Calling Papua New Guinea a diverse country doesn’t even begin to describe the variations in culture, language, landscape, and wildlife that perpetually bombard the senses when traveling here. This island nation, which sits just north of Australia in the South Pacific, is comprised of more than 1,000 distinct cultures and 860 native languages, packed into an area the size of California. The histories, beliefs, and traditions of the people fluctuate so wildly from one group to the next that in some places even neighboring villages remain notably disparate.
Despite the presence of modern cities like Port Moresby and Lae, nearly 80 percent of PNG’s population lives in rural areas where many villages and clans still have one foot in the Stone Age. PNG’s interior jungle is, in fact, one of the world’s few regions—second only to the Amazon Rainforest—where native tribes still exist with no contact or knowledge of the outside world.
Not to be outdone, the land, the landscape, and the adventure-travel potential of this practically untapped experiential resource boast an equally diverse range. For travelers who make the journey, with aid from our PNG Travel Guide, expect introductions to storybook cultures, tours of smoldering volcanoes and geothermal hot springs, artifact hunting expeditions into swampy lowlands populated with brutally friendly (former) cannibals, history-laded treks that follow in the footsteps of the Australians and Japanese who fought desperately here during World War II, scuba diving among the most biologically diverse coral reefs in the world, and so much more.
- 10. Climb an Active Volcano
- 9. Ride a Secret Surf Break
- 8. Scuba Dive Kimbe Bay’s Undersea Pinnacles
- 7. Hunt for Artifacts in the Sepik River Valley
- 6. Spend the Night in a Sepik Family House
- 5. Hike the Historic Kokoda Track
- 4. Scale Mt. Wilhelm, PNG’s Tallest Peak
- 3. Dance with Highland Tribes at the Country’s Largest Sing-Sing
- 2. Spot the Elusive Bird of Paradise
- 1. See the Skull Caves of Milne Bay
To tempt the palate with a taste of these—and more—of PNG’s most incredible attractions, click to the next page to uncover ten can’t-miss adventures from around the country.
10. Climb an Active Volcano
In September 1994, plumes of hot ash exploded from the Vulcan and Tavurvur volcanoes on the eastern end of New Britain Island, raining hellfire onto the lively island town of Rabaul, which is flanked by PNG’s most explosive peaks. And even now, much of Rabaul remains charred and buried like a tropical-island Pompeii. A new volcano observatory keeps a close watch on things today, and volcano watchers can explore the eerie moonscape of the ruins before hiring local guides to lead day hikes up any of the half-dozen active volcanic vents that ring the Rabaul caldera. Along the way, take a dip at one of the geothermal hot springs found around the vents. Since the last eruption, many people and businesses have left Rabaul and relocated to nearby Kokopo. Managers at both Kokopo Beach Bungalows and Rabaul Hotel can arrange personalized volcano tours with local guides.
9. Ride a Secret Surf Break
Imagine swells rolling through clear-blue South Pacific seas, tossing up consistently beautiful barrels as they pass over lush coral reefs on their way to virgin shorelines, the breaks empty of people except for the smiling, sun-bleached local kids riding shoreward on handmade surfboards. That’s the scene off Lido Village, near Vanimo, in the far northwest of the country, and prime surf spots like this can be found in Kavieng, Weewak, and even Port Moresby. The waves are easily on par with other world-class surf spots in the region—like Indonesia, Tahiti, or Fiji—except for one thing: no crowds. And luckily, even when the word does get out, the waves will remain blissfully secluded due to a surf area management plan enacted by the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea [link to www.surfingpapuanewguinea.org.pg] that limits the number of riders allowed into the water on any given day. Head to the north shore from April to October, the south from June to September. And bring aboard—equipment is still hard to find on island.
8. Scuba Dive Kimbe Bay’s Undersea Pinnacles
Located on the north side of New Britain Island, Kimbe Bay sits along the southern edge of the Coral Triangle—a swath of the Pacific Ocean famous for its unparalleled marine-life diversity. And true to form, Kimbe Bay boasts more than 900 species of fish among its reefs and more than 400 types of coral—nearly half of the known coral species worldwide. The diving here runs the gamut: nearshore coral gardens burst with color, and offer shallow, sun-drenched reefs loaded with macro-critters like harlequin ghost pipefish and pygmy sea horses.
Out in the bay, dive sites like Susan’s Reef fringe the edge of the undersea shelf, where divers can explore the steep walls overflowing with waving soft corals and clownfish hiding among the tentacles of their anemones.
And just outside the bay, coral bommies and undersea pinnacles—like Inglis Shoal and Kimbe Island Bommie—rise from the open ocean to within 50 or 60 feet of the surface and attract swarms of roving sharks, great schools of Pacific barracuda, and other pelagic predators.The Walindi Resort is the only dive operation on Kimbe Bay. From the resort, which is nestled into an oil-palm plantation overlooking the bay, guests can make day trips out to the diving grounds. For hardcore divers, Walindi also offers itineraries on its liveaboard dive boat Febrina, which explores the farthest reaches of Kimbe Bay and beyond.
