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Scuba Diving Expedition | Papua New Guinea | Dec 2018

Papua New Guinea Fjords, Sea, Blue Sky, Nomadic Scuba

Tufi Resort, Papua New Guinea

Tufi is the ideal location for scuba diving. Warm, crystal clear waters, vibrant reefs and an abundance of fish lead to an unforgettable adventure. Led by Matt, you will be scuba diving the many reefs and even some off the charts that have yet to be explored.

Continue reading Scuba Diving Expedition | Papua New Guinea | Dec 2018

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How The Other Half Live: The humbling experience of a dive & stay in the jungle.

Introduction

Following the Cultural Tour we decided to continue in the same vein and gain more experience with the Papuan villagers. Tufi Resort has 9 Guesthouses/ Home-stays to choose from; They vary from beachfront villages to the tops of the Fjord fingers and even a private island. Selecting the destination of your choice purely depends on what type of experience you want. For example, if you are a Twitcher and get excited about the plucky perchers then I would advise staying at Orotoba where you can clamber out of bed at 430am & trek for an hour plus into the jungle to witness the bird of paradise (get those camera lenses ready!), or if you wanted to relax all day on the beach then Garewa, Jebo or Komoa would be the choice for you.

My choice clearly was the private island for a number of reasons;

  1. Earlier this year we had the pleasure of hosting Kevin Rushby’s visit to Smiths Island for a night stay. Kevin is the author of 4 travel books and travel journalist for The Guardian newspaper in the UK and all round nice chap. Needless to say, his feedback had me hooked especially after hearing that he was the first visitor in nearly 2 years.
  2. The approach to Smiths Island in Kwafurina is simply spectacular and from a divers perspective my scuba senses where tingling with excitement, itching to jump in and explore the reefs that lay beneath.
  3. The last (and only) divers to descend at Kwafurina is reported to be 8+ years ago.
  4. I have no interest in sitting on a beach.
  5. I’m not into birds (of the feathered kind).
  6. Having met Smith & Ethel (the owners) you cannot help but fall for their hospitality and gracious characters.
  7. They offer a trek into the jungle to visit a bat cave (cheesy to make the link but I’m a huge Batman fan)……..
  8. Following Kevin’s feedback on the limited visitors to the island I have referred several guests there and all return amazing feedback.

Constantly on the search for more dive locations and entertainment during surface intervals Kwafurina appealed to me as the perfect setting for a dive or two on the outer reefs and then a final dive within the Fjord. A night stop in the Home-stay rather than the bar, and a further dive prior to returning to Tufi the following day.

Deal maker, Kwafurina it is.

Smiths Island, Kwafurina

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Smith & Ethel are very traditional and live a somewhat primitive lifestyle you would expect from families located in the remote tropical climes of Papua New Guinea. Their staple diet consists of rice, fish, yams, clams, sago & bananas (over 100 varieties can be found in PNG). Smith has had an interesting career path, mainly assisting as a brother within Christianity. He had the opportunity to move to Australia many years ago to assist with the Aboriginal community but Ethel stole his heart & they decided to settle on Smiths Island, close to Ethel’s family within the adjacent Fjords. He currently teaches Religious Education to the local kids once a week. The property consists of a number of thatched roof bungalows varying in use, sleeping, some open sided for the views whilst eating, others for cooking and cleaning, showering/bathroom etc. They have 2 bungalows that can accommodate 3 guests (more soon) with single beds and huge mosquito nets above. Power is provided by battery for the few lights that are around the area (my advice is to turn them all off, there is enough light from the night sky to give you the real ambiance) and if you are the kind of person that has to be on Facebook 24/7 then this will be a good detox for your thumbs, your phone is a camera & flashlight on this trip, nothing more.

The Plan: 1 reef dive, 1 fjord dive, night stop at Smiths, return to Tufi.

Dive One

With excitement we left Tufi at 8am and headed for Minor Reef for the first dive of the day. The wind slowly started to increase but not enough to cancel the first dive of the day but sufficiently enough to have an adverse effect on my visiting Dive Master mate.

“Is it OK for me to take the piss yet Welshie?” as Heather threw her breakfast into the sea. “Not yet!” 2 minutes later & with a wry smile “Now you can.”

