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Early starts and long sweet days in Papua New Guinea

Day One/Evening

Worst traffic ever on a rainy, cat’s and dog’s, Friday evening going to LHR from Camden, journey took one and a half hours phew! Luckily left plenty of time. Meet the gang, Karl and Sally, for the first time, Cec, have known for years. Head, at breakneck speed, for Thai Airways lounge but, owing to security hold-up, only time for a quick drink before we are off to board, turning right into a packed economy cabin. Sleep, eat, read, don’t pray! Watch movies, journey goes quickly but I love flying, it’s “away from it all” time. Who can object to being fed and watered every few minutes? Quick connection through Bangkok to Singapore, maybe not the most direct route but took what was available for late booking, I noted it didn’t extend the journey time.

Day Two

Hit the shops at Changi Airport, not as much as would have liked, due to weight and financial constraints. Never cease to wonder why this airport continually wins awards, definitely not the carpet, flashback to circa 60’s pop art period without the benefit of A Warhol. Order sandwiches in the ‘Dry’ Rainforest Lounge. The connection for our Air Niugini flight is just under four hours, the lounge, in Terminal One Transit, Singapore, was a good option and cost £18 each.

Off to board the third flight of the day, Singapore to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea’s capital, on one of Air Niugini’s refitted 767’s 300 series aircraft, loved the configuration, (only someone who used to work for an airline could ‘love’ configuration) 2 3 2 in economy and single and double sitting in business, great food and good in-flight entertainment: impressive.

Day Three

Visa on arrival in Port Moresby, free to tourists, then off to Airways Hotel for a shower and breakfast, which would have been fabulous, but we were staying at Gateways Hotel! I’d misheard the name when phoning a colleague. My companions looked worried sh…less, if she gets this wrong what hope for the rest of the trip, was written on their travel weary faces. Airways Hotel staff charming and sent us in a limo to Gateways. This is typical of what happens in Papua New Guinea, they try really hard to be as helpful as possible, where else in the world would one hotel send you in a limo to the opposition? Within an hour, we’d showered, eaten a hearty breakfast and were on the road, back to the airport to catch our flight to Mount Hagen.

We all slept throughout the short flight and were met on arrival by Jacob, our guide, no coat it was too warm! He whisked us away in a minibus, to the first stop, ‘Best Buy General Store’ for emergency rations, namely mixes to go with our duty free, and a few snacks to sustain us on the 40-minute journey to Rondon Ridge. Outside the capital of PNG Port Moresby, there are not too many shopping opportunities, normally one shop in each large town that sells everything, from big knickers to frozen chips. Everyone in the shop was lovely, friendly and of course curious. Back on board the bus to continue the journey.

Picturesque is an understatement for this route; we climb a narrow road with amazing vistas, until we reach an ‘impasse’. The road is being re-surfaced and as part of the drainage a large hole has been dug to conceal piping, ‘it’s far to big for the mini-bus to cross safely’ Jacob tells us we will have to wait until work is complete, not too long maybe an hour or three, all said with a big warm smile in true PNG style.

Papua New Guinea highland tribesmanSmoker’s smoke, sleepers sleep, and when we are awake greet the constant stream of visitors who come to say hello, with a warm welcome, a handshake and an enquiry. ‘How Mises Kwin and pikinini bilong Mises Kwin?’ they ask in Tok Pisin, or New Guinea Pidgin, an English based Creole, widely spoken in PNG, renowned for also having 820 ‘local’ languages. As a member of The Commonwealth they are very proud of their Queen. Prince Charles’s visit during the Jubilee Celebration’s caused enormous excitement.

Roadwork’s complete we climb, higher and higher to Rondon Ridge Lodge and are totally ‘bowled over’ by the scenery. The resort is 7,100 feet above sea-level with spectacular views of Mount Hagan and the Wahgi Valley below in the daytime; a myriad of twinkling magic lights by night. The Lodge is on the outer fringes of the Kubor Range, home to the Melpa people, said to be anthropologists ‘predisposed to capitalism’ because of their complex traditional society in which ‘big men’ earn status by accruing wealth and then giving it all away in a ceremonial exchange, bit like PNG’s answer to Bill Gates!

We are taken to our rooms, which are huge, with wonderful views, for a quick ‘brush-up’ then onward to our first activity; a short hike in the rainforest behind the lodge. Over 180 species of birds have been recorded around Rondon Ridge including ten species of ‘Birds of Paradise’. Of course mid-afternoon is not the ideal time for ‘tweeters’, we did however see both Brahminy and Black Winged Kites and a couple of Goshawks as well as fabulous wild orchids and busy lizzies, it was a wonderful walk and, as a result we were elated and totally forgot about jetlag

Communal meals are the order of the day in the majority of PNG lodges and resorts. Tonight our companions were an adventurous American husband and wife, who had to put up with our closed user group mentality. Upon reflection we were not terribly friendly, put it down to English reserve? Food’s delicious, no menu, eat what you are given, unless you have special dietary requirements. Early night? none of that for us, we sat chatting most of the night and allowed ourselves only a short sleep before our 7 a.m. departure.

