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Travel
People, place and price make Papua New Guinea near-perfect

Sunday, December 21, 2003

By Ray Werner

MADANG, Papua New Guinea -- For the adventurous, it may be the best bargain in the South Pacific. We're talking about Papua New Guinea, so let's get this out of the way right now. Erase that image of people covered with mud who are dining on their barbecued neighbor. It will make the telling of the rest of this tale a little easier.

My son Larkin, then 34, and I took our first trip there to visit a missionary cousin, the Rev. Dunstan Jones, Order of Friars Minor Capuchin, and we spent our last four days in Madang, a city on the South Pacific coast. It was a trip of a lifetime, and our time in Madang was the highlight.

 
 
If you go ...

EXCURSION FROM MADANG:

If you have a few extra days for an adventure, visit the highlands city of Goroka. It's a seven-hour trip through the Markham Valley and into the 8,000-foot mountains with the locals. You'll get to know the people and experience their hospitality first-hand. And it's the safest way to travel in Papua New Guinea. Goroka is famous for its coffee plantations, near perfect weather and its organic, luscious vegetables and fruits. The market alone is worth the trip.

GETTING THERE:

Madang is a four-hour plane ride from Brisbane via Port Moresby, and the cost is about $1,000. You need to fly to Port Moresby first and take the hour flight to Madang the next day.

You also will need a visa and will pay a departure fee of about $30 per person. The U.S. Embassy suggests you read "A Primer on Personal Security for Visitors to PNG," available via the State Department Web site, www.travel.state.gov.

RECREATION:

Madang is a paradise for diving and snorkeling. Some say its coral reefs surpass even the Great Barrier Reef. Explore sunken Japanese WWII warships, or discover your own private derelict sub, just off some rarely visited tropical islands -- and Madang has 45 of them nearby -- with hard and soft corals and more than 600 kinds of nudibranches, those bright and colorful sea slugs.

A downed American B-25 Mitchell is now a thriving reef, with the fuselage lying in 40 feet and the port wing in 35 feet of water, with its tail fins upward toward the sun. The gun turrets, instruments and radio gear are still intact, and you can sit in the cockpit.

Kranket, Siar and Pig islands are an easy day trip, and Kranket Lagoon is superb for snorkeling. Excellent dive locations are within 15 minutes of town, and one of the three dive shops will be glad to help. You can rent a dugout canoe as a dive platform for a few kina, but don't attempt it alone. Currents can be strong and change quickly. Use the buddy system.

RECOMMENDED READING:

Pick up the book "Angel with Broken Wings" and travel from Port Moresby to the Southern Highland cities of Mount Hagan and Goroka and through the vast Markham Valley to Madang. Climb aboard the PMV (local transportation), meet some locals, get a taste of the markets and feel the pulse of the Capuchins from Pittsburgh who have been helping the people there since the early 1950s. The book has eight pages of pictures.

It is available at Kirner's Catholic Book Store, 219 Fourth Ave., Downtown, or write to the Mission Office, Seraphic Mass Association, 3600 Butler St., Pittsburgh, PA 15201 or call 412-683-4700. You can also contact the author at ray_werner@yahoo.com. The cost of $10 per copy goes entirely to support the Capuchins in Papua New Guinea.

Other recommended reading:

Lonely Planet's "Papua New Guinea."

Lonely Planet's "Pidgin Phrasebook."

"Throwim Way Leg" by Tim R. Flannery.

"The Happy Isles of Oceania" by Paul Theroux.

FLIGHT INFORMATION:

Qantas Airlines: www.qantas.com.

Air Niugini: www.airniugini.com.pg.

INFORMATION ON PAPUA NEW GUINEA:

Papua New Guinea Tourism Promotion Authority: www.png.gopacific.org.

General Papua New Guinea Information, and links to dozens of other sites: www.budgettravel.com/png.htm.

Good Hotel Guide, Papua New Guinea: www.good-hotels-guide.com/Papua-New-Guinea.htm.

-- Ray Werner

   
 

Having done some tourism promoting during my long stint in advertising ("You're Got a Friend in PA" and the current "PA Memories Last a Lifetime"), I thought I knew what it takes to get people to a destination. However, this trip presented a few barriers I had never encountered before, such as spending 23 hours in the air to reach a place of which nobody ever heard, a place the size of Monroeville but with a lot of coconut trees, derelict Japanese subs and ocean. Still, I was so impressed, I just had to take a crack at it.

