Month: September 2014

PNG Highlands – hiking and hitchhiking Mt Wilhelm

After the Sepik, I travelled by boat and truck to the Highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Unlike the Highlands of West Papua , those of PNG are in a sense one of the most accessible parts of the country because there is a road that goes right across them to the east and north coast.

The climate is very nice, an eternal spring and after a month of eating sago and fish I was really happy to see all those vegetables at the markets. The strawberries are very nice – “even better than Swedish strawberries”, as a Swedish guy said.

I met very nice couchsurfers (both locals and travelers) in Goroka and climbed Mt Wilhelm – the highest mountain in PNG and the (political) region of the South Pacific (4509 m).

Click here for a GPX file to explore in Google Earth.

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Goroka is a nice little town, fairly safe for PNG standards, it has a university and is kind of cultural. It is also where the most popular singsing show takes place but I didn't want to wait for a month to see it.

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I went to see the famous Asaro mudmen. It is a very photogenic show, some might find it scary even, but overall a short theatrical performance without much structure 🙂

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With the show over and masks off, the mudmen turned out to be very friendly guys who took me and my friend Joseph for a swim. Rivers here are cold - nothing like the Sepik.

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Schools in PNG try their best to teach in English as much as possible. Which might be good for securing better opportunities but is bad for preserving the linguistic diversity.

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From the top of Mt Wilhelm you are supposed to see both the north and south coasts of PNG, but that morning it was quite cloudy, but I could still see a bit to the south.

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The path to the top is quite easy and they are working on making it even better.

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I camped at the twin lakes Aunde and Piunde.

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At the top it was freezing

After coming down from the mountain, I spent another night in Keglsugl and then wanted to go back to Goroka. It was a Sunday and I heard different stories about the availability of PMVs. Finally I ended up hitchhiking with some church-goers and some policemen to finally catch a PMV for the last third of the way. Hitchhiking in PNG is nothing like conventional hitchhiking. You will never be alone – if you stand by the road, a crowd will come and join you and they’ll basically also stop the cars to arrange a ride for you. You just need to relax and laugh at the jokes….

Noone knew that people lived in the Highlands until the 1930s when the Australian Leahy brothers went there to search for gold and found fertile valleys with more than a million people living there. The place also turned out to be an anthropological dreamland. Since then, however, virtually all tribes have been contacted and if you come here to look for uncontacted tribes or cannibals you will either be disappointed or blatantly cheated. Apparently some tourists get frustrated that there’s no uncontacted tribe reserved for them. In fact you can find people who traditionally wear almost no clothes, in much more accessible places on the earth. If you wanna see naked people just go to the beaches in Croatia or city parks in Scandinavia!

Before the Highlands were “discovered”, eastern (German) Papua had already been divided between England and Germany by an arbitrary line through the middle. Little did these people know that they lived with one foot in Germany and the other one in England.

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Next stop was Lae, where I couchsurfed with very cool people, cooked some Bulgarian moussaka and waited out my flight to Kavieng.

The PMV ride down to Lae was supposed to be a straightforward one. This is one of the busiest roads in the country and in very good condition. The buses normally don’t get crowded because there are police checkpoints.

Around half way we had a near miss with an oncoming truck. Maybe it scratched the side of our bus a bit or maybe it didn’t – I’m not sure. This produced major excitement in our bus, the driver immediately turned around and chased the truck for about ten minutes. When we caught up with the truck, the driver wouldn’t stop, even after we passed him and finally our driver pulled over, a few passengers rushed out, picked up rocks and threw them at the truck as it passed us. The truck however had all its windows and the windshield well protected by a steel net (I guess it wasn’t his first time). Everyone came back in the bus, politely apologized to me for the scene, they all laughed about it, the driver turned around and off we were again on the way to our destination. All in all, a normal PMV ride in PNG ☺

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I also went to Salamaua, which is a nice boat ride away from Lae, and where the local expats like to hang out. It has nice snorkeling and some WW2 relics (of course).