Once Heather had cleaned out we donned our kit and descending into the blue where the current was moderate and didn’t prove to be difficult at all. The big bonus of a smidge of current is the food being transported within it, subsequently attracting a huge variety of fish ranging from tiny reef Damsels to pelagic Sharks. “Great” after a week of turbulent waters restricting our diving options we where now in the environment Heather had traveled over 9,000 miles to be in, Sharks everywhere! The beauty of the outer reefs is that very few people dive them, (just those that visit Tufi) so the wildlife is not skittish as you would find in more popular dive locations around the world. As we rounded the reef a few sharks came within 10m of us, then a few minutes later I have a Heather sized limpet on my back as a few curious sharks come within a couple of meters. A fleeting glance over my shoulder and I’m greeted with wide eyes and a smile only the Cheshire cat could challenge.

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Following the dive and with a few minutes of excited conversation Heather resumes the horizontal position that comes with the rocking boat and our other guest Agatha holds her head in the same fashion. Time to get off the waves. We head for Kwafurina and the calming waters of the sheltered Fjord.

The Arrival At Smiths Island

The mouth of Kwafurina Fjord is pretty immense, much like the other Fjords the fingers of land reach up gradually towards the distant mountains as you progress deeper into it. Displaying the clusters of Mangroves and palms and finely cut grasses over the ridge lines. Ahead, Smiths Island form begins to shine through. You could be forgiven for thinking that it is part of the mainland as it dissolves into the background and fingers either side. As the boat carefully sidled up to the left side we are greeted with the Papuan shouts of “Oro, oro, oro” (welcome), they offer a friendly smile and an assisting hand to clamber up the sloped rock onto the grassed area. The island rises up maybe 30m or so and as we saunter up towards the buildings the recognizable Sing Sing audio hits our ears. Dressed in full regalia, Smith and his Uncle welcome us in the traditional fashion to the beat of their drums. This is fantastic to see and so warming to be welcomed in such a way.

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We are guided through a palm leaf doorway and up to the shaded seating area for introductions to Ethel and the family & a bit of a snack before heading out to explore the reefs around the island.

Dive Two

Heather is still ropy and to be fair to her, she’s been carrying a touch of flu or cold for a couple of days now so she elects to skip the dive for some sun bathing on the island grasses. I buddy Agatha up with one of my Dive Masters which leaves me free to roam and explore this undiscovered reef. Having scanned the location from the top of the island I decide that the best area to explore is on the east side moving around to the south. We descend only a few meters from the shore and the visibility is maybe 4-8m at best (only to be expected following the weather we’ve had this week) but nevertheless, its exploration time. The coral drops off to varying depths before becoming seabed and descending into the abyss (probably 50m+ like the other Fjords). We stick to the same direction following the corals around the island in a clockwise fashion. During the dive I found an abundance of macro, Nudibrancs, Pipefish, Shrimps, Anenome fish and a huge variety of Fauna & Corals. One of the most exciting moments for me was finding an undercut at 17m, with a sandy floor and a ceiling of around 2m high I can see that it disappears into the gloom maybe 7m in and stretches in width around 5m. Definitely penciled in as an exploration for another day, safety first.

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We complete the dive and my conclusion is very simple; This will make a fantastic final dive of the day before settling on the island for a night under the stars.

It is still only 2pm, Heather is heading back to the resort due to sickness so that leaves Agatha and I for the duration and we decide to head for the Bat Cave.

Batman’s Secret Lair

To get to the bat cave we travel deeper into the Fjord by outrigger canoe and meet the oncoming fresh water from the mountains. The river is gentle, shallow for the most part and along the journey we pass locals working the forest for bananas, clams & palms. The odd coconut gets hurled towards us and I instinctively think of idiot hoody kids back home throwing rocks at cars. I couldn’t be more wrong, these coconuts are a gift to us from the workers, we pluck them from the water and with a few cracks of the bush knife, Smith hands us both the refreshing drink.

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Following an hours paddle we settle on the side of the river to start the 20 minute walk up to the cave. At this point it’s important to note that a Papuan 20 minutes is as confusing as the Welsh saying “I’ll be there now, in a minute” It may be 20 minutes for a young Papuan who travels through the jungle daily, but for us mere mortals it is more like 40. The trek itself takes you over a multitude of surfaces so make sure you wear suitable shoes and not Agatha’s flip-flops. Fortunately I have been barefoot for 5 years now and this seemed much more effective as we crossed muddy stretches, shallow river crossings and large rocks, although I wouldn’t recommend it if you use your slippers nightly.

