Papua New Guinea

2019 Papua New Guinea Field Report

Text by: Annette Kühlem | Main photographer: Brad Climpson|January 3, 2020|Field Report

Sunday, September 22, 2019
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

After the long flight to Port Moresby we enjoyed a day at leisure at the wonderful Airways Hotel, getting settled into our rooms and relaxing while it was pouring down rain. The birders would not be deterred by the weather and went in search of the fawn-breasted bowerbird and the comb-crested jacana at the campus of the university of Port Moresby. Their dedication was rewarded by great sightings of these species and big colonies of fruit bats in the campus trees. 

The first official get-together of the trip took place at the Vue Restaurant where we met for welcome drinks and a greeting by our Expedition Leader, Mike Messick. He introduced the two leaders of the Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT) group, David Wolf and David James, and got everybody excited about a great trip ahead. The program for the following day was lined out, and afterwards we enjoyed a delicious buffet dinner while reconnecting with old travel companions and meeting new faces.

Monday, September 23
Port Moresby / Embark Caledonian Sky

The birders lived up to their reputation and went out at the crack of dawn despite the heavy rain in their quest to reach the Varirata National Park and see the raggiana bird of paradise, the many different fruit doves, and possibly even the cassowary. David and David from VENT, Pepper Trail, and Tom Hiney were the field leaders for this group. Fortuna was not on the birders’ side this day though—unfortunately, eleven miles out of the city, they came to an area where the road to the park was completely flooded and impassable. Making the most of the situation, the group spent a good hour birding beside the flooded road, spotting many species of water birds, as well as a good variety of other species including dollarbirds, brahminy kites, blue-winged kookaburras, coconut lorikeets, and Torresian imperial pigeons. Eventually, it became clear that the flood wasn’t going to recede, so the plan was made to drive to Lae Lae, a good coastal birding site recommended by our local guide, Len. On the way, the birders picked up some more excellent species, including fawn-breasted bowerbird, whistling kite, and white-bellied sea-eagle. Due to some mechanical issues with the bus, the birders contented themselves with their list of 40 or so species for the morning and returned to the hotel. 

Meanwhile, the first general tour of the day took us to the Papua New Guinea National Museum and the Port Moresby Nature Park. The National Museum has an amazing collection of artwork from the different provinces with elaborate masks and headdresses, tall, intricately carved totem poles, and even an original Trobriand kula ring canoe. The modern architecture of the museum, reminiscent of the haus tambaran of the Sepik region, is a highlight in its own right. After the visit of the museum we continued on to the Port Moresby Nature Park. Our excellent local guides took us around the grounds that were full of beautiful plants, butterflies, and birds.

In the aviary, the non-birders among us got the chance to see the raggiana bird of paradise, the national bird of Papua New Guinea. Everybody had a great time socializing with the very friendly Victoria crowned pigeons, the largest—and possibly most beautiful—pigeon in the world. As soon as we left the aviary the sky seemed to darken by the sheer number of flying foxes that sleep in the trees of the park. We also visited snake house, then on to see the tree kangaroos and wallabies. Ten species of tree kangaroos exist in Papua New Guinea, many of which are threatened due to hunting and habitat destruction.

After the many impressions of the Nature Park we headed to the port—escorted by the local police. We then boarded our home for the next two weeks, the Caledonian Sky.After a welcome drink and teatime, we settled into our cabins before the mandatory safety briefing. Before dinner Mike introduced the staff and the local guides and officials that will be traveling with us and laid out the plan for the following day. 

Tuesday, September 24
Suau Island 

The day started with a great lecture by our anthropologist, Shirley Campbell with, Melanesia: A Cultural Landscape—Cultural Diversity in the Region. This was perfect to prepare us for our first landing at Suau Island. The people of Lapana village put on a wonderful show for us. The incoming Zodiacs were greeted by fierce warriors in their traditional canoes before we stepped ashore and saw a beautiful dance commemorating the first arrival of the missionaries on the island. According to local history, the warriors of Suau wanted to attack the white men and eat them but, luckily, the chief’s wife prevented any violence and saved the missionaries’ lives. That the Christian religion is still very important to the villagers was demonstrated by a communal prayer that the local reverend said for our arrival. Then the elementary school kids performed a dance accompanied by the teacher who was beating the traditional kundu drum and we all got adorned with beautiful local flowers. 

