PNG: Plane no go Part 1

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December 20th 2013
Published: December 20th 2013
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Koki stilt villageKoki stilt villageKoki stilt village

One way to get fresh fish and free land is to build in the ocean.
We have to admit that we did minimal research before embarking on this trip. We did know that it would be bloody hot and humid and that we would probably get dirty and smelly. To deal with this we headed to Kmart and bought cheap tshirts and shorts. You can actually buy cute tshirts in Kmart for as low as $3 (although we largely splashed out on the $6 and $8 ones). I suspect these are not made in Australian factories paying Australian minimum wage. Reluctantly I also decided not to bring my down jacket (how can I possibly travel without my down jacket???). We also knew that there was Malaria risk in PNG and did procure malaria tablets. A few days before departing we thought “hmmm, I wonder if we need visas?” and learned that visas can be bought on entry but require a passport photo. So we scrambled on the day before departure to get a passport photo. Also the day before departure we realized that the go-pro camera would make a brilliant underwater camera for diving. We had to get a wrist strap. A bit of internet scanning at 7pm the night before departure told us that we
Water hazardWater hazardWater hazard

I'm not sure if this would improve my golf game over water or destroy it...
really needed a red filter and a flat lens. Soooo, we didn’t get those. Anyway, we threw some sunscreen, our sandals, a couple books and the previously mentioned tshirts, malaria pills and camera in our bags and headed for Port Moresby.

In the weeks leading up to the trip whenever we would tell people where we were going they would either say something like “Oh, you’re going to paradise. That’ll be great, you’ll love it, are you going diving?” or their eyes would get wide like saucers and they’d say “PNG?!?! You know that’s not safe right?” So it was with mixed feelings that we embarked upon this journey.

The first thing that hit us on landing in Port Moresby was the humidity. Moving from the plane to the airport was like running into a wall of heat and humidity. We went to the “Visas on arrival” counter with our passport photos all ready. Of course you don’t need passport photos. The woman looked at us and waved us on. After collecting our luggage we headed through customs. The line was filled with people with trolley heaped with suitcases and big bags and smaller bags and other random things. The guy looked confused as Shelagh and I stood there with our duffle bag each and he said “is that all your bags?”. When we replied “yes” he snorted and waved us through.

Shelagh had booked a hotel in Port Moresby and they had emailed the day before to confirm our arrival time so they could meet us at the plane. When we got into arrivals there were reps from quite a few hotels, but not ours. We found the courtesy phone and called. They were quite surprised that we were arriving that day but arranged for the van to come pick us up right away. We were starting to get a sense of what this trip might be like. Luckily while waiting we realized that there was a mobile phone kiosk in the airport (I don’t think we even had them in Calgary do we? Oh Canadian cellular companies) so we bought a SIM card a month prepaid data and phone plan. Crazy.

We got picked up and taken to our hotel which is very functional and clean. It, like everything else in PortMoresby is inside walls with
Tufi gravel runwayTufi gravel runwayTufi gravel runway

Gets too soft in the rain for planes to land or take off.
guards standing by at all times. It isn’t safe to travel around Port Moresby on your own. We didn’t know how much of this was hype but have since learned from a reliable source (Australian expat living in PNG for last 7 years, working in international health, partner is a PNG local) that no we should not walk anywhere on our own or take a taxi. So, the hotel sent us out with their driver and a guard for a brief tour of the city. We went to the market. Well, we drove to where we could see the market but the guard did not invite us to get out and walk around. From there we could also see a village on stilts in the sea. We drove past the beach, which we later learned that even locals think is an unsafe area. Unfortunately it was Sunday so the museum was closed for the day so we couldn’t go in. Likewise with the Parliament Building. A highlight of our tour was the Royal Port Moresby Golf Course. I believe the photo explains it all. Apparently there is a resident salt water crocodile on the 16th hole. Well, that certainly makes
Tufi FiordTufi FiordTufi Fiord

The view from our hotel
golf more exciting doesn’t it?

PNG used to be governed by Australia but became a democracy and its not going very smoothly to say the least. The government is rife with corruption. The vast majority of funds are misdirected. Services and infrastructure that used to be provided or maintained by Australia have virtually ceased to exist. Everyone that we have spoken to here, local or expat, says how the government is failing the country and failing the people. Its very sad because its an incredibly beautiful country with a large number of resources and will all likely be mismanaged. There is a massive LNG project happening in the highlands, lead by Exxon, that is bringing in billions of dollars but it is unlikely that it will improve the quality of life of the average PNG’er.

