How to travel Papua New Guinea on your own: Local customs & safety

Before going there, the only two things I knew about Papua New Guinea were –nobody travels there because they are cannibals – and –there are no roads. Nevertheless, I was irresistibly attracted to go and see, to visit the tribes and hopefully not to get eaten.

Where is Papua New Guinea?

First of all, let’s get down to some facts. There really isn’t too much widespread information about this country in southwestern Pacific. Papua New Guinea is an independent country (1975, from Australian administration), which encompasses the eastern half of New Guinea, the world’s second largest island. The other half belongs to Indonesia. It is located north of Australia and the shortest distance between mainlands is only some 150km from Queensland’s Cape York. The people are called Papuans, originate from Melanesians, thus have black skin. The official language is called Tok Pisin (Pidgin language group), also known as broken English, although PNG has more than 850 local tribal languages. The economy is on the rise, yet 40% of the population lives under the poverty line, which classifies the country as developing. The currency is called kina. The head of the state is Queen Elizabeth II. as PNG is a member of Commonwealth. And the main religion is surprisingly Christianity, 96%. How come, an island country in the middle of the Pacific with astonishingly rich and unique culture is predominantly Christian? The simple answer is because of missioners, who obviously did a great job some centuries ago. Although, they paid for it with their own lives.

Imperfect itinerary

Our basic research (me and my friend, another European girl) didn’t bring a lot of light and thus we took a look at the map and made up a plan. Fly to Port Moresby, the capital located on the southeastern coast, figure out how to get on Kokoda Trail and hike through the jungle up to Lae, one of the bigger towns located in the northeast. Then, hop on the local transport and continue alongside the northern coast all the way to the Indonesian border, which we can cross on foot. Courageous plan, everyone told us. We were so excited that no one and nothing could talk us out of it. Kokoda is 96km long remain of World War II after Japanese-Australians fights and the only track connecting southern to the eastern coast. There is no other road beside this. With this idea and knowledge, we board the plane.

Port Moresby, the capital city

Port Moresby didn’t win our hearts, not even with our awesome Couchsurfing host Ken, who came to pick us up at the Jacksons International Airport. It’s a big city with a noisy infrastructure and missing architecture. The cheapest place to stay overnight is around 200$/person and the cheapest food 10-20$ per meal. Here it doesn’t seem to be a poor country. Fancy 4-wheel drives, golf club, skyscrapers and villas behind tall walls. We were quite happy and relieved to have a bed to sleep. Ken’s house was located in the suburb and also had huge fencing. It was a two-story building with generous space and modern furnishing. Only when you climbed up to the second floor and peered over the fence, you could see the less lucky neighbours. Families living just like that without any shelter gathered around a fire. They came to the city looking for better jobs and lives but weren’t the fortunate one.
Ken didn’t let us go anywhere by ourselves, so anytime we wished to leave the house, we had to call him and he sent a driver for us. When we got sick of this, we sneaked out and got robbed in the street first thing we hopped of the local bus. Bah. I’m not the one who gives in the stories of dangerous places but this happened and I cannot deny it. Two white girls walking the street are an easy target and too much of a trigger. We surrendered to the facts and accepted our role of house dolls.

Kokoda Trail and tourism

Instead, we focused on our plan, how to get to Kokoda Trail? We discussed it with our host and he helped us to find local guides willing to take us all the way. Next step was to get a permit. We came to an office, the Kokoda Track Authority, and guess what. It’s owned by Australians. White man, the first we saw here, with fake smile opened the door and waved us in. After a long discussion, the conclusion was that we cannot go with our guides because they are not in the list of certified guides, the list created by KTA of course. We asked for an offer with a certified guide and the cheapest option was 1800$/person. Way beyond our budget. Disappointed and frustrated we walked out. Far out! No wonder, Papuans dislike Australians. Do not misunderstand, I love Aussies, but at this moment, I was damn mad with them.

One-talk ‘wantok’ system

After ten days we reached the decision and left Port Moresby, by plane. The domestic flights are also not cheap we spent our entire monthly budget to get to Lae. Fortunately, our happiness was restored again when we discovered the ‘wantok’ system. It’s a traditional social system where people connected by a common language treat each other as family. They support, help and care for each other. This welfare mechanism evolved around the tribal life to secure that nobody went hungry and everyone had a place to live. This has far-reaching benefits but also a few negatives. It works vice-versa too, whoever doesn’t speak the tribal language, is an enemy. Moreover, the altruism between wantoks became an obligation, and thus corruption, nepotism and pressure on better-off relatives are on the rise.

Back to the story, why did we get happy? Because Steven, our new host whom we met in Lae, decided to become our wantok! This is such a privilege, especially being two white girls in the country of black men.

What not to do, safety recommendations

As you might notice, it is still a thing for Papuans to meet white people. This might earn you positive or negative attention, depending on your behaviour. A modest recommendation, don’t be an Australian if possible. It keeps you away from a lot of trouble. Honestly, be friendly, kind, respect local culture and you will be fine. Maybe don’t walk around alone, especially in the evening. And do not expose your valuables including phones, cameras etc. Apply common sense. PNG isn’t substantially more dangerous than other countries on the southern hemisphere despite the statistics.

Listen to your wantok!

Never, and I mean never, argue with your wantok. Fights are taken very seriously and can end up violently. This said, Papuans have also endless patience and they are masters of chilling, which is called ‘malolo’ in Tok Pisin. Becoming a part of one of the hundreds of tribes peacefully living on the coast or inland mountains is an incredible experience for life. We got our lucky share in Mambuan tribe in Madang province. This is where Steven’s family still lives traditionally, in bamboo houses on white sandy beach shadowed by palm trees. If you get a wantok, you get it all. However, let me tell you about Kumana, my beloved village, some other time 🙂

do you know what is the national animal of Papua New Guinea? [kumul]

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