Athens, Rome, Hong Kong, Manila, Port Moresby. The first four flights (from a total of sixteen), while almost at the same time, a tropical cyclone in Hong Kong kept on the ground all flights on the previous day, threatening to blow our schedule up in the Asian air. Two days of traveling with a stopover in the Philippines, in the hot, wet and air polluted Manila.
After more than 40 hours we finally arrive in Port Moresby, the capital of the legendary Papua New Guinea. Without any previous arrangements except our flights, we will dare to discover a few of the secrets of the most unexplored country in the world. With over a thousand different tribes and respective languages, the anthropological diversity is extremely unique, while until few years ago, many isolated tribes were still engaged in cannibalistic habits. We won’t get much into details about the local “cuisine” for the moment. We won’t stay in Port Moresby for long as we need to catch another four-hour flight to the city of Wewak, on the north coast of the island. After futile attempts to find fair exchange rate between Euro and PNG Kina, we depart.
The view from above is magnificent, but the smell in the cabin is unbearable. I got up to change seat before the seatbelt sign turned off and got scolded by the air hostess. The seat change did not produce any results. The stink was intense even at the empty seat area of the plane… all passengers had the same smell! I’ve been to many places where conditions and people’s habits neglect personal hygiene but still this was a new experience for me. I hoped I’d get used to this odour experience that would eventually accompany the entire journey.
After a few stops at various airports, we arrive in the afternoon on the small airstrip of Wewak. The trip however does not stop here either. We have to find some form of transportation to Sepik River in order to not lose a day so there’s no time to waste. Loaded with our heavy backpacks we start walking the streets …with no destination. The PMVs (Public Motor Vehicles) had already left in the morning so we had to find a private means of transport. A first encounter with the country’s prices fill us with despair. As time passes closer to sunset, three overloaded, worn out white guys find themselves waiting frustrated in an unknown land. The locals though curious of the white-skinned people, are polite, friendly. As soon as the darkness falls though, things might get dangerous, according to all info describing the situation in PNG. A Land Cruiser stops and the driver kindly talks to us. We ask him for a lift to Pagwi, a four-hour drive. The initial fare is less than half compared to those found so far. We haggle for even less and off we go. We get told that the car belongs to some charity organization… and probably this explains the price deal. A dense jungle landscape appears as we ascend the road leaving behind a purple sunset over the sea.
Night arrival in Pagwi. The road ends by a few shacks on the river shore and our guide (and also our travel book) informs us that there is only one guesthouse in the village. It is also too dangerous to walk around after dark looking for something else. Our guesthouse introduces us to the absurdity of the worst value for money I’ve ever met. With a price of a normal hotel, we are offered two filthy rooms with small beds and worn, aged mattresses. There is probably enough bed fauna that would interest an entomologist, like fleas, ticks and bed bugs. Seems wiser to lay on my sleeping bag. In the bathroom two huge cockroaches beckon with their antennae. I prefer to use the garden as my toilet before I enjoy a cold traditional bucket shower. Dinner is out of the question. We’ll delude our hunger with some cereal bars that will become our basic food from now on.
Waking up to a foggy landscape, the Sepik River unfolds before me, twisting like a snake for about 1000 km in the tropical jungle. The largest river of the country is home to one of the greatest concentrations of crocodiles in the world. The importance of this reptile on the beliefs of the river tribes’, is reflected in many ways, for one on the ’embroided’ skin of many men which resembles that of a crocodile.
We walk around the busy shore looking for a canoe to head upstream to our destination, Ambunti, where the annual Crocodile Festival takes place.
Despite the importance of the event, no boat is going to Ambunti and fuel for private transportation seemed expensive. It takes a few hours to find a canoe but the delay is compensated by endless images, people loading supplies to the dozens of canoes on this stunning setting.
Eventually we find a boat. We have also run out of bottled water as the heat intensifies our thirst. In many parts of the country the only drinking water you can get is rain water! Luckily, at that moment we find a supply shop on a nearby river island.
The river crossing is magnificent. Brown waters surrounded by palm trees, small riverside settlements sparsely interrupting the amazing scenery. …Amazon, Orinoco, Mekong … or another great river gets confused in my mind, making me forget where I am.
