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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Travel advice from the German Foreign Office for Papua New Guinea
Travel advice: Australia for European tourists
Wall calendar with photos by Georg Berg available in bookstores (also online) in different sizes: Trobriand Islands of Love (*)
The costs of the boat trip were not calculated
(*) This post contains advertising links (also called affiliate or commission links) that lead to Amazon.de.