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Papua New Guinea, Timor, Australia, Oceania

A guide to its main attractions
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Selected by piero scaruffi | Back to the travel page | Suggestions
My pictures of Oceania
  • Fly to Jayapura, the capital of Indonesia's Papua (Western New Guinea)
  • Attractions in Papua include: Cenderawasih Bay Marine Park, Raja Ampat National Park (northwest), villages and tribes of Baliem Valley (centre), Lorentz National Park (center-west), Lake Sentani (near Jayapura).
  • From Jayapura take a bus or an ojek (motorcycle taxi) to the border town of Wutung. Walk from Wutung to Batas on the other side of the border. From Batas to Vanimo there are PMVs (buses) that take about 30 minutes.
  • Cross the border into Papua New Guinea to Vanimo, the other border town (this road is an attraction in itself for lagoons and beaches)
  • Fly from Vanimo to Wewak ($200 or so each way) and take a PMV to Pagwi. Rent a boat and explore the Sepik river in two days. Main villages are Palombei and Kanganamun, the one across the river. Also Lake Chambri.
  • Back to Wewak, take the night ship to Medang, then PMVs to Goroka and Mt Hagen and Mendi. Mendi is in the Central Highlands. From there go to Wasi Falls in the south or Tari in the west (8 hours by PMV).
  • Charter a flight in Goroka to Heroana airstrip for Crater Mountain Wildlife Management Area (a World Heritage site, only 50 km southwest of Goroka but there seems to be no road), the best place for wildlife and village life (the only accommodation is in villages)
  • Avoid the capital Port Moresby
  • Kokoda track north of Port Moresby (there is transportation from Port Moresby to Sogeri, 16 kms from the trailhead of Owers' Corner (you have to hitchhike the remaining 16 kms) but it's not the best hike, just famous with Australians
  • Bensbach on the southern coast (in the old days mainly famous for human headhunting) is only for the very rich (both flying there by charter flight and staying at the only lodge cost a fortune)
  • New Guinea is divided in two: the independent Papua New Guinea and the Indonesia's region of West Papua (formerly Irian Jaya). First of all, New Guinea is big and what has been explored is only a fraction, and what you can see is only a fraction of the fraction. Yes, three centuries after its discovery. Every now and then linguists discover a new language, zoologists discover a new species, etc. The Baliem Valley was discovered only in 1938. There are still unexplored regions. The map shows nothing in the middle. PNG has poor infrastructure. It's Africa in the Pacific. You must like adventure and be good at improvising.Really good. It is also very expensive, which compounds the problems of traveling. It has a reputation for high crime although personally i did not experience any threat. Malaria is widespread. It is a very tiring experience. Luckily people help a lot, and you do need their help. Indonesia's Papua/Irian Jaya is more developed and developing rapidly. There are now paved roads to places a couple of hours from Stone Age villages. It is being colonized by Javanese people resettled by the Indonesian government. Therefore its towns are becoming less "Papuan" (black) and more Indonesian (lots of shops, motorcycles and mosques). It is a lot cheaper (even though more expensive than Java or Bali) and safer. The interior seems to be more primitive than PNG but i think it has to do with the infrastructure: in PNG it is terribly difficult to reach even the oldest towns, whereas in Indonesia you can reach even some parts of the interior with one flight, one bemo ride and a short trek. Hence you get to see for a few more years) things that would be too difficult and expensive to see in PNG. Huge areas of both sides are virtually off-limits: either unexplored, too dangerous (no government control) or just no road/airport for the general public. Indonesia has declared a huge area of Papua a national park (Cenderawasin Bay Park near Manokwan) but there is neither a town, nor a regular flight, nor roads to visit it... PNG's Crater Mountain has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations but the only way to get there is by chartered flight (note that it is only 50 kms from Goroka, but 50 impassable kms). Etc.
  • Very little English is spoken in Indonesian Papua, like in all the Indonesian islands east of Bali. You do need to practice a bit of Bahasa Indonesia. The Papuans hate the Indonesian immigrants as passionately and silently as the Tibetans hate the Chinese. Their children cannot go to the best schools while the children of the Indonesian immigrants get an education and money. It's exactly the same situation as in Tibet, where the Tibetans watch as spoiled Chinese kids tour their country while the Tibetan children live in poor huts with animals.
  • In both sides of New Guinea there is virtually no concept of time. If you ask "how long does it take" the answer is a random number of hours. I was told 10 hours for the car trip from Wewak to Vanimo which is at least 12 hours and actually took 16 hours. I was told the bemo from Wamena to the end of the paved road would take four hours: it took one hour. The trek to the first village was supposed to take four hours: it took 1.5 hours. The plane that was supposed to leave at 11am left at 1pm. When i asked Jimmy how old he is, he replied 45 but i later saw his birthdate on his i.d.: 1954.

