The journey is a study in contrasts. Our taxi is manned by a crew of three adolescent Indonesians. The numbers needed, they explain to us, "for safety," holdups and extortions are common on this road. The official manning the Indonesian border post performs a little extortion of his own and takes 40,000Rp. (US$5) from us.
I relent and give up the money because Tuk and I don't have ongoing tickets and a different official at the Papua New Guinea consulate in Jayapura has warned us that we'll be turned back by PNG Immigration (unless of course we pay him for the "ongoing tickets viewed" stamp).
But at the PNG border, the situation, things couldn't be more different. The Immigration official never asks about the tickets and instead offers us a soda and the use of his phone. Taxis are scarce here but we are welcome to wait, and have a friendly chat while we do. Eventually they organize a ride for us, "for free," they finally manage to convince me.
So much for the horrors of Papua New Guinea.
My strongest impression isn't of it being unsafe, but rather expensive. For US$30 we get a musty room with army-cot beds and a shared toilet. For that price I've done much better at home and I didn't have to put up with the surly staff.
In fact, we would discover that almost everything in Papua New Guinea is not just expensive, but really bad value. It's an odd place, with a much more western and modern feel than you might expect. The Australian influence is apparent everywhere, but all those amenities come at a high price and are difficult to maintain. The end result is that you often end up paying more than you expect for something you don't really want and that probably doesn't work anyway. Welcome to PNG.
The basically safety rule seems to be "Don't walk at night," so like everyone else, we use cabs like airlocks to insulate us from whatever it is that might be lurking in the shadows on our way to dinner. The cab pulls right up to the heavy steel gate of our hotel and then deposits us within the high walls of the restaurant's parking lot. Our feet hardly touch the sidewalk. .
It all might sound silly but the cabs bear heavy battle scars and even the locals seem to abandon the streets at night. An intimidating place, but we have no real problems.
This area is renown as one of the most exciting dive sites in the world with strong currents bringing in schools of sharks and other big fish to feed on the reefs.
Unfortunately, for the three days we were diving, neither the currents nor the big fish made an appearance.
We had some good dives and saw some interesting things, nudibranchs, angler fish, and even the rare ghost pipefish (that looks like a pinky-length piece of dead grass), but that isn't what divers come to Kavieng for.
We stayed at a lovely resort though and had a nice relaxing time. By the last day we'd given up on the pelagic fish and were enjoying the small stuff. Tuk was sleepy, and sat out the final night dive. But on the way back, one of the divers found a large (hand sized) sea horse just off the beach, so I got her to wade in and take a look.
Most divers coming to Kavieng don't see their most exciting find while standing in waist deep water wearing only their underwear.
Welcome to Rabaul, where on a bad day it might ash a bit, but on a really bad day...
On September 19, 1984 the slumbering volcano Matupit awoke and buried the town of Rabaul under meters of ash. The town, then known as "the jewel of the South Pacific," was completely destroyed. Two meters of ash accumulated on the roofs and set like concrete in the rains. All except three of town's buildings were crushed under the weight.
A few days shy of the 6th anniversary, and just as the volcano was starting to act up again, we came for some diving and got to stay in the sole surviving hotel.
Rabaul was the WWII headquarters of Isoroku Yamamoto, the Japanese admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor. The remains of his bunker are near the center of the remains of the town, and evidence of the Japanese occupation abounds, not the least of which is the collection of shipwrecks on the bottom of the harbor.
Before the eruption, Rabaul was a haven for wreck divers, but the layers of ash covered the harbor as well, and it's only now that the diving industry is starting to recover.
We did five fine dives outside the harbor, on the other side of the island, two WWII wrecks, two more recent wrecks, and "the hump."
George's wreck and the hump are both great dives. George's is a Japanese cable layer that was scuttled just a few meters offshore. It lies nearly vertical on a steep slope with it's bow at 20m (66ft), and it's stern below 60m (200ft). The wreck has great fish life and a few fun swim throughs.
The hump is an exciting dive on the submerged summit plateau of a (dormant?) underwater volcano. The top is at 27m (90ft) and washed by open water currents. It's a great place to spot sharks and other big fishing coming in to feed on the reef life, but sadly, our bad "big fish" luck continued.
I also did one of the wrecks in the harbor, a 35m (115ft) decompression dive with some easy penetrations. The wreck was mostly free of ash, but on the day I dove visibility was poor, only about 5m (15ft). This was more likely due to the recent volcanic activity than the eruption 6 years ago so the harbor seems to be divable again.
Of course, that might not last for long. Since a week before our arrival the volcano has been spewing out ash clouds every few minutes. The photo sequence shown here is of one of the more minor hiccups.
Watching a larger spurt at dusk, I could see red-glowing chunks molten rock being tossed into the air and then raining down on the sides of the cinder cone.
In town, most days the ash fall can still be managed with a broom and
not a shovel, but opinions seem divided on whether Matupit is just letting
off steam or building towards a major eruption. The vulcanologists
have announced a heightened state of activity (duh!), but don't seem
willing to gamble any further. Better dive it now, while it's all still there.
I don't at all feel like we've "done" PNG. In fact, we made a point of visiting here without seeing any of the real country. We spent all our time in the gentle islands to the North, studiously avoiding the highlands of central PNG.
The highlands are where the real tribal cultures still "flourish." The popular images of PNG, fantastic ritual dances and men hunting in outlandish clay masks, all come from this area.
The tribal culture though is far more than just costume at a festival, in pervades almost every aspect of highland life, and not always for the better.
The tribe always comes first and most actions aren't considered "wrong" unless they hurt the tribe. This brings about the sense that crimes aren't wrong unless you get caught, and the corresponding notion that you don't need to catch a wrong-doer to right an offense, just punish any member of his clan.
This all leads to a complicated web of attacks and reprisals, massively exacerbated by poverty and a pattern of severe alcohol abuse. The average tourist is unlikely to become involved in any of this, except as an a easy source of cash, but we just didn't have the time or resources to plan any travel into this fascinating, but complex and potentially dangerous region.