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Lae also has an OK rainforest habitat that is like a small zoo. And a nice market and a real supermarket with a discounted section. A pack of organic quinoa for 1 kina ($0.40) is hard to beat.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

To get to Mt Wilhelm one needs to take a PMV from Kundiawa to the village of Keglsugl (pronounced something like /kegusugu/). It’s an open Toyota pickup to suit the bumpy road and it costs 20 kina (have the exact amount ready as they’ll try their luck overcharging you). Tourists do come this way and it’s clearly visible. There are a few places to sleep in the village. Betty’s Lodge is by far the most popular (but not necessarily the cheapest). She charges around 280 kina a night but she also has a backpacker price (the words “I am a student” sometimes work wonders in PNG) that is 60 kina. Dinner and breakfast are included and are good and the place is really nice. The trout is from Betty’s own fish farm. Betty’s and the JJ guesthouse are out of the village on the way towards the mountain so you might have to walk for a while to get there, but that means you’ll have a shorter trek on your way up to the mountain the next day so it’s OK. The PMV will probably not want to drive you all the way to them.

Later I learnt that another guesthouse, Keglsugl guesthouse, I believe it is called, charges very reasonable amount and the hosts are very friendly.

There’s a 10 kina fee for the trek that is supposed to go to the landowners. It seems like it is collected by whoever, but it probably reaches the landowners eventually. If someone random asks for it in the village, say you’ll give it to your guesthouse’s owner.

In PNG where there are tourists, there are guides. And even more so for a mountain trek. As soon as I arrived in Kundiawa from Goroka, I was approached by a young guy who said he’d guide me up the mountain. I made it clear that I didn’t need a guide but he kept on and after a few contradictory statements by him and after he told me he was just roaming the streets in Kundiawa because he had nothing to do (read he’s probably drinking) I stopped paying much attention to him. Then he even came on the PMV with me to go to Keglsugl to be my guide but shortly after the PMV left Kundiawa, he jumped out of it. Then another guy, much friendlier and fitter for the job, offered his services and I had to politely refuse (many times). Once at Betty’s Lodge the people working there seemed to be pretty cool about me going alone so that was OK but only until the next morning when I was actually leaving and some of them really freaked out. I thought that the main point of hiring a guide is finding the trail and not being alone in case something happened (accident, altitude sickness etc). But these people were mostly concerned with crime. They said there were people working on the trek (indeed there were some) but some of them were dragbodi (drug+body = they smoke marijuana). They would come and steal my things. Now this is the single biggest issue with travelling independently in PNG. The security situation is indeed not the best but the (mostly Australian) media have created a horrible image of PNG that is absolutely out of proportion. The locals are also very superstitious and scared. Ladies would usually freak out when they hear you want to go to the market alone. Everyone will ts-ts their tongue when they hear you are traveling alone. Someone will show up to escort you to anywhere, including to the (pit) toilet. And then when you want to insist on going alone up a mountain you need to be very firm. So finally I was on my way up the trek, gps trace, backpack and all. I met quite a few people walking up to work on the trail in order to make it better. Mostly women. There was the usual ts-tsing but no one tried to stop me or persuade me not to go alone. In fact a few younger guys were encouraging. There was only one guy (who, I later learnt, has acted as a mountain guide in the past) who asked me for a “contribution” since I would be going alone. I told him I already paid the trekking fee.

Now, in touristy places people are of course interested in the guide fee as much as they are interested in your safety. I decided to do this trek by myself for various reasons. I had had a cold the week before and I was still coughing so was aware that I might not even go to the summit, so I wanted to enjoy some nature and silence on my own pace and in my own tent. Secondly, most guides in PNG (and many other countries) are simply someone who knows the trail (if you are lucky). Unless you find a specialized (probably western) guide, who would however cost many times more, your guide from the village would not normally be knowledgeable about flora, fauna, geology etc. He might not even speak good English. And answers to questions very often sound something like this: “It takes two hours to reach the top. If you leave at 1 o’clock, you’ll be there at 6…” Otherwise they can be pretty funny and good company. But if you are an experienced mountaineer, you might easily end up guiding them instead. That said, it’s not too bad hiring one just in case. In Keglsugl they start from 100 kina for the trek (but usually more). A traveller I met recommended John, who’s the grandson of a Mr Wilhelm, after whom the mountain is actually named. This was the price for one person. For a bigger group it will probably be more. (UPDATE: The mountain is actually named after Keiser Wilhelm but you can still hire John and pretend you didn’t know about Keiser Wilhelm and then brag about who took you up the mountain).