Day Four/Five

Our drive back to Mount Hagen coincided with rush hour. Children going to school and agricultural workers to fields, all waving and smiling at us, the children running after the bus as fast as they could go before we disappeared. These people seemed genuinely happy to see visitors and made us feel very welcome.

Arrived back at the tiny airport and taken to ‘the lounge’ which boasted genuine 50’s furniture and ambience to match. We wait for the pilot of our 8 seater PAC 750 Ex-L Aircraft. After a few safety instructions and ‘bloody hell’s this is the smallest aircraft I’ve ever been in’ we are soaring into the blue sky and rewarded with incredible views of the rainforests and terrain, totally unmarred by buildings, telegraph poles or electricity cables, a panorama of a pristine wonderland. We were all expecting turbulence, there was none, it was totally smooth, due to the perfect flying conditions. Forty-five minutes later we land at Ambua’s private runway. Ambua Lodge is nestled amongst the Doma Peaks near Tari, birders from all over the world are drawn to the spectacular Tari Valley, whose diverse habitat and elevation support a dense concentration of more than 200 bird species, including 13 varieties of Birds of Paradise.

Ambua Lodge, PNGAccommodation at Ambua comprises 40 single houses, with PNG thatching, made from bamboo. Each house has it’s own small front garden, cute and quite suburban, in it’s own way. Inside, the bed faces a huge window giving an incredible vista of the surrounding landscape.

After lunch our guide Stephen takes us through the forest to a nearby waterfall, whose hydropower is used to provide Ambua with electricity. We cross a couple of ‘suspension bridges’, fairly high, look down if you’re feeling brave, before reaching the stunning waterfall. We linger for maybe too long, ‘It look’s like rain,’ Stephen say’s cheerfully, possibly because he’s the only one with the foresight to have brought an umbrella and waterproof clothing. Now we are able to understand the true meaning of ‘rainforest’! Surrounded by incredible beauty and sounds, we are soaked to the skin on the return hike to the lodge. When we finally make it home we strip, respectably, in the communal lounge, there being no other guests around at this time. Wrapped in towels we sit round the log burner drying out while drinking delicious cups of Papua New Guinea coffee.

The following morning we are again up at ‘bird’s of paradise fart’ – rewarded with viewings of four species of Birds of Paradise. Gosh! how amazing they are, a Brown Sicklebill, a female Stephanie’s Astrapia, a male Ribbon-tailed Astrapia and a distant King of Saxony. We are all truly thrilled.

Stephen’s next planned activity is a visit to the Huli tribe and their famous Wig School, possibly one of the most immediately recognizable cultures in PNG.

Huli wigman, pngThe Huli are the main clan in the Southern Highlands, almost 60,000 in number, their ethos is simple, Stephen told us, the three most important things in life to a Huli Man are land, women and pigs. The pigs work as a local currency, with a wife for example costing maybe 30 pigs. The burden of payment is often split between family and friends, this may however be a recurring burden as The Huli Man can take more than one wife, although a wife is not allowed to take more than one husband!

Students at the Wig School, learn how to grow and look after their hair. They have to pay 200 kina (£48) to join the school but they can sell their wig when it is ready (they are now used for ceremonial purposes) and use the money to buy pigs, which in turn will buy them a wife. Life at Huli School is not easy, the students are even instructed to sleep in special positions so as not to damage the hair, which is grown for 18 months before it is cut and the wig sown into shape. They are delighted to chat to Stephen and to us and are very impressed that we have travelled so far and are interested to learn about their customs.

Day Six

The following morning we return to Tari Airport. Check-in consists of both us and our luggage being weighed prior to our flight to Port Moresby. We take-off late, the incoming aircraft was delayed due to adverse weather, and this could make us mis-connect with next flight to Tufi. ‘No worries’ our dishy young Australian pilot says, ‘we’ll see if we can get the flight to wait.’ Imagine, we land at an International Airport and are met and escorted to our waiting Airline PNG aircraft. This is the way to travel, it’s like having your own private jet, without the expense or bother.

Breathtaking views on the flight over the Owen Stanley Range and Mount Victoria to the scenic fjords and coastline of Tufi. It is a vision created by immeasurable natural sources. 0n arrival we are whisked away in Wayne’s jeep. Wayne is the capable Australian G.M. of Tufi Resort, a mere five minutes drive away.

