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Be Prepared For The Unexpected In Papua New Guinea

Harold Stephens takes readers on a journey to the land of headhunters, gold speculators, volcanoes, and more.

Papua New Guinea bills itself, for tourist promotion reasons, as the "land of the unexpected."

If anything, it's an understatement. Papua New Guinea, spelled Nuigini for short, or even shorter yet, PNG, is one of the true adventure holiday areas left in the world today. And despite high crime and overinflated currency, it can make for a memorable trip for the few--a scant 8,000 visitors a year--who brave the trip.

PNG is a divided country, geographically and politically. It's an island, approaching the size of a continent, that is divided down the middle, east from west. The eastern half, called Papua New Guinea, has been independent for a dozen years, while the western half is the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya. The twain never meet.

This division stems from colonial times: parts of the island were bounced around among the Dutch, German, British, and--after they got it from the Germans in World War I--Australians.

After the war, the discovery of gold and the beautiful and fertile valleys of the Highlands prompted Australian development.

The Dutch half of New Guinea, with less then half the population the Australian side had, and much less agricultural ant mineral potential, lagged behind. It still remains an unknown land today.

Despite the development, Papua continues to be a juxtaposition of modern costal towns and a strange mixture of remote tribes in untouched regions. Wild jungles, wild river, beautiful coral seas are all part of Papua New Guinea, and awaiting the adventure traveller.

Is Papua New Guinea worth the considerable expense?

The answer is yes--if you are looking for something different, and are willing to pay for it. The other question, of course, is how is it? Are the stories true about crime in the streets? Yes, they are true, as one government official told me, but when you are in America, do you go to the streets of New York} to see the country? And as for the tribal fights that break out in the Highlands, the same official replied, "Yes, but they stop fighting and pose for you when they see you have a camera."

Trying to run tourism in a country that has to face such conditions does lead to problems. "Since we are dealing with Stone Age people," one tour leader informed me, "it's not them we have to educate but the visitors who come here."

In a very real sense, the man is right. The population of eastern New Guinea is estimated to be about 3 million people, over 90 per cent of whom live in the rural areas. The country is still basically a tribal society with an estimated 70 different languages and dlalects. Pidgin English is the common language. Although the level of inter-tribal warfare and even head hunting has been drastically reduced, there are still some primitive tribes in the remote regions which as yet have barely been touched by modern society.

In Rabaul I met an out-of-work tourist guide from Southern California. A man with considerable experience in white-water river rafting in Colorado, he took the job of leading river expeditions in New Guinea. He quit after six months. "Tourists were paying thousands of dollars for a week's trip," he said, "and each time I never I knew if we were going to make it."

He told about having a dozen American tourists in a rubber raft, coming down a stretch of churning rapids, and suddenly seeing ahead that the natives had chopped down trees to block their passage. "It was no joke," he said. "They weren't out to sell artifacts."

The young guide didn't wait to ask what they wanted. He instructed the passengers to lay down on the bottom of the raft, and he bolted right for the centre of the trees, crashing through, breaking the oars. The Papuans began firing arrows with their bows. "But they are bad shots," the guide remarked. "We're lucky they never learned to put feathers on their arrows, or we would be goners now."

This wasn't the only such occasion; there were a number of others that made him consider changing work. "But the tourists loved it. They think it's part of the show, put on for the effect."

The tales they tell about the Highlands never end. I had to fly up to Mount Hagen to see the gold fields for myself. Here, as in the gold fields in California in 1849 and the Kalgoorlie strikes in Australia soon after, fortunes are made and lost overnight. But unlike in America and Australia, this is not for foreigners. Prospecting is strictly limited to the area's tribal owners and their relatives. Outsiders are asked to stay away. And if chance you do come upon gold, there's nothing you can do with it. The law prohibits the export of gold without a licence. There are notices to the effect at all sea and ports: no gold is to be taken out of Papua New Guinea.

I talked to one Australian turned PGN citizen. He had been the country 26 years and sells cars. His problem is that he can't get vehicles fast enough to sell them. They go as soon as a shipment comes in, at any price he names. He told how he sold a pickup truck "to one bloke" who went up to Mount Kare--an inhospitable place as one can image, but oozing with that yellow stuff--to pick up his clan members for a bash in town. They came back, 14 in the back of the truck, and went to the bank. Each came out with 7,900 kina, about US$10,000, and a week later were broke and headed back to the hills. For those who want to see Papua New Guinea, my advice is to stay out of the gold fields, as you would stay out of the moonshine distilling country of Kentucky and Tennessee in America when you visited the South, and go to those places that are geared up for tourists.