Madang is a real find, if you can find it. It's a bargain, too, if you discount the air fare, and not to be missed, if you don't mind missing some of the usual travel amenities. So, hey, I had to share it with someone. I guess you're it.

You won't find Madang recommended in the Travel Section of The New York Times or in any list of Conde Nast Traveler's favorite destinations, but it's at the top of mine. In fact, a current tourism ad insert about the fabulous South Pacific touts the magic of Guam, Malaysia and Fuji, and very conspicuously leaves out Papua New Guinea, and especially Madang, which Lonely Planet says is "perhaps the most beautiful town in the South Pacific."

So this will be our little secret, OK?

I'll give you a few reasons why before we say "Lukum yu," pidgin for "See you later." And since it's good to know your three "P's" when you travel, let's stick with the people, the place and the price.

First, the people.

Papua New Guineans have a real gift of hospitality that comes to them naturally. They're just born with it. Their normally somber expressions explode into bright smiles with a simple "Hi" or wave of the hand. They're quick to say "moning," (good morning) or "Apinun" (good afternoon). English is their first language, always a bonus to Americans, and pidgin, or "Tok Pisin," is their second. It's fun to learn a little pidgin, which, fortunately, has English as its foundation.

Each local also knows a tribal language or two, and it's impressive that the average person on the street can speak three or more languages. And these are good, honest people too. So when you buy something from a local (and wait till we talk about price), you can be sure of getting the correct change.

This was my introduction to a local. I walked into a supermarket and went straight to the bakery, always feeding my passion for bread baking, and bought some pizza rolls for our lunch. Before the young man handed me the rolls, he handed me his hand. Knowing I was a visitor, he said, "My name is Amana. What is yours?"

"My name is Ray."

"Ray, you are welcome to Papua New Guinea, and please enjoy your visit." He had a smile as big as the kind you'd carve on a pumpkin. I said to myself, I'm gonna like this place. So, for the first P, let's give them an A, thanks in large part to Amana.

'Almost smack dab on the equator'The second "P" is place. Madang is perfectly situated on the South Pacific, almost smack dab on the equator, with a small inner harbor that is a launching point for passenger ferries to even more remote South Pacific islands, such as Karkar or Mudmud. These two mysterious-looking isles can be spotted several miles offshore, and the latter has a smoking volcano.

Beautiful? You bet. Palm and coconut trees are everywhere and line the coastal road into town, which weaves through a park and beach on one side and a golf course on the other. The sunrise is to die for. This clean, almost pristine town of about 35,000 offers just enough civilization to make a person comfortable. Possible side trips range from the exotic to the dangerous, if that is your style.

The second thing you notice is that there are few people and fewer tourists. The whole country attracted about 20,000 visitors last year, and only a small percentage of those went to Madang. Most of those who did were looking for adventure. The area boasts some of the best snorkeling and diving in the world, with guided trips to sunken Japanese subs and ships and great coral reefs.

Many outsiders are here like us, visiting their missionary friends or on business. We did notice some French and quite a few German accents and Australians in the mix, but almost no Americans. It's nice to be in the minority when you travel.

The Dutch were the first nonnatives to settle in Madang, in the late 1800s, and the Germans claimed this territory before WWII. During that war about 30,000 Japanese occupied the town, and the Allies blockaded the port and the Aussies finally won the day. There's a Japanese memorial as well as one for the Society of Divine Word (SVD) missionaries who were martyred by the Japanese.

Although they are a German religious order, some clergy were American, including a priest from Pittsburgh, the Rev. Arthur Manion. There are more than 150 names on the memorial. Beside each name is how that person died -- "Killed on the Anikazi" or "Lost in the Jungle" or "Beheaded." It's quite chilling to read them. The memorial is on the SVD Mission, and it's a must-see for virtually every German tour group, according to the SVD brother who now manages it.

The mission itself is situated on a stunning peninsula, beautifully landscaped and scattered with remnants of Japanese tanks and artillery. Just up the road, there is a one-hour trek through the jungle, where you can see a downed Japanese fighter plane.