7. Hunt for Artifacts in the Sepik River Valley
The people of the Sepik River valley are famous worldwide for their distinctive carved spirit masks, cassowary-bone daggers, and other artwork. Even the design of the PNG government’s Parliament building in Port Moresby is based on the haus Tambaren, or spirit houses, of the Sepik Region. But despite their renown, the incredibly diverse people who populate the banks of the Sepik River and its tributaries live today much as they have for hundreds of years, hand-line fishing from dugout canoes, subsisting off the starchy pulp of the prevalent sago palms and passing down stories of their war-ravaged, cannibalistic past through their art, dances, and oral traditions. No roads permeate the thick jungles and grasslands that flank the country’s largest river, so the only access into this remote section of the country is by bush plane or boat. Trans Niugini Tours operates the riverboat Sepik Spirit which visitors can live on-board and make forays by flat-bottom boat on artifact-hunting expeditions to nearby villages.
6. Spend the Night in a Sepik Family House
Go beyond simply visiting the villages and shopping for artifacts in the Sepik River region, get a firsthand look at local life by spending the night with a native tribe. The Karawari Lodge arranges overnight trips at the Kungriambun, Konmei, and Kaiwaria villages along the Karawari River, a tributary of the Sepik. The villagers provide accommodations in one of their stilted, sprawling family houses, and the accompanying guides furnish it temporarily with sleeping pads and mosquito nets. During the day, visitors can take nature walks or go fishing with the village women, and at night join the meals and storytelling around the fire before heading off to bed.
5. Hike the Historic Kokoda Track
World War II buffs shouldn’t miss an opportunity to hike the infamous Kokoda Track. The full length of the track stretches nearly 60 miles across the rugged mountains of the Owen Stanley Range, following the path of a bloody WWII campaign between Australia and Japan from Owen’s Corner to the village of Kokoda. While it’s the most popular trek in PNG, and a veritable rite of passage for many Australians, Kokoda is not for the casual hiker, as it passes through sweltering jungles, up and down impossibly steep ridges, and across fast-flowing rivers. However, along the way it offers the opportunity to explore historic battlefields, hand-dug trenches, and war artifacts, as well as to make overnight stops in local villages to learn the culture from natives and each village’s history along the track. Hiking end-to-end can take anywhere from four to 12 days depending on the pace and fitness of the hikers. Numerous trekking companies like Kokoda Trekking [link to www.kokodatrail.com.au] offer expeditions along the track, arranging logistics like track permits, village visits, and porters to carry gear and supplies.
4. Scale Mt. Wilhelm, PNG’s Tallest Peak
At 14,790 feet, Mt. Wilhelm is the tallest mountain in PNG, and while the climb is relatively challenging, it’s not technical and doesn’t require extensive mountaineering gear or experience. The hike to the summit passes through tropical, temperate, and alpine forests—there’s even the possibility of snow at the peak—and from the top it’s possible to see both the north and south coasts of the country. Excursions to the summit with PNG Trekking Adventures start with transport from either Goroka or Mt. Hagen to Betty’s Lodge at Keglsugl on the side of the mountain. The following day involves a leisurely 3-hour hike to the base camp, where climbers can stay for a night or two, taking short walks and acclimatizing to the altitude. For the summit hike, climbers leave the base camp around 1 a.m. in order to reach the peak by sunrise and then make a full descent back to the lodge at Keglsugl before catching a ride to town the following day.
3. Dance with Highland Tribes at the Country’s Largest Sing-Sing
Every August, more than 50 different native tribes converge on the Kagamuga Showgrounds in the Highland city of Mt. Hagen to perform traditional “sing-sing” dance celebrations in full tribal dress for the Mt. Hagen Cultural Show, the largest of its kind in the country. The Highlands of PNG are home to some of the country’s most colorful and impressive displays of native culture—like the ornately plumed Huli Wigmen of Tari who emulate the bird of paradise, and the elaborately sculpted masks of the Asaro Mudmen, which depict malevolent forest spirits—and this cultural show is a can’t-miss for visitors who want to join the festivities. Trans Niugini Tours has been offering Mt. Hagen Show itineraries for nearly three decades with accommodations at the Highlander Hotel in Mt. Hagen.
2. Spot the Elusive Bird of Paradise
All around PNG, bird watching is big business. There are around 700 species of exotic birds to be found across the country’s many ecosystems, but one bird in particular—the bird of paradise—seems to top everybody’s “must-spot” list. The Huli Wigmen have prized the lavish feathers of these birds for hundreds of years, as evidenced by the Huli’s elaborate headdresses featuring bird of paradise feathers and their traditional dances, which mimic those of the birds in their natural habitats. The Tari Gap region is the place to see as many as 13 different species of bird of paradise, as well as visit the Huli in their own villages. The Ambua Lodge offers bird watching and Huli village day trips from its Tari location, beneath a canopy of mountain rainforest.
1. See the Skull Caves of Milne Bay
It is believed that many years ago, in the pre-missionary days of Milne Bay Province, an important person who died was buried upright in the ground with his head poking out, covered by a clay pot, and over time, once the skull disconnected from the body, it was taken to a special cave to be stored along with the skulls of other important tribespeople. Jump forward to today: These caves are no longer in use, but a number of them have been opened up in the vicinity of Alotau. The Tawali Resort offers day hikes through the jungle to visit these skull caves—some literally loaded with ancient craniums. The day starts with a boat ride to the trailhead, ends with a refreshing dip under a tropical waterfall, and includes bird watching and orchid hunting along the way.