Bismarck bound

Chris Beattie | VOLUME 27, ISSUE 6

A cruise experience for those with a taste for adventure.

There were so many times when I was convinced that it couldn't possibly get any more spellbinding, exhilarating or breathtaking. But then it did. Time and time again.

The memories, still fresh, form a kaleidoscope of captivating images. Like the countless times we found ourselves enveloped in swarms of impossibly coloured fish, or having a giant, active volcano materialise King Kong-like out of an impenetrable tropical mist. Then there was the dramatic and colourful welcoming ceremony on a stage perched precariously on spindly stilts over the mighty Sepik River, or the time we stumbled across a tiny, freshly born islet lapped by a sea of the most vibrant turquoise. There seemed no end to it, and for at least 10 magical days there wasn’t.

I have had the privilege of tasting adventure True North-style previously, when I experienced the Kimberley aboard the five-star cruiser a year ago. So I at least had some idea of what lay ahead when I flew into Madang, on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea in mid-November. I knew that the days ahead would be filled with mouthwateringly creative cuisine, an everhelpful and cheerful crew and, most importantly, adventure on an industrial scale.

But nothing prepared me for the sights, sounds, scents and smiles that make up what the folks from North Star Cruises call the Bismarck Bonanza. It is impossible to convey in detail all that makes up this rich, diverse and endlessly amazing voyage of discovery. Far better to try and conjure up verbal snapshots of the many encounters, both human and natural, that materialised throughout the cruise.

AIRPORT ANGLING

An indication of what lay ahead in terms of the relaxed approach to life of the inhabitants of the Bismarck Archipelago came as we touched down at Madang airport following the flight from Cairns. As we slowed along the runway, I glanced outside to see a teenager standing only a few metres away casually fishing in the adjacent waterway. He turned, smiled and waved before returning to the task at hand. I couldn’t help wondering how the airport authorities back home would react to an angler on the apron. Not too well I’d imagine …

Awaiting us at the nearby port was True North, and within minutes of our arrival lines were cast off, welcome drinks were dispensed and the bow was pointed north-west in search of adventure on the Bismarck Sea. For the remaining nine days, we would typically steam between destinations during the night, then drop anchor early in the morning and spend the day exploring local reefs and islands, or by being hosted with ‘sing sings’ by local villagers.

The plan was to head west to begin with, aiming for Bagabag Island and its explosive neighbour, the volcanic island of Karkar, before venturing up the Sepik River for two days of sightseeing and village visits. Then it was on to our western-most port of call, the Ninigo Islands for a day of fishing and diving indulgence. The Hermit Islands, including the small village on Luf Island, was next on the agenda before we dropped anchor off Ponam Island for the most colourful and energetic ‘sing sing’ welcome of our voyage. Continuing east we took in Rambutyo Island, the large island of Manus and the sea-filled volcanic cone of Garove Island and then on to Baia on New Britain, where we explored the Pandi River. The port town of Kavieng on New Ireland completed our circumnavigation of the Bismarck Sea.

Fishing was an option on most days, while scuba divers explored the deep and snorkelers hovered in the shallows above. And hovering even further above was True North’s helicopter, piloted by the ebullient Rob Colbert. Passengers had the option of paying for a helicopter package prior to departure that included several flights throughout the cruise, or there was the option to choose flights on a daily basis and to pay accordingly.

The helicopter proved a popular option, allowing passengers to gain a broader perspective of the surrounding seas and islands each day.

On most days we had the choice of fishing, snorkeling, visiting nearby islands or flying in the helicopter and the more energetic and adventurous passengers often managed to pack all activities into a single day.

But of all the enduring impressions that crowd my mind as I sift through the collected memories of my time in the Bismarck Archipelago, overwhelmingly I think of the people we met along the way. From one village to the next as we island-hopped each day, the people were generous and welcoming like none I have met before. Smiling, giggling children enchanted with their bright eyes and shy innocence, whilst adults unfailingly greeted us with warmth, curiousity and friendship.