After about 3 hours, Ambunti appears. Small shacks are scattered around the settlement, a church with a tall sheet-metal steeple, bright green grass and in the background a hill with dense jungle. We disembark and start looking for accommodation but the only guesthouse is fully occupied by the gold mining company and their guests. The gold mining company is also the sponsor of the festival, probably in return for the environmental damage caused.
One of us stays behind with the luggage while the other two start searching for a place to stay. The choices are all similar. Bamboo huts with hard floors, no mattresses, without any doors or even exterior walls, open on almost all sides, at ridiculously high prices. Same goes for the sheet-metal church’s guesthouse. Disappointment. Nevertheless the friendliness of the locals becomes very helpful. Full of curiosity and personal interest every local we met offers to help us. After many unsuccessful attempts, someone offers us the most unexpected accommodation ever!
A decommissioned boat on the river, previously used as a boat-clinic offering aid to the remote villages. Lack of funding for fuel has tied this ship down for a while now. Three bunk beds, a cute living room and some hard to find facilities like electric-solar panels and water from a reservoir, will convert our stay to a five-star experience at the lowest cost. The five stars of the visible Southern Cross and the milky way will illuminate the sky tonight. After so many days of traveling we will enjoy a bucket shower on the ship’s deck and freshly cooked food – white rice and noodles prepared by our host’s wife, in a country where restaurants are practically non existent! The comfortable beds and clean sheets, will make my eyes close into a sweet sleep.
Our second day in Sepik starts with breakfast on board brought by our host. We’ve run out of drinking water so tea is more than welcome. A few of the many cereal bars we carry will complete the menu. Lack of bottled water begins to become a problem. We have to drink rain water disinfected with purification tablets. This gives it an awful toxic taste that makes you doubt what’s more risky, to use the tablets or not?
Today is the day of rehearsals for the Crocodile Festival. Just before the festival area, we meet a small flea market where one can purchase various goods in small quantities. The components of betel nut dominate the market as well as peanuts, tobacco in small bunches, vegetables and red popsicles in nylon tubes. There is also black dried meat from the mythical bird called Cassowary.
At the festival area we meet some of the first half-naked ladies, happily posing for us and thanking us for the honor.
More and more tribes are starting to prepare their costumes for their frenzied dances. Various feathers of the Cassowary and other birds, shells, grass skirts, crocodile and warthog teeth, bows and spears and of course full body painting are just a few of the materials and methods used for these traditional costumes. Costume decorations are completed with young live crocodiles, mouths tied, worn by men, women and children. All of them proudly pose for photos. Even in their wild primitive appearance, on every click of my camera I get a kind reply in fluent English: Thank you sir.
Today there are almost no white people around. I will let myself go there, become assimilated into the ecstatic fuddle of the tribal dances. I want to paint myself, to dress up in a costume with live crocodiles and disappear along with the natives. Curiously they watch on, perhaps for the first time, a white guy chewing betelnut and spitting, like they do through their rotten teeth …
Betelnut… is the disgusting and unhealthy habit of every man and woman of any age there. Three components are chewed simultaneously. The fruit of a soft nut and a special twig dipped in white powder made from limestone and powdered shells. Apart from its direct stimulatory effect, it causes profuse salivation tinting your mouth bright red, and of course all the surrounding area as it is spat out continuously by stuffy mouths. I see a child about 9 years old with a crimson mouth. “Why do you chew this thing, little boy? It is not good for your health! ” I ask. “It’s Our customs sir” he answers leaving me stunned… From what I personally realize, it is strange for them to see a white man chewing and some consider it a great honor.
Here I am in what feels like my native environment. I am rather addicted to the decline of the tropics, the sticky sweat, the malaria infected mosquitoes, the abjection. I miss my bed, my clean clothes. But I don’t wanna leave. Maybe my mind is going mad like Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now. I am here, lost in an unknown place that absorbs me, making me want to stay forever in this sticky tropical humidity.
Maybe I am even used to the heavy, unbearable odor of the people here. Maybe I smell the same although I am diligent with my western hygiene. Bucket shower… nude white skin by the river with dozens of eyes watching and laughter from passing canoes.
Last night, the milky way stars with the Southern Cross dominated the sky. Tonight a tropical storm brews, a mini hurricane drops heavy rain. The river is shining, the sky sparkling behind palm trees and explosive thunderstorms wake us up in the middle of the night.
