Papua New Guinea is a raw land, remarkably untamed and as variegated as swamp and jagged limestone, mud and moss forest, suffocating heat and Highland chill, plumed, pearl-shelled villagers and prosaic hill people, tiny tree kangaroos and enormous Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterflies. It is this diversity that has, for so long, excited a raft of explorers, anthropologists and travellers.

Today, the country also attracts bad press, and although much of it is scare-mongering, it is wise to remember that PNG is subject to the same problems - urban unemployment, a rising crime rate and environmental exploitation - facing many emerging nations. Remember also that the tourist infrastructure of PNG is only in its infancy and that accommodation can be expensive, transportation limited and the food uninspiring.


Facts at a Glance
Facts for the Traveller

Money and Costs
Off the Beaten Track
Getting There & Away
Getting Around
Recommended Reading

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: The Independent State of Papua New Guinea
Area: 462,840 sq km (180,508 sq mi)
Population: 4.5 million
People: 95% Melanesian, 5% Polynesian, Micronesian, Chinese
Language: 750 indigenous languages plus Pidgin and Motu
Religion: 44% Protestant, 22% Catholic and 34% pantheistic beliefs
Government: Democracy
Prime Minister: Mekere Morauta


Papua New Guinea lies south of the equator and north of Australia. It's the last of a string of islands spilling down from South-East Asia into the Pacific. It comprises the eastern half of the island of New Guinea and a collection of surrounding islands. The country is dominated by a central spine of mountains, the Owen Stanley Range, with many peaks over 4000m (13,120ft). Three quarters of PNG is covered by tropical rainforests and the remainder is made up of delta plains, flat grassland and mangrove swamps. The principal rivers include the Fly, Sepik and Ramu. The major islands of New Ireland, Bougainville and New Britain are surrounded by striking coral formations and are often scenes of unpredictable natural violence (in 1994, the once-beautiful New Britain town of Rabaul was destroyed by the Tuvurvur eruption).

There are close to 9000 species of plants in PNG, most of them found in lowland rainforests. Around 250 species of mammals live in the islands, mostly bats and rats, but also including marsupials such as the tree kangaroo. There are also two kinds of echidnas (spiny anteaters). The real treat however is the 700 species of birds. There are more parrot, pigeon and kingfisher species - from huge crowned pigeons to delicate pygmy parrots - than anywhere else in the world. Other notable birds are giant cassowaries, kokomos (hornbills) and cockatoos. The highlights of the insect kingdom are the world's largest butterfly, the Queen Alexandra Birdwing (the first collected specimen was felled by a shotgun blast), and scarab beetles (which are often used as body ornaments).

Papua New Guinea has only four national parks, including Varirata National Park and McAdam National Park, but more have been proposed. The major problems facing the environment and its flora and fauna are logging and heavy-metal pollution from copper mines such as Panguna on Bougainville Island (currently closed) and Ok Tedi in the Star Mountains.

The climate is typically monsoonal: hot, humid and wet year round. There are defined wet (December to March) and dry (May to October) seasons but both are subject to regional variation (especially in the islands). Rainfall, for example, varies tremendously: Port Moresby may experience an annual rainfall of 1000mm (39in) while Lae has over 4500mm (176in). In extreme rainfall areas, such as West New Britain, the annual rainfall can exceed 6m (20ft) a year. Temperatures on the coast are reasonably stable all year (hovering between 25 and 30°C/77 and 86°F) but humidity and winds are changeable. Temperatures drop at higher altitudes and can be very chilly in the Highlands.


It is believed that Papua New Guinea was originally inhabited by Asian settlers over 50,000 years ago. The first European contact was by the Portuguese explorer Jorge de Meneses in 1526-27 who named it Ilhas dos Papuas (Island of the Fuzzy Hairs). The Spaniard Inigo Ortiz de Retes later called it New Guinea because he thought the people similar to those of Guinea in Africa. Further exploration followed, including landings by Bougainville, Cook, Stanley and John Moresby.

A large, rather daunting place, New Guinea was left alone for several centuries, with only the Dutch making any effort to assert European authority over the island. But in 1824, the Dutch (seeking to shore up their profitable Dutch East Indies empire) formalised their claims to sovereignty over the western portion of the island. Germany followed, taking possession of the northern part of the territory in 1884. A colonial troika was completed three days later when Britain declared a protectorate over the southern region; outright annexation occurred four years later.

