About 2000 airstrips have been cut out of the bush or into hill tops and coral islands during the last 80 years or so. Although less than a quarter of these airstrips are regularly used today, PNG is heavily reliant on air transport to connect its isolated and scattered population. It is worth remembering the following points when travelling by air around PNG:
- For lighter aircraft, the baggage limit is 16kg (but 20kg is usually accepted). Excess-baggage charges are reasonable but can add up.
- Some remote strips have no facilities, just a guy with a two-way radio who meets the flights, and at many of these remote strips you’ll have to buy your ticket direct from the pilot – cash only.
- Outside the main centres (or when the phones lines are down) don’t rely on being able to pay for anything by credit card.
- Unpredictable weather combined with mechanical problems and complex schedules can frequently lead to delays or cancellations.
Airlines in the Region
Local offices are listed on airline websites.
Air Niugini The major carrier in PNG operating larger planes to the larger centres.
PNG Air Formerly known as Airlines PNG, this is the main secondary airline in PNG with an extensive route map to major and minor airports across the country.
North Coast Aviation Covers remote destinations out of Lae.
Travel Air The country’s newest airline, with a rapidly expanding network.
Nobody pays the full fare for Air Niugini or PNG Air domestic flights. Both airlines have a number of different pricing tiers and each flight usually has a limited number of seats at discounted rates. Obviously the cheap seats are the first to go so book as early as possible to get the cheapest rate.
It’s worth remembering that the cheaper fares are usually subject to all manner of restrictions (including nonrefundable cancellations or penalties for date changes). Take the time to read the fine print.
The 2012 Ferry Disaster
On 2 February 2012, Rabaul Shipping’s MV Rabaul Queen capsized and sank in rough seas as it travelled between Kimbe (New Britain) and Lae. Of the 350 passengers and 12 crew on board only 246 survived, although some passengers maintain the true fatality rate is far higher, and that the boat was carrying in excess of 500 people that day. Whatever the case, it is becoming clear that in addition to the bad weather and giant waves, overcrowding played a part in the tragedy.
Sea transport is a major communication lifeline in the PNG archipelago, and it is clear that there were many lessons to be learned through this tragedy. The national government and the new operators of the MV Chebu, which includes the Autonomous Government of Bougainville, appear to have heeded the call for a safe replacement service.
Many dive operators charter their boats, some for extended cruises. Melanesian Travel Services (www.mtspng.com), owners of the Madang Resort Hotel, operate charters to the Sepik River and throughout the islands on the supersmart, 30m Kalibobo Spirit. Walindi Plantation Resort (www.walindi.com) operate the excellent MV FeBrina to access remote dive sites along the New Britain coast.
Sailing from one exotic locale to the next – via who-knows-where – on a slowly rolling freighter has a certain Joseph Conrad–style romance to it. While cargo boats generally don’t take travellers, it’s worth trying your luck. Lae on the north coast is the main shipping hub in PNG, and it’s the best place to look; ask around the port to see what’s going where. You’ll almost always have more luck getting on a freighter by talking directly to the ship’s captain (and perhaps investing in a few SP Lagers) rather than the office staff.
There are no passenger vessels linking the north and south coasts or any running along the south coast. Things are a little better on the northern coast and from the mainland to the island provinces with scheduled services offered by two companies. Chebu Shipping offer a dedicated ferry service (plus cargo), whereas Star Ships (aka Rabaul Shipping) vessels now carry primarily cargo and some passengers. Students are sometimes entitled to discounts.
Chebu Shipping The MV Chebu is a dedicated passenger ferry with three classes of fare that plies the Solomon and Bismark seas from Lae (departing every Sunday at 11am) to Buka (arrives Wednesday), via Kimbe (arrives Monday) and Rabaul (arrives Tuesday). The return voyage departs Buka on Wednesday, Rabaul on Thursday and Kimbe on Friday.
At the time of writing, the Buka service was only fortnightly; the ferry turning back from Rabaul to Kimbe and Lae, but keeping to the above schedule. Expect the schedule to change.
Star Ships At the time of research, Star Ships connected Lae with Bialla in New Britain, occasionally stopping at Kimbe on the way, and occasionally going on to Rabaul, depending on cargo and passengers. The Carlvados Queen operated between Madang and Wewak (Sepik) or Madang and Wasu (Morobe), on a highly variable timetable. Star Ships only offer deck class (air-vented seats and berths) at the time of writing.
There are sometimes simple snack bars on board that might just be someone with soft drinks in a cooler and a carton of kundu (beef) crackers.
Trade boats Trade boats – small, wooden boats with thumping diesel engines – ply the coast, supplying trade stores and acting as ferries. They are irregular but if you’re prepared to wait, they can get you to some off-the-track places. Don’t expect comfort, bring your own food and make sure the operator is trustworthy before you commit yourself to a day or two aboard. If you’re in a major centre, such as Alotau, ask around the port and at the big stores, which might have a set schedule for delivering supplies to the area’s trade stores. Negotiate the fee before you leave.
Banana boats For shorter distances, there are dinghies with outboard motors, often known as speedies or banana boats. These are usually long fibreglass boats that leap through the waves and are bone-jarringly uncomfortable. They operate in much the same way as regular PMVs, only leaving when full. Travellers are increasingly using these boats to get from Angoram (on the Sepik River) to Bogia (from where you can travel to Madang) and between Aitape and Vanimo.
