Travel to PNG is all about being outdoors in the elements and part of the natural environment – let’s face it, there’s precious little shopping and very few galleries and museums!
PNG is home to thousands of species of flora and fauna and seeing some of it, especially the rich bird life, is becoming easier with the existence of specialised birding lodges and knowledgable local guides.
Birders report that in a three-week trip you’ll see about 300 species. A small number of local guides are well worth seeking out. You can plan and execute your trip with these guys for a fraction of the cost of a tour.
Samuel Kepuknai from Kiunga Nature Tours is the man in remote Western Province, while former hunter Daniel Wakra of New Guinea Natural Tours knows the sites around Port Moresby very well. Kumul Lodge in Enga Province and Ambua Lodge in Tari have programs specifically for birdwatchers and excellent guides.
Few roads. Lots of rivers. More islands. It’s a combination that makes boating in one form or another almost inevitable in PNG.
PNG has some of the world’s largest and most spectacular rivers, with the Sepik often compared to the Amazon and Congo Rivers and used by local people as a highway. A Sepik cruise is a languid way of taking in the indigenous culture and rich birdlife along the river.
If you don’t own a cruising yacht, for island-hopping there are four alternatives: use the regular coastal shipping; take a tour; charter a boat; or make friends with someone who owns a yacht. The dense scattering of islands along PNG's coastline lends itself beautifully to sea kayaking. Tufi Resort is due to commence guided sea kayaking trips in late 2016, but generally it's BYO everything.
Diving & Snorkelling
PNG offers some of the most interesting, exciting and challenging underwater activities on earth. Those who like diving on wrecks will find dozens of sunken ships – either as a result of WWII or the maze of spectacular coral reefs. And the reefs are not only for divers – excellent visibility and an abundance of fish make them perfect for snorkellers. Milne Bay, New Britain, New Ireland and the Solomons are stellar diving destinations.
In PNG there are dozens of rivers brimming with fish, including species such as barramundi, mangrove jack and the legendary Papuan black bass. And off the coasts there’s no shortage of big fish either. Yellowfin tuna, mackerel, sailfish, and blue, black and striped marlin are just some of monster fish hooked by die-hard anglers that come here from all over the world.
The Game Fishing Association of Papua New Guinea has an excellent website with lots of information on events and competitions, and the contact details of fishing charters and fishermen-friendly lodges throughout PNG.
The southern coast of the PNG mainland gets swell from June to September. However, the best waves are during the monsoon season from late October to April along the north coast and in the islands.
The best places to head are Kavieng, the western end of New Ireland, Wewak and Ulingan Bay, both on the northern coast of the PNG mainland and, the pick of the lot, Vanimo, on the north coast near the border with Indonesian Papua.
The Surf Association of Papua New Guinea has a decent website with links to surfing tours. Besides the surf camps, it’s also worth looking at the World Surfaris (www.worldsurfaris.com), PNG Surfaris (www.pngsurfaris.com) and No Limit Adventures (www.nolimitadventures.com.au) websites for their all-inclusive surfing charters and packages.
PNG is a trekking paradise. The country is crisscrossed with tracks, many of which have been used for centuries by the local population, and it is rarely more than a day’s walk between villages.
Your major costs will be paying for guides. Expect to pay a guide around K200 per day and a porter anything between K100 and K150 per day. You’ll also have to provide or pay for their food. The best way to find a reliable guide is to ask around the local expat population – they will usually be able to put you in touch with someone who knows someone. All of the tour companies can provide guides or at least information on where you might procure one.
The Kokoda Track is the most popular trek in PNG. Mt Wilhelm is climbed fairly often, and some people then walk from there down to Madang. The Bulldog Track will appeal to those with a military or historical bent…and a wide masochistic streak.
Crossing the Owen Stanley Range has become a pilgrimage for many Australians. Through experiencing the rugged terrain and sharing just some of the trials of the men who fought and died here, it is a chance to pay respect to those who defended Australia from the advancing Japanese in WWII.
- When to Go
May to September are the coolest, driest and best months to trek, although most companies operate from March to October. Always prepare for rain.
- What to Pack
comprehensive trail guide: Clive Baker’s The Kokoda Trek or Bill James’ Kokoda Field Guide
comfortable, well-made boots (already broken in)
lightweight sleeping bag
poncho or other wet-weather gear
pack bladder and water bottle
zip-lock bags to keep papers/maps dry
Total pack weight should not exceed 15kg.
Kokoda Track Authority (www.kokodatrackauthority.org) List of licensed tour operators.
Kokoda Trekkers Forum (www.kokodatrail.com.au/forums) Training tips, advice and testimonials.
Kokoda Commemoration (kokoda.commemoration.gov.au) Snapshot history of WWII events.
Kokoda Track Foundation (www.ktf.org) Opportunities to give back.
Why Do It?
Halfway through you may wonder why you came to walk the Kokoda Track. Your blistered feet will hurt, your clothes will be wet with sweat and by the end of the day you’ll undoubtedly be tired and hungry. But what your pictures won’t show (assuming you muster the energy to take a few) is your growing sense of awe. For over every steep, slippery step on this 96km natural rollercoaster, Australians, Americans and Japanese fought for their lives; against each other and against the terrain. In 1942 there were no guesthouses, no porters, no relief from dysentery and the constant fear of ambush.