In 1906, British New Guinea became Papua and administration of the region was taken over by newly independent Australia. With the outbreak of WW I, Australian troops promptly secured the German headquarters at Rabaul, subsequently taking control of German New Guinea. In 1920, the League of Nations officially handed it over to Australia as a mandated territory. During WW II the northern islands and most of the northern coast fell to the Japanese who advanced southward until stalled by Allied forces. By 1945 the mainland and Bougainville had been recaptured, but the Japanese were impregnable in New Ireland and especially Rabaul in New Britain, where they dug 500km of tunnels. They surrendered these strongholds at the end of the war. Post-war, the eastern half of New Guinea reverted to Australia and became the Territory of Papua & New Guinea. Indonesia took control of Dutch New Guinea in 1963 (incorporating it into the Indonesian state as Irian Jaya). PNG was granted self-government in 1973 and full independence was achieved in 1975.

Papua New Guinea's most immediate concern after independence was its relations with powerful neighbour Indonesia. After Indonesia's takeover of Irian Jaya, many West Papuans organised a guerrilla resistance movement - Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM) - which fought Indonesian forces with limited success. Tensions decreased markedly after 1985, as the flow of refugees (estimated at over 10,000) between Irian Jaya and PNG slowed. There are still 7500 Irian Jayan refugees living in camps in Western Province - the largest expatriate group in the country.

However, a new trouble spot for PNG soon appeared on Bougainville Island, where the locals regarded themselves as racially and culturally distinct from mainlanders. Bougainvilleans were embittered by the environmental destruction caused by the giant Australian-owned Panguna copper mine and by the way revenue from the mine filled a third of the national coffers but did not find its way back to their island. They formed the Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) and forced the mine to close in 1989. This act, coupled with rebel demands for secession, sparked a major military confrontation with PNG forces and a resulting slew of human rights abuses.

After much bloodshed - including the notorious St Valentine's Day Massacre of 1990 when gunships, supplied by Australia, were deployed in an offensive role by the PNG security forces - peace talks were tentatively staged. But in 1992, then Prime Minister Wingti launched another major offensive against the rebels, further exacerbating the situation. The conflict claimed the scalp of the next prime minister, Sir Julius Chan, in early 1997 when PNG military leaders refused to co-operate with a US$35 million covert operation that involved South African mercenaries re-taking the island by force. The mercenaries were sent home and Sir Julius resigned. Elections in mid-1997 saw Bill Skate take up the office.

The Bougainville war officially ended in April 1998 - during the course of the 10-year war around 40,000 Bougainville islanders became refugees, and up to 20,000 people were killed. The cease-fire is being monitored by a peace-keeping force, and talks in late July will determine what form Bougainville's independence will take. Rising optimism over the ceasefire was rapidly tempered by a corruption scandal fizzing up around Bill Skate, and a catastrophic drought, caused by El Niño and felt worst in the central highlands provinces. Around 500 deaths were attributed to resulting hunger and disease and more than 650,000 people were severely affected. As if that wasn't enough, in July 1998 three giant tsunamis hit PNG's north-west coast - at least 1500 people, but up to 3000, were killed as villages along the coast were completely flattened.

Economic Profile

GNP: $US3.5 billion
GNP per head: US$950
Inflation: 5.3%
Major industries: Coffee, copper, gold, silver, copra crushing, palm oil processing, logging
Major trading partners: Australia, Japan, US


There are four regional, cultural and political groups: Papuans (from the south), Highlanders, New Guineans (from the north) and Islanders. Some authorities divide the people into Papuans (predominantly descended from the original arrivals) and Melanesians (more closely related to the peoples of the south-western Pacific), though some people (particularly those in outlying islands) are closer to being pure Polynesian or Micronesian. The dividing lines between these definitions is very hazy.

There are over 750 languages in PNG (representing about one third of the world's indigenous languages). This dizzying array has brought about the need for a lingua franca and Pidgin (or Neo-Melanesian) has gained in importance and prestige in recent years and is great fun to learn. Borrowing words from many languages, it is primarily derived from English and German but only covers about 1300 words. Many educated people would, however, prefer you speak in English because Pidgin is seen as the vulgate of the bullying expatriate. Another popular language is Motu (or `Police Motu'), the local second language of the Port Moresby coastal area.

Off the record

The Christian church has been extraordinarily influential throughout PNG with most Papua New Guineans regarding themselves as Christians (the largest denominations are Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and United). Pantheistic beliefs are also widespread and traditional rituals are integral to Papuan culture. For example, people who live in danger of crocodile attacks are likely to give crocodiles an important role in their culture, while farming communities often place much emphasis on the weather, accordingly celebrating fertility and harvest. Placating the spirits of ancestors is a dominant theme in traditional beliefs, while the fear of practices such as sorcery and witchcraft is also widespread.


