A soundtrack to PNG could start with David Bowie’s Space Oddity because as one salty sailor said, “It’s damn remote out here” and a queer place to arrive at. Then anything by Norah Jones to fall asleep to in the warm tropical breeze and bam! Rage Against the Machine’s Wake Up blares as your camera is nicked from under your nose in the bottle shop (Bia Stoa) and finally, Pharoahe Monch pumps Simon Says. Yes, PNG is a mixed bag where the melodic and the mental live side by side. It’s filthy, furious and fabulous.
Be careful, warned everyone before we left. It’s dangerous, they said, violent and volatile. In fact a month earlier an AusAID worker had been raped close to Madang, a budding tourist town on the mainland’s north coast and while the news was preoccupying, it was also thrilling to hear the words ‘bow and arrow’ and ‘surfing’ used in the same sentence. (Coincidentally at the luggage carousel at Port Moresby, an Australian builder working in the highlands described meeting some young AusAID workers and his account of the situation made me wonder if the regrettable, terrible violation at Madang had been symptomatic of parachute aid work.)
With the exception of a chubby British-looking couple there were only silent stares from black as night Melanesian faces, half a dozen thick on both sides, that lined the path to the domestic terminal. Once inside it was a matter of wriggling through the mosh pit at the check-in desk and getting amongst the rank and pervasive body odour of a dozen local men, I liked it.
Inconvenienced and disgruntled travellers will tell you that Air Niugini is bedlam and you could be waiting days to get on a flight, which might be true and sure, we did have to stay a night in Moresby on account of the chaos, but Air Niugini covered the exorbitant hotel and after having been stung by so many airlines, getting on the next day without paying a dime for our board bags was a bonus. What’s more, scotch fingers and apple juice go down a treat when you’re flying over turquoise waters freckled by idyllic islands; scoping potential: hello paradise.
“Girls!” said Lou, Nusa Island Retreat’s surf guide, as he greeted us at Kavieng airport, “Welcome to the wild west”. We drove through the hot, dry, dusty roads alongside dilapidated decades-old buildings where only locals loitered under the shade of enormous leafy trees. Hearing our plans to play it by ear, Lou was keen to point out that this really could be lawless like the wild west, particularly during the holidays when he said the locals get on the turps and all hell can break loose, (with no Clintonesque character to save the girls’ day). Ultimately though it was arriving at Nusa Island, with its sand-floor bar, weird collection of injured animals and birds, beach side bungalows and easy access to the waves that convinced us to stay. For a pair of skint surfers AU$200 a day is a blow out, but we were the only surfers on the island (!?!) and it was worth its salt. Nothing is cheap in PNG.
“Surfing around here is like the 70’s, there’s no tension in the line-up like there is back home,” said Lou, who is originally from the Gold Coast. He wasn’t wrong. Things were looking a bit flat around Nusa that afternoon but we were keen to pop the tropical cherry so headed 20 minutes north by banana boat to Ral Island, one of those tiny sand and palm fringed jewels and a swell magnet where we surfed glassy, albeit lazy 3-foot waves. It’s a shifty right hander that wraps around Ral’s reef, and peaks in a few different spots. Lou had it dialled and was laughing the entire 200 metres down the line as he jagged the random wide ones.
The next day the swell was a little less lazy and we scored a supreme waveathon, no bikini pass required. Bloody Lizzie kept pinching me on the arm (hard) because she just couldn’t believe it – here we were surfing with a handful of local lads who were frothing more than us, unbelievable. And the energy kept building. The next morning Nago Lefts was on and we were into it. For me it was a bit of a mind fuck to paddle into because you’ve got to point yourself right, not left, in the direction of the bubbling reef to get onto the wave, but then it’s super fun, long and finishes in a racy inside section. Local powerhouse and PNG Surf Champ, Titima, was smashing the sets, completely owning the joint while his mates hooted non-stop. “It’s borderline crazy out here,” laughed Lou, with a wicked grin on his face.
