MELANESIA

Video of Ambrym Volcano (Vanuatu)

When I was in Vanuatu last year, I traveled from Ambae to Epi on a 9-seater Britten Norman BN2 Islander operated by Belair. The flight path passed right over the island of Ambrym. The pilot politely leaned the plane over to one side as we were passing over the active smoking crater of the famous volcano. You can see the view at around 1.40.

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Video from the Crocodile Festival in Papua New Guinea

I finally got around to making a small (10 minute) video about the Crocodile Festival (Pukpuk Show) in Ambunti, Papua New Guinea, August 2014.

I also included it in the original blog post:

http://carelesswhistler.com/2014/08/08/sepik-river-singsing-crocs-paddling-and-sorcery/

Enjoy!

Memories of the tropics

Having my last tropical breakfast in Port Vila.

Having my last tropical breakfast in Port Vila.

I’m sitting here at the airport in Port Vila, Vanuatu, waiting for my flight to Auckland. It’s going to be 15 degrees in New Zealand. First thing to do on arrival: buy some shoes.

It’s been one day and 13 months since I arrived in India to join a yacht as crew. The idea was to sail all the way to New Zealand. I jumped ship already in Malaysia and since then it’s been a wonderful tropical adventure through Myanmar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. I will miss most things, but most of all the generous people, thirst quenching coconuts and “drinking” pineapples and mangos!

Some selected moments:

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You all know about Tibet. But have you heard of West Papua?

A couple of months ago two French journalists, Thomas Dandois and Valentine Bourrat, were arrested in West Papua (a part of Indonesia) for filming the living conditions of Papuans there. They were on tourist visas (not press visas) and, even worse, they contacted local pro-independence activists, seeking to film their demands.

Getting a press visa for visiting West Papua has been known to take over a year. Getting a tourist visa for Indonesia is relatively easy (just don’t say you are going to visit Papua when you are getting the visa). Once in Papua, a travel permit (surat jalan) is necessary but that is quite easy to get. I have first hand experience.

Since the Netherlands got rid of its colony in West Papua in 1961, Indonesia invaded, took over and killed around 500,000 Papuans, which is by all standards a genocide.

What interests me is why few people in the developed world have ever heard of West Papua, let alone of the genocide there whereas virtually everyone is concerned with the situation in Tibet, which is usually described as “cultural genocide“, although quite many Tibetans actually died as a result of the Chinese occupation.

Don’t get me wrong, the last thing I would do is (more…)

Solomon Islands

Imagine two chains of relatively big islands surrounded by reefs, blue lagoons and countless small islands, lined with coconut palms and mangroves. A high cliff rises directly from the sea here and there with caves along the water edge. Mountains rise above the bigger islands with the odd volcano. The people – always smiling, giggling at anything that life might offer and genuinely curious and friendly. Many kids running, jumping or diving around – little curly heads (sometimes blonde) sticking out behind every tree, wharf or umbrella and out of the many wooden canoes crisscrossing the lagoons. You are in the Solomon Islands.
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So after two months in Papua New Guinea of paddling, cycling and hiking, and crossing the border from Bougainville to Choiseul, I arrived in Gizo, the second biggest town in the Solomons.

Gizo's airport is on a small island. This is the airport shuttle.

Gizo’s airport is on a small island. This is the airport shuttle.

I got my passport stamp, did some shopping and some walking and cycling around in Gizo. I couchsurfed with Warwick and his wife Samantha and their lovely son Lomoso, who was the first kid in the world not to run away screaming when he saw me.

Gizo market has great and cheap fish. (3 SBD < 0.50 USD)

Gizo market has great and cheap fish. (3 SBD < 0.50 USD)

why not
My pancakes proved very popular. We even had them for dinner.

My pancakes proved very popular. We even had them for dinner.

At a random beach in Ghizo (the town is spelled Gizo, the island - Ghizo), this tree was probably unrooted and brought down by a huge tsunami some years ago. The thing hanging from the tree is a bra - just for the record.

At a random beach in Ghizo (the town is spelled Gizo, the island – Ghizo), this tree was probably unrooted and brought down by a huge tsunami some years ago. The thing hanging from the tree is a bra – just for the record.

On Ghizo there is a road of about 20 km to a beautiful beach called Seragi. I wanted to go there by bike. There is not much tourism in the Solomons and it’s mostly divers who come so hiring a bike was not easy. The dive shop offers bikes for hire – 150 SBD (20+ USD) a day. No gears, the bike almost works, lousy breaks and “it’s better to push it uphill because the chain is weak”. I couldn’t say yes!

Instead I took a long walk along the beautiful beach south of the town and met a boy named Kenny who told me that his uncle had a bike.