Map :
Notes (2011)
  • $1=2.2 kina
  • The dry season for Papua New Guinea is May - October.
  • Papua New Guinea has one of the highest crime rates in the world, although it is mostly concentrated in the big cities. Outside the big cities it is actually a relatively safe country during the day.
  • The kina is very strong, therefore prices are sky high.
  • There are no travel agencies and no tourist offices: you are on your own
  • The Internet is virtually non-existent
  • There is a border crossing between Indonesia's Papua and independent Papua New Guinea. There is also boat service between the two cities (Jayapura and Vanimo). It's on the northern coast. You can get a visa for either side in Jayapura or Vanimo. The border towns are Batas (PNG) and Wutung (Indonesia). Border formalities are straightforward and there is easy transportation from each side (ojeks to Jayapura, PMVs to Vanimo). The trouble is getting anywhere into PNG from Vanimo.
  • Don't pay anything atthe border. People are under the impression that they have to bribe the Indonesian side but it is not true.
  • Jayapura is cheap, Vanimo is expensive.
  • Vanimo's cheapest accomodation are the bungalows in Jaco (60kina). The guesthouse on the hill seems to be always full, rented by the month. John Visser near the airport also has relatively cheap accommodation (if you bargain) but Vanimo is generally very expensive, probably the most expensive town in PNG. But don't believe the lodge at the top of the hill that claims their rooms (200kina) are the cheapest. The cheapest accommodation is provided by ordinary families. Just inquire around.
  • The road from Vanimo to Wewak (not shown on most maps) is absolute hell. It can take as much as 15 hours. Land Cruisers ask 150kina. The flight between the two cities costs 470kina and the return is only on wednesdays and fridays (AirNiugini and MFA).
  • Wewak's cheapest accommodation is the SIL guesthouse (55 kina), followed by Warihe (80k)
  • Bus Wewak-Pagwi 40kina 1hr by PMV (to reach the Sepik river)
  • Guide for Sepik villages: Jimmy Maik
  • Boat from Wewak to Medang by night 120kina
  • PMV Medang-Goroka by PMV 40kina 4h
  • Goroka toMt Hagen byPMV 40kina 4h
  • PMV Mt Hagen-Mendi 2h
  • From Medang to Mendi the road is in good conditions.
  • Mendi- Lake Kutubu - Wasi Falls and back to Mendi takes two days. There is a guesthouse at the lake.
  • Mendi-Tari is 8 hours by PMV on a difficult road.
  • You can fly to Port Moresby from Brisbane and Cairns in Australia with Airlines PNG which is cheaper than Air Niugini
  • The visa for East Timor can be obtained upon arrival only if arriving by air. In 2011 only two airports were connected to Dili: Denpasar in Bali, Indonesia, and Darwin in Australia. In order to enter East Timor by bus from Kupang (West Timor) one needs to obtain a visa from the consulate in Kupang, which takes three days. Ditto for going from Dili to Kupang. The bus ride takes less than eight hours.
  • The town of Kundiawa, halfway between Mendi and Goroka, is the staging place for climbing Papua's highest mountain, Mt Wilhelm (4509m). It takes about 3 hours by dirt road (passable only by 4WD vehicles) to Kegla. From Kegla to the top via Lake Aunde is an easy seven-hour hike if you are in decent shape and acclimated. Temperatures at the top are often below zero, but ice is rarely an issue.

