Some of the world’s most diverse reefs are located in Papua New Guinea // © 2013 Ethan Daniels
If space is the final frontier, then Papua New Guinea (PNG) must be a close second. Just 100 miles north of Australia, this wealthy Pacific island sees fewer than 7,000 North American travelers per year. But the few who do venture to PNG are met with an array of natural resources ripe for adventure. Think scuba dives with five times the marine life found in the Caribbean, canoeing beneath a canopy of chirping birds of paradise and trekking through World War II history.
As the country prepares for an influx of visitors, Silversea and Carnival Australia are launching PNG coastal cruises, and hotel rooms in capital city Port Moresby will grow from 600 to 6,000 by 2015. Now is the time to explore its rich and remote shores. For adventure-seekers hungry for the next big thing, PNG has arrived.
Walk the Line
The country is rich with World War II heritage, but few experiences are as physically and emotionally powerful as trekking its world-famous Kokoda Trail. This 60-mile course through the forbidding Owen Stanley mountain range played a pivotal role in the 1942 battles between Japanese and Australian militaries. The Australians’ ability to hold the Kokoda Trail is considered a turning point in their ultimate victory.
Today, trekkers of all skill levels from all corners of the world arrive to trek the historic hike, which can take from five to 12 days to complete. Along the way, hikers pass through rainforests, rocky peaks and traditional tribal villages. Koairi and Orokaiva people occasionally sell local fruit by the side of the path and open up their homes as guesthouses. Overnight accommodations are also available at campsites throughout the route.
How to Go: An entrance at Owers Corner is located 30 miles east of the capital Port Moresby, which has the country’s largest international airport.
Tour operators such as Kokoda Trekking (www.kokodatrail.com.pg) and Adventure Kokoda (www.kokodatreks.com) can arrange customized trips with local guides, a necessity for access to the more isolated campsites.
The surf industry in PNG is only 30 years old but its reputation precedes it, especially for watersports enthusiasts. Thanks to its appearance in the 2011 surf documentary “Splinters,” a London Film Festival award-winner, the word is out on Vanimo, a surf mecca on PNG’s northeastern coast.
Renowned for its right-hand reef break and continuous waves, the laid-back city remains largely uncrowded due to strict development regulations imposed by PNG’s national Surf Association, whose sustainability model was recognized by the World Bank in 2008 and is a trendsetter in the region.
One of just four lodges in town, Vanimo Surf Lodge has breezy, waterfront huts that can accommodate no more than 10 guests at a time, so book your clients at least six months in advance. Home-stays are also available.
How to Go: Air Niugini operates three weekly flights to Vanimo from Madang, Port Moresby and Wewak.
California-based World Surfaris has a strong reputation in PNG and plans surf trips on the northern coast out of Vanimo Surf Lodge.
It Takes a Village
Traditional villages line the Sepik River, PNG’s main waterway and a cultural touchstone for many of its 600 tribes. Travel in the East Sepik province is not for the faint of heart, as it often lacks Western creature comforts, but a journey along the 760-mile river provides the sort of inarguable authenticity that can elude many adventure tours.
If your clients are up for the challenge, arrange an a la carte itinerary via motorized canoe. Guides will lead trekking excursions through untouched jungle terrain and villages that feature moving musical performances and tribal artwork.
The Sepik is also a haven for birders. Nearly all of the world’s identified Birds of Paradise have been spotted here and guest lodges in the region can arrange early morning birding expeditions with skilled local experts.
How to Go: Start in Wewak, a coastal town with a regional airport and high-quality accommodations such as In Wewak Boutique Hotel and Karawari Lodge. From there, drivers escort private tours to the Middle Sepik, where travelers can stay in lodges such as Ambunti Guest House or as a guest in traditional villages along the river.
Goway Travel, International Expeditions and Travcoa have cultural tours along the Sepik River. Local tour operators such as Sepik Adventure Tours also have great connections and an excellent reputation with local tribes.
One of the world’s premier dive destinations, PNG has scuba sites with 485,000 square feet of reef systems and the highest diversity of fish and coral on the planet. Serious divers should head straight to northeastern coastal cities Madang, Rabaul and Kavieng. There, in the turquoise waters of the Bismarck and Solomon Seas, divers traverse coral atolls, barrier reefs and a number of sunken Japanese and Australian aircraft and submarine wrecks from World War II.
Animal-lovers can swim alongside gray reef sharks or eagle and mobula rays and spot smaller sea creatures such as Pacific pygmy seahorses and multi-colored nudibranch.
How to Go: There are daily flights to Madang, Rabaul and Kavieng out of the capital city Port Moresby, and national carrier Air Niugini launched a direct route to Rabaul from the Australian city of Cairns in July 2013.
Dive operators such as Sydney-based Dive Adventures, World of Diving, Caradona and Outdoor Travel Adventures in the U.S. have both standard and customized dive adventures in PNG. In addition, PNG Dive has a website (www.pngdive.com) that lists a number of on-island operators affiliated with the Papua New Guinea Tourism Authority.