Instead I took a long walk along the beautiful beach south of the town and met a boy named Kenny who told me that his uncle had a bike.

Sepere, Kenny's uncle, had a nice bike with gears, a bit old and the brakes didn't work, but I managed to fix the rear brakes and took the bike for a ride the next day. Sepere, as most people in his village Tatiana, were relocated here from Kiribati in the 1950s by the British (both the Solomons and Kiribati were still British colonies at the time). The official reason is that their islands were sinking or that there was not enough fresh water but Sepere is sure it was because radiation pollution from the nuclear tests in the Micronesian islands to the north. "Over a few years our coconuts became from this big to this small", Sepere said. There are a few communities of Kiribati people in the Solomons. They stand out with their lighter skin.  The Kiribati language is has very interesting phonology and phonotactics. The "ti" is pronounced as "s"  so you should say Kiribas and not Kiribati. They also pronounce the name of their village as Sisiana although it is spelled Titiana. Loan words from English take unrecognizable shapes. Kiribati is how they pronounced "Gilbertese", the name the British had for their islands. Sepere stands for Geoffrey. Kirimati, the second most populated island in the country stands for Christmas (island), as it is also known. The Kiribati settlers generally live in peace with the rest of the Solomon Islanders. Only once someone told me about them: "We don't like them. They eat raw fish."

Sepere, Kenny’s uncle, had a nice bike with gears, a bit old and the brakes didn’t work, but I managed to fix the rear brakes and took the bike for a ride the next day. Sepere, as most people in his village Tatiana, were relocated here from Kiribati in the 1950s by the British (both the Solomons and Kiribati were still British colonies at the time). The official reason is that their islands were sinking or that there was not enough fresh water but Sepere is sure it was because radiation pollution from the nuclear tests in the Micronesian islands to the north. “Over a few years our coconuts became from this big to this small”, Sepere said. There are a few communities of Kiribati people in the Solomons. They stand out with their lighter skin.
The Kiribati language is has very interesting phonology and phonotactics. The “ti” is pronounced as “s”  so you should say Kiribas and not Kiribati. They also pronounce the name of their village as Sisiana although it is spelled Titiana. Loan words from English take unrecognizable shapes. Kiribati is how they pronounced “Gilbertese”, the name the British had for their islands. Sepere stands for Geoffrey. Kirimati, the second most populated island in the country stands for Christmas (island), as it is also known.
The Kiribati settlers generally live in peace with the rest of the Solomon Islanders. Only once someone told me about them: “We don’t like them. They eat raw fish.”

Allen lives at Seragi beach and is building a bungalow to accommodate tourists. He's a great guy. I shared my lunch with him and he showed me the best snorkeing spots.

Allen lives at Seragi beach and is building a bungalow to accommodate tourists. He’s a great guy. I shared my lunch with him and he showed me the best snorkeing spots.

My next stop was Munda, which is connected by road to Noro, an international port town. Munda is pretty but when I was there it rained buckets for four days. A couple of times it stopped raining so I borrowed my CS hosts Ben and Uma's bike and went for a ride in the bush only to come back completely soaked. It never stopped raining for more than an hour or so.

My next stop was Munda, which is connected by road to Noro, an international port town. Munda is pretty but when I was there it rained buckets for four days. A couple of times it stopped raining so I borrowed my CS hosts Ben and Uma’s bike and went for a ride in the bush only to come back completely soaked. It never stopped raining for more than an hour or so.

Munda couchsurfing pancake frenzy

Munda couchsurfing pancake frenzy

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View over Munda's lagoon and the airport, which is the only international airport outside of Honiara. There are a flight or two per day, the rest of the time the runways is used for promenading:)

View over Munda’s lagoon and the airport, which is the only international airport outside of Honiara. There are a flight or two per day, the rest of the time the runways is used for promenading:)

One of the few industries in the Solomons is a tuna cannery in Noro. Soltuna is very very popular and it was pretty tasty. They sell cans of chilli tuna which is just fantastic with something inside that is either cherry tomatoes or small peppers - I am not sure but they got it right.

One of the few industries in the Solomons is a tuna cannery in Noro. Soltuna is very very popular and it was pretty tasty. They sell cans of chilli tuna which is just fantastic with something inside that is either cherry tomatoes or small peppers – I am not sure but they got it right.

Noro market. See if you understand Solomon Pijin

Noro market. See if you understand Solomon Pijin

This place sells sigarettes and betel nut.

This place sells sigarettes and betel nut.

This man is 94 years old and we talked for hours while waiting for the cargo ship from Noro to Honiara. The ship was 24 hours late but it was worth the wait because the weather had a chance to clear up and the ride to Honiara through the Morovo lagoon and other islands was magical.

