"Isn't that where they ate one of the Rockefellers?" That was almost everybody's reaction to my announcement that I was planning a trip to Papua New Guinea. I knew a few people who had been there and they all talked about how "primitive" a place it is. PNG is certainly not a mainstream tourist destination. But that's what makes it all the more interesting.
I've always liked the art of the South Pacific region and PNG is highly regarded for artisanship. In particular, the Sepik River region is well known for masks and carvings. But my more immediate impetus for the trip was an exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History. I'd gone to see the exhibit on Shackleton they had in 1999. Frank Hurley, the Australian photographer on Shackleton's Endurance expedition, swore that after being stranded in the Antarctic, he would never go to a cold climate again. One of the warm places Hurley went to was New Guinea and the museum had a room full of his photos from that expedition. The elaborate feathered head dresses and face paint intrigued me and I started to think about going. A little research suggested that an excellent way to see a lot of exotic people in one place was to attend one of the Highlands shows. There's one in Goroka, but the Mount Hagen show was more famous and I decided to build my trip around that.
I'm not easily intimidated, but personal security is a real concern in Papua New Guinea. In addition, the tourism infrastructure is not well-developed. Lodging is limited and public transit is of dubious comfort and safety. "Public motor vehicles" or PMVs serve many areas, but these are basically pickup trucks with a couple of wooden benches. More people than you'd think possible crowd into and onto PMVs, clinging to any available inch of space. I'm not quite that intrepid, so an organized tour seemed to be a far better option. If I'm going to take a tour, I prefer to do so with a company that specializes in the area I'm going to. That led me to Trans Niugini Tours, which offered several options that included the Mount Hagen show. I could have booked directly, but that sounded complicated, involving bank wire transfers. It was far easier to make the arrangements via Adventure Center, a travel agency I'd used before and found reliable. Looking through the Trans Niugini Tours brochure, I decided that I'd enjoy a cruise on the Sepik River. I was also intrigued by the photos of the Huli wigmen and noted that the packages that included Ambua Lodge would let me see that side of the Highlands culture. Putting it all together, I called Adventure Center and booked a space on tour TNT202.
The next step was figuring out how to get to PNG. More net surfing revealed that Qantas serves Port Moresby and that I had enough miles on American (which has a partnership with Qantas) to get my plane ticket free. (Well, you do pay the taxes, but that's insignificant.) They allowed a stopover and, figuring that I would do well to recover from jet lag in the relative comfort of Australia, my plans included four days in Brisbane.
Enough people have asked that I thought I'd add a quick medical note. The precautions for PNG are pretty much standard for travel in the developing world. Many of my vaccinations were current and the only update I needed was a typhoid injection. Some sources have told me that oral typhoid vaccine is available again, but Kaiser claimed that all their stocks had been taken up by the Army. If oral is available, it's a better bet not just because of avoiding a shot, but it's also alleged to be more effective. Malaria prophylaxis is also advisable in PNG. Most of our group (myself included) took mefloquine (lariam). Incidentally, just after I returned, there was an outbreak of malaria in Loudun County, Virginia, just west of the Washington, D.C. metro area. Finally, the hotels in Mount Hagen had facilities for boiling water, while the wilderness lodges had safe water supplies. Bottled water was widely available. A few people had brief bouts of digestive illness, but it doesn't seem to be as big a problem as it is in some other regions.
Another major consideration in traveling in PNG is minimizing luggage. The trip involved several segments on small planes, with luggage limited to 10 kilograms (22 pounds). This didn't seem to be very strictly enforced, but you'd want to be reasonably close. Small hand baggage was weighed separately and didn't count in the limit. The one thing I should have taken and didn't was more Polaroid film. I have a fairly unusual camera - a digital camera with a built in Polaroid printer (made by Olympus in 1999 and possibly still available at a lot less than I paid for it). Giving people instant prints of the digital photos I shot was greatly appreciated. But I had only a couple of packs of Polaroid 500 film with me, so could only do that for some of the people I photographed.
Things got slightly more complicated when I changed jobs and moved from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. shortly before the trip. But that just meant adding on cross-country plane tickets (courtesy of some of my United miles). It also meant leaving right after getting my household goods delivered - not something I recommend, but that's how it worked out. Fortunately, the trip was enjoyable enough to make up for the hassle of having umpty ump boxes to unpack on return. For details, read on.
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last updated 22 September 2002