Our flight to Tufi was to depart at 6:45 the next morning. Our hotel is about 15 minutes from the airport and the airport is…not very big. So, when we were told that we should leave the hotel at 4 am we were a bit confused. We bargained and arranged for 4:30. When we got to the airport we began to understand. There were hundreds, hundreds, of people lined up outside with massive amounts of luggage. You have to go through security to get into the airport – to prevent one from carrying ones machete or gun into the airport I suppose. As each person walked through the metal detector it flashed red. No one stopped them, no one asked any questions. It probably took us about half an hour to move along with this line through security. Then we promptly moved into another line for check-in. There appeared to be little rhyme or reason to who moved in and out of lines and up to the counter. I think if you are late you just walk up to the counter and say “I’m late” and they check you in. There was a strange smell in the line up that I assumed was one of those unexplained features of travel in a developing country. Then Shelagh pointed at a wet patch on her bag and a puddle on the floor and said “That’s pee” . The look on her face was exactly the look you would expect when someone realizes they’ve just set their suitcase in someone else’s pee. When we got to the check in counter the woman asked us how many of us travelling together and looked directly at the only other two white people in the whole airport. Turns out they were headed where we were going and have turned into lovely travel companions. The irony was when we headed through security (again) to get into the departures area I was so sure that there was no actual security that I didn’t even take my phone out of my pocket and got stopped and sent back through. I was literally the only person that day that got flagged by security. So, we settled into the departure area with a solid hour to wait for our flight. We still don’t think they called our flight but we saw the other two previously mentioned white people stand up to get in line so we followed them and boarded. It was an uneventful hour flight that ended in gorgeous views of the fjords. The Tufi airport is a sight to behold. The runway is gravel. Gravel! The only structure at the airport is a sunshelter. When we got off the plane we were immediately, and I mean immediately because
Tufi wharfTufi wharfTufi wharf

Dive boats and outrigger canoes/local sail boats.
of course you can drive your jeep right up to the plane, met by the manager of the resort. He told us not to worry about the bags because they all go to the resort anyway before anyone can pick them up. This seemed reasonable, except for all the people walking over and picking up their bags as they were unloaded from the plane. Oh well, we just went with it.

We were driven the 2 minutes to the resort and greeted by the staff on a deck looking out over the fjord and one of the most beautiful and peaceful scenes we have ever witnessed. They offered us cold towels and delicious fresh cold juice. This was going to be okay. They showed us to the dining area and gave us breakfast. It felt like the middle of the day but was about 8:30 am. Three of our group’s suitcases arrived quite quickly. Mine did not. Intermittently someone would walk in and say “You’ve got all your bags, yes?” and we would tell them no and describe my bag again and they would walk away. This would be repeated a few minutes later. Eventually my bag
Football tournamentFootball tournamentFootball tournament

That would be soccer for the North Americans.
did arrive. Turns out the airline office is at the resort. Also turns out that on the government books this runway has probably been paved 3 times over but the money has just gone into the politicians pockets so the resort is paying for concrete to be poured on the runway.

We arranged to head out diving after lunch. Before lunch we wandered down to the harbor to check out where the dive shop was and to see what the locals were up to. There is a big soccer tournament in town so people from villages all over the place are arriving by boat each day and the harbor is very busy. There are some larger banana boats with reasonable sized engines, but most of the boats are outrigger canoes made from hollowed out trees or sailboats that are basically the same outrigger with a platform on it, a tree mast and a patchwork plastic sail. They seem to sail just fine. The people of Tufi are very used to seeing tourists at the resort and are very friendly but some of the people visiting are from villages that almost never see white people. I think I
Outrigger canoeOutrigger canoeOutrigger canoe

The local form of transportation
scared the bejeezus out of one little girl when I smiled and said hi to her. Its so funny to think how ridiculous I must look to her.

After a delicious lunch of fresh seafood we headed out for our first dives. I don’t think I finished the story of my diving saga properly in the last blog, so I’m going to go back in time for a paragraph here (non chronological story telling is all the rage in literary circles these days I hear). Long story short, after my panicky dives I arranged to take a refresher in Sydney. Good thing I did because I was very anxious on that dive but worked on some of the basics skills to make me more comfortable. My instructor then invited me on another dive in Sydney with just her and another instructor from the shop. They were both great, so calm, so supportive. Basically diving in Sydney is bloody cold and poor visibility which is really not awesome. However, on this dive we saw weedy seadragons. Two of them. One of them was carrying eggs on him. It was one of the coolest animals I’ve ever seen. Probably about 12 inches tall. When you move your hand underneath him he moves up in the water so you can keep him in your visibility for a long time. I felt much better after completing that dive, anxiety is such a funny thing, once its there its hard to get rid of even if its there for no good reason. Still a bit shaky but felt like I at least had a hope of getting in the water successfully in PNG.