This man is 94 years old and we talked for hours while waiting for the cargo ship from Noro to Honiara. The ship was 24 hours late but it was worth the wait because the weather had a chance to clear up and the ride to Honiara through the Morovo lagoon and other islands was magical.

For traveling in the Solomons, ship is certainly the way to go. Everyone wanted to talk to me and I got a dozen of invitations to visit people in their villages all over the Solomons. Too bad I already had a flight to Vanuatu in a few days.

I told someone that I had a laptop with me so we had a movie night that was not such a success. On my hard drive I have mostly documentaries and some TV series. “Friends” turned out to be less popular in the Solomons than where I come from and soon people started asking to see cartoons or a musical. I have no cartoons and the only thing close to a musical I could put on was Dancer in the Dark but I thought that wouldn’t go down too well so everyone fell asleep quite soon.

Note to self:
Bring some Tom and Jerry along next time you visit the Solomons.

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"Good morning. How much is the pomelo" "4 dollars for the small one, 5 dollars for the big one" "OK, I will take the big one. Here is five dollars" "Thank you! I love you!"

“Good morning. How much is the pomelo”
“4 dollars for the small one, 5 dollars for the big one”
“OK, I will take the big one. Here is five dollars”
“Thank you! I love you!”

Naturally blonde

Naturally blonde

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Market at Russel island

Market at Russel island

Honiara, the capital, is a shithole. It has a large harbor, no need to say more. I loved the market though. It is dirty, smelly and disgusting but the fish and chips go for 5 SBD (0.70 USD) in the evening (compared to 20 SBD in most other places so far) and there are heaps (literally) of pineapples for as little as 3 SBD (10 for a huge one). Back in Papua New Guinea I had been eating a pineapple a day but in the Solomons I only found pineapple once in Munda. In Honiara I ate three huge ones in two days.

I stayed at Hibiscus homestay. All the cheapest guesthouses are on the same street, one block up from the main street. They’re all too expensive still at around 40 USD and I needed something cheaper. Just as in most other places in this part of the world, outsiders only stay in Honiara if they are working here and basically someone else pays for their accommodation. At Hibiscus homestay there were two long term tenants, a Philippino guy working for a Chinese company and a Korean who was training the Solomons’ taekwondo team for the Pacific games next year. Since I have my beautiful tent that I once paid for what would be a night at the Ritz, I was determined to find a place to camp to cut the cost. The United Church Guesthouse wouldn’t hear about it, the Anglican brothers at the Chester guesthouse needed to consult the main brother, who had to ask an even mainer brother who probably also asked the top brother (it did take a while) who said no. When I stumbled upon the Hibiscus guesthouse, Sara there laughed her face off when I said I wanted to sleep in my tent but finally agreed for me to camp on her veranda with a nice view over the sea. Her only argument against was that she would feel sorry for me sleeping in a tent. She was great company, herself from the Temotu province, which is tiny islands that fascinated me when I was planning this trip. It is the most remote province of the Solomons with many small Islands, far away from each other, where people are of Polynesian descent (they settled there from Tonga and Niue) and speak Outlier Polynesian languages. She taught me some of her language.

WW2 through SI eyes

WW2 through SI eyes

a boat, an engine and beer - what a Solomon Islander needs

a boat, an engine and beer – what a Solomon Islander needs

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Honiara market

Honiara market

Marugoana is very popular in the Sollies, apparently

Marugoana is very popular in the Sollies, apparently

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Everybody loves germany

Everybody loves germany

Honiara has a nice museum. These Polynesian sailing canoes are really nice. There is a real, full-sized one on display (without the sail though).

Honiara has a nice museum. These Polynesian sailing canoes are really nice. There is a real, full-sized one on display (without the sail though).

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PRACTICAL INFORMATION
It’s not easy to find information about the Solomon Islands. The Lonely Planet is practically useless. It’s 1998 edition of the Solomon Islands guidebook is a detailed cultural and geographical study of the country. Since then they have merged the Solomons in the same book as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands chapter is basically a newspaper article with a telephone directory of expensive resorts. Most provinces are covered by one sentence, literally. This is very unfortunate since the Solomon Islands are one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world.

Much has changed since 1998. Most of the big islands lack any roads apart from a logging road here and there. Most travel within the islands will therefore be limited to places with some kind of road or by small boats.

Solomon Airlines has flights to virtually everywhere but these are expensive. Cargo boats (slow!) run to basically every province from Honiara weekly or fortnightly or more often to Malaita. I haven’t seen schedules posted anywhere. I suspect they are non existent. The boat I was on was dirty and smelly and I suspect all of them are the same. I wouldn’t go without a mattress. The boats are also great places to meet people and get invitations to see village life. Many Solomon Islanders will love the idea of bringing a white man home to show to their friends and family. With a lot of time and flexibility a great trip could be had this way.