WAVING, NOT FROWNING

Waving seemed like a second language everywhere we went, and within minutes of arriving at our daily destinations we were met by fleets of flimsy canoes bobbing precariously in our wake. Many times whole families, together with cats, dogs and even pet eagles, would venture out in primitive dugout canoes to greet us.

And everywhere we stopped we boosted the local economy, trading the PNG currency, kina, for fresh seafood, or visiting villages to shop for souvenirs in small local markets. Traditional carvings and other artifacts, along with intricate shell necklaces, were popular items, many bargains finding their way into the True North hold each day.

Our onboard guide and Wewak resident, Hank proved invaluable during our village visits. Speaking several local languages, including the universal Pidgin, Hank was the link between two alien cultures; one ancient and traditional and the other technological and materialistic. During our visits, Hank would explain various aspects of the local culture and history, as well as act as a broker between passengers and local vendors.

One of our first encounters with indigenous communities was on PNG’s longest river, the Sepik. True North traveled almost 70nm up the river to the small and isolated village of Angoram where welcoming inhabitants invited us to select items from their artifact market, including traditional masks, carvings and woven items.

The following day we ventured further up the river in the helicopter to the even more remote Palebai village. Here we were met by village elders and given the rare privilege of entering the Yechtan Spirit House in which a group of young village men were undergoing a two-month-long initiation process, which included having their abdomens and backs etched with painfully deep cuts. The resulting patterns are intended to mimic the scales of crocodiles and indicate that the initiates have attained manhood.

Serial stowaway

Patsy Patten has been on so many True North cruises that she might as well be a member of the crew. While it’s not uncommon to find guests who have returned two or more times for a True North adventure cruise, Patsy has taken things to a whole new level, at last count setting sail a total of 13 times.

Wife to the late award-winning Melbourne architect, Barry Patten, who most famously designed the city’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Patsy began her love affair with True North back in the late ’90s.

Her inaugural cruise was in the Kimberley aboard the first boat to carry the True North name. A smaller, older vessel, it gave Patsy an enduring taste for exploration of remote and exotic areas.

Since then the effervescent and well-traveled grandmother has pretty much ticked every box, cruising most of the Australian coastline as well as the Solomon Islands, and more recently both West Papua and now PNG.

Patsy says the attraction for her is all about the way the crew looks after passengers and helps them to make the most of their time aboard.

“You feel very cosseted on True North,” she said. “You’re in very remote areas and a lot of people can find that confronting. But it’s always so well organised and the staff are always so helpful. Especially for the older passengers, they make it easy to get out and do things.”

It’s also about going places that aren’t on most people’s ‘to do’ list, says Patsy.

“True North takes you places you’d like to go, but never could on your own,” she says.

Most memorable experiences for this enthusiastic adventurer include swimming with whale sharks off Western Australia, diving with huge manta rays in West Papua and exploring the diver’s paradise of Rajah Ampat.

Patsy’s next adventure will be the Whale Sharks of Cenderawasih Bay cruise to northern West Papua, planned for October, 2013.

“As long as you’re reasonably agile, all activities are possible,” she says. “You can walk up the side of a volcano or you can take the helicopter. The main thing really is that going for a cruise on True North is always fun.”

CATCH OF THE DAY

It would be a hardened angler indeed who wouldn’t find their adrenaline gland charged by the many species of sportsfish on offer during our cruise. Speeding Spanish mackerel were a favourite most days, while bruising barracuda, darting dogtooth tuna and wild wahoo took their toll on tackle and colourful tropical trout teased lines and taste buds. And every now and then we had the opportunity to try our luck with the classic PNG sportsfish, the legendary black bass. We first encountered these muscular giants in the upper reaches of the Sepik, with local fishermen showing off live, net-caught examples swimming at the end of a ‘leash’ tethered to their canoes. And some river-front huts even had their own live ‘pet’ black bass lashed through their gills to poles in the river, awaiting their turn on local dinner tables.

