PNG’s less-chartered waters reveal a wilderness rich in history and untouched by time

Densely forested South Pacific islands slide under our aircraft as it descends into Kavieng, a small port on the north-west tip of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. As we alight, a mob of smiling children jostles for space behind the chicken-wire airport fence. Their shyness is overcome only by their giggling curiosity.

We will soon become accustomed to wide-eyed welcomes

As passengers aboard the True North, a small Australian expedition-cruise ship that spends part of each year exploring remote regions of Papua New Guinea, we will meet many locals, who are as intrigued by us as we are by them.

Accommodating a maximum of 36 guests, True North is an immaculately clean, comfortable vessel with attentive staff and a casual, no-shoes policy. When you’re on board, you can’t help but relax.

But unlike bigger, ocean-going cruise holidays, activities here take place off the ship. Most of the travelling is done at night, so days are free to hop on one of the small tinnies (tenders) and travel up river ways, access remote tribes or find the best fishing.

Mount Tavurvur, Raboul. Photo credit: True North
Mount Tavurvur, Raboul. Photo credit: True North/North Star Cruises

An onboard helicopter allows you to explore even further afield. One morning, I take a thrilling flight over the active Tuvurvur Volcano at Rabaul, a deserted town smothered by thick black ash from an eruption in 1994 – a small pink Spanish mission church is the sole building standing, though it’s now half-buried on the hillside.

Passengers can’t help but feel like amateur anthropologists and historians during the eight-day Adventures in Paradise expedition from Kavieng, through the Bismarck and Solomon Seas, to Alotau at Milne Bay, the now serenely beautiful site where Australian troops fought off the Japanese in World War II. In fact, the entire region is steeped in WWII history.

During the course of the week we’ll squeeze through Japanese supply tunnels carved into rock and snorkel over the eerie carcasses of two submerged tanks, which were rolled into the sea at the end of the war

The scuba divers among us will explore the wreckage of a fallen fighter plane, and others will take a solemn helicopter flight to meet the village caretakers of the Kokoda war memorial, high up on the Track in the Owen Stanley Ranges.

But it is our interactions with the people of PNG that have the most impact. From the first afternoon at Lemus Island, it is clear that this is a land time somehow forgot, and it’s a privilege to experience. Standing on the True North’s back deck that first afternoon, I watch as bare-chested natives in dug-out canoes glide across the water to welcome us. In fact, wherever we drop anchor, small bands of locals come to hover at the back of our ship. Some sell us carvings, conch shells and colourful bilums (handcrafted string bags). But mostly, they just want to check us out.

As our tender rounded a riverbank, we came across this group of kids dancing. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
As our tender rounded a riverbank, we came across this group of kids dancing. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Between Kavieng and Alotau, there is little by way of “civilisation”. Except at Tufi, an exclusive dive resort on mainland PNG, there are no roads or cars. The majority of tribespeople still live primitively, in thatched huts in small villages. They hunt wild boar and fish for their food.

Before coming on the trip, True North passengers were asked to bring donations such as school books and clothes, and each time we visit a community, the staff unloads boxes of practical gifts. Whenever we visit a township, the locals come out in force, to perform singsings, or songs of welcome, and show us around their village.

Papua New Guinean "masks" are unique to each village. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Papua New Guinean “masks” are unique to each village, such as these full-body grass coverings in Matong Village. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

On Tingwon Island, a devoutly Christian tribe sings for us, apologising that they must cut their performance short because it’s Sabbath.

In Matong Village, men dressed head-to-toe in grass “masks” shake and rustle among us as topless women in grass skirts lead us into town.

In McLaren Harbour, we’re met by more natives in outriggers, who throw spears at us. Thankfully, it’s just for show – they miss, and guide us to a lagoon surrounded by waterfalls where men hang on ropes from the cliff-faces, swinging through the cascading water while blasting out deep sounds through conches.

McLaren Harbour, PNG. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
McLaren Harbour, PNG. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Next day, before dawn on Fergusson Island, guides lead us along a mud track into thick jungle, where two rare Goldie’s bird-of-paradises preen and flap high up in the tree canopy.

In Gomwa Bay, we are told to keep close behind our guides as they walk us through the spitting and bubbling DeiDei hot springs. In some places, the ground is just a slight veneer of rock – you can feel the heat penetrating it, and tourists have to be very careful not to fall through. Rumour has it that many a Christian missionary ended up in the boiling waters here in the early 19th Century– whether by accident or design we’re not told.

Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Each morning when I wake up, I know there will be something new and wonderful out my porthole window – a sunrise streaked in rich reds, a lush volcanic fjord or a thriving coral atoll. If you can afford to splurge on a boutique cruise, I whole-heartedly recommend this one. There is no better way to be guided through such an otherwise inaccessible and thoroughly rewarding part of the world.

About the ship

True North is a mono-hull adventure cruise ship that caters to a maximum of 36 guests, with 20 Australian crew on board. All cabins have ensuites, entertainment systems and satellite telephones.

The ship has a sun deck, observation lounge, ship’s lounge, alfresco bar, sports deck, internet café and dining room.

Six expedition vessels allow small-group day trips with different agendas, including hiking, fishing, scuba diving and cultural visits to tribes along the route.

A six-seater air-conditioned helicopter gives the freedom to journey to the top of the Kokoda Track and to get a birds-eye view of the volcano at Raboul.

Food: Modern-Australian. Guests have the opportunity to fish with the chef, and the ship has an open-door policy for the galley, meaning that you can watch the meals be prepared and get some tips on how to best cook fresh seafood.

A Tufi tattoo demonstration on the beach – women have their faces tattooed when they turn 18. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
A Tufi tattoo demonstration on the beach – women have their faces tattooed when they turn 18. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Cruise update

This story was written in 2010. True North now offers a New Adventures in Paradise cruise, with the 10-day itinerary taking in all of the above experiences, but it now includes flights ex-Cairns included (flying in to Kavieng and out of Alatou on a chartered aircraft). Prices for 2015 start at $17,295 per person; for 2016 they will start at $17, 995. In 2017, entry-level cabin prices will increase to $20,995 per person.

Tufi men. Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles

Do it yourself

For more information and to book, visit northstarcruises.com.au

NOTE: This story was originally published in House & Garden Magazine

Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles
Photo credit: Elisabeth Knowles