The price for a boat ride between Gizo and Honiara is 300-500 Solomon dollars. Right now there are three boats doing that route – LC Phoenix, Kosco and Chanella. They charge different prices and all run on the same day of the week (Sunday from Honiara, Tuesday morning from Gizo – all three of them!) Another ship – Fair Glory is being repaired in the Philippines and who knows when it’s gonna be back. I heard that the 3-day ride to Temotu province costs 500 SBD which isn’t bad at all.

Accommodation is very expensive. I liked having a tent.

From Bougainville (PNG) to the Solomon Islands

Most people enter Papua New Guinea by plane through Port Moresby. The only official land border is with Indonesia at Vanimo/Jayapura. Locals traditionally also travel by boat between Bougainville and the Solomon Islands and between Daru and the Torres Straight Islands that are occupied by Australia. However, those two are not official border crossings.

I had read about travelers successfully crossing between the Solomons and Bougainville so I planned my trip that way. It’d better be successful because flying from Bougainville through Moresby to Honiara is otherwise ridiculously expensive. Still there were many variables – where to get immigration stamps (or if i should get an exit stamp from PNG at all), how to find a ride across, how safe it would be…

On the Internet I found out that there were immigration offices in Buka and Arawa (noonsite.com – for sailors) but of course tracking down the immigration officer wouldn’t be easy – apparently I’d have to go around the streets and ask people “Where is Nancy?” If Nancy was not in Buka, then I’d have to travel to Arawa and look for her there (and hope she won’t be traveling back to Buka at the same time).

I also found out that there are flights from both Choiseul and Shortland – the two islands of the Solomons that are closest to Bougainville – on to Gizo and Honiara (the two biggest towns of the Solomon Islands). At least according to the Solomon Airlines website.

The 2007 edition of the Lonely Planet had information about this border crossing but it was not in the 2012 edition anymore. Did this mean that the authorities of one or both countries were not happy about foreign travelers using this route and had asked for the information to be removed? The central government of PNG is certainly not encouraging people to use this route. During the ten year crisis on Bougainville this route was the lifeline for many Bougainvilleans – the PNG army established a blockade that left Bougainville without any supplies, health care, education whatsoever. Everything came from the Solomons. Many Bougainvilleans even moved to live on Choiseul and the PNG army even went there to harass them, invading Solomon Islands territory.

In 2012 Tony Wheeler, LP’s founder traveled the same route from the Solomons to Bougainville and posted about it on his blog. Maybe the PNG government had asked LP not to advertise this “illegal” border crossing and Tony Wheeler was just making a statement about how illegal it actually was. Who knows…

Then there were some Slovakians on a forum who said they got arrested on arrival in Choiseul by the RAMSI police in the Solomon Islands. The crossing would normally involve getting to Shortland or Choiseul first, by banana boat, and then flying or boating to Gizo where there’s an immigration office to get a stamp. So basically I would be “illegal” in the Solomon Islands until I get to Gizo but this kind of arrangement is not too unusual. In Chile and Argentina I’ve had to get stamps way before or after the border. The RAMSI police are foreign (mostly white Australian) policemen who’ve been in the Solomon Islands to restore peace after the ethnic tensions some years ago. They have authority and guns (and I’m sure the ones on Choiseul were also bored). On the other hand, no one had any problems with the Solomon Islands policemen and they were all happy to see travelers coming this way. I certainly didn’t want to run into the Australian policemen. On their website I read that they had pulled out of Shortland but I didn’t know if there were any still in Choiseul.

Then, to make things more complicated, some years ago an American was caught smuggling fake money through that border. He was bringing in a suitcase of newly printed Bougainvillean kinas, which is a currency created by Bougainvillean leader, banker, entrepreneur and nutjob Noah Musingku (who markets himself as King David Peii II). He created a financial pyramid and even his own central bank and currency some years ago.

He was able to travel to his ancestral village of Tonu, where he established his bank headquarters in an old cattle farm owned by the paramount chief. This, he said, was the manger from which would issue salvation of the world.
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/U-Vistract

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His Majesty the King himself. I didn't have a chance to meet him. The picture is from http://www.bougainville-copper.eu

It all ended up with him stealing a lot of people’s money and then hiring six Fijian mercenaries to train his army, promising them one million kina each. Soon they found out they weren’t getting any money from the guy either, and five of them abandoned him. One actually stayed in southwestern Bougainville and still lives there to this day. They say the only reason Musingku is still alive is that people still hope they will on day get something back from him. To be on the safe side, he is said to never leave the area of his own house these days. So, yes, although the currency that the American was smuggling was not really real and not really worth much, the fact that he was caught wouldn’t seem to make my task of crossing the border any easier.