A couple of bonus features on our trip included an intimate encounter with a pod of curious and athletic pilot whales that wandered into a lagoon we were anchored in one morning, entertaining passengers with their antics as they approached our tenders for a closer look at the visitors. On another day we happened across a recently wrecked fishing boat that had come to grief on a remote reef. Most of the hull was still intact and the local wildlife, including a rather startled large Maori wrasse, had taken up residence in the ready-made dwelling.

Each day’s diving activities were overseen by onboard marine biologist and resident ‘bioencyclopedia’, Dr Andy Lewis. Andy’s knowledge of the fish and coral species we encountered throughout the trip was exhaustive and each evening he gave a detailed and informative presentation of marine life unique to each area.

Other highlights included anchoring inside the sea-filled, currently dormant crater of Narage Island. It is truly one of life’s rarer experiences to lay at anchor on a 50m boat in the middle of a volcano that, with its last eruption, generated a 100m tsunami that obliterated everything in its path for hundreds of kilometres. And speaking of eruptions, on another day we encountered Mt Ulawan, on the island of New Britain. Rising like a giant pyramid out of the surrounding jungle, it spews a constant plume of steam from its summit. Vulcanologists say it is overdue for an eruption that some are predicting might really be one for the record books.

And then there was the magical sunset enjoyed with cocktails and snacks on a pristine sandy islet straight out of central casting. As the sun sizzled into the sea, we toasted our good fortune before returning to True North for another taste-bud treat in the dining room.

But on the same day that we anchored in the shadow of Ulawan, we were confronted with a sobering reminder that the jungle can be unrelenting and merciless in the price it demands of its inhabitants. On a tender ride up the fastflowing Pandi River, we stopped to speak with a family camped in a remote clearing in the jungle. It turned out that a 21-year-old male had disappeared while fishing that morning, the likely culprit being a large crocodile that had been seen in the area. It was left to our guide Hank to pass on word of the loss to the young man’s family in a nearby village.

Fella bilong big boat

Craig Howson has the looks and bearing of someone you might reasonably expect to meet in the front row of a Wallabies scrum rather than at the helm of one of Australia’s most successful high-end tourism operations. But the 50-year-old WA businessman is this year celebrating 25 years running North Star Cruises, a multi-award-winning company that has been at the forefront of the adventure cruise industry in Australia, and now increasingly in the waters to our north.

To mark the quarter century, Craig, together with wife Holly and sons Nick, seven, and twins Frank and Henry, four, joined the passengers and crew for the Bismarck Bonanza cruise.

Now in charge of one of the world’s premier exotic cruise operations, Howson has never strayed too far from the sea. The seeds of his business were sown in Fremantle during the America’s Cup defence in the early ’80s, when he saw a need for a local charter operator to service the challenging teams, namely the Canadian team. He provided a support boat for the team, which became the media boat during the AC finals.

After the America’s Cup circus departed Fremantle, so did Craig, heading north with his boat to establish a fishing charter business in the northern Western Australian town of Broome.

By 1987 he had set his sights further north and began taking small charters into the Kimberley. At that time there were very few charter operators in the remote northern wilderness, and North Star Cruises was the only one based permanently in Broome.

Over the next few years Craig built larger boats with more passenger capacity to cater for a growing market, adding tenders to allow guests to explore deeper into the Kimberley. In the mid-’90s he became the first operator in the area to offer helicopter trips after meeting current True North pilot, Rob Colbert, who at the time was running a helicopter charter operation in the Mitchell Plateau.

But what really launched North Star Cruises into the high-end tourism game was a documentary filmed by legendary wilderness explorer Malcolm Douglas. As Craig tells it, the morning after it screened in the eastern states, the phones and faxes went ballistic.

“At the time we had no idea it had screened,” he remembers. “The next morning I went into the office in Broome and the phones were going off, and the fax machine was pouring out paper. By the end of the week we had $5m in bookings covering the next 18 months.”

Demand was so strong a new boat was commissioned at Austal Ships in Perth. The year was 2004 and that state-of-the-art 50m specially designed luxury craft is the latest generation of True North.

