Papua New Guinea trip report

 

Papua New Guinea



The island of New Guinea is the second largest in the world after Greenland. It's a mountainous, sparsely populated tropical landmass divided between two countries: the independent nation of Papua New Guinea in the east, and Indonesian provinces in the west. The island split is an artefact of colonial history. Pre-colonial times, the island was not a nation state but populated by tribal clans. During colonial times, at the end of the 19th century, the island was split between three powers: the Dutch held the western half, the British the south-eastern quarter and the Germans held the north-eastern quarter. During WW1 the Germans lost their part of the island to the British. The British half later became the independent country of Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile the Dutch half became part of the independent country of Indonesia when that colony fought off Dutch rule in the 1940s. The two halves are not likely to unite anytime soon because the Indonesians are extremely insistent on their claim to West Papua and PNG wants to maintain a peaceful and productive relationship with Indonesia.

Papua New Guinea is one of the few last great wilderness of Asia and the Pacific. It's a land of exceptional natural grandeur; with scenic beaches, immense stretches of marshlands, grassy meadows, powerful rivers carving gorges, jungles and rain forests (among the densest and most impenetrable in the world). Vast areas of the interior are still unexplored. New species of plants & animals are still being discovered. The name itself is a relic of colonial times. After their first encounter with New Guinea in 1511, the Portuguese named it "Island of the Papuans" ie "Island of the Fuzzy Haired", using the Malay word papuwah. Dutch explorers followed and called it New Guinea because the inhabitants reminded them of the people who lived in Guinea in west Africa.

It was not easy to find information about PNG online, tourism is mostly covered via expensive tours with travel agencies. Those same travel agencies also warn of high crime rates and to not go unaccompanied. I crossed over into Papua New Guinea from Jayapura with nothing booked, hoping to figure out everything after I arrive and asking the locals, which in hindsight I'm glad I did because the trip far exceeded expectations. Papuans were extremely helpful and generous.

 

Eastern Highlands village

On the local bus to Goroka {the main town in the Eastern Highlands}, I got talking with the guy sitting next to me. He was on his way home to his village, about half an hour from Goroka. He invited me to stay there and meet his extended family. It was the first time they ever hosted a foreigner. Sadly, one of his nephews by the name of Timothy had passed away a few days earlier. Coincidentally Timothy was the exact same age as me, so when I turned up the elders were adamant I was the embodied return of Timothy. The grandmother hugged me for almost ten minutes and cried. Everyone kept calling me Timothy the entire time. I spent a wonderful few days with them, we also visited several neighbouring villages to meet his many relatives. Farming is their main occupation and all people were related in one way or another. When you don't have much, having your family close by means you can stick together during times of hardship. There was no electricity, no TV, no smartphones - so leisure time was always discussions over big family gatherings.


 

Asaro Mudmen

The Asaro Mudmen can be found in several villages outside of the town of Goroka, you can ask at the market which PMV will take you near an Asaro village. The legend of the Mudmen has it that they were defeated by an enemy tribe and forced to flee into the river waiting until dusk before attempting to escape. They rose from the banks covered in clay and mud, not knowing the enemy tribesmen were still there. The enemy saw them rise from the muddy banks covered in mud and thought they were demons so they fled in terror. A rumour spread that they were invested with the powers of the river spirits and the cunning Asaro were keen to capitalise on it, so decided to create a new battle dress code where they cover themselves in mud.
The mudmen could not cover their faces because legends said the mud from the Asaro river was poisonous. So instead, they made masks with scary features, strange ears and fierce eyes, and decorated them with wild pigs' teeth and tusks and fashioned wild grimaces. When they then went on raids to neighbouring villages, they would come in the pre-dawn, creeping out of the mountain mists like ghoulish spirits, their fearsome appearance giving a psychological battle advantage.

Interestingly, during the tribal warfare times, cannibalism was quite common in PNG. It was traditionally linked to acts of revenge or punishment for a crime such as murder or rape or perceived sorcery. The power of the deceased was alleged to be absorbed by the people who ate him or her. The days of tribal warfare are gone, nowadays the Mudmen are accomplished farmers who grow crops such as coffee, bananas, sweet potato and peanuts plus a lot more.


