By Alison Taylor
PNG as an all round holiday destination? Yeah right!
Divers are more likely than most to have been to PNG for recreational purposes. The reefs are renown, there are wonderful wrecks and PNG invented muck diving. But the majority of divers enter and leave their resorts with the intention of minimising their time in transit.
The best reason for spending time topside in PNG is the people. They are friendly, intelligent and hospitable. Yes, there are security issues but you can travel your way through the highlands and islands by air, being met by hotel minibuses and only roaming unaccompanied if you wish.
The tourist and security industries are focused on helping tourists have a great time. Everyone I met topside was doing just that. Most of them, like me, were travelling unaccompanied and using a combination of transport options.
For me the primary draws to the highlands were the cultural shows and the chance to climb the highest mountain in Australasia: Mt Wilhelm.
Cultural shows began in the 1950s as a way to bring the different language groups together for peaceful purposes. They are like the Auckland Pacifica Festival on steroids. In 2006 over 90 different cultural groups participated in the two-day Goroka show.
The costumes are out of this world. Thousands of birds of paradise, cuscus (possums) and tree kangaroos had died for this. In addition to fur and feathers pigs tusks, penis gourds and shells were the decorations of choice. The groups entered the grounds in a drumming, dancing, rhythmic, procession. They then staked out a bit of turf and rather haphazardly performed for the judges and spectators.
Spectators could wander and take photographs at will, no one ever refused, or asked for money. This was however very much a local event with locals hugely outnumbering Europeans.
Although staunch and macho were amongst the adjectives to come to mind the vibe was relaxed, albeit proud. That said, at the end of the second day, thousands of locals who cannot afford admission, get the chance to come in. You are advised to have either left, or to know where your hotel minibus is, before the gates get opened. The tide, of tens of thousands of running locals threatened to swamp those already inside and teetered uncertainly, on the edge of a stampede.
From Goroka I travelled over atrocious roads with a trekking group, to the base of Mt Wilhelm. This peak, at 4509m is considerably higher than Mt Cook (3,754m), but it is just a tramp with a simple rock scramble at the end.
As in all the best mountaineering yarns we broke camp at 1am on the push for the summit. I took six hours to get to there with my guide. Anyone who has tramped moderate tracks should be able to cope, provided they give themselves time to adjust to the altitude. Although the very top never emerged from the cloud the views from just below as dawn broke, were fantastic, as was the sense of achievement.
I then walked for three days down towards the coast with a local guide and girl porter. This generally downhill walk on a well-formed path, was a real cultural experience. One day on the trail, we met a hunter who had just killed a tree kangaroo with catapult. Not a good thing for the future of the species, but that is the way his people have been doing it for centuries.
We stayed one night with the local school teacher and discussed NZ race relations and whether MMP was a good thing. The next two nights I stayed at Catholic missions. In return for a donation I cadged a ride into Madang with the priest from the Brahmin mission. The SUV also served as an ambulance for a local woman who was several days overdue to give birth!
Madang styles itself as the prettiest town in the Pacific. It is a friendly place with good beaches and great wrecks. I loved sitting in the pilots seat of a WWII bomber in just 19m of water.
New Britain is the crescent shaped island to the east of the PNG mainland. I had a 10-night diving trip on the liveaboard FeBrina. The Kimbe Bay reefs were pristine with huge Gorgonian fans, whip corals, and lovely feather stars and flower corals. Most of the sites had never been fished much less heavily dived.
On the Walindi/Walindi itinerary you do not need to choose between an interest in reefs, pelagics or macro, you get a good bit of everything. Species of interest ranged from nudibranches, pigmy seahorses and razor fish to 2m sharks with lots of barracuda, batfish, puffer fish, trevally and turtles in between.
One of my favourite dives was at Inglis shoal. Circling Chevron barracuda allowed divers to get up close and personal. A grey whaler shark made a change from the more frequently observed reef sharks and trevally schooled behind a fish soup of anthias, bannerfish, parrotfish, surgeonfish and fusiliers.
Janes Gully is further east. The current round the point of the reef was strong so we turned and drifted back, encountering a cuttlefish and then waking up a number of Hawksbill turtles – it was well before 7am! The next performer was a huge sweetlips looking for all the world like a pro making her way home after a hard night. I missed the grey reef shark but there was a constant company from Moorish idols, soldier fish, and friendly batfish.
In early October the water was 290 C and the visibility averaged 40m. FeBrina is a comfortable live-aboard, well appointed for 12 divers. We had an excellent crew and good food, which in addition to excellent diving is all it takes to have a great holiday. But wherever you dive next time you are in PNG why not also explore a bit of what is above the water? Common sense and a slight sense of adventure are all that is required.
In 2006 the Mt Hagen show was in late August and the Goroka show was in mid September. Check dates and book accommodation early, as the towns are full to bursting point for the shows. The PNG Tourist Promotion Authority site is a good place to start.
I used PNG Trekking Adventures who provided the transport, co-ordinated the local guides and provided the backup.
I dived with FeBrina from Walindi Plantation Resort.