The villagers had set up different stations with cultural performances, mat weaving and basketry, the decoration of loin cloths from banana leaves, fire making, food preparation and cooking with traditional tools, body painting, canoe building, and sago preparation. We were welcomed and encouraged to take part in all these activities and the local guides literally took us by the hand to show us around their village. In front of the elementary school the kids and teachers had gathered under a magnificent mango tree and were preforming beautiful songs accompanied by guitar. It was very nice to see how engaged all the little kids were and how proud they were showing us their culture and way of life. 

The birders set off to the forest with our local guide after seeing the welcome dances and making their way through the village. The had a “slow but steady” day seeing a lot of metallic and singing starlings, good views of black sunbirds, and two short views of orange-fronted hanging-parrots.

After we explored the village, we did our first snorkel of the trip. The water was beautiful and clear and great to cool down in the heat of the afternoon. The first dive of the trip was rather mellow and, as such, ideal for a checkout dive. The divers were lucky and saw a 
blue-spotted stingray and two crayfish, one of them big enough to feed two people.

Back on board we gathered on the Lido Deck for the Captain’s welcome cocktails followed by the Captain’s welcome dinner. 

 

Wednesday, September 25
Milne Bay, Fergusson Island / Dobo Island

The day began early with the disembarkation of the birders on Fergusson Island. The early risers were rewarded right at the landing by great views of purple-bellied lories. Seeing the curl-crested manucodia took some work, but eventually everyone got good views. Another birding highlight was the first sightings of a Blythe’s hornbill and flocks of the impressive channel-billed cuckoo among many others.

We were not the only ones out on the water by the break of dawn. As soon as we came to the back deck, we were greeted by a flotilla of little outrigger canoes with cute children who were as curious about us as we were about them. 

The general tour took us through Dei Dei village, with its many beautifully-kept flower and produce gardens, to the famous geothermal hot springs. We set off in groups led by local guides along a wide road with many interesting little stops along the way. One was the yam storage house. The local guides explained to us that yams are an important trade item with other islands and can be stored for a long time in the breezy houses made of sago palm thatching. Another roadside attraction was a so-called “cooking pot.” This is an area of geothermal activity on the banks of a hot water river where the villagers bury their food in woven baskets before they go to work in their gardens. By the time they return, the heat in the ground will have steamed the food and it is ready to be eaten.

Mike was not exaggerating during the previous night’s briefing, when he warned us that the walk under the beating sun would be very hot. But we were rewarded by a spectacular geothermal field that made us forget the heat of the walk. John Buchanan, our geologist, explained the geological background to what we were seeing and the local guides told gruesome stories of people underestimating just how hot the water in these bubbling pools can be. A geyser amidst the many hot pools erupted every now and then. According to our local guide, the reason for this is a tragic love story. After a terrible fight with her lover, heartbroken young Seuseulina threw herself into one of the hot pools and, ever since, the geyser erupts whenever her name is mentioned.  

After our return to the village, we saw beautiful dances. The first one was a kula dance, reenacting the kula trade that was and still is practiced all around the Milne Bay Province. The second one was a bird of paradise dance, reminiscent of the displaying of a bird of paradise. This dance was not only accompanied by the beat of the drums but also by the amused laughter of the many children of the village.

We returned to the ship for lunch while repositioning to Dobu Island. The snorkelers were in for a real treat with crystal-clear water and great healthy corals. Jack Grove, Brad Climpson, and Rich Pagen called out the many different fish such as clownfish, squid, angelfish, and even a green turtle. The divers had a nice dive with lots of smaller fish, fusiliers, and even a school of yellow-fin tuna.