Each of the 20 provinces of PNG has its own provincial government day and these are good opportunities to enjoy sing sings (traditional ceremonies and dances). Unfortunately, these are local affairs with no fixed schedules and information about their timing and whereabouts is often only relayed by word-of-mouth. Shows and festivals are held on weekends, while a provincial government day will usually fall on a Friday or Monday. Some of the events to look out for include: Port Moresby Show (traditional and modern events; mid-June); Mt Hagen Show (a big gathering of clans with traditional dances and dress; late August); Independence Day (festivals and sing-sings celebrated nationwide; 16 September); and Malangan Festival (two-week festival including the famous tree-dancers; 16 September).

Facts for the Traveller

Visas: 60-day visa on entry
Health risks: Malaria, dengue fever and diarrhoea
Time: UTC plus 10 hours
Electricity: 240V, 50 Hz
Weights & Measures: Metric
Tourism: Approximately 40,000 visitors per year


Money & Costs

Currency: Kina

Relative costs:

  • Budget room: US$20-30
  • Moderate hotel: US$50-60
  • Top-end hotel: US$60 and upwards

  • Budget meal: US$3-5
  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$7-10
  • Top-end restaurant meal: US$15 and upwards

PNG is an expensive place and it can seem unreasonable from a travellers' point of view: costs are pretty must at expense account levels but comforts are relatively few. There is no tradition of cheap hotels and restaurants. Once you get out of the towns, however, you can live for virtually nothing (there's virtually nothing to buy). If you can look out for yourself, you can get by on almost nothing - you can walk, you can buy a canoe, you can stay with a family or in a school or police station (but be sure to give them some money for their hospitality - no one likes a freeloader). If you live on sago and sweet potato you can certainly travel the country very, very cheaply.

You can change travellers' cheques in every major town, but queues will be long and you'll have to be patient. In remote areas you'll need cash kina, preferably small bills as people are unlikely to have change. Unless you have a local bank account, you'll be unlikely to get cash from Port Moresby's ATMs. Credit cards are not widely accepted, but will still be useful in some hotels and restaurants.

Tipping is not customary anywhere in PNG and the listed price is what you'll be expected to pay. There is no tradition of bargaining either, and you'll look like an idiot if you try to haggle over the price of a souvenir.


When to Go

The climate is the main consideration in deciding when to visit Papua New Guinea. You'll probably want to avoid rainy seasons (although a good tropical downpour is a sight to be seen) but they vary across the country. In most places the wet season is December to March, the dry season from May to October. During the two transition months (April and November), the weather can't make up its mind which way to go and tends to be unpleasantly still and sticky. The most notable variations on this pattern are Lae and Alotau where May to October is the wet (and we mean wet) season.


Papua New Guinea has been the subject of considerable negative reportage - rapes, robberies, random violence - during the last decade, much of it unwarranted. Attention has usually focused on what is loosely termed the `rascal problem' which can include anything from petty street crime to car hijacking. Though trouble is mostly confined to clans, some precautions should be taken. These include not wandering around late at night (especially in cities), dressing conservatively (this applies mainly to women), avoiding overt public displays of affection and concealing valuables. Most travellers recommend listening to local advice and, above all, making friends with the people who live in the area you are visiting. Of course, most of the problems plaguing PNG afflict other countries; the best advice is to simply use you head and take reasonable care.


Port Moresby & Central Province

Port Moresby (population 145,300), the capital of PNG and the major exit/entry point for travellers, is located on a superb natural harbour on the southern coast of New Guinea. Much drier than the rest of the country, Port Moresby often suffers from extended droughts which can lead to water restrictions. A sprawling, some suggest crime-addled city (razor wire and snapping guard dogs are everywhere), Port Moresby is probably more bark than bite and does have some interesting things to see and do.

These include: Boroko (an important shopping centre that includes a number of restaurants and bars, banks and department stores); Gordons (an otherwise lacklustre area enlivened by Gordons Market, one of the largest and busiest in the country); Parliament House (the new parliament building, built in Maprik haus tambaran or spirit-house style); National Museum & Art Gallery (offers excellent coverage of the country's geography, history, culture flora and fauna); Idler's Beach (a popular swimming spot east of Port Moresby); and Sinasi Reefand Daugo Island (a beautiful reef and white, sandy beaches) are popular excursions from Port Moresby. Hanuacraft and PNG Arts are recommended if you intend to buy local arts and craft. Note that accommodation is expensive and should be booked in advance.

