Heaven is a Place on Earth


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Oceania » Papua New Guinea » Milne Bay » Alotau
March 9th 2014
Published: March 11th 2014
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To even think about taking a holiday to Papua New Guinea you’d have to be out of your tiny mind.

At least that was the word on the street before we left.

In terms of potential for violence, the place is hardcore.

Just last year, a group of foreign tourists were horrified when their party was ambushed and their guides hacked to death with machetes in front of their very eyes.

And it’s not as if this is a new problem.

Even the earliest explorers returned with tales of an exotic land stocked with Birds of Paradise, but inhabited by a bunch of warring cannibals and head-hunters who seldom gave a warm welcome.

Back in the day round these parts, a man’s status was determined not by his bank balance or his choice of car, but by how many rivals’ skulls he’d collected for display on the mantel-piece.

I’m sure this would have impressed the guys, but wonder how many ladies went all weak at the knees on seeing a nice row of shrivelled heads and thought, wow, this guy’s definite husband material.

Still, you never know till you try, I suppose.

I think we can safely assume the original New Guineans weren’t exactly a bunch of metro-sexuals, and let’s face it, they’ve not had long to adapt since. Just around the time Clark Gable was preening his moustache and scandalizing polite circles by Not Giving a Damn, a couple of intrepid Australians wandered from their base on the New Guinean coast up into the remote highlands and found, to their astonishment, that they weren’t uninhabited as previously assumed, but home to a million unsuspecting souls still living in the stone-age, in the habit of shooting their enemies with poison-tipped arrows and, well, eating one other. My grandparents were in their mid-thirties at the time, merrily commuting to work by car, bus or train, conversing on the telephone and swooning over Scarlet and Rhett. Meanwhile these guys were living a reality-remake of One Million Years BC, minus Rachel Welch and the dinosaurs, which, let’s face it, is unlikely to be an improvement. As my parents sat in primary school, dreaming of Dorothy and Toto wandering in Technicolor down the Yellow Brick Road, the Australian explorers trekked down a brown mud path into a land almost equally as strange. Really, in the grand scheme of things, we’re talking about a very short amount of time ago indeed.

It’s difficult to know which side was more surprised.

The locals were used to a simple life of subsistence farming occasionally livened up by a bit of stone-age argy-bargy. There was no industry, no technology, no written language. They hadn’t even got round to inventing the wheel. Indeed, it’s a measure of how basic their societies were that right up to first contact in the 1930s many areas hadn’t yet made the link between sex and childbirth. Not too many nuns up in the hills in the old days, you’d have to imagine. Then again my father might not have made the link way back then either, though my lack of younger siblings suggest he’s learnt his lesson since.

At first the new visitors were taken as ancestral ghosts or spirit people, and there was some confusion over whether they should be worshipped or eaten. Little did they know they’d just got their first taste of the Wicked Witch of the West, and their lives were about to be transformed forever.

In short, in the space of one lifetime, the time it’s taken my Dad to adapt from the analogue to the digital watch (a task which it has to be said, he’s never fully mastered), his peers in this part of the world have had to transition from pre-historic tropical subsistence farming to, well, everything; their first sight of metals, aeroplanes, plastics, Coca-Cola, mobile phones, Miley Cyrus, the lot. Admittedly, a lot of us in the west have struggled with Miley Cyrus too, but at least we had something of a head start.

In Papua New Guinea (or PNG, as it’s more snappily known), it’s all led to one hell of a lot of keeping up with the Joneses. And let’s face it; they weren’t exactly best mates with the Joneses in the first place.

As all urbanites know, life in the city means you can’t just be friends with everyone; there are just way too many of us. The best you can hope for is to be friends with a few and politely ignore the rest. We end up hanging out with those who are on our own wavelength, people who ‘speak the same language’.

In the capital here at Port Moresby though, that’s quite literally the case. Due to the country’s extreme terrain and warring of the clans, there has traditionally been very little mixing, and each group developed its own tongue. That’s confusing enough somewhere peaceful like Switzerland, which has four languages. The current conflict in the Central African Republic probably isn’t helped by it having 52, but PNG dwarfs that at an unbelievable 961, by far the most of any country in the world.