On Dobu Island the villagers prepared a warm welcome for us. Nemunuemu village has the only school on the island, so there were what seemed like hundreds of adorable children, who were very excited to show us their dances and singing and to accompany us around the village. The head teacher of the school explained the meanings of the different dances and songs, some of which were accompanied by traditional drums, others by a string band, bringing two worlds together like “rice and tin fish,” as the teacher put it. The performances were followed by an explanation about the kula trade by one of the villagers. They had a number of beautiful elaborate kula on display.  

The Women’s Fellowship of the United Church, which is the main denomination on the island, had prepared some wonderful songs for us. They explained what their role on the island is, and how they are deeply involved in community work. The spokeswoman of the fellowship gave a heartfelt speech expressing how happy they were that we visited their island and how regardless of where we come from, “we are all one.”

Back on board Shirley gave her second lecture entitled The Art of Kula, which was a perfect end to an exciting day and the ideal preparation for tomorrow’s stop in the Trobriand Islands, the center of the kula trade.

Thursday, September 26
Kuyawa Village, Trobriand Islands

Despite torrential rains, the birders yet again would not be discouraged and went ashore despite the downpour. They saw a variety of shorebirds on the reef flats and during a stroll through the gardens they got great views of beautiful claret-breasted fruit doves and the island imperial pigeons. 

Shirley and Annette Kühlem went scouting in the village where everyone was huddling in the huts to hide from the rain. The head teacher of the village told them not to worry because the rain would stop by 10:00 am. As it turned out, his weather predictions were spot-on. While we waited for the weather to clear, John gave a great lecture presentation entitled, Plates in Collision: The PNG Archipelago.

As soon as the rain subsided, we received a wonderful greeting at Kuyawa Village by a very excited group of children of all ages in their beautiful traditional dress and body paint. We all appreciated how much dedication and attention to detail was put into preparing for our visit. The village visit started with our incoming Zodiacs being met by war canoes with young men daring us to come ashore. At the beach we had to make our way past a fierce group of spear-throwing and hip-thrusting boys and men before going through an amazing receiving line of little kids singing beautiful traditional songs.

On the village square, the head teacher gave a flaming speech, welcoming us to the island. Thevillagers prepared a number of wonderful songs and dances—some of them quite suggestive. The Trobriand Islands traditionally are known for their acceptance of pre-marital sex, even at a young age, but nevertheless the youngsters were laughing their heads off at the performances.

Many of us didn’t realize until later how fortunate we were that the islanders even received us at all. The death of a young man a few days before our arrival would usually prohibit any singing and dancing in the village but they made an exception for our group. According to the locals, the young man died of witchcraft. This is another important cultural concept in the Trobriand Islands—any death other than of extreme old age is seen as an act of witchcraft where someone must have cast a spell on the victim. Dobu, the island where we landed the day before, is considered to be the place with the most numerous and most powerful witches in Milne Bay.

The village itself was beautiful, with the houses made exclusively from natural materials such as sago palm leaves and pandanus. Much of the cooking is still done in ceramic pots made from local clay deposits and traded with other islands. In many of the houses, people were selling the beautiful carvings that the Trobriands are famous for. Many of us returned to the ship with beautiful pieces from local artists. 

As we sailed in the afternoon, many of us were out on deck with the naturalists getting excellent views of lesser and greater frigatebirds, brown boobies, black noddies, and bridled terns before Pepper gave a great lecture entitled, Famous Finches: The Evolutionary Journey of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

 

Friday, September 27
Tufi

Today was an exceptional day. The birders disembarked early and got excellent views of Blyth’s hornbills gliding over the sound. They also saw a selection of fine parrots including purple-bellied lories and eclectus parrots, a variety of hawks including a white-morph variable goshawk and had some rare views of orange-footed scrubfowl. Later, the birders took part in a Zodiac safari through the mangroves and had a close view of a superb palm cockatoo perched on the rim of his nest hollow.