The final approach to the mouth of the cave is a tad steep but the guides are on hand should you feel the need to cling to something. There is then a steep descent into it which can give underfoot so tread carefully. The cave is formed by a number of huge rocks leaning on one another and once inside you can see 3 individual shards of light entering through various gaps high up overhead. Bats, lots of bats and I would say at least 3 species ranging in size from a few inches up to a few feet. It’s a pretty cool experience to be stood there looking up at these guys and any budding photographers I would recommend a tripod and looooong shutter settings to capture the beauty of it all.

Smith uses his torch to scan the floor.

“What are you looking for mate?”

“Oh just Pythons.” he replies with a matter of fact nonchalance.

“What!! Could have told me before walking almost the full length of the cave” my inner monologue replied whilst my mouth could only muster an “OK” as my eyes scanned quicker than the Naval fleets radar.

We spent around 20 minutes in the cave then made our way back to where the canoe had been left and just as we approach the final river crossing Smith whips off his shirt and with a “Woohoo!” faceplants down into the water. On surfacing he explains that this is the initial point where the fresh water embraces the sea. Perfect time to wash away the jungle laid on your skin and super refreshing.

On Smiths Island For The Night

Once back we are offered time to shower (bucket of fresh water in privacy) before being presented with this evenings dinner. Now I would like to echo that this is remote living and much like the previously mentioned requirement to surgically remove an iPhone from a hand, don’t expect the Ritz or cracked sea salt to accompany ones entrée. The food is plentiful and is the staple food in many varieties. It’s not for everyone (Agatha wasn’t too keen on anything other than the Sago banana cake) whereas I loved the fish and yams. A couple I had sent here the previous week actually cleaned out the entire presentation, so if you’re a fussy eater then I would suggest taking a cookie or two with you. Following dinner we had time to sit and chat with Smith and learn more about his lifestyle and what he is doing to assist in the tuition of the local school kids.

Crikey, it’s so late! 930pm and Smith is heading to bed so he can wake at 2am and go night fishing. “Can we come Smithy?” A resounding and excited “Sure, I’ll give you a shout when it’s time.” And with that, we headed to our beds. Now I’m not one for single beds but I have to say, I slept like a log, the wind gently whistling through the open window at my feet and the odd jungle noise sent me into my slumber within seconds.

Still feeling a tad sleepy and sat on the outrigger, its 2am and we hand line for fish beneath a fluorescent torch suspended a few inches off the water’s surface and attracting all the Minows, after a couple of hours and a few missed bites the weather started to whip up so we headed back to the shelter of our beds. Not a successful fishing trip but I urge you to do it for the ambiance and the reality check that you are sat on the water, with a man fishing to feed his family and just remember that moment next time you are running down to the local Tesco Express or 7/11 for all the chemical crap the western world take for granted.

In the morning there is a gentle wake up from Smithy knocking on your bungalow. Not that I heard it which resulted in Agatha popping her head through the curtained door and announcing breakfast. Again full of staples and plenty of coffee I was a happy chappy for someone who doesn’t really eat breakfast.

The Local School

Smith’s weekly routine is to attend the school on a Wednesday and teach the kids, he asked us if we would like to present to them as he was sure they would be interested. Great, an opportunity for me to spread the word about shark conservation and show a few videos. Needless to say it went great, and although the kids are quite shy and retiring, after an hour with them they where much more responsive. I’ll elaborate on this in a future blog.

Handouts: Top Tip

We met the local school teacher (although he was late for his own class) who started to pitch to me about equipment requirements for the school. Quoting that maybe I can help because I am from a more “Developed Country.” It sounds harsh but I cut him off stating that I have been living overseas for 5 years and don’t even own shoes. I regularly see how many Non-Governmental Organizations come to Papua New Guinea who do an exceptional job of assisting the locals. My opinion on it all is that the men of these villages have sufficient money to buy alcohol and everybody has their Beetle Nut (something chewed to give a slight high or energy rush) so it’s a case of having to be cruel to be kind. “Start working as a community to pay for your own kids school equipment rather than relying on funding from anyone who turns up” clearly this was my inner monologue again. Just to emphasize my point, John had no interest in Agatha’s offer to organize a Pen-Pal system with the school she assists with in France. The whole meeting of John left me in no doubt that there was a personal benefit to be had by acquiring school equipment rather than the education of the kids. Don’t let this put you off though if you are considering following my footsteps. I will be making sure that Smith conveys my message to the school that his guests are not there to be squeezed for donations. Feel free to donate if you so wish but I highly doubt any funds would benefit the kids.