When it comes to safety, yes in a mountain it’s rarely a good idea to go alone because of potential accidents. But I was not afraid of the raskols particularly. People who are drunk or on drugs will most probably not go climb a mountain to get to you. When me and Nicolas were paddling down the Sepik river, we kept hearing the same warning: “The drunk guys will catch you on the river while you’re paddling and rob you”. I only saw drunk boys in a canoe once – their canoe flipped and they had to take a swim (with the crocs).

Now, to do this alone I was prepared – the GPS trace from Wikiloc, my phone with GPS to read it, a lot of information from the Internet, my very good waterproof tent, previous experience with high altitude, camping and trekking in general. The trail up Mt Wilhelm is not technical, it is well marked in some places, but certainly not for people without experience. I certainly do not want to encourage anyone to do this alone. A guide is after all not too expensive. Also, if you don’t have a good(!) tent you’ll probably want to sleep at the hut at around 3600 masl for which your guide will have to bring the key. The guide should stay for free there, but you’ll pay 80 kina. Apparently if you just want to camp outside it’s 60 kina! That’s what the hut keeper (owner? – who’s hut keeping is apparently limited to keeping the key and staying down at the village, not at the hut) told a traveler I met. When the guy asked why it was so expensive to just put a tent on the grass, the hut guy replied: “If you put your tent there without paying, I’ll throw stones at you!” What a nice fella!

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Rabaul

I really enjoyed Rabaul. It is the gateway to the big islands in PNG, most flights or ships go through here. Besides, it is a busy place (by PNG standards) – people drive and walk around doing their business, unlike most other places in PNG where it might seem like nobody has anything to do but sit around, giggle and chew buai. Not that there’s anything wrong with sitting around, it’s just also nice to be in a place that is a bit more like a city in the western sense.

There’s an absolutely wonderful market here that is well organized and clean. Public transportation is cheap and very effective and the city seemed quite safe. In a few words, it’s probably better than most European and US cities.

Although it’s by far the busiest place I’ve seen in PNG (I haven’t been and I’m not going to Port Moresby), Rabaul is hardly a Manhattan though. The whole urban area has 25,000 people according to Wikipedia but probably more as the place certainly attracts people. Actually when I say Rabaul, I mean Kokopo….

Rabaul (I mean Kokopo) is the capital of the East New Britain province of PNG, that is the eastern part of the island of New Britain – dominated by active volcanoes, impenetrable jungle and nice beaches. New Britain is the biggest PNG island (excluding the mainland of course). In 1994 two nearby volcanoes – Mt Tavurvur and Mt Vulkan – erupted simultaneously and buried what used to be “the prettiest town in the South Pacific” under so much ash that most buildings collapsed.

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Tavurvur and Vulkan erupting simultaneously. The picture is from http://newspapertime.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/5705098-3x2-700x467.jpg

The 1994 eruption destroyed virtually the whole town and the airport so the authorities decided to rebuild the town on another location in the bay, further away from the volcanoes, which resulted in the town of Kokopo. In Rabaul itself people still live today of course, it has its own market and shops and everything but most of the action happens in Kokopo. The reason is that people are afraid of more eruptions. Just two weeks before I visited Tavurvur erupted again, the same day as Bárðarbunga in Iceland, and much more violently than Bárðarbunga. Of course journalists were again surprised after they had kept the public nervous about the Icelandic volcano for weeks. But don’t get me started on journalists now…

I spent my time in Kokopo basically on a beach, besides taking a walk through Rabaul and a visit to the markets. I needed to rest after my cycling trip on New Ireland and I had only two days till my flight to Bougainville so there was no time for me to be more active. There’s plenty to do around here. There are some WW2 relics. Those normally somehow cannot grab my attention for more than 3 seconds at a time but there seems to be plenty of people coming to Rabaul and all of PNG just to see those. It’s mostly Japanese, Australian and American tourists since their governments, during the war, decided to go have their fighting on neutral territory (getting innocent people involved and sometimes massacaring them) to then come out of the whole thing as heroes. Anyway, the real treat would have been climbing some of the volcanoes around. There was not even a sign of the recent eruption at Tavurvur, which was actually a pity because it would have been quite a nice sight from the other side of the bay.

