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Sailors were once terrified of landing in Papua New Guinea, such was the fearsome reputation of the local residents. These days a developing tourism trail offers a bewitching tapestry for intrepid travellers and divers, from lush mountainous highlands to tropical waters teeming with marine life — and the reception is rather warmer.
These days a developing tourism trail offers a bewitching tapestry for intrepid travellers and divers, from lush mountainous highlands to tropical waters teeming with marine life — and the reception is rather warmer.
The Pacific Ocean nation is home to some 850 tribes, who speak as many unique languages, just 80 miles north of Queensland. The Commonwealth state gained independence from Britain 40 years ago this Wednesday, on September 16, 1975, and today it shares the island of Papua with Indonesia-governed West Papua.
It certainly feels far removed from Britain. The first leg to get there was a 13-hour flight from Heathrow with Singapore Airlines to layover in Changi’s duty free megalopolis, then a further six hours with Air Niugini to PNG’s capital, Port Moresby.
After a brief stop at the colonial-style Airways Hotel (Port Moresby has a reputation for crime, fuelled by poverty, alcohol and a jarring of tribal cultures, so take good advice if visiting) I flew a further 320 miles north into the Western Highlands. With rudimentary infrastructure, travel in PNG tends to involve bumpy roads, rough runways and the thrill of flying by twin-prop plane.
My base was Rondon Ridge, a mountain-top retreat where my large room had a thatched roof and views of the Wahgi Valley and Mount Hagen, where orchids grow wild. Up here in the highlands, life revolves around village farms and immaculate allotments. After a jet lag-induced sleep, I stocked up on supplies at Mount Hagen market, a lively focal point for Papuans buying goods from bright textiles to live chickens and fruit. Then it was on to Kaip, an ornamental village where the pensionable tribal chief in charge, clearly well used to tourists, grinned as he proffered a spear armed with a tip he said was hued from an opponent’s leg bone.
This old warrior presumably also came out on top against the three unlucky souls whose skulls were exhibited in the nearby hut. While head-hunting is consigned to history in PNG, I couldn’t help wondering about the fate of this trio of poor Yoricks. Afterwards there was a dancing demonstration by a group of women in full ceremonial dress, including feathered headdresses and necklaces with wooden bars signifying the number of pigs they owned (pigs are an important currency in PNG). At Avi orchid garden, two more older residents showed me how they keep traditional customs alive. Once these gents’ flute demonstration was over, off came the body paint and on went the tank tops and flat caps.
Dotted around the coastline are reminders of PNG’s devastating Second World War history, when brutal occupying Japanese forces fought the Australians, their machine guns now gunked up with saltwater and barnacles still evident around the coast. En route to a village dinner date, I was towed through the water on the side of a small boat to swim nearby a pod of dolphins. There was more evidence of wartime history as I floated over a sunken Japanese bomber.
Back on land, expectations were high for the authentic Papuan feast. I was driven along the palm tree-fringed roads, past many American church-built schools, to the home of a lovely lady with hands of asbestos, such was her finesse at handling things from the fire. She dished up chicken, wild mushrooms, greens and plantain wrapped in coconut leaves, all cooked on a heated volcanic stone.
After the chicken dinner it was a spine-cracking drive through the dark wilderness to witness a mesmerising fire ceremony. Men kicked their way through flames with their feet protected only by palm leaves, accompanied by drumming and chanting. This was not one of the colourful sing-sings you’ll read about on Tripadvisor but something all together more primal. The men and boys spend weeks away from the village to psych themselves up for this occasion, although my guide wouldn’t tell me what they drink to get into the spirit.
The following morning, I met the mud men, whose hardened clay helmets had pig teeth lodged in the mouths and who wore bamboo “claws” on their fingers. The idea is that they rise from the morning mist when attacking neighbouring villages and frighten the life out of their opponents. I was handed a helmet to try on which weighed about 30kg – not for the weak-necked.
My final stop was rather more laid-back. Tufi Dive Resort, back on the main island, is popular with Australians and run by a couple of Aussies, helped by a Croydon-born dive master. Tufi sits above fjords so impressive that one returning visitor is a Norwegian teacher.
Beyond the protective calm of the fjords, my dive boat reared up and crashed back down again as the sea became increasingly choppy, smacking down like a plank of wood on concrete. When we got to the dive site, a fellow diver put in her regulator only to be sick after she jumped off the boat. I managed only a little better and beneath the swell glimpsed a sleek reef shark, silver mackerel and dozens of blue starfish. But it was still pretty choppy and the sightseeing was marred by being scraped against the rocks as I did my best to protect the coral from my flailing legs. Perhaps those early visiting sailors weren’t just terrified of the local residents but the fearsome waters that surround PNG.
Papua New Guinea is not the cheapest or easiest destination in the Pacific to reach but it’s as immersive a holiday as you could wish for. And after just 10 days there, I could see why that Norwegian teacher made the return journey.
Details: Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea tourist board: papuanewguinea.travel.
Tailor-made specialist Dive Worldwide (01962 302087;diveworldwide.com) offers 12 nights in Papua New Guinea with stays at Rondon Ridge, Kokopo Beach and Tufi Dive Resort from £5,495pp based on two sharing including flights from London, internal flights, seven nights’ full board, five nights’ B&B, transfers, four dives, tanks and weights, and selected excursions.