And then everyone was telling me how dangerous Bougainville was so it wouldn’t be a place to hang around and wait for a boat to show up and take me to somewhere.

This was all before I arrived.

In the end the most important thing was networking. I couchsurfed with Ute and Andre – German development workers in Buka – who introduced me to Moniek – a Kiwi development worker – who had been to the Solomons this way. Moniek gave me the number of Gerald who lives in Arawa and had traveled to the Solomons this way. Gerald asked around and sent me a message that a Philip was going to Choiseul and Gizo the following week. I made my way to Arawa, met Philip, discussed the issue and had to wait until the day he was going to leave. Arawa is a friendly town and I was hanging out with Kerstin from Austria and her friends.

I left Arawa a day later because Philip had to organize his daughter’s graduation party. “I’m not going anywhere before my daughter is completely happy,” he said. Fair enough. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry anyway although I was two days past my exit stamp datr.

We finally left on a Friday. The crossing to Choiseul was nothing crazy, in fact the ride was much smoother than most banana boat rides I had taken in PNG. Philip had three boats going that day – two of them had buyers waiting for them in the Solomons. Apparently banana boats and engines are much cheaper in PNG and it’s a good business bringing them over the border.
The main town on Choiseul is called Taro and is on a small island offshore. On an adjacent small island Philip had some property where we made a landing early in the afternoon. I thought we’d continue to Gizo the same day but it turned out some of his boys there had been drinking and making trouble so he had to deal with that first. Things around here don’t happen quickly so by the time the issue was addressed it was Saturday. Philip is a Seventh Day Adventist so he doesn’t do much on Saturdays. During his relaxation on Saturday he had decided that he was not going to Gizo and he’d go to Honiara by plane instead to see one of his six wives. So, early on Sunday morning we were at the airport in Taro to meet the two planes – one would bring Philip to Honiara and the other would bring me to Gizo. The Gizo flight was however full so I would have to wait till the next day. One more day of snorkeling and snoozing in a hammock on a beautiful beach? Bring it on!

I had no cash on me and I had paid Philip to bring me to Gizo so he very kindly paid for my flight to Gizo and even gave me enough Solomon dollars for me to pay for the airport transfer boat from the airport to Gizo and to buy some biscuits in case I’d go hungry.

On Monday morning I was brought to the airport by one of Philip’s boys and had to collect my ticket first. It had been reserved under the name White Man in the reservation system (a school notebook).

At the airport there were two other white men, obviously Australians, who were going to fly that day. When we landed in Gizo they quickly put on their uniforms with name tags that said RAMSI – the same Australian policemen I’d been trying to avoid were right there now chatting to me and asking me what I’d been doing in Choiseul. I didn’t lie and they didn’t seem to care: “What an adventure!”

In Gizo they even escorted me to the bank so I could get money and to the telecom company so I could buy a Sim card to call my couchsurfing host Warwick. Later that day I found the immigration office. Rose, who mans (or shall I say womans) it, gave me a long hard look. She was strict but understanding. She asked for my flight out of the Solomons and a copy of my passport. I had prepared a fake flight ticket to Vanuatu for two weeks later but I needed to buy one anyway so a trip to the Solomon Airlines office produced a real ticket for the exact same flight I had the fake one for. I made a copy for Rose and she gave me permission to stay in the country until exactly the day of my flight. Did I mention she was strict? When I was leaving her office, she quickly said the permit was extendable, in case I changed my plans. Or got malaria or was bitten, but not eaten, by a crocodile. The Solomons have plenty of crocodiles since the UN disarmed the people after their conflict some years ago. Now people don’t have guns anymore to shoot the crocodiles. But that’s another story…

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A WW2 tank in Kieta

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Not a bad place to spend three days waiting

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Philip with some of his kids/grandkids/nephews. Philip wished Bougainvilleans had had rehabilitation programmes soon after the war was over. "because we are all confused in here", he said pointing a finger at his head.

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The kids kept calling me Masta

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Jungle gym

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Ben is one of the many people working for Philip. He spent the entire three days I was there reading my Lonely Planet for Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He was fascinated by it. Another guy I spent a lot of time with had starred in the Mr Pip movie and we watched it together on my computer. It was the first time he saw the film - the producers never sent a copy to the Bougainvilleans who starred in it, he said.

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On my way to Gizo

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

This file can be imported into Google Earth.

Here’s what I’ve found out on the ground that might be helpful.