Later, the main group went out in Zodiacs to the mouth of the so-called Papua New Guinean fjords. There we were met by canoes with fierce men in masks making menacing gestures and shaking their spears at us. Gladly they seemed to find us trustworthy enough, so we all transferred onto one of the many traditional outriggers. As soon as we were all safely on the platform, between the actual canoe and the outrigger, we were paddled up the fjord through the mangroves. The men and women who rowed our boats were dressed in beautiful traditional dress and didn’t flinch at the tight turns and narrow passages up the river. We arrived at a wooden dock amidst the mangroves where we disembarked and were immediately met by dark-painted men that lunged at us from the shadows of the forest. We had spears thrown at our feet by a little boy and couldn’t believe our eyes as we turned a corner and were attacked by a “gorilla.” 

All of us somehow survived the attacks in the jungle and arrived at a clearing in the forest. The locals were dressed in beautiful dance costumes with elaborate feather headdresses that are passed down from father to son. They set up a receiving line with many drums and beautiful songs. The dances in the middle of the clearing were among the best we saw during the entire trip. The fact that it was pouring rain just added to the ambiance and the big banana leaves that were handed out were perfect natural umbrellas. We learned just how valuable the feather crowns of the male dancers are when the chief asked for our understanding that they would skip the last dance in order not to get them too wet. We went on to appreciate the cultural displays the locals had set up such as making fire in the rain, women’s face tattooing, and sago making. There were also beautiful handicrafts for sale, especially the intricately decorated tapa cloth made from bark of the paper mulberry tree and the traditional bilim bags made from natural fibers such as pandanus. 

Our Zodiacs too us back through the mangroves to the mouth of the “fjord” and to the ship for lunch.

The divers had a great day as well at a submerged reef. Archie, the local dive master, led this spectacular dive. Healthy corals, both soft and hard, covered the entire reef. The highlights were many, but a sighting of an albino hammerhead shark took first place.

We sailed at lunchtime and in the afternoon there were two lectures. Jack gave a talk on, Fishes of Melanesia and Annette presented, A Giant Leap for Mankind: The Colonization of the Continent of Sahul. Late in the afternoon, there was a great seabird show for those up on deck with the naturalists.

Tonight we were treated to the Caledonian Sky’sfamous Filipino dinner in the restaurant and out on the Lido Deck with amazing Filipino specialties. The crew surprised us with their singing and dancing skills, wearing their beautiful traditional shirts, or “barong”.

Saturday, September 28
Lababia Island

The birders were the first ashore, taking Zodiacs and local outrigger canoes up the mangrove and palm-lined creek. Finally, they had a much-deserved day of dry-weather birding with many great sightings of palm cockatoo, raggiana bird of paradise, Papuan dwarf kingfisher, white-shouldered fairywren, sooty thicket fantail, and yellow-faced myna.

The village of Kamiali had their first annual Taro and Tuna Festival, which celebrated the trade relationships between the clans of the highland, who bring taro to the coastal people, and the clans of the coastal area, who supply tuna to the highland people. We couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful setting. We received a warm welcome right at the landing where the villagers had set up a palm frond gate for us to walk through. In the receiving line there were many traditional kundu drums and the men wore beautiful ornaments made from shells and highly-valued boars’ teeth. The school counselor gave a welcome speech and explained the meaning of the Taro and Tuna Festival. Two dance groups performed their traditional dances and songs for us—one from Kamiali village itself, the other from a village further down the shore. After the dances the tuna and taro were brought to the village square. Canoes had been out fishing for tuna since the early morning and women from the mountains had harvested taro for the exchange. Both were cooked right there on the village square in traditional ceramic pots. Along the beach there were a number of cultural displays set up. The canoe building demonstration was impressive; it takes an experienced carver only two days to make a personal canoe. 

The stretch of beach where the Kamiali Village is located in a conservation area called the Kamiali Wildlife Reserve. The villagers are heavily involved in monitoring the leatherback turtle population that come to lay their eggs on the shore of Lababia for as long as people can remember. Research in recent years has shown that the turtles from the Kamiali Wildlife Reserve traverse the entire width of the Pacific. Tagged with transmitters on the shore of Lababia, the turtles have shown up in Monterey Bay, California! Since the leatherback turtles are now protected and their eggs no longer eaten by the locals, the population has risen significantly.