Tribal tradition still follows the wantok system, whereby anyone who speaks the same language is a friend, to be treated and provided for like a brother, while those who speak a different language are the enemy. Mix them all together in the melting-pot of Moresby, toss in western prices and sky-high unemployment, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. Most ex-pats are driven straight from work to their security-gated complexes, but aren’t stupid enough to be found wandering the streets alone. Even so, more than a few have had a close call or two in their time.

And it’s precisely this sort of image that keeps tourist numbers down.

Cairns, where I live in Australia, is a fairly small town but thrives on tourism, getting 1.9 million visitors a year. By contrast the whole of Papua New Guinea gets just 35000. That might seem quite a lot, but with over 7 billion of us squeezed onto this little planet, it’s a drop in the ocean. Statistically speaking, you’re 35 times more likely to die in a car crash next year than holiday in PNG. You’re twice as likely to die in an earthquake. More people turn up at the Stadium of Light to see Sunderland play in the English Premier League every week than go to PNG all year, despite the fact that at the time of writing they’re sitting right at the very bottom of the tables.

And I have to point out to all those poor folk, miserably freezing their tits off behind the goalposts every Saturday that they really don’t know what they’re missing. For nestled behind all the mayhem, PNG turns out to be absolutely amazing.

Most visitors head straight for Kokoda, a brutally arduous rainforest hike over the Owen Stanley Range, re-enacting the wartime derring-do of the Anzacs as they fought back the invading Japanese. Quite why you’d want to re-visit what was described at the time as hell-on-earth I’ve no idea, but each to his own I suppose.

The other big draw lies away from the hills on the coast, or more precisely off the coast, where there’s world class surfing and fishing and some of the earth’s best coral reefs on which to dive, and this last is what had drawn us here.

Of course, being from Cairns, we’ve got plenty of coral reefs at home. The sad fact is, though, that while people really like coral reefs, coral reefs don’t much like people. The further away you can get from urban centres, or at the very least industrialisation, intensive agriculture and modern fishing practices, the better the reef will be.

PNG still has very little of any of these, so large areas of reef are close to pristine. As a result many a diver from around the world is prepared to ignore PNG’s less palatable aspects and quite literally take the plunge. Our choice of plunge-pool for this, our first sortie, was the beautiful Tawali Resort in Milne Bay.

Arriving in PNG is in some ways more akin to visiting an alternate universe than an adjacent country. From Cairns, though, it’s actually very close. Port Moresby is by some margin our nearest international airport, more than twice as close as our own state capital in Brisbane.

Nonetheless the journey to Tawali was an adventure in itself.

First challenge was to bypass the madness of Moresby, made easier by merely transiting to an internal flight to Alotau. Even so our travel agent insisted on giving us a detailed map and extensive written instructions for the hundred metre walk between the terminals. He was very clear I was to memorise these before arrival: on no account was I to be seen consulting them on-site. He didn’t actually say I had to eat them afterwards, or that, Mission Impossible style, they would self destruct in five seconds but the message was clear; do everything possible not to stand out as tasty fresh-faced tourists... the predators may be waiting to snap up easy pickings.

We were much-aided in this quest by some clients of mine who were kind enough to give us each a billum. A billum, for those not in the know, is a woollen shoulder-bag available in a wide variety of styles which are ubiquitous round these parts, a sort of local Louis Vuitton. Nothing unites New Guineans quite like the billum, as each tribe has its own local version, and these days they’ve replaced rivals' skulls as a handy portable status symbol. They also turn out to be much easier to get through Customs.

A woman’s billum is typically a small and modest affair, but it’s the men’s that really shows who’s who, and I’m pleased to say that my friends hadn’t let me down: the first words uttered to me on arrival in PNG were ‘Nice billum, Sir!’ accompanied by a respectful nod. And the rest of the trip proceeded in the same vein, a quick flash of the billum ensuring doors opened and queues jumped wherever we went.