Appendix: My 2011 trip to the Sepik villages

Vanimo, Papua New Guinea Saturday, May 14, 2011, 08:27 AM The red-eye flight from Jakarta landed at Jayapura (capital of West Papua, formerly Irian Jaya, Indonesia's half of New Guinea) at 7am. I hired a ojek (motorcycle taxi) to the border town of Wutung for 250,000 rupias ($30). The ride through jungle and along the coast is very pretty (most of these little bays would be five-star attractions in a western country). One hour later i was at the border post and went through the formalities. Then i crossed to PNG (Papua New Guinea). I *love* to cross borders on foot. PNG is the 135th country that i have visited. The whole process was fairly straightforward... if you manage to find the border crossing. Then a minibus took me from Batas (the other half of the border town) to Vanimo, the first major town in PNG. I would learn later that this is also the most expensive town in PNG, and probably in the entire South Pacific. Vanimo is fascinating because it's really in the middle of nowhere: the map shows no road connecting Vanimo to the rest of the country (one week later i would find out that there is a way, but there's a reason if it's not on the map). Hence i had a ticket to fly with Air Niugini from Vanimo to Wewak the following day. The PNG embassy in Jakarta had demanded to see the ticket before issuing the visa. Now i only needed to find a place to sleep one night in this godforsaken town. The air strip is in town, therefore you just walk outside and you are in the main square. That's where i started asking about guesthouses. The shock was colossal when i started hearing the prices. The "lodge" has rooms for 200 kina ($90) and claims to be the cheapest place in town. Not bad for a town that has only 3 stores. Luckily the only ATM was working so i loaded myself with kina (being a saturday the bank was closed and there was no hope to exchange dollars or rupias). There is an Indonesian consulate but i couldn't find it. I will need it on the way back. The kina is very strong, therefore prices are sky high. I went to see the bishop at the Catholic mission. He helped me bargain a room for a discounted price of 100 kina at the mansion of a local magnate, John Visser. Both Jayapura and Vanimo enjoy idyllic settings on the coast. Jayapura is nested inside a bay. Vanimo is a peninsula that breaks the beach in two. The worst thing about PNG that hits you right away is that everybody has red teeth because they chew betelnut all the time. The best news is that, contrary to the bad press that PNG gets, people in Vanimo are friendly and honest. There are no travel agencies and no tourist offices: you are on your own (i would learn later that this is true in every town of PNG). Hotels only know their immediate surroundings and are usually manned by inexperienced kids. Planning a trip to a nearby town is a lottery. You can find out very little beforehand. The Lonely Planet guidebook is wildly inadequate.

Wewak, PNG Sunday, May 15, 2011, 08:39 AM This morning from the guesthouse i walked to the Vanimo airport, which is just one room, and boarded the Fokker plane to Wewak. The ticket was expensive but the flight is worth the price because it flies low over the jungle. I hope the pictures from the plane will do justice to the landscape. Wewak is a bigger town than Vanimo but fundamentally similar, nested between beach and jungle. I found a free ride to town and got a room at the guesthouse on the hill, Warihe, the only thing that i can afford here ($45). Nearby i found my first PNG restaurant (Seaview Hotel: only hotels have restaurants). One veggie omelette, potatoes and two drinks for $15. Prices are 3 or 4 times Indonesia's prices. These are small towns in which everybody knows everybody else. You are supposed to say "hello" to everybody. People are mostly super-friendly. All you need to do is ask. The heat is still the main problem. Too hot for mosquitoes to become the main problem. I have not perceived the slight danger yet. I read so many warnings about the high crime of PNG. I am beginning to suspect the danger is exaggerated because these people are black. On the ride to town i met a guide, Sebi, who owns a guesthouse on the Sepik river at Kaminabit. His price is too high, but he introduced me to Jimmy, who lives i one of the villages, Kandigai, and he gave me a much lower price to spend two days on the river and visit the Sepik villages. Unfortunately, there is no other tourist to share the costs with. We leave tomorrow morning. There are two banks in Wewak but they only exchange dollar banknotes that are recent and in perfect conditions, like in most of Africa. The other dollar notes are worthless. I changed all that they took. Food is the bad news for me. I was expecting poor restaurants but not this biscuit-oriented society: the stores and street stalls only sell "biscuits" (sometimes chips). Even the market has very little in the way of fruit. So far i found none of the things that save me in Africa: cheese, bread and avocado. Not even tomatoes. Note that i was the only guest at the Seaview Hotel: the chef opened the restaurant for me.