Νext morning the sun isn’t shining in the foggy Sepik landscape. The rain continues sporadically and has us worried about the festival activities. At least we experienced enough yesterday. A small cruise boat appears on the river, full of middle-aged white skinned tourists who came to live their part of the experience, in clean conditions that Ι’m not jealous of. I will fill my bottle with water flowing from the dirty gutter of the boat and will dive in the brown water of the overflowing river. As time passes and the rain abates, more canoes with participants emerge. Today their “luggage” is heavier. Huge, tied crocodiles transported to participate in the ceremony. During the event, our interaction at times feels somehow “infected” to some extent, by the sight of typical plump tourists trying to collect their share of photos, sometimes exploiting our interaction with the adorable participants. Despite this little optical interference, the crocodile festival remains authentic, non-touristic, a lifetime experience …
The acerbate taste of betelnut and the subsequent loss of saliva in combination with the unbearable heat and humidity make the need for a cold beer imperative. Although it is easier to find beer than bottled water, it’s not sold around the festival area because alcohol can easily make the situation become out of control. Instead, some kids offer to take us somewhere to buy. The helpfulness of the locals is offered generously without any expectation of anything in return. For some reason they’re happy to interact with strangers and they’re not intimidated by long walks under the scorching sun. Our efforts are in vain as we could only find warm beers. For dinner we had ordered chicken or a little pork, fish or crocodile. In this particular festival crocodile is the honored animal and may not be slaughtered, pork is only for special occasions so they bring us a chicken… a live one! Didn’t we clarify something? Perhaps they wanted our approval before they slaughter it. Our host’s wife was surprisingly a great cook, something hard to find in the rest of the country.
The day of departure arrives. The Sepik experience was so strong that even if the trip ended here, I would feel fulfilled. Looking back through the memories, I wish I’d stayed longer in the Sepik area, following river routes exploring remote villages. But in a country without roads, the visitor is bound by expensive flights on fixed dates.
Seeking again transportation… Our public relations and the kindness of a young Australian guy from the gold mining company, offered us free boat ride to Pagwi and then by car to the Wewak including many many beers.
Now back in the civilization of Wewak town, though conditions are not significantly upgraded. The guesthouse is average but the food satisfactory. Just in front, there’s a vast beach stretching with the warm, calm waters of the Bismarck Sea, offering a pleasant swim by the colors of sunset.
Next day found us wandering around the town of Wewak. We run out of local exchange and fortunately the banks here have very good exchange rate. Despite rumors regarding the danger of the PNG’s cities, we met helpful and kind people here as well. The coastal background scattered with cargo ships, a colorful local market and even some super markets with things to buy for breakfast but with plenty small cockroaches running on the shelves.
Flying back to Port Moresby in a plane with the familiar odor again. I still need time to get used to it.
Hotels provide free transportation from the airport despite that their facilities are usually not worth their price. Three guys squeezed again in a double room with shared bathroom. Another bad night sleep. Awaiting for the islands…
Small dots of land lost in the Solomon sea, a coral atolls archipelago constitutes the Trobriand islands, known to anthropologists as “islands of love” because of traditionally sexual freedom in these societies. During the ceremonies of “milamala”, celebrating Yam harvest -a sweet potato variety- these habits is said to revive in some degree. Don’t imagine a kind of sexual paradise and do not rush to get on the next flight. The plane approaches Kiriwina island revealing bright turquoise shallow waters around the south tip. Adults and kids hanging by the fence, admiring the sight of the small plane. The pilot gets off too, to buy some crabs from a fisherman while we embark on a truck with a remote village destination. The book mentioned that the big chief of the island is living there, usually sitting on a chair under his house.
This was the most accurate reference of the book. We indeed found the paramount chief, the supreme leader of the island, relaxing on a plastic chair under the sole brick house of the area. The chief did not speak English and the interpretation of a deputy explained that we wished to be accommodated in the village. The chief agreed, following the agreement of the price of a hut. Not too cheap but this is not just any house. Outside of the entrance stands a bronze plaque informing that here stayed the famous anthopologist of 20th century, Bronisław Malinowski. Obviously it’s been rebuilt since then, however, we evicted the current owner and probably the spirit of Mr. Malinowski.