The larger craft allowed Craig to think about taking his adventure cruise concept further afield and a friendship with the late wildlife warrior, Steve Irwin resulted in discussions with Papua New Guinea tourism officials that eventually led to True North pioneering cruises around the PNG coastline and more recently out into the waters of Indonesian West Papua.

Initially, Craig, together with North Star Cruises skipper Brad Benbow and chopper pilot Rob Colbert scouted the area, making contact with remote communities on the islands and inland waterways as they searched for experiences that would leave lasting impressions on True North guests.

“All the cruises we do in PNG and West Papua are different,” he says. “For instance, the scenery and diving in West Papua is unbelievable, but the locals and the villages in PNG are great, too, and the Sepik River is just amazing.”

True North is welcomed by locals not just because of the novelty of a large luxury cruiser moored off their villages. On each visit philanthropy plays a big part, the crew and passengers bringing with them many much-needed items, such as clothing, school books and other supplies donated to each community. It’s an aspect of True North’s voyages that clearly brings satisfaction to its owner.

“The crew really gets involved in fund-raising for the villagers and we encourage passengers to bring stuff like school supplies, books, pens and footballs. Our last trip we ended up with around 40 large bags stuffed full of stuff that we handed out to each school we visited.”

Anchorage and fishing fees and sales of artifacts help bring much-needed funds to the remote settlements.

The value these communities place on the gifts and money that True North and its crew and passengers deliver was brought home during our visit to Ponam Island when the locals, elaborately decorated in their best traditional finery, honoured Craig, Holly and family by declaring them honorary village members in a special ‘sing sing’ ceremony attended by passengers and crew.

“It’s great to be able to help out some of these communities, many of which had never seen groups of tourists before we started coming here,” said Craig.

BACK FOR MORE

The best test of any tourism operation is the amount of the repeat business it generates, and in the case of Bismarck Bonanza more than half the 32 guests were repeat passengers, many (see Serial stowaway P70) having enjoyed two or more cruises aboard True North.

“That’s one of the things we’re most proud of,” said North Star Cruises MD Craig Howson (see Fella bilong big boat, P74), who accompanied the Bismarck Bonanza. “Generally people cut their teeth on a Kimberley cruise and what we find is that they enjoy them so much they want to come back and do something else with us.

“Typically, we have repeat bookings of around 40 per cent per year and many times our guests bring family and friends along to share the adventure.”

The Bismarck Bonanza has it all, from soaring active volcanoes, to tranquil azure seas, eyewateringly beautiful palm-fringed islands and fishladen tropical reefs. The meals, prepared by head chef Nikholas Flack and assistant chef Zac Johnson are works of gastronomic art, and the crew is ever-ready to ensure that passengers make the most of their time aboard.

As skipper Greg Dunn remarked on our last evening aboard True North, Papua New Guinea is our nearest neighbour, yet we are largely ignorant of all it has to offer in terms of its culture, scenic beauty, the genuine warmth of its people and its incredibly diverse marine life and flora and fauna, all of which is so brilliantly showcased on the Bismarck Bonanza. North Star Cruises’s “Going Wild in Style” slogan perfectly sums up our time in PNG. It really is the Ultimate Getaway and for one lucky Club Marine subscriber it is going to be the adventure cruise of a lifetime.

For more information on this fantastic prize and other details of Club Marine’s Ultimate Getaway promotion, go to P2 or visit: www.clubmarine.com.au.

And you can find out more about the voyages of True North by going to: www.northstarcruises.com.au. Meantime, NSW and Victorian potential adventurers might also want to arrange a tour of True North as it heads south over the summer. It will be visiting Sydney for the harbour city’s New Year’s celebrations and the Victorian holiday centre of Sorrento early in January. For details and access information, tel (08) 9192 1829.

For bonus information and photographs on Bismarck bound!, check out our great new digital Club Marine Premium magazine at: www.clubmarine.com.au.


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