Papua New Guinea
Papua New Guinea is a place with few roads and few tourists. You might feel like you’re stepping into a great unknown, but that is exactly why travelers find this country so compelling! Precious few places on Earth offer the authentic experiences and untouched nature of Papua New Guinea.
The extreme cultural diversity will astound you. Vibrant and varied cultures thrive on more than 600 islands and speak over 800 languages. Most islanders express their culture in their dress, music and the flowers with which they adorn themselves—which you’ll have a chance to experience firsthand when you visit their villages and observe their traditional dances. A proud tradition of handicrafts means you can select from a plethora of one-of-a-kind souvenirs to bring home with you.
Divers are drawn to nearby Palau and Yap, two of the remotest islands in Micronesia. This region has been hailed as “the number one underwater wonder of the world” for its marine diversity and beauty. Here you’ll have a chance to dive with gentle manta rays, get up close to world-renowned coral reefs, explore the wrecks of wartime vessels, snorkel or simply enjoy beautiful, unspoiled beaches. Other nearby islands worth exploring are the D’Entrecasteaux Islands. Nearly forgotten and untouched, these mountainous, jungle-covered islands are completely undeveloped.
For a natural and cultural odyssey, take a trip on the Sepik River. The communities along its banks are renowned for their traditional dress, body decoration and artwork. Have your camera ready as you visit their villages, chat with residents and learn about their lives. This area also offers spectacular birding opportunities along the river’s smaller channels.
It’s hard to imagine a more captivating destination than Papua New Guinea. Its pristine beaches, warm island hospitality, stunning cultural diversity and breathtaking natural beauty—all in a remote region still undiscovered by most tourists—make Papua New Guinea an explorer’s delight.
Due to its remoteness and geographic barriers, very little archeological research has taken place in Papua New Guinea. However, some evidence suggests that the islands might have been inhabited as early as 50,000 years ago by people who came from Southeast Asia. Stone tools and evidence of ancient drainage channels indicate that agriculture has existed in the region for at least 7,000 years.
About 2,500 years ago, a major migration from neighboring lands like Indonesia and Malaysia introduced pottery, pigs and fishing. Although the sweet potato is a major staple crop today in Papua New Guinea, it was introduced only 300 years ago, replacing the former staple of taro. This new, high-yield source of food led to an increased population in the highlands. Headhunting and cannibalism did occur throughout the region in the past, but ceased by the early 1950s.
Portuguese and Spanish sailors were likely the first Europeans to spot Papua New Guinea in the early 16th century. Other European navigators visited and explored the region for the next 170 years, but little was known about its inhabitants until the late 19th century.
Once Europeans discovered Papua New Guinea’s wealth of natural resources—coconut oil, copra, rubber and gold—it wasn’t long before various nations laid claim to parts of the island. Captain John Morseby of Great Britain surveyed the southeastern coast in the 1870s, which led to the settlement of New Britain and New Ireland in the early 1880s. In 1884, Germany took possession of the northeastern quadrant of the country (known then as German New Guinea), and the southeastern quadrant (known as Papua) was declared a British protectorate.
Early in World War I, Australian forces seized German New Guinea. During World War II, Japan invaded northern New Guinea and headed toward Port Moresby before being defeated by Australian troops. A united Papua New Guinea was born after Japan surrendered in 1945. The territory was administered by Australia until achieving independence in 1975. One of the main challenges for Papua New Guinea since then has been governing its many diverse cultures as a single nation.
Today the world is just beginning to discover the treasures of Papua New Guinea. The geographic extremes of this island nation have not only eluded outside exploration but have kept even the local people separate from one another. The result is a mosaic of cultures and over 800 languages in an area roughly the size of California. Remote tribes in the highlands live much as they have for thousands of years. A previously unknown tribe of semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers was encountered here as recently as 1983.
Biologically, Papua New Guinea exhibits great diversity as well. The country is like Australia’s mirror world, despite the two countries’ close proximity. Australia is flat and dry, while Papua New Guinea is lush and mountainous. Australian kangaroos bound across the plains, but in Papua New Guinea, they climb trees in the rainforest canopy. Other natural wonders of Papua New Guinea include wallabies, birds of paradise, and 25,000 species of beetles.
The country’s tradition of agriculture continues to sustain its people and economy. Sweet potatoes, taro, yams and bananas feed most local people. Exports include coffee, copra, palm oil, cocoa beans, rubber, timber, tuna, copper, gold, and silver.
Photos: © WOLFGANG KAEHLER and Shelley Fry