Papua New Guinea is an island nation in Oceania
There is evidence of human settlement as long ago as 35,000 years in what is now Papua New Guinea. This comes from an archaeological site at Matenkupkum, just south of Namatanai in New Ireland province. Other archaeological digs at several locations in New Ireland have discovered tools and food residue dating back 20,000 years.
In more modern times, Papua New Guinea (known popularly as 'PNG') - the eastern half of the island of New Guinea (which is the second largest island in the world) - was divided between Germany ('German New Guinea') and Great Britain ('British Papua') in 1884. The Dutch had West Papua, now the Indonesian territory of Papua. The southeast part of the island, also known as Papua, was owned by the UK but administered by Australia - and thus a colony of a colony - until Australian independence in 1901, when it became an Australian colony. In 1914 the Australians did their part in the Allied war effort and took control of German New Guinea, and continued to administer it as a Trust Territory under the League of Nations and (later) the United Nations. This was not just disinterested colonialism. Gold had been discovered in several places and was rapidly exploited. Remnants of vast gold dredges can still be seen in the Bulolo and Wau area.
During World War II New Guinea was the site of fierce fighting on land (at Buin and on the Kokoda Track) and sea (at the Battle of the Coral Sea). It was the first place in the war where the Japanese advance was checked and then reversed. After the war, both New Guinea and Papua were administered from the government center of Port Moresby on the south coast, in Papua. In 1975, the country - now united as 'Papua New Guinea' - achieved independence from Australia. Today Papua New Guinea continues to be the foremost country in Melanesia. The country struggles to fulfill the dreams of independence as economic stagnation, corruption, law and order problems, and a nine-year secessionist revolt on the island of Bougainville all conspire to make the country somewhat less than a tropical paradise.
The attempts by Bouganville to break away at the time of Independence led to a decision to offer the regions of the country a certain amount of political autonomy. Decentralization led to the establishment of nineteen provincial governments and the process of dividing up the country into unviable administrative units seems to be continuing, with a decision in 2009 to split both Southern Higlands and Western Highlands provinces into three new provinces.
In 2009 Papua New Guinea received 125,000 visitors, but only around 20% of these declared themselves as tourists. The country offers the traveler a true paradox. With little tourist infrastructure outside the main tourist areas, getting around can be tough. But Papua New Guineans themselves are wonderfully welcoming people who will go to great lengths to accommodate strangers. Tourism is well developed and growing in a handful of locations. Beyond these PNG is 120% adventure travel and not for the inexperienced or faint of heart.
For people who can make it out to PNG, the experience is unforgettable. PNG's incredible natural beauty is simply indescribable. Its unique flora and fauna includes enormous radiations of marsupials and birds, including the Raggiana bird-of-paradise (PNG's national symbol) and several species of tree kangaroos. Untouched coral reefs compete with spectacular WWII wrecks for the attention of divers, and the hiking is out of this world.
With rugged terrain, inter-tribal mistrust, and diverse languages, intermarriage between the peoples of PNG has, until recently, been very limited. Physical and facial appearance varies significantly throughout the country; from those who look almost Polynesian in some coastal areas, through the short, stocky Highlanders, to the tall and statuesque people of the area around Rabaul in New Britain and the dark-skinned inhabitants of Bouganville, who could almost come from Africa.
The central highlands of Papua New Guinea were not mapped until the 1930s and not effectively brought under government control until the late 1960s. As a result, the people of PNG are as interesting as the geography, flora, and fauna. Papua New Guinea is a place that often markets itself as 'the Last Unknown' or a place where you can still find 'Stone Age People'. Of course, telling a Papua New Guinean that you consider them a stone age savage is incredibly rude. And while you can - if you try hard enough - find old men who remember the first time they or anyone in their society saw metal, you'll also have trouble finding anyone who hasn't seen Titanic. Indeed, what makes Papua New Guinea so interesting today is not the fact that it is some sort of living museum, but its incredible dynamism. In the hundred-year shift from stone to steel to silicon, Papua New Guineans have turned the shortest learning curve in human history into one of the most colorful - and often idiosyncratic - experiments in modernity ever produced by human beings. Featuring ritual garb made of human hair and rolled up Instant Noodle wrappers, rap in Pidgin English, or tribal warriors named 'Rambo' for their valor in combat, Papua New Guinea's collision with global culture has been intense and fascinating. So don't worry about the fate of 'traditional culture' -- in the bar-room brawl between PNG and the global culture industry the biggest worry is keeping PNG from pummeling global culture to a pulp.
