PADDLE Papua New Guinea – By Sven Gloor
There is a thin line for those who would like to attempt something truly challenging in their life, to experience raw adventure, to tackle something that they have often contemplated but never truly thought possible. Crossing that line is in fact not as hard a leap as many would think and once you have crossed over, it’s actually harder to go back to the mundane. As my long-time friend and expedition partner Dylan quipped in the first hour of our recent adventure, we should indeed feel blessed that we have crossed that line and successfully turned a ‘One day wouldn’t it be great…’ into a reality. Our plan was simple on paper – to ocean kayak our way through a piece of South Pacific paradise – the rugged, yet magnificent Papua New Guinean Islands – and it is now a lifelong memory that fuels our appetite for more adventurous pursuits.
The PNG island provinces of New Britain and New Ireland, are known for their rich WW2 history, serving as a key focal point for the Battle of the Coral Sea. Today, PNG has a raw beauty and delivers everything that you would expect to appear in a typical idyllic tropical island paradise. Unfortunately, this is often clouded by its reputation as an unsafe tourist destination, as well as the harsh environs of a country that has been coined the islands that were ‘Lost in Time.’
Therefore, having local connections within the country through Dylans family offered an enormous advantage when planning the route, safety and logistics. The quiet coastal town of Kokopo was the ideal starting point for our self-sustained ocean paddling adventure that would take us across the strong currents of the St George’s Channel, and northwards along the remote West Coast of New Ireland, to finish at the sleepy, yet stunning coastal town of Kavieng at the northern tip of New Ireland.
After enjoying several days of luxury at our base camp, Kokopo Beach Bungalows Resort, we went about ensuring that all our food, water and equipment was suitably protected in a multitude of dry bags before being packed, repacked, and then packed again, all with the view of getting as much and yet as little as possible on board the kayak given both weight and space were at an absolute premium.
We had a very limited window of opportunity to undertake this trip, and given it was only a relatively short 4-5 hour paddle to our first overnight destination, we set off despite the ominous storm brewing in the distant horizon. Halfway across this stretch of open water the storm had moved in quickly and was descending on us as everything went eerily quiet. As we headed towards the closest islands in sight, it wasn’t long before there was no visible pass anymore or, for that matter, any sign of either island. The early wind quickly grew from a gentle puff to strong gusts that whipped up choppy waves within minutes which quickly stalled our progress, and with sideways stinging rain, deafening cracks of thunder and seemingly endless bolts of nearby fork lightening, our early enthusiasm was tested and we started to wonder if our decision to get underway and ‘beat the storm’ may not have been the best demonstration of our ‘safety-first’ policy for the trip. It still amazes me how quickly nature can change and how small you can feel when in the thick of it.
It was when things were appearing to be at their most dire, with the storm increasing in intensity and then losing light earlier than anticipated, that a pod of around 20 dolphins appeared in front of us and we could have been forgiven for thinking that they were in fact guiding us towards relative safety. As we passed through a myriad of reefs and skirted around various islands, we found ourselves paddling out the other side of the storm and into the calmer waters of Mioko where we were greeted by what had to be the entire village population (EVP). Highly excited children, their parents and the more curious elders helped us carry our kayak up onto dry land before offering us a local hut to stay in for the night at the local Maira village guest house, falling asleep quickly despite sleeping on a wooden floor.
After being being woken up at 3am by multiple roosters (which was to be another common theme of the trip), we fuelled up, repacked the kayak and farewelled the EVP. Today’s leg was to be the longest of the trip, about 65 km and across the channel, but we felt confident as we set off having done the hard work and training over the past year. However within minutes of leaving the calm water and heading into deep open water, it was obvious that something wasn’t right. Our GPS device showed our speed was sitting at roughly half its usual pace and the boat felt unusually heavy. It was not long before we realised that we were facing a strong opposing current, which on its own can be manageable, but when combined with a stiff head wind and swell, it makes paddling feel miserable.
Being constantly pushed away from your destination despite paddling as hard as you can, is a frustrating experience and tested every bit of resolve we had in us. Months of preparation, constant positive chat and our general early levels of enthusiasm enabled us to sufficiently handle the first two-thirds of the crossing, but as the hard slog began to draw out, these were all quickly replaced by fatigue, periodic cramping, a series of mysterious pains that would randomly appear in unsuspecting places across our bodies and, worst of all, there was silence between both parties as we both dealt with the experience in our own personal dark places. Despite all our preparation and being in excellent physical shape, we had timed our longest paddle day with the worst weather day in two months. In total it was 9 hours hard paddling to reach our goal destination of Labur Bay on New Ireland.
When we did finally limp to shore, we were greeted by the EVP of Libur Bay who were cheering and all smiles, sourcing some fresh coconuts which we demolished. They were full of questions, curious to know where we had come from and why we had chosen to paddle from there, particularly when it was such a windy horrible day. We too were wondering the same thing!