First, Bougainville is not any more dangerous than anywhere else. In fact I found it quite safe and friendly.

PMVs run from Kokopau, across the passage from Buka every day (except maybe Sunday) around noon (from 10 am) for 50 kina to Arawa. Back from Arawa to Buka they leave around 4 am. From Arawa there should be regular PMVs to Buin in the south, two leaving very early on Saturday for the market in Buin.

There are two ways to make the crossing. 1) As I did, on a banana boat from Arawa (they might actually depart from Kieta or Koromira – one hour drive to the south), to Choiseul. You might get a boat from Bougainville all the way to Gizo this way, or from Choiseul (Taro) you can fly to Gizo. The airport is called Choiseul Bay. 2) From Buin take a short truck ride to Kangu beach from where you can see Shortland. They say at low tide you can almost walk to Shortland. The “almost” part is essential so you’ll need a boat. From Shortland some people have managed to find banana boats going to Gizo but apparently it involves rough seas. Otherwise you can fly from Balalae airport (on a nearby island) to Gizo. Right now there’s one flight on Thursdays, but I’d not count on the plane coming 100%. There’s a smaller market in Buin on Thursdays for the Seventh Day Adventists (the big market is on Saturday). If some Shortland Islanders come to the market, it might be possible to find a passage with them. The flight is in the afternoon, so they can drop you off directly at the airport island to catch it. It’s a half hour ride so it shouldn’t cost too much. I’d first call Solomon Airlines to make sure the plane is actually coming, otherwise it might be a week long wait until the next plane. These flights were not operated at all last year but I assume they go now since they sell tickets online. I heard of someone doing it this way and buying a ticket directly from the pilot. Australian dollars might be good to have. The ticket can also be bought online of course.

The banks in Bougainville can sell you Solomon dollars but only if they have any (they didn’t when I was there).

Shortland island is supposedly paradise on earth so spending a few days there shouldn’t be too bad. If you look at the blue lagoons around Shortland on Google Earth, it looks just like a place that would be great for swimming and snorkeling. I’m not sure about the crocodile situation.

If there are no flights, you will have to find a boat to take you from Shortland to Gizo but those are irregular. I heard of people who waited for many days and finally gave up. Also, I met a Solomon Islander nun in Arawa who traveled this way but she knew in advance about a boat that was leaving on a certain day. She paid 500 kina for it, which is more than the online price for the flight.

When you arrive in Choiseul or Shortland you should report to the police to announce you are in the Solomon Islands. They will write down your name and passport number (on a random piece of paper) just to know about you “in case your boat sinks on the way to Gizo” 🙂 There were no Australian policemen in Choiseul when I visited the police station.

The boats apparently do sink. It’s a long passage from Shortland /Choiseul to Gizo and they sometimes carry too much cargo and the open sea there can get rough. Sometimes apparently they also miscalculate how much fuel they need or the engine might break. Forget about life jackets. Philip, who I traveled with, has done Arawa – Choiseul – Gizo for many years and seems to be very experienced. They even had paddles in the boat (I guess just in case). He has a business in Arawa (ask for him at the Green House or Arawai guesthouse). He also has property and a store on Choiseul (on a small island next to the island of Taro where the town and the police station is) and a house in Gizo. It would be best to give him a call and ask when he’s planning to go. Apparently he goes every week or so to run his business. His number is +675 733 70 671 in PNG and +677 7745763 in the Solomons (I asked his permission to publish it) but don’t expect him to wait for you especially or to depart and arrive at the exact days he tells you. Of course he’ll be attending his business and you’ll be tagging along. It’s a lot of fun, just don’t be on a tight schedule.

Philip charges 200 kina from Arawa to Choiseul or 4-500 kina from Arawa to Gizo when he’s going anyway. As for the ride from Buin (Kangu beach) to Shortland, if you manage to get a ride with the people from the market, it should be cheap (I imagine 20-40 kina). If money’s not an issue, you can just show up and someone will probably be more than happy if you chartered their boat, both from Arawa, Buin, Choiseul or Shortland or whatever.

If coming from the Solomons (exit stamp in Gizo or Noro) it would probably be safest (and cheapest) to fly to Shortland (Balalae airport) then find a passage to Buin and then PMVs onwards on Bougainville.

On Bougainville there are three customs offices that can stamp you in or out. I posted the addresses on Wikitravel.org. The one in Buin does not have a stamp but if coming from the Solomons, I would first report there. If coming from Bougainville, I’d first try in Buka. I never met Nancy but I met John who was very friendly and gave me a stamp for a few days later (when my visa was actually expiring and when I was planning – or hoping – to be able to leave). I actually left two days past the date on the stamp (Philip’s daughter had her graduation so we got delayed, and the weather had been kind of bad so it was probably a good thing) but no one seemed to care.