Take your pick of any brand of beer anywhere in the world because they’re all golden at the end of a hot day’s surf. We were invited back for a cold one on the PNG Explorer, a surf charter boat run by Andrew and his wife Jude. The Explorer is the vessel for the search, and it’s crew epitomise the pioneering spirit of surfing, travelling and adventure: these guys are working hard on a good gig. We listened wide eyed to stories of unchartered reefs, uninhibited (or uninhabited?) islands, unridden waves; about how they scratch their heads at dinner coming up with new names for new breaks and then there’s the wave they don’t even want to talk about. This freedom! Coming from Sydney, the mini mal metropolis where kooks pay $5 to park their SUV’s for a one-hour surf, where they name their boats “Liquid Assets”, and only bogans drink coffee from McDonalds, it was dreamtime. What a pleasure to meet people who have challenged conventionality and risen above the mundane! There was a lunar eclipse, we got tanked and had a hilarious night.
By Christmas Eve Kavieng’s dusty roads were throbbing with queues and crowds; it was hot and there was a heavy feel about the place. You often hear travellers say that flashing a smile is the best way to confront a dodgy situation whilst helping yourself feel more secure - granted - but in PNG you still want to watch your back.
We did run into a couple of unsavoury characters, Australians included; it’s like they got washed up at the end of the line and never made it back. In a two week trip it’s hard to scratch the surface but I reckon there’s an undercurrent in this raw, lawless land. The wild glint in the men’s eyes hints at an unadulterated lust for life, for fucking and fighting. We ended up back at Nusa down one camera but in one piece, and up a bottle of rum.
Christmas rolled by, the swell dropped, and we were out of a place to stay but like Lou had prophesised, “Things just have a way of working themselves out around here”. The next minute we were being welcomed aboard a 39-foot catamaran called Baguette by Captain Danny and his crew Don and Rueben – all mad spearfishermen. The lull in the waves continued for a couple more days but we were busy free diving a sunken Japanese WW2 plane, cracking into crays and crabs and market shopping.
After a few bottles of wine the Captain was persuaded to sail up to the outer islands off Lavongai Island (New Hanover), 30 nautical miles north of Kavieng, for a few days of fishing, surfing and New Year celebrations and wow, what a trip. There’s just something about rolling about at sea, at nature’s mercy for wind, weather and food. Speaking of nature, the kids! Athletic and imaginative, I think they’d be happier playing with an eggs box than an Xbox.
I didn’t hear a pikinini cry in the two weeks we were there and they were at once shy and gregarious, fearless and cautious, cheeky and polite. They are incredibly endearing kids and with the genetic anomaly which expresses itself as blond hair, unique looking to boot. The kids, like their parents were unassuming and never once asked us for money.
For the two days we took to sail up to Ungalik Island there was no swell (PNG is fickle, right?), but the set up was riddled with potential. We moored up alongside the PNG Explorer and after a couple of days out of the drink were pumped to get back in and stoked when Andrew picked us up en route for a wave - bless him - with an esky full of beers on ice for the most surreal New Years Eve session on record. An easy going right hander over a weed covered reef in a super picturesque setting of lush hills and crystal water. Magic.
Somehow, New Years Eve was debaucherous and edifying at the same time. We got loaded on the Explorer and then left the drinks for Ungalik where we’d been invited to celebrate with four villages to share songs, dances and comical mimes. A few of Andrew’s mates got hammered by betel nut and spent an intense half hour entertaining the villagers with their dribbling.
At midnight, according to Lavongai tradition, the villagers lit bunches of bound palm fronds along the beach and looking into the black horizon we saw the various island coastlines dotted with fires. The kids were running around laughing, positively mental, burning palms in tow. In Australia a consortium of authorities would’ve been brandishing fines all over the show to keep the nanny state organised, functional, predictable, manicured and boring, but on Ungalik Island if you don’t want to get burnt you get out of the way.
And just like that the trip was over: two days after we’d flown out, a solid ground swell hit the region – I don’t even want to think about how epic it must’ve been. Happily though, PNG marked the unwinding of time and the opening of doors, to see through the social distortion and reach for the sky.
Surf pics, thanks to Steve “Froey” Arklay Photography