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The Rabaul hotel was the only building to survive the eruption.

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The short Tavurvur eruption from a couple of weeks ago produced enough ash to damage the vegetation in the part of Rabaul to where the winds blew it.

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The streets of old Rabaul, lined with piles of volcanic ash.

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Tavurvur is the small cone to the left of the two big ones. I'll have to come back for a hike around there.

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Independence day sunset.

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In Rabaul it's easy to bump into WW2-related stuff. It is actually an interesting story! I heard two other interesting stories related to the war. In 1914 Australia took over New Guinea. The Germans didn't leave immediately and an Australian submarine arrived in Rabaul to destroy the Germans' communication equipment. Mission accomplished, the Australians were on their way back only to be shot down and sunk in the bay. This happened on 14. 09. 1914, so the day I visited they had just commemorated (or celebrated? - I'm kidding!) 100 years of the event. Another story: one of the parties in WW2 - the Japanese or the Americans, I'm not sure - dropped numerous bombs inside the volcano, hoping to initiate an eruption to damage the other's troops and equipment.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

I got to Kokopo from New Ireland on a banana boat for 70 kina.

There are flights from Lae, Moresby, Buka, Kavieng and other places on all airlines. Air Niugini also flies directly from Cairns. The airport is called Tokua and is also listed as Rabaul or Kokopo and that’s a bit confusing.

The PMVs are clean and nice and charge 70 toea within Kokopo and 3 kina between Rabaul and Kokopo.

New Ireland on a bicycle

After the Sepik and the Highlands, I went to Lae and stayed there for a bit. Lae is PNG’s biggest port, second biggest city and from here I wanted to make it to the big islands to the east of the mainland. Since a bad ferry accident some years ago, ships are hardly used to transport passengers. I was asked 300 kina (less if you are student) for a four-day ferry ride to Rabaul that is once a week. Instead, for a bit more money I decided to fly to Kavieng, which is the main town on New Ireland and from there make it overland/water to Rabaul instead.

I flew to Kavieng on Airlines PNG which is certainly the cheapest airline in PNG. The flight was nice, we made a stopover in Rabaul and got some crackers and apple juice.

I flew to Kavieng on Airlines PNG which is certainly the cheapest airline in PNG. The flight was nice, we made a stopover in Rabaul and got some crackers and apple juice.

The inflight magazine had this very successful description of the singsing shows.

The inflight magazine had this very successful description of the singsing shows.

I flew to Kavieng from Lae (it was only 20 kina more expensive than only flying to Rabaul). Then I cycled down to Namatanai from where I took a boat to Rabaul.

I flew to Kavieng from Lae (it was only 20 kina more expensive than only flying to Rabaul). Then I cycled down to Namatanai from where I took a boat to Rabaul.

This is a GPX file for exploring in Google Earth.

In Kavieng I was going to couchsurf with Helen, but instead stayed with her friend Brendan. They both work for Air Niugini and thought I had committed an unforgivable sin by arriving on the competition’s aircraft but soon forgave me. Both took great care of me. Kavieng is a nice and friendly town. There are more Chinese-run supermarkets per capita than anywhere else in the world, I guess. The market is quite nice but generally Kavieng does not have too many sights. I spent my time meeting Brendan’s friends and trying to find a bicycle that would take me down to the other end of New Ireland.

One day we went to Nusa Island which is just off Kavieng's coast. There is a nice surfer's resort there where we had a drink. Later I learnt it cost 400 kina (160-170 USD) a night (cold shower and pit toilet included). Welcome to PNG!

One day we went to Nusa Island which is just off Kavieng’s coast. There is a nice surfer’s resort there where we had a drink. Later I learnt it cost 400 kina (160-170 USD) a night (cold shower and pit toilet included). Welcome to PNG!

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One of the few sights of Kavieng is the grave of a German guy whose name was Boluminski. He was ruling over the island during the German years of PNG and he is famous for building a road on the east coast of the island. Well, he didn't really build it - he asked each village to build and maintain a stretch of the road. When he traveled on the road and he thought some parts were not in good enough condition, he asked the respective villagers to carry him and his stuff over the bad stretches of road. The Boluminski highway is 265 km long - from Kavieng to a place called Namatanai and I was to find out it was one of the best maintained roads I saw in all of PNG. I wanted to cycle the length of it.

