Encounters in Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea in the South Pacific consists of a large number of islands and is considered the country with the greatest cultural diversity in the world. On the approximately 1,400 islands belonging to the state, about 800 different languages are spoken. On some small islands live isolated from the rest of the world only a few people. In 2019, I accompanied the Australian expedition ship True North on a voyage. All impressions of this trip are mainly characterized by the human encounters.

On the sparsely populated island of Panasia, the older inhabitants can still remember the time when cannibalism played a role here. Today, when strangers set foot on the island, contact must be made sensitively. An important prerequisite for understanding is overcoming the language barrier. The Australian guide for Papua New Guinea, Simon Tewson, is fluent in Tok Pisin, the common lingua franca among the islanders, and can mediate between the cultures.

Für die erste Begegnung mit Einheimischen lässt sich nur der mit den Sitten und der Verständigung vertraute Guide Simon Tewson ans Ufer fahren / © Foto: Georg Berg
For the first meeting with locals, only the guide Simon Tewson, who is familiar with the customs and understanding, lets himself be driven to the shore / © Photo: Georg Berg

Simon inquires about the well-being of the islanders. If water or food were lacking, True North would help with on-board supplies. But everyone here is healthy, and since it rained enough in the days before, the village’s collection tanks are full of water. The True North would otherwise have helped out with some jerry cans. After all, reverse osmosis on board produces 1,500 liters of drinking water per hour.

Auslegerkanus sind im Gewässer über den Korallen in ihrer Beweglichkeit nicht eingeschränkt. Die True North dagegen muss trotz des geringen Tiefgangs sehr vorsichtig navigieren / © Foto: Georg Berg
Outrigger canoes are not restricted in their mobility in the waters above the coral. The True North, on the other hand, has to navigate very carefully despite its shallow draft / © Photo: Georg Berg

Still on the beach, we discuss what the foreign visitors can experience on the island. John, the village chief, says goodbye to his family and accompanies Simon and his vanguard back to the ship, from where he will accompany our shore excursions for the day.

Einheimische in einer Brackwasserhöhle auf der Panasia Insel. Vorsichtig tastet sich die Reisegruppe bis zum Grund der natürlichen Kaverne / © Foto: Georg Berg
Locals in a brackish water cave on Panasia Island. Carefully, the tour group feels its way to the bottom of the natural cavern / © Photo: Georg Berg

With waterproof footwear suitable for the hike with ascent after the wet landing on the beach, we reach the small entrance of a cave that opens inside to a huge natural cathedral. The sky is not visible. But the daylight coming in from above is enough to make out the brackish lake inside the cave. Rainwater is collected on a kind of pedestal under a natural funnel.

Am Fuß der Kaverne mischt sich Meerwasser mit frischem Regenwasser, das als Trinkwasser in einem Behälter gesammelt wird / © Foto: Georg Berg
At the base of the cavern, seawater mixes with fresh rainwater, which is collected as drinking water in a container / © Photo: Georg Berg
Kinder der Insel Panasia lieben die Felsen einer Höhle als natürlichen Sprungturm / © Foto: Georg Berg
Children of Panasia Island love the rocks of a cave as a natural diving platform / © Photo: Georg Berg

On the trail of cannibalism

A second excursion in the afternoon takes us to a mysterious cult site on the neighboring island. The trail is hardly recognizable on the sharp-edged rock. Nevertheless, we are on the trail of a cannibalism that was still practiced until recent times.

Kannibalenhöhle auf Pana Wara Wara. Der einheimische John führt uns durch steinige Gemüsefelder zu einer unscheinbaren Höhle / © Foto: Georg Berg
Cannibal cave on Pana Wara Wara. The village chief leads the visitors through stony vegetable fields to an inconspicuous cave / © Photo: Georg Berg

We enter an inconspicuous cave. In the last century this place was still a place of worship. After warlike conflicts the killed enemies were eaten here. With such a magical act one believed to acquire the powers of the enemies. Later, Simon tells us that just a few years ago he spoke with someone who had participated in such a cannibal meal.

Deutlich sind Schädel und Menschenknochen an der Kannibalen-Kultstätte erkennbar / © Foto: Georg Berg
Skulls and human bones are clearly visible at the cannibal cult site / © Photo: Georg Berg

Warm rain and a wet sailing race

Although the True North finds access to land on every coast, water plays a major role as an element on the expedition to Papua New Guinea. With six adventure boats, you can choose to go fishing, snorkeling, diving or simply sightseeing.

