Papua New Guinea is not for the faint-hearted, I’d been warned. And when I first saw expressionless locals carrying menacing-looking bush knives and found myself stepping over what appeared to be blood on the ground, I understood why.
But my initial apprehension soon dissipated when I was offered a fresh coconut, deftly slashed open by a bush knife and I realised the red pigment on the pavement was just the spittle from beetle nut chewing.
As I spent time with the people of Kavieng in PNG’s New Ireland Province, I soon realised these people carry bush knives like we carry a Swiss army knife – it’s an essential daily tool used for clearing land, harvesting crops, crafting timber, mowing grass and preparing dinner.
The ability to mix with the local people – as yet unaffected by tourism – and learn about their customs, culture and daily lives, makes PNG an enticing destination for travellers who want an adventurous South Sea island experience, minus the masses of tourists.
According to Lonely Planet, PNG is one of the “least-touristed” places on earth, with just a trickle of divers, surfers, trekkers and birdwatchers. Although successive PNG governments have attempted to boost tourism in the past, locals say efforts have been hindered by corruption and the wantok system (whereby clans-people are obliged to look after their own). After spending tourism budgets on feasibility studies and long-term plans, there’s been no money left over for implementation.
However, this could change over the coming years, as the current government appears to be making a serious effort at establishing a tourism industry, while travel providers take advantage of the strong interest in adventure holidays. Already, PNG tourism offices have been set up in a number of countries, including Australia, and several small cruise ships now visit the region.
Unfortunately, reports of unrest in Port Moresby have tainted the country’s reputation, but as the ABC’s PNG correspondent for 17 years, Sean Dorney says, “You should not judge the country by its capital.” Away from the poorly planned cities, the predominantly Melanesian people are friendly and welcoming.
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK
Kavieng is the main service centre and port of entry for New Ireland Province, in north-eastern PNG. The province consists of a long, narrow, mountainous main island – New Ireland – and several smaller island groups of the Bismarck Archipelago. Although this area has one of the longest records of contact with Europeans, it is one of the least visited by tourists. Apart from the Kavieng township, most people live a very traditional lifestyle in tiny coastal villages.
Kavieng has a population of approximately 7000. This quiet, sleepy little town is centred around a few rundown buildings spread out along two main streets, but the real action happens at the daily market, located on the harbour waterfront.
People travel from neighbouring islands, coastal villages and the highlands to do business at the market, which is as much a meeting place as a centre for commerce. Outrigger canoes and banana boats (large motorised dinghies) line the shore in front of the market, while battered trucks and utilities park randomly around its edges. A couple of rusting fishing trawlers anchor nearby, while the coconut palms of Nusa and Nusa Lik Islands, across the harbour, offer a tropical backdrop.
Early arrivals display their vegetables, fruit and fish on banana leaves on the pavilion benches, while others spread their wares on tarpaulins under the trees. Vibrant coloured dresses and bliums (woven bags) hang off nearby fences. Sellers chat amongst themselves in their own ‘clan’ language – there are 19 local languages in New Ireland and over 800 languages in PNG – then swiftly change to Tok Pisin (the local Pidgin and lingua franca) for trade. Many New Irelanders also speak English, which is taught in the local schools.
New Ireland was occupied by the Japanese in World War II, and they established a major base here. A range of war relics can be found around town, on neighbouring islands and in the harbour. On a visit to Nusa Island, village children led us through a coconut plantation to a concrete spy tower and two rusting Japanese guns once used to guard the entrance to Kavieng Harbour. We also snorkelled over the remnants of a plane in a shallow area of the harbour.
The waters around Kavieng are well known to divers as one of the best places to see wild pelagics like giant Queensland grouper, barracuda, trevally and silvertip sharks. As well as reef, wall and drift diving, local company, Scuba Ventures offers fresh water cave diving and relic dives. Co-owner, Cara Koopman, says they are still finding unexplored wrecks even within the harbour.
Kavieng is also a popular surf destination, boasting nine reef breaks with consistent swells between three and six feet. Nusa Island Retreat, located on tiny Nusa Lik Island, is a surfer’s paradise. Banana boats ferry riders to and from the breaks, and when they return guests can eat in the open-air sand-floor restaurant on the beachfront, take a nap in a hammock swinging over the sand or retire to their traditional-style huts. They can paddle a sea kayak or outrigger canoe around the island.
Other aquatic activities include gamefishing trips and sailing adventures. Australians, Danielle and Adam Smith of Tiki Turtle Eco Adventures, offer sunset, half-day and full-day sails on their catamaran as well as extended overnight cruises. The Imajica Experience, operated by record-holding Australian sailor, Jesse Martin, runs eight- and 12-day adventure charters that incorporate fishing, surfing, diving and cultural ceremonies.
