Papua New Guinea, A World Away Part One
Western New Britain: A Diver’s Paradise
By Kent E St. John
The mountains across Kimbe Bay were on fire; perhaps it was the jet lag. Neither fire nor jet lag is the correct answer, I found as I rubbed my eyes more.
It was just the perfect mix of the rising sun, blue sea, and towering mountains; a repeat performance happened the next day, New Britain Island in Papua New Guinea was the perfect place to begin my sojourn.
Papua New Guinea is a world away from the world; it is just that simple. When I told my friends I was heading there, 98% had no idea where it was, and I wasn’t so sure myself.
As I landed in the small prop at Hoskins Airport, I knew I was onto something special and on my arrival after a 45-minute drive to the Walindi Dive Resort it was confirmed, the perfect place to begin my trip to PNG. Throngs of villagers waved as we sped by, a very friendly vibe.
Home Base on Western New Britain
As I dropped my gear into bungalow Number Four, I was shown the switch for the generated lights that are the only source after eleven; dinner was waiting so a quick shower, exploration of my great new home could wait till morning.
As I approached the main part of Walindi the buzz from the small but neat bar area attracted me. It was over an SP brew that I had a chat with Steve the divemaster about my hopes for my stay. My PADI [Professional Association of Diving Instructors] days being long over, I was assured that snorkeling wasn’t a bad option. Then it was on to the buffet dinner.
Nights were quiet and cozy at Walindi, après dinner drinks soothing as the water lapped on the beach. I thought a lot about the genial owners Max and Cecilie Benjamin’s 26 years of running Walindi and how they created a paradise long before PNG was on the map. The hand-press coffee maker on waking up was just an example of the thinking put into the Walindi style.
The Coral Triangle
The next morning I boarded the dive boat to snorkel in waters that are home to 75% of the world’s coral species, the Bismarck Sea. Within 45 minutes we were anchored off a small island and various bird noises permeated the air.
While the divers struggled with their gear, I dove into the incredibly clear waters, unfettered and amazed. Fish of various varieties joined my exploration; below, sea cliffs dropped deeply.
On our way to the next dive spot, we encountered the fins, dolphins! The unique nets were dropped and with masks and snorkels, we watched the clowns of the sea cavort sheer visual pleasure.
It is said that the reefs of Kimbe Bay are what coral reefs were 40 years ago; this was stated by Professor Charlie Veron, a one time chief of the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences.
While the divers stowed their gear I had a chat with the first mate Jonathan about the plane wrecks found in the sea due to the heavy fighting during WWII. There are plenty, and that also brings divers in from around the world. It is, however, the amazing chance to photograph under the water that Kimbe Bay is best known for, and prize-winning photos are taken here year after year.
Keeping the Sea Safe
In an area that has the richest treasures in terms of marine biodiversity, one has to wonder: what is being done to protect it? I found the answer that afternoon when I was walked to the offices of Mahonia Na Dari Conservation and Research Center by Cecile.
The name means guardians of the sea and it is a non-governmental organization. One of its primary goals is to educate the local populace in terms of preservation, not an easy job.
The total fish fauna of Papua, New Guinea is estimated to exceed 2,000 species, 900 in Kimbe Bay alone. The diversity of coral in the area is just as exceptional: over 400 coral species identified.
The territory of West New Britain is itself is a center of cultural diversity with seven tribal groups and twenty-five different languages spoken. If you want to save the world, Mahonia is a good place to start, and donations are greatly needed.
Palm Oil and Hot Waters
Subsistence farming is done by most of PNG’s citizens, but new developments in Western New Britain are bringing some changes, palm oil plantations. The thousands of acres of palm growing is providing jobs, and the huge expanse of cultivation is changing the face of the island.
I was mesmerized by the forests of palms as I bounced around the front seat of Jonathan’s Land Cruiser, down roads he called bang, bang. The name fit as we bounced over stones and puddles.
The sunlight was kaleidoscopic when filtered through the rows of palms. Every few miles the workers using machetes waved while gathering the nuts for oil, miles from anywhere.
We were heading not just to hot springs but to hot rivers; the islands are volcanic. After about an hour of bouncing dirt roads, Jonathan pulled into a track and we headed deep into a rainforest paradise.
Ten minutes later I was neck-deep in fast-flowing waters hotter than any hot tub. The falls worked like jets soothing muscles twisted by the long flight to PNG. The sound of Blue Eyed Cockatoos played like a soundtrack.
A Perfect Beginning
I sat at the little outside bar back at Walindi and watched the sun play havoc with the cloud formations as it set. The generators hummed, chilling the fridge stocked with SP Beer, the other guests sharing their day.
I savored the cool breeze as the next day I was to head to the mainland and the Sepik Basin. It was time to leave the relatively busy part of PNG behind. Ahead was some rough travel amongst the tribes that live life as they did centuries years ago.
As the van headed to Hoskin’s airport, a little wooden building, I noticed some faces painted in butterfly colors, grass skirts and bone necklaces.
A guy with an OZ voice said to me, “You ain’t seen anything yet mate!” I knew that; but I could only think, “What a great beginning — the first step a huge pleasure.”
I ducked underneath a barbed wire fence to avoid a crowd and headed to the prop plane. I was starting to understand that the world’s rules don’t always apply in PNG. This served me well on my next stop. On to one of the remotest destinations a traveler can go.
PNG isn’t easy to get to from the US. There are no direct flights. I did, however, have a wonderful flight on V australia, a premium economy airline, a new Branson brand. In the past I have found premium economy to be a watered-down idea, not on V!
The plane was new and the service outstanding, a winner. From Brisbane to PNG Air Niugini did a great job of getting me to far-flung places via both jet and prop. I did find the slogan, “Don’t worry we will get you there,” a bit of a lark.
If you are looking for a huge resort, the type you can find everywhere in the world, Walindi isn’t for you. If you are looking for a special place that feels like home, you’ll find it here. Add on the world-class diving and superb service and happiness is a part of your day. Max and Cecile Benjamin have been working magic at Walindi for 26 years, and they’ve got it down.
It isn’t an easy job to fit in all that PNG offers but Tourism PNG does a fantastic job showing the fascinating options a traveler to PNG can experience. The site’s pictures alone will titillate. Now is the time to go!
Kent St. John was GoNOMAD’s Senior Travel Editor since the website was founded in 2000. During that time he circled the globe many times, visiting more than 80 countries. Sadly, he passed away on Thanksgiving Day in 2012. He had an appreciation of subtleties, always finding a way to capture the nuances and essences of a destination, whether he was whale-watching in Nova Scotia, riding the rails in Australia, bungee jumping in China or worshipping the sun on a beach in Brazil.