Imagine it. Lost valleys, hidden tribes, smoking volcanoes, the whole ‘Land That Time Forgot’ gig, coupled with diving war wrecks from palm fringed beaches. Best of all, it’s not Thailand, so you’ve got the whole place to yourself. It’s pukka Robinson Crusoe, and he’s scoffing a Bounty.
And it’s all so very vintage Lonely Planet because PNG has a bit of a scary reputation, although much of it is misinformed, as illustrated by the Mayor of London.
“You watch out for them cannibals, Aitch! They’ll ‘ave you for the pot!”
And my plumber. Truth is, cannibalism lost out to Jesus, as the missionaries and the Twentieth Century moved up river. Eaten alive by mosquitos however... But I had DEET, I had doxycycline, and a shirt that buttoned down to the wrists.
The big problem with PNG seemed to be the crime, especially what went down in Moresby on a daily basis. Invariably I found the worst bits trawling the internet just before bedtime, and things went a bit quiet under the duvet after that. I lay there, listening for gunfire and the sound of running, but all I could hear were the sirens heading for Romford to deal with the gunfire and the sound of running. Moresby was going to be just like Romford, but without the woo-woos.
Subsequently I planned my first expedition so that I spent as little time as possible in transit through Moresby’s Jacksons airport, let alone set foot outside it. Seeing something of the country without seeing anything of the capital constituted a result. Port Moresby was best seen from the air anyway. Like Romford.
But the truth is, once Moresby was left behind the clouds, and I was pointed safely towards Australia without so much as a scratch, I felt guilty. Because I hadn’t given it a chance. I’d fallen victim to its reputation, and worse still, reinforced it. A bit like blowing out the London Dive Show because there were ‘no trains’, when in fact there were trains, there were just engineering works, so you had to change trains. Lazy.
Moresby was touted as having the best diving of any capital city in the world. I mean honestly, how bad could it be? Seven years on, naturally closer to death anyway, I decided to grow a backbone and test the waters for myself.
Most dive packages to PNG will send you and a loved one to a couple of locations for your ten days, and if Moresby’s one of them, then you’ll be staying on Loloata Island as a guest of Dik Knight. This is great because;
published in Sportdiving Magazine
published in Tanked Up Magazine
a) you’ll be whisked out of Moresby in no time at all, and,
b) you’ll be ensconced in beach front lux until it’s time to go home.
Indeed being on an island away from the city is part of Loloata’s appeal for the weekending expat community. Think castle, moat, and pulling up the drawbridge. Sadly I’m too cheap for Loloata, at over US$300 a night for a single fan cooled room and two boat dives, no matter how enticing their web site.
The first thing to take on board when planning an independent trip to Moresby is the fact that nearly half the crime there involves a high degree of violence, of the gun-totting and sword wielding variety. That said, the first muggers you’re guaranteed to meet are welcoming and armed only with big smiles. They are the city hotels.
The cost of a decent room in Port Moresby is frankly preposterous. Tourism in PNG is expensive anyway, be you diver, birder, or trekker.
They work on a high return from the low numbers of visitors, which naturally contributes towards the overall ‘last frontiers’ tag.
To compound this, natural gas has been discovered in the highlands, and there’s a plan to pipe it to Australia, if they can get seven hundred landowners to agree on ‘compensation’. We’re talking billions.
Consequently with PNG in the grip of a Gas Rush, the cheapest single room at Moresby’s premier hotel is over two hundred quid a night, but that does include complimentary tea, coffee, & uniformed guards with shiny shotguns.
What I need is no frills accommodation, no violence of any kind, and some diving.
So thank goodness for the Dive Centre, run by John Miller, a greying wily fox with a twinkle in his eye. He books me in at the Ela Beach Lodge, just down the road from the swanky Ela Beach Hotel, and at a fraction of the price.
I can’t find any mention of Ela Beach Lodge in the guide book, but bump into a group of boozy, barking mad expatriates from the capital en route.
“You’re staying at Ela Beach Lodge?
Ela Beach Lodge?!”
Hope withers and dies. A young woman from Pricewaterhouse Coopers actually gets up and shakes my hand.
John and driver Maino pick me up early and transport me to the other worldliness of the Airways hotel, where the Dive Centre is based. Corporate guests are gently fanned over breakfast at the poolside restaurant, everyone focused on their laptop. They pretend not to notice me, the ghost of a man with a thousand yard stare, who spent the endless night chain smoking behind the razor wire.
“Nice! ... All this! ... Not very ‘street’ though!”
We load the cylinders, then duck back into the craziness of the city, heading for the coast, zooming through shanty towns that give way to rolling countryside, and arrive at Bootless Inlet inside twenty minutes. The dive boat ‘Solatai’ awaits, with skipper and guide Thomas, and boatie Getto. It’s fair to describe the ‘Solatai’ as serene, but frankly I’m the only passenger, we’re on PNG time, and I’m in no rush to get back to Ela Beach Lodge.
No. Not hotel.
Most weekends the ‘Solatai’ becomes a diesel powered getaway with the diving expats who work in Moresby. It’s a good job they dive, because the handy city guide, issued by the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority, limits the places of interest in Moresby to just four, and one, the Ela Beach Craft Market, is only held on the last Saturday of the month. For the record the others are the golf course, the Museum, and the Parliament House.
To be fair there’s also the Bomana War Cemetery, the yacht club, and the gun club, although for the yacht club you need to be signed in by a member, and remember, “strictly no hats”.
I especially like the bit where the CEO of the PNG Tourism Promotion Authority writes, (and I swear I’m not making this up), “there’s so much more to Moresby than meets the eye, so please don’t hide in your hotel room”.
He obviously hasn’t seen my room at Ela Beach Lodge. I wouldn’t want to hide in there, although I’m obviously in the minority; half the city’s ant population were cowering under my towel this morning.
So don’t hide. Got that. On the other hand...