Papua New Guinea is just to the south of the equator and has a tropical climate. In the highlands, though, temperatures are distinctly cool. The (very) wet season runs from about December to March. The best months for trekking are June to September.
The country is situated on the Pacific Ring of Fire, at the point of collision of several tectonic plates. There are a number of active volcanoes, and eruptions are frequent. Earthquakes are relatively common, sometimes accompanied by tsunamis.
The country's geography is diverse and, in places, extremely rugged. A spine of mountains, the New Guinea Highlands, runs the length of the island of New Guinea, forming a populous highlands region mostly covered with tropical rainforest. Dense rainforests can be found in the lowland and coastal areas as well as very large wetland areas surrounding the Sepik and Fly rivers. This terrain has made it difficult for the country to develop transportation infrastructure. In some areas, airplanes are the only mode of transport. The highest peak is Mount Wilhelm at 4,509 metres (14,793 ft). Papua New Guinea is surrounded by coral reefs which are under close watch to preserve them.
There are many great books about Papua New Guinea, including great fiction as well as non-fiction. An excellent book for the general reader about Papua New Guinea is Sean Dorney's Papua New Guinea: People, Politics, and History Since 1975. The third edition is the best, but it is pretty hard to find outside of Australia (and is not that easy to find there).
John Laurel Ryan, a former employee of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), also wrote an excellent book, "The Hot Land" which was published about 1970. Among other fascinating historical information it contains accounts of various manifestations of cargo cult, John Teosin's "baby garden" on Buka Island, and eye-witness reports that have been rigidly suppressed in other media about the Indonesian takeover of what was formerly Dutch West Papua. This excellent and at times disturbing book will also be hard to find, and sadly its author even harder!
The South Australian Museum in Adelaide has an excellent exhibit on Papua New Guinea that includes many historical artifacts and good documentation and reports from the early missionaries that worked among the PNG tribes.
PNG can be conveniently divided into 11 regions (7 on the main island and 4 island regions):
Jackson International Airport in Port Moresby is the nation's international airport. Port Moresby is an expensive, dangerous, and unappealing city with nothing of interest for the tourist. It would be best to book your internal flight to leave Port Moresby the same day as your international flight making it unnecessary to leave the airport. Madang, Wewak, Goroka, and Mt. Hagen are much safer than Port Moresby and Lae and the best places to begin your journey in PNG.
PNG's ports include Madang, Lae, and Port Moresby on the mainland, Kieta on Bougainville, and Rabaul and Kimbe on New Britain. However these only service internal ferries. International ferries are unavailable.
There are also cruises such as the Coral Princess and ones from Aurora Expeditions .
The only land border is with Papua (Irian Jaya), Indonesia, and crossing it involves some preparations but is not that difficult as it might have been. In Jayapura, Indonesia you'll find a PNG consulate to apply for a tourist visa. The PNG consulate is located in Mendi, a ten minute green PMV (public motor vehicle) ride away from Jayapura's capital. The price is 2000 rupiah on any PMV.
Depending on your Indonesian visa there are different options to cross the border. If you have a Visa-on-Arrival, issued to you for example at the Jakarta Airport, you can only cross the border using a boat or by stamping out at customs in Jayapura and then immediately traveling to the border 30km away. Western travelers attempting the latter should expect to pay some miscellaneous fees and jump moderate bureaucratic hoops before leaving. Boats can be rented from Hamedi. Any other type of visa you can rent a car, or an ojek and cross the land border. If renting a vehicle for the crossing one should expect to pay approximately 300,000 rupiah from Jayapura town and travelers should expect to pay upwards of 500,000 rupiah to return from the border to Jayapura.
Papua New Guinea is a strange place when it comes to travel. The tropical conditions, fierce geography, and lack of government capacity means there are very few paved roads in the country.