Suffice it to say we soon found ourselves whisked to the check-in for our next flight unmolested. With our social status considerably raised, we were left to queue behind the guy in front, sadly devoid of billum or indeed any other clothes at all. Now personally I’ve never seen anyone check in naked before. Makes the strip search at Security quicker, I suppose. Still, for a moment I feared we’d been mistakenly booked on some weird nudist flight. Admittedly, he was a child of only about ten but even so, it was one more little sign that perhaps we weren’t in Kansas anymore.

Luckily there were only about eight others on the flight, all the rest of whom had remembered to put on some clothes that morning, and in an hour or so we were touching down in Alotau. From there we rode by bus from asphalt to gravel to mud until 90 minutes later we literally hit the end of the road. Here the steep mountains came right down to the shore so the only way forward was by boat, puttering around beautiful bays and headlands past little fishing villages that might not have changed in a thousand years, save for the locals wearing cheap second-hand western clothes to spoil the illusion. Many sported a nice vintage Manchester United shirt in various stages of disrepair.

Finally at dusk we reached Tawali atop a prominent headland, about as secluded a spot as you could hope for, a million miles from the mayhem of Moresby or the hi-jinks of the highlands, our home for the next week. After a tiring day’s travel, our welcome cocktail tasted like nectar, and soon we were tucking into a fine dinner gazing out over the ocean as the sun set behind the hills to our west.

Luckily tomorrow’s journey would be short, as the coral here still grows right up to the shore. You can see the fish leaping around as you gobble up your breakfast, hunted by packs of dolphins in the bay, and the trip out to the reef takes all of 90 seconds.

And, wow, what a reef it is. The mountains come steeply down to the sea and then just keep on going straight down, the water often 200 metres deep only 50 yards from shore, meaning really big fish right on your doorstep. At Wahoo Point on our first dive, even before we’d hit the water a shoal of 40 devil rays swam directly under the boat.

The coral is almost untouched, no pollutants or effluents to sully its majesty, and the closer you look, the more you see.

Turns out there’s more than just the big guys round here, more than just the usual suspects.

Forget your instincts, take your eyes off the blue and focus right in on the reef and you’ll find that normal rules do not apply.

Some of the stuff down here’s just goddamn weird; there are animals that wouldn’t look out of place in the next Transformers movie. While the fish all have two eyes, a tail, and the usual complement of fins, the other bugs appear to have just torn up the basic floor-plan and decided to improvise.

You’ve stumbled across an underwater invertebrate Mardi-Gras, like Rio at Carnaval, each one trying to outdo the next for colour and pizzazz:

‘Look at me, darlings, I’m just gorgeous!’

You do have to search hard to find them, though. Due to their modest scale and expert camouflage they’re almost invisible to the untrained eye. Turns out the best way to blend in on a piece of red and yellow spiky coral is to be red, yellow and spiky. Who’d have thought?

Luckily the local guides can teach you where to look, and before you know it you’ve spent your whole dive gazing at a weird wriggling square-centimetre clump of god-knows-what, trying to fathom if it’s animal, vegetable or mineral. Often it turns out to be a bit of all three. Those searching for aliens in outer-space have got it all wrong; turns out they were down here all along.

Some of the things we’re talking about you can barely see with the naked eye. The pigmy seahorses, a major drawcard, are not so much pigmy as miniature, only about the size of a mosquito larva and considerably less wriggly. They’re also infuriatingly camera-shy, turning their pin-sized heads away as you flounder half-a-yard away in the current. It’s only once back on shore you can zoom in on the view-finder and find that you just spent half your dive clicking forlornly away at a sea-fan doing a good impression of a seahorse, rather than a seahorse doing a good impression of sea-fan.

Still, as a fully certified Macro-nutter it was definitely my kind of scene, and I felt like I could have stayed down there forever. At times like these I always find it puzzling that scuba-diving’s not more popular. Every man and his dog goes skiing these days, it seems, so why not explore beneath the waves? Could be fear of drowning, I suppose, but as Michael Schumacher has sadly just found out, skiing is not exactly safe either. For me, the first time I strapped on a scuba tank, almost twenty years ago, was also the last time I strapped on a ski.