After the village visit and an amazing pre-lunch of fresh tuna and taro in the village square, we did a little cruise up the river. Some went in traditional outriggers, others in our Zodiacs before returning to the ship for a great barbecue lunch on the Lido Deck. 

The afternoon was a classic expedition stop. Jawani Island was the perfect place, with great healthy coral and many colorful fish, and the bar set up by the hotel department on the little sand beach. In the meantime, Murf’s divers did a superb wall dive just off the northern end of Jawani Island with many beautiful schools of reef fish, too numerous to list.

Back on the ship we had our daily recap and briefing before dinner. Dessert was Chocolate Madness set up by the hotel department while we were watching a very informative—and amusing—documentary on Trobriand cricket that was introduced by the missionaries in order to replace violent conflicts between the different clans.

Sunday, September 29
Tami Island

Our visit to Tami Island was yet again a completely different experience from what we had seen so far. The people on Tami are Austronesian speakers and renowned for their beautiful carvings that originally used to be carved with dog teeth. We got a first impression of them in the assembly hall on the market square where the poles holding up the roof were intricately carved with tribal designs. The thatched huts had elaborate designs and walls made of sago palm fronds woven into different geometric patterns. 

The big breadfruit trees on the village square provided some much-needed shade on this hot day and we all appreciated the many tropical flowers that the village was decorated with. The little Lutheran church in the center of the village is a testimony of the early missionaries in the area that chose to set up their first mission station on small islands hoping to be able to convert the entire population to Christianity before moving on to another island. 

Two big dance groups performed beautiful dances in the village square. The elaborate headdresses of the men, reminiscent of fish and seabirds, were especially impressive. 

Tami Island had some of the best carvings of the trip. Especially the beautiful wooden bowls of rose and kerosene wood that sent many of us into a veritable shopping spree, regardless of any considerations on how to bring all our purchases home at the end of the trip! Even the birders had some time out of their busy schedule to enjoy the cultural performances and buy some wood carvings. 

After lunch on the ship we spent the heat of the afternoon doing the most sensible thing—getting in the water. We had a great snorkel with beautiful varieties of hard and soft coral and many colorful reef fish. The divers had two fabulous dives that were much more shallow than the previous ones, but had amazing corals and fish life with many species of anemone fish. 

Back on board and after tea, Brad gave a great lecture entitled, Mud & Mangroves: Life on the Fringe, telling us about the fascinating ecosystems we had seen during some of our landings.

Monday, September 30 
Madang / Karkar Island

For the first time, we were able to leave the ship without thinking about our life jackets and adequate footwear for a Zodiac landing. 
At the dock in Madang we were greeted by a great band of traditional bamboo and modern string instruments. 

The birders took off first to the lowland rainforest around Baitabag Village in the Kau Wildlife Area, located some 10 miles north of Madang. In the morning, the lowland peltops was the standout bird. After they returned, the birders made use of every second until we sailed and got some confiding grand munias along the Madang foreshore. 

The main group got on buses with our fun and knowledgeable local guides. Beautiful Bibi Village is famous for its pottery making, with ceramics traded over long distances and remaining a large source of income for the villagers. While the villagers were getting ready for their dances, we all wandered down to the shore where they had one of the giant dugout canoes that was used for trading in the Bismarck Sea. It was beautifully painted and the valuable and intricately carved splash guards were brought out for us to see. 

The dances on the village square were very energetic and the traditional dress—especially the elaborate headdresses and dyed banana fiber skirts—were particularly beautiful. What followed was a pottery demonstration by the women of the village. Many of us bought one 
of the nicely decorated ceramics that Bibi Village is renowned for. 

We took the famous Highland Highway back to Madang. Our drive took us past the Kalibobo Lighthouse, a war memorial commemorating the New Guinea Coast Watchers who aided the Allies during World War II. After a photo stop, we continued to the Madang market with 
its many fruits and vegetables all arranged in nice bundles on pandanus mats. We had a great time trying on the colorful Mary dresses and fun t-shirts, some of them with rather interesting sayings on them such as “I visited Madang – Now get me out of here.” As for us we had a wonderful time in Madang with its lively streets and lovely people.