With the exception of a brief span of road connecting it to the immediate hinterland and a road that will enable you to follow the coast southeast for a few hours, there are no major roads linking Port Moresby to anywhere else.
On the north coast, a tenuous highway runs from Madang to Wewak only in theory.
The big exception to this is the Highlands Highway, which begins in Lae (the country's main port) and runs up into the highlands through Goroka to Mt. Hagen with a fork going back to the coast and Madang. Shortly outside Mt. Hagen the road branches, with southern line going through the Southern Highlands to Tari while the northern line runs through Enga province and ends in Porgera.
The most common way to travel is by PMV/bus with the locals.
Lae, Madang, Goroka, Tari, and Mount Hagen are all connected by a good highway. As a newcomer it is probably advisable to get help from locals (e.g., hotel-staff). Most towns have several starting points. A trip from Lae to Madang costs around 20 Kina, to Mt. Hagen 30 Kina.
Papua New Guinea has historically been one of the world centers for aviation and still features some of the most spectacular flying in the world. In the 1920s, Lae was the busiest airport in the world - it was there that aviators in the gold mining industry first proved that it was commercially feasible to ship cargo (and not just people) by air. In fact, Lae was where Amelia Earhart set off on her last journey.
Air transport is still the most common way to get around between major urban centers - indeed, pretty much every major settlement is built around an airstrip. In fact, the main drag of Mt. Hagen is the old airstrip! Travel from the coast into the highlands is particularly spectacular (don't take your eyes off the window for a second!) and pilots from America, Australia, and other countries work in PNG at reduced salaries just for the great flying. If you don't like small planes (or even smaller helicopters!) however, flying to more remote locations in PNG may not be the best option for you.
Madang, Wewak, Goroka, and Mt. Hagen are much safer than Port Moresby and Lae and the best places to fly in and out of.
The two major domestic airlines are Air Niugini and Airlines PNG.
People living in PNG's archipelagos get around locally with the ubiquitous banana boat - a thirty or forty foot fiberglass hull with an outboard motor.
In addition, two or three shipping lines also sell tickets for passengers who want to leapfrog from one city to another. These ferries run only two or three times per week and offer upper and lower class. Upper gets you a bunk to sleep on while lower gets you a hard seat.
There is a ferry twice a week between Madang and Wewak.
One small ship leaves the city of Lae once a week, stopping at Finschhafen and Umboi Island. Sleeping on the open deck of a ship as it crawls slowly through the South Pacific night is about as romantic as it sounds, but beware - it gets cold on the open ocean no matter where you are, so take some warm clothes or buy a cabin inside.
The Kokoda Trail is a 60-mile trail, beginning in the Port Moresby area and leading up into the Owen Stanley Range. This trail was first used by gold miners in the 1890s and is most known as a historical World War II site as the Japanese tried to reach Port Moresby along it. It takes about five days to hike this track, which includes plenty of ups and downs between mountain ridges and streams.
The Highland region is made of long string of fertile valleys, each separated by mountains, that mean the Highlands are composed of many distinct tribal regions.
In the Eastern Highlands is Mount Wilhelm, Papua New Guinea's highest mountain (14,880 feet). Climbing Wilhelm is relatively easy; but three or four days are recommended to allow for sightseeing. There are views of both the north and south coasts of New Guinea from the peak. The Wahgi River in this area is considered one of the best whitewater rafting destinations in the world.
With over 800 languages, it was pretty difficult to get everyone talking to each other. Two pidgins grew up in this area; Tok Pisin and Hiri Motu, and when the Anglophones married the Hulis and the babies learned the only language they had in common, Tok Pisin became a creole. Tok Pisin sometimes looks like it is English written phonetically ("Yu dring; yu draiv; yu dai" means "You drink; you drive; you die"), but it is not; it has more personal pronouns than English and its own quite different syntax.
Tok Pisin is spoken in most of the country and short inexpensive guidebooks on learning Tok Pisin can be acquired in the many bookstores.