Central Province covers the narrow coastal strip along the southern coast from the Gulf of Papua almost to the eastern end of the mainland, plus the southern half of the central mountain range. North-east of Port Moresby is the spectacular Rouna Falls and nearby Varirata National Park, the first national park in PNG. There is a variety of interesting and clearly marked walking trails in the park and some excellent lookouts back to Port Moresby and the coast. North of Port Moresby is Brown River, a pleasant spot for swimming, rafting and picnics. The Kokoda Trail, which links the northern and southern coasts, is the most popular (but not the most spectacular) walking track in the country; its major drawcard is the emotional pull of its history (it was the site of fierce fighting between the Japanese and Allied forces in WW II).

Madang Province

Madang Province consists of a fertile coastal strip backed by some of the most rugged mountains in PNG. Offshore is a string of interesting - some still active - volcanic islands. Lying in the middle of the coastal stretch is the town of Madang, often described as `the prettiest in the Pacific'. Perched on a peninsula jutting into the sea, Madang is smattered with parks, ponds, waterways and has plenty of opportunities for snorkelling and diving. It also has excellent accommodation and food. Kranket Island, across from Madang, has several villages and a beautiful lagoon, while Long Island, east of Madang, is renowned for its abundant bird life. 

The Highlands

The most densely populated and agriculturally productive region of PNG, the Highlands also has the most extensive road system in the country, many major towns (Kainantu, Mt Hagen, Mendi) and a culture that is equal parts traditional and modern. The Highlands were thought to be uninhabited until gold miners ventured up from the coast in the 1930s and discovered 100,000 people living Stone Age-style unaware of the outside world. The countryside is dramatic, with wide, fertile valleys, numerous rivers and craggy mountains. Highlights of the area include: handicrafts (intricately decorated bows and arrows, kina shells, basketry and coarse woollen goods); Mt Gahavisuka Provincial Park (many walking tracks, picnic shelters and a range of exotic flora); Mt Wilhelm, the tallest mountain in the country (great views from its 4500m/14,760ft summit); and Lake Kutubu (an idyllic setting with picturesque surrounding country).

The Sepik

A region of islands, open coastline, good beaches and rugged mountain ranges, The Sepik is perhaps the most fascinating area of PNG. Commanding most of the attention is the Sepik River - a meandering, oily-brown, serpentine flow of water 1126km (698mi) long. The river's extent, the beautiful stilt houses along its shores, long canoes with their crocodile-head prows, fauna, flower-clogged lakes, misty dawns and striking sunsets make for an unforgettable experience. There are also good beaches and diving at Cape Moem; the culture of the Abalem people in the Maprik area (especially their distinctive haus tambarans, yam cults and decorative carvings); the beaches of Vanimo; and Chambri Lakes (a vast expanse of shallow water located in eastern Sepik with a number of arts and craft villages).


Rabaul was Papua New Guinea's most spectacularly-sited city - and perhaps its most beautiful - before it was destroyed by the September 1994 eruption of Tuvurvur. It was built between Simpson Harbour and a dramatic backdrop of volcanoes along the old caldera's rim and had a very cosmopolitan and friendly feel about it. Today Rabaul is a weird wasteland buried to the waist in black volcanic ash. The broken frames of its buildings poke out of the mud like the wings of a dead bird. The town looks like a movie set for an apocalypse film or the X-files, and rubble and ruined buildings recede in every direction.

It's still worth a visit, though, if only to walk around the deserted streets. You can climb all the volcanoes except for the still-smoking Tuvurvur and the diving in the area is exceptional - the harbour is littered with sunken shipping and war relics. In the hillsides around Rabaul you can explore countless tunnels and caverns - the Japanese dug over 500km (310mi) of tunnels during WW II and local kids will show you the scattered wreckage of Japanese planes. Rabaul is still an important port, so it's not hard to get there by boat from surrounding islands. It's also accessible by plane via the Tokua airport.

Off the Beaten Track


Lying in the centre of Papua New Guinea is the little-visited town of Wabag. Getting there is a highlight: the road climbs almost 3000m (9840ft), winding through some of the most heavily-furrowed mountain ranges in the country. The town is a magnet for young artists of the region and their work is often displayed in the local gallery. Accommodation in Wabag is in lodgings built from local bush materials, and is surrounded by orchid-dotted gardens.

New Ireland's west coast

The west coast of New Ireland between Konogogo and Kontu is the centre of the mysterious art of shark calling. Certain men living here have the ability to `call up' sharks from the depths of the ocean by using their voices or coconut-shell rattles. The sharks are then noosed and speared or bludgeoned into submission. Shark motifs figure heavily in the art of the region.


