A villager said something in Pidgin I didn’t understand. Francis translated for me. “You are probably the first white man in these caves” he said. That’s when I realised that this wasn’t normal traveling. What I had done and seen over the previous few days isn’t just something that you can buy on a tour package, or plan to do before you leave. This was a once in a lifetime adventure I had stumbled upon. Something I could only have dreamed about back home.”
A Journey To Papua New Guinea
Rewind one year. I was sitting in my family’s lounge in Brisbane, planning my trip up the east coast of Australia. I had a map open on my phone, scrolling north through all of the backpacker hotspots: Brisbane, Noosa, Fraser Island, Whitsundays and up to Cairns. How far north could I go past Cairns?
Port Douglas? Cape York? Or just across the water was Papua New Guinea. I didn’t know anyone that had been there. Could I really go to PNG? This exotic place that was beyond my wildest dreams. I checked out the price of flights. Not too expensive. A seed was planted in my brain.
“I might go to Papua New Guinea?” I exclaimed.
My family were in shock. She looked up from her knitting. “You’re not going there, it’s far too dangerous!”
Against their advice, I got a travel guide for PNG at Christmas and made some plans in early 2017. I flew from Brisbane to Rabaul in mid May. I spent my days scuba diving in the crystal clear seas, talking to locals, going to local markets and climbing a dormant volcano. It was what I loved about travelling. I was in a new place, without any other western tourists, doing adventurous things.
I was planning my next step. Papua New Guinea is a difficult place to travel. There are few roads, and flights between places are expensive. I had heard of a boat from where I was in East New Britain province to New Ireland province which was relatively cheap. It was two hours of sunburn and a sore bum from sitting on the floor of a small motorboat as the boat bumped over the waves. Seats and a roof weren’t options.
My destination was Kavieng in the north of New Ireland province but after the boat docked, I needed a bus to take me across the island. It was on this bus that Francis introduced himself to me. He asked what I was doing in PNG, where I was going and where I was staying. Francis very kindly said that I could stay at his sister’s house, where he was heading in Kavieng. I gratefully accepted as we got to know each other over the five hour bus journey. He worked for the ministry of health in Port Moresby but was here to look after his dad who had recently had a stroke. He was also travelling with a nephew of his that he had only met for the first time a few days before.
I had always been cautious about over zealous locals trying to befriend me. Early on in my travels, I had been scammed a few times and my guard has been up ever since. But Francis was different. He was very well educated, worked for the government and I could tell straight away he was a genuine person, and generous with both his time and money. The bus wouldn’t leave because somebody hadn’t paid. He put his hand in his pocket and paid for this stranger’s bus fare. He explained to me that many people in this area are cash poor because they are subsistence farmers.
He taught me much more on the five hour bus journey to Kavieng. There were local elections coming up, so a lot of the roads were being fixed to buy votes. The roads were white, made of local limestone as it’s cheaper than tarmac. We bumped along the roads, stopping for fresh coconuts and peanuts in their shells. I was sitting in the front seat with a large man and a skinny teenage boy on a seat designed for two. In the back were people sitting on upturned buckets, babies in arms and children on laps along with all their belongings and goods filling every nook and cranny of the old rusting minibus.
I stayed with Francis that night and was given a dinner of chicken, rice and baked banana. He let me have one of the few beds in the house whilst he and other members of his family slept on the hard wooden floor in the living room.
Over the next few days, I went scuba diving to pristine reefs, walked around the town and helped Francis to look after his Dad. His Dad had had a stroke and was being looked after at home and given food through a tube. I helped make the food in the blender, a mix of fruit, milk and Weetabix before using a large syringe to push it into the tube which led into his stomach. I helped occasionally, but Francis and his family did this three times per day every day. No matter where you are in the world, family is the strongest bond there is.
