Madang Province is PNG in miniature. It has islander, coastal and mountain cultures plus modern resorts and timeless villages. The fertile coastal strip looks out onto smoking volcanic islands and is backed by some of the most rugged mountains in PNG – the Adelbert and Schrader Ranges to the north, and the Finisterre Range to the south.
Lae is PNG’s second-largest city and, despite having a sizeable industrial base, is more attractive than Port Moresby. Like other PNG cities, the streets are filled with people and it can be hard to imagine what the crowds are doing. No one seems to be in a rush; happy to chat with friends and amble around town.
Madang was once dubbed the ‘Prettiest town in the Pacific’ – not least from its position on a peninsula, surrounded by azure waters sprinkled with picturesque islands – and while it did suffer war-time ruination it retains much of its natural charm. Madang’s warm, wet climate and fertile soil produce luxuriant growth.
Wau & Around
In the 1920s and '30s New Guinea’s gold rush made the mining towns of Wau (pronounced ‘wow’) and Bulolo thriving centres of industry. Not any more. A gold mine at nearby Hidden Valley had promised to boost the local economy but much of the wealth has ended up in Lae or offshore and unemployment in the area remains high.
An isolated and interesting place in central Madang Province, the big attraction here is an opportunity to witness the everyday workings of a rural village cut off from the rest of the world. Don’t, however, expect ‘natives in loincloths’ – instead you’ll find a people, despite their isolation, both well informed and politically savvy. That and really cool singsings.
The town of Finschhafen was the German New Guinea Company’s first attempt at colonising New Guinea. Unfortunately, things didn’t go well and nothing remains of the original settlement aside from a lone Lutheran Mission building. Today Finschhafen refers to the district and the collective series of peaceful coastal towns within it.
Black Cat Trail
The Black Cat Trail was used by miners in the 1920s and its difficulty lies in the ‘no-matter-what’ route straight from Salamaua to its objective – the Black Cat mine, northeast of Wau. The miners took eight days to cover the 50km, and parts of the track were later used by Australian soldiers during WWII.
Karkar Island is one of the most fertile places in the country and home to some of the most productive copra plantations in the world. The volcano erupted violently in 1974 and again in 1979, killing two volcanologists, but it is possible to climb to the crater (1831m, 12 hours return).
Huon Gulf Coast
The clear blue waters of the Huon Gulf wash up onto a number of white sandy beaches where postcard villages rest serenely under swaying palms. Transport is a touch on the inconsistent side and little things such as electricity don’t always work. But, hey, this really is off-the-beaten-track PNG at its best.
Menyamya & Aseki
Menyamya, in the heart of Anga country, is truly remote. Those who make the significant effort to get here usually come to see the smoked bodies at Aseki or Watama, nearer to Menyamya. The Anga used to smoke their dead and leave the mummified bodies in burial caves and cliff ledges to watch over their descendants.
The area around Ulingan Bay is particularly good for surfing, with a number of right- and left-hand breaks. It’s best suited to intermediate or advanced riders as most of the waves break over coral reefs (reef booties are recommended). PNG’s second National Surf Titles were held at the Tupira Surf Club in 2011.
Jais Aben Area
Divers rave about the north-coast sites, such as the US freighter Henry Leith in 20m of water near Jais Aben Resort, and the nearby minesweeper Boston. The ‘waterhole’ is an enclosed lagoon connected to the open sea by a large underwater tunnel and offers dramatic snorkelling. Pig, Wongat and Tab Islands are also recommended snorkelling spots.
Balek Wildlife Sanctuary
This wildlife management area is 10km south of Madang. It’s featured in scenes from the 1996 film production of Robinson Crusoe with Pierce Brosnan. There’s a sulphur creek that flows from a huge limestone formation. Spirits are said to inhabit the site and the water has curative properties.
The lovely peninsula an hour south of Lae is Salamaua. There’s little to suggest this tranquil village once played such a significant part in the development of Wau and Bulolo in the gold-rush days, or a pivotal role in the course of the Pacific War. You can walk to, or dive on, a few interesting war relics.