As published in From the Bridge: Issue 11

Like Every Place You've Never Been

Expedition cruiser, Roderick Eime, believes there is some truth behind the clever tagline.

The entire village, it seemed, was lined up along the shore in anticipation of our arrival. Infants clung nervously to their mothers’ knees, while older children milled together pointing and chatting feverishly. The next event caught us all by surprise.

Bursting forth from the low scrub came perhaps a dozen “warriors” howling with all the fury of the devil. Draped in what appeared to be seaweed, they each brandished a weapon; clubs, bows and arrows and long, sharp spears which were precisely targeted at us. One particularly determined chap had his fearsome lance aimed right for my camera. Fortunately only his eyes were drilling holes in me.

The intimidation ceremony continued for just a few minutes and it was our first introduction to tribal culture on the many islands of Papua New Guinea. We experienced this particular greeting throughout the region and it dates back thousands of years. The intention is, quite obviously, to determine the motive of the arriving party. Sometimes tall grass shoots were actually hurled at us, their dense matted roots thudding into the ground. But it’s all good fun and a hearty laugh is later had by all.

Papua New Guinea, as an adventure tourism destination, has enjoyed an enormous resurgence in popularity in recent years. Apart from more established mainland attractions like the Kokoda Trail, Sepik River and Highland Festivals, the multitude of tiny island groups and atolls have attracted the new wave of modern adventure and expedition vessels, transporting inquisitive and open-minded passengers in air-conditioned comfort to the most remote and isolated archipelagos.

PNG is our closest international neighbour and has enjoyed an intimate, if sometimes controversial, relationship with Australia. Most folks, unfortunately, recoil at the prospect of a visit to PNG thanks to many unfavourable news reports about unrest and lawlessness in some towns, particularly Port Moresby. It’s true, there are places you’d best stay away from, especially if travelling alone or in a small group. But this is where the small ship product comes into its own.

I’ve now thoroughly enjoyed three ten night itineraries encompassing Alotau, Rabaul, Madang and more tiny islands than I can remember. What I can remember vividly though is the genuine warmth and hospitality of the islanders. Our shore excursions often involved a school visit where children would delight in dressing up in costume and performing ‘sing-sing’ and traditional dances for us. Men and women too would also perform, some only given a few minutes notice to prepare their costumes if we made a surprise visit. Locations like Kiriwina in the Trobriands, Madang and Tuam Island have a well-oiled routine with semi-professional performers who know how to turn on a show with elaborate choreography and sometimes brief costume. But then there are the remote and isolated communities who might only have visitors once or twice a year. Their exuberance and enthusiasm is palpable and leaves you with a deep respect for their simple way of life and self sufficiency.

“Tourism is good for PNG,” says Dr Nancy Sullivan, a Madang-based anthropologist who often accompanies the expeditions as guest lecturer. The ships’ visits are carefully controlled and passengers are briefed on how to interact with the locals. We leave sweets and chocolate on board and instead give gifts of school books and materials. Sometimes visits to developing countries can be a heart-wrenching affair. You feel compelled to help with some token handout, but know that your efforts will quickly dissipate in the enormity of it all. Here in PNG, small and careful contributions to schools and community projects and fair trade with handicrafts will have a measurable result. On one small island, Witu in the Bismarck Archipelago, passengers from Oceanic Discoverer set up a small fund for primary school students so they could complete their schooling.

But adventure and discovery aside, expedition cruising is not for everybody. Itineraries will, by nature, almost always vary. You’ll forgo some big ship luxuries like casinos, ‘Las Vegas’ style shows and 20m swimming pools. Your fellow expeditioners too will be a different style of person. Usually well-educated, widely read and inveterate travellers, they are lively conversationalists and eager for new, sometimes life-changing experiences. You may never be the same again.

You’ll Love: diving, snorkelling, fishing, walking, cultural, natural and educational experiences.

Precautions: Itineraries will vary, stay hydrated, always wear a hat and long sleeves or 30+, treat cuts and abrasions promptly, wear insect repellent and leave prejudices at home.

Coral Princess Cruises

Vessel: Oceanic Discoverer (formerly Oceanic Princess)
Star Rating: not rated
Tonnage: 1850
Max passenger capacity: 72 in 36 cabins
Entered service: 2005
Facilities; Large sundeck, Spa Pool, Internet booth, Comprehensive reference library, Phone and fax facilities, Lecture lounge with large plasma screen, Limited laundry facilities, Two fully stocked cocktail bars, Boutique and dive shop, Air-conditioned public areas.

Orion Expedition Cruises

Vessel: MY Orion
Star Rating: ****+
Tonnage: 4000
Max passenger capacity: 106 in 53 cabins
Entered service: 2004
Facilities: Boutique, Elevator, Gymnasium, Hair and Beauty Salon, Hospital and Infirmary, Internet, Jacuzzi, Lecture Theatre, Leda Lounge and Cocktail Bar, Library, Marina Platforms, Mud Room, Observation Lounge, Outdoor Café, Outdoor Bar, Reception, Restaurant, Sporting Facilities, Sun Deck, Vega Health Spa

North Star Cruises

Star Rating: not rated
Vessel: True North II
Tonnage: 740
Max Passenger Capacity: 36 in 18 cabins
Entered Service: 2005
Facilities: Cocktail bar and lounge/theatre/library with plasma screens, outdoor bar and sundeck, dive shop, internet and satellite phone, forward observation lounge, in-cabin DVD and phone

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