Ein tropischer Schauer dauert in der Südsee zum Glück nicht lang. Zeit genug aber, um für das Foto die Taucherbrille anzuziehen / © Foto: Georg Berg
A tropical shower often comes as a surprise in the South Seas, but fortunately rarely lasts long. Time enough to put on the diving goggles for the photo / © Photo: Georg Berg

Polynesian seafaring has been admired for thousands of years

The Polynesians have had a reputation as the most perfect sailors for ages. Even today, they are admired by modern sailors for their talent. Sailing in a classic outrigger sailboat is an unforgettable experience.

Segeln im polynesischen Stil auf einem Proa (Mehrrumpf-Ausleger-Segelboot) vor den Deboyne Inseln, Papua-Neuguinea. Das für Polynesien typische Prau ist ein hochseetaugliches Segelboot mit Deltaflügel und einem Ausleger, der immer auf der dem Wind zugewandten Luv-Seite liegt  / © Foto: Georg Berg
Sailing Polynesian style on a Proa (multihull outrigger sailboat) off the Deboyne Islands, Papua New Guinea. The prau, typical of Polynesia, is an ocean-going sailboat with delta wings and an outrigger that is always on the windward side facing the wind / © Photo: Georg Berg.
Der Rumpf besteht aus dünnem Hartholz. Er ist schmal, lang und bietet wenig Platz. Während der Fahrt wird das herein spritzende Wasser laufend raus geschöpft / © Foto: Georg Berg
The hull is made of thin hardwood. It is narrow, long and offers little space. During the journey, the water splashing in is continuously scooped out / © Photo: Georg Berg
Die Besatzung besteht aus mindestens drei Personen. Eine bestimmt hinten den Anstellwinkel des Segel. Ein anderes Besatzungsmitglied steuert durch Gewichtsverlagerung. Mit einem losen Paddel kann geringfügig mitgesteuert werden / © Foto: Georg Berg
The crew consists of at least three people. One determines the angle of attack of the sail at the back. Another crew member steers by shifting weight and a loose paddle, which is used to steer slightly / © Photo: Georg Berg
Das dritte Besatzungsmitglied eines Praus kümmert sich um die Spitze des Segels. Da das Boot längssymmetrisch ist, werden Heck und Bug beim Richtungswechsel ausgetauscht. Auf dem Bild wird die Segelspitze umgetragen / © Foto: Georg Berg
The third crew member of a prau takes care of the tip of the sail. Since the boat is longitudinally symmetrical, the stern and bow are exchanged when changing direction. In the picture, the tip of the sail is being transferred / © Photo: Georg Berg

Until recently, the traditional prau boats were able to rival the fastest high-tech boats at the Americas Cup. The reason is thought to be the special aerodynamics of the triangular delta sail, also known as the crab scissors sail. It is hard to believe that this technique was invented here in Polynesia 10,000 years ago.

Cultural diversity and colonial heritage

On the 11-day tour with the True North, we gain a fairly representative impression of Papua New Guinea’s cultural diversity during the numerous shore excursions. It is good to have on board Simon Tewson, someone who, in addition to smooth communication, is himself constantly on the lookout. Thus, during his stay in Bougainville, he persuaded the vice president of the autonomous region to visit him on board.

Raymond Masono, damals Vizepräsident und Minenminister von Bougainville im Gespräch mit den Passagieren des australischen Expeditionsschiffs True North / © Foto: Georg Berg
Raymond Masono, then vice president and minister of mines of Bougainville talking to the passengers of the Australian expedition ship True North / © Photo: Georg Berg

Bougainville was a German colony until the First World War, after which it was under English, Japanese, New Zealand and Australian influence. Even when it was annexed to Papua New Guinea in 1974, the inhabitants, who are very close to nature, could not come to terms with the foreign rule. Especially since the open-pit copper mining in the Panguna mine, which was lucrative for the central government, poisoned large areas of Bougainville and made them uninhabitable for decades.

Die stillgelegte Panguna Kupfermine auf Bougainville / © True North, Foto: Oliver Oldroyd
The abandoned Panguna copper mine on Bougainville / © True North, Photo by Oliver Oldroyd

After a civil war against Papua New Guinea’s government army and years of transition as an autonomous region, it was clear when we arrived in Bougainville that the referendum had passed with 98 percent in favor of independence.