Considering the vast areas of mountainous terrain, where the only way to get from village to village is to fly or walk, it's surprising that bushwalking in PNG has not caught on the same way trekking has in the Himalayas. The best-known walking trail is the Kokoda Trail, but their are literally hundreds of other options because the entire country is criss-crossed by tracks. The most interesting choices are arguably Lake Kopiago to Oksapmin, Mt Wilhelm to Madang and Wedau to Alotau. A couple of hundred people canoe down the Sepik each year, but you have to be fit, independent and well-equipped to tackle it. Foreign tour operators offer fabulous rafting down PNG's turbulent mountain rivers, but their are no regular local operators yet.

Diving in PNG is reputed to be as good as it is in the Caribbean and the Great Barrier Reef. Major dive sites include Kavieng, Kimbe, Lae, Lorengau, Milne Bay, Port Moresby and the sublime Wuvulu Island. There is the possibility of good surf at Kavieng between November and February and around Wewak from September to January. Good swimming beaches are bountiful.

Getting There & Away

Most visitors arrive by air, specifically from Australia to Port Moresby, although there are direct connections with Singapore, Manila, Honiara (Solomon Islands), Jayapura (Irian Jaya, Indonesia) and Guam. Air Niugini, the national airline, operates between Australia and Asia (in conjunction with Singapore Airlines). Port Moresby is the largest international gateway but another international airport has just opened at Alotau (Milne Bay Province). The departure tax is K15; if you overstay your visa, expect to pay a heavy fine before being allowed on the plane. Arriving or departing by sea is almost an impossibility unless on a cruise ship or a yacht (the best places in PNG to find a berth are Port Moresby, Madang and Milne Bay).

Getting Around

Geographical realities - a small and scattered population which is often isolated in mountain valleys and on tiny islands - means flying is a necessity. Unfortunately, it also means it is expensive. The main carrier is Air Niugini with small operators. (And remember that Air Niugini can't fly everywhere, its planes are far too large for many strips.) Bookings are quite efficient as most systems are computerised. If travelling on any of Air Niugini's domestic flights, make sure you check-in an hour in advance otherwise booked seats will be given to passengers on waiting lists.

The network of roads around the country remains limited but Public Motor Vehicle (PMVs) are always at your beck and call. Essentially modified Japanese minibuses, PMVs are a cheap form of transport and pick up and drop off people at any point along a pre-established route. Driving a car in the country (left side of the road please) requires a valid overseas licence but be forewarned: tribal paybacks have meant some drivers have been killed by an accident victim's relatives. Some authorities suggest that if you are involved in an accident, keep driving and report the incident at the nearest police station. The major car rental companies (Avis, Budget and Hertz) are found in most main centres but because of the limited road network you won't get too far. Costs are also high.

A good form of transport is boat. Passenger ships, freighters, charters, outboard dingies and canoe are cheap, though sometimes uncomfortable. Probably the best way to travel within PNG is to walk; your only real expense will be paying for guides and porters.

Recommended Reading

  • Growing Up in New Guinea by Margaret Mead was first published in 1942, but this anthropological study of Manus Island still makes good reading
  • Road Belong Cargo by Peter Lawrence is a classic account of the collision between primitive beliefs and the juggernaut of modern technology
  • The Last Unknown by Gavin Souter is an invaluable and enjoyable read of the exploration and development of PNG
  • Wanderings in the Interior of New Guinea by Captain JA Lawson was written in the latter part of the 18th century and is a hoary account of never-again-seen Mt Hercules (higher than Mt Everest), waterfalls larger than Niagara, the New Guinea tiger, giant daisies, humungous scorpions and other curiosities
  • Islands in the Clouds - travels in the highlands of New Guinea by Isabella Tree illuminates the tragic consequences of the colonial and post-colonial carve-up on a visit to the highlands of Papua New Guinea and Irian Jaya. The book is part of Lonely Planet's new travel writing series Journeys.
  • The Crocodile by Vincent Eri provides an interesting perspective on contact between European and local cultures (it was the first published novel by a Papua New Guinean)
  • Visitants by Randolph Stow is considered by some to be one of the finest modern Australian novels. It's a brilliant, multiple narrative about colonial administration, cargo cults and cerebral malaria in the islands surrounding PNG.
  • First Contact by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson (based on the film of the same name) traces the first meetings of Europeans with the people of the Highlands
  • In Papua New Guinea by Christina Dodwell is a recent and eccentric account of a woman's adventures - on foot, by horse and dugout canoe - through PNG
  • The World's Wide Places - New Guinea by Roy Mackay is a pictorial frolic through the country's spectacular terrain, focusing on its abundant wildlife