One of the few sights of Kavieng is the grave of a German guy whose name was Boluminski. He was ruling over the island during the German years of PNG and he is famous for building a road on the east coast of the island. Well, he didn’t really build it – he asked each village to build and maintain a stretch of the road. When he traveled on the road and he thought some parts were not in good enough condition, he asked the respective villagers to carry him and his stuff over the bad stretches of road. The Boluminski highway is 265 km long – from Kavieng to a place called Namatanai and I was to find out it was one of the best maintained roads I saw in all of PNG. I wanted to cycle the length of it.

Finding a bike was not easy. Some places listed in the Lonely Planet either didn’t have bikes or wanted too much money. Finally I found a guesthouse owned by a guy named John Knox, who was renting bikes to 60 kina a day. He was not very helpful and a bit indifferent. Maybe he’s OK but I’ve just been spoilt by the rest of my experiences in PNG where most people will go out of their way to help the foreign traveler. I guess that being involved in tourism (he has a guesthouse and provides transport services), John might have witnessed enough white man disgrace to leave him without a soft spot for the odd innocent Bulgarian traveler. Or, he had learnt too well from white men to be a businessman.

I started on a Friday and had three days to complete the journey - 90 km per day.  Perfilderuta.es is an excellent website that shows how much ups and downs to expect.

I started on a Friday and had three days to complete the journey – 90 km per day.
Perfilderuta.es is an excellent website that shows how much ups and downs to expect.

On day one I started late because John had not really prepared my bike properly and some time was spent trying to fix it. He finally just gave me a “new one out the box”. It did come out of a box but it was certainly not brand new. It was a good bike anyway with a rack for my backpack.

I rode for most of the first 35 km with these three boys who were training for the Independence day bicycle race that was going to be held in four days' time. They ride 70 km (from their village to Kavieng and back) every morning, starting at 6 am. And then have a shorter session in the evening. The stakes are high - besides the money award, the first ten at the finish line will go to Port Moresby for another bike race. And the best cyclists from there will represent PNG internationally. They didn't have very good bikes - basically as good as they could afford, one even borrows his from the neighbors every day for training and will also use it for the race, but they were very eager to win. Back at their village we had a chat on the beach, they gave me some coconut to drink and some yasin - a red fruit that grows on a tree, has the shape of a flower and tastes like strawberry.

I rode for most of the first 35 km with these three boys who were training for the Independence day bicycle race that was going to be held in four days’ time. They ride 70 km (from their village to Kavieng and back) every morning, starting at 6 am. And then have a shorter session in the evening. The stakes are high – besides the money award, the first ten at the finish line will go to Port Moresby for another bike race. And the best cyclists from there will represent PNG internationally. They didn’t have very good bikes – basically as good as they could afford, one even borrows his from the neighbors every day for training and will also use it for the race, but they were very eager to win. Back at their village we had a chat on the beach, they gave me some coconut to drink and some yasin – a red fruit that grows on a tree, has the shape of a flower and tastes like strawberry.

Into the afternoon the ride became very sweaty, it was boiling hot. I was looking for an interesting place to stop for rest and there came the odd New Irish school sports competition. I stayed for a while and watched the local cheerleader - reportedly she is "a bit of a clown".

Into the afternoon the ride became very sweaty, it was boiling hot. I was looking for an interesting place to stop for rest and there came the odd New Irish school sports competition. I stayed for a while and watched the local cheerleader – reportedly she is “a bit of a clown”.

Then there was a lot of apinuning (good afternoon) - everybody greeted me. When I entered a new language zone (I passed three that day) I'd learn how to greet in the local language, which always produced a lot of laughs. These folks were so delighted that they asked me to stop and invited me for... a smoke.

Then there was a lot of apinuning (good afternoon) – everybody greeted me. When I entered a new language zone (I passed three that day) I’d learn how to greet in the local language, which always produced a lot of laughs. These folks were so delighted that they asked me to stop and invited me for… a smoke.

