Papua New Guinea

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!

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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:

(more…)

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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

Sepik River – singsing, crocs, paddling and sorcery

Update: I finally got around to putting together a video from the Crocodile festival, almost a year later:) Here it is:

I had wanted to come to Papua New Guinea for years. Its nature and cultures are quite fascinating. It is the most linguistically diverse country in the world with a few dozen language families – around 820 living languages over a population of about 6 million people. Many people here are trilingual. Almost everyone speaks Tok Pisin (Pidgin that is actually a creole), English is the main language of instruction in the schools and then most people will speak their tok ples (local language). People are very proud both of their own cultural heritage and the fact that they belong to the nation of PNG.

Still with Nico, a Canadian couchsurfer I met in Indonesia, we crossed the border from Jayapura to Vanimo one fine Sunday by taking a bus to a village half way to the border and then hitchhiking. We got our passports stamped by the PNG immigration with the wrong date (27 June instead of 27 July) so we had to get it corrected. Luckily Nico was observant enough to notice the mistake. I am planning to stay in PNG all the 60 days that my visa allows so a month is quite a difference.

We were waiting for a bus to come and bring us to Vanimo when an Indonesian man approached us and said he could drive us to town for the same price as the bus. We jumped in. I was curious where he was from because I had heard him talk to someone on the phone and use some Indonesian words I had only heard in East Flores when I went there for Easter. It turned out he was from Adonara, the small island where I spent more than two weeks. He was happy. When we got to town, I gave him my 10 kina for the ride and said “kreu” which was how people greet each other on Adonara. He handed the money back to me and said I didn’t need to pay. After all it pays off to travel to remote Indonesian islands!

This was not a bad start to my travels in PNG. In the coming days I was going to find out that Papua New Guineans are an extremely friendly bunch and super helpful.

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

I have to say that I was not sure what to expect. PNG has a pretty bad reputation mostly due to coverage by Australian media. I first got interested in PNG some ten years back, at the time when George W Bush was killing innocent people in Iraq. Then I read that Port Moresby, the PNG capital, was the second most dangerous city in the world after Bagdad. You also hear stories (urban legends) of “old men being raped in the middle of a city in broad daylight” (?! – I seriously heard that one). Now, after having been here for a month, I can say that most people are extremely friendly and helpful but also very concerned about their own safety and any visitor’s safety. Walking alone in a town or village, someone would normally come to escort me to where I want to go, even if it’s to the toilet. Most potential trouble for visitors is related to raskols – young unemployed men who drink, mostly beer or stim (< steam = home brew). Walking around the streets at night is certainly not a good idea anywhere in PNG but during the day things are quite safe in most places. PNGans are generally quite temperamental people and there is a tradition of warfare and conflict but these tribal wars are usually not related to outsiders. Traffic, volcanoes, crocodiles are other dangers in PNG but more about this later.

Another issue with traveling in PNG is the cost of it. Apart from things that grow in the garden, everything is ridiculously expensive. Cheap hotels start at 80 kina (35 usd). I had a couchsurfing host in Vanimo – Surya from Thailand who works on malaria projects in the bush – educating villagers how to diagnose and treat malaria (sometimes it takes villagers a couple of days to walk to the nearest health center and it might be too late) and distributes medication and mosquito nets (that sometimes end up as fishing nets…) Surya could only host one person so we had to find a cheap place for Nico to stay. We went to the market and asked a friendly lady if they knew a cheap place to stay. “You can stay in my house for free”, she said. Not a bad start! This family also gave us contacts of their friends and relatives in other places where we could stay and be safe. Networking goes a long way in PNG.

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For the record :
Ambunti is not a very interesting place in itself but there is mobile phone signal and pretty good 3g. The cell tower is on a hill with nice views over the river.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W7QZnwKqopo

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So after Kaminabit we spent a couple of nights in Timbunke after an incident where Nico’s phone got stolen, then we had a short day to Tambanum, then we slept in Krinjambe and in Kambaramba.

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PRACTICAL INFORMATION

I have written on the various Wikitravel articles for this area, so that is always a good place to start. The Lonely Planet for PNG is probably good to have, but I found it generally useless for accommodation, transportation and anything that is out of the way of the tour groups.