A short tour of the village market and a quick hello to Ethel’s mum and sister-in-law and we head back to Smiths Island to await our midday pickup for transfer back to Tufi.

Conclusion

I honestly feel rather special having had the opportunity to spend time at Smiths Island, the unquestionable beauty of the landscape married with the hospitality is (in my opinion) a commodity rarely found in the modern world. Yes, you can pay for high-end service and I am sure many of those providing the service do so with a smile on their faces, but, almost all will be doing so because its part of the job description that provides the income.

With Smith there is something categorically and noticeably different. He loves life, he clearly enjoys introducing the cultural Papua New Guinea with all her historical value and natural beauty to all that will listen. Smith comes across as a man who puts all others before himself and has obviously assisted many many people through his choice of career over the years. I am in no way a religious man and I certainly admire Smiths commitment to his cause over the years; If there is indeed an afterlife and a place in paradise when my heart stops beating then I could not think of a better place to spend eternity than chatting with such a sincere individual, whilst hand-lining for my families breakfast.

In essence, if you find yourself at Tufi then make the correct choice and include a night stop at Smiths Island with your diving. The experience far outweighs the minimal cost incurred and definitely sits beyond the brackets of ‘value for money’ and more firmly in ‘PRICELESS LIFE EXPERIENCE.’ 24 hours of my life I will never forget.

 

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Cultural Tours: An insight into a history that has yet to disappear through modernization.

Whilst living remotely in Papua New Guinea and diving reefs that are barely explored to any extent, I have found myself wholly focused on being beneath the surface as often as possible. Seven months have flown by and the dawn of realization hit me last week like a freight train at full speed; Other than speaking to locals and my dive crew I had barely learned anything about the local area above water, so its time to find out more about these land lubbers….

Coincidentally I had a friend visiting from the UK so the timing was perfect to get involved with whatever was on the tourism menu for a week. The first planned excursion we set out on was the organized ‘Cultural Tour.’ Up to this point I had heard about the tour from many customers with the majority of them being highly satisfied with the 3-4 hour excursion into the adjacent fjord. Obviously you cannot please all of the people all of the time so I have also heard a few comments of the tour being “too staged.” Time to formulate my opinion….

The Tour leaves at 9am from Tufi Wharf with a 15 minute boat ride into the MacLaren harbor Fjord. We coast slowly into the fjord which is formed by the protruding land on either side reaching out into the Solomon Sea. A multitude of Rain Forest trees interlaced with Mangrove and Coconut trees, all clinging to the steep slopes leading up to mother natures natural & neatly trimmed grass lands cresting the ridges. As the high natural skyscrapers crawl closer, the boat slows, the engine runs silent & the local wildlife sweeps into your ears as if the bass has just been tweaked up on a live music festival. Hornbills shout out as they soar overhead, the air rushing over their large wings creating a reverberating noise that reminded me of hundreds of ducks landing in formation on a lake when I was a child. Well this isn’t a bad start to the excursion my inner monologue announced…

Boatspeed

Shouts of “Oro, oro, oro” (Welcome, welcome, welcome) signal our transfer from the dive boat to local outrigger canoes, the engines of which are 2 traditionally dressed locals with a paddle each (These guys and girls are powerhouses!!). Working together with very little communication between them, my paddlers pick their way along the river as it reduces in width and depth, dodging unseen underwater hazards and barely breaking into a pant, let alone a sweat during the 40 minute journey.

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 I have to say, this was fantastic and dare i say it, very Zen. The birds chorus continues, the visual complexities of the mangroves reaching down into the cool water and much akin to a scrum half from Japan attempting to pass the New Zealand front row, the sunlight breaks through the high canopy by a few inches only to be consumed up by the overpowering darkness and its contrasting colors.

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Settling the canoes at the riverside we have a short stroll through the jungle to an opening next to the rivers next bend. William (the tour guide and local expert) explains that the villagers we will be meeting today live in various locations higher up in the hills surrounding us and come to this location for the tour. William is a local guy who co-ordinates all tours and village stays on behalf of Tufi Resort. His prelude provides us with a history of the area, the stories of cannabalism and PNG as a whole. The explanation leaves me in no doubt that we are not visiting the Tower of London and listening to tales 300+ years old, merely a few decades.