Ende 2019, eine Woche nach dem Unabhängigkeitsreferendum sieht man nur noch Reste der Plakate, die für die Teilnahme geworben haben / © Foto: Georg Berg
At the end of 2019, a week after the independence referendum, you can see only remnants of the posters that advertised participation / © Photo: Georg Berg
Überall auf der Insel Bougainville werden wir mit guter Laune empfangen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Everywhere on the island of Bougainville we are welcomed with good humor / © Photo: Georg Berg

After years of isolation and political uncertainty, confidence is spreading. Those who learn that I come from Germany express the hope that Bougainville will also be noticed by us and will soon be accepted as a new member of the international community.

Die Bewohner Bougainvilles fallen auch in der Südsee durch ihre besonders dunkle Haut auf / © Foto: Georg Berg
The inhabitants of Bougainville also stand out in the South Seas because of their particularly dark skin / © Photo: Georg Berg

Typical for Bougainville are the Bamboo Bands. The villagers use flip flops with which they beat on tuned bamboo canes. The rubber material of the flip flops is perfect for transferring an air impulse to the bamboo canes to create the desired sound. A short video shows the spontaneous joy of the long-awaited rain, which they share with a group of Australian visitors.

Wet landing on the beach

Whenever Simone, our Cruise Director announces a wet landing, the adventure begins for the guests already on the beach.

Den Moment zwischen zwei Wellen abpassend geht es mit beherztem Satz durch die Brandung ann Ufer / © Foto: Georg Berg
Matching the moment between two waves, it goes with a spirited set through the surf to the shore / © Photo: Georg Berg

Even when there is a lot of motion on the ocean, as Captain Gav also knows how to rhetorically tame larger waves, his crew brings all guests safely ashore.

Die Ankunft der Fremden wird an Land mit Spannung verfolgt / © Foto: Georg Berg
The arrival of the strangers is eagerly awaited on shore / © Photo: Georg Berg

The encounter with the locals is very respectful everywhere. With useful souvenirs, individual passengers of the True North return the hospitality they have already experienced on previous voyages.

Fischerei-Zubehör ist ein perfektes Gastgeschenk. Die gerechte Verteilung wird vor allen Augen in die Hand des Dorfoberhauptes gelegt / © Foto: Georg Berg
Fishing supplies make a perfect hostess gift. The fair distribution is placed in the hands of the village chief in front of everyone / © Photo: Georg Berg

Besides fishing accessories and money, it is mainly balls and stationery for the school children with which True North supports the population. Especially in the exchange with the local teachers, one can learn what is urgently needed on the extremely remote islands. It’s hard to imagine: people only see a doctor once a year – sometimes.

Cricket instead of fighting

On the Trobriand Islands, which are also called the islands of love because of the permissive sexual ideas that prevail here, we were challenged to a sporting contest.

Cricketspiel nach den Regeln der Trobriand Inseln. Man muss nicht mit den internationalen Cricketregeln vertraut sein, um hier mitspielen zu dürfen / © Foto: Georg Berg
Cricket game according to the rules of the Trobriand Islands. You don’t have to be familiar with international cricket rules to play here / © Photo: Georg Berg

The game of cricket was introduced in the Trobriand Islands to divert the belligerence of men into peaceful channels. Bright and colorful, the two teams march into the arena roaring. Their battle cries also go through the marrow during the game, and you don’t want to know what the translation is. At first, the two local teams play against each other. Then, little by little, the foreign visitors take on their own roles as pitchers or hitters.

Nach dem Spiel entspannt man sich wieder und es wird gemeinsam getanzt / © Foto: Georg Berg
After the game, people relax again and dance together / © Photo: Georg Berg

Everywhere in Papua New Guinea people like to celebrate and sing. Sing-Sing is the name of these celebrations in the common Pidgin language, even though they are very different from each other.

Erinnerungsfoto für die Pinwand: Reporter Georg Berg mit dem siegreichen Spielführer / © Foto: Georg Berg
Souvenir photo for the pinboard: Reporter Georg Berg with the winning captain / © Photo: Georg Berg

Travel advice from the German Foreign Office for Papua New Guinea

Travel advice: Australia for European tourists

International

Print publication

Wall calendar with photos by Georg Berg available in bookstores (also online) in different sizes: Trobriand Islands of Love (*)

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The costs of the boat trip were not calculated

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