Of course any of this information can change without any notice. Right now the situation in Bougainville seems stable but who knows. An independence referendum might be held in the next years and the situation might dramatically change (for the better or for the worse). Once in Bougainville, if you have any concerns about safety, try talking to the New Zealand policemen in Arawa or Buka who are only advisors and will know best what the security situation is.

Apparently no more than 40 tourists visit Bougainville every year, so people will be very glad to see you.

Wanbel Haus in Arawa is a friendly Catholic compound where people are helpful.

If you see white people anywhere on Bougainville, they are probably development workers (unless they are businessmen) and they will probably be happy to help you with anything or give you contacts. Everyone knows each other.

I’ve crossed many borders so far and this one is by far my favorite. Actually it feels like there’s no border – that’s the beauty of it.

Bougainville – where the houses have no fences

My guide book assumes that everyone who visits Papua New Guinea comes and goes through the capital Port Moresby but I very stubbornly avoided the city. Indeed virtually all international flights go from and to Moresby but I entered overland from Indonesia and my plan was to exit overland (overwater actually) to the Solomon Islands. There is a flight to the Solomons from Moresby but that costs an arm and a leg. And also Moresby is supposed to be expensive, dusty, busy and “the (second, third or whatever) most dangerous city in the world”. I’m sure the security situation wouldn’t have been too much of a problem but exiting the country from a palm-fringed beach in a banana boat appealed to me a bit more than exiting through an airport security screening machine. To go to the Solomons I had to go to Bougainville.

Although it is a remote island, Bougainville is still easier to access than many places on the mainland – you just get on a plane. Still, few people come here because of its reputation. Bougainville was where the bloodiest war in the South Pacific (after WW2) went on throughout the 1990s. It was all because of a mine (the biggest open copper mine in the world at the time), land ownership traditions, bad management and what-not.

I’m not going to tell the whole story of the war (or “the Crisis” as it is locally known) here, although almost anything one would say about Bougainville is somehow related to it. It is too complicated. There’s plenty of information on Wikipedia and other places (also a book and a movie called Mr Pip, among other books and movies). It is in fact a very interesting thing to read about – the absurdity of having a war on a tropical paradise, lead by people with experience in tribal warfare who suddenly had access to guns (here I’m also referring to the PNG defense forces). It had its interesting (under some circumstances I’d say funny) turns and twists with South African and Fijian mercenaries, kings, a central bank headquartered on a cattle farm… And of course it also had the usual, boring war paraphernalia such as stupid leaders, a twisted understanding of independence and pride (as dropped in a package with the rest of the western “cargo”), big money, burning down villages, rape, killing people and feeding their bodies to pigs etc. It ended with every seventh Bougainvillean dead, some progress towards independence and a peace treaty that the UN considers one of the most successful ones in recent history (thank god New Zealand got to broker the peace – the Australian authorities seem to always mess it up when there are humans, rights and human rights involved).

So Bougainville is known as a place of conflict. This being PNG (or is it?), visitors already imagine cannibals walking around with bush knives. Now mix that with the “savages” carrying guns as well and it’s easy to see how everyone would warn you against travel to Bougainville. Before I came here I got many warnings by virtually everyone although few had actually been here. My experience is exactly the opposite. Everyone basically minds their own business. I’d have to initiate the conversation and then people would be more than glad to talk or help. This has a very positive side though because it also gave me some personal space. The people are proud, quiet, eloquent and handsome. They’ve been through a lot but they are not angry (at least not at me or you). I never saw anyone carrying a gun (although this doesn’t mean they don’t have access to guns). Virtually all foreigners that I met who live here had no complaints about safety.

I had read on the news that the government of the Autonomous Region of Bougainville (it is an autonomous part of PNG since the crisis) had bought a ship to carry passengers to Rabaul, Kimbe and Lae. It would start operating on July 2014. In September the ferry was still in China where it was bought from so maybe in some years when I visit again, I might be able to take it. Until then the only option is flying. Of course I went for the cheapest flight which that day was on Travel air. It’s supposed to be a somewhat dodgy airline but I didn’t find anything wrong with the plane. Besides that the toilet in the front of the plane smelled quite bad. Just before takeoff they asked everyone to move to the back “in order to balance the aircraft”. Yeah right! It was a short flight and bearable enough.

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Mangi lo peles means "the local dude" and is the airline's alternative name. Thumbs up for the prints representing PNG history on the planes (the same way Norwegian has portraits of famous Norwegians on its planes).

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At closer inspection the print is actually of a picture of a blindfolded white man being taken somewhere by a local man in traditional dress. My first association was of a large pot on a fire. However, above the picture it says Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels. That's the name Australian soldiers gave to Papuans who helped the sick and injured during WW2.

