PNG, for short.

Flight 19 from Hong Kong has been a smooth one so far, and I’ve even managed to get some shuteye. Final cabin checks call for the lifting of our window blinds, and I do so with the excitement of a little child. I’m about to land in a part of the world that has, for the better part of my existence, been nothing more than an enigma; a far away land, inaccessible to most, with many a story to its credit, but few facts to speak of. A smattering of islands between the southern reaches of Indonesia, and the northern tip of the behemoth that is Australia. In pre dawn light, I behold Papua New Guinea…IMG_9832

KB, my long time friend, has given me strict instructions not to venture outside the terminal building, painting the most dire of scenarios, should I be so brave. To be absolutely certain, he’s decided to show up well ahead of time to receive me. Before I’ve even had a minute to soak up some of the warmth and humidity outside, a Toyota van with dark tinted glass pulls up curbside and we set off towards the Boroko neighborhood of Port Moresby.

We arrive at his gated community, a collection of four low-rise apartment blocks, centered upon a compound, where automobiles are the notable exception. And its not like everyone’s already left for work, or that the city boasts robust public transit. Its just that almost no one owns a car here. Every person, and every family’s movement, booked through and provided for by their employer. And such is the norm across the capital city, KB informs me, should I need any more proof about the safety situation here…   
There are only a handful of high-end hotels to speak of in Port Moresby, but regardless, the capital city boasts one of the most impressive and unique airport hotels anywhere on this planet. Perched high on a bluff, the aptly named Airways Hotel, is set amidst its own botanical gardens, offering expansive vistas of the comings and goings at Jacksons International Airport, and the Owen Stanley Range of mountains beyond. With the iconic DC-3 setting up the foreground, the rooftop restaurant here provides the perfect venue to savor a chilled pint of Niugini Ice.
P1030658Joseph is our designated chauffeur for the day, and speaks five languages in all. My fathers tongue, my mothers tongue, Pidgin, Motu and English, he rattles them off in that order. In a country that speaks over 850 languages, its not surprising to be multilingual. Surprising though is the fact that English is one of the official languages here, and judging by all the road signs, hoardings and such around us, its hard to tell that this is the most linguistically diverse nation on the planet. Thanks, Australia!

Despite its linguistic wealth, Papua New Guinea or PNG, as its commonly referred to, has a very low literacy rate. And for the few that are literate, a dearth of universities means limited access to higher education, and thereby, jobs. The result, widespread unemployment, and eventually, crime. So, contrary to popular belief, cannibalism is a lot less likely to kill you here than a member of the notorious Raskol Gang.

In come the expats, lured in by high-paying jobs, and safeguarded by their over zealous employers. You then have a city split between its fortified enclaves, and the world outside; one thats only seen as a blur from the safe confines of a motor vehicle.IMG_9938Joseph drives us to Newton, a neighborhood boasting one of the highest natural points in Port Moresby. As we make our way up the twisty road, he calls out the Australian High Commissioner’s residence. More plush homes follow, with their manicured hedges and menacing barbed wire fences. Finally atop, its magnificent views of Walter Bay that take rightful precedence…P1030678Down below, the coastline of Port Moresby is all set to change. The Ela Beach area is in the midst of a transformation, as the city prepares to host the APEC Summit in November. The promenade is off limits to the public, as earth movers and excavators work in haste, to the backdrop of towering cranes, and a sleek-looking convention center in the making. IMG_9968I’ve been on the road now for almost three weeks and this is the penultimate stop on my trip, before returning home to New York. So I’ve come with almost no agenda. The idea being to relax as much as I can, spend time with my hosts, and get a feel for the place. But having spent less than 24-hours in the country, I now find myself in a quandary. Unless it were to open up to tourism in a big way, PNG is unlikely to feature on my travel plans ever again. So this really is my only chance at experiencing this truly intriguing, rather back of beyond destination.

