I travelled to Papua New Guinea in September 2016 with two very good friends Dianne and Mark aboard the ship Pacific Eden. It is quite difficult to move between the islands of the Louisiade Archipelago of Papua New Guinea by public transport and so when we found out about a deal for $389 for 7 days to PNG we jumped at the chance. New Guinea and Australia were once one piece of land so it was significant for us as Australians to visit. None of us had been to New Guinea before so we were rather excited about the trip.
Alotau is at the tail of mainland Papua New Guinea to the east. The town is in the Milne Bay province which is important in Second World War history – the battle was known as the Milne Bay Battle. The population of Alotau is approximately 16,000. We sailed from Cairns in far North Queensland (Australia) on the Coral Sea and after a day and a half sailing, arrived in Milne Bay. The Coral Sea was named by Matthew Flinders in 1803. New Guinea is split in two by a border. To the west is Indonesian New Guinea and Papua New Guinea is to the east. New Guinea’s population is around 11 million, Papua New Guinea 7 million and Australia around 24 million. Australia’s borders come to within several hundred metres of the PNG coastline.
Major exports from Papua New Guinea are Beche-de-mer (sea cucumber) which is exported to China predominantly, Sandalwood and Pearl Shell. There has been a major history of labour trade between New Guinea and Australia but it is not one to be proud of. The wage stayed the same for 40 years and disease killed 25 – 30% of the New Guinean workers.
We got off the ship and caught a taxi into the centre of town for 5 kina. We, as it turns out, could have quite easily walked in. Alotau is the capital of the Milne Bay Province and so it is a bustling little port town. Several supermarkets, hardware stores and similar shops line the main streets. If you are coming from a developed country though beware that you will find the shopping experience quite different. A market is on the water side of the town just near the bus stop. The people are friendly and very casually dressed – shorts, tshirts, skirts are the norm with bare feet, flip flops or sandals. Many young people were wearing rasta colours and some men had very long dreadlocks. Most people wanted to say hello or good morning and had big smiles on their face. A lady named Felicity approached us and became our guide. We walked around the market looking at their food goods such as peanuts, crabs, fish, bananas, taro, tapioca, yam, rice and then other goods such as lighters, bags, hats and a few souvenirs.
We jumped on a local bus and paid one kina to go up to Top Town which is at the top of a hill.
We walked around and spoke to many people, they were always very polite. We saw the governor’s house which looked like a Queenslander house (weatherboard and on stilts). Some local families dressed their children in traditional dress and trotted them out for us to photograph. I’m not sure what the children thought of this but one young lad didn’t look too happy.
There was a hospital and nursing school and we came across an Anglican Church which was kindly opened by the reverend for us to look around. The church was open air at the sides but had a locked door at the entrance. The reverend stayed and spoke to us for some time about religion in Alotau and said that many break away religions seemed to be starting now. We set off down the hill and walked through Middle Town and then arrived back in Alotau near the Battle of Milne Bay Memorial. The battle was fought from 25th August to the 7th September 1942 and involved Australians, New Zealanders and, of course, Papuans.
We said good bye to Felicity and hired a taxi for two hours for 70 Kina (approximately AU$35) and told him to drive out of town as we wanted to see some of the countryside and possibly some nice beaches. Well there wasn’t a real lot to see. There were kilometres and kilometres of Palm Oil plantations and it seems this is a major industry in this province. Gurney Airport which consisted of a runway and single building and was the airstrip that was used during the Second World War. There were a couple of nice bridges and a World War Two memorial and that was about it. Tom our driver wasn’t the fastest driver in the world but did his very best to please us. He was a very nice chap and told us he had been working elsewhere in the mining industry and had recently come into possession of the car and so had a new career as a taxi driver. He seemed very happy. After an hour it was apparent we weren’t going to see anymore of interest and decided to turn back. The road which was a main one swapped between bitumen and dirt road with many potholes so, at times, it was slow going. We arrived back at the ship with plenty of time before sailing.