Some of us went snorkeling instead and enjoyed the beautiful clear water, great coral, and colorful reef fish. The divers were lucky to team up with a local dive guide named Skeeter. He took them four miles away from the Madang port to the wreck of a B52 bomber sitting in 65 feet of water since 1942. The conditions were ideal, and the divers got great views of the 53-foot-long airplane with a wingspan of 67 feet. 

The afternoon was a true expedition afternoon—Karkar Island. This isolated island is dominated by a huge volcano, the bay where we landed is the crater of an earlier eruption. The little village that is located right on the bay only heard about our arrival 14 hours before. What an amazing and heartfelt welcome they gave us on such short notice. The Zodiacs were greeted by outrigger canoes with men dancing on the platform. Once ashore we were escorted to the village square by a multitude of children who had gotten the day off from school to be able to partake in our visit and show us around the island. The dances under a giant Calophyllum tree on the village square were accompanied by the sound of many drums and it was a wonderful testament to the authenticity of the performances that even on such short notice the dancers all wore their impressive shell and boar tooth ornaments and traditional dress. 

The divers had two more fantastic dives in the afternoon. The dive sites were on walls on either side of the submerged entrance to the caldera. The walls were adorned in colorful soft and hard corals and home to many schools of colorful reef fish.

In the evening, after our briefing for the next day, Pepper gave a fascinating and highly entertaining lecture entitled, Fighting Crime with Feathers: The Casebook of a Forensic Ornithologist.

 

Tuesday, October 1
Kopar Village, Sepik River

Today we were treated to a Zodiac cruise on the fabled Sepik River at the crack of dawn. Again, the rain added to the experience as we slowly made our way through the dripping narrow mangroves. Here and there we had to make way for a traditional dugout canoe or a modern fiberglass banana boat. It was amazing how many people fit in these canoes and how maneuverable the boats are in the winding channel. 

Not only the birders were excited about the sightings of sea eagles, the overflying parrots and doves and the scattering of hawks. When turning from the Sepik into the small mangrove channel many of us were surprised at the close encounter with a cassowary. A family from Kopar Village had raised a cassowary chick, “Chris,” as a pet and—now fully grown—he roams the village freely. A previous recap by Pepper that showed some very unsettlingimages of fighting cassowary also kept most of us at a distance to Chris, who was left happily munching away at his breakfast out of a tin bowl. 

After our own breakfast we watched the spectacular dancers of Kopar. Many peoples of the Sepik trace their ancestry to a divine being from the river; in the case of the people from Kopar this ancestral being is a snake. This was presented to us in the snake dance. This dance centered around a large wooden frame that the male dancers were hiding within and moving around. The frame was decorated and painted to represent the snake complete with a movable wooden head that could be turned from side to side. 

After the dances the people of Kopar performed a play about a local legend. The plot was about two siblings who killed a feared cannibal by luring him into an ambush. The presentation was done with such wit that the entire village square was filled with ours and the villagers’ laughter. 

There were also a number of demonstrations such as mat weaving, basketry, and sago preparation. There were beautiful items for sale especially intricate carvings such as masks, little statuettes, paddles, and staffs, as well as bilim bags. An item that we hadn’t seen so far were bags made from spun cuscus wool. 

A walk through the village was a great experience with many things to see along the way. At one house they had a crocodile skin out to dry, at another the porch was decorated with skulls of giant turtles and sharks. And those who dared could get a closer encounter with Chris, the cassowary. 

After an exciting morning in the mouth of the Sepik, we returned to the ship for lunch and then had an afternoon at sea. John gave a great lecture on the Volcanic Geology of Papua New Guinea. The timing couldn’t have been better as we were sailing past the four island volcanoes. Then came the much-anticipated, “Swedish Pancake Extraordinaire.” Our captain Hakan Gustafsson personally wielded the spatula and made Swedish pancakes for us in the lounge. After that, Rich gave a very informative and fun lecture entitled, Drama Like Your Favorite Soap Opera: Competition, Adaptation, and Deception on the Reef.