Kandigai, PNG Monday, May 16, 2011, 08:57 AM This morning it took forever to get ready. I was about to look for my own transportation to the Sepik river when Jimmy finally showed up. He had found five English kids. They are studying medicine here (helping at the hospital) and this is their week of vacation. Alas, they have a week, and i only have two days, so we cannot share the same boat. The kids are staying at a religious guesthouse (SIL) out of town that costs only 55 kina. The place is called Kreer Heights. We briefly exchanged information before being shoveled into a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle, aka bus). They have been at the guesthouse all the time and not really experienced real life. Useless for me. The road is mostly good to Pagwi except for an hour or so of big potholes. The best stop for me was at the market of Tuanambe: lo and behold, they actually had cooked veggie food. I bought rice balls for dinner and some friend flour-y thing. we reached Pagwi after 4.5 hours. Pagwi is the last village on the road and the gateway to the Sepik villages that can be reached only by boat. Jimmy and I went to buy fuel for my trip, a whopping 440kina. Pagwi has a nice guesthouse that charges 35kina, right on the river. We boardd the motor canoe and 30 minutes later (too dark to take pictures) we were at the village of Kandigai. Luckily Jimmy sent the five English kids to the other side of the river where he is building a guesthouse. I stayed in his house in the village. I got plenty of introduction to their lifestyle during the evening. The villages on the Sepik have no electricity but don't expect naked people dancing around the fire. Those days are gone. They wear western clothes and have mobile phones (with signal even in the jungle). That said, everything else is still true. These villagers don't see many whites: the whole village followed me everywhere like i was the tourist attraction. they are quiet and mostly silent, as if intimidated (i was very intimidated by their sharp machetes). They don't look friendly but the moment you need something they go out of their way to help you. Unfortunately they just don't have most of what you need: clean water, toilettes, showers, internet... The village has 156 houses and a large school with special accommodation for the teachers. All grades. I learned later that people from this village settled another village by the lake Chambri. Otherwise, they live pretty isolated. The chief came to say "hi". He spoke in his language as if i should know it. One of Jimmy's son eventually started translating: the chief's siblings are all dead and he thinks that he is going to die soon. I told him that he looked strong and in good health. He thanked me and walked away. The only half naked person in the village. The houses are on stilt because of the frequent flooding, and the spirit house has two stories, with all the famous carvings on the upper one. fish is really the only thing that have here. They fish, they eat fish, they smoke fish, they sell fish in Pagwi. Neither the heat nor the mosquitoes are too bad. The whole village is covered with smoke (they smoke fish nonstop) and this seems to keep the mostquitoes away. Of course chanvces of catching malaria when you sleep in these villages are very high. Jimmy got a gift from a German tourist: a digital camera. I taught him how to use it and changed the language to English. He is very grateful. It was too dark to visit the spirit house. I washed myself in the river. Jimmy brought a mosquito net for me from Wewak. Simple bed but at least malaria resistant. He stored all my food in a big pot, the equivalent of a bear box: they have rats. Right now about 20 people are staring at me as i am writing in the dark using my headlamp.

Sepik River Tuesday, May 17, 2011, 01:21 AM I didn't sleep much because of the rain, although it was nice that it cooled down the place, and because of the rats running all night long on the roof and the floors under my bed. They didn't touch my bags. First thing in the morning i got a tour of the spirit house, which is basically their parliament. Women are not allowed inside. Boys need to be initiated before they can enter it. That consists in some crude tattoo-like marks on the skin of the chest and the back. Then Jimmy and i visited the English kids who had slept on the other bank of the river. They got a lot more mosquitoes and palm-size spiders. I felt good i only had the rats to worry about. Then we parted ways. The Sepik is huge: it is their Nile. Their whole life revolves around the river and its countless tributaries. Jimmy and i took a canoe to the village of Korogo. Luckily for me there was a man in need of a ride to Palombei, so he offered some money to travel with us. After a hour or so we reached Palembei, that has two spirit houses full of wooden masks. These days photography is no longer fee: you pay 5 kina per spirit house when you enter the village. The mosquitoes here were devastating. Palembei is partially underwater and the trail was muddy. My visit was relatively short. Then we crossed the river to Kanganaman, which has the oldest spirit house and some of the best masks. This time no mosquitoes so i had time to take pictures of all the masks and the pillars. Somehow the carving reminded me of the temples of south India. Then we took a narrow stream (best pictures of birds) to reach the lake Chambri, the biggest lake in PNG. Here we visited three villages on three different islands: Aubon, Chambri itself and Timbunmar (the one settled by the people of Kandigai, relatives of Jimmy). These were mostly interesting for village life. We walked around the islands, spoke with the natives. Overall the mosquitoes were not half as bad as feared. Now i am back in Kandigai, Jimmy's house. I have been before in a one-street town, but never in a village with no street and no electricity. After dark the only place to gather is the sort of square in the middle where they smoke the fish. The children are constantly with their relatives. Parenting is a nonstop activity, quite a contrast with western habits. Children and mother, uncle, cousin and so on are always together, day and night, from birth to death. I wonder what it does to the brain of modern western people that we no longer spend out whole life surrounded by our family as we were genetically programmed to do. The dogs are unique: they never bother a human, whether familiar or stranger. Dogs bark at each other, fight with each other, play with each other, totally indifferent to the surrounding humans.