The day ended at Cathy’s place in Laraibina where people come to see the huge eels that live in the stream next to her house. Cathy is a veteran flight attendant with Air Niugini. She flew “back in the old days when flying was an interesting experience”. She’s quite an interesting character. Most societies on New Ireland are apparently matriarchal (daughters inherit the property and their husbands move in with them, women decide on important matters and usually run any business) and Cathy is certainly a good example. She can accommodate people for the night, but ask the price first!

virginity soap

The eels are very special to Cathy who's having hip problems and it takes a lot of effort for her to evacuate when they have the occasional tsunami warning. Back in 2008 they had very high tides for a few months when their homes got flooded and people had to camp out in the bush. A few days before the first time the high tide came, the eels escaped upstream, obviously fleeing the coming tide that they could sense. Now Cathy says she would not evacuate when there's a tsunami warning, unless the eels would evacuate first. Anyway, I hope no tsunamis are going to hit any time soon, not only for her sake.

The eels are very special to Cathy who’s having hip problems and it takes a lot of effort for her to evacuate when they have the occasional tsunami warning. Back in 2008 they had very high tides for a few months when their homes got flooded and people had to camp out in the bush. A few days before the first time the high tide came, the eels escaped upstream, obviously fleeing the coming tide that they could sense. Now Cathy says she would not evacuate when there’s a tsunami warning, unless the eels would evacuate first. Anyway, I hope no tsunamis are going to hit any time soon, not only for her sake.

The second day I remember mostly a lot of oil palm plantations. The terrain was also not as flat as the first day but the occasional hill was not too bad either. Doing my 90 km that day was not so difficult even if I had to spend two hours waiting out a rain shower around noon.

The second day I remember mostly a lot of oil palm plantations. The terrain was also not as flat as the first day but the occasional hill was not too bad either. Doing my 90 km that day was not so difficult even if I had to spend two hours waiting out a rain shower around noon.

I passed through a village called Libba, which is famous for the carving and mask-making tradition of the Malagan people. The local church had really nicely carved pillars.

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That night I ended up staying at a Seventh Day Adventist guesthouse in Dalom that was a very nice place with a turqoise stream flowing into the sea and some nice hills behind. The place was well run and apparently there is good snorkelling and hiking. It was only 80 kina a night and I got to pitch my tent in the dining room for half price.

dalom

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The road passes many rivers and streams, all of them bridged. Some had nice, clean, turquoise water, others were quite murky, but very nice, overgrown with jungle (and probably croc infested).

The road passes many rivers and streams, all of them bridged. Some had nice, clean, turquoise water, others were quite murky, but very nice, overgrown with jungle (and probably croc infested).

Some more views of and from the road:

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typical New Irish road kill. I saw a few

typical New Irish road kill. I saw a few


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I have to say New Ireland had some pretty interesting traditional architecture. Most bamboo houses had very sophisticated roofs and consisted of different rooms and compartments.

I have to say New Ireland had some pretty interesting traditional architecture. Most bamboo houses had very sophisticated roofs and consisted of different rooms and compartments.

The third day I started early because I wanted to make sure I’d make it on time to Namatanai even if there would be rain. And then I knew that there would be about 50 km of unsealed road that day. That part is in fact compressed crushed white coral and actually quite comfortable to ride unless there were many potholes. It was bad in some places but not too bad. And a good section of it was being prepared for sealing so it was actually quite comfortable.

From Namatanai there is a well organized truck+banana boat option to Kokopo/Rabaul. The better company, Solwara Meri (means mermaid in Tok Pisin – solwara “saltwater” + meri “lady”) is probably the only business in PNG that runs on time. They left exactly at 6 am and made it to Kokopo by 10 am as promised. They also have a guesthouse for “only” 150 or 250 kina a night but I stayed in a room with the other passengers waiting for the morning passage that was free.

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I will leave Kokopo and Rabaul for another post. I have a feeling that I am making these posts too long and nobody reads them…:/

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

At the moment there seem to be three main commercial airlines in PNG. Air Nuigini has the best service and safety record but can be very expensive. Airlines PNG has had some incidents in the past but people say it’s getting better and I found them to be the cheapest. Travel air is a newcomer (who knows how long they are going to last), use old planes but are worth checking out. The problem is you can’t buy your ticket online, only in their offices. You can view prices online but it turns out they are not the correct ones. They have phone numbers.

In Namatanai there are apparently a couple of places with cheap accommodation. Check out Wikitravel.