Border crossing Jayapura – Vanimo: Visas at the PNG consulate in Jayapura are free and take five working days. They will ask for a ticket out of PNG or a ticket out of Indonesia, if you say you will come back to Indonesia overland. There is a market at the border, right on the Indonesian side, a few days a week, where PNGans come to buy cheap stuff. There should be a lot of traffic on such days. Shared taxis from Jayapura apparently ask up to 500,000 IDR for the ride to the border. That is a bit steep. We took a bemo from Pasar Youtefa in Jayapura to the village Koya Timur (only 10,000 IDR), which is half way to the border. There we were offered ojeks for 70,000 IDR to the border, but we hitchhiked instead. From the border there is a bus to Vanimo that charges 10 kina. There is a place to buy kina close to the PNG consulate in Jayapura and it had pretty good rates. When we crossed the border had just been opened after a few months of closure following a shooting. The situation is generally unpredictable. If the border is closed, it should be possible to travel by boat from Jayapura to Vanimo or the other way around, after getting the necessary stamps.

Transportation in PNG is absolutely horrendous. Most people who go longer distances fly. There are countless airstrips and flights go to everywhere. But they are ridiculously expensive most of the time. There is a relatively good road in the highlands and from the Highlands to Madang and Lae, the rest is just stretches of bad road here and there and also ships, boats and canoes for the waterways. Safety is hardly anyone’s priority. Land transport is mostly in PMVs (public motor vehicles) that can range between relatively nice Toyota minivans that ply the Highlands highway and are hardly ever overcrowded because there are police checkpoints for collecting the bribes, to any kind of truck, pickup or whatever with a space in the back where people sit wherever they can. It might be covered or not. Unless it is a short ride between two close places where there are regular vehicles, a trip between any two points will take a whole day (and maybe also the night). PMVs collect passengers around town for hours, driving around and shouting out their destination or hanging out at the market. It is always best to get into one that is full or almost full. Getting into one that is empty means you might leave in 5-6 hours. Or not. You will hear many versions of how long it takes to get to your destination and one of them is: “It depends on the driver”. That is the only truth. Drivers, as anywhere, are not usually the cream of society, and I prefer not to sit in front with them, although many times the white man will be offered that option, as it is more comfortable. The fun is in the back with the other passengers anyway. Two times the driver got drunk while driving. One time he drank six beers within an hour and a half and was puking out of the window (while driving) when we were arriving. Again, on the Highlands highway things are a little bit better but in rural areas it is like that. Another issue with transport is fuel price. Apparently PNG has its own oil but it is refined abroad (probably Australia) and comes back very expensive. Especially on the Sepik river its price more than doubles because it has to be transported there by boats. Boats run on outboarders that consume a lot of fuel. If you want to charter a boat you will probably be quoted a price that excludes the fuel (as a guy said: “The price includes the boat, the skipper and the engine”) and then you will hear a lot of confusing talk about petrol, liters, galons, kilometers, horse powers, engines and what-not and the price quickly rises by the hundreds and thousands of kina.

For this part of the country, there is a road between Vanimo and Aitape that is apparently in horrible condition and people get stuck. If a Land Cruiser goes, they charge 150 kina apparently. Most people travel by banana boat on the sea. It can get quite rough. There are departures every day and we paid 150 kina per person, but some people paid less. It seems to depend on the day and the skipper rather than negotiations. It takes at least 5 hours although they will tell you it is 2.5 hours. There is a company in Aitape called RST (Riverside transport) and their boats are supposed to be the safest and best organized. They are also very friendly people so if you are in Aitape, just go chat to them. From Aitape there is a road in acceptable condition to Wewak and the PMV costs 50 kina. Wewak is the “gateway to the mighty Sepik river”. From Wewak there are roads to Angoram (20 kina by PMV), Pagwi (40 kina by PMV) and Timbunke (20 kina by PMV, seasonal). Apparently there is also a logging road to Kanduanum 2 (downstream from Timbunke) and seasonally PMVs might be going that way. These are the roads to access the Sepik river. From Pagwi it is probably possible to find a PMV boat going upstream to Ambunti almost every day (25 kina) but few boats go downstream. Between Tuesday and Thursday there is a market in Maprik and people from the Sepik go there to sell their smoked fish. We found people from Chambri lakes who had travelled up to Pagwi and Maprik on Tuesday and were going back on Thursday. We found them at the market in Maprik. We paid 45 kina each for the ride from Pagwi to Kaminabit. Between Angoram and Kambaramba there seems to be people travelling every day to do market (10 kina each way). Kambaramba is a nice village to visit. It is pretty big and apparently in the back, in the swamps there are people living in floating houses (they build a raft and the house on top of that and just float on the lake, I think it is tied up to one place most of the time).