So, here we are, back in PNG, headed out to the middle of the Solomon Sea on a boat with no visible safety features (life jackets and such). Our guide tells us that we are going to about 30 m. I was a bit worried and told him that. He was great and immediately said we could change the dive plan. Here’s the thing about diving in the tropics, its awesome. First of all, its warm. Not kinda warm, actually warm. The water temperature here is about 30 degrees Celsius. Secondly, the visibility is usually good and sometimes amazing. That day it was about 30m. These two things combine to make Heather a much happier diver. The third thing is that when you are so busy looking at amazing creatures your brain has less time to make up ridiculous stuff to stress you out. We had a great dive (and did go to almost 30m) and saw everything from gorgeous coral to tiny nudibranchs to reef sharks to clown fish…the list goes on. It was brilliant. We moved a short distance away to a second reef and dived again. Same thing, awesome. Back at the resort we showered before dinner and I noticed that I was a little pink on my nose, neck, ankle, etc. I had applied factor 45 when we headed out diving and the boat has a shade cover so I hadn’t bothered to reapply between dives . However, the reflection off the water is really significant and I had achieved a reasonable sunburn. Ok ocean, you got me, I’ll reapply, you win. We had a beer, ate dinner and fell asleep by about 9:30. Ahhh, the tropics.

The second day we headed out early with the intent to take the boat out to the outer reef for diving. This would be about 40 minutes on a good day. Turns
Children jumping into the wharfChildren jumping into the wharfChildren jumping into the wharf

Heather thought about joining them...but them though she would be burnt to a crisp.
out this wasn’t a good day. About 20 minutes in to it the dive guide said that it was too rough and we were going to turn around. I was pleased with that decision. So was Shelagh and her tendency for sea sickness. We came back into the fjord and dove in the calm waters there. At one point part way through the dive we came up to about 8 m and the water was actually uncomfortably warm. That never happens diving! For our second dive we headed back out to sea but just to the inner reef. Again, a great dive. There are lots of clown fish around ducking in and out of their anemonae. Our dive guide who has short dreadlocks got them to play in his hair which bears a striking resemblance to their anemonae.

As I mentioned there is a soccer tournament in town right now with teams from villages all over. The closer ones paddle in each day to play and the farther ones have come in with enough food for two weeks and are just staying here. It’s a big deal. However, when you ask people how long it will last they say oh maybe a week and a half or two weeks. Doesn’t seem to be a rigid schedule. We went out to walk around the town (its not actually a town, its called the station and was the government station back when PNG was governed by Australia. So, the hospital, school, runway, etc are here but the people all live in little villages around the area). We watched some soccer. The field has a significant hill on one side but that doesn’t seem to bother them. There are both mens and womens teams. The men all have proper cleats and the women play barefoot. When we asked a guy about that he laughed and said it was about money. Hmmmm. We were a bit of a spectacle to say the least. As we said, the local people are used to white people and are very friendly but we got a lot of very strange looks from a lot of people. We walked down the runway, as you do when its just a gravel strip, and met a husband and wife who were walking back to their boat. We chatted with them during the walk and I think I said something about how I couldn’t play soccer in bare feet and she smiled and said “you are soft”. I would be offended and try to disagree but lets face it, its true. I am probably taller than any woman within 50 km of here but I am not stronger or tougher or more able to walk in bare feet or less likely to burn to a crisp than any of them.

We arranged that night that if the next day was calm we would head out to the outer reef to try to see the hammerhead sharks and if it wasn’t calm we would do something else. In the morning it turned out to be calm-ish. Initially the guy in charge of all the activities for the resort said it was totally calm and that we should go. Then one of the other guests who was coming snorkeling said it looked kind of rough. The guy then said we would be fine because we would take the bigger boat which they had been repairing the previous day. So, what happened? We set out in the smaller boat (oops, the big one is still being repaired, who knew?) slightly skeptical about the size of the waves. In the end the sea was fine. Visibility was probably only about 15m but we had a great dive with tons of big fish. We saw reef sharks, grey sharks, barracuda, Spanish mackerel – all very big fish. And, we saw the highlight, the hammerhead shark. We saw two reasonably clearly and one very far away. We wished they would come closer but they were obviously shy. We also saw a crown of thorns, which is a very venomous sea thing (technical name), and some giant clams. Sometimes on these dives you look around you and there are schools of hundreds of fish just cruising by.

Oh, this happened to be Shelagh’s birthday, and a significant one at that! We arranged for lobster for dinner and a birthday cake. I’d say it was a pretty good day.

