasted, fresh from Tomlin’s garden.
“You could come here and do nothing more than sit on this balcony, eat pineapple and watch birds and it would be a nigh on perfect holiday,” I said, licking juice off my elbow.
But lovely as it was up there, we weren’t going to learn much about local life unless we ventured into the forest. Tropical forests are famously diverse and this one was no exception. But what looked a veritable riot of vegetation to us had a different significance for Tomlin and William. With almost no access to shops, the forest is their supermarket and their hardware store. In between pointing out a bewildering variety of butterflies and identifying the squawks of unfamiliar birds, Tomlin and William showed us the leaves they cut to roof their houses, the palm they used to weave the walls, the tree to cut for floors, the vine used for rope, the wood used to light a fire, the softwood that’s cut and hollowed out to make the canoes. Occasionally we would meet people on the path, heading home from their gardens. The gardens provide all the food for a family that they don’t hunt or fish for. A family will clear a part of the forest they own to plant taro, bananas, watermelon, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, papaya and corn.
While the men fish, it is the women who tend to the gardens. Several passed us, some with tattooed faces, which used to be common practice in this part of Papua New Guinea but is rarer now. Many were with their children, all laden down with woven baskets and bilums – the local string bags – filled to bursting with produce. We visited the local village and put our heads around the door of the school. “It’s all so neat and tidy,” I said to Ludo, and then it struck me. Without shops there’s no packaging, no plastic, no waste. We had had a brief and privileged insight into a society still intrinsically connected to its environment, with a knowledge that allows its members to survive – thrive, even – in a way that we Westerners have entirely forgotten how to.
We got back in the boat. Tomlin pressed a pineapple into my hands. “Don’t forget us!” he called, as once again he waved at us from the bank. “No,” I thought, “I really don’t want to do that.”
Dive Worldwide (01962 302 087, diveworldwide.com) offers a 14-day Adventure in Tufi in Papua New Guinea from £3,495 per person based on two sharing. Includes return international flights (London to Port Moresby), domestic flights, 10 nights’ full board accommodation at Tufi Dive Resort, transfers, 14 dives, tanks & weights. Departres are on Fridays from November to May.