Crossing the Owen Stanley Range has become a pilgrimage for many Australians, a chance to pay their respects by sharing some of the trials of the men who fought and died here. And what started as a trickle is turning into a tide. In recent years, there has been an average of some 4000 trekkers (95% of them Australian) every year who have gritted their teeth and tackled the mountains. The majority walk as part of an organised group; only the most experienced trekkers could consider walking this track independently.
Apart from the wartime history, relationships built with today’s residents of the track, and particularly the guides and carriers who trek with you, are mutually rewarding. They serve as a reminder that the Kokoda Track is about people; not just a distant, heroic military campaign.
Planning Your Trek
Most people walk the track with a company specialising in organised treks and all the logistical arrangements will be dealt with by them. The first decision when considering walking the Kokoda Track is whether you prefer a hassle-free, albeit more expensive, guided trek or a cheaper, locally arranged walk. The following advice is a starting point for all walkers.
All trekkers (but not porters or guides) must pay a K300 trekking fee and obtain a permit from the Kokoda Track Authority before starting the trip. The KTA is also a great place to ‘bump’ into guides and porters who sometimes hang around here.
There are basic ‘resthouses’ in most villages plus various shelters and campsites along the track. Some of the resthouses and camp sites are small, so if you meet another party you might have to camp in the village or move on to the next village.
Most porters are very resourceful and able to find accommodation with wantoks (kinfolk). However, ultimately it is your responsibility to bring all the equipment, including tents and utensils, that your party will need. The same is also true for food; your guide will take only the clothes he is wearing.
Organised treks supply the bulk of your food, which accompanies you on the backs of local carriers. It’s replenished about halfway along via a chartered flight; there are no trade stores on the track (only at Sogeri and Kokoda). Bring any comfort food yourself and keep it light.
Whether you are on an organised trek or walking with locals, ensure that you have comprehensive individual medical insurance.
The Kokoda Track is not PNG’s most difficult trek, but it’s no walk in the park either. Aim to do it in nine days, not six. Take advantage of the services of local carriers and never walk with fewer than four people. If there is an accident, two can get help and one can stay with the injured. Remember to protect yourself from the sun and heat. Keep hydrated, and don’t forget rehydration salts – maintaining your fluid and carbohydrate levels is absolutely critical.
Robberies and conflicts among traditional landowners have led to the track’s closure in the past, but in recent years the situation has been fairly calm. Still, it’s worth keeping an ear open.
Train for at least three months. Do stair-training, running, and practise hiking with a heavy load. As one LP reader put it, ‘Practise by climbing the stairs in an office tower at home. For realism, cover yourself in mud, carry a sack of onions on your back and wear slippery shoes.’
Guides & Carriers
If you’re trekking independently, don’t do it without a good guide. A personal recommendation is best – the KTA is a good place to start. You could also try asking other trekkers on the www.kokodatrail.com.au/forums. There are dozens of guides and carriers working on the track and most of them are freelancers.
It is also possible to hire carriers at Kokoda, although you can’t just expect them to be able to drop everything at a moment’s notice and head off. The maximum that a carrier can carry (and is permitted to do so under KTA rules) is 18kg.
Having a carrier might mean the difference between finishing the trek or giving up. One carrier between two or three is a good idea. If the weight becomes too much, you can employ a carrier in most villages along the track, but they are getting busier as the route becomes more popular. Pay guides about K100 per day and carriers about K80 per day, plus K20 per day for food and lodgings; you’ll also need to pay their airfares back home.
You can choose to walk the track with one of dozens of companies, which takes most of the hassle out of the preparation, leaving you to focus on getting fit. Costs depend on the length of the trek, whether it includes airfares from Australia, what equipment is provided and whether you employ a carrier. Check operator websites for full details and make sure you are comparing like with like. Most prices include transport out of Port Moresby.
Price is not the only consideration when selecting a trekking company. It’s worth asking a few questions before handing over a fistful of kina.
- If you are particularly keen on the military history, a knowledgeable guide is a must. What sites will you be shown? What level of information can you expect from your guide?
- Most trekking companies carry a satellite phone or a two-way radio; if they don’t have one and there’s a problem, no one can hear your screams.
- How is their safety record? Besides your own insurance – which is essential – what additional insurances do they carry and what does it cover?
- Ask about equipment; if they supply tents it may be possible to inspect them.
- While agony loves company, it’s a trail, not a highway. How many people in a group?
- What is their code of ethics? Do they carry out accumulated rubbish? Do they pay guides and porters reasonable wages? Contribute to local communities?
For local Kokoda trekking operators, contact the Kokoda Track Authority for recommendations.