The famous buai (betel nut) boats pick up their cargo usually on the Yuat river and then travel downstream, passing Moim and Kambaramba and then stopping in Angoram (eastern bank) to refuel, then travel (at night usually) downstream and through a man-made channel (magical ride) to the village of Watam where a lagoon meets the sea. Here, if the boat is overloaded they will split the cargo and people in two boats and then travel over the sea to Borai, Awas or Bogia, from where there is a road going to Madang. Angoram to Borai/Awas/Bogia (the boats often say they are going to Bogia although they might be going to one of the other villages) is 100 kina. From there there is a PMV to Madang. From Madang it is easy to get to the Highlands or Lae by PMV.

From Wewak there is also a road going to Maprik and further to Nuku that runs parallel to the coast but inland (they call it the Sepik highway). Then from Nuku there is a road down to Aitape so it is easy to make an interesting circle there (they don’t see many tourists here so it is more authentic than on the Sepik river in some ways) in connection with a trip on the Sepik.

From Wewak, banana boats go to the islands around. To Muschu we paid 25 kina one way and the boat seems to bring people to town in the morning and then return around 3 pm (“PNG time”).

There are ships going from Madang to Wewak and Vanimo with Star Shipping (former Rabaul Shipping). Also from Madang to Manus Island (where the Australian government tortures asylum seekers). These are certainly not cheap but have a student price. Just say you are a student. In fact the phrase “I am a student” works wonders all over PNG. It is mostly interpreted as “I am not one of those filthy rich tourists from the tour groups, so don’t expect me to pay 100 kina for what should cost 10 kina”. Just kidding, people are very respectful really!

Also from Vanimo there is a logging road that goes inland to Green River for access to the Sepik river far upstream, close to the Indonesian border. I talked to some people who said Sepiks would take their fish in canoes to Green River, then hire a land cruiser to take their fish to sell it in Vanimo. For an independent traveller it might be possible to hitch a ride on the logging truck probably. I didn’t travel that road so I cannot say. In fact there is another border crossing into Indonesia inland, but that is certainly not open to foreigners and I wouldn’t mess with the Indonesian military. Also this road is understandably frequented by people smuggling guns (think the OPM on the Indonesian side of the border) and marijuana that is grown in PNG. Indonesian laws on drug trafficking are ubiquitous so it might be a good idea to take care who you get involved with on this road. However, if/when I come back, I might try to go to Green river and from there paddle down the Sepik.

As for independent paddling on the Sepik, our canoe cost us 50 kina to buy.