There was just no contest.

And don’t get me wrong, I bloody loved skiing.

Actually, I think the reason diving’s not more popular is the same reason I really like it.

You see, the thing is, you can’t talk underwater.

You can’t brag about your car, your kids, or how much you earn, or whinge about what a tool your boss is. Girls can’t gossip, or bitch or talk about boys, or find out who wants to do what to whom. You can’t get jealous, upset or laugh or cry. You can’t fight or flirt or fart or fall in love, or even watch the footy.

Down in the deep there’s nothing to do but surrender yourself to some of the most amazing experiences you’ll ever have, and get up close and personal with wild animals the size of which you’d never mess with on dry land.

But you can’t whoop or holler about any of it.

You can see the aliens, but just like they said in the film, no-one can hear you scream.

All you can do is chill, go with the flow and signal you’re okay.

Not fabulous or awestruck or having the time of your life, not blissfully carefree or blown a-bloody-way.

Just okay.

It has to be said it’s more than a little limiting.

Are you okay?

Yes, I’m okay.

Luckily it’s the same in any language, which probably explains why so few wars are fought underwater.

For me, though, that’s part of the allure.

Silence is golden, and ignorance is bliss.

I’d found my perfect little slice of paradise, immersing myself daily in quiet contemplation.

Heaven is a Place on Earth, so they say, but I’m bound to disagree.

In Papua New Guinea, at least, Heaven is underwater.

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11th March 2014

What a great blog, several of Jared Diamond's books I have read give great accounts of tribal life in Papua New Guinea, and I have to say several of your accounts were equally entertaining. I absolutely love the story about the billum, but what really struck me are the magnificent photos, not just from this blog but many of your others, you guys definitely give young travelers something to aspire to!
11th March 2014

Thanks Dan!
... goes to show the youngsters, there's life in the old gits yet....
11th March 2014

Why can't you fart underwater???
All the rest I agree with...a very philosophical observation of the benefits of diving. By the way, I have a cousin who has lived most of his life in the western part of New Guinea, mostly in the jungles. He even found a Jap Zero still in its packing case. Not sure if he got it out or told anyone where it was so they could get it out.
11th March 2014

When a tree falls down in the woods, and there's nobody there to hear...
Agreed, technically you can fart, but just like screaming in space, or the tree that falls down in the wood, no-one can hear it. And no-one can smell it. Which just makes it one more great thing about diving, I suppose!
12th March 2014

This begs the question as to what constitutes a fart...
does it have to smell and make a noise?
12th March 2014

When is a fart not a fart?
Hmmm, you seem to have stumbled upon an inadequacy in the English language. Clearly there should be more than one word for fart. As far as I can see there should be at least 4: A fart that smells and is audible, a fart that doesn't smell but is audible, a fart that smells, but is inaudible, and lastly a fart that doesn't smell and is inaudible, which, let's face it, isn't much of a fart at all. Possibly we could search in the 961 Papua New Guinean languages for examples of these; there's a little research project for you! So there we have it, all farts are equal, but some are more equal than others. And for the purposes of this blog, we're referring to the first two, as in a fart used as a rather immature form of jocular communication between buddies. I hope this finally clears up any lingering fart-based confusion!
12th March 2014

Thanks for doing thorough research...
I must concede to the authority on the subject.
12th March 2014

Special isnt it?
Milne Bay......glad you got to experience it, worth the effort isnt it?. Love flying out of Moresby, your naked boy trumps my lady feeding a piglet on the plane. Thanks for the memories :)
12th March 2014
Sunset from the Restaurant

Now, That's life!
Beautiful photos! Stunning shots in every single blog of yours! Really Fabulous! Thank you for sharing! Makes me wanna take photography lessons!
12th March 2014

Papua New Guiena
This was on our travel plan in 2007 and plans changed. We are still longing to go. Fantastic blog.Your underwater photos are fantastic! Love this.

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