 

Goroka

Goroka is the main town in the Eastern Highlands Province. Sitting at 1500m, Goroka is encircled by mountains, so while the days are warm and pleasant, it often rains leading to mud everywhere. I had to kiss goodbye to my leather shoes while trying to navigate through the mud and the puddles. Many locals just walk barefoot. The airport is slap bang in the city centre, near a big market that is hive of activity with people coming down every day from the villages. Goroka is very famous for its coffee, kaukau, and mumu {dish cooked under the ground}. Be sure to give them a try. There was one interesting shop that was particularly popular, a photo booth. Very few Papuans get to travel abroad, so in the photo booth they could choose a background of a famous place ie Venice, London, a safari in Africa etc. They then get their photo taken against a green screen and placed into the chosen scene. The photos looked amateurish but the locals were overjoyed with the results.


 

Bus Goroka -> Madang

The public bus from Goroka to Madang was supposed to depart at 8AM, but only leaves whenever it's full (11AM in my case). Some passengers didn't want the burden of carrying their luggage to the main bus stop, so they come and make the bus go all the way to their home to pick up their baggage and/or their relatives. The journey was meant to take 6 hours but it took much longer because of the countless stops: stop for food, stop for bathroom, stop to drop people off at the river, stop to pick people up from the river, stop for the policewoman to buy a new battery, stop to buy betel nuts, etc. The bus goes along the "Goroka highway". Highway is misnomer, even describing it as a road is very generous because of how neglected it is. There were so many potholes, some flooded with rain water, a very long free massage is probably the best way to describe the bus ride. However the breath taking scenery along the way more than makes up for it. Just before nightfall, we came across some lorries stuck deep in the mud, blocking the entire road. Just when I thought we would end up doing some impromptu night camping under the stars, the locals pooled together to clear the road and physically pushed the buses through the muddy patch. We arrived in Madang around 9PM, there are no taxis and almost no public transport at night, so the bus driver actually drops off each passenger exactly where they want in town.


 

Madang

Madang is a nice little town on a peninsula, surrounded by azure waters and picturesque islands (especially Karkar). Madang was rebuilt after world war II, and there are still scattered WWII relics in the jungles outside Madang as well as sunken war ships and aircrafts in the waters. Madang is a very lush town with many of huge trees that tower over the streets. There are very few cars, because the roads are so bad, so it's predominantly buses, PMVs and 4WDs. Like most cities in PNG, Madang is active during the day time, there are not much options after dark. Whilst walking around, I was often offered to be accompanied. I initially thought they wanted money in return but they refused every time "you're a visitor here so we just accompany you to make sure you're safe". Some locals drink home brewed alcohol so late afternoons is the time to avoid all the drunkards. Madang was another example of the Papuans unmatched generosity, a local lady invited me to stay at her house and spend the weekend with her family, they even dropped me off to the airport on the last day.


 

Flight Madang -> Vanimo

I flew with Air Niurigini between Vanimo and Madang. The great thing about Vanimo is that the airport is right in the city centre. So you can check-in then go to the beach while waiting for boarding. The airports are very small and very basic, no electronic screens and there's only 1 gate so there's no risk of boarding the wrong flight.


 

Vanimo

Located on a peninsula surrounded by white sandy beaches, Vanimo is a small outpost some 32 kilometres east of the border with Indonesia. It was my first point of call after crossing from Jayapura (there are PMVs at the border taking people to Vanimo). Like in all PNG towns, there are many Chinese owned supermarkets, the Chinese influence is quite marked in the goods for sale in the shops and the fabrics hanging in the market. "Why no local Papuan runs or owns any supermarket in PNG?" I enquired. "Because they do not have the knowledge nor the means" was the answer I commonly got. Sadly it's a malaise of the entire country, for whilst PNG is still way behind in terms of development, its crown jewels and riches are being plundered on the cheap by foreign powers: its rich minerals deposits (gold, copper, oil) mined by Australian/Chinese/Korean companies, its jungles logged by Malaysian companies who turn them into palm oil plantations, its coffee beans shipped out by the Koreans, its huge liquefied gas fields drilled by ExxonMobil. With seemingly little benefit to the wider uneducated poor population who rely on a small scale agriculture production for survival. All the while the Papuans are encouraged to attend one of the countless churches where a donation of 10% of income is standard. No wonder almost everyone is addicted to chewing betel nuts and the high it gives, providing a temporary relief.


 

Wutung border with Indonesia

I left PNG via the Wutung border crossing with Indonesia. It officially opens a 9AM, though that time is very flexible. If you're coming from Vanimo and you're too early, you can actually go to the immigration officer's house in Vanimo, where he will stamp your passport at his residence. The border is interestingly quite commercialised, they sell many border memorabilia items such as t-shirts, caps, hats, bracelets, etc.


 

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