Accommodation in PNG has probably the worst price/quality ratio in the world. Locals travel on business, NGOs and companies pay for the accommodation of their employees and tourists are generally of the rich type and prices are absolutely ridiculous. However, there is a way for the intrepid and adventurous traveler to get around without spending a fortune. A guy from couchsurfing told me he never paid for accommodation during the couple of months he spent in PNG. Well, I am not that good or adventurous, but here are some tips. Number 1: couchsurfing obviously (not very popular but possible here and there). Number 2: Bring a tent! The Lonely Planet once again shat its pants by recommending against bringing a tent out right. I slept in my tent almost every night. And almost every night I had some kind of roof over my head, but the tent certainly protects from mosquitoes(!) (mosquito nets are clumsier and if the locals provide one it will probably be broken, so if not a tent, definitely bring a mosquito net!), cockroaches, spiders, scorpions, rats (your food should stay with you in the tent/mosquito net). Wild camping in PNG is certainly not something that locals have seen and land ownership is taken very seriously (every piece of land is owned by someone) and putting your tent somewhere without permission might get you in trouble (from the landowner or opportunist raskols). If camping, always ask permission and you will probably be offered a place under a roof anyway. 3. Talk to people! PNGans are extremely friendly. If you say you are a student and you want to save money, someone will probably offer to host you. Even if not, making friends goes a long way. Everyone and their mother will give you the phone number of their relatives or wantoks (people from the same tribe) who live in another town so you can call them and stay with them. Most locals will also be delighted to spend time and be seen with a white man. In some remote places there won’t be a guesthouse anyway, so staying with locals is just a matter of asking. When I was hosted somewhere for free, I always shared food. A pack of rice and some tinpis (tuna in a can) will be very much appreciated. They will cook for you and you will share it with the family. Groceries are expensive but things grown locally and sold at the market are cheap. 4. Get a Digicel sim card so you can call your contacts. It was around 15 kina for the card and calls and SMS are bearably expensive. I also bought internet packages and the coverage is pretty good. 5. Ask to stay at churches. Sometimes they operate nice guesthouses that won’t be cheap but other times they will just give you a space on the floor to sleep for free. The EBC (Evangelical Brotherhood Church) had a very basic guesthouse in Wewak for 25 kina a night. They said they also had guesthouses in 18 PNG provinces. Schools might also be an option.

Bargaining in PNG is not a good idea. For some souvenirs on the Sepik they have a second price (and sometimes the price tag lists both and first and the second price 🙂 ). PMVs usually have set prices and it is always best to ask the other passengers how much they are paying. Once a driver told us a higher price than normal but we had no choice so we didn’t argue and at the end he actually asked for the normal price. Now, there is another side of this story: PNG has a reputation of a wild place (both as in “savage” cultures/cannibals etc. and as in a criminal-infested place). Therefore few people make it here and most of them are on organized tours that cost many thousands of dollars. They fly in and out of places on chartered airplanes, have unnecessarily many guides, eat chicken with broccoli (one French lady I talked to was pissed off because she asked to eat some local food – sago, fish, sweet potatoes – but she was told that white men ate chicken and broccoli and not sago), sleep in resorts that cost 800 dollars a night etc. So it is easy to imagine that some locals, who have had contact with such tourists, would think that white people have money to throw around. On the Sepik they have seen tourists, it is on the itinerary of most tours. A Spanish family we met, that was travelling independently, wanted to charter a boat to take them from Pagwi to Angoram. The price started at 6500 kina (2000 euros – the high petrol prices were mentioned a few times and – would you believe – the engine, the boat and the skipper were even included in the price). Normally it is possible to get something like that for a few hundred kina I think. As always, where there are tourists, there are a few dishonest people. When we were paddling down the Sepik, most people were happy to see us, but everyone who had a boat with an engine would right away start a lecture about how dangerous this was and that they could drive us down to Angoram for ONLY this and this much. I would say you should bargain with boat charterers shamelessly. If they are still bargaining, it means they are still interested. However, PNGans are very proud people and certainly don’t like to lose face or feel offended (they are very temperamental and things can quickly get out of control), but a smile, jokes and friendliness are always appreciated. And a lot of patience. The locals say: “expect the unexpected”. Another thing I have experienced (and I have also heard from others) is to be asked for more money after your trip/hike/ride is over. You agree very very clearly on something beforehand, you have a great and friendly time and once everything is over, the driver/guide/skipper asks you for more money, sometimes with the funniest excuses ever. It might be difficult to argue (cultural differences, wanting to keep the friendly connection), but it is best to be firm (don’t forget to smile) and, if possible, show your wallet saying that the previously agreed amount is all the money you have on your person.

