Papua New Guinea: Unspoiled beauty of the last frontier

By Jim Eagles

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When I mentioned I was going to Papua New Guinea, several hard-bitten colleagues suddenly became surprisingly nervous on my behalf.

"Will you be safe?" they wondered. "You'll get malaria ... Watch out for the rascals ... Hope you're not going to Port Moresby."

Yet during a month in PNG, including a couple of visits to Port Moresby, I didn't once feel unsafe.

Well, apart from the morning I found myself covered in insect bites and got into a minor panic about catching malaria.

Certainly, the country advertises itself as "the last great frontier", and it is a frontier kind of place.

Many of the villages are only a couple of generations in to contact with the outside world, and traditional customs - including tribal loyalties, clan wars and black magic - still dominate over Western practices.

Basic infrastructure, such as roads, telecommunications, electricity and sewerage, is largely lacking. Law enforcement is sporadic at best, there are considerable health risks from nasties like malaria, diarrhoea or infected cuts, most towns have a sort of Wild West atmosphere, and outside the towns you're definitely on the fringes of civilisation.

It is easy to understand why the country has a scary reputation.

But I emerged from my visit unscathed, apart from a bang on the head from a coral cliff, sunburned forearms, a minor stomach bug and a fair few insect bites.

Even though I didn't take any anti-malarial drugs - which, in retrospect, I think was a mistake - I seem to have escaped without malaria, although I was certainly in malaria country and the thick layers of powerful insect repellent didn't stop me getting eaten.

The gouge in my head didn't get infected, probably because I was careful to disinfect it, but I did see two tourists who got cuts to their legs which turned septic in frighteningly quick time.

I didn't go to Lae, which is apparently the worst of the towns, but I did get to see a lot of Port Moresby and, despite the slightly ominous presence of large numbers of young men sitting around with nothing to do, and houses surrounded by high walls and razor wire, felt no sense of threat.

The many locals and expats I asked about the crime situation all offered the same view: yes, there are places it's not safe to go, especially at night - well, that's true everywhere, including New Zealand - but if you ask for advice and exercise common sense you shouldn't have any problems.

Furthermore the water is generally safe to drink, the national airline Air Niugini seems a good operator, most people speak English - as well as their own tribal language and the common vernacular of pidgin - and there are several good hotels, lodges and tour companies.

And what a fascinating place.

I can't think of anywhere in the world where you can enjoy such a variety of cultures - there are more than 800 languages, each representing a distinctive way of life - all different and all still authentic.

On top of that there's glorious scenery, vast tropical forests, beautiful birds, superb diving and marvellously friendly people.

And going there doesn't necessarily mean forgoing any of the modern luxuries.

The tourist industry is certainly in its infancy but it does offer a wide range of options.

For instance, for the first few days of my stay I travelled up the Sepik River by dugout canoe, staying mainly in village guesthouses, with Sepik Adventure Tours. The food and accommodation was fairly basic, and I was bitten by bedbugs and mosquitoes, but I survived unharmed and went to places that still get only a dozen or so visitors a year.

For the second stage I flew by Air Niugini to the more upmarket Loloata Island Resort near Port Moresby, owned by former Australian soldier Dik Knight, and to Ambua Lodge and Rondon Ridge in the Highlands, both run by Trans Niugini Tours.

These are comfortable modern lodges, with good food and modern facilities, from which you can, in the case of Loloata, enjoy some of the best diving in the world or, at Rondon and Ambua, make forays into forests and villages scarcely affected by the modern world.

And as the grand finale I cruised around the eastern end of PNG on the expedition ship Orion. This allows passengers to relax in air-conditioned luxury, completely insulated from the insects and heat, while making excursions ashore to see traditional villages, active volcanoes and untouched islands.

None would be every traveller's cup of tea, and obviously the prices for each vary considerably, but between them they cater for pretty much any taste and level of adventure.

I can't imagine PNG will ever be a mass tourist market - which is part of its charm - and it's not a particularly cheap place to visit from New Zealand.

But it does offer a rare opportunity to see a world beyond the boundaries of the global civilisation in which we live.

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