International Traveler of Mystery: Papua New Guinea
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Go undercover with us to a series of exotic, daring locales worthy of the most stylish, seductive agents on the globe.
MISSION 003: PAPUA NEW GUINEA
Set off on a real-life jungle cruise through one of the most untouched and culturally intact oasis on earth, home to lush rainforests, shimmering reefs, ethereal waterfalls, elaborate tribal dances, foreboding volcanoes, and—yes—headhunters. (Or at least the skeletal evidence of headhunters past.) Your quick flight from Brisbane will alight in this enchanting South Pacific Neverland famously documented by anthropologists Margaret Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski. Few dare visit, leaving some of the world's prime scuba diving, snorkeling, hiking, tree house living, and cultural safaris exclusively yours. At least until this briefing is leaked...
PNG may be the most linguistically rich country in the world, with tongues trilling over 800-some languages. This mission, however, requires only one: English, which is taught in schools and spoken in most villages. Memorizing a few key phrases in Tok Pisin (aka Pidgin), the lingua franca, will ingratiate you with nationals.
"Mornin tru!" The way to start the day in PNG, where it's expected you'll enthusiastically greeting everyone you pass. But keep your voice soft—this is an island of close-talkers with exceptional hearing.
"Tenk yu (tru)." Thank you (very much). Listen closely and it becomes evident that Pidgin and English are close cousins.
"Kai." Food kiosks and snack bars are marked the signs for "kai," a welcome beacon to hungry travelers.
"Dimdim." The Pidgin designation for foreigners. Never hurts to self-identify.
Slip through the capital city of Port Moresby and beeline to the Sepik, an otherworldly river region. Help tribal women fish from dugout canoes, visit sacred spirit houses adorned with origin masks and human skulls, and witness villagers attired in shells and grass skirts perform musical sing-sing ceremonies. Check in to the Karawari Lodge, a bewitching Polynesian thatched-roof escape, where you'll sit next to exquisite carvings in the main lodge as you watch the sun disappear, and be lulled to sleep under palm ceiling fans and the sounds of the jungle.
Daring agents fly next to Rabaul, home to grumbling volcanoes, tropical islands, and World War II hideouts. With Kokopo Beach Bungalows as your home base, hike to the top of Tavurvir and peer inside this active volcano as sulfurous steam gushes in an uphill waterfall and nearby springs are hot enough to boil eggs. Cool down with a boat ride through the craggy, majestic Beehive Islands and stop for a snorkel and picnic lunch on the lush Little Pidgin Island. As night falls, visit the Baining tribe for a spectacular fire dance, where men in elaborate bark and bamboo masks undulate across a bonfire to the rhythm of totemic drums.
Scuba specialists should report to Tufi Resort in the Oro province for drift dives, Champagne kayak tours and some of the only fjords outside Norway. Or try Tawali Resort in Milne Bay, a luxe tree house-style gem with excellent dive and snorkel options. While in Milne Bay, channel your inner Goonie and explore waterfalls, skull caves filled with headhunter spoils, and WWII Japanese barge ships hidden along the coast in deep tunnels. For a little romantic research, island hop to the famed Trobriands, famously known as the Islands of Love.
All the while, keep your eyes peeled for exotic wildlife like birds of paradise, cassowaries, cuscus, sugar gliders, giant butterflies, geckos, and saltwater crocodiles.
The best zones for collecting prized artifacts from your adventure are villages along the Karawari and Sepik rivers. Master carvers and skilled artisans produce one-of-a-kind ancestral masks, spiritual figures, fish-shaped bowls, crocodile spears, shields, and miniature canoes. This is not a bargaining culture, but you may ask for "second price." It will likely be only a few kina less than "first price," but it's the final offer—further haggling will be seen as terribly rude.
Inspect each mask to be sure it has no insect bore holes and avoid most items with shells (Australian customs is notoriously strict and quarantine costs are prohibitive). Once you've chosen your treasure, feel free to ask for a photo with the artist who carved your piece as a double memento. Once you're back at base, spray your selections with bug spray as an added safety measure.
Contact on the Ground:
Logistics can be challenging in such a vast and unspoiled island nation, where primary transportation options are prop planes, dinghiess, and feet, and where time is a matter of opinion. (Ask a local how long it'll take to get from one place to another and the mjfrequent, charming answer is, "Some time.") A travel agent or local fixer such as Trans Niugini Tours, which can plan your trip and smooth wrinkles on the ground, is de rigueur.
For those drawn to a more authentic mission, traditional village stays can be arranged directly through tribes on VillageHuts.com. Treetops Rainforest Eco Lodge in Milne Bay is a rustic option somewhere between a village stay and a hotel, offering the chance to sleep in a traditional Warrior House, along with running water and electricity.
Gadgets & Disguises:
Stock your attaché case with sunscreen, insect repellant, and anti-malarial meds. Long, loose cotton clothing, hiking boots, and swimsuits are all the clothes you'll need for this mission. Also pack plenty of kina (the local currency) in small denominations—it's difficult to find ATMs outside Port Moresby.
Highly critical to this journey are patience and a flexible attitude. In PNG, afternoon flights are frequently cancelled, internet is harder to find than a birds of paradise, squalls can divert boats and tribal disputes may delay plans. But this is all part of the adventure in a nation full of islands, rain forests, reefs, mountains, lagoons, volcanoes, and some of the loveliest people on the planet.
For additional packing tips, see our Fool-Proof Packing Checklist for Exotic Destinations.
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Good luck, good travels, and keep scanning the blog for clues to your next assignment!
Photo credits: All photos courtesy of ©Jake Warga
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