Guides. This is a tricky one. Since PNG is supposedly “very dangerous” the normal thing is to hire a guide even if you wanna go to the toilet! People will think you are crazy, but walking around cities during the day (don’t even think about walking around at night!) is perfectly fine. Taking public transport, paddling down a river etc is also fine. For hiking in nature, a guide might be necessary though. Landscapes are absolutely amazing and it is very very unfortunate that they are not very accessible. This is certainly not Scandinavia with its “every man’s right”. In fact the rule here is “no man’s right”. Again, if you walk alone between villages, most people will be delighted to see you, but there will be a few opportunists who will want to guide you and will say this is their land and you cannot cross without permission. And you cannot argue against that. When I went to the Highlands I did Mount Wilhelm without a guide, but there are no villages there and still it was hard to resist the insistent wanna-be guides. When you need to hire a guide, inform yourself well about the rates, because in PNG it is easy for prices to get out of proportion, so you can tell the honest from dishonest guides. In any case, guides will be there just for your safety and to show you the way (fingers crossed that they will actually know the way). Don’t expect any knowledge about flora, fauna etc. Also, it is best to hire a guide locally in a village. It might be cheaper and you might have more options, they will know the area better, and, most importantly, the local raskols will respect him. A guide from a different area is as good as no guide if the raskols want to rob you (or worse). In that chain of thoughts: there are trails through the jungles and mountains all over the country. It is easy to have an adventure walking from the Sepik to the highlands over a few days or walking between different places in the highlands. Locals know the trails and will be delighted to help. From my experience, 100 kina or less a day for a guide should be good, and you share this with your travel buddies. Other than that, in the cities someone would normally come and escort you to the bank or shop, they will insist to carry your groceries and hear your story and tell you theirs. If you ask for directions, the person will probably drop whatever they are doing and just take you there. They would not expect payment, but I have bought them donuts or icecream. Also, in rural areas kids will be super excited to see you and 10-20 of them might be following you wherever you go. Talking about how much locals will care that you are comfortable and safe, here is a conversation I had on the Sepik:
– Oh I’m sorry, I’m so sorry
– What are you sorry about?
– You paddled a canoe all day to get from Tambanum to here.
– No need to be sorry. We did it because we wanted to. We’re actually quite happy that we did it.
– Oh I’m so sorry…

Buai and Tok Pisin. Buai (betel nut) grows on a palm and is chewed together with lime and mustard (in different forms) everywhere from India to the Solomon Islands. In PNG it is absolutely the number one pastime. People spit the red stuff everywhere. I tried it – it is not my cup of tea (or shall I say my cup of spit). However, if you become a chewer in PNG that will win you the uttermost respect of everyone and their chewing mother and you will probably be adopted as one of them. Besides, when you go home you will give your dentist a heart attack (who doesn’t hate their dentist?). Actually, I don’t mind it, except it is the biggest difficulty with practising Tok Pisin – when the speaker’s mouth is full of betel nut it is difficult to understand them. Talking of Tok Pisin, it is the first pidgin/creole I am trying to learn and it is a lot of fun. Basically it is European (mostly English, German and Portuguese) vocabulary with Melanesian structure. It is most certainly not “broken English”, “bastard English” or whatever in that category. Trust me, I am a linguist! It is a fully functioning language and although it is very easy to get the gist, most people use phrases and collocations that are not as straightforward. Besides, there is a lot of variation with many people borrowing features from their tok ples into their Tok Pisin. Although many people speak English, Tok Pisin is certainly very helpful and it is easy to learn a bit. Then, when you don’t know some word or expression, you just switch to English. In fact, most locals, especially in towns, code switch between English and Tok Pisin anyway. There are some interesting non-European words. My favourite phrases: kaikai kaukau (to eat sweet potato) and Lukim yu bihain (See you later, and not, as I first thought: I am looking at your behind). Many transitive verbs have the -im suffix: lukim (to see something), bringimapim (to bring up). Some neologisms can even put Icelandic to shame: aiwara means “to cry” (from eye + water).