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As William drawers to a close the jungle chorus falls into silence preceded with a few bird squawks as the audio turns to the screams of a human. Two warriors hurriedly approach us with local cries whilst aggressively brandishing spears. William explains that this would have been the initial contact with any stranger when foreigners first started to explore PNG. He continues to explain that communicating that you are not an enemy is the best way forward. “Tofu” (meaning friend) resonates through the group in a prompt and military (if not nervous) fashion.

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A short walk along the banks and we are invited to pass through a palm leaf open door with 2 local girls throwing flowers over our heads and again calling out “Oro.” In the clearing ahead we meet a woman and a teenage girl. They are demonstrating how the women’s facial tattoos are produced. Historically all women who come of age receive the tattoos but the modern girls do have a choice so the recipients are reducing in numbers quickly. The demonstration uses the ‘ink’ made from wood and embers to mark the skin and if this young lady where to continue then a thorn driven through the spine of a leaf would be the needle to penetrate the skin. The whole process can take up to 3 months and is traditionally done in private so no one could see the results until the process was complete.

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A little further on and a few more local men then demonstrate how to make fire with the natural products found in the jungle. I’ve seen (and used) many variations of creating fire but I can see that this style is very efficient. Pinning a dry branch on the ground by sitting on it, Virgil uses his bush knife to scrape the bark away and notches a smaller hand-held branch into the shape of a carpenter’s pencil. Using both hands he rubs the pencil over the stripped section of branch and almost immediately smoke starts to well up into the air. It took a few attempts (maybe the branch was not dry enough) but he managed to lite his hand rolled tobacco from the embers.

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Moving back towards the river we came across 2 more locals making Sago. Sago is a staple in the local diet, much like a flour or dough it is extracted from the meat of the Sago tree and is drawn off by creating a mulch and washing it (by hand) through a leaf filter. The water is then drained off and the Sago is left as a white resign clinging to the catch trough. It is then scraped up and allowed to dry in the sun.

Once wrapped in a palm purse it can be transported and stored for up to 3 months. It’s a lot of hard graft and to produce the quantity we saw today took over an hour (after preparing the Sago washing stand).

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Once the Sago is dried in the sun it is then cooked for a few minutes in a leaf fire before being wrapped in the purse.

The final presentation is a Sing Sing group. Sing Sing is a Papuan tradition that is used for welcoming people, parties, presentations, demonstrations, ceremonies, at any given opportunity really, the Papuans love a good Sing Sing. Although this one comprises of 4 young girls and 4 men I have seen Sing Sing’s with over 40 dancers being involved. Personally, I think they are great and gives you a real feeling of the link between the compassion Papuans have with their heritage and the warm welcome you receive almost everywhere you venture.

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Following the Sing Sing there was time for a few group photos with the villagers and then a short walk back towards the canoes via an open area where you have the opportunity to purchase local products such as mini outriggers, cups & shell jewelry.

To conclude, I think that any individual thinking this is a staged demonstration is completely correct, but the best exhibition I have experienced in many a year. The setting is natural, the processes are unique, the villagers are locals and if you are looking to be the invasive individual who expects to just walk through a village and be nosy then I would ask if you would open your front door for strangers to walk on through as they so wish. The demonstrations and explanations from William work hand in hand which provides a very fluid demonstration/ experience with a fantastic historical value.

Working in Papua New Guinea I can see the eagerness within most remote villagers chasing after modern technology (it reminds me of a teenager NEEDING the latest iPhone kudos in their lives), but they also live quite a content life with no real link to the priorities of time. If you ask a local how old they are, then a very common reply would be “say 38 or 39” which just goes to show the cultural differences between PNG and the western way of life. Battling the hardships that the western world have long forgotten, such as simple medications, hunting & fishing to feed the family, no running water or electricity, I highly commend and appreciate how the locals live; and I must say I’m also slightly jealous of their simplicity of life in such a beautiful part of the world that thankfully hasn’t been destroyed by the invasive foreign exploitation as yet.

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In no way is this a sales pitch but my honest opinion when I say I would highly recommend the tour to all that plan to visit Tufi, it is an experience you are not going to receive anywhere in the world & I would be very surprised if you would ever forget it. The sheer beauty of the whole process, the knowledge gleaned and of course, the awesome setting and pictures for the scrap-book.

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My next blog will be my reflections on a village home-stay that I have booked…..I expect more great experiences, like/ share/ follow to keep up to date with my next adventure in Papua New Guinea.

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