Hiri Motu is spoken in Port Moresby and other parts of Papua, though since Port Moresby is the capital, you're likely to find Tok Pisin speakers in the airport, banks, or government. When approaching locals, try to speak English first; using Tok Pisin or another language can make it look like you are assuming they don't know English.
You might sometimes have trouble hearing what the locals are saying because they speak very quietly. It is considered rude by some of the local groups to look people in the eyes and to speak loudly.
Go scuba diving, using one of more than a dozen local scuba diving operators. The national Scuba Diving industry body is a good starting point. Papua New Guinea has some of the very best tropical reef diving anywhere in the word.
PNG is a birdwatching mecca with over 700 species of birds including many birds of paradise. Definitely bring a pair of decent binoculars and ask in the villages for a volunteer to help you find the birds. An amazing experience!
Information through the Surfing Association of PNG .
Another popular attraction here is trekking through the mountains, coastal lowlands and rolling foothills of the Kokoda and other trails. The Kokoda Track attracts many hundreds of walkers a year.
The most popular activities for tourists here are festivals such as the The Sing-Sing performances at the annual Goroka and Mt. Hagen shows. During these shows, there are usually more than fifty ensembles that turn up. The festivals are competitive and the winning ensemble is rewarded by being invited to give concerts at many restaurants and hotels during the following year. This beauty and colorfulness of New Guinea’s festivals is both pleasing to watch for tourists and helps the locals financially.
Fishing is becoming increasingly popular in PNG. Species include Black Marlin, Blue Marlin, Sailfish, Yellow Fin, Skipjack and Dogtooth Tuna and the Giant Trevally. Mahi Mahi (Dolphin Fish), Mackerel and Wahoo. A particularly challenging fish is the black bass, which, pound for pound, is considered to be the toughest fighting fish in the world.
Flightseeing is a word that should have been coined in PNG. If you can afford it, just flying around some of PNG's remote airstrips is an adventure in itself. There are strips that seem impossibly short, strips that seem to end with a mountain, strips where if you don't take off in time you will plunge into a ravine, and airstrips surrounded on three sides by water. From Port Moresby you don't have to fly far to get the experience. There are flights to villages on the Kokoda trail and others in the Owen Stanley mountain range in Central Province and you can fly a scheduled circuit or "milk run" in one morning, although you will have to be at the airpiort by 5am. Check with Airlines PNG for schedules. Fane, Ononge and Tapini strips are particularly scary. Don't forget your life insurance!
There is not so much shopping in the regular sense to be had in PNG. In the major cities there are a few malls and supermarkets. Otherwise most of the shopping is done in small markets that are held at irregular intervals. A great place to visit is the craft market which is held once per month in Port Moresby opposite Ela beach in the car park of the IEA TAFE College. There it is possible to buy handicrafts from every part of the country. Although it is slightly more expensive than out in the villages, the prices are very reasonable. Haggling is not really an accepted custom, one can haggle a bit but to do it excessively could annoy the locals.
Don't buy bird feathers.
PNG food is largely devoid of spices. A typical way of cooking is a Mumu, an underground oven in which meat and vegetables, such as Kaukau (sweet potatoes), are cooked. In just about every meal that PNG's inhabitants eat there is rice and another form of starch.
In the lodges that tourists stay in there is usually a blend between this type of food and a more westernized menu.
There are brands of local beer in PNG. The local brew, SP (short for South Pacific) Lager, is owned by Heineken. Excessive alcohol consumption, primarily of beer, is a major social problem. Beers and wines are often served fairly warm due to a lack of refrigeration in certain areas. Also, while the water quality varies from place to place (and in some cases from day to day), it is generally best to stick to bottled water, even in the upper-market hotels.
Papua New Guinea offers a wide choice of accommodation for tourists with very little of it budget.
Hotels are very expensive (~$100/night). Guesthouses are the best budget option in the towns but even then still expensive (~$40/night.) The least expensive option is to stay in village guesthouses (~$15/night) - and that's where the fun is anyhow.
Port Moresby has international hotels including the Crown Plaza and Airways International, mid range hotels such as Lamana and guesthouses. The regional areas offer International and budget hotels depending on the size of the town and some provinces have guest houses. There is a new eco-tourist lodge in Alotau called Ulumani Treetops Lodge, the place is beautiful overlooking the Milne Bay and offers a new bungalow or backpacker options.
