Friday, 09 October 2015

The surprising charm of Papua New Guinea

Jennifer Johnson discovers the charm of Papua New Guinea

Written by Jennifer Johnson
It is day one of our ten day cruise along the coast of Papua New Guinea. In the spacious upper deck lounge of the Oceanic Discoverer, our Coral Princess line expedition cruise ship, a small group of passengers is gathered to learn about the complimentary scuba diving lesson. 'Is anyone here a rock?' asks E.J., our enthusiastic instructor. She is hoping to encourage a few of us to have a go. We look blank. 'Do you sink?' she explains. A couple of the men look doubtful. They will stick to snorkelling.

Our daily expeditions will take us ashore, but there will also be plenty of opportunities to get into the clear blue water. The coral reefs here are among the healthiest, most diverse in the world. Most of the passengers prefer to stay at the surface, either snorkelling or sitting comfortably in the glass-bottomed boat with expert marine biologist Mike on hand to distinguish the lemon damsels from the blue green cromies. A few of us did opt to go deeper, and I was thrilled to swim close to the beautiful reef.

Our PNG adventure began in East New Britain, one of the islands to the east of the mainland. We flew in from Cairns to the small town of Rabaul: built by the Germans, occupied by the Japanese in WWII and almost destroyed by a volcano in 1994. But there is not much time to dwell on history, for here we join our ship.

The Oceanic Discoverer can carry up to 72 passengers; all the crew are Australian – as were most of the passengers – so the atmosphere was one of easy friendliness, with no unnecessary formality. There is even an 'open Bridge', so that the charming captain, Angus Moore, was visited from early light, always happy to answer questions or just to share the view. He explained to us that the ship was the only cruise vessel able to cross a sand bar that bars the entry to the great Sepik river. On day four, early in the morning, we did just that.

We sail along the northern coast of PNG, visiting small islands. The Oceanic Discoverer carries a custom-built, flat bottomed landing craft – the Xplorer - which is ingeniously designed to fit on to the back of the ship; when we are going ashore we walk straight aboard, no need to negotiate a gangplank – it is then lowered into the water and powerful outboard motors propel us smoothly to shore. . There is always a welcome, and no two are alike. One day, outrigger canoes escort us in, bearing singing villagers in traditional dress. On the beaches ceremonial archways , hanging with flowers, under which we troop, feeling a little overdressed in our travel kit and trainers. We are warned that the traditional welcome in MacLaren Harbour might be alarming. Sure enough, as we make our way along the forest path, half a dozen men leap out from behind the trees, menacing us with spears, shouting and making fierce faces. We look suitably fearful and are allowed to carry on into the clearings. Here we see how the women have their faces tattooed – a design is painted on the skin – it has to be approved by the girl and her family. Only then will the painful tattooing take place. Nowadays many of the girls are rejecting this custom – they hope to leave the village and find work in the town, where tattooed faces are less common.

At the Trobriand village of KuiawaTu all the children are lined up waiting to solemnly shake each one of us by the hand. Some of the braver whisper: 'Welcome'.

PNG-590-2

In every village the children are anxious to show us their schools. These are simple, open sided huts, often bare of furniture – for the only chairs in the village belong to the school and have been carried out for us to sit on while we watch the 'sing sings' – the traditional dances. In Dobu the headmistress's daughter, Mary, brings me an atlas.
'Please', she says 'show us where you live'. England puzzles her, it is so far away. 'It is where the Queen lives' I say; she is delighted and reassured. In a country where there are over 700 different languages, English is taught in all the schools; they all know about the Queen.

After the dances are over, wherever we are, the expedition leader, Jamie, presents the headman with a gift of books for the school. There seems to be a real feeling of friendship , cultivated by the Coral Princess company, which supports these villages in a practical way. We do our bit by buying artefacts, each island specialising in some different craft. There are fine wood carvings in the Trobriands, intricately carved wooden bowls in Tufi, and hand woven bags, 'bilin' everywhere in a range of sizes – the largest are used for carrying everything from yams to babies.

Tourism is still unfamiliar here, and though they do dress up for us to perform their traditional dances, they do so with a freshness and enthusiasm, undimmed by overexposure to outsiders. Children are particularly friendly, taking your hand to lead you around, and everyone is happy to be photographed, which is just as well.

Behind these coastal areas range the great highlands, swathes of unspoiled rainforest, home to the birds of paradise. It would be naive not to realise that already the logging interests of PNG's neighbour, Indonesia, will be eyeing this treasure, and it is true that the towns are uneasy places. The wonderfully healthy coral is threatened too, by the pollution of factory ships and the like. But there is a charm here, still, and a fine welcome awaits. Cocooned in the understated luxury of our cruise ship we were able to visit and experience a very special corner of the world, that is well worth the journey.

Cathay Pacific flies from London or Manchester to Cairns via Hong Kong. Lead in return fares to Cairns start from £1,039, in economy, £2,359 in Premium Economy and £3,899 in business class from London Heathrow, or £1,009 in economy, £2,329 in Premium Economy and £3,869 in business class from Manchester. For further information, visit www.cathaypacific.co.uk or call 0208 834 8888.


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