 

Wednesday, October 2
Alim Island

This day started with beautiful views of Alim Island as we approached just after sunrise. Even from a distance we could see the many seabirds over the island. Especially the majestic greater and lesser frigatebirds were soaring high in the thermal uplift over the island. We started the day with a Zodiac cruise, slowly making our way over the reef and through the mangroves. There were birds everywhere and more than once we had to duck in order not to get “blessed” by one of the many red-footed booby chicks dutifully keeping their nest clean. The chicks were already the size of the adults, but still in their fuzzy down phase, and the entire island resonated from their demanding calls to be fed. Brown noddies and white terns were zipping overhead and we even got great views of a sea eagle perched high on a tree. 

The conditions for snorkeling were so ideal that we did two snorkels, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The water was beautiful with amazing visibility and healthy and diverse coral. The snorkel site was a wall with many multicolored fish. Rich pointed out a couple of cuttlefish and we all tried to get good views of them as they tried to hide by blending in with their surroundings. 

The divers had another great dive on a magnificent wall with beautiful corals and superb topography. They saw many small things in lots of nooks and crannies, but also four big turtles and a myriad of reef fish.

After we sailed, Annette gave another lecture on the archaeology of the Melanesian Islands entitled, New Ships on the Shore: The Lapita People in Melanesia, telling us about the Austronesian influence on many of the islands and how it altered the cultural and natural landscape.

Thursday, October 3 
Tingwon Island

Early this morning we arrived at Tingwon Island and were received by curious children who guided us to the assembly hall on the village square. This beautifully-decorated structure was only built in the last year and was obviously the pride of the villagers. The headmaster of the school gave a warm welcome speech and the schoolboys did the famous megapode dance holding wood carvings of bird heads in their mouths. These were followed by the women dances and the men dances, each of them in their beautiful traditional dress. The women wore skirts, capes, and headbands made from green ti leaves (Cordyline fruticosa) while the men wore banana fiber skirts and elaborate headdresses made from painted wood and feathers. Their dances were accompanied not only by their songs but also by a very energetic band playing the bamboo drums with three or four drummers playing different rhythms on one long piece of bamboo.

After the dances, we had time to explore the island and walk to the other side where the main village stood Along the way we passed through the gardens of the Tingwon people and saw the process of gardening. They had recently cleared new plots for planting so we could see the different stages and how they used planting sticks to loosen up the soil and bury the seedings into the ground. Our local guides took us around the village to see the school and the hospital and the trees full of fruit bats. 

The birders saw a number of lorikeets, beautiful Nicobar pigeons, sea eagles, and megapodes. They have their big sandy nests right in the village and the people put up palm fronds to protect their nesting area. Despite the fact that their eggs are eaten, the megapodes were numerous and seemed quite accustomed to humans. 

After this interesting, and quite hot morning on shore, we spent the afternoon in the water doing a great snorkel from our anchored-out Zodiacs, enjoying the amazing underwater world. Murf and his dive team experienced the best dives of the trip. A superb wall, adorned with both soft and hard corals and two converging currents, caused the best ‘big’ fish action they had seen. Many gray reef and white-tip sharks were flashing back and forth and a never-ending waterfall of red snappers and paddle-tail snappers was pouring from the top of the wall to infinity. What a dive to finish a superb trip.

For those who preferred the shore to the water, there was the option of spending the afternoon on a little sandy beach. The hotel department brought a beach bar to shore and many of us spent hours in the shallow water just floating and enjoying the delicious rum punch and that true “island feeling.”

Back on the ship it was time for the Captain‘s cocktails and farewell dinner. After that, we all got together in the lounge for Brad’s slideshow with all the amazing images from our trip through Papua New Guinea and all the beautiful experiences we had in the last two weeks.