If you are energetic and want to see some World War II history, hike the Kokoda Trail. During World War II, the Japanese invaded the island but never managed to capture Port Moresby, although they got very close at one time. As the tide of the war turned, the Japanese were pushed back in a long and gruelling fight up the Kokoda Trail. Energetic bushwalkers can follow that same trail from the south to the north coast today.

Lae is a town worth visiting. It is the busiest town in Papua New Guinea and serves as the gateway to the Highlands. Prior to the war, Lae was just a little missionary settlement. Earlier attempts by the Germans to settle there had been a complete failure because of malaria. They found Rabaul, on New Britain Island in the north, more to their liking.

Don't miss the Highlands.

Until the 1930s, the Highlands of New Guinea were terra incognita. The first Europeans reached Mount Hagen only in 1933. You can imagine their surprise when those seemingly empty hills, thought to be covered only with a tangle of impenetrable jungle, turned out to be a neat patchwork of hundreds of tiny villages connected by endless trails. Today the Highlands Highway is the core of the most extensive road system in PNG. They're not particularly smooth or comfortable roads but there are plenty of them.

Heading up the Highway from Lae to Goroka, stop at Zuim, about 130 km out. Traditional, unglazed pottery is made in this village and you can see examples of pots and bowls--the clay beaten out and the pottery turned by hand.

A prime Goroka attraction are the Asaro Mudmen. When performing their traditional chants and dances, the tribesmen cover their bodies with mud and don fearsome clay helmets. Actually, they are not as fearsome as they look.

From Goroka, the Highway continues through the Chimbu province to Kundiawa, another good village of handicraft shops. Mendi, 137 km south of Mount Hagen, is in part of the most isolated and primitive country of the Highlands area.

Madang is considered by some travellers to be the nicest town in PNG. It's green and garden-like, and a little more compact so you don't have to walk so much to find things to see and do. Swimming and diving are excellent. In the centre of town is an old graveyard, from the German New Guinea period.

The places I favour are the northern islands of New Britain and New Ireland. They are without the malaria and other diseases found in the south, and the people themselves differ. There is a distinct cultural difference between the natives here and the Papuans living on the mainland mountain range. These islanders are the Tolai of New Guinea, tall, with delicate. features and very dark skin. The women can be strikingly handsome. The Tolai were also the most fearsome cannibals. Rabaul is their centre and main town.

The Germans made Rabaul their headquarters in 1907 and laid out the town. It rapidly flourished with the production of copra. At the start of World War I, the small German command was rapidly overrun by the Aussies and the town became the capital of Australia's New Guinea colony.

Rabaul is the centre of the most active volcanic region in the South Pacific. In 1936, the spectacular eruptions of Matupit and Vulcan volcanoes in Rabaul harbour did remarkably little damage to the town but forever changed the contour of the landscape.

The prospect of further eruptions prompted a decision to transfer the New Guinea capital to Lae. World War II halted that project. The Japanese invaded and held the impregnable fortress until the end of the war.

During its German period, Rabaul had many Chinese, Filipino, Malay and Ambonese immigrants. Their descendants make Rabaul the most cosmopolitan city in PNG. The Gazelle Peninsula area around Rabaul has an extensive road network and there are many interesting drives.

All the major towns and many of the smaller ones are served by Air Nuigini with Fokker Friendship aircraft. On the mainland there is connecting bus service between the towns, and coast ferries serve the islands. You can also travel by rented car, four-wheel drive preferable. Take a lot of money, and be prepared for the unexpected.

Harold Stephens is one of Southeast Asia's best known writers. Having lived in the area most of his adult life, he's authored 17 books--most recently, The Last Voyage, about his 18-year journey aboard a schooner he built himself--and more than 3,500 newspaper and magazine articles, covering everything from travel to jungle exploring and searching for lost cities. He lives in Bangkok and the San Francisco area. This article originally appeared in the Bangkok Post.


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