Port Moresby is the jumping off point for many a Papuan adventure. Mark Stratton helps you navigate safely through the notorious capital, before you explore its wild interior...
Flying in from Singapore, those seated port side will be wowed by mountainous forests rippling this extraordinary island. The magic continues flying over the Gulf of Papua’s turquoise sea to land within sight of the Owen Stanley Mountains. Yet Port Moresby fails to build upon such promise; it’s a disappointing city in which few choose to remain long.
Various economic surveys cite Port Moresby as one of the worst cities in the world to live. Its loose grouping of sprawling suburbs is uninviting and those needing to overnight usually do so around the international airport’s hotel district, called Seven Mile.
The city is staunchly Christian and conservative yet not entirely safe to walk around because of significant street crime. Most points of interest or administrative necessity are a short drive west along the Poreporena Freeway to its downtrodden centre, referred to as ‘Town’, or Boroko and Waigani districts. The city beach at Ela looks tempting but sunbathing is only recommended if you’re with locals.
Jacksons International Airport is 11km outside ‘Town’. Get off the plane quickly, to pre-empt time-consuming queues on arrival.
I was first in line and consequently cleared customs in 15 minutes. You will be directed into one of two queues: one for those with pre-arranged visas or a slower one for those purchasing visas on arrival.
Another time-saving tip is to let your luggage do a few laps of the belt and exchange currency immediately at the BSP Bank in the baggage hall; ask for small notes. There’s a further chance to exchange beyond customs in the main Arrivals hall at a second BSP or ANZ bank. Other facilities in arrivals include: ATMs; an NCD Tourism Bureau (8am-4pm weekdays) that was never open – although it posts a list of hotels on its shut door; modestly clean toilets; and car-rental desks. Sort out communications at the Digicel shop, where pay-as-you-go SIM cards start from 15kina (£4.70). Unless staying around the capital, don’t buy an internet dongle (from 150kina [£47]) – countrywide coverage is poor.
For the domestic terminal, turn right outside International Arrivals and walk 250m. If waiting for a connection, the best food outlets are the International terminal’s first-floor Airport Café or the foodcourt exiting domestic Arrivals. With longer to spare, jump on a courtesy shuttlebus to either Airways Hotel or Gateway Hotel for their lunchtime or breakfast buffets.
Note, the souvenir shops on the first floor of International Departures offer a much better selection than those beyond customs.
Most airport hotels have courtesy shuttlebuses waiting outside Arrivals. Otherwise the only option is a taxi. The taxi rank is opposite domestic Departures; my hotel recommended Scarlet (+675 323 4266) and Ark (+675 323 0998). The journey into the centre takes 20-30 minutes; negotiate a price first (around 30kina [£9.50]). Ignore the ‘Bus/Coach’ sign: you’ll wait all day for nonexistent services.
Avoid walking around streets on your own (particularly at night), due to street-crime perpetrated by ‘raskols’. Also avoid faux guides offering overpriced services.
The need-to-know info for stays in PNG's capital
Forget touring Port Moresby’s scant interesting sights by either public transport or on hot and sweaty walks. But do consider a half-day tour with a local tour operator if you have time to spare. Make sure the following sites are included on the itinerary.
Parliament Haus, which is set in landscaped grounds, was built to resemble a tambaran spirit house, reminiscent of the Sepik River region. Constructed in 1984, the sculpted exterior’s friezes depict Papuan cultural life; ensure your tour operator times your visit for when the politicians are not in the lobby because the interior is interesting. Inside, a huge totem pole symbolises the main Papuan provinces while glass cases of mounted insects include the world’s largest butterfly and a 45cm-long stick insect.
The main Museum & Art Gallery is woefully rundown but a gem nonetheless. It’s a fine ethnological introduction to Papuan tribes, featuring splendid old photographs and domestic artefacts. Note: it closes early (around 3.30pm).
For a breath of fresh air, the Port Moresby Nature Park (formerly the National Botanical Gardens) hosts some examples of the country’s rampant flora – particularly its delicate orchids – and has captive endemic birds of paradise.
Accommodation is very bad value. Most visitors overnight in higher-end budget hotels around Jacksons Airport. Lower budget options exist around ‘Town’ and Boroko.
Top end: Airways Hotel (Jacksons Parade)Fabulous ultra-modern offering with contemporary ethnic Papuan décor, a minute’s shuttle from the airport. The hotel has a seventh-floor open-air restaurant overlooking a suspended Dakota airplane. Doubles from 1,000kina (£315).
Mid range: Gateway Hotel (Jacksons Parade) This airport hotel masquerades as higher-end despite its slightly tired décor. But it’s a comfy, lively place with several bars, a pool and the Ani Ani restaurant, which specialises in international cuisine. Doubles from 800kina (£250).
Budget: Shady Rest Hotel (Taurama Road; +675 323 0000). Well-priced, modest motel-style rooms in Boroko, with restaurants, a pool and nightclub. Note, receives mixed reviews on traveller sites. Doubles from 300kina (£95).
Go – 100% go! Barring an overnight stay to shake-off jetlag or a wait for an internal flight, there is absolutely no point delaying the joys waiting beyond Port Moresby.
Papua New Guinea’s mojo is its highland tribes, wildlife-spotting, adventure travel along mighty rivers, world-class diving, paradisiacal Pacific beaches and tough hikes – not least the nearby Owen Stanley Range’s Kokoda Track.
Most visitors use the extensive, expensive internal flight network to get around. Operators include Air Niugini, Airlines PNG and Travel Air. Sample return fares from Port Moresby include: Tari (Highlands) £561; Wewak £205; Popondetta (for Kokoda) £205. Chartering a vehicle is very expensive and public transport very uncomfortable.
Ela Beach Craft Market – held on the last Saturday of each month – is said to offer good bargains. Also, entry to some of the city’s museums is via donation only.
Languages: Tok Pisin (pidgin) unifies 800-plus languages. English widely spoken.
International dialling code: +675
Visas: Required by UK nationals. A 60-day visa is available on arrival (PGK100 [£32]) or in advance (£20) from the PNG High Commission in London (020 7930 0922); allow two days if you apply in person or a week by post.
Currency: Kina (PGK), around PGK3.15 to the UK£. Change money at the airport; ask for small bills. Australian dollars widely accepted.
Highest viewpoint: Make the most of the views on the flight in!
Health issues: There’s a real threat of robbery and theft. If using an ATM in Port Moresby, do so in the airport. Roads are bad, motor accidents common. Malaria is a risk as is HIV, TB, typhoid and cholera. Seek pre-trip medical advice.
Recommended guidebook: Papua New Guinea & Solomon Islands (Lonely Planet, £16.99, 2012)
Web resources: www.papuanewguinea.travel
Climate: Nov-Apr is wet season – expect cyclones, flooding and tropical storms. Jun-Sept is drier and a bit less humid; temperatures 24-30°C. May and Oct are shoulder months, with variable weather.