 

Friday, October 4
Rabaul

Today we had a morning at sea. Tom gave a lecture on How We Could Save the World’s Coral Reefs. Especially after this trip with so many amazing snorkel and dive sites it was great to hear that something can be done in order to protect those wonderful underwater ecosystems. 

We then took our group photo with one of the best possible backgrounds—the active Tavurvur volcano that last erupted in 2014. After lunch, we went on our bus tour of Rabaul, which used to be the provincial capital and most important town in the province before it was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1994. The rain of ash following the eruption caused the majority of the buildings to collapse and the provincial capital had to be moved to Kokopo. All along our drive we could still see the big heaps of ash on either side of the road. This natural disaster and the many WWII remains and sites dominate the landscape in Rabaul. Rabaul was the main stronghold of the Japanese during the war with 110,000 Japanese troops based here by 1943. The Japanese army dug many miles of tunnels as shelters from Allied air attacks and built army barracks and support structures. Our first stop on the tour today was the Japanese submarine base. Here the natural deep drop-off right by the shore provided an ideal place to land, re-provision, and refuel the submarines. 

We then went to Admiral Yamamoto’s bunker and the adjacent Rabaul War Museum. It contains exhibits on German and Japanese occupation and outside there are a number of war remnants such as a torpedo, a tank, guns, and an airplane. On the drive to our next stop, the hot springs at the foot of the Tavurvur Volcano, we drove through the eerie landscape that used to be the center or Rabaul. Our guides pointed out where different buildings had been—the airport terminal, Chinatown, a big hotel—all of which collapsed and are covered in thick layers of ash.

The stop at the hot springs was spectacular! The Rabaul volcanoes were looming at a distance while the hot pools were bubbling at our feet, a constant reminder of how active volcanism still is. Some of us made it up the steep hills of volcanic rubble which looked so much easier when the local kids did it. 

Upon return to the ship, we had an early buffet dinner before getting back on the buses to see one of the highlights of our trip—the Baining fire dances. When we arrived, a big roaring fire was already burning on the dance ground by the water and a few young men kept adding logs and stoking the embers. This was accompanied by the sounds of the band who were thudding large bamboo sticks into the ground and chanting in unison. The Baining make giant masks out of bamboo and painted barkcloth that completely obscures the identity of the dancer who wears it. They have big painted-on eyes and beak-like mouths and embody spirits of the forest. To touch such a mask or to come too close would be a severe break of taboo, even today. 

The dances started when one by one the dancers came out into the illumination of the fire. In the dim light only the masks and their big eyes were seen. The dancers were moving to the music and started kicking at the glowing embers in the center of the dance ground. The sound of the drums seemed to make them fall into a trance-like state as they got more and more daring, kicking big pieces of embers across the field, jumping over the fire, and eventually running through it! The more energetic the dances got the more sparks flew, creating a spectacular unique ambiance with the big mask back lit by the red, glowing fire. Many of us were able to take amazing photographs while others were mesmerized by this captivating performance that we all had the privilege to see. 

 

Saturday, October 5
Rabaul / Disembark / Cairns, Australia

The next morning was bustling with activity. Some last-minute packing was done, the bags had to be out early, farewells to our lovely crew were said, and then we took off on another tour of Rabaul.

The buses took us to the volcano observatory with stunning views of the caldera and the volcanoes.

After the observatory we went to the bustling Rabaul market. The market hall was just recently built. Half of the stands were under the modern roof and the other half under nice, big trees. The goods for sale were mainly produce and different types of food. From the market, we continued on to the Japanese barge tunnels. These are part of the extensive tunnel system that the Japanese dug during WWII.  

The next stop was theGazelle Hotel where we enjoyed a buffet lunch. Meanwhile, our cruise director, Lynne Greig, worked her magic at the check-in counters and managed to get all our boarding passes. After a last goodbye to Papua New Guinea and its beautiful people at the terminal, we boarded our charter flight to Cairns, Australia. 

The last night of the trip we spent at the Shangri-La HotelThe Marina right by the water in Cairns. After a great farewell dinner we said our goodbyes to our travel companions with whom we share so many great memories of this wonderful trip.

 

Related Blog Posts