On day 3, we woke early thanks to the friendly roosters, but this time it was not as easy to get up, and near impossible to physically stand up without a lot of discomfort. The previous day had taken its toll. With soreness that seemed to span from head to toe, but with particular intensity around the lower back and shoulders, we both knew we were in for a long day in the saddle. Despite being physically and mentally drained, both of which we had expected, and in a sadistic kind of way, had been craving prior to the trip as a measure of how truly tested we had been by the experience, it was this new and unfamiliar feeling of uncertainty about whether we were going to be able to complete the journey that began to erode our confidence. At the time, neither of us spoke of it, but it was in the back of our heads – the fear of failure is a powerful thing but shouldn’t deter anyone chasing their dreams.
With no initial signs of the previous days current, wind or swell, the first two hours were magic, but as the morning grew to day, all three elements again appeared and combined to test our mental and physical resolve. Paddling on memory is when you are not actually thinking about the action of paddling itself, as mentally you have checked out and your mind is off elsewhere, but your body has the ability to switch on its inbuilt autopilot which enables you to keep taking strokes without any real thought process. At times, both of us encountered small micro-sleeps due to the repetition and fatigue.
This is essentially how we paddled for the next few days, stopping to eat and sleep on deserted beaches as we made our way north along the coastline, constantly ducking in and out of bays looking for clean water as we played an ongoing game of cat and mouse with the wind, swell and current.
It was when we approached Kontu village that the trip took a dramatic turn for the better. As we approached the island village famous for its tradition of shark calling, the wind dropped, the sea flattened out and, while still feeling sore and sorry, our moods lifted as quickly as the wind died down. We could hear the villagers of Kontu before we could see them and, in a scene that will remain etched in our memories, dozens of children dived into the water and paddled out to us, perched atop a giant log with no less than 20 smiling faces beaming down at our full Kevlar lightweight expedition kayak. It was clear from the looks of amusement that both parties were marveling at each other’s choice of craft for the occasion and, as the older members of the village rushed to join the action in their dugout canoes, we quickly traded our kayak for the children’s log and vice versa. With the EVP in the water and hordes of children clambering over our kayak, it was probably the first time that we had relaxed in days, and we were finally able to soak up the true purpose of the trip.
We spent the night listening to the Village Chief regale his famous shark calling days, where sharks are attracted alongside a dugout canoe by the shaking of coconut shells before being bravely lassoed and brought aboard, despite often being barely smaller than the canoe itself. Given it was a Sunday the next day and local religious beliefs put any shark calling activity on hold on this sacred day, we did not get the opportunity to witness it first-hand. We experienced more incredible hospitality that night, a recurring theme throughout our journey, where despite the lack of most major amenities and all of the luxuries that are everyday staples in our lives, the villagers would offer anything and everything they could in order to make our stay as comfortable as possible. It still amazes me how people with so little modern amenities (no road, electricity, or running water), would give you the shirt off their back to help you. I wondered how people in my hometown would feel about taking in total strangers in for the night.
Thanks to the shark spirits, the following days saw a marked changed in weather where the wind was now gently blowing over our left shoulder instead of gusting in our face. It also brought a sense of renewed hope, enthusiasm and ultimately an increase in our energy levels. We enjoyed an increase in speed (and therefore conversation which tended to wane when fatigue and frustration would take its toll) and the miles started ticking off at an ever increasing rate.
The surrounding scenery as we made our way up the New Ireland coast continued to amaze us, with deep blue channel water meeting the shallow reef greens and both shades hosting an abundance of marine and bird life. We often encountered enormous pods of dolphins chasing schools of fish, and less frequently but equally impressive were our encounters with various sized sharks cruising the drop offs, an array of large fish, numerous tuna fuelled washing machines as schools of them erupted all around us, and a constant spotting of turtles along the way. The peaceful serenity of our surrounds was often shattered by squeals of delights as children played in the shallows of the various yet sporadic villages dotted along the way. Probably wondering ‘who are these strange people in a strange craft wearing strange clothes paddling past our front door!?’
Every so often we would be so enchanted by our surrounds that we would get caught off guard by a section of reef that would suddenly appear out from the deep blue and we would be forced to take evasive action as small but sharp swells suddenly popped up and looked to blindside us while also reminding us to stay alert. For an ocean paddler in particular, there is no better feeling than piercing a deep blue abyss with your left blade as the world’s biggest outdoor aquarium sits only inches below your right blade, and this was our experience as we cruised along the huge reef drop-off of that seems to hug the coast of New Ireland.
We had now gotten a good routine, with 3 paddling shifts that became known as ‘morning glory’, ‘the afternoon assault’ and the ‘sunset sprint’ we found ourselves either being soaked by monsoonal rain or being roasted by the immense power of the sun and humidity, both particularly powerful when sitting just below the equator. It was however impossible to ever wish to be anywhere else in the world when at any stage you could look up, down, or around and be greeted by something from a postcard.