CALLING ALL SHARKS
New Ireland is home to three distinct cultures, Malagan in the north, Kabai in the centre and Tumbuan in the south, though their belief in dukduks (spirits) and use of tambuans (body masks) is similar. One of the better known customs is the art of ‘shark calling’, which is particularly strong on the west coast. Following several days of careful preparation, the ‘caller’, several miles offshore in an outrigger canoe, calls up the shark using a coconut shell rattle, then snares it in a noose that prevents it from diving. The exhausted shark is eventually killed and dragged into the canoe.
While there is a Malagan festival held in Kavieng, dates often change, and occasionally it’s even cancelled due to lack of funds. So a good way to ensure you witness some cultural ceremonies is by staying at the Treehouse Village Resort, located 20 minutes from town.
The main three-level building of this unusual resort is perched in the branches of a 200-year-old callophylum tree. Individual bungalows, elevated on mangrove posts, nestle in the shady branches of adjacent trees. Owner, ex-pat New Zealander Alun Beck, has been working closely with local villagers on a programme that allows guests to experience authentic cultural activities such as feasts and sing sings. There is a traditional shell-money maker in the neighbouring village, where you can witness the local kina shell being fashioned into money, which, along with the highly prized pig, is still used to pay a ‘bride price’. Alun also organises trips to meet traditional Malagan carvers or a local ‘sorcerer’.
For the slightly more adventurous, an intimate understanding of Melanesian culture can be gained by staying in a village guesthouse or home stay. There are several in the tiny coastal villages down the east coast and on a couple of the outlying islands. We chose Dalom Guesthouse, 176 kilometres south of Kavieng along the Boluminski Highway, which runs beside the sea. Opting for the local transport, a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle), we clambered onto the tray of an open truck with about 30 other passengers, a number that dwindled as they disembarked at their respective villages en-route.
Dalom guesthouse, run by Milika Kana and her family, is perched right on the beach overlooking a reef. A swift-flowing river runs beside the house
bringing fresh mountain water from the Lelet Plateau. The guesthouse is designed along the lines of a traditional village hut, but on a larger scale. The rooms feature elevated wooden floors and thatched roofs. Mosquito nets hang from the bedroom ceilings and floral curtains let in the evening breeze. A balcony room has comfy armchairs that overlook the beach and there’s a large eat-in kitchen with a sand floor, but you can also eat outside at the wooden table under the trees. There’s even an outhouse with a conventional toilet.
Guests are free to wander around the village so long as they respect the residents’ privacy, though most are happy to chat as they go about their daily chores. The smell of burning coconut husks, used to repel mosquitoes in the evening, lingers in the morning air, while women wash clothes in the fresh water stream or scour cooking pots with sand at the water’s edge. The soothing crash of waves on the reef is punctuated by the contented grunting of pigs and the delighted squeals of children playing amongst the trees. Delicate utun flowers, with long pink stamens, litter the beach, their faint frangipani-like fragrance occasionally catching on the light breeze.
Milika, a quietly-spoken motherly figure, happily explained the nuances of village life, where only men become chiefs, but women inherit the land. She enlightened me on topics such as village food, women’s clothing and family values.
With the guesthouse truck undergoing repairs, and having missed the daily PMV, Milika flagged down a passing palm oil truck for our journey back to Kavieng. Evicting the workers from the front – who then had to ride atop the cargo of palm fruits – Milika ushered us into the cab.
Our driver had recently returned to New Ireland after spending 22 years in the Australian Army. He’d had enough of the hectic lifestyle and had returned to the quieter life of his village to relax.
He now drives a company truck six to seven days a week for the palm oil factory in Poliamba. Given the state of the truck, this is no easy task. He uses a screwdriver for a key and operates the metal stubs of the rubber-less pedals with his bare feet. The front windscreen is severely cracked, there are no side windows and the wipers don’t work. This meant, in the rainstorm we experienced, it was almost impossible to see the road, let alone the fallen trees in our path. The fact the truck didn’t go very fast was certainly a blessing, given the weather.
Despite my bruised bum from bouncing along on the unpadded, backless wooden seat, it was a great opportunity to learn more about the island way of life. So was waiting at the truck stop for connecting transport to Kavieng, where a couple of young teachers from the local primary school insisted on waiting with us. The two women, Mirriam and Sandy, were eager for me to find them nice young Aussie male pen pals, explaining many of the local boys drank too much or took drugs. As darkness fell, they invited us to stay the night with their families in the village; yet another example of New Ireland generosity.
We didn’t need to take up their offer as we eventually hitched a ride back to town. As we headed towards Kavieng, I realised how rewarding it is to be a traveller, as opposed to a tourist, in a place where no one hassles you to buy their wares and where a ride is given without expectation of payment. My time in New Ireland had been culturally enriching and farmore fulfilling than my usual island holiday spent lying on a beach in the sun.