An adventure to Papua New Guinea (PNG) had been on my wish list for a very long time. It’s still a country that holds on to tradition, doesn’t see many visitors and at times is quite “raw”. This is the first in a series of posts where I will share my experiences visiting Alotau, Rabaul, Kitava and Doini Island in PNG.
There are a couple of ways of exploring PNG, as an independent traveller, on an organised tour or via a cruise. Cruising would bring the majority of tourists to PNG at present I suspect. It’s easy, safe and organised.
Josh and I travelled to PNG on Princess Cruises’ Sea Princess, and it was the perfect way to experience a taste of the country. Alotau was our first port of call.
Visiting Alotau via Sea
Our arrival saw us cruising for a few hours through the Kawanasausau Strait. The ship slowly making her way into port through deep crystal clear blue waters and past low mountainous islands covered in thick vegetation.
I had no idea really what to expect when visiting Alotau and was surprised at how rustic the town looked. As Alotau is the Capital of the Milne Bay Province, I expected it to be a little more “shiny”.
Alotau is a sleepy sprawling township with roads needing a little TLC, low rise buildings and houses ranging from traditional through to more modern wooden houses. It also has all the businesses that you would expect in a community. There are car yards, building yards, ship yards all manner of businesses, but still retains some primitiveness. The Sea Princess looks gigantic next to the township once docked.
We are greeted warmly by Coolie our Egwalau Tour Guide and eagerly pile into our ride for the day, a well worn 15 seater mini bus that had been decorated with local flowers. No air-conditioning, but nice big wide windows to open.
Dodobana Cultural Village
We race along the bumpy bay side main road, dust dancing in our wake, only slowing down to navigate the occasional large pot hole. It’s a dusty warm ride cooled by bay breezes. There are big smiles and waves from locals and horn toots from passing cars as we make our way to Dodobana Village.
Because I’m taking in all the new sounds, smells and sights, the short distance of 7km to the village seems a lot longer than the 15 minutes it takes. You can’t help but be captivated by the small local bay side villages as you drive along.
Our bus pulls off the main road and we drive up a dirt track. We hop off the bus and stand amongst the trees, there isn’t much to see except a path. Then seemingly out of nowhere a couple of local villages emerge, spears in hand, dressed in feathers and not much else.
Dodobana Village offers visitors a cultural experience where you can learn about the traditions, general daily life and celebrations of the local Melanesian villagers. We are greeted warmly and it’s jokingly confirmed that they wont eat us (cannibalism was part of PNG culture until not too long ago). We hear stories of daily life, visit the village garden, there are cooking, basket and skirt weaving demonstrations and a general look around the village.
Top Town Look Out Alotau
We leave our newfound friends at Dodobana and make our way to Top Town Look Out. The gears crunch and locals wave, smile and sing out to us as we climb the steep road up the hill.
Even though cruise ships now regularly pull in to port at Alotau, you can’t help but get the feeling foreigners are still a novelty item.
Top Town Look Out offers us an unobstructed view of Alotau and Milne Bay. Our guide gives us a brief history lesson of the area. After taking in the views it’s time for morning tea. A gorgeous assortment of luscious local fruit, freshly plucked coconuts, soft drink and water are offered.
Before leaving the look out you have to visit the loo. Not only is it clean with fresh running water to wash up with, it is the loo with the best view in PNG.
Cultural Festival Experience
The Wanigili Centre is home to the Alotau Festival. Which I am pretty sure is in full swing every time a cruise ship shows up. Here you are invited to stroll at your leisure around the grounds. There are locals everywhere traditionally dressed. There is dancing, chanting and beating of kundu drums.
You can shop at stalls for arts and crafts. Milne Bay is famed for its ornate woodcarvings. Hungry? Grab something from the mumu, where traditional food is cooked under ground. Feel like heading out on to the bay? Then go for a ride in one of the traditional canoes.
Gurney Airport is located 12km from town and was built by US forces during World War II. The airport originally had two runways but now just has one. The airport is operational and serves the Milne Bay area.
The airport was named after Squadron Leader Charles Raymond Gurney of the Royal Australian Air Force, who was killed in the area in 1942.
Here you can see some World War II memorials and artillery. Make sure to keep an eye out for the ornate carved pillars if you walk around to the left hand side of the building. To be honest, unless you are a military history buff there isn’t much to see here.
Turnbull War Memorial
We start to head back in to town and stop to pay a visit to the Turnbull War Memorial. This memorial honours Australian Squadron Leader Peter St George Turnbull who was killed during the Battle of Milne Bay.
Most Australians know the strong connection formed with PNG during World War II. I don’t think there is anyone who isn’t familiar with Kokoda. The battle of Milne Bay is where the Japanese suffered their first land defeat during World War II in the Pacific (1942). This was before Kokoda.
I must say it is quite emotional visiting the World War II sites and hearing about the battles, loss of life and what our soldiers and locals went through during this time.
Alotau Main Town
We head back along bumpy roads and past waving locals back in to town. Down by the water you will find a large fresh food market as well as an arts and crafts market. In between the two, near the road, is where the Alotau Town War Memorial is located.
You will find lots of locals in this area. Shopping, hanging around and just taking in the novelty of all the cruising visitors.
Visiting Alotau General
With a population of around 75,000 and 48 languages being spoken, including English, Tawala, Suau and Tok Pisin, Alotau is a culturally vibrant place to visit. Located 365km away from Port Moresby, it is the gateway to the Milne Bay Province.
Several islands make up the Province, the Trobriands, Woodlark, Laughland, Louiseiade Archipelago, the Conflict Group, the Samarai Group and the D’Entrecasteaux Group. Here you will find some of the most remote island communities in the world.
What you probably don’t know is that the waters are the home to amazing coral reefs perfect for scuba diving and snorkelling. You could find yourself gliding next to a massive manta ray.
Visiting Alotau in November? Then you will be in for a very special treat. This is when the National Kenu and Kundu (Drum) Festival is held. Tribes from all over the Milne Bay Province make their way to Alotau for the event, some travelling by canoe for up to a week to get there.
Visiting Alotau Handy Tips
Money wise make sure you have some local Kina before arriving; of course they also accept Australian Dollars. Credit cards are accepted in resorts and larger shops, but not at the markets or smaller establishments. There are ATMs located in the main town area, but I suggest that you convert some kina before leaving home.
There are a few local taxis. Make sure you agree on a price in Kina before commencing your journey.
You will also find a few local restaurants and resorts in town where you can eat and sample the local seafood and yams.
The temperature all year round is between 25-30°C ( 77-86°F). Dress cool and conservatively. Leave the short shorts on the ship or in your hotel, and make sure what you wear is at least knee length. Local women in the villages may be bare breasted, but it’s the thighs that guys find a turn on.
Also a reminder, make sure you take a hat. It gets very hot and the sun is a mean mistress to pale skin in PNG.
Belly Rumbles travelled on the Sea Princess to PNG as a guest of Princess Cruises.
Majority of the photos above were taken on the Canon EOS 7D Mark II using the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 and EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM lenses