Sensing my restlessness, my hosts, SR in particular, have taken it upon themselves to make this visit as memorable as possible. So we’re off to Nature Park this morning, Port Moresby‘s aptly-named botanical gardens and native zoological park. Thousands of tropical plants, and native timber tree species, dot the lush acreage of Nature Park, the only remaining tract of rainforest within the Capital City District. Kookaburras, Cassowaries, Tree-Kangaroos and Wallabies are some of the more notable inhabitants here, who seem to blend almost seamlessly into their rich surroundings.

Two-thirds of Papua New Guinea is covered in rainforest – the third largest in the world after the Amazon and Congo basins – and Nature Park offers a small taste of what this spectacular country holds within. But given China’s unquenched appetite for timber, one can only hope it doesn’t become the last vestige.P1030708Sogeri lies some 31-miles (50-km) northeast of Port Moresby, appearing as an easy drive on the map; a quick getaway into the country, if you will. Unfortunately, carjackings are common in these parts, especially so in the vicinity of the capital city. So today, we have an armed guard riding along for good measure. An unnerving thought to set off with, no doubt, but one thats quickly dispelled as we climb further into the highlands…IMG_9879For the few vehicles that traverse Sogeri Road, the viewpoint at its halfway mark is an obligatory stop, offering stunning views of picturesque Rouna Falls, as they cascade down into the Laloki River gorge.P1030780The first sign of habitat, after an hour or more of driving, is a row of houses on stilts. They’re simple in their construction, yet elegant; doing well to complement their surroundings. In PNG, apparently, they’re par for the course.IMG_9923The town of Sogeri is probably best known for its cattle ranch, one of the largest in the Pacific. Its also home to a few agricultural companies, supplying the markets of Port Moresby, and a handful of upmarket bed and breakfasts. At the eastern edge of town, in Upper Sogeri, lies the most sought after of these, Koitaki Country Club. Being a weekday though, this little slice of tropical paradise is ours to relish for the day.P1030806On the other side of Sogeri lies the trailhead for the infamous Kakoda Track. Almost 60-miles (96-km) in length, this arduous path, through unforgiving terrain, played a crucial role during WW2. Along it, as Japanese forces pushed south towards Port Moresby, they were met with stiff resistance from the Allies. Their overland advance was eventually thwarted, but not before several thousand lives were lost.

At the immaculately kept Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Bomana, on the outskirts of Port Moresby, lie the remains of almost four thousand of themThe most solemn and tranquil of settings, in which to contemplate and pay respect.IMG_9932Its my last full day in the country, so SR and I make an early start for Koki, a neighborhood that’s home to Port Moresby‘s fish market. Attractive houses on stilts, a lot of them owned by the fishing community, line the waters edge here. Anchored to the pier that houses the handsome fish market, colorful boats bob up and down, as local kids splash around in the water. Inside, its a beehive of activity. Daily catch ups, flowing banter, hagglers striking their best deal yet; all the hummings of a brisk morning trade.
P1030846While there, SR and I befriend a local fisherman. Rates are negotiated, departure time is fixed, and the itinerary hurriedly agreed upon. But our attempts to set sail to Manubada or “big bird” island are foiled almost as quickly as our spur-of-the-moment plan was made. Sea piracy is a reality here, and according to the Irish bloke running security for KBs company, people have been known to disappear entirely. Oh well, we tried …
P1030851As it was with my first evening here, so it is with my last in PNG. We’re back at Harbourside, a pair of business towers, complemented by a handful of eateries, set along a promenade, which, on a typical day, bear witness to dramatic cloud formations and spectacular sundowns. Little wonder then that this is the unwinding destination of choice for the city’s ever-growing expat population.IMG_0016Heading northwest out of Port Moresby, Air Niugini‘s Flight 8, en route to Hong Kong, soars across the alluring Fly River delta, the spout of the country’s second largest water body. Like so much else on a visit to PNG, its tantalizingly close, yet so far…IMG_0049

A full set of pics from my visit to PNG can be seen on my Flickr.

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