Safety and security. This is not an easy one. There are certainly safety issues in PNG. But as the LP says: If you believe everything the (Australian) media and the expats have to say, you will never go. It is certainly not the place for beginners but it is just another place where you need to use your common sense and, very importantly, be informed (why I am writing all this). It all boils down to the “clash of civilizations”, I guess and more specifically – alcohol. In PNG few people in the villages are starving – they produce enough for themselves, sometimes a bit extra. Of course many people want a bit more than village life and, especially in the towns (but not only) there will be the raskols (criminals) who will snatch your bag, or worse. In most cases though they will have a knife and will use an opportunity if it arises. Therefore it is good to carry a “raskol wallet” with a bit of money. You just hand it over and that will probably be it (although I am not talking based on first hand experience here but that seems to be the case). I had a wallet like this in Bali, Indonesia, even. But that was not for the criminals, it was for bribing the police. So far, with this pickpocketing and non-violent crime, PNG is not different than most European or US cities. However, things can get violent in PNG. Superstition, warfare traditions, general mistrust between people, disputes about land and women, and again alcohol and marijuana can quickly lead to weird situations that get out of control. Usually these things have nothing to do with the white man but it’s best to make a swift exit if a situation arises. The LP advises (and others too) that if you are, say, driving and you run over a man, pig or chicken, you should not stop but drive to the nearest police station. If you stop, the locals might take the law into their own hands and take reciprocal measures. The police in PNG is absolutely useless and that is probably the main problem. They seem to be afraid of the raskols most of the time. If the police catches someone who has done a somewhat serious crime, very often law is enforced on the spot (a shot in the head) – I’ve only heard that, I haven’t seen it. SP beer is popular among guys who have nothing else to do. Alcohol came to PNG in the same package as Jesus and Mary and it has taken firm roots. Most raskols drink a cheap homebrew called stim (“steam”). Luckily, guns are not widespread, otherwise things could have easily looked like a video game. I had an interesting talk with the school inspector in Ambunti:
– Can you buy a gun for me in your country?
– Yes they sell them in shops and you can buy one if you have permission.
– Send me one to PNG!
– Well, guns are forbidden in PNG and it’s illegal to send it. Besides, if everyone gets a gun, people will be shooting each other every day.
– Exactly! (his eyes shining)

In smaller places local politics seem to go a long way and having the protection of a good local man is always essential. That’s why the local village chief/counselor/leader should be contacted first.

Cannibals. I guess they draw a lot of rich tourists to PNG. But they mostl probably don’t exist. In fact many people seem to come to PNG with the idea to see some “uncontacted tribe”, cannibals or “people who have never seen a white man before”. In fact, most PNGans will be more Christian than the average European and it might be easy for some visitors to be frustrated that they did not see the promised “savages”. The chance of finding “cannibals” is higher in West Papua, I’d think, but also there it’s possible that the Indonesian army would have gotten rid of them quickly. And the Indonesian army is not very keen on issuing press releases. My friend Joseph is there right now hunting for cannibals. I will write an update when (if?!:/) he comes back. More seriously, there are certainly people who live in a more traditional way than others and hang on to their culture and rituals, just as anywhere else. But don’t expect to go to villages and see 100 people dressed in feathers and dancing around a fire in carved masks. The Goroka show is exactly as its name implies – a show.

Malaria is certainly an issue, maybe not as much in the Highlands. Most travellers and foreigners who live here take prevention pills. There’s plenty of information online. My thoughts:
– taking doxycycline for months is a horrible idea and will certainly destroy your liver, even if you don’t get malaria (you probably will anyway if you get bitten by an infected mosquito)
– same goes for the other malaria pills, although doxyxycline is probably the worst.
– there are different types of malaria, some of them quite mild, others life threatening. Chills, fever, pain in joints and anemia means you have to see a doctor as soon as possible.
– I did not take any prevention, but took very good care to avoid bites. In a month I had 3-4 bites at best, on the Sepik river. However, that night I spent on the truck going to Madang, I fell asleep and got many bites. I am sitting here in Lae, two weeks later, waiting to see what will happen. Still, mosquito repellent and mosquito net is the best prevention.
– I bought a test at the pharmacy that you can use to test for malaria at home. It costs 20 kina and looks like a pregnancy test. They also sold me drugs to take in case the test is positive and I am far away from a doctor. The pills are much cheaper in PNG than in Europe. I think this test is a great idea and I wonder why noone mentions it on the countless websites about malaria. Starting treatment immediately is might be just as (or more) important than taking prophylaxis medication.
– if you have the symptoms but no diagnosis, don’t take aspirin to treat symptoms because it might be dengue fever and that would be bad.

There are some other diseases in PNG that are good to look out for: tb, leprosis, a fungus infection called grille, tetanus, HIV is a very serious issue (probably a lot more than the official figures, so is home violence and rape).