10 January 2008

Papua New Guinea

You know you’re heading somewhere a bit unusual when the inflight safety announcement says, “please refrain from smoking and chewing beetlenut during the flight.” In addition, the 250 seat plane was eerily empty, under 20% full. In fact, during my entire trip there were virtually no tourists. The only foreigners I saw were expat workers, aid workers and missionaries.

At check-in, for once I did not have to play the 7 kilo hand luggage game (where you have to try and repack your 1 piece of hand luggage so it’s under 7 kilos on the scale). I had a record low of 3.7 kilos of weight in my small backpack for the one week trip. The check-in agent was puzzled, “is that all??”.

So I was off to Papua New Guinea and it proved to be a fascinating place. It reminded me a lot of Africa, in terms of the lack of development and conditions. In fact the country was named after the Guinea of West Africa. It was also once named Isla de Papua, island of the fuzzy-haired people, which is where the Papua comes from.

I arrived in the capital Port Moresby and managed to get a ticket out to Madang in the north of the country on the coast. I used the time before my flight (which was delayed by 3 hours – air travel is notoriously unreliable here) to head into the Port Moresby, apparently one of the most dangerous cities in the world. I hired a taxi driver as a tour guide and drove around the town and it felt much safer being with a local. After an hour we had seen all the sights the town had to offer. Normally, I’m criticized for comments such as “Brunei’s okay, but it’s only worth a few hours”, but Port Moresby was definitely not worth more than an hour!

Madang is a pretty coastal town and the highlight for me was kayaking past villages on small islands, with all of the locals waving and saying hello.

PNG was definitely the friendliest place I have ever been to, although it was weird that every person that saw me stared in wonder. The average height is around 4 or 5 ft, so it was hard to blend in! There are so few tourists in the country that some of the kids even called me “white man”! Most people speak some English which really helped in chatting to the locals. I stayed at the Madang Resort, which is supposed to be the best hotel in PNG, but you would never guess. The roof of the hotel room leaked during the night and there were bugs everywhere.

After Madang, I a took a 7 hour public minibus up into the highlands to a town called Goroka. The bus journey was long, on bad roads, but it was good to see some of the small communities living in the remote highlands.

Anywhere I went the locals tried to help me and make sure I was ok, which was very sweet. In Goroka, the highlight was the local market which was incredibly bustling.

Overall, PNG was a fascinating place, with a really interesting culture. However, there are few amazing sights and the food and infrasture were really bad. I was travelling alone, which I normally don’t mind because I get to meet and join up with other travelers. However, that wasn’t possible here, which made it tougher. It's definitely worth visitng if you want to get off the tourist trail!