We shot inside each of the many bays just to see what each one had to offer and were never left unimpressed, with one particularly memorable bay laying host to a number of blue gropers that were picking about the reef floor and several of the largest giant trevallies we had ever seen cruising undeterred beneath us. While tempted to drop a trolling lure, this was always superseded by our need to keep on the hammer as we looked to instead focus on reeling in the lost miles from the first couple of days of the trip.
As we pulled into what appeared to be a deserted beach for a lunch break, we were surprised to find ourselves in the company of an elderly man living on his own in a small hut in the midst of his own piece of paradise. It turned out that he had moved there during the Japanese occupation in WWII and had remained there since. He looked on in confused amazement as we set up our portable mini-camp cooker and began to prepare the contents of our freeze-dried packet food. You could see that further confusion reigned for him when we ate spaghetti bolognaise out of these packets that were prepared in less than five minutes and with no open fire or ingredients other than boiling water. If this was not all too confusing enough, he then asked why we didn’t just get a local banana (transport) boat up the coast instead of paddling.
In one of our stops at Lamusmus village, we pondered how the villagers went about their business and we went about ours, it was hard not to be in awe of how simply they lived their lives, yet with such contentment and sense of community. As chickens, pigs and dogs roamed the village freely and the children played naked in the water from sun-up to sun-down, you couldn’t help but feel how far removed we were from our own everyday lives.
As we got nearer to Kavieng, tropical rainforest that had been the dominant feature to this point slowly gave way to a mangrove filled shoreline, and with this came the increased chance of encountering puk-puks (the local word for crocodiles). The water became quite murky as rivers entered the ocean and it was here that we had several false alarms whereby logs bobbing along in the current were mistaken for approaching crocodiles. It was during a lunch break with some of the villagers in Bagatare that we were told about several crocodile attacks on fisherman in the murky waters that we had just paddled through. One villager who was spearing for fish had a nasty disagreement with a large saltwater crocodile over who should keep the man’s prized catch, which ended with the croc taking both the fish and a chunk of the fisherman’s arm to end the argument. We were lucky enough in our trip not to have any encounters, but from the onwards, we were extremely cautious when hopping in at the waters edge on this stretch of mangrove coast.
We found ourselves marveling at more stunning scenery as we made our way north before pulling into Kaut, a small village that is almost entirely shaded by an impressive sprawling fig tree, reminding us of the movie Avatar. The people, as always proved to be wonderfully hospitable and we even had our clothes hand-washed for us – probably much needed given we only had two shorts and two shirts for the whole trip and we had been wearing the same clothes paddling each day, which was becoming somewhat feral! After wandering the village, we came across the church and met its pastor who showed us the church bell, a large WWII bomb that was ‘rung’ on Sundays to announce the commencement of the weekly religious services. When the villagers found it in nearby jungle, it still had the detonator device attached to it which had to be dismantled, without the benefit of an instruction manual, before it could be strung up to take on its new role as the village church bell. Like all village stays during our trip, we were made to feel so welcome by the locals that it was hard to leave and we found ourselves wanting not only to stay longer, but promising them that we would be back again.
We passed through the Albatross Passage, a stretch of water we agreed was the highlight of the trip, where the colours of the blue and green water were breathtaking and the coral spectacular. The sand on the surrounding beaches was also snow white and it was hard to resist pulling the kayak up onto one of these beaches and staying for a very long time. We exited the passage in awe and were greeted by a myriad of postcard-worthy tropical islands that lay in front of us and found ourselves only a short hop from our final destination, Kavieng. Based on nothing more than liking the look of it, we landed at Ungan. It would take no longer than 10 minutes to walk around the island of Ungan yet it has such charm that, if you could bottle and sell it, you would find yourself a wealthy individual. The happiness of the children had to be seen to be believed and we spent hours swimming with them and kicking the village footy. We enjoyed a meal of boiled mackerel in coconut milk while listening to stories told by one of the village elders; tales of spearing problem crocodiles in the area and also of his many close encounters while planting sago trees deep in the mangroves.
We spent the next few days island-hopping towards Kavieng, including a memorable stay on world class dive resort Lissenung Island where we had the opportunity to join them on their turtle egg relocation program, finding a nest of 101 eggs and relocating them for protection against human and animal forces. We also skipped across to Nusa Island surf retreat, well known for their uncrowded and perfect surf, and a nice cold beer, particularly after many hot nights drinking warm, tablet purified water. Both places were a good chance to slowly recover from our physical ordeal and also begin hatching our next adventure.
The final short hop across to Kavieng proved to be the hardest leg of the trip, as the joy of successfully completing the trip was somewhat overshadowed by the reality that this incredible journey had come to an end and that shortly we would be plugged back into the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.
Nonetheless, we were buoyed by the fact that we would soon be seeing our families again, with small children eagerly waiting for us both. We also knew that this was not the end, but merely the beginning of our ocean expeditions to these parts. My partner in this adventure had refreshed his sense of affinity with his family roots to the people of New Ireland, while I felt blessed to be given the opportunity to accompany him and test our endurance limits together. We knew that we would be visiting these parts again; we had made that promise to countless villagers and it was a promise we intend to keep.