Built from local wood Tufi is like staying in a private house, with welcoming communal areas and great accommodation. My room has a four-poster bed draped with white muslin, mozzie net, and wonderful views overlooking the bay. It’s pure ‘picture postcard material’, including stunning ’Lulu’, the resident Blyth Hornbill. Lulu took a fancy to my leopard patterned glasses case, picked it up and immediately dropped it, no damage done, luckily, but Lulu has been known to fly further afield with guest’s possessions, which are not returned!

Lobster for Dinner, perfectly delicious.

Day 7

Next morning the group splits up; Cec and Karl, head for the outrigger canoe to explore the flora and fauna of the Fjords and I head with Sally to the minute harbour, a short walk away, for a diving trip. There are over 30 dive sites accessible from Tufi. Papua New Guinea is within the glorious Coral Triangle, which boasts the highest concentration of marine diversity in the world.

Papua New Guinea, underwaterThe sea is choppy, which adds to the excitement aboard our speedboat, as we head to Cyclone Reef, approximately 10 kilometres from the mainland. In 1972 Cyclone, a small island was formed from broken coral. It is now a breeding ground for a variety of seabirds and provides a sheltered ledge where the coral reefs have the opportunity to grown undisturbed by wave action. After lunch on board it’s a short ride to Veale’s reef, full of pelagic fish. Sally is thrilled to spot a Hammer Head as well as Turtles, Tuna, Butterfly fish, Giant Clams, Bluefin Trevally and exquisite Anenomie fish.

Return to the mainland for a dive in the McClaren Harbour area where Ghost Pipefish, Octopus, Butterfly Fish, Wrass, Eagle Staghorn Coral and a variety of baby fish are all spotted.

Day 8

5 a.m. start, this is turning into normal for us, but, we are all keen to ensure we see as many birds as we can on our early morning trek; our guide, William, is waiting for us. We follow William out of Tufi on the Fjord path with water inlets on either side of us. The aroma from the frangipane trees is sweet and heavy, best natural perfume in the world: bougainvillea and mangoes trees line the path. We come to the first village on our route. The village green has been mowed and is neatly planted with flowers and is pretty as a picture. Throughout PNG it is clearly evident that the local people take enormous pride in the appearance of their villages and the warm and wet climate encourages a wonderful variety of flora.

Soon William is pointing out a Black Kite, a few steps on a Hooded Butcher Bird, the list throughout the walk is very comprehensive. Red and Blue Cheeked Parrot, Eclectus Parrot, Black Kite, Black Capped Lorry, Palm Cocatoo, Hooded Butcher Bird, Wood Swallow, Willy Wagtails, Yellow Breasted Friar, Glossy-Mantied Manucode, Orange Crowned Fairy Wren and Pheasant Coucal. Binoculars and cameras always at the ready we feast on this wonderful array of birdlife.

At the end of the Fjord I disturb an ants nest that has fallen from a tree and it’s inhabitants have decided to explore my leg regions, a stationary jog firmly puts them back where they belong, on the earth. William joins us for breakfast and hands me a gift of Ebora leaves, which he instructs me to crush and sniff as a remedy to sort out my dodgy tummy, reader, it works!

Over breakfast William talks us through and shows us full descriptions of the birds we have seen that morning. He talks of his plans to develop ‘Village Stays’ in his nearby village. While the rest of the gang go for a final Tufi snorkel, I sit by the pool with Lulu and Coco, the Hornbills. Lulu has ben in trouble as insisted on travelling in the jeep to take the gang to the harbour, but had a small accident, no matter Karl’s hair needed a wash! After Lunch Wayne drives us to the runway where the Airlines PNG aircraft lands about a four second walk from where we are standing. If only all airport departures could be like this!

It’s an hour to Port Moresby, and as it is becoming standard on both bus and planes, we all fall asleep. On arrival we are quickly transported to Loloata Island, about an hour’s drive and a short ferry ride from the capital; a good alternative to a city stay. We arrive in the dark so are unable to gorge ourselves on another scenic feast. We are however treated to a lobster buffet and chocolate cake before bed. How good to go to sleep to the sound of waves.


We wake up at our normal 4.30 a.m to bid goodbye to Karl, who has extended his journey to visit Malolo Plantation in Madang and Kokopo Beach Bungalow Resort near Rabaul in East New Britain. The view this morning is of a radiant red sky, it’s far too beautiful to think of going back to bed, we opt for a light breakfast and a snorkel. A colourful variety of marine life awaits, how lovely to have this wonderful treat before beginning our journey home.

Reflecting on this trip: we’ve seen some of the wonders of the world, met with fascinating, interesting, happy individuals, whose lifestyles could not be further removed from our own. We have had less sleep than teenage clubbers, not had any cross words, and have visited Papua New Guinea, a country that we regale to a captive audience, PNG will remain in our memories and our hearts forever, in all, time well spent.

More about Papua New Guinea – and more by Judy Feller – on this blog.

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