Summit a country's highest mountain, ride the waves off island shores, or dive among WWII shipwrecks. Live out endless adventure in PNG and be inspired by local communities and culture on the journey...
If any destination induces FOMO (fear of missing out) it’s Papua New Guinea. The island is huge. It boasts 5,150km of coastline, more than 600 islands, few roads, and a thousand cultural clans. All of which logistically makes it impossible in terms of time to do anything else but scratch the surface of a destination requiring a flight halfway around the world.
For first-timers an organized two-week tour offers a gentle introduction to its highlights. Typically a week will be spent in the Highlands birdwatching and enjoying cultural encounters and sing-sings and then down to the lowlands to marvel at the crocodile cult pursued by the river dwellers of the Sepik.
However, travellers are increasingly looking at PNG as a destination to pursue specific activities: from diving and cruises to trekking and nature-quests. A growing number of specialist operators can facilitate this with logistical support and guiding services. Although more independently minded travellers should come prepared with necessary specialised equipment plus sufficient resources as travelling around the Highlands and islands does not come cheap.
You needn’t be a serious twitcher to appreciate the multicoloured jamboree of Papuan birds. Within 700 plus species, many of them endemic, New Guinea Island boasts 38 of the world’s 43 species of bird of paradise. There has been a proliferation in recent years of lodges specifically aimed at birding thus enabling nature lovers to experience the island’s showy avian spectacle in comfort.
Top tip: Rondon Ridge Lodge near Mount Hagen is a comfortable base to search for 10 birds of paradise species in the local forests.
Writing in the 1920s Polish anthropologist, Bronislaw Malinowski, rather sensationalised the Trobriand Islands – a collection of dreamy coral atolls in the Solomon Sea – as some kind of free love utopia. This rather stigmatised what is in fact a complex and fascinating society still ruled by powerful chieftains in a tropical paradise.
Top tip: A colourful exposition of Trobriand culture is featured in June to August’s Milamala Yam Festival.
The theatre of global war shifted to Papua New Guinea in 1942 when Japan attacked. Tours for military history buffs visit the wreckage of downed planes and sunken ships and commonwealth cemeteries. Some of the military hardware is so well preserved it is as if the events of 70 years ago only happened yesterday.
Top tip: Rabaul in East New Britain was a major Japanese base and over 60 wartime wrecks lie sunken in its bay.
Part of the Bismarck Range, Mount Wilhelm (4509m) is Papua New Guinea’s highest peak. This is a challenging trekking peak typically attempted in three-day return expeditions.
Top tip: Betty’s Lodge has long been a place to arrange guide and porters for the trek.
Learn about the body scarification of male initiates’ crocodile hides and the significance of spirit-houses along the River Sepik – one of the most culturally intact regions of PNG. The best way to enjoy both the cultural element and birdwatching is to arrange a river trip either by small local dugouts or specialised cruise boats.
Top tip: Karawari Lodge lies on a tributary of the Sepik and offers fine access to river’s cultural and birding highlights.
Kavieng is fast becoming a surf mecca on New Ireland Island. Surf camps and beachside accommodation has emerged to meet a growing interest by the surf community in dynamic uncrowded waves such as Pikinini’s right-handed break and the Nusa lefts.
Top tip: Nusa Island Retreat is a dreamy beachside base for surfing, snorkelling and diving.
Papua New Guinea’s most visually 'out there' clans are located in the Highlands. Their culture is maintained through traditional sing-sing and storytelling and the adherence to traditional costume, particularly in the case of the Huli Wigmen. Those lucky enough will get to share a pig roast mumu with sweet potato cooked in a pit.
Top tip: Cultural festivals like the Goroka or Hagen shows enable you to experience multiple Highland clans performing together.
Milne Bay Province covers a vast expanse of islands and ocean off Papua New Guinea’s north coast – home to some of the finest dives in the Pacific. Teeming coral reefs, wreckages of wartime bombers, wall dives, hammerhead shark encounters, and muck dives, offer sublime diversity accessed by a growing armada of liveaboard vessels.
Top tip: Gona Bara Bara Island south of Milne Bay supplies the incredible spectacle of a manta-ray cleaning station.
Among PNG’s fanciful menagerie of endemic species is a brightly toxic butterfly called the Queen Alexandra Birdwing with a wingspan measured up to 12 inches. The world’s largest butterfly can be sought in Oro Province at villages such as Ondahari. Community tourism is vital for this rare species to help promote its protection in the face of habitat loss.
Top tip: You can see specimens of the butterfly in Port Moresby’s Parliament Haus lobby among an amazing collection of goliath insects.
The 96 km-long Kokoda Track is the country’s most challenging hike. It guides trekkers through mountainous forest and crosses fast flowing rivers following the historic route defended by Australian troops and their brave Papuan comrades the ‘fuzzy-wuzzy angels’ in the face of the Japanese advance.
Top tip: Highly advised to hike with guides and porters, which can be sorted out with Kokoda Track Authority.
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