Papua New Guinea is cloaked in mystery. An expedition cruise could be the easiest way to untangle its secrets, says Sarah Marshall.
Squealing children crowd a log jetty festooned with scrap fabric bunting, as our skiff boat floats into a flooded caldera.Bleary-eyed but excited, the residents of Garove Island have been awake all night celebrating an important arrival. A statue of the Virgin Mary is currently touring the islands by helicopter and beyond being a religious icon, she represents something arguably more powerful: contact with the outside world.
Apart from religious missionaries, this remote coastal village in Papua New Guinea’s Witu Island Group rarely receives visitors. I’m travelling with Australian-based Coral Expeditions, one of the few cruise companies who lead tours along the coastline of this southwest Pacific country.
Over the course of 10 days, we’ll visit 16 locations often accompanied by curious spectators who flock around our vessel, balancing in canoes that seem impossible to keep upright. Missionaries no longer pass by the remote village of Bun on Tolokiwa, part of the Bismarck Archipelago, and our 7.30am landing on the black sand beach is the first by any foreigners in two years.
Beating kundu drums herald the start of a classic sing-sing (a typical ceremonial performance of song and dance). Disguised by a mass of dried banana leaves, one dancer leaps and swirls towards the audience, his pig skull mask sending terrified wild boar scurrying for safety.
More unusual shows greet us when we arrive in Bien, a 400-person village set amid sago swampland on the mighty Sepik River, back on the mainland. A girl with a squawking parrot on her shoulder takes my hand and leads me to the village centre. While singing about hornbills and geckos, a group of sniggering school children performs a bizarre slapstick dance, waddling under the weight of giant rice sacks daubed with pictures of fat westerners.
Along with fire-starting and sago-making, we watch a traditional tattoo demonstration in a rainforest clearing at MacLaren Harbour, in the Tufi Fjord. These are all customs which would likely disappear were it not for tourism.
Sat on outriggers, we drift through a tunnel of tangled mangrove roots, transfixed by the sound of paddles slowly splicing through water. Soon after disembarking, we’re ambushed by a group of “savages” painted head to toe in black with acid pink tongues. Although unintentional, it’s a reminder of the prejudice so many outsiders have about Papua New Guineans being uncivilised.
Tufi people are famous for their headdresses, and villagers have clearly pulled out their finest feathers for our arrival. One elderly man has six different plumages on his crown, many taken from the celebrated Birds of Paradise. A cuscus tail trailing the nape of his neck makes him look like a South Pacific Davey Crockett.
In a bid to make customary practices sustainable, the government has banned all shotguns and hunting is only permitted with spears.
Papua New Guinea is just as vibrant underwater, as I discover on numerous diving and snorkelling trips along the pristine fringing reefs.
Offshore from Dobu Island, close to the Dei Dei Springs, I snorkel through bubbling hot vents in the clearest water I’ve ever seen. It’s a magical experience, which befits the region’s reputation for sorcery and hocus-pocus.
Although essentially rows of simple shacks, streets are immaculately clean, with not even a globule of bettlenut spittle carelessly discarded, for fear they might be used in casting spells. I’m left wondering if it’s a clever government ploy to keep the place tidy.
People clearly invest great time – and care – in what little they have. In a place so far removed from the modern world, it’s all surprisingly familiar and far more civilised than the average British town on a Friday night.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of the Papua New Guinea tourist board (pngtourism.org.uk) and Coral Expeditions (coralprincess.com.au). The 12-night Cairns to Rabaul cruise costs from 10,250 AUS dollars pp (two sharing) – around £5,500 – including all meals and excursions. Departs October 4, 2017.
Cathay Pacific (020 8834 8888, cathaypacific.co.uk;) flies from London Heathrow to Cairns from £679 return.