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At the baggage drop-off place it turned out some cute passengers had been riding in the cargo compartment.

Getting the plane to Bougainville was not without its uncertainties. Just a week before I was planning to go there, the only functioning airport in Buka was closed because of landowner issues. Now, in PNG landownership is taken very seriously. In short, once a landowner, always a landowner. There’s not really such thing as buying the land really. Even if you buy the land, the traditional landowner will come back and ask for more money again and again. The government has to constantly pay compensation to landowners where there are roads, airports etc. Once in the Highlands my PMV encountered a road block. The landowner had not received some money he had requested from the government and had blocked the road. The solution would be to walk across the road block and try to find some transportation on the other side. In my case, after waiting for a while, the landowner let a few cars through. I think the crucial part was that the white man (that’s me) wanted to pass. In Buka, the people who own the land, on which the airport is built, drove a truck onto the runway and would stay there until they had received payment. The article in the newspaper showed a picture of some young men with beer and happy faces, obviously having a good time on the runway. Fortunately only two days later they reopened the airport – probably the beer had finished. It turned out that the government had written a check for the 5 million kina they had requested already two months earlier. However, the landowners couldn’t agree how to split the money between themselves and therefore could not open a bank account to cash the check. So they decided to make it everyone’s problem… In New Ireland and New Britain there’s a special way to solve this kind of issues. Instead of wasting time sitting on the runway, they would put a special plant called gorgor (a ginger like plant) on the runway and no one would dare go there or use the area until the person who put the gorgor would take it away. It’s a kind of taboo. They use this for anything. There’s a mine on an island called Lihir, off New Ireland. When the locals want more money from the mining company, they would put the gorgor and then all operations would stop until they get paid and take it away. The mining companies respect that (they have learnt their lesson from landownership problems in Bougainville that resulted in the whole crisis). I even found online a scientific article about gorgor that was written by an anthropologist employed by the mining company. I like the idea of gorgor – you see a sixpack of beer, you put your gorgor there and wait till the owner agrees to share it with you.

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Buka, the main city of Bougainville, is in the north on a smaller island called Buka. The passage between Buka and the main island of Bougainville is a very nice place with beautiful islands. Buka is the only place in Papua New Guinea where the houses had no fences. In other places fences are high, with barbed wire and even private homes would hire a night security guard. So much for Bougainville being unsafe.

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Dame Carol Kidu was a member of the PNG parliament. She seems tough to say no to! In all seriousness, again, Arawa - Bougainville's second city and former capital from before the crisis - was the only place in PNG where drivers would stop when pedestrians cross the street. This happens outside of Arawa's main market consistently!

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Getting around Bougainville happens on Toyota PMVs. As in the rest of PNG, flat tires are the rule rather than the exception. This one blew up quite loudly. For a moment there I remembered all the warnings about people and guns! An interesting fact: the main road in Bougainville that runs along the east coast is OK but still mostly gravel and potholes. However, the section around the Panguna mine, which is currently a no-go zone, is maintained in perfect condition. Many people in Bougainville were (and are) frustrated that not all of the island benefited from the mining money.

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View of the passage and Buka

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Walk with Jesus.

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Arawa is near the mine and was in the center of the conflict. Some of its buildings bear witness to it. The airport is expected to open again later this year.

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If you sell your land (bush), you sell your children's life in the future.

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Cuscus (possum) with rice for dinner

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In Buka I couchsurfed with an amazing couple from Germany who are development workers. Ute works with traditional medicine and Andre with education. I met many other development workers and expats here in Bougainville and they were all pretty chilled. It would be an interesting place to work.

According to the peace treaty, by 2020 Bougainville may organize a referendum to decide on independence. Most people seem to be very eager. Opening up the mine again is quite controversial. There are still armed groups in the mine area who did not participate in the peace. I met a lady in Arawa who had a very clear view of what the future should be like:

– “We don’t need the mine now, maybe later. Now we can do agriculture and tourism. We need schools and hospitals, electricity, water supply, roads and ports, and only after we have these things on the ground, we can talk about independence”.
– “I’m not a politician. I don’t want to become one because I will become like them. But I can sit here and bark at them.”

Bougainville has lessons to teach. About how natural resources can be a curse rather than a blessing and how paradise can be turned to hell. The road to hell is paved with good intentions, some say. And copper mining, Bougainvilleans might add. I am glad I witnessed how these humble and friendly people – victims of their time, are slowly rebuilding their home.

It was time to try and cross the border to the Solomon Islands.

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!

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!

fan palm

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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pillar2
pillar3

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.