On one hot afternoon, I walked around the small town of Kavieng. There was nothing of note to do but it was nice to see what the locals did. There was a fish market at one end of town and some stalls that all sold what looked like the same vegetables at the other end. Much was said to me about how dangerous Papua New Guinea is. Walking around town, I never once felt unsafe. I barely got any odd looks from people. With my white skin and western clothes, I looked so different to everybody else there, but nobody batted an eyelid. The ones that did look or talk to me often said “Hello” and smiled.
I had stayed with Francis for three nights, being treated more like family with each passing day. On day four I was invited to go to the village of Francis’s sister in law one afternoon. Me, Francis, his sister-in-law Sarah, and his nephews, Apelis and Frankie, got a PMV (Public Motor Vehicle – a local minibus) for 10 minutes until Sarah banged on the roof of the PMV with a coin giving a loud metallic ting. The vehicle stopped in what appeared to be in the middle of nowhere. Sarah gave the coin to the driver to pay the fare and we piled out.
Sarah led the way down a path through the jungle for 5 minutes until we came to a clearing and the village of Myom. The village wasn’t on any maps but it contained 5-6 small wooden houses and there were 30 or so people living there. Currently, 6 women sat in the clearing, some with babies attached in slings around their bodies. No men were to be seen. They were either in the town or in the jungle working, foraging or hunting. Children ran about in t-shirts, shorts or sometimes neither, some eating fruits they had picked, not having a care in the world.
I had been told about some caves in the village that had been discovered only a few months previously. A mentally disabled child from the village had climbed into a hole in the rocks and found them by mistake. One of the few men remaining in the village led us to the caves with two young kids, holding torches, chasing after us. After a few minutes we arrived at the entrance. It was narrow and we had to stoop to enter the first cave. The rocky ground was cold and damp beneath my feet. There was a child holding a torch in a second chamber which I had to crawl on my arms to get to. Past that lay a pool of fresh water. The villager and kids stood to the side whilst me and Francis slowly slid into the water, not knowing how deep it was or what to expect. It was cool, not cold, and fresh with a pleasant sweetness that only natural water has. There were a lot of roots in the water that had come through the rock from the trees above and then spread out, sprawling like a fishing net around our legs. When the torches were turned off, there was a little bit of light creeping in from a couple of holes overhead. We swam around and had a wash in the fresh water. If I had a mask and snorkel I could have gone deeper and explored more of the cave underwater but didn’t want to risk it; emergency services aren’t quite a phone call away in these parts.
One of the villagers said something in Pidgin. Francis translated for me. “You are probably the first white man in these caves” he said. They had only been discovered a few months before by the villagers and they were the only ones to go in them so far. After what seemed a very long time, we all climbed out of the caves and went back to the clearing. Walking back, my mind was racing
The women were still sitting in their circle, chewing betel nut, telling stories and laughing, a scene that has probably happened every day for generations. They shared fruit with us they had recently picked and me and Francis gratefully tucked into the sweetness. As I sat there with these women who didn’t speak my language, with Francis, who was a stranger on a bus a few days before, some fruit in my hand and with some palm trees and the sea behind me, I smiled. That’s when I realised that this isn’t normal traveling. What I have done and seen over the last few days isn’t just something that you can buy on a tour package, or plan to do before you leave. It is what I am used to seeing Simon Reeves, Bruce Parry, Ray Mears or Michael Palin do on TV. Normal people don’t do this and get these opportunities. This was a once in a lifetime adventure I had stumbled upon that I could only have dreamed about back home.
I went into some caves in a tiny village on a remote island in Papua New Guinea with the locals and it was mind blowing. I had been smiling for most of that trip not believing what I’d been doing. But right there, right then, was the biggest smile of the lot.
I want to thank Francis for his incredible hospitality during my time in Papua New Guinea. It is one of the most unique places I have been to and I would love to go back to repay my gratitude to Francis. Have you ever been to Papua New Guinea? What is the most unique experience you have done?
Dan is an avid traveller from London. His first big adventure was in 2010 living in Malaysia for 3 months and becoming a divemaster. He has been on the road almost constantly since 2015 travelling to destinations that aren’t on the mainstream tourist trail.