We decided not to dive again and instead spent the next morning doing a walk with a local guide. They zipped us across the fjord in one of the dive boats and dropped us off. We climbed up a crazy slippery, sketchy path and had to have the guide help us. Of course this is a path that old women and small children scramble up and down several times a day while carrying a giant bunch of bananas or while eating a mango with one hand. See previous comment re: soft white lady. We followed our guide through lush vegetation past several villages. It was fascinating to learn about his people. We came upon one of the women who has chosen to have a facial tattoo. Traditionally, all women in this clan would have gotten a facial tattoo but now some of them choose not to. The whole process takes about a month or two in which time they can’t go out and be seen by men. The tattoo is first drawn on to her face and the design has to be approved by her family. Then the tattooing is done with a thorn and a mixture of charcoal made from burnt bark and tree sap. I can’t imagine how painful it must be. Gardening is a big deal here and its “men’s business”. They grow sweet potatoes, taro, tapioca, bananas, pineapple and a number of other fruits and vegetables. The men also hunt wild turkeys, wild pigs, wallabies, and cassowaries (I think that was what he said – but as always, no one should be reading this for its educational value). The have to go to the mountains to get some of the wood they require to build their houses. The amount of work that goes into building a house is unbelievable. The roofs need regular maintenance to remain waterproof. Our guide has almost completed a guest house in his village and wants to build another. Doing a village stay is very popular with tourists and can bring in good money for the village. When the boys are 12 or 14 they move out of their parents house into a “boy house”. They are expected to do some work for the parents and still come home for dinner. Can you imagine if we put all our teenage boys together in a house of their own? Or, maybe that’s a good idea. A man needs to know how to build a house and a canoe, how to fish and how to garden. When he wants to get married he has to build a house for his new wife. Marriages do not seem to be arranged but the parents have to approve.

Papau New Guinea is obviously not a wealthy country, although it is absolutely full of resources. As mentioned, the government is corrupt and essentially useless to the people. As you move around the country its clear that it’s a developing country. One of the unmistakable clues that you are in a developing country is litter, and there is plenty of litter in PNG. Garbage of all kinds is just dropped on the ground or in the water. The other sure sign is people sitting around appearing to be doing nothing, and there’s lot of that here (although if you took all the Canadians sitting around watching TV at 7pm and put them out on the street that might be a lot of people too!) Malaria is probably the number one killer here and the rate of death in childbirth is approximately 100 times what it is in Canada. The majority of people still live in villages and have little or no work so the average income is very low. Despite that it feels very different than many other developing countries we have been in. Hunger is not a problem. People have lots to eat because food is naturally plentiful here. There is fish and fruit and land to grow gardens. The people are a mix of heritages but there are a lot of people of Polynesian descent so they are big, strong, solid people (and passionate about their rugby league team!). The majority of people in areas we will be in also speak English and it’s the official language of PNG so its easy to communicate with people. One of the issues in PNG is that there are around 800 languages spoken in PNG so there is little national sense of identify for the country as a whole. Most surprisingly, the water is clean. We have been told that we can drink any water that comes out of the tap and even the little villages seem to have clean water (although from rain not the tap). That’s pretty amazing given the number of countries on earth that don’t have clean water. The other thing that is incongruous with being in a developing country is price. It is outrageously expensive here. Transporting goods in this country is very expensive because there are essentially no roads between towns and most places are accessed by air or sea. Also, most goods come from somewhere else. But still, the prices are unbelievable. At our resort a cocktail is about $16 and the t shirts are $80. Hotels are consistently several hundred dollars per night and the next place we are going to the boat transfer to the island is about $175. So, it has all of the charm of traveling in a developing country with all the cost of traveling in Norway! It’s weird.

In the late afternoon we took a canoe – not an outrigger but what they call a Canadian Canoe – and paddled down the fjord. It is absolutely beautiful, its lush and calm and quiet.This morning we went on another walk to a lookout over the next fjord. We stopped in a village along the way. Shelagh spent the time playing with a litter of month old puppies. Our walk today was partially through chest-high grass some of which is very sharp and it was raining the whole time so it wasn’t quite as nice as yesterday. On the bright side, my ever-present risk of sunburn was significantly reduced.

We had heard before we came that PNG airlines stands for “Plane no go” and so it was for us. Due to the rainy weather the plane didn’t come to get us today so we are stuck in Tufi for another night. There are worse places in the world to be stuck, but the main thing is can we make our (now very short) connection out to Milne Bay tomorrow?

Additional photos below
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20th December 2013

Happy Birthday
Hope you had a great birthday Shelagh, welcome to the club...
20th December 2013

Your blog
Great blog! You packed in a lot of information. Sounds like a very interesting experience.
20th December 2013

Hello Chicklets!
Thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog on PNG, educational and hilarious as always Heather! Keep writing, I can't wait to find out more about your adventure down under and beyond. Xo

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