And something from the other side, Papua in Indonesia:

Baliem Valley, Papua, Indonesia Thursday, May 26, 2011, 05:12 AM

I had heard of Baliem Valley but always thought of it as a legend. It feels a bit weird to actually be here. First of all: if all the fellow backpackers who fall in love with my ideas were girls, i would have the biggest harem ever. Alas, they tend to be guys. Yesterday i met a Belgian guy who has been traveling for two years and was about to start trekking in the Baliem Valley. He joined me for dinner while i was negotiating the itinerary and schedule with a kid introduced to me by the Catholic mission, Doga. He was listening to Doga and myself discussing the plan and couldn't believe that i wanted to do in one (long) day what most people would do in 3 or 4 days; and using a kid from the village instead of the official guides. By the end of dinner he had decided to tag along. We bought food, went to sleep (he's staying in one of the expensive hotels) and arranged to meet at 6am in front of the airport. This morning at 6am we started our trip. We took a bemo to the end of the paved road (the village's name is Uosi-something, not on the map). One hour after Wamena the road forks: the right branch will eventually reach Jayapura, while the left branch goes towards the southern coast of Papua. A few years from now you'll be able to drive from one coast to the other coast... Then Doga led us on a trail that initially coasts the river Baliem and we entered more and more into the valley. The range to the right separates the valley from the (more or less civilized) northern coast of New Guinea, whereas the range to the left leads to mostly unexplored lands. The mountains are neither tall nor steep by California or Italian standards, but they are intimidating because the place is still so primitive. Some of the older men still walk around naked. The villages are mostly still in the Stone Age: i saw absolutely no furniture in any of the huts that we saw the entire day. Not even outside. The huts are very low. The roof is lower than my head. Inside they just sit on grass leaves. The women have their own long house. The men have their own nice round home. The men's hut had a good display of arrows. Some of them are for animals and some of them are for ... humans. The homes generally form a horseshoe. The gate is a nice arch of branches. Not much going on inside. The hike was very quiet by any standards. We met quite a few people walking between villages. Everybody is very friendly and wants to shake hands. So these are the Dani people. They were discovered in 1938. Today the men mostly wear western clothes, but the older generation sometimes can still be seen (and photographed) hanging naked by the road. They were converted to Catholicism and we saw one church in the middle of nowhere. Beyond the mountains live the Djali (spelling?) people. Those are not nice. The Dani say that the Djali people were cannibals and they still occasionally eat the men they kill (not sure if it's only the men or also the women). The second group of missionaries were used for dinner. It's eerie to hear these people talk about cannibalism like it was a fact of life. Doga was translating in his broken English. Clearly the Dani don't like the Djali. Maybe part of what they told us is legend. The Djali don't quite mingle in the towns. Tha amazing thing, of course, is that you don't have to go too far from a paved road to find the Stone Age. The road was paved in 2010. It took one hour by bemo to get to the end of the road. Then just 1.5 hours of walking to get to Woogi (Doga's village). I am now in an Internet cafe 2.5 hours from the Stone Age. Surreal. I felt absolutely safe, as the Catholic priest had told me. The difficulties were the mud (some trails were impassable: people were walking into mud up to their knees) and crossing the creeks over tiny branches (yes, deep water underneath). If i had been by myself i would have probably stopped at the first crossing. Doga made it, and male pride forced me to do the same. Eventually i just got used to tightrope acrobatics. I've rarely seen such primitive people, even in Africa. By "primitive" i really mean primitive. Their huts have absolutely nothing. Their tools are still what they were thousands of years ago. I'm not sure what keeps them from buying a hammer or scissors. Maybe don't physically have money. They do grow food though: there were cultivated fields all along the river. Doga told us that most Papuans don't like to be part of Indonesia. He showd us one place that has a big sign (in their language) "Papua Independence Movement". Today this is mostly a peaceful movement, but, as mentioned in previous postings, the Indonesian police still requires a special permit to travel here. Doga says that some Papuans are accepting Indonesian colonization, so he fears that some day there will be a civil war within Papuans themselves. And, from what i understand, there are Papuans and Papuans: it's not like the Dani would fight along the Djali that used to eat them... On the way back there was no bemo coming. We lay down on the asphalt and waited until a Land Cruiser stopped and gave us a ride back to Wamena. Wamena is gearing up for August 8-11 when they have a big festival that will attract the tour groups from Jakarta. A few more years and this once legendary valley will be a major tourist destination.

Wamena, Papua Friday, May 27, 2011, 10:49 AM

Waiting at the Wamena airport for the flight back to Jayapura was a show in itself. It's a one-room airport. There is absolutely no security and no i.d. check: anybody can walk into the room. I felt a great pity for the naked native that walked inside with his bag full of handmade tools that he was trying to sell to the passengers. Eventually he just took a seat among the passengers and stared at us and at the plane on the runaway. A female officer came and politely escorted him outside. I wonder how the Muslim women wearing headscarves at all feel about these naked native men walking among them.