Warning Note, banana boats are no fun at all when the wind picks up, and the wind can pick up with little warning. People die reasonably frequently in open-sea banana-boat crossings and you will need to exercise common sense before boarding one. Don’t contemplate a trip in rough weather or if the boat is dangerously overloaded. Remember that these boats usually do not carry life jackets or any kind of safety equipment.
Car & Motorcycle
Driving yourself around PNG is not really a viable way of travelling because the country has only a few roads – the Highlands (Okuk), Ramu and Sepik Hwys – that connect two or more places you might want to visit.
Any valid overseas licence is OK for the first three months you’re in PNG.
Four-wheel drives can be hired in most PNG cities, including on the islands, and in Lae and Port Moresby you can hire a plain old car. You must be 25 to hire a car and have either a credit card or K2500 cash as a deposit.
Hiring anything will cost you an arm and probably both legs, and the rates are even higher when you add the per-kilometre charges, insurance and tax. For example, a compact car (the cheapest option) costs from K300 per day, plus K1 per kilometre, plus 10% VAT, plus any fee for personal insurance.
One-way rentals are available at locations along the Highlands (Okuk) Hwy but may be subject to one-way drop-off fees. The bigger companies have offices around PNG but you will also find a number of smaller agencies based at the major airports.
- Perhaps the most pertinent point about the roads in PNG is that there aren’t many. Port Moresby, for example, is not linked by road to any other provincial capital except Kerema, and that road is subject to seasonal difficulties.
- The most important road is the Highlands (Okuk) Hwy, which runs from Lae to Lake Kopiago, via Goroka, Mt Hagen and Tari. Madang is also connected to it via the Ramu Hwy.
- Road conditions are variable, to say the least. Many are full of potholes and only passable by 4WD, and only then in the dry. Others are recently sealed, all-weather affairs. If you’re planning on getting out of the towns, a 4WD is almost a necessity.
Roads in PNG come with a range of hazards. There is the deterioration factor: many suffer from lack of maintenance. There’s the wet-season factor: it rains, you get bogged. And then there’s that one you can’t do much about: the raskol (bandit) factor. Your chances of being held up are admittedly quite slim, but it’s worth reading up on what to do if it happens to you.
If you are involved in an accident in a crowded environment, don’t stop, keep driving and report the accident at the nearest police station. This applies regardless of who was at fault or how serious the accident (whether you’ve run over a pig or hit a person). Tribal concepts of payback apply to car accidents. You may have insurance and you may be willing to pay, but the local citizenry may well prefer to take more immediate and satisfying action.
- Cars drive on the left side of the road.
- The speed limit is 60km/h in towns and 75km/h in the country.
- Seat belts must be worn by the driver and passengers.
Hitching is an important mode of travelling in the region. The lack of scheduled transport means jumping onto a van, truck, canoe, freighter, plane – or whatever else is going your way – is a time-honoured way of getting around. You’ll often be expected to pay the equivalent of a PMV fare. If your bag is light, it’s also sometimes possible to hitch flights at small airports.
Keep in mind that hitching is never entirely safe in any country. Travellers who decide to hitch are taking a small but potentially serious risk, and solo women should be extra careful. People who choose to hitch will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Considering PNG’s reputation for nocturnal danger, it’s surprising there are not more taxis. Port Moresby and Alotau have plenty and there are two in Madang and another two Vanimo. That’s it.
If you do manage to get a taxi you’ll find most of them are complete clunkers – windscreens that look like road maps, broken seats and no radios or meters – you’ll have to negotiate the fare before you get in.
PMV (public motor vehicle) is the generic term for any type of public transport and wherever there are roads, there will be PMVs. Whether it’s a dilapidated minibus, a truck with two facing wooden benches, a pick-up with no seats whatsoever but space in the tray, or any other means of transport (boats are also referred to as PMVs), the PMV is one of the keys to travelling cheaply in PNG. It’s also one of the best ways to meet local people.
There’s no real science to using PMVs; just turn up at the designated departure point and wait for it to fill up, although the following tips are worth keeping in mind.
- Many rural routes have only one service a day so ask around a day ahead for when and where it leaves (usually the local market).
- From small towns, PMVs often start out very early in the morning, drive to another (usually larger) town, then wait a couple of hours while the morning’s passengers go to market before returning.
- Out of town you can assume that anything with lots of people in it is a rural PMV. If you want to get off before the end, just yell ‘stop driver!’
- In most urban areas PMVs travel along a network of established routes. Stops are predetermined and are often indicated by a yellow pole or a crowd of waiting people; you can’t just ask to be let off anywhere. The destination will be indicated by a sign inside the windscreen or called out by the driver’s assistant in a machine-gun-style staccato.
- Market days (usually Friday and Saturday) are the best days for finding a ride.
- Most of the time, travelling in a PMV is perfectly safe; your fellow passengers will be most impressed you’re with them and not in some expensive 4WD. There is, of course, a risk of robbery, especially on the Highlands (Okuk) Hwy. Lone women travellers are also at greater risk and should think twice about travelling by PMV. If you do, find a vehicle with women passengers and get a seat nearby.
- PMVs have a crew of two: the driver, who usually maintains an aloof distance from the passengers; and the conductor, who takes fares and copes with the rabble.
- Don’t be surprised if you have to wait for your change; it will come when the conductor gets his change sorted.
- For PMVs travelling along the Highlands (Okuk) Hwy and in other potentially bandit-prone areas, the driver may decide to delay departure to avoid night-time travel or to join a convoy if there has been recent raskol activity.