Papua New Guinea
Few countries in the world fire up the imagination more than Papua New Guinea. It is a nation famed for it’s uncontacted tribes that still practise human sacrifice and cannibalism, dense unexplored rainforests, and wildlife like no where else on Earth. It is the ultimate destination for adventurous divers who want to see some of the least dived coral reefs in the world, and while you could potentially spend your entire holiday diving here, you would be a fool to miss out on the other incredible sights the country has to offer.
Sitting roughly 150 km north of Australia, Papua New Guinea (often shortened to PNG) is found on one of the worlds largest islands – New Guinea – which it shares with Indonesia. It has a complicated colonial past, having been initially colonised by the British, followed by the Germans, and then Australia governing the nation until it achieved independence in 1975.
It covers a total land area of more than 460,000 square kilometres, yet has a population of only eight million. It is an extremely rural country, and there are a number of uncontacted tribes living within the countries vast and relatively unexplored rainforests. The capital and largest city is Port Moresby with a population of roughly 365,000 people.
Since 1975, the currency of Papua New Guinea is the ‘Papua New Guinean kina’. Before this the Australian dollar was the official currency, and although it stopped being legal tender in 1976, you may find some shops will still accept it, although for very poor exchange rates.
ATM’s are fairy common in most towns, although many are not well maintained. Should you find one that doesn’t work, you can go into the bank and get a cash advance against a credit card.
Bank notes are available ranging from two to 100 kina, but it is important to note that many people – especially in small shops – will not have change for anything more than a 20 kina note, so you should try to collect as many small notes and coins as possible for smaller purchases.
It is highly recommended that you do not carry too much money when travelling in cities and towns. Travellers cheques are accepted at most banks throughout PNG, so it may be safer to only carry small amounts of money and some travellers cheques so you can get extra money when needed.
Papua New Guinea is the most diverse country in the world regarding languages, with over 830 indigenous languages spoken throughout the nation, although many of these are considered endangered and have less than 1,000 speakers. Papua New Guinea is so sublingually diverse, it is home to 1/3 of all living languages spoken on Earth.
PNG has three official spoken languages; Tok Pisin (an English based creole language), English, and Hiri Motu. Despite English being an official language, less than 2% of the population can speak it.
Papua New Guinea is a predominantly Christian nation with as many as 96% of the population claiming to follow some branch of Christianity. The majority of these people combine their Christian faith with traditional beliefs and practises.
Despite neighbouring Indonesia being a predominantly Muslim country, Islam has never achieved much of a foothold in PNG, although there is a small population of roughly 5,000 Sunni Muslins living in Port Moresby.
UK citizens can receive a 30 day visa upon entering Papua New Guinea, however it is important to keep up to date with visa information as the government frequently suspends such visas and require all visitors to get a visa from an embassy outside PNG.
Up to date visa information for UK citizens can be found on the UK foreign office travel advice website.
Best Things to do in Papua New Guinea (Non-Diving)
Papua New Guinea is easily one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, and visiting any one of the countless traditional festivals is highly recommended for anyone who is interested in learning about the traditional way of life.
During July and August on the Trobrian Islands is the Milamla festival – a yearly traditional festival to celebrate the yam harvest. During the festival, a number of traditional activities take place, such as canoe racing, costume dances and theatre, as well as more colonial inspired activities such as cricket.
Hike the Kokoda Trail
For hikers and history buffs, why not combine your interests and complete the world famous Kokoda Trail – a 96km route that runs from Port Moresby to Kokoda Village. The trail runs along the path of one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, and it also marks where the Japanese lost a campaign to capture Port Moresby, and their bigger overall campaign to capture Australia.
While the trail can run from either direction, the historically accurate route is to start from Kokoda. The trek takes between eight and ten days (depending on your fitness and the weather), and you will climb to over 2,000 metres in some parts. Along the route, you can see various artefacts from the war, and countless memorials to those lost in the battle.
Tonda National Park
No trip to Papua New Guinea would be complete without visiting any of the countries incredible national parks.
Covering a total 2,278 square miles, Tonda National Park is PNG’s largest protected area, and it considered one of the most ecologically significant wetland areas on Earth. The park protects enormous amounts of rare and endemic wildlife, with over 200 bird species (including several birds-of-paradise), over 50 different species of mammal, and various reptiles.
While the area is protected by law and became a world heritage site in 2006, the park continues to suffer from poaching – primarily from Indonesians crossing the border – and illegal harvesting from people living within the national park.
Meet Real-life Warriors
The Asaro Mudmen are traditional tribal warriors who are famed for covering themselves neck to toe in mud. According to legend, they came from a tribe who had been defeated in battle and retreated across the Asaro River. When they climbed out from the river banks they were covered in grey mud, and enemy tribe saw this and believed these grey people were the ghosts of warriors killed in the battle, and they would return to haunt and kill them all. The enemy were so afraid of these risen spirits, they fled the area and never returned.
The tribe live near the village of Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province, and you can visit them and see traditional ceremonies and dances. Although this tribe used to perform sacrifice and cannibalistic ceremonies to keep themselves safe, today they offer tours of their villages and are happy to show outsiders their traditional way of life.