There is a very expensive lodge ($200/night!) that sits on the edge of Tari basin called Ambua Lodge that is run by Australians. This lodge is "an inspired mixture of local architecture, spectacular views and modest luxury off the beaten track." It is in the Tari Gap 2100 metres in the PNG Southern Highlands, which is the homeland of the Huli clan with their human hair wigs adorned with colourful flowers. It borders on the mid-montane rain forest and grasslands which gives a spring feeling all year round. This lodge won the 1991 Pacific Asia Travel Association's Pacific Heritage Award which sighted due to it's "superb example of culturally sensitive and ecological responsible tourism."
A stones throw down the road from Ambua Lodge is the more rustic Warili Lodge that is run by locals, is only $20/night, and offers birdwatching as good as, or better, than what is offered at Ambua Lodge.
PNG has a workforce of close to two million people in a few different industries. Thre is high demand for skilled people but it is still difficult for women and men that are considered to be "unskilled" to find work. Many people have informal small businesses to make money.
PNG has a reputation as a risky destination in some circles (primarily Australian ones.) This is due predominantly to the activities of criminal gangs (known in Tok Pisin as raskols) in major cities, especially in Port Moresby and Lae.
Raskolism is generally a result of unemployment stemming from increased domestic migration from subsistence farming in the hills to the nearest urban area.
Understand that there is no history of heavy settlement in the Port Moresby and Lae areas. Hence, they are colonial cities comprised of a mix of tribal people which fosters instability. Madang, Wewak, Goroka, Mt. Hagen, and Tari are much safer with longer periods of settlement and a more stable tribal homogeneity.
The villages are quite safe. The locals will "adopt" you as one of their own.
If you are planning a trip to PNG, don't spend time in the cities. They are boring and devoid of the culture to be found in the villages. But if you must, the most important thing is to stay up to date on the law and order situation in the locations you are planning to visit.
Most hotels in Port Moresby are secure and situated inside compounds, generally with guards patrolling the perimeter. Don't be alarmed, as actual gunfire in the capital is mercifully rare. If planning on taking a tour of any city, make inquiries with your hotel or accommodation provider, as many will be able to either walk with you or drive you to wherever you are planning to go, or just around the local area if that is what you want to do.
Don't go out after dark. If you must, stay very alert.
Flying in small planes can be very risky. Hardly a year goes by without at least one fatal accident (the most recent in August 2009 when 12 people were killed). While the planes are usually well-maintained and the pilots technically proficient the problem is the mountainous terrain. Many smaller airfields are situated in steep valleys. When there is cloud cover planes have difficulty in finding them and sometimes crash into a mountain. The national airline, Air Niugini, which flies internationally and to the major cities of the country has, however, an unblemished safety record in 32 years of operation.
Saltwater Crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) are very common in Papua New Guinea and are capable of growing to immense lengths of 7 meters or more (although individuals over 6 meters are rare). They can and do occasionally devour humans and should be shown respect at all times. They are equally at home in coastal waters as they are in freshwater lakes and rivers. Swimming is generally not advised except at higher elevations and in hotel swimming pools. Papua New Guinea, along with Australia, has the highest and healthiest population of large Saltwater Crocodiles in the world.
Papua New Guinea is home to many active volcanoes and several of the most popular treks involve getting close or actually climbing one or more of these. Always heed local advice and a regular check of The Smithsonian Institute's Volcanic Activity Report would be wise.
Tap water in some regions can be unsafe to drink.
Malaria can be a hazard as well, although many villages - particularly those connected to industry - are regularly treated for mosquitoes. Take the appropriate precautions against mosquitoes and mosquito-borne diseases.
Malaria medication can be purchased at the pharmacies and, in addition to warding of malaria, will keep your stomach happy as well.
As in many Melanesian cultures, greeting people with a friendly handshake is very important. Be aware, however, that it is a sign of respect not to make eye contact when this is being done. The sight of hotel staff calling you by name, shaking your hand and looking at the floor may seem unusual at first.