The road into St. Fidelis Seminary runs along the warm waters of Bismarck Bay, and you're greeted by a colorful World War II warship prop that is painted "Ol I kotim Jisas," pidgin for "Jesus lives here." Our cousin and host, Father Dunstan, and his Capuchin brothers keep that spirit alive by teaching 100 or more students each semester.

Father Dunstan, from Turtle Creek, has a constant smile and unwavering zeal for life. He tells each group of new students, "We're not training you to be priests. We're training you to be saints." He's closing in on 45 years in PNG, most of them in the bush.

One beautiful place -- and you don't have to tip!

The sunrise that bursts on Bismarck Bay as seen from the St. Fidelis dock on a quiet, still morning is gorgeous. What a backdrop it is for new trees sprouting from fallen coconuts and an orchid arbor with wild and prolific colors that grow like daisies. If you make it to Madang, you must pay them a visit and take a dive off the dock.

Madang has two major banks and a few quality hotels, some of them right on the water, and the price is more than a bargain -- it is ridiculously inexpensive.

The kina is the PNG currency, and for the past few years, the exchange rate has hovered around .30 per dollar, so our American dollar, which is worth nearly double in Australia and New Zealand, is more than triple in PNG. For $100 you get close to 350K, and that goes a long way.

For instance, we went out for pizza one night at the Madang Resort, had two large pizzas, two large salads, a couple of local beers and a soft drink, and sat on a patio by the ocean, watching the enormous fruit bats migrating up the coast for their evening meal. The service was excellent, the pizza as good as Pittsburgh's, and the evening perfect. The bill came to 74K, or just under $20 (and no tipping, please).

The nicest hotel in town, the Madang Resort Hotel, is owned by Peter Barter, a Dutchman. He became a local hero a few years ago when he flew his own helicopter to help the victims of the tsunami, about a hundred miles up the coast. His hotel is a favorite hangout, with a nice restaurant, and the best place in Madang to buy PNG artifacts. An artisan hut just outside the restaurant has hundreds of items. The prices are so inexpensive, $20 will buy more goods than you can carry.

But keep your purchases to carved wooden objects or woven mats or baskets. The Aussie customs officials will confiscate anything decorated with seeds or shells, as we learned the hard way. Nevertheless, I managed to bring home several items, including a beautiful Sepic River mask for $5. I wish I had purchased that hand-carved storyboard for the same price.

About 45 minutes east up the coast road, the only road, is the small resort called Malolo, tribal for "Take it easy." Malolo lives up to its name, with 14 guest rooms and a lovely restaurant and pool.

What makes it spectacular is the black volcanic ash beach. Just 40 yards from the pool, shaded by palm trees, the beach is beautiful. Just across the water are two tropical islands, and the beach itself was practically deserted. A native family was having a picnic, with their dugout canoe in the grass, and a young couple was walking the beach.

The ocean's waters were warm and magnificent. Lunch at the restaurant cost 36K for three of us, less than $10. I had reefer fish, fresh and delicious, and a great salad with pippip, a vegetable that looks like celery. You eat the white, crunchy inside of the blossom. It was outstanding, and everything was organic, of course.

Outside by the pool, a waiter had an exotic bird on his arm. He found the bird when it was a wounded fledgling; now it's a pet. Birders have recorded seeing many different species at Malolo.

When I asked about the rates, the manager said there was a weekend special. Come Thursday evening and stay until Monday morning for 95K, or $25. Driving back, seeing miles of nothing but palm and coconut trees and ocean, we thought this must have been what Florida looked like 150 years ago. It was worth going back in time, because we got the same prices, too.

The lure of Madang is hard to resist
Madang is noted for its excellent fishing, although we didn't get a chance to try it. Anton, our newfound friend, and now a pen pal of Larkin's, was a student at St. Fidelis Seminary, where we were staying.

He showed us a nice 7-pound yellow fin tuna he caught just off the pier, using nothing but cut bait. Tuna is so plentiful, the cannery is a major industry there, and commercial fishermen can get their day's catch and be home for dinner.

The people are great, they speak our language, the beauty is extraordinary, there's a lot to do, the weather is hot and sunny, the price is more than right and they want your business.

Put Madang on your list if you're going to Australia. Just build in an extra week. It's a part of the world few people ever see and a trip you'll never forget.

Lukum yu.

Ray Werner is a freelance writer from Pittsburgh.

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