Getting To & From the Trek
The Kokoda Track runs between Owers’ Corner in Central Province and Kokoda in Oro Province. At the southern end you’ll need a 4WD to reach Owers’ Corner, taking the turn-off just before Sogeri – look for a white-painted stone war memorial. At McDonald’s Corner there is a strange metal sculpture of a soldier; this is where the road once ended and the track started, but the actual track now starts further on at Owers’ Corner. PMVs run from Gordons Market in Port Moresby to Sogeri early in the morning. From there, you’ll need to wait and hope for a lift to Owers’ Corner or start walking the 16km. The KTA can help arrange transport. Note: the road is often impassable, so be prepared to walk at least part of it if required.
If you find walking the Kokoda Track challenging, imagine taking it at full speed, running through sweltering humidity, rain showers and darkness, while taking only short breaks in hopes of completing the race not in days but in hours.
The Kokoda Challenge (www.kokodatrekking.com.au/kokodachallenge.html) was first held in 2005, and although it hadn't been run for a few years at the time of writing, it is expected to soon reappear back on the calendar of PNG sporting events. The race is usually a small, intimate affair with some 70 runners – 20 spots reserved for international athletes – competing for top honours. Although some high-ranking ultra-marathoners and international trail runners have entered, the long-running champion is Brendan Buka, a porter from Kokoda, who has set the course record for races in both directions. The fastest run ever was in 2008, when Buka raced from Owers’ Corner to Kokoda in a thigh- and knee-defying 16 hours and 34 minutes.
If the race hasn't been reinstated, or you can’t make it, Australia also hosts its own 96km Kokoda Challenge, held in the Gold Coast hinterlands each year (see kokodachallenge.com).
Depending on how fit you are, it takes between six and 11 days to traverse the track (walking for about 50 hours from beginning to end). The itinerary shown here is indicative only. It starts at Owers’ Corner, but just as many people walk the other way, which involves about 550m more climbing. By making it a longer trip you have more time for side-trips, exploring the battlefields and experiencing village life.
Day 1: Owers’ Corner–Va Ule Creek (10km, six hours) The Va Ule Creek campsites are about one to three hours past Imita Ridge. Watch for the extensive weapon pits on the northern face of Imita Ridge, where the Australians made their last stand in 1942.
Day 2: Va Ule Creek–Naoro (17km, seven hours) The track follows the original wartime route over Ioribaiwa Ridge. There's a memorial on the ridge and there are many interesting weapon pits, bunkers and relics strewn across the slopes. Naoro has spectacular 270-degree views over the valley and there is a large resthouse.
Day 3: Naoro–Efogi (19km, seven hours) About halfway between these points there are three resthouses in Manari village. After the long climb up Brigade Hill you suddenly come into the open and have a wide panorama down the 1942 battlefield, across to Kagi and Mt Bellamy in the distance and Efogi, just below you. On a clear day you can see all the way back to Hombrum and Varirata, near Sogeri. There are about three resthouses in Efogi, the biggest village on the track.
Day 4: Efogi–Kagi–Mt Bellamy (12km, eight hours) Three hours of climbing and descending past Efogi is Kagi, another spectacular village site. From here, the track climbs to its highest point at Mt Bellamy. You can side-trip from the track to Lake Myola in three to four hours return. Along the way, and just off the track, is the huge crater where a WWII bomber blew up and scattered aircraft parts in all directions. Your guide/carrier should know the place.
Day 5: Mt Bellamy–Alola (17km, 11 hours) After a long down and up section, the track passes Templeton’s Crossings, followed by another up, down and up to Alola – quite a tiring section.
Day 6: Alola–Kokoda (19km, 10 hours) When you reach the Isurava Memorial, allow yourself at least an hour at the old battle site. It’s a most impressive and moving place. After the memorial there is an optional two-hour detour to a wrecked Japanese aircraft with its paintwork still clearly visible. It’s a steep climb and you’ll need a guide. Back on the main track you'll pass the abandoned village of Deniki on your way to Kokoda.
If you’re looking for the Kokoda experience without taking on the full challenge, you could take a PMV from Port Moresby to the village of Madilogo, which avoids two hard days’ walk from Owers’ Corner to Naoro. It takes about two hours to reach the track from Madilogo; from there it’s one to 1½ hours to Naoro.
For a little taste of the track you can walk down to the Goldie River from Owers’ Corner in just an hour or so. If you have the energy, struggle up what was once the Golden Stairs to Imita Ridge.
Another option would be to fly in to Kagi, Efogi or Manari, walk a section and fly out. Flying to Kagi and walking to Manari (one day) would be interesting. These trips are serviced by expensive charter flights only.
A cheaper option is to get to Kokoda (by flight to Popondetta then PMV to Kokoda) and walk to the Isurava Memorial and back. If you’re fit, you can walk there and back in a day (10 hours or so). Or overnight in Isurava village or at the Isurava Memorial trekkers hut.
PNG is second to none when it comes to sheer wealth of indigenous culture and many visitors arrange their trip around a cultural festival, be it the Goroka Show, Mt Hagen Show, Ambunti Crocodile Festival or the Sepik River Festival. Others make visiting a culturally rich area the focal point of their trip, from expeditions up the Sepik River in order to visit ornate haus tambarans (spirit houses) and get a glimpse of the crocodile skin-cutting ceremony to trips to the Highlands to spend time with Asaro mudmen in Goroka and with the Huli wigmen in Tari.