As genuine westerners used to comforts, we started to arrange our dinner ordering fish, bottled water and other facilities such as power generator. This began to increase the costs and we felt ripped off a bit.
Some boys offered to accompany us to the nearest beach, about 4-5 km away. Arriving we met few villagers, children and a kind woman with her baby who asked us a cigarette. In perfect english she explained that she had been off the island for studies, then chose to return back, get married and live the leisurely island pace. The sea was rough despite the reef barrier that abates the fury of the ocean. Shallow water and sharp corals made swimming not much enjoyable. Eventually we discovered that the water was full of strange small jellyfish with blue poisonous tentacles! A dolphin leaped joyfully out in the open sea…
Dinner was disappointing. Only Yam, sweet potatoes and tapioca. With the second bite, excessive starch acted as glue is my thirsty mouth. Fish were not found. Neither bottled water. Fortunately there was tea. An electricity generator sponsored by us, offered happy time to the whole village that has gathered below the lamp, observing the strange foreigners. I decide to risk charging my camera battery on the unsafe current of the generator. The generator made a weird noise confirming my fear. The charger smells burned while I’m banging my head on the bamboo wall. Although I was thoughtful enough to have a second camera, I felt that my photographic aspirations frustrated. I still have hope. In the isolated Trobriands, in the remote village of Omarakana, I have internet, although slow. The foresight to get local sim card with data plan gave me hope that someone back in Greece could courier me a new charger to Port Moresby, where I’ll be in four days. Sent many emails to electrics stores in Port Moresby as well. I sadly found that it was not possible to get it posted on time from Greece and no store in PNG has Canon chargers. A polite representative of a store informed about some expatriates’ forum with photography hobbyists. And miraculously, the very next day she found someone who offered to lend me one for the rest of my trip! It’s still hard to believe all this kindness and I doubt this could happen in Europe or somewhere else!
The morning sun rises with my uplifted mood. We got to Kaibola beach, island’s best as they say. About 7-8 kilometers walking through small villages with the dominant wooden, elaborately painted Yam houses. The Trobs are rarely visited by tourists and there is no biggest fun for the village children than the appearance of white people. But a cruise from Australia coming here once a month, threatens the authenticity of Kiriwina island.
Kaibola is indeed a beautiful beach with alive reefs despite the impact of overfishing. And since the celebrations of milamala ended a few days ago, we will use all our negotiating skills to persuade the islanders to dress up in their traditional costumes for a photo shooting and without any profit more than the tip we happily offered. At some point, fishermen were carrying a huge squid which would be perfect solve for our food issue today, barbequed on coral with accompaniment coconut. On the way back an angry villager asked money for a coconut that had given us this morning. Since everyone carried sharp machetes, we didn’t negotiate much and paid 1 kina.
Our spoiled bones ached from the hard floor of the hut, the outdoor toilet, the bucket shower started to discomfort us. So we decided to return to the main settlement of the island, the Losuia, where there was a guesthouse. After some bargaining we got a cozy little room with two beds and a mattress on the floor. Great upgrade despite chasing a cockroach one night. And had a restaurant too! With cold beer but not very extensive menu. The usual Yam, sweet potatoes, tapioca and… ketchup to lubricate the dry throat. To be fair, there was fish included but quite small and untasty. Sea turtle was available in the menu that we refused of course, sadly recalling the sight of the helpless animals dying on the outdoor market of Losuia. It would be a fail, not having some decent Pacific Ocean fish so the next few days we luckily found many big 5-6 kg fish to buy. We walked a lot on the island although there were not many good for swimming beaches. Still, we had joyful time with memorable children’s faces following us everywhere cheering excitedly. I was hearing calling my name in every village I was passing by.
Our most memorable experience was a visit to the island of Kaileuna. We walked early morning to Losuia, but the weather was cloudy. Arriving at the port and tried to bargain the price for a boat. In the meantime of buying the fuel, a heavy storm broke. Sheltered with the locals underneath the shed of a supply store, waiting disappointed for the weather to calm. The fuel had been purchased so we decided to get in the open sea in the midst of the storm …
Drenched to the bone, covered with a canvas to cut the cold air, I miss my beautiful country and its gorgeous beaches. I wonder what bizarre mind brings me to the end of the world, in such hardships, in physical and mental challenges… And then, someone above seems to listen. A bright sun appears above us brightening the turquoise waters and the colorful seabed.