Scuba Diving in Papua New Guinea
Kimbe Bay is a huge marine protected (MPA) area found around the island of New Britain. It is considered by many as the best diving Papua New Guinea has to offer, and it is easy to understand why. This vast MPA is home to over 60% of all coral species found within the Indo Pacific region, and there are more than 850 species of reef fish living within the bay.
The majority of the diving in Kimbe bay is sloping reefs and walls, however as you head further out to sea, the ocean floor quickly drops to over 1,000 metres – with the odd sea mount coming as shallow as 15 metres from the surface. The reefs offer almost unrivalled levels of marine biodiversity – often compared with Indonesia’s Raja Ampat,- while the open ocean sea mounts offer divers the chance to swim among enormous schools of barracuda, big-eye trevally, tuna, grey reef sharks, and if you are very lucky, schools of hammerheads may ascend from the deep.
Kimbe Bay is also home to one of the most intact WWII aircraft wrecks in the whole of Papua New Guinea – a Japanese Mitsbishi Zero Fighter – and the best part is that it is lying only 17 metres underwater. Soft corals, sponges, and invertebrates have taken over any available growing space, however the plane is still very much intact, and many smaller fish have moved into the cockpit for protection.
Milne Bay marks the eastern most point of New Guinea, and this little explored part of the world is also the birth place of muck diving.
The region offers a huge variety of diving ranging from deep walls, open ocean sea mounts and shallow fringing coral reefs, however the main attraction is the world class muck diving -that was discovered by accident when pioneer diver Bob Halstead decided to dive over the black sandy slopes while his boat was anchored in the bay.
While the open ocean sites can be prone to currents and waves, the sheltered black sand bays are almost always have optimal diving conditions – except low visibility, which is to be expected from muck diving.
If you are a macro photographer or a nudibranch nut, Milne Bay should be the first stop on your diving holiday to Papua New Guinea. Critter highlights include ghost pipefish, pygmy seahorses, frogfish, nudibranch, mandarin fish, and even the occasional Rhinopia!
Found on the north east coast of mainland PNG, Tufi offers divers a unique blend of diving in what is arguably one of the most stunning parts of the world – think the fjords of Norway, except with dense rainforest kissing the waters edge.
Tufi is extremely remote. There is only one resort there, and liveaboards rarely visit the region. This means that you will are 99.999% guaranteed to have a dive site to yourself, and the lack of western influence is still extremely interesting to the locals – who will often paddle out to the dive boats to say hello.
The diving is very varied in Tufi. Close to shore you can go critter hunting in the muck, which is a popular option for afternoon and night dives. Common encounters include ghost pipefish, frogfish, and nudibranch galore. If you are lucky, the guides may know the whereabouts of a Rhinopia. Close to the Tufi jetty, there are two shipwrecks – both WWII era American PT boats – however these dives are deeper than 40 metres, so you will need some experience with decompression dives if you want to see these wrecks.
The diving close to shore is great, but the real attraction of Tufi is the offshore reefs and seamounts – most of which have never been impacted by commercial fishing or over-diving, and many of which have never even been surveyed by divers! On these dives you can expect unbelievably immaculate reefs with schooling barracuda, tuna, bump head parrotfish, grey reef sharks, and it is not that uncommon to have a great hammerhead pass by! These seamounts and offshore reefs are extremely exposed, and the only available dive boats in the region are not up to the task of dealing with large waves. This means that if the conditions are not optimal, there is a chance you will not be able to make it out to the very best dive sites. The calmest time of the year for Tufi is in October and November, however be warned that conditions can vary from year to year.
When to Visit Papua New Guinea
You can dive Papua New Guinea year round, however different parts of the country are better suited to different times of the year. Visibility is quite stable year round – averaging at around 25 metres – unless you are diving close to mangroves or muck diving.
The Coral Sea is best visited between December and April, as this is when the region gets the least wind and rainfall. Diving outside of these months is possible, however large swells can limit available dive sites. The Bismark sea is best dived between May and November, however during July and August the region may experience strong winds – again limiting dive sites. The Solomon Sea is fantastic year round, however the rainy season is usually between January and March.
A few things to Beware of..
You may have heard horror stories about Papua New Guinea’s infamous capital city, Port Moresby. Most people will advise you to never even step foot in the city, and while this may be an over exaggeration, you should still listen to any and all warning given to you while you stay within the city.
The reason you must be careful is because of ‘Raskol Gangs’. They first appeared in Port Moresby in the 1970’s, and they have been terrorising the capital and other larger cities ever since. The ‘Raskols were born out of poverty in large urban squatting areas, and their numbers grew as more people moved to the cities to find work.
Raskols are opportunistic criminals, and while their criminal activities are generally not aimed at westerners – crimes against tourists usually get a large police response – however given the chance they will take the opportunity to rob you, mug you, or worse…
The general advice is to never leave your hotel at night, don’t go into any impoverished areas, and when you choose your hotel, only go for one of the larger and more reputable ones that has a good security team. You should always keep a 50 kina note in your pocket, so if you do run into any Raskols, you can pay them off and they should leave you alone. All other money should be secured in money belts or hidden somewhere else, such as in a shoe. Raskols should be considered extremely dangerous, and you should never confront them or try to fight them off.
The Raskol gangs do not spill out of the larger cities, so you will be safe in the rural areas. There is tribal warfare between rival tribes in the highland regions, however this is never aimed at foreigners.