Fishermen in canoes throwing their nets next to dolphins competing for the catch. The boatman throws two fishing lines and catches immediately two large tuna. Our welcoming in the island village was once again remarkable. They had years to see white visitors, hungry eating the delicious tuna meat with bare hands, accompanied with coconuts as always. A mute woman with a baby is trying to sell me a shell necklace. Giving her little money without accepting the necklace, I saw the woman’s face so many mixed feelings of joy and wonder, while speech disability made her expression so intense that will stay forever in my mind.
The boatman knew a place never visited by foreigners, on shallow waters lies intact a Japanese plane, probably a bomber. And nearby a shipwreck while at another point you can meet sharks and manta rays. Time and fuel was not enough to visit those spots… Every place is keepeng me secrets to discover, if I ever come back …
THE HIGHLANDS – GOROKA
A stopover day in Port Moresby allowed me to borrow the precious camera charger. We fly back north to the city of Goroka. Although we have left some of our luggage at the hotel back in Moresby and despite the pleasantly cool climate of the highlands, the weight of the backpacks when searching around for a place to stay is unbearable. All information recommended the Lutheran guesthouse as a good value. Indeed this is an immaculate two-story inn with wooden floors and spacious areas. The price was not negotiable, but there was no other option. Another luxurious hotel in the city had a good restaurant serving wooden oven pizza. The only alternative in the city was a Chinese restaurant full of small cockroaches running on every table.
Goroka is described as the most beautiful town of the highlands. Do not imagine something idyllic, just guess how the rest of towns look like. Things get a bit boring after some time here, after some visits at the local market and the town streets. On a near distance is the famous village of the mudmen. This warrior tribe, body covered with mud and wearing a bulky clay head is the most important attraction of the region. Except of course from the big Goroka festival held every September. So, if not into festival season, each hopeful tourist who chose to visit PNG with some of the expensive travel agencies will attend a staged show here. We will not differ much, although we had our own approach to have the mudmen pose for our camera in full outfit, paying just a tip and not the high the touristy fee. The masquerade was quite impressive and despite the harsh sunlight, I took plenty of photos. Within the ritual was lighting a fire by the friction of rope on wood. But the rope broke constantly so I suggested the chief to use a lighter for his convenience.
Our hopes to discover isolated tribes on the highlands faded away. It seems the only interesting trekking is on mount Wilhelm, the highest of Papua at 4500m. But we did not come for the mountains in a country so promising for the anthropological value. The upcoming festival in Mount Hagen will probably monopolize any other interest. We search in vain to find a 4×4 car on budget to explore the area around mt. Hagen and continue to Tari from where we would fly back. Not to mention that there was a civil war in Tari. The interest of the area is probably the famous Huli tribe, but we will certainly meet them at the Hagen festival. Their land is rich in natural resources like LNG (liquefied natural gas) and conflicts of interests has created war conditions. This did not intimidate us more than the lack of reasonably budgeted accommodation there and the fact that the tribes will attend Hagen festival.
For the first time on a trip I feel that I spoil my time spending boring days on the Highlands, trapped by the date of Hagen festival. I hope it will be worth my expectations. Evaluating all these we decided to change schedule and not continue to Tari. The islands are waiting for us. Five days on the wonderful islands of New Britain and New ireland? The latter was a dream destination of mine since long ago. But our choice was won by another mythical island country. The Solomon Islands. With many phone calls and emails at the top management of PNG Air we managed to change departure date and place of the domestic flight and return from Mount Hagen instead of Tari.
We are getting on a local bus for the five-hour trip on the mountain range, and as usual in these countries, we buy additional seas for our luggage and our relative comfort in the packed vehicle.
The sunny weather of Goroka reminiscent of spring, gives way to cloudy and rainy weather that seems to prevail permanently in Mount Hagen.
The city proves true to its infamous ugliness, remaining to see if it’s as dangerous as rumored. We find some shabby rooms, suggested by other passengers. A filthy place of stay with shared bathroom but no water! The hotel was obviously intended for the working girls of the night, near a dark corner that services as a night bar. Luckily, in short distance we find another missionary guesthouse, clean and with a very friendly host. Walking around the city and searching hopelessly for something to eat did not feel any unsafe. Of course we were the only whites walking around and we enjoyed the curiosity of everyone. The only food we found was some awful lamb chops which consisted of just disgusting fat. Served in a plastic bag with frozen fries and priced as a regular meal, I try to swallow the most disgusting meal ever wandering on the dusty streets.
The next day, our host drove us to a village of the greater area where locals living in poor conditions produce coffee, one of the best in the world. We visit the school and the clinic. We descend some steep paths in lush vegetation followed by the whole village, getting to a beautiful waterfall On the way back a woman is running the steep slope of a pineapple plantation and offers me one of the biggest fruit of her farm. Her happiness is great when I offer back 2 kina which she showed proudly to everyone.
Regarding dinner, we finally find a great Indian restaurant in town also visited by more tourists. The risk concerns will drop when the night falls and we walk back to our guesthouse in this dangerous city. Something not recommend due to alcohol consumed by weird persons of the night can easily involve you to risky situations.
The big day of the Hagen festival has arrived and the first images appear to compensate us. Men and women from all mainland tribes paint their faces, smear their body with cooking oil and add the feathers and other details of their impressive costumes. A group of half-naked women would accept me cheerfully in their place, they’d paint my face according to the patterns of the Chimbu tribe while I treated betelnut for all of us to chew. Experiencing the ecstatic delirium of singing and dancing I will mix into the colorful groups for the rest of the day.
The tribes are directed in the festival arena, in a football court with multiple control points in every entry. The exorbitant entrance fee is €100! Of course this amount is off budget and there is no chance to pay it, especially as soon as I already had close experience with the groups. Nevertheless we try to enter. I will not get quite descriptive with the method. In the second of the three control points was a tough drunk security, refusing us entrance, but after long negotiations we persuaded him. The party continued and all tribes gathered offered an amazing spectacle. Among others, the wonderful Huli tribe with red body paint and wigs woven from their hair in strange shapes, a part of their ritual ceremonies of adulthood.
We had also the honor to meet the minister of culture who wanted to take selfies with us. He gave me his business card that I kept as a valuable item for future use.
On the second festival day the same program went on but we didn’t try to enter illegally again, had enough of spectacle overdose. On the afternoon we fly back to Port Moresby.
The Highlands photo gallery
The infamous and uninteresting capital will host our next two days. We initially thought it would be a waste of time.
We decided to stay in a better hotel and not share two beds for three persons. Still they didn’t understand our wish on the phone call suggested us to put a mattress on the floor for the third person. In this country the color of your skin and the furious insistence sometimes gets you ahead. They gave us a suite for the price of a double and even provided a third bed. I was quite convincing showing the minister’s card.
All this persistence saved us a lot of money, that we invested on a ticket to Solomon Islands. The hotel restaurant had frozen pizza with ketchup to €35. Despite the upper class of the hotel food once again was too disappointing. Much tastier menu is found in Vision City shopping mall, with better pizza and Chinese restaurant options.
Not to miss was a visit to the botanical gardens with many remarkable animals such as tree kangaroos and dwarf kangaroos, large exotic birds including the emblem of the country, the impressive bird of paradise. And of course the mighty cassowary with its imposing size and primitive look, with bright blue plumage on the head and a large horny crest. Considered the most dangerous bird in the world due to the huge sharp claws which can easily kill.
We take a taxi to the village Hanuabada. Stilted shacks over dirty waters where small children laughing and swimming in joy. The taxi driver, advises us to be careful and not walk away. But the most dangerous thing we encountered were the rickety wooden bridges that link the settlement. Locals greeted us hospitably and with kindness here too.
We continue to the similar village of Koki. This enthusiasm was even more frenetic for the white visitors who probably do not frequent these places.
People in poverty, living in the miserable conditions slum. But behind the hot sheet metal shacks you find the warmest hearts.
For us who endured the hardships, the difficulties of this country, who dared to discover, it opened wide in front of us, like the toothless smiles of the Papuans. Those people that carries the infame